Commentary Magazine

Budapest 1956

The United States today is fighting an adversary at least as menacing as the one it confronted during the cold war, and bearing some of the same traits. Like the Soviet Union, al Qaeda, its affiliates, and its imitators are in the thrall of a totalizing ideology, are implacably hostile to liberal democracy, and are determined to overthrow and replace it wherever they can. As in the cold war, too, America's conduct in countering this adversary has occasioned fierce debate here at home, pitting hawks against doves and so-called realists against neoconservatives, along with many other lines of political division.

Of course, the differences between the cold war and the current struggle are enormous. The Soviet Union was a superpower with a continental empire at its disposal and a huge arsenal of intercontinental missiles tipped with nuclear weapons to deter the U.S. from action. With notable exceptions like Iran, our adversaries today are not even countries but shadowy and constantly evolving sub-national groups, some of them autonomous cells, that neither hold state power nor, for the time being, have access to sophisticated weaponry.

Still, even with the marked contrast between the two conflicts in mind, it is useful to look back at cold-war America for lessons, whether heartening or cautionary, about the foreign-policy challenges we face today. Among the twists and turns of that earlier conflict, the Hungarian revolution of 1956—an event that occurred exactly 50 years ago—sheds its own special light on our present situation. The appearance of a new and well-researched book by the historian Charles Gati aids in reassessing this highly controversial and still-pertinent chapter of the past.


Like the other countries of Eastern Europe, Hungary fell under Soviet control after World War II. Throughout the period leading up to the October 1956 revolution, its rulers, hand-picked by Moscow, proved especially brutal in implementing the Kremlin's decrees. No institution of public or private life was left untouched. Independent trade unions were destroyed, the economy was reorganized to benefit the USSR, private property was seized, and peasants were displaced from their lands. Democratic politicians were shot or jailed or forced into exile, and large numbers of ordinary citizens were similarly imprisoned or executed on spurious political charges. Priests, too, were executed or jailed. Newspapers were transformed into instruments of propaganda, Hungarian national culture was suppressed, and education was turned into a transmission belt for indoctrination.

By the mid-1950's, the ground had been thoroughly prepared for an anti-Communist revolt. As it happened, this was a moment when the Kremlin itself appeared to be rethinking its relationship with its subjects, and moving in the direction of a thaw. In 1955, two years after Joseph Stalin's death, the USSR withdrew its troops from adjacent Austria, allowing it to become a neutral power. Many Hungarians began to speculate that they too might soon enjoy a similar status. Expectations were further raised by news of Nikita Khrushchev's secret speech to the Soviet Communist party's 20th Congress in February 1956, in which he denounced Stalin's tyrannical rule.


On October 23, almost spontaneously, the Hungarian revolution erupted. Initially, the rebels voiced rather modest demands, centering on reform of the prevailing Communist order. But then the security police opened fire on crowds surging toward the parliament, killing hundreds and radicalizing the rest. A full-scale program of democracy and independence, including demands for multiparty elections and Hungary's removal from the Warsaw Pact, became a national rallying cry.

Moscow's response was at first hesitant. The Soviet politburo, with Khrushchev presiding and a collection of Stalin's other henchmen—some of the 20th century's worst butchers—taking part, was hardly unmindful of the seething discontent in the “people's democracies.” On October 30, it approved a declaration holding open the possibility of increased sovereignty for the countries of Eastern Europe and a withdrawal, if requested, of Soviet troops.

But the limits of discussion inside the Soviet hierarchy were narrowly circumscribed, and its uncertainty over how to deal with the mounting resistance proved intensely volatile. Just a day later, on October 31, the politburo, now invoking orthodox Communist ideas, changed course and voted for decisive action. Failure to intervene, Khrushchev himself argued, would show weakness and “give a great boost to the . . . imperialists.” Only one member of the ruling body objected, noting that in light of the previous day's declaration, a decision to invade would be interpreted as itself a sign of weakness. But the majority dismissed this argument: a reversal was not a reversal, ran its Orwellian formulation, if the politburo so decided.

