Eisenhower 1956 : The President's Year of Crisis--Suez and the Brink of War
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- Copyright: 02/14/2012
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
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|Prologue: November 6, 1956||p. xix|
|The Man and the Moment||p. 1|
|Crises of the Heart||p. 18|
|Back in the Saddle Again||p. 42|
|The Candidate||p. 66|
|A Tangle of Policy and Politics||p. 83|
|Trouble over Aswan||p. 108|
|A Growing Rift||p. 133|
|Betrayal of Trust||p. 159|
|Double-Crossing Ike||p. 188|
|Days of Crisis||p. 216|
|A Perfect Storm||p. 238|
|A Reluctant Withdrawal||p. 258|
|Conclusion: Waging Peace in the Middle East||p. 275|
|Photo Credits||p. 333|
|Table of Contents provided by Ingram. All Rights Reserved.|
CRISES OF THE HEART
September 23-November 11, 1955
“Well, I walked over to the wall and sat down and came back. I am getting to be a big boy now.”
Eisenhower to Sherman Adams, October 26, 1955, a month after his heart attack
DWIGHT EISENHOWER had not enjoyed a vacation so much in years. He had pleased Mamie by agreeing to spend the six-week vacation at the home of Mamie’s mother, Elvira Doud, in Denver, but his part of the bargain was a five-day, men-only fishing trip to Byers Peak Ranch. Once at the ranch, Eisenhower, as his physician Howard Snyder put it, was “as full of contentment as I had ever seen.” The group was made up of old friends—the host, Aksel Nielsen, a friend, George E. Allen (not to be confused with assistant secretary of state George V. Allen), assistant press secretary Murray Snyder, and the physician. They were later joined by another longtime Eisenhower friend, Robert L. Biggers of Chrysler Corporation.
As the outing’s final day approached, Ike made a decision worthy of a commander-in-chief: on Friday, September 23, the president of the United States would cook breakfast. The night before, he challenged the men to show up the next morning with “a he-man’s appetite” because he was planning to cook a “despideda” (farewell) breakfast.1
Eisenhower bounded out of bed at 5:00 A.M., ready to commence his culinary duties. Dr. Howard Snyder was the first to arrive at the president’s cabin. He had enjoyed the walk, gazing at the blue-gray outline of Byers Peak in the distance, and breathing in the crisp, cool, 35 degree morning air. When Snyder entered the cabin, the president was just emerging from his bedroom, in full stride toward the kitchen. The president boomed a greeting: “What are you doing up so early, Howard?”
As the others arrived, Eisenhower decreed that no one but he would be permitted in the kitchen. About 6:30, they sat down and indulged, according to Snyder, in “special Eisenhower corn cakes, eggs, sausages, ham, blackeyed peas, and red-eye gravy.” After breakfast, their vehicles already packed, the party journeyed over the twelve-thousand-foot Berthoud Pass, arriving at the Doud home about 8:30 A.M. The group split up and Eisenhower continued on to his office at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver.
Intent on playing golf, Ike conducted his presidential business expeditiously. Colonel John H. McCann provided the president’s morning intelligence briefing, including news that gave Eisenhower pause. Ike betrayed no hint of that concern to Ann Whitman, who had “never seen him look or act better.”2
About 11:00 A.M., the president departed for the Cherry Hills Country Club, where he teed off at noon for an 18-hole round. Up to the 14th green, Eisenhower was, Howard Snyder recalled, “exuberant” about his game. Then he was interrupted with a message that he had a phone call from Secretary of State Dulles. Returning to the clubhouse, Ike was told that the secretary was en route to an engagement and would call again in an hour. The president returned to his golf game. Snyder overheard Ike grumbling about “an unnecessary call” and his game, in Snyder’s terms, “went to pot” between the 14th and 18th greens. Ike returned to the clubhouse “in a bad humor” for lunch.3
About 2:30 Ike teed off for a second round but his game was disrupted three more times by calls from Dulles, two of them unsuccessful in connecting Ike with the secretary. Dr. Snyder noted that the president was so irritated at these intrusions that “the veins stood out on his forehead like whipcords.” The one call that got through was important. The day before, Dulles had addressed the United Nations General Assembly on the American proposal for Arab-Israeli peace in the Middle East—code-named Alpha—that Dulles had announced on August 26. Now that plan was in jeopardy. Dulles confirmed to Eisenhower in his phone call that the Soviet Union was preparing to provide “a massive lot of arms” to the Egyptians. He had experienced “a little rough time” in New York, discussing the matter with Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister. The British and French were “alarmed”; Dulles feared the Israelis might launch a preemptive attack on Egypt because “today they can lick them easily.”4
Eisenhower replied that he had been briefed about “the Egyptian thing” that morning and had been “churning it around.” The president expressed concern that the Russians “are considering giving arms to a country in an area where it will cause trouble.” Dulles suggested a presidential communication to Soviet premier Bulganin. Eisenhower agreed—he was already obligated to respond to a September 19 message from Bulganin on disarmament—but he wanted to think about it overnight. Ike told Dulles he would call him the following morning.5
That phone call was never made.
After the conversation with Dulles, Ike returned to his golf game but quit after nine holes. The president began to experience what he thought were symptoms of indigestion. His discomfort gradually increased during the rest of the day. Eisenhower declined his usual evening drink because, Dr. Snyder recalled, “he did not feel well in the middle.” The president had little appetite at dinner and retired early.6
On Saturday morning, September 24, just after nine, Secretary Dulles discussed the Egyptian situation with the CIA director, his brother Allen, who reported that “the facts seem pretty firm” about the Egyptian arms deal. Foster did not think they would get far in talking with the Egyptians. Any protests should be directed at the Soviets.7
The brothers were unaware that another crisis had been building for hours in Denver. At the Doud home in the middle of the night, Mamie Eisenhower had arisen to go to the bathroom. She passed the door of the president’s room, heard him making noises in his sleep, and stopped by his bed to ask whether he was having a nightmare. Ike replied, “No dear, but I thank you.” Ten minutes later, he was at her bedside, saying, “I’ve got a pain across the lower part of my chest.” Since he had complained about indigestion, Mamie gave her husband milk of magnesia.8
At 2:54 A.M., Mamie called Howard Snyder. Snyder recognized the “distinct note of alarm” in the first lady’s voice and sent for a car. Eisenhower had suffered frequent stomach upsets through the years; a late-night visit to the president’s bedside was not unprecedented. At 3:11 Snyder arrived at the Doud residence. Upon seeing the president, the doctor listened to his chest and took his blood pressure. Ike’s pulse was very rapid and the doctor found it difficult to get a good blood pressure reading.
