A Huge 'October Surprise,' 50 Years Later

A group of men hold a flag on top of a tank in front of the Parliament building during the Hungarian i i

hide captionA group of men hold a flag on top of a tank in front of the Parliament building during the Hungarian Revolt of 1956, in Budapest.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
A group of men hold a flag on top of a tank in front of the Parliament building during the Hungarian

A group of men hold a flag on top of a tank in front of the Parliament building during the Hungarian Revolt of 1956, in Budapest.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This is a story for those of you who may believe life was easier in the more simple days of the Cold War, when the issues seemed less complicated and the choices more clear-cut — such a time, perhaps, as November 1956. If so, I caution you to be careful what you wish for. It was not a simple time.

In the final days of an American presidential election, two wars flared suddenly in Hungary and Egypt. Before events played out, the polarities of the Cold War would be scrambled as the United States found itself unexpectedly aligned with the Soviet Union against Britain and France. It was a crowded and incredible week.

The first spark struck in Hungary. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, student riots in Budapest forced a liberalization of communist rule. But the new premier, Imre Nagy, distrusted his own army. So he called on Russian troops stationed in the country to help restore order. The next day, nearly 200 demonstrators were killed in Budapest. Fury surged as false rumors of 4,000 dead reached Austria on Thursday.

In Moscow by Saturday, party chairman Nikita Khrushchev signaled a willingness to compromise, and Nagy formed a new government.

By the time I went on the air that Sunday night, tensions seemed to be easing. Nagy had promised reforms and Russian troops were preparing to pull back. The communist government of Hungary said that the rebel patriots had won their bloody six-day revolution and that Soviet troops were withdrawing from Budapest.

But the question of whether the government's promises were sincere would linger through the next week, and the answer would not come from Budapest.

While Hungary celebrated, deep behind the Iron Curtain, the men of the Kremlin argued. At stake for them was the entire Eastern European empire of the Soviet Union. Poland was already restless; revolution in Hungary could set off a sequence of political collapse throughout the Eastern block. At the United Nations, no clear outcome was in sight.

As Moscow deliberated that Sunday, the West suddenly found itself with other worries when Israel announced that it had stationed reserve battalions along its borders with Arab neighbors.

While Cold War politics united the West on Hungary, it was every man for himself in the Mideast. Pragmatism, not ideology, ruled, and allied interests were often conflicted.

For Israel, it was survival.

For Britain and France, it was the Suez Canal and access to Mideast oil.

For the United States it was keeping Russian influence out of the Arab world.

And for Nassar's Egypt, it was exploiting a surging Arab nationalism after a century of colonialism.

President Eisenhower faced a more complex dilemma — accommodating Egypt and Israel while also protecting Europe's oil interests. He saw Nassar as a moderate and was eager to improve Arab-American relations.

But Nassar lived in a new, politically uncharted place called the Third World. He made an arms deal with the Soviets in 1955, turned down an American aid package, and made nonalignment a Third World watchword. But the fuse to war was lit in July 1956 when he nationalized the Suez Canal. Britain and France feared for its oil; Israel, for its existence. The die was cast.

A day after Soviet troops began their withdrawal from Budapest, Israel invaded Egypt.

The general war scare escalated the next day with general mobilization in Egypt and talk of ultimatums from the British and the French, who had given Egypt and Israel a deadline to stop fighting.

The United States was caught by surprise. Eisenhower received the news from a wire service. Washington said it had not been consulted, and demanded a cease-fire; so did Moscow. In an urgent U.N. security council meeting, the United States representative, Henry Cabot Lodge, delivered a sharp rebuke to a British U.N. delegate. It was a unique moment in Cold War history — the United States and Russia allied against Britain and France.

On Wednesday, Oct. 31, British and French planes bombed Egyptian air fields.

Events in Suez couldn't have been more timely for the Soviet Union — nor more awkward for the United States, which could not condemn Russian intervention one day and excuse its friends' adventures the next. President Eisenhower was cornered by his own principles.

Thursday, Friday and Saturday passed. Israeli troops captured the Sinai while Hungary was quiet.

Most of the news and the noise was being made at the U.N., where the weapons were rhetorical and the moral logic was often strained and sometimes cynical. Most of us were looking to the Mideast for the next big play, where a British-French invasion force was believed to be heading for Suez.

But deep behind the scenes in Moscow, the clock was quietly ticking toward far more desperate action in Hungary that nobody could imagine. Shortly before midnight on Saturday, Nov. 4, an amateur radio operator in Toronto picked up a shortwave transmission on Budapest Radio that Soviet troops had attacked the Hungarian capital with the apparent purpose of overthrowing the democratically elected government of the country. In the radio transmission, the Hungarian premier Imre Nagy appealed to the world for help.

As the hammer fell in Hungary, Moscow shut down virtually all communication to the West.

The Soviets talked about a victory over reaction. But it was clear that the crackdown in Hungary was ruthless, as it swept from the Carpathians to the Austrian border. Nagy was arrested as he left the radio studio after begging the West for help. Meanwhile, in the Mideast, the Anglo-French invasion armada was closing in on Egypt. Almost lost in the shuffle was our own presidential election, just 36 hours away. Not since World War II had the news docket been so crowded with crises. By 11 that evening it was over for Hungary.

If the Hungarian rebels had expected outside aid — and many did — they were to be tragically disappointed. The West looked on, outraged but helpless as the Hungarians took up their pitifully weak guns and Molotov cocktails and a few captured grenades.

By 4:30, the U.N. General Assembly had gone through the motions of condemning the Soviets. But world opinion was no match for the 15 Russian tank divisions that were mopping up in Budapest with reportedly more armor than Patton's entire Third Army in World War II.

As I spoke Sunday night, Monday was dawning in Egypt and Nassar was awakening to find British and French paratroopers landing at Port Said. By Tuesday, ground troops invaded. It was Election Day in the United States.

As Americans were re-electing President Eisenhower, rumors spread that a Russian fleet was steaming toward the Gulf of Suez.

In New York, the United States was demanding withdrawal. For the British and French, it needed to be a quick war. And it was. Twelve hours later, as polls were closing in the East, it was over.

Withdrawal from Suez would come soon enough. President Eisenhower would see to that, despite cries of betrayal from the French. The next day, the worst of the crisis had passed and tensions eased.

For the British, French and Israelis, it was a sour victory. In defeat, Nassar was now more powerful than ever; the canal would be paralyzed with sunken ships for five months; and any lingering illusions of Britain as a world power were over.

It was also over for Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who resigned in January and would forever carry the stigma of the Suez fiasco.

Moscow, on the other hand, showed its satellites that world outrage would be no obstacle to the business of empire. It was a sobering thought in the United States, where domestic political rhetoric had often played fast and loose with reckless vows to "roll back communism" and to "liberate captive countries." Some of that rhetoric had seeped into Radio Free Europe broadcasts.

Hungarians learned the hard way that confusing political oratory with public policy in the United States could cost lives.

Then there was President Eisenhower.

In the middle of it all, the president kept his job, as we all assumed he would. Many say his even-handedness helped buy the beginnings of American credibility in the Mideast. Years later, he had no regrets.

Looking back, Eisenhower seemed to be speaking to future presidents when he warned in his memoirs what might have been.

"Where would it have led us?" he wrote. "We would be an occupying power in a seething Arab world? If so, I'm sure we would regret it."

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