Hungary’s 50-year grudge

CHRISTOPHER CONDON is the Budapest correspondent for the Financial Times.

FIFTY YEARS AGO this Saturday, Soviet tanks rumbled into Budapest and crushed a Hungarian rebellion against Stalinist rule. The occupying army and its domestic quislings killed as many as 3,000 Hungarians, sent more than 200,000 fleeing into exile and extinguished a movement that, for two exhilarating weeks, had seemed poised to tip the balance of the Cold War decisively against Moscow.

Today the tragic ending seems inevitable, except to Hungarians. Half a century later, many still complain bitterly that the United States abandoned them in their darkest hour after inciting them to revolt. With the opening of previously unavailable archives in Washington, Moscow and Budapest, damning new light is being shed on U.S. inaction.

Two new books written by 1956 emigres detail how the anti-communist bark of the Eisenhower administration was much stronger than its bite. “Twelve Days” by Victor Sebestyen and “Failed Illusions” by Charles Gati each show how election-year propaganda in the U.S. was more important than lifting a finger to assist those it inspired.


In 1952, backed by a fiercely anti-communist Republican right, Dwight Eisenhower campaigned against President Truman’s policy of containment with promises of “rollback” and “liberation” for Eastern Europe. Averell Harriman, a former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, warned soon-to-be Secretary of State John Foster Dulles during a pre-election television appearance, “Foster, if you follow this policy, you are going to have the deaths of some brave people on your conscience.”

Once in office, though, Eisenhower accepted the Eastern Europe status quo. This may have been prudent, but he never changed the rhetoric to match. After the death of Josef Stalin in March 1953, Washington set out on the long path to detente, even while maintaining a public face of shrill anti-communism.

Eastern Europeans, eagerly listening for signs of hope, were unaware of the disconnect. Republican firebrands at home were also out of the loop. At a July 1956 National Security Council meeting, Gati and Sebestyen point out, Vice President Richard Nixon expressed concern that the softer-on-communism reality might leak out: “I hope everybody, from those present here all the way down the line, will keep their mouths shut on this subject.”

More chilling for Hungarians, at the same meeting, less than four months before tanks rolled through Budapest, Nixon callously suggested that if an Eastern European country attempted a rebellion and “the Soviet iron fist were to come down hard,” the U.S. would win a public relations victory. Washington’s main communications channel to the Eastern bloc was Radio Free Europe, or RFE, established by the CIA to broadcast reliable news and American propaganda. Its role in the 1956 revolt has been much debated, with many accusing RFE of inciting the rebellion.

Ross Johnson, a former RFE staff historian and now a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, has reviewed translations of Hungarian-language programming in the months leading up to the uprising. “I’m quite confident that the broadcasts from the spring and summer of 1956 were gradualist” when it came to liberation, he said. There was never, he says, an explicit call to arms.

Instead, in Operation Red Sox/Red Cap, the CIA air-dropped leaflets into Hungary bearing messages such as, “The regime is weaker than you think” and urged Hungarians through RFE broadcasts to make incremental demands. Said Janos Rainer, director of Hungary’s 1956 Institute: “Hungarians clearly got the impression that, in the event of a rebellion, the U.S. would support them effectively.”


Can RFE be blamed for those perceptions, or were Hungarians simply hearing what they wanted to hear? RFE’s message was often exaggerated by word of mouth, or simply confused with other broadcasts. Many Hungarians insist to this day that RFE promised that U.S. paratroopers were on their way. No such promise was ever made. A more accurate charge is that the White House, distracted by the unfolding Suez Canal crisis and the Nov. 6 presidential election, did nothing to prevent the Soviet bloodbath. Indeed, bent on reassuring Moscow that the U.S. would not respond militarily, Eisenhower avoided even the mildest of diplomatic efforts. Henry Kissinger later slammed Ike for behaving like a helpless spectator. “There were no diplomatic notes,” he wrote in his 1994 book, “Diplomacy.” “No pressure, no offers to mediate. Nothing.”

Gati takes the U.S. to task for its failure to back Imre Nagy, a popular reform-minded communist around whom the revolutionaries rallied. In Washington, because of poor intelligence, Nagy was unknown. RFE, whose Hungarian section was dominated by right-wing Hungarian emigres, bitterly attacked Nagy as a communist traitor. Here, Gati argues, the U.S. failed to reach for small but attainable gains -- a turn away from hard-line Stalinism and a moderate distancing from Moscow.

This argument gathers force with newly opened Kremlin archives, which reveal a remarkable indecisiveness in the Kremlin until Oct. 31, eight days into the revolt. If during this brief window Hungarians had softened their demands -- and here Washington’s influence could have been crucial -- Moscow might have allowed a regime of “national communists” similar to Tito’s Yugoslavia.

BUT SUCH a revisionist scenario ignores the bumbling indecision of Nagy, overestimates the influence of Radio Free Europe and underestimates the tremendous centrifugal energy of a revolution in full step. It remains implausible that Eisenhower had any real opportunity to prevent the tragedy.

What does linger, however, is the unmistakable odor of American hypocrisy. The writer Tamas Aczel, who fled to the U.S. in 1956, later reflected that Hungarians had been naive to take seriously slogans of “liberation” and “rollback” for Eastern Europe. “Since then,” he wrote in “Ten Years After,” “we learned what we didn’t know -- that the West had written off these countries and only their propaganda machines pretended otherwise.”

Meanwhile, Nixon’s cynical musings proved prophetic -- the uprising did have an enormous public relations effect. Moscow’s actions exposed the brutality of Soviet imperialism. Domestic communist movements throughout Western Europe, some very popular, were irretrievably fractured.

Hungarians, though they paid with their own blood, also benefited from the uprising. After a few years of merciless suppression, they were slowly granted greater personal liberties, as long as they did not question the authority of the Party. By the 1970s, Hungarians occupied the “happiest barracks” in the Soviet bloc, freer and more prosperous than the Poles, Czechs or Romanians. Some even argue that the concessions granted to Hungary, partly out of fear of another uprising, inexorably undermined Soviet influence and greatly accelerated the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe. It is often forgotten that the Iron Curtain fell not in Berlin in November 1989, but three months earlier, when Hungary’s foreign minister, Gyula Horn, did the honors with a pair of wire cutters on the Austrian border.

Few people have ever seriously suggested that the U.S. military should have stormed into Hungary 50 years ago and launched World War III. More recently, even without the risk of a nuclear confrontation, the U.S. has learned in Iraq that it is not easy to deliver democracy via military might. But it is worth remembering that fine words about liberation and freedom, if not backed, can inspire short-term tragedy and long memories.