Ike was “agitated and complaining of severe pain across his chest.” Over the next few minutes, Snyder gave the president amyl nitrite to sniff and injections of papaverine hydrochloride, morphine tartrate, heparin, and, later, a second shot of morphine. Suddenly the president went into what Snyder later called “a state of shock.” His blood pressure plummeted and his pulse became even more irregular.
Instead of calling for an ambulance, Snyder asked Mamie to climb into bed and embrace the president. Snyder later wrote that “this had the desired effect almost immediately.” Eisenhower went back to sleep a little after four—probably due as much to the morphine as Mamie’s embrace. By this time, Snyder believed that he was dealing with a heart attack, but he chose to let the president rest from the trauma.
At 5:45 A.M., Snyder called Ann Whitman to say the president might not be into the office until ten o’clock or later. Murray Snyder, the assistant press secretary, should tell the press that the president had experienced a “digestive upset.” When the fifty-plus reporters clamored for more information, Whitman called the doctor back and asked him how serious the episode was. Snyder responded that the president was asleep and “his digestive upset was not serious.” That was a lie; Ann Whitman took the doctor’s reassuring response at “face value” and passed it on to Murray Snyder.9
The president slept until 11:30 A.M. Dr. Snyder constantly monitored his blood pressure and pulse as he slept; once the pressure dropped to a dangerously low 86 over 56. Only then did Snyder call Denver’s Fitzsimons Army Hospital and request a cardiac specialist to administer an electrocardiogram. The cardiologist, General Byron Pollock, arrived about 1:00 P.M.
Pollock quickly concluded that the president had suffered “a massive infarct,” i.e., significant damage to the tissues of the heart. The president was told that he must go to the hospital. Even then, Snyder did not order an ambulance. Instead, he called for a Secret Service car. Whitman later said that Eisenhower walked down the stairs to the car, but Snyder’s account says that, due to the difficulty of using a stretcher on the stairs, two big Secret Service agents carried the president down the stairs. He then walked to the car.
Arriving at the rear entrance of Fitzsimons, Eisenhower was placed in a wheelchair and rolled to an elevator, ascending to the eighth floor, where the VIP suite was located. Once in his room, the president was placed in an oxygen tent—an action that surprised him. This may have been the moment when Ike began to realize that he was being treated for a serious heart attack.
About 1:45 P.M., Ann Whitman, Murray Snyder, and other staffers left Lowry Air Force Base for the Famous Chef, a nearby restaurant, for a late lunch. As they began to eat, Murray was called to the phone. He returned to inform the group that the president had suffered “a mild anterior coronary thrombosis.” Ann Whitman also received a call; the message was that the president wanted her to call the attorney general to ask him how authority could be delegated during his illness. They paid for their uneaten lunch and rushed back to the base. Ann Whitman believed that “we—and perhaps the world—knew that he had an attack of thrombosis before the President himself knew.”10
GOVERNING WITHOUT IKE
The administration’s first crisis in Middle East policy, mixed with the president’s heart attack, only exacerbated the disarray that afflicted the Eisenhower team. In the months to come, the Egyptian arms deal would evolve into a major threat to peace. And the president was out of action at its inception.
Such situations seem destined to arise on a weekend when key people are unavailable. Congress was in recess. The chief of staff, Sherman Adams, was in Europe at the president’s request, reviewing NATO operations. Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., was on vacation in Spain. On that rainy Saturday in Washington, Jim Hagerty, the press secretary, was enjoying his first vacation in years, although he had stayed in the capital. Hagerty returned home from golfing about four o’clock and picked up the afternoon edition of the Washington Star, noting a two-column box at the bottom of the page, reporting that a digestive upset had kept the president from going to his office that morning. Hagerty, assuming nothing serious, lay down for a nap.11
About 4:30 P.M., Hagerty’s special White House phone began to ring incessantly—a signal the call was urgent. The press secretary picked up the receiver and Murray Snyder was on the other end: “Jim, Dr. Snyder has just called me and told me that the President has suffered a heart attack.” Hagerty felt like he had been “slugged”; he was sure his own heart was skipping beats. Snyder told Hagerty that he intended to tell the press that the president had endured “a mild coronary thrombosis.”
Hagerty knew he must leave for Denver immediately. While his wife packed his clothes, the press secretary frantically scribbled a to-do list on a scratch pad. The phone rang; it was Vice President Richard Nixon. “Dick, sit down,” Hagerty said. “The President has had a heart attack.” “Oh, my God,” the vice president responded. “When, how bad is it?” Hagerty did not know. Nixon expressed the feelings of the Eisenhower team: “We all need the President.”
The conflicting accounts of those first hours reflect the turmoil that afflicted the Eisenhower staff. In Denver, Ann Whitman was stacking up five or six phone calls at a time. Hagerty and Wilton B. “Jerry” Persons, the assistant chief of staff and congressional liaison, agreed that the press secretary would call the secretaries of state and treasury, and cable Sherman Adams. Whitman’s memory later was hazy; she thought she had called Milton first, then the other Eisenhower brothers, but Hagerty recorded in his diary that Ann had tearfully called him, relaying Mrs. Eisenhower’s request that he be the one to contact the family.12
Hagerty recalled that Foster Dulles “was deeply shocked” when he told the secretary of state of Eisenhower’s condition. “Jim, this is terrible news. It is terrible news for the President’s family and for the country. But it is equally terrible for the free world.” Dulles worried about the possibility that the nations of the world “will adopt an attitude of waiting and seeing who will be the next President” and decline to make commitments.
Dulles had reason for concern. A foreign ministers meeting was scheduled in Geneva starting October 27, designed to follow up on the July meeting of American, British, French, and Soviet heads of state. Eisenhower’s first summit with the Soviets had generated hope for progress toward peace, especially disarmament. Dulles feared that the president’s illness would make the foreign ministers’ negotiations “more difficult than ever” and give the Soviets freedom “to play the usual game of stalling.”
