Ike’s Bet and Nasser’s Vasser
by Michael Doran
The Free Press, 320 pp., $28
In the middle of the last century, a grim, bilingual pun circulated among American Jews: Hitler fell into the vasser and came out a Nasser (vasser is water in Yiddish; nasser is wet). It’s hard to see the Egyptian leader as a Middle Eastern führer when one finds him, near the beginning of Michael Doran’s exciting new book, hanging out in the apartment of a junior American diplomat in Cairo, eating hot dogs and watching Hollywood movies. Yet even at that time, in 1953, the 34-year-old lieutenant colonel, behind-the-scenes leader of the military junta that had just taken charge in Egypt, appears to have been a master manipulator. He had no trouble convincing key American diplomats that Egypt would be a reliable ally, if only the United States would help it break free of the shackles of British imperialism.
This was something that America’s leaders were more than willing to do. Not only Secretary of State John Foster Dulles but President Eisenhower himself was eager to shatter, as the latter put it, “the obsolete Colonial mold” in order “to win adherents to Western aims.” Ike’s Gamble shows just how prepared the Eisenhower administration was to bully Great Britain into doing what Gamal Abdel Nasser wanted. It forced the British to abandon their huge military base in the Suez Canal Zone in exchange for nothing more than an Egyptian promise to let the West back in if there were a war. Eisenhower thought that this 1954 agreement had “laid the foundations for an Arab-Western alliance in the Cold War.” He soon learned, however, that he had made the British give much more than the West got and that, as Doran writes, “Nasser’s appetite only increased with eating.”