What really destroyed the Hungarians in 1956?

Of all the great events of the Cold War, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 is probably the one most in need of serious historical attention. In part this is because new archives have at last explained a number of mysteries: did Imre Nagy, the reforming communist and later national hero, really request Soviet ‘assistance’ in putting down the rebellion? (no), what influence did the KGB really have on internal affairs in Hungary? (a lot), what did the CIA knew about Hungary? (not much), and what were the real debates about the rebellion like inside the Kremlin and the White House? (very messy).
But as Viktor Sebestyen – Hungarian by origin, taken from the country as an infant – makes clear in this fresh, readable and honest new account of the events of 1956, the story of the Hungarian revolution also demands attention because of its almost disturbing relevance. Chillingly familiar, for example, is Sebestyen’s description of how very little the US, or indeed any other Western country, actually understood about Hungary in the 1950s.
Most of the CIA’s information about internal Hungarian affairs theoretically came from US diplomats based in Hungary. But these diplomats had, in turn, very few interactions with ordinary people. In June of 1956, the president of the American Motion Picture Association visited Budapest and presented the embassy with a list of Hungarian artists, writers, actors and academics to invite to a cocktail party being given in his honour. He was rebuffed, writes Sebestyen, because ‘We never meet with these people socially.’ No wonder a CIA paper concluded in June, 1956, that ‘there really is no underground movement’ in Hungary at all.
And yet official American policy appeared to encouraged rebellion. The Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, spoke frequently of the need to ‘liberate the captive nations’ of Central Europe. Radio Free Europe broadcast fierce anti-communist programs, and the CIA found ways to echo its message. Among other things, US intelligence agents released balloons carrying anti-communist pamphlets over the Hungarian countryside. The pamphlets proclaimed that ‘The regime is weaker than you think’ and ‘the hope lies with the people’ – messages which were hard to misinterpret.
The result of this combination of rhetoric and ignorance was confusion. On hearing the news of the Budapest uprising, American officials dithered about whether the president ought to call a ‘day of prayer’ for the Hungarians or whether the Red Cross ought to send in medical supplies – and ultimately stalled by tabling a protest at the United Nations. In London, the Foreign Office advised strongly against saying anything which ‘might encourage hotheads in Budapest’.
By the fourth day of the rebellion, on October 27, Dulles – despite his own liberation rhetoric – had publicly and pointedly declared that the American government did not look upon the nations of Eastern Europe as ‘potential allies’. That message was then repeated, by the American ambassador to Moscow and eventually by President Eisenhower himself, just to make sure the Soviet leadership (which itself was dithering and delaying) got the point.
Meanwhile, Radio Free Europe – an institution which was widely believed, in Hungary and elsewhere, to represent the views of the US government – simultaneously went on the attack, supplying its eager listeners with advice about partisan warfare, instructions on how best to make bombs and stop tanks, and dropping heavy hints about the inevitability of American intervention.
One infamous broadcast, filed in early November, appeared to encourage Hungarians to keep fighting, since ‘the pressure upon the government of the US to send military help to the freedom fighters will become irresistible’. The result was both bloody and tragic. Some 2,700 Hungarians died and 20,000 were wounded when the Russian moved in. Afterwards, dozens of Hungarian refugees told a Radio Free Europe survey team that they had kept fighting, even after the Soviet invasion, because they expected American intervention at any moment.
Has anything changed since then? Reading Sebestyen’s account of the rebellion – which uses memoirs and interviews to show just how spontaneous, genuinely unplanned, and rapid the whole thing was – one shivers to think of other possible rebellions, in other contemporary totalitarian societies, rebellions which might also receive Western rhetorical support without Western practical support.
It is hard to imagine a US reaction to a revolution in Saudi Arabia, for example, which would not be every bit as muddled and contradictory as the American reaction to Hungary. Some in the administration would immediately support the ousted royal family, some would hail the ‘new democrats’. Money and attention would flow to both sides. It is easy to imagine American-backed Arab language radio stations, staffed by Saudi exiles, broadcasting messages of encouragement to rebels, as in 1956. It is equally easy to imagine the White House simultaneously hemming and hawing, and issuing equivocal statements of support for the old regime, as in 1956.
And – as in 1956 – it’s clear that such a policy would anger the rest of the Arab world, make US/Saudi relations impossible however the rebellion was resolved, and probably damage, in multiple unforeseeable ways, Western interests all over the world. In other words, the Hungarian revolution took place 60 years ago – but none of its lessons appear to have been learned.

Scroll to Top