Hagerty’s voice was “choked up” as he reached Milton Eisenhower on the phone. Milton suggested that, for public confidence, they bring in a civilian heart specialist, one not associated with the Army. Dr. Snyder and the Fitzsimons physicians had already reached the same conclusion and had settled on one of the leading cardiologists in America—Paul Dudley White, the Boston specialist.13
About 5:15 P.M., a frustrated Murray Snyder informed Hagerty that he had been instructed to remove the word “mild” from further announcements to the press. He and Hagerty groused about Dr. Snyder’s messages, which had migrated from “a mild digestion upset” to “a mild coronary thrombosis.” Would the next message reveal something more serious? At Dr. Snyder’s request, Hagerty arranged for Thomas W. Mattingly, the cardiologist at Walter Reed Hospital, to fly with him to Denver. Merriman Smith, the lead reporter with United Press International, had heard the news, called, and persuaded Hagerty to permit him to fly to Denver with them.14
At ten minutes until eight o’clock, Hagerty, Mattingly, and Smith boarded their plane. A torrential rainstorm at Lowry Air Force Base forced them to land at Stapleton Airport in Denver. Arriving at Fitzsimons about midnight, Hagerty quickly confirmed his worst fear—the president’s heart attack was “more than mild.”
Ann Whitman, after a sleepless night, described Sunday, September 25, as “a daze—mostly telephoning.” Hagerty, equally weary, arrived at the hospital at 6:30 A.M. He shared a medical bulletin with the press that read: “The President had a very satisfactory night. His blood pressure and pulse continued stable. There were no complications.”15
As the hours passed, Hagerty’s anger smoldered over Howard Snyder’s handling of the situation. He grumbled to his diary that “there is no such thing as a mild coronary thrombosis.” Hagerty could not comprehend the manner in which Ike had been transported to the hospital. “You just don’t let a person with a heart attack walk from his house to the car,” he wrote.16
In the months to come, Jim Hagerty would perform an extraordinary feat—maintaining Eisenhower’s image as an active president when the reality was otherwise. His partner in this pumped-up presidential narrative was Sherman Adams. Years later, Adams claimed in his memoirs that Dr. White had prescribed that the president should “be given as much official work as possible.” In fact, for weeks the doctors severely restricted the president’s work-related activities.17
The alarm in the country was mirrored in the stock market. On Monday the 26th, stocks on the New York Exchange declined $14 billion, half of the market’s 1955 gain. Press speculation was rampant that the president’s heart attack guaranteed that he would not be a candidate for reelection in 1956. The administration attempted to project normalcy by announcing a cabinet meeting, to be presided over by the vice president. Treasury Secretary George Humphrey, hoping to calm the markets, issued a statement saying “there is no reason to anticipate any change” in administration policies or programs.18
Mamie and son John were the president’s first nonmedical visitors. “You know,” Ike said softly to John, “these are things that always happen to other people; you never think of their happening to you.” At such moments, patients often fret over trivial matters. The president pointed John to a table and asked for his billfold. He had won a bet with George E. Allen a couple of days earlier; it was his custom to pass on his winnings to John’s wife, Barbara. Mamie later told John that Ike had been obsessed with the billfold throughout his trip to the hospital.19
Dr. Paul Dudley White’s plane landed at Lowry at 1:30 that Sunday afternoon. After examining the president, Dr. White authorized Hagerty to release a statement that the president had suffered a “moderate” heart attack “without complications.” The next day, Monday, September 26, White held a news conference at which he skillfully fended off questions regarding Dr. Snyder’s handling of the situation, how long the president’s convalescence might take, and whether the president would be able to run for a second term. White had proposed what for that era was standard treatment—a month of complete rest in the hospital, and severely limited activity for a second month.20
On the morning of Wednesday, September 28, on Dr. White’s orders, Eisenhower was twice lifted out of his bed to sit in a chair for fifteen minutes, and again the following morning. That third time, the president experienced chest pains and was hastily returned to his bed. Snyder recorded that thereafter the president suffered “a return of acute manifestations” caused by “a pericardial adhesion” in the damaged area of the heart. Hagerty glossed over the episode in his briefing for the press, saying that the president was “a little tired this evening and did not feel as well as usual. Otherwise his condition is good.” The physicians were not so sanguine. They decided, Snyder recalled, to “start the treatment over again and that the convalescence would be prolonged.”21
That shook Eisenhower’s faith in his doctors. Howard Snyder recalled that for years afterward, the president “waxed vehement in his criticism” of his treatment at Fitzsimons. Eisenhower, he said, held him “guilty of a grave error in judgment in not protecting him from this abuse.” The physician knew better than to argue with Ike when he was in that kind of mood. “To arouse the President’s anger,” Snyder wrote, “would seem like committing murder to me.”22
ANXIETY OVER IKE AND THE MIDDLE EAST
In Washington, Richard Nixon, John Foster Dulles, and Sherman Adams scrambled to figure out what to do without their leader. For three years, Eisenhower’s influence, orders, and preferences had dominated every minute of their service. While Ike appointed strong subordinates and encouraged open debate, his word was always final. Now he was unavailable at the very moment when the Soviet Union had made an audacious move in the Middle East, possibly setting the stage for war.
Foster Dulles had already concluded that this was no time for timidity. He remembered vividly what had happened when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke after World War I, and Mrs. Wilson had prevented access to the president. That, he told Nixon, “had been awful.” They agreed that Adams should fly to Denver to oversee access to the president. The vice president’s planned trip to the Middle East should be canceled. Dulles warned Nixon that, with the president out of the public eye, he “should watch himself more closely as to what he did.”23
On Tuesday, September 27, Foster Dulles’s anxiety was undiminished. Sherman Adams, upon returning from Europe, opined that “Foster seems lost without the Boss.” The secretary was suddenly on his own, lacking the presidential restraint that had so often prevented him from making rash decisions. He conducted two phone conversations with undersecretary of state Herbert Hoover, Jr., worrying that the Egyptian arms transaction might give the Russians a financial “stranglehold” on Egypt. Dulles asserted that “we have a lot of cards to play with Nasser although they are mostly negative.”24
At 9:30 that night, the foreign ministers of the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union met in New York to discuss their scheduled meetings in Geneva for October.25 Secretary Dulles and British foreign secretary Harold Macmillan agreed to speak “very frankly” to Soviet foreign minister Molotov regarding the Egyptian arms deal. Macmillan asserted that his country was “very much disturbed” over the arms offer and expressed fears that it could derail progress at Geneva.