On November 4, Soviet tanks entered Budapest. After several days of fierce fighting, Soviet control was restored. In the battle, several thousand Hungarians were killed; many more thousands were deported to the Soviet Union. The revolution's leadership—including Imre Nagy, who had previously served as prime minister but had been expelled from the Communist party for liberalizing tendencies, only to become prime minister again during the upheaval—was seized by the Soviet military, placed on trial, and, in the case of Nagy and a few others, executed.

Diplomatically and politically, the fallout was mixed. The Kremlin found itself on the defensive at the United Nations, and suffered a further hemorrhaging of support from leftist circles in Western Europe. Khrushchev, who had won international praise for his de-Stalinization initiatives, became known for a time as the “Butcher of Budapest.” But, for Moscow, such public-relations setbacks were more than offset by the salutary impact of the invasion on the Soviet position in Eastern Europe. The action sent an unambiguous signal that the USSR would employ all necessary means to protect “socialism.”

And that message was heeded for a long time. In 1968, the Kremlin was tested again in Czechoslovakia. But after it put down the “Prague Spring,” once more using tanks and once more shedding blood, no significant popular movement for freedom emerged in any East European country until the rise of Solidarity, the Polish trade-union movement, in the 1980's. By then, however, the decrepit Soviet Union was losing the will to preserve its empire, and in another decade its entire position in Eastern Europe would collapse like a house of cards.


For the United States, as Charles Gati shows in Failed Illusions, the defeat of the Hungarian revolution was a humiliating setback. Since the inception of the cold war, American political leaders had expressed a rhetorical commitment to the doctrines of rollback and liberation, by which was meant the elimination of Soviet control over Eastern Europe. Indeed, the two major political parties regularly competed to get in front of each other on this issue: the Democratic party platform in 1956, an election year, excoriated the Eisenhower administration for its “heartless record of broken promises to the unfortunate victims of Communism.”

But, Gati observes, while the fundamental building blocks of American cold-war policy—the Marshall Plan, the establishment of the NATO alliance, the enunciation of the Truman Doctrine—had indeed succeeded in preventing a Soviet push beyond the borders of Eastern Europe, there was no evidence of progress in bringing freedom to the satellites. Policymakers had developed a long list of potential schemes, most of which involved psychological warfare projects to undermine Communist stability, Almost all, however, were impractical and quickly forgotten. By 1953, when Eisenhower assumed the presidency, it had become clear, though seldom acknowledged, that the instruments available to facilitate the liberation of Eastern Europe were quite limited. Given the danger of conflict with a nuclear-armed USSR, any form of direct intervention inside the Soviet orbit was too risky to contemplate seriously.

Hence, when the Hungarian revolution erupted, the United States possessed virtually no capacity to influence events on the ground. The CIA had few agents or sources of information inside the country and lacked Hungarian speakers among its ranks. Some of the analyses it produced, Gati writes, showed a complete lack of familiarity with internal developments, for instance naming the Catholic Church and the peasantry as critical forces when both had been thoroughly beaten down by Communist oppression and would play no role whatsoever in the uprising.

With little ability to see, the U.S. was ill-positioned to act. Aside from expressions of sympathy for the freedom fighters and condemnation of the Soviets, the best the Eisenhower administration could muster was a proposal to place the Hungarian crisis before the United Nations. Preoccupied with the Suez war, which erupted while the Hungarian revolution was unfolding, Eisenhower never considered concrete steps to bolster Hungarian independence or to dissuade Khrushchev from launching an invasion.

The only weapon in the American arsenal at all capable of shaping events behind the Iron Curtain was Radio Free Europe (RFE). But Gati stresses that during the crisis this was a problematic instrument. Established in 1950 to provide an alternative to the government-controlled media of East Europe's Communist regimes, RFE oscillated between news and analysis on the one hand and polemical commentaries on the other. Although a team of American managers in the station's headquarters monitored broadcast content, RFE was decidedly not an official voice of the U.S. government. Significantly, that fact was not always clear to its listeners.

