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The Hungarian Revolution: An Exchange

In response to:

Did the Revolution Have to Fail? from the March 1, 2007 issue

To the Editors:

Although István Deák notes that “all the recent historians clearly demonstrate [that] there is absolutely no evidence of any earlier planning for a revolution; nor of any machinations by the ‘imperial West’ to organize an uprising” [“Did the Revolution Have to Fail?,” NYR, March 1], that is not what I heard on my military radio. In the fall of 1956 I was a radio operator with the 6th Armored Cavalry stationed in Regensburg, Germany. Since we transmitted and received in Morse code, I was amazed to hear a voice with a Middle European accent break the silence with the words “The revolution has begun. Where is the American army? The CIA promised help as soon as we started the uprising.” For several days the voice of Radio Free Hungary kept asking when we were going to arrive. Indeed preparations were made to move out. Weapons were issued and vehicles were gassed. Since these were the weapons and vehicles that had won the war, we were in a poor position to take on the responsibility that the CIA had promised to the voices on Radio Free Hungary. The voices grew more strident as the days passed until the last voice said, “The Russian tanks are almost here.” The weapons were returned to the armory and we continued with our job of guarding the border. Later I heard that Nixon had made an inspection of the border in Austria and concluded that our help wasn’t needed. I was relieved since I don’t think our vehicles would have made it to Vienna, much less to Budapest.

William Raymond Smith
Dillsburg, Pennsylvania

To the Editors:

István Deák’s review of recent writings on the 1956 revolution in Hungary gives a most welcome succinct summary of that drama. For contemporaries and even more for Hungarian eyewitnesses, as myself, the most crucial question has remained whether under better leadership and by more self-restraint by the Hungarians the second Soviet invasion, the subsequent reprisals, and, by implication, the corrupting impact of the Kádár regime could have been averted. Deák’s answer is “no.” Given the most unfortunate Suez crisis, American paralysis (only partly due to the presidential elections), Khrushchev’s precarious position, and the fear bordering on panic shown by the Communist leadership of the neighboring countries, that is probably true, but the distinguished British historian Hugh Seton-Watson’s doubts, written thirty years ago, also carry weight:

Of course, American military invasion of Hungary was not possible, still less a nuclear ultimatum to Moscow. Of course, formal diplomatic notes could achieve nothing. But was it really impossible for the United States government, using all the private and public channels of communication available to it and all the means of pressure at its disposal, to have convinced the Soviet government that the consequences of invasion would have been very much more unpleasant for it than the consequences of letting the Nagy government, which was in control of Hungary, stay in power until a settlement, acceptable to all parties concerned, including the Great Powers, could be worked out? The truth is that the United States government did not even try.1

I also find America’s behavior at the United Nations, which then had far greater prestige and power than it does today, hard to excuse. No notice was taken of the Hungarian declaration of neutrality (October 30) until the November 4 invasion by the Soviet army. The Democratic Party opposition demonstrated more sensitivity to Hungarian expectations. Adlai Stevenson, the presidential candidate, urged the United Nations to step in on the side of the Hungarian Revolution. An editorial in The New York Times for October 27 suggested that there could not be a more clear-cut case for foreign intervention under the aegis of the UN. Henry Cabot Lodge, the US delegate to the United Nations, concurred, but only after the news of the invasion reached New York. “If ever there was a time when the action of the United Nations could literally be a matter of life and death for a whole nation, this is the time.” His words addressed to the Hungarians were beautiful but hollow: “By your heroic sacrifice you have given the United Nations a brief moment in which to mobilize the conscience of the world on your behalf. We are seizing that moment, and we will not fail you.”2

Géza Jeszenszky
Corvinus University of Budapest
Foreign Minister, 1990–1994
Ambassador to the US, 1998–2002

István Deák replies:

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was the first war of independence against Soviet occupation. Besides seeking freedom for the nation, revolutionaries aimed at ending tyrannical Communist rule and restoring some normalcy to the economy and society following years of social upheaval and reckless industrial development. The latter had been driven, in great part, by preparation for a third world war that Stalin for a while considered inevitable. But after his death in 1953, his successors began seriously to envisage the possibility of a peaceful coexistence. By 1956 international tensions had eased partly as a result of Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s apology to Tito’s Yugoslavia, his revelation of Stalin’s crimes to the XX Party Congress in February 1956, and the so-called “Spirit of Geneva,” meaning that President Eisenhower and Khrushchev were now seeking a modus vivendi between East and West. All this did not stop both sides from conducting hostile propaganda and occasional acts of sabotage against each other. In the American camp, the propaganda campaign culminated in the “rollback” policy principally advocated but never seriously meant by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles.

As Charles Gati and such Hungarian experts as Csaba Békés and László Borhi explain, the latter less skeptically, “rollback” wished to convey the message that the West would assist in any “captive nation’s” self-liberation but without risking war. It is enough, however, to glance at the CIA documents Gati collected for his book, or at the documentary collection published by Békés and his colleagues, to know that roll-back was more a slogan than a policy.3 Some CIA operatives might have toyed with the idea of exploiting serious trouble behind the Iron Curtain, but no preparations were made for such an eventuality. The East German riots in June 1953 and the Polish disturbances in June 1956 came as a complete surprise to the CIA; nor was anything done to seize these opportunities. Once the Hungarian Revolution had begun, President Eisenhower assured the Soviets that Washington would not try to exploit the trouble of the Soviet leadership in Hungary. Clearly, war was to be avoided at all costs.