Molotov coolly responded that, at the time he had left Moscow, “not a single rifle or bullet had been sold to any country in that area.” Any such transactions would be on “a commercial basis.” Irritated, Dulles responded “in all candor” that the arms deal was “not a theoretical and academic matter.” The American public had believed that the Geneva Summit was a step toward peace but if “there were large shipments of arms to Egypt, the result would be to dissipate all these hopes.”
Dulles recalled his conversation with Eisenhower about the arms sale to Egypt the previous Friday, when the president had “expressed his deep concern on this matter” and had planned to write Premier Bulganin. “Because of illness,” Dulles concluded, “the letter was not written,” but he implored Molotov to convey the president’s concern to Bulganin. Molotov found “no grounds for any disturbance or concern on this.” He retorted that the West had delivered even larger supplies of arms to other nations in the region, an oblique reference to matÉriel furnished to Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
The next morning, Foster told his brother, Allen, that Molotov had been “evasive.” The CIA director did not believe that the Israelis would “sit by and watch” Egypt receive Soviet arms. Israel would want arms from the United States or a security agreement and, failing that, “they may start a war.”26
The arms deal was made public on September 27. Egypt would procure Soviet-produced arms from the Czechs, in exchange for Egyptian cotton. The New York Times reported that Egyptian premier Nasser had sought jet bombers, heavy tanks, heavy artillery, naval craft, and other military equipment from Western powers, but the deal had collapsed when the State Department had insisted on cash rather than in-kind payment. In response to the Soviet arms deal, Israeli leaders had launched a campaign to obtain additional arms from the United States, linked to a security agreement. As Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Abba Eban, put it, “Can Israel wait like a rabbit for the snake to get large enough to devour her?”27
On Wednesday the 28th, Dulles and Hoover agreed that, even without the president, they needed to communicate American concerns to Egypt. They decided to send George V. Allen, who, as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, had developed a personal relationship with Nasser. Allen could stop in other capitals in the region, including Israel, to make the trip appear routine. Allen, rather than the American ambassador to Egypt, Henry Byroade—who Dulles believed had become too cozy with Nasser—would deliver the secretary’s letter to the Egyptian premier.28
The letter that Allen carried to Nasser was threatening in tone and substance, lacking Eisenhower’s editing that had often moderated Dulles’s language. Dulles wrote that the arms deal could damage “the existing good relations between our two peoples.” The United States might be forced to review existing programs of economic assistance and arms sales to Egypt, and revisit the current management of the American cotton surplus, designed to minimize its impact on Egypt. The arms deal with Moscow was not, the secretary asserted, “a simple commercial transaction”; it had “deep political meaning.” Dulles urged Nasser “to ponder carefully the consequences of the course you are now embarking upon.” That ultimatum was bound to elicit an angry response in Cairo. Allen’s plea was rejected by Nasser, and the diplomat, after five days in Cairo, returned to Washington empty-handed.29
Back home, the administration was trudging through a legal no-man’s-land. There was no constitutional framework for reassigning authority when the president was incapacitated. The 25th Amendment, which addresses presidential disability, would not be ratified for another dozen years. Deputy attorney general William P. Rogers, acting in Brownell’s absence, met with the vice president and Sherman Adams at Rogers’s home to avoid reporters. When Brownell returned the following day, he researched constitutional precedents and pending presidential actions, concluding that the situation did not require the vice president to act as president. Sherman Adams recalled that, from this moment onward, the government was essentially managed by a committee consisting of himself, Nixon, Dulles, Brownell, Humphrey, and Persons.30
The National Security Council met the morning of Thursday, September 29, to confront the dual crises—the president’s illness and the new situation in the Middle East.31 Nixon told the gathering that important decisions should not be delayed and even unimportant ones “should not be allowed to pile up for the President when he returns to Washington.” Important matters normally processed “directly with the president” should now be brought to the NSC. The big problem was defining new directions in policy, especially in the wake of the Soviet-Egyptian arms deal. The NSC would need to operate within “existing presidential policy,” Nixon asserted, and any new policy direction “would of course require presidential approval.”
The council then plunged into the turbulent waters of deliberation without their captain. Allen Dulles called the Egyptian arms deal “a new kind of Soviet Trojan Horse” that could dump “large inventories of obsolete and obsolescent weapons” into a volatile region. The Soviets were poised to become “merchants of death” on a huge scale. Secretary Dulles feared that the USSR would provide arms not only to Egypt, but also to Syria and Saudi Arabia, shifting the balance of power against Israel. After the meeting, Foster Dulles called Jim Hagerty to inform him that Sherman Adams would serve as liaison between the NSC and the cabinet, and the president in Denver. “We don’t want it to drift the way it did in Wilson’s time,” he said.
The same ground was plowed the next day in the cabinet meeting.32 Attorney General Brownell stated that he had been asked “to determine how the Presidential load might be lightened in regard to routine actions.” He asked cabinet members to prepare a list of actions normally requiring presidential approval that could be delegated. Foster Dulles revealed the plan for governing, stating that “Adams would be at Denver as the channel for presentation of matters to the President.”
On Monday, October 3, British foreign secretary Macmillan arranged a meeting on the Middle East with Secretary Dulles and their staffs.33 Eisenhower’s disability hung like a pall over the meeting. The participants agreed that blocking the arms sale to Egypt was probably impossible. Dulles, so ready to threaten Nasser earlier, had reconsidered; the allies, he said, should “not take any threatening or drastic step at this time. There should be no public indication of displeasure.” Egypt was trying “to play one against the other” but a neutral Egypt was preferable to a communist state. Dulles thought that any response should be directed at the Soviets. The group agreed that a letter from the president to Bulganin might dispel the impression that the United States “had simply swallowed the Russian intervention in the Middle East.”
That same day, Eisenhower signed a letter to Nixon that Adams and Dulles had drafted for his signature: “Dear Dick: I hope you will continue to have meetings of the National Security Council and of the Cabinet over which you will preside in accordance with the procedure which you have followed at my request in the past during my absence from Washington.”34
On October 4, Hagerty began his press conference with the statement he used almost every day: “The president’s condition continues to progress satisfactorily without complications.”35
EISENHOWER IN REBELLION
The Thursday, October 6, meeting of the National Security Council mirrored the convergence of the crises of presidential disability and Middle East instability.36 Sherman Adams presented a positive report on the president’s condition but he foresaw a long-term need to minimize Eisenhower’s stress and workload. Adams insisted that Ike was “as bright and cheerful as he had ever been.”