The Hungarian service of RFE suffered from a weak editorial leadership and a staff that often resorted to invective and polemics when reasoned argument was called for. Gati, who gained access both to unpublished RFE internal memos and to actual program tapes, builds a strong case that its broadcasts were shrill, propagandistic, and misleading, both prior to and during the period of the revolution.

Among other things, the station conducted a relentless assault on Imre Nagy, a genuine reformer, who was treated as a stooge of Moscow. One commentator even asserted, inaccurately, that Nagy had requested Soviet intervention and thus had “Cain's mark on his head.” Hungarian listeners were exhorted to take action against the Soviets even as RFE failed to emphasize the low probability that America would come to their aid.


Subjecting the various strands of American policy—especially broadcasting—to critical scrutiny, Gati hands up a strong indictment. His main charge is that, toward Hungary as toward Eastern Europe more generally, the United States committed the cardinal sin of any foreign policy: willing the ends but not providing the means to accomplish them. Enunciating radical goals like rollback while doing nothing to implement them, the U.S., Gati suggests, shared responsibility with Moscow for the revolution's tragic fate.

This is a considerable overreach. Gati offers scant evidence that had the U.S. possessed better intelligence or conducted itself differently—by broadcasting more prudent dispatches, for example, or by making it utterly clear that we would not intervene—the course of events would have been much different.

A more relevant issue, but one that Gati unfortunately does not develop, is what lessons the United States drew from the Hungarian experience for the subsequent conduct of the cold war. In this realm, one of the revolution's healthier consequences was to close the gap between rhetoric and reality when American policymakers spoke about Eastern Europe. The words “liberation” and “rollback” were in effect banished from the political lexicon.

True, on some occasions the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction. Many officials viewing East European developments began to suffer from the affliction that came to be called the Hungary Syndrome—the conviction that even modest support for democratic stirrings in the Soviet bloc risked provoking a military response. But while the United States suffered through a period of hesitancy and self-doubt in the wake of the Hungarian uprising, it never abandoned the goal of contributing to the eventual liberation of Eastern Europe.

Even during the Nixon-Kissinger era of détente, when Washington was striving to patch over its differences with Moscow, we declined to recognize the incorporation of the Baltic states into the USSR—a small gesture in the overall scheme of things but one that importantly signaled the enduring nature of American goals. Beyond such symbols, and beyond the enormous military aspect of containment throughout the remainder of the cold war, the United States also never gave up on more forward efforts to foster freedom. The changes that were instituted at RFE after the Hungarian revolution made the station a more credible and therefore more powerful voice of opposition to Communism. Much later, in the Reagan era, the establishment of a new, quasi-government organization, the National Endowment for Democracy, enabled the U.S. to channel millions of dollars in assistance to the opposition in Poland and other Soviet-bloc countries.


Despite setbacks like Hungary—and far worse debacles to come in Southeast Asia—the United States ultimately prevailed in the cold war because it came to recognize early on that it was in it for the long haul. To a certain extent, Gati is right: some of the mistakes he highlights were the result of professed goals on which America could not readily deliver. But once Washington rid itself of illusions about the duration of the struggle, politicians of both parties were able to concentrate on containing the Soviets and, where opportunities presented themselves, expanding freedom's reach.

Learning from its mistakes—and, over five decades, there were certainly many—America ultimately emerged victorious by, first, retaining a firm and unquestioning faith in the superiority of its democratic values and, second, by meeting its challenges with fortitude and patience. The same two sets of qualities are needed if we are ever to declare “mission accomplished” in the conflict with the committed and merciless set of adversaries we are confronting today. The great question is whether these qualities still persist to the same degree within American political culture, and in as many hearts, as they did a half-century ago.



1 Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt. Stanford, 280 pp., $24.95.


About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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