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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Fifty years ago, at the end of October in 1956, the United States was caught in a convergence of crises. In Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union invaded Hungary, and at the same time in the Middle East, Israel, Britain and France attacked Egypt.

The simultaneous invasions were so sudden and unexpected they briefly reversed the settled polarities of the Cold War. The United States found itself in an unprecedented agreement with Russia against Britain and France. And it all took place in the closing days of an American presidential election.

Today, commentator and former CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite recalls one of the most perilous October surprises of the 20th century.

WALTER CRONKITE: This is a story for those of you who may believe life was easier in the more simple days of the Cold War, such a time, perhaps, as the fall of 1956.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

CRONKITE: First sparks struck in Hungary. On Tuesday, October 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 4000 dead reached Austria on Thursday.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: Local story night. We'll see them here on Sunday news special, reports on Hungary rebels fight on. First films from frontier.

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 fall back.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: Budapest announced about the rebels - You have won. Please, please stop. The radio went on - You have won. You're demands will be fulfilled. Just stop the killing. But the question tonight is whether the government promises are sincere. More on this -

That question would linger through the next week, but the answer would not come from Budapest. While Hungary celebrated, deep behind the Iron Curtain the men of the Kremlin argued. Poland was already restless. Revolution in Hungary could set off a sequence of political collapse throughout the eastern bloc.

But as Moscow deliberated that Sunday, the West suddenly found itself with other worries 2000 miles southeast.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: Announcements from Israel coming today that it has completed partial mobilization with reserve battalions being stationed along the country's borders with their Arab neighbors. Tonight the safe department in Washington urged Americans in non-essential positions to leave the Middle East immediately and tourists to avoid that area entirely.

While Cold War politics united the West on Hungary, it was every man for himself in the Mid East. For Britain and France, it was the Suez Canal and access to Mid East oil. And for Nasser's Egypt, it was exploiting a surging era of nationalism after a century of colonialism.

But Nasser lived in a new politically uncharted place called the third world. 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.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: Now here is Edward R. Murrow.

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

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: The government of Israel announced today that its defense forces had crossed into Egypt and had attacked suicide commando bases near a road junction leading toward the Suez Canal. Israeli sources just announced that their forces are now about 18.5 miles east of the city of Suez. Rumors of the invasion of Egypt sent tremors of a war scare all around the world.

The tremors escalated the next day, Tuesday, with general mobilization in Egypt and talk of ultimatums.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: The ultimatum comes from the British and French, who have given Egypt and Israel until 11:30 tonight to stop fighting and withdraw 10 miles from the Suez Canal. Egypt has rejected the ultimatum as unacceptable and tonight appealed to the United Nations to halt the entry of Britain and France into Suez.

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. It was a unique moment in Cold War history. The United States and Russia allied against Britain and France.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: The most urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council in recent years is now underway, and United States Representative Henry Cabot Lodge has delivered what is being called the sharpest rebuke to a British UN delegate ever given in UN history.

CRONKITE: Wednesday, October 31, British and French planes bombed Egyptian airfields. 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.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Unidentified Man: The action taken can scarcely be reconciled with the principles and purposes of the United Nations to which we have all subscribed.

CRONKITE: Israeli troops captured the Sinai while Hungary was quiet. Most of the news and the noise was being made at the UN where the weapons were rhetorical and the moral logic often strained and cynical. Most of us were looking to the Middle East for the next big play.

(Soundbite of music)

CRONKITE: 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, November 4, an amateur radio operator in Toronto picked up a shortwave transmission on Budapest radio.

(Soundbite of radio transmission)

Unidentified Man: In the early hours of the morning, Soviet troops had started an attack against (unintelligible) of overthrowing the (unintelligible) democratic government of the country.

CRONKITE: The crackdown in Hungary was ruthless. 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 11:00 that evening, it was over for Hungary.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: Here is what has happened in Hungary and to Hungary in these last 24 hours.

The West looked on, outraged but helpless.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: They've battled the Russians throughout Budapest and at least a dozen other points in the country, but this time, they were no match for the reinforced Red Army. Across the Austrian border, at least 10,000 Hungarians fled in five hours until the last escape route was slammed shut by the appearance of Russian tanks. Late today, there was still some dim hope, but mighty, mighty dim.

By 4:30, the UN 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. One report said with more armor than Patton's entire third army in World War II.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: CBS News presents a special report on today's UN activity at 11:15 Eastern time, immediately after this program, over most of these stations.

As I spoke Sunday night, Monday was dawning in Egypt and Nasser was awakening to find British and French paratroopers landing at Port Said. Tuesday, ground troops invaded. It was election day in the United States. As Americans were reelecting President Eisenhower, the United States was demanding withdrawal. For the British and French, it needed to be a quick war and it was.

(Soundbite of newscast)

CRONKITE: There was a cease-fire ordered tonight in the Middle East. The British and French agreed to order a cease-fire to take effect three quarters of an hour ago. But they didn't order a withdrawal.

Withdrawal from Suez would come soon enough. President Eisenhower would see to that, despite the 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, Nasser was now more powerful than ever. And any lingering illusions of Britain as a world power were over.

It was also over for British Prime Minister Anthony Eden, who resigned in January and would forever carry the stigma of the Suez fiasco. Bosco, 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 and may have helped inspire the revolt.

If so, Hungarians learned the hard way that confusing partisan oratory with public policy in the United States could cost lives. Then there was President Eisenhower.

(Soundbite of newscast)

Mr. DOUGLAS EDWARDS: Good evening, everybody, coast to coast. Douglas Edwards reporting. Well, nearly complete returns from the national election gave President Eisenhower reelection by the largest margin in 20 years.

CRONKITE: In the middle of it all, the president kept his job as we all assumed he would. Where nothing could be done, Eisenhower had wisely done nothing. Where he could act, he chose restraint over brinksmanship. Many say his even handedness in Suez helped buy the beginnings of American credibility in the Middle East. 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 am sure we would regret it.

For NPR News, this is Walter Cronkite.

SIEGEL: Walter Cronkite is the former TV news anchor for the CBS Evening News. The story was produced by John McDonough. Tomorrow our remembrance of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 continues. We'll hear from Charles Gotti, author of Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian revolt. The book is a new and very highly critical assessment of the U.S. role in the uprising.

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