That was not quite accurate. Adams glossed over Ike’s growing resistance to his exclusion from matters of state. Eisenhower, Adams informed the NSC, had “asked in particular to have the Vice President return” with him to Denver on Saturday. This visit, Adams insisted, was “not to transact any business” but to allow Eisenhower to express his appreciation for all that the NSC members had done. Adams also announced that, the following Tuesday, the secretary of state would visit the president. The president would be up to discussing serious NSC issues “pretty soon,” but there would be “no controversial problems placed before the President in the coming week.”
The rest of the meeting addressed the second crisis. The first Soviet arms had arrived in Egypt. Deputy CIA director General Charles Cabell reported that the Israelis felt like “sitting ducks” and were demanding action. Secretary Dulles discussed the need to “find more money and resources” to support U.S. objectives in the Middle East. He worried that the Israelis might launch “a preventive war against Egypt.”
Back in Denver, a restless Eisenhower strained at the ropes of his restrictions. At his Friday, October 7, news conference, Hagerty revealed that for the first time the physicians had allowed the president to read. Hagerty described how nurses had rolled a table over to Ike’s bed and placed a book rack on it, so all he had to do was turn pages. Even now the reading included no official documents, only “reading for pleasure.” A reporter asked: “The President has—has not yet left the bed or taken a step has he?” Hagerty replied, “Taken a step? No.”37
Dwight Eisenhower had always been an active, athletic man. Now he felt like an invalid. The doctors’ attempts to insulate him from stress only fueled his anxieties. Ike finally persuaded them to permit him to dictate short notes to friends. He complained about these restrictions to Edward E. “Swede” Hazlett, his high school friend from Abilene who had been forced into early retirement from the Navy due to a heart condition. Ike wrote that “the doctors have almost completely succeeded in ‘divorcing’ me from my secretary (and thus effectively prevented the kind of reply I should like to make to your note).” On October 10, Eisenhower complained to Red Blaik, the football coach at West Point, that “I am not allowed to listen to Army football games.”38
Still, Eisenhower had forced Adams to modify his regimen; the chief of staff gave up on his effort to keep the president isolated from stressful issues. Ann Whitman recorded that, upon Adams’s return from Washington, “a new program was inaugurated regarding official business.” Adams would continue to bring matters to the president for action, and Whitman could sit in the room and take notes. Nixon’s arrival began the new regimen although the visit was limited to fifteen minutes.39
The president’s new activities began more fully on Monday, October 10, when he signed documents and proclamations. Adams earnestly tried to keep the conversation light but Ike grabbed the chance to address the issue that haunted him and everyone else—whether he should run again. Ike ticked off the names of potential successors—Nixon, George Humphrey, former navy secretary Robert Anderson, U.N. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.—and found them all wanting. Over the next few months, Eisenhower would periodically revisit this litany of potential successors, invariably naming men who lacked the stature and political clout to succeed him. Adams tried to end the conversation, but Ike wanted to share that he had been “pretty depressed” when the doctors had informed him that they wanted him to remain in the hospital six more weeks. He was angry because they had first told him that the heart damage was the “dimension of a dime,” but now he had learned that it was “considerably larger.”40
IKE AND DULLES TOGETHER AGAIN
On Tuesday morning, October 11, the president saw the man who, in many regards, had been running the government’s foreign affairs for two and a half weeks. Foster Dulles had been allotted twenty-five minutes by the doctors.41 His agenda included preparations for the Geneva foreign ministers meeting, disarmament proposals, and plans for encouraging East-West contacts. Dulles presented a draft of an interim reply to Bulganin’s September 19 letter on disarmament, to which Eisenhower, due to his heart attack, had not responded. Finally, Dulles raised the subject that was bound to raise the president’s stress level—Egypt’s acquisition of arms from the Soviet Union. Dulles described its “widespread repercussions” and presented a draft of a short letter to Bulganin.
Dulles rose and prepared to leave, but Eisenhower pulled him back. Ike wanted to discuss “the future” and the possibility that “the country might fall into the hands of persons who had no real principles.” He wanted to find a successor “within the inner circle” of his administration, someone “reasonably young, preferably in his forties.” Ike regretted that he had failed to identify anyone with “the desired youth and vigor” who was “respected by the country as having maturity of judgment.” Dulles urged the president to let the matter rest until next year, following a “full recovery.” Dulles, worried that he had exceeded his time limit, told the president that he had to leave. Eisenhower laughed and characterized such restrictions as the “dictatorship” that ruled his life.