It is true that the high-ranking CIA official Frank Wisner made a visit to the Austro-Hungarian border, trying to find out what could be done; he even looked for weapons to smuggle into Hungary should the White House lift its prohibition of such assistance. But according to Gati, the CIA’s secret arms cache in Western Europe was located only in December, well after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian Revolution. Meanwhile, the US leadership was very much preoccupied by the presidential elections and by the Franco-British-Israeli attack on Egypt. Sending troops to Hungary would have been out of the question if for no other reason than because the four Great Powers had solemnly recognized Austria’s neutrality a year earlier. I suggest, therefore, that the partial mobilization of Mr. Smith’s cavalry unit had to do with preparations for a possible Soviet attack on West Germany. It is inconceivable that anyone would have seriously considered sending American armor down the road to Vienna and Budapest. In any case, as Mr. Smith explains, technically they might have been unable to complete the journey. Perhaps Mr. Smith and his fellow GIs speculated at that time that “gassing up” might mean an unwanted journey to Hungary.4

We must simply accept the fact that no country in the world was willing to risk a conflict with the Soviet Bloc over Hungary; in fact, most governments, whether in the Western camp, neutral, or in the Soviet Bloc, hoped for a speedy end of the revolution.

Should the United States have tried to apply diplomatic pressure on the Soviet leaders in support of the Hungarian opposition or offer them mutual troop reduction in Europe? It seems to me that the US had little worthwhile to offer to the Soviet Union. A year earlier, at the Austrian State Treaty, the West had given up its political and military presence in Europe’s easternmost free country in exchange for the Soviets evacuating eastern Austria; meanwhile, the Soviet tanks still remained in Central Europe.

Gati argues in Failed Illusions that the US should have recognized the reform Communist Imre Nagy’s government and thus the development of a national Communist regime. I believe that Géza Jeszenszky would support this argument. But Gati also makes clear that such a solution was unacceptable to the rigidly anti-Communist Vice President Richard Nixon, John Foster Dulles, and to the latter’s brother Allen, who was the director of the CIA at that time. Meanwhile, President Eisenhower was too hesitant and weak to overrule them. Dulles and Co. would not have been satisfied with anything less than a complete political transformation in the Soviet Bloc, and they looked with the greatest suspicion at Imre Nagy, an old-time Stalinist apparatchik whose final change of heart came only during the revolution. Since Dulles’s rhetoric about rolling back communism was meant originally to satisfy the McCarthy wing of the Republican Party, fostering a reform Communist solution in Hungary would have caused grave dissension in the party. It was better that Hungary remain solidly in the Soviet Bloc.

The other major question involves the role of Western propaganda organs, especially Radio Free Europe, in creating the impression among Hungarians that they should hold out because help was forthcoming. What that help would consist of was never specified, yet what else could revolutionaries expect if not weapons and perhaps even American troops? And it is true that the Hungarian, Polish, Czech, etc. émigré journalists at RFE in Munich—I was one of them, although fortunately no longer in 1956—had been fed Dulles’s liberation and rollback propaganda for years. Whether the young, bright, Ivy League–educated graduates who were the Hungarians’ immediate superiors in Munich sincerely believed in the rollback program, I cannot say; the Hungarians at RFE did believe in it.

Then, in October 1956, the hypocrisy of the Washington statesmen brought its bitter fruits: trusting the American promises, at least some of the Hungarian broadcasters supported all-out opposition. Unfortunately, the liberal American broadcast supervisors—convinced that Radio Free Europe should be a genuinely free station—exercised almost no control over the national desks. Those at the Polish Desk used this freedom to advocate restraint in Poland; most of the Hungarian Desk tended to do the opposite. One RFE broadcaster tried to teach the freedom fighters how to make Molotov cocktails even after a truce was proclaimed on both sides; others asked their listeners to support Cardinal József Mindszenty and not Imre Nagy. Yet if Khrushchev did not really trust the ex-Stalinist Nagy, the name of the conservative monarchist cardinal must have sounded to him like a provocation. Meanwhile, Moscow revised its decision of October 30 not to interfere militarily in Hungary and on the next day, the Soviet leaders ordered that the Hungarian Revolution be crushed for good.

  1. 1

    Hugh Seton-Watson, Introduction to The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 in Retrospect, edited by Béla K. Király and Paul Jónás (East European Quarterly, 1978), pp. 5–6.

  2. 2

    Király and Jónás, The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 in Retrospect, p. 203.

  3. 3

    CIA Had Single Officer in Hungary 1956, National Security Archive, www.gwu.edu/ ~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB206/index.htm; The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History in Documents, edited by Csaba Békés, Malcolm Byrne, and János Rainer (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002); and László Borhi, Hungary in the Cold War, 1945–1956: Between the United States and the Soviet Union (Budapest–New York: Central European University Press, 2004).

  4. 4

    Note also that whereas several free radio stations sprung up in revolutionary Hungary, none bore the name of “Radio Free Hungary.” Their broadcasts were recorded by Radio Free Europe in Munich, and there is no evidence that any of the stations reproached the CIA for not keeping its “promise” to send military help as soon as there was an uprising.

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