In 1955, on this day a stunned America learned that President Dwight D. Eisenhower had died following a heart attack suffered early that morning.
Operation First Born Son by Eric LippsFollowing the first symptoms, the President had been rushed to Walter Reed Hospital for emergency treatment, but despite what a terse official press release described as "heroic measures," doctors had been unable to save the sixty-four-year-old Eisenhower. He was pronounced dead at 11:14 A.M., Eastern time.
Vice-President Richard M. Nixon took the presidential oath at noon, becoming the thirty-fifth President of the United States. Under the terms of the Twenty-second Amendment, because he would have less than two years of Eisenhower's unexpired term to serve, he would be eligible to run for the White House in his own name not only in 1956 but again in 1960.
Nixon assumed the presidency in the midst of a serious crisis in the Middle East. Egypt's president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, had been moving closer to the Soviets, arranging, among other things, to ship large quantities of Egyptian cotton to the USSR in exchange for arms, which it was assumed he planned eventually to use in an attack on Israel. In July 1956 the matter came to a head when Nasser nationalized the strategically vital Suez Canal.
Nixon's response was volcanic. Years later, transcripts of meetings in the Oval office would make public the President's fury at Nasser, whom he described as "that goddamn camel-jockey who thinks he can push around civilized white men".
"Tonight, my fellow Americans, this country is at war. We are at war with an enemy who strikes from those shadows to destroy what we have built and what we defend".Meeting with leaders from Britain, France and Israel, the President would commit American armed forces to an effort to retake the canal and depose Nasser by force. The assault, codenamed Operation Firstborn Sons, would be launched in mid-September; U.S., British, French and Israeli forces would quickly overwhelm the Egyptian military, reaching Cairo on Sept. 25. Nasser fled the city, and a temporary occupation government was installed under the leadership of U.S. Gen. Matthew Ridgway. In February 1957 a new, pro-Western Egyptian president would be installed.
But the seizure of the Suez Canal would prove to be the spark which ignited a greater conflict. In exile, Nasser became the rallying point for an increasingly radical Arab movement based around Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood--which, ironically, Nasser had harshly suppressed while in power. Terrorist attacks on Western facilities throughout the Middle East, and against the state of Israel, escalated. Finally, on Sept. 25, 1960--four years after the occupation of Cairo and only weeks before President Nixon was to face off against Democratic challenger John F. Kennedy in the U.S. presidential election - a massive terror bombing wrecked a key section of the Canal, closing it off.
That evening, a somber President Nixon faced the U.S. television audience to declare, "Tonight, my fellow Americans, this country is at war. We are at war with an enemy based not in Moscow or Peking, though both of these capitals support this foe, but in the shadows of the world; an enemy who strikes from those shadows to destroy what we have built and what we defend. We are at war with an enemy whose weapon is the creation of terror. We are at war with that terror, and we shall not flinch, we shall not yield. We shall prevail".
That speech would be widely credited with tipping the balance in one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history, peeling away several states the Democratic candidate had expected to win and allowing Nixon a narrow re-election victory which would have made him the first man since FDR to serve more than two full terms . . . if not for the events of November 22, 1963, when President Nixon was assassinated while on a visit to his home state of California by a 19-year-old Arab immigrant, Sirhan Sirhan.