Eisenhower’s two communications to Premier Bulganin went out later that day. The second expressed the president’s concern “about the new prospective arms shipments to Egypt” and his hope for “a peacefully constructive solution of the Arab-Israel problem.” Brief though they were, these letters put Ike back in the diplomatic game. Jim Hagerty reinforced the image of an active president, describing Ike’s involvement with seven topics of international importance and giving the impression that this had been a “surprisingly long” work session with the secretary of state. Buried in the New York Times report was the fact that Dr. Paul Dudley White had insisted that future work sessions still be limited to fifteen minutes.42
Two days later, at the meeting of the National Security Council, Foster Dulles broached the delicate subject that he had not raised with the president—what the United States would do if the arms deal with Egypt resulted in war between the Israelis and Egyptians. In such circumstances, Dulles feared it might be difficult “to convince the world that one or another of the two antagonists was guilty of clear-cut aggression.” Would the United States dare to contemplate a blockade of the aggressor or the use of NATO forces? Admiral Arthur W. Radford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded that it would be “relatively easy” to establish a naval blockade, but the unspoken dilemma was that the most likely target of a blockade—the probable aggressor—would be Israel.43
In Denver, Eisenhower plotted his escape from the “dictatorship” and the doctors’ six-week timetable for his leaving the hospital. Some friends, including the NATO commander, General Alfred Gruenther, urged that Eisenhower, once he left the hospital, go someplace warm and relaxing like Key West, Florida. Ike was having none of that. He told Sherman Adams on Wednesday that he “had pretty well settled on Gettysburg because Mrs. Eisenhower was set on it.” That stretched the truth; the president wanted to be closer to Washington. He justified the decision on the grounds that it “would save Governor Adams’ commutation time.” Treasury Secretary Humphrey, after a visit to the president, contradicted Ike’s explanation. Mrs. Eisenhower, Humphrey told Secretary Dulles, preferred that he stay at Fitzsimons but Ike was determined to leave. She was worried that at Gettysburg he would be too close to Washington and “feel freer to get back into things.”44
Despite his breakthrough meetings with Nixon and Dulles, Eisenhower’s activities were still restricted. On October 14, Ike’s sixty-fifth birthday, Mamie gave him a small plastic easel that would fit on his hospital table so he could resume another treasured pastime—painting. He wrote Senate majority leader Lyndon Johnson, a heart attack victim the previous July, that if the Texan were to visit him, “the doctors will probably put a time limit on us to keep us from getting garrulous about our common ailments.” The following day, Ike complained to son John that “the doctors are still rather severely restricting my activities.” He thanked the painter Thomas Edgar Stephens for the gift of a portrait of his mother. Ike reflected, “I feel rather like a child here, and I can imagine Mother’s strong personality telling me to be good, to do what the doctors say, and gently prodding me into the business of a complete recovery.”45
On his birthday, Ike was still not reading the newspapers. If he had, he would have learned that the New York Times had “confirmed” that the Soviet Union had offered to finance the Aswan Dam for Egypt—an overstatement, it turned out, propagated by Egyptian sources. A few days later, the Times reported that the United States, according to “diplomatic officials,” was considering contributing “substantially” to the financing of the project. The newspaper did not say that President Eisenhower would have to sign off on any such decision. At this time, he was in no position to make it. Even more difficult, Congress would have to approve the appropriation.46
On Wednesday, October 19, at 9:00 A.M., John Foster Dulles walked into the president’s hospital room and, in preparation for the Geneva foreign ministers meeting, handed the president a statement that would communicate to the world that he and Eisenhower were agreed on policies. Ike dictated a letter for the vice president to read to the cabinet, noting that the secretary of state would be bearing “a heavy load of responsibility” on matters “which Foster and I planned together.” The president reinforced that Dulles spoke for him and “with authority for our country.”47
THE NSC WITHOUT IKE
Thursday was a stressful day for the administration team in Washington. Foster Dulles had flown back from Denver to meet for two hours with the legislative leaders of both parties, briefing them on the upcoming Geneva meetings. Then Dulles attended the most important National Security Council meeting since Eisenhower had been stricken.48
At the previous meeting, the NSC had agreed that its planning board staff would review American policy in the Middle East. The board’s lengthy report concluded that, because of the introduction of Soviet arms, “the risk of major armed conflict in the Near East is now more acute and more immediate.” If the United States took a “hands off” approach to an Israeli attack, Egypt and Syria would surely appeal to the USSR for assistance.49
The planning board had reviewed possible economic sanctions to deter a resort to war by Israel or Egypt—a discontinuance of American aid, an embargo on trade, and blocking the transfer of funds from the United States to nations in the region. Military options were more troublesome. The report concluded that “a military blockade of Israel” would be “relatively simple and almost completely effective.” The remaining military possibilities were more sobering, involving direct military intervention by the United States and its allies, hopefully with United Nations approval. The sticking point was that, in the event of armed conflict, circumstances might “make it difficult to establish, particularly in the minds of the general public, the identity of the aggressor.”
That was bureaucratic talk for the elephant in the room—the probability that Israel would strike first, while it still had military superiority. Pro-Israeli groups had significant political clout in the United States. The suggestion of military action, even a blockade, against Israel threw the NSC into turmoil. Secretary Dulles, sensing the fear in the room, pleaded that they not repeat the mistakes of the Truman administration by dealing with the Arab-Israeli problem “on a purely political basis.” He recalled that, in 1948, Secretary of State George Marshall had been humiliated over his opposition to President Truman’s recognition of the state of Israel.
None of the alternatives was palatable. A blockade of Israel would generate a political firestorm in the United States. A blockade of Egypt would ignite anger throughout the Arab world, threatening a cutoff of oil to Western Europe. Foster Dulles fiercely argued that for “the United States to sponsor an arms race between Israel and the Arab States would be a very futile action.” He preferred to treat the Egyptian arms deal as a “one-shot affair” and decline Israel’s requests for weapons. CIA director Allen Dulles opined that neither the Israelis nor the Arabs “really desired a permanent solution.” Vice President Nixon, who had been silent to this point, heatedly argued that the United States would have “a hell of a time” getting Congress to support sending American forces to fight the Israelis.
This contentious debate deteriorated without Eisenhower there to mold consensus. The discussion bogged down over whether the established policy toward the Middle East, NSC 5428—adopted initially in 1954—could be changed without the president’s approval.50 Finally, Nixon concluded that the NSC “had reached an impasse in its consideration of this policy.” They had given Secretary Dulles very little to say to other world leaders as he traveled to Geneva. The group finally settled on the weakest possible option—Hoover’s proposal that “in view of the President’s absence,” Dulles be authorized to inform the Israeli prime minister of the nonmilitary sanctions that would be possibilities in the event of war, fulfilling the spirit of existing policy. Military options, including a blockade, were sent back to the planning board for further study.
That same day, Soviet premier Bulganin’s response to the president’s message on the arms deal arrived. Bulganin transmitted a copy of what he had written to Anthony Eden, in response to the British prime minister’s protest, contending that there was no need for serious concern. Eisenhower countered that “this large transaction has greatly increased danger of a major outbreak of violence in the area.” The president held Bulganin’s government directly responsible, ignoring the Soviet tactic of channeling the arms for Egypt through Czechoslovakia. In a meeting with the American ambassador, Charles E. “Chip” Bohlen, Bulganin repeated Molotov’s claim of Soviet innocence, expressing surprise at the importance the United States placed on the deal between Egypt and Czechoslovakia. The Soviet premier pointed out that the Western allies had sold arms to Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union had not complained.51
PLOTTING THE RETURN
Wednesday, October 26, was a busy day for the impatient president. He had taken his first steps the day before. When Adams entered the president’s suite, Ike proudly announced, “Well, I walked over to the wall and sat down and came back. I am getting to be a big boy now.”52
Eisenhower, encouraged by this watershed event in his recovery, began to plan, in some detail, his escape from Fitzsimons Hospital. Later on the 26th, Eisenhower fussed over a matter that was still a long way off—the State of the Union message, tentatively scheduled for delivery on January 5. Ike had been informed by his doctors that, four months from the date of his attack—approximately the end of January—they would administer a battery of tests designed to ascertain how much of his previous activities he could resume. “For myself, I don’t care,” he said to Adams. “I have had a pretty good life, I am not too concerned with me.” But Ike feared that the strain of delivering the speech in person might jeopardize the tests. He concluded: “If I could give the speech on the first of February, regardless of the verdict of the doctors, I would.”53
Later that day, Eisenhower dictated several letters. One was to Swede Hazlett, who had written Ike regarding the 1956 election.54 “Of course, you won’t run,” Hazlett had asserted, “and I am glad of it!” The “stresses and strains” of the job were “much too great for anyone in your condition.” Eisenhower should leave the choice of a successor “to the primaries and the convention, without any high-pressuring for any individual.” Hazlett also opined that Milton Eisenhower would be a “natural” for president.
Eisenhower had no intention of abdicating. He rejected the hands-off approach Hazlett had suggested because he would want a successor who would carry on his program if he decided not to run. Ike also questioned Hazlett’s assumptions about his physical condition. “Today I am walking a few steps,” he wrote, and his recovery was following “the normal pattern.” In four months, the doctors could reach “an accurate prognosis of the level of activity a heart victim can sustain without incurring any damage.” Eisenhower had clearly settled on a timeline for his decision about running. He would make a final determination after that four-month checkup, in late January or early February. If the results were positive, Ike had effectively decided to run.
TROUBLE IN GENEVA
The leadership team in Washington could not get their commander-in-chief back soon enough. The Middle East situation continued to deteriorate. The NSC learned on October 27 that, without informing the Americans, the British had landed troops in the Al Buraimi area of Saudi Arabia in a dispute over oil interests. In Geneva, Foster Dulles and Harold Macmillan confronted demands by the Israeli government that Egypt withdraw from its arms deal with Czechoslovakia and that the Americans sign a security treaty with Israel.55
Eisenhower was receiving disturbing cables from the secretary of state in Geneva. With the foreign ministers conference barely underway, July’s “Spirit of Geneva” had evaporated. The Soviet Union’s leaders had apparently been emboldened by their Middle East initiative and by the disability of the man they most feared—Eisenhower. Ike commented to his diary that it was evident that the Soviets were “going to make no concessions.” They were “playing a game” while “they double cross us in the Middle East.” The president ordered Adams to tell Dulles that “the United States must not be a party to a false peace or to prolongation of any kind of conference when obviously the other side is acting in bad faith.”56
On Sunday, October 30, Secretary Dulles met with Soviet foreign minister Molotov alone regarding the arms agreement with Egypt. Molotov repeated the Soviet contention that the Western powers were already providing arms to nations in the region. The threat of aggression, Molotov argued, “was not from Egypt but from Israel.” Dulles responded that the “danger of war should concern us all.” When Dulles reported to the British and French foreign ministers the next morning, Macmillan summarized the allies’ dilemma; in protesting the arms sale, the danger was that the allies might unwittingly bestow on the Soviets the status of “partners in Middle Eastern affairs.”57
Israel continued to lobby aggressively for arms to counter the Soviet-Egyptian deal. On October 31, Israeli prime minister Moshe Sharett called on Dulles in Geneva with a list of “defensive” arms his government wished to purchase and renewed the request for a security agreement. Otherwise, Israel “would have to place greater reliance than ever on its arms.” Dulles replied that such a request would have to be considered by the Defense Department and the cabinet. He said he doubted that Congress would approve a security treaty. The secretary warned the prime minister that Israel would lose much of its goodwill in the United States if it launched a preventive war. Dulles worried particularly about “one border incident leading to another with a crescendo culminating in war.”58
The next morning, Eisenhower read the reports of Dulles’s meetings. He lamented in his diary that Arab and Israeli leaders had long ignored his warning of what would happen if they did not make peace. He had “begged to be allowed to be friends of both sides” but had continually run into “that flaming antagonism.”59
That antagonism exploded into violence again. The Israelis decided to call Foster Dulles’s bluff. Allen Dulles informed the November 3 NSC meeting that the Arab-Israeli conflict had taken “a serious turn for the worse during the night.”60 The Israelis had attacked Egyptians in the El Auja area, a one-hundred-square-mile demilitarized zone bordering Egypt, established as part of the armistice negotiated by the United Nations in 1949. This episode was just one more of a series of violent flare-ups along the Jordanian, Syrian, and Egyptian borders with Israel that had frequently occurred since the armistice. At El Auja, the Israelis, allegedly because the Egyptians had established illegal checkpoints inside the demilitarized zone, launched an attack that killed fifty Egyptian soldiers in the bloodiest incident since 1949. The Egyptians had fought back and claimed a great victory but news correspondents doubted the accuracy of their reports.
Only that morning, David Ben-Gurion, assuming the prime minister’s office for the second time, had provided cover for the assault by telling the Israeli Knesset that he was willing to “meet with the Prime Minister of Egypt and every other Arab leader” to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict. Admiral Radford told the NSC that the Israelis were mobilizing; Allen Dulles added that Israel had 86,000 men under arms and could rapidly expand to 200,000. Vice President Nixon demanded to know “what excuses” the Israelis had to offer for perpetrating this attack after a discussion with the secretary of state.61
A TRIUMPHAL RETURN
Dwight Eisenhower, still in Denver, was only marginally engaged with this increasingly dangerous situation. He was focused on ridding himself of the restrictions that were keeping him at the hospital.62
Eisenhower succeeded in cutting in half the doctors’ recommended six additional weeks at Fitzsimons. The president targeted the first week in November for a brief return to Washington before proceeding to Gettysburg. The physicians insisted that, if Eisenhower tried to travel that soon, he would have to be pushed to the airplane in a wheelchair. Ike had no intention of returning to the White House looking like an invalid. He reluctantly agreed to additional days and, accompanied by Ann Whitman, increased his walking and practiced climbing fourteen steps in a nearby stairwell to convince himself that he could make it up the ramp to his plane.63
Eisenhower was also determined to minimize the restraints once he settled in at Gettysburg. On November 6, he sent a detailed letter to Dr. White, with specific questions regarding what he could and could not do regarding golf, bridge, shooting, walking, group meetings, paperwork, and rest periods after he left the hospital. Ike asked, “If I don’t go to sleep could I lie down and still talk, if I wanted to?” The president still felt like a caged animal. He was privately determined to put one toe over any line that White drew.64
Adams continued to protect Eisenhower from the most disturbing reports from the Middle East, informing the president on Monday, November 7, that there were no new intelligence reports on the Middle East, indicating that “both sides are giving fairly serious attention to the warnings they have been getting.” Ike cabled Foster Dulles, thanking him for his reports on the Geneva meetings and breaking the news of his departure from Fitzsimons, planned for the following Friday.65
Tuesday, November 8, Dulles informed Eisenhower that Molotov, after returning to Geneva from consultations in Moscow, had “delivered one of the most cynical and uncompromising speeches” he had ever heard, rejecting all the Western proposals for guaranteeing European security and reunifying Germany. The president expressed to Dulles his astonishment at the Soviet leaders’ “deliberate repudiation of prior intentions and, in fact, a breach of good faith.” Ike reluctantly concluded: “There seems to be little value in dragging out the conference.” Eisenhower admitted to Herbert Hoover that he had “much depression” about what had happened at Geneva. “You can’t trust them, the Soviets, when they are talking nice and you can’t trust them when they are talking [tough],” he said. Dulles, in response, proposed to “recess” the Geneva conference. Eisenhower agreed that it was important to give an opponent an escape hatch. “We should be careful,” he cautioned Dulles, “not to say we are through.”66
While concerns over Europe and Germany had been flashpoints for the collapse of the Geneva meetings, the new situation in the Middle East was the backdrop. Two events since July had shaken the foundations of the “Spirit of Geneva”—the arms deal with Egypt and Eisenhower’s heart attack.
On the morning of Wednesday, November 9, in Geneva, Secretary Dulles and Harold Macmillan sought agreement on joint policy directions regarding the Middle East. They discussed a proposed statement by Eisenhower that would resist the Israeli appeal for additional arms. In spite of the Soviet arms deal with Egypt, Macmillan and Dulles still hoped to pursue a general settlement of issues between the Israelis and the Arabs. Macmillan suggested offering Nasser a “package deal.” Egypt would be asked to work with them on an Arab-Israeli settlement and, in return, the Western powers would assist with construction of the Aswan Dam.67
The president’s statement, as finally released, viewed “with deep concern the latest developments” in the Middle East. “The recent outbreak of hostilities,” he stated, “has led to a sharp increase in tensions.” The United States, the statement read, did not intend “to contribute to an arms competition in the Near East.” Eisenhower invoked the Tripartite Declaration of 1950, which had committed Britain, France, and the United States to repelling aggression across armistice lines and to maintaining a balance of arms between Israel and the Arabs. America’s goal in the Middle East, he said, was “a just peace,” as presented by the secretary of state in his August 26 speech proposing an Israeli-Arab settlement. If those conditions were met, the United States would be willing to “join in formal treaty engagements to prevent or thwart any effort by either side to alter by force the boundaries between Israel and its Arab neighbors.” “Recent developments,” Eisenhower concluded, “have made it all the more imperative that a settlement be found.”68
Meanwhile, Eisenhower planned his return to Washington like it was a campaign event, micromanaging the plans for his landing at Washington National Airport. He wanted Nixon to come two thirds of the way up the ramp to meet him, then say a few words, with the president responding. He approved the plan for members of the cabinet, diplomatic corps, and leaders of Congress to be in attendance. Ike asked for a bubble car so he could stand and wave at the crowds. He reviewed all arrangements, including radio and television coverage.69
Friday, November 11, was Veterans Day—an appropriate day for an old soldier to return in triumph to the nation’s capital. Ike had a flair for the dramatic at such moments. He intended his return to be reassuring to the American people at the very moment when the Geneva conference was collapsing and tensions in the Middle East were the worst of his presidency.
A crowd of five thousand was waiting when the president’s plane, the Columbine, landed at Washington National. Mrs. Eisenhower appeared first at the door, followed immediately by the president, dressed in a camel hair topcoat over tan slacks and a sport coat, and wearing a soft brown hat, which he removed to wave at the crowd. Vice President Nixon and John and Barbara Eisenhower greeted the president and Mrs. Eisenhower. Ike later thanked Nixon for organizing “one of the truly red-letter days of our lives.” He greeted the gathering, joking that his vacation stay in Colorado had “been a little longer than we had planned.” Eisenhower said he was pleased “that the doctors have given me at least a parole if not a pardon, and I expect to be back at my accustomed duties, although they say I must ease my way into them and not bulldoze my way into them.”70
But Ike was confronted with the doctors’ restrictions even as he and Mrs. Eisenhower entered the bubble top limousine. The top was closed, contrary to the president’s wishes. When Ike asked about it, he was informed that, for medical reasons, he should not stand up. Eisenhower later complained that he was “forced many times to kneel on the floor of the car in order to make myself seen.” When the nine-car motorcade arrived at the Lincoln Memorial, an Air Force band struck up a march, and two thousand servicemen, five paces apart, stood at attention between there and the White House. A large banner was strung across Pennsylvania Avenue, announcing, “Welcome Home, Ike!” The president’s car arrived at the South Portico of the White House at 4:23.71
The Eisenhowers were welcomed by Chief Robert Murray of the Washington Police Department and the White House domestic staff. The president greeted them, walked to the elevator, and went to his room on the second floor, where he was immediately surrounded by four doctors. Their examination revealed no serious fatigue. His blood pressure was 126 over 84 and his pulse was 72. But by now, Ike was thoroughly irritated. He turned to Howard Snyder and snarled, “Damn it Howard, why did you not let me stand in the car? It would have been far less exhausting for me had I been able to do so.”72
With the world in turmoil and his doctors still hovering, Dwight Eisenhower’s seven-week nightmare was drawing to a close. That evening, he ate dinner with the family and Dr. White. While the rest of the group watched a movie—an activity still denied the president—Ike retired to sleep in his own bed.73 He would go to the Oval Office for a while the next day. It was good to be back, even for a brief stay.
© 2011 David A. Nichols