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Failed Illusions

Moscow, Washington, Budapest, And the 1956 Hungarian Revolt

by Charles Gati

Hardcover, 264 pages, Stanford Univ Pr, List Price: $19.95 |


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Failed Illusions
Moscow, Washington, Budapest, And the 1956 Hungarian Revolt
Charles Gati

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Re-Examining Hungary's 'Failed Illusions'

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Excerpt: Failed Illusions

Failed Illusions

Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2006 Charles Gati
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8047-5606-6


Series Preface.......................................................xi1.  Introduction to the Argument.....................................12.  The Inadvertent Revolutionary....................................233.  Washington and Budapest before the Explosion.....................694.  Moscow and Budapest before the Explosion.........................1135.  The Revolt That Failed...........................................1416.  The Revolt That Did Not Have to Fail.............................2057.  Epilogue: Memories Repressed and Recovered.......................223Acknowledgments......................................................239Selected Bibliography................................................243Index................................................................253

Chapter One

Introduction to the Argument

You must not deprive a people of their illusions. -Count Kunó Klebelsberg, Hungary's minister of culture in the 1920s, denying a historian permission to publish newly discovered documents showing that a much-admired hero of the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution against Austria was an Austrian agent.

* 1 *

Reduced to its essentials, the 1956 Hungarian revolution parallels the story of David and Goliath. Oppressed for a decade by the Soviet Union and its local Communist acolytes, Hungarians rose to assert their right to independent existence. The revolution consumed both the Kremlin and world opinion, but it failed; after thirteen days of high drama, of hope and despair, the mighty Red Army prevailed. The Hungarian government surrendered, its members arrested, kidnapped, or co-opted. The Soviet empire survived, the Cold War continued. Soon enough, the cautious, post-Stalin search for détente resumed. Though in its 1956 year-end issue Time magazine honored the Hungarian freedom fighter as its Man of the Year, by the end of 1957 the choice fell on the Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev, also known as the "Butcher of Budapest."

Fifty years later, a more complex story can be told, one that contradicts neither Hungarian heroism nor Soviet brutality. The opening of most Hungarian and many Russian archives since the collapse of communism, and greater access to secret American documents, point to a more differentiated picture of who did what, how, and why, and in particular why the 1956 revolt failed. The coincidence of new evidence and the passing of time make a partial reassessment of many aspects of 1956 both possible and imperative. Of course, Khrushchev and his cohorts cannot be exonerated or vindicated, but what they knew and what they feared can now be better understood and better explained.

As for the record of the United States, it turns out to have been far worse than previously known. New information shows how disingenuous the United States was when it kept the Hungarians' hopes alive-without making any preparations at all to help them either militarily or diplomatically. The initials "NATO" could summarize its approach: No Action, Talk Only. The Dwight D. Eisenhower administration's official declaratory policy of rollback and liberation, including the passing of politically inspired and self-satisfying "Captive Nations" resolutions, amounted to hypocrisy mitigated only by self-delusion; the more evident goal was to satisfy the far-right wing of the Republican Party led by Senator Joseph McCarthy and roll back the Democrats from Capitol Hill-rather than liberate Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet domination. During the revolt itself, Radio Free Europe (RFE) kept encouraging its Hungarian listeners to keep fighting for all they sought and more-whether those goals were realistic or not.

The passing of time makes it also less compelling to view uncritically the Hungarians' bravery-without considering the choices they made. In particular, it is not necessary, if it ever was, to endorse everything they did, including the pursuit of maximalist demands that united the Kremlin's different factions against them. Moved by understandable fury against their Communist oppressors in Moscow and in Budapest, the insurgents neglected to contemplate the likely consequences of their actions. Much as their romantic idealism was so appealing, it was also unwise. And even if the young fighters could not and should not have been expected to be politically adept, shrewd, or calculating, older and presumably more experienced hands in the new government should have insisted that the rebels temper their youthful enthusiasm. Despite repeated talks between them, there is no evidence that members of Imre Nagy's revolutionary government ever asked young freedom fighters to look at a map, consider where the Soviet Union was, and, in view of geopolitical realities, exercise restraint. Granted the goodwill and patriotism of Nagy and his colleagues, and recognizing that guiding history's first major anti-Soviet revolution to victory was a most difficult, perhaps even a hopeless, task, there is still no need to obscure their bungling performance.

* 2 *

In the past, the most widely known scholarly accounts of the behavior of the Hungarians, and also to a lesser extent of the United States, were respectful and restrained-criticism was offered even toward the United States sotto voce-so as not to divert attention from Soviet culpability and Hungarian bravery. After all, it was widely believed, Washington, in contrast to Moscow, could be blamed only for reckless idealism and the Hungarians for excessive zeal and naivete. Fifty years later, Americans and Hungarians alike should be ready to take a more realistic and therefore more self-critical look at what they did-how their mistakes contributed to the revolution's downfall-and what else they could have done.

Such debatable, and indeed controversial, conclusions rest on four seldom-stressed facts and considerations:

First, relatively few Hungarians actually fought against Soviet rule, and their ultimate goal was to reform the system, not to abolish it. In a country of less than 10 million, those who took up arms against the Soviet oppressors numbered no more than 15,000 (although practically all Hungarians stood shoulder to shoulder with them). Because the revolution's main objective was independence from the Soviet Union, the freedom fighters were deeply nationalist, anti-Soviet, and anti-Russian-but not antisocialist. To the extent that they had a chance to develop a common political platform, it was a mix of independent communism as seen in Tito's Yugoslavia, West European social democracy, and, perhaps, what came to be known twelve years later in Czechoslovakia as "socialism with a human face." Indeed, one of the few remaining mysteries of 1956 is how the revolution absorbed reformist goals.

Second, the revolution lacked effective leadership. On October 23, 1956, when the revolt began, the crowd, composed of students and demonstrating peacefully, demanded Nagy's return to power. The students admired him for what he had done as the country's reform-minded, anti-Stalinist prime minister in 1953-55, but they did not know very much about him; they did not know that he had collaborated with the Soviet secret police in Moscow in the 1930s, that it was the Soviet Politburo that appointed him as head of Hungary's Communist government in June 1953, and that he was dismissed at the urging of the same Soviet Politburo in April 1955.

During the first few days of the revolt, Nagy disappointed his followers. Reinstated as prime minister, he initially opposed the freedom fighters' demands. Then, in effect going from one extreme to another in a few days, he fully embraced even the most radical demands-without telling the insurgents that quitting the Warsaw Pact and declaring Hungary's neutrality would almost certainly invite a Soviet military crackdown. Nagy's fearless, uncompromising behavior before a kangaroo court that sentenced him to death in 1958 should not obscure the fact that, however well-meaning he was, he lacked the political skill to make the revolution victorious; in particular, he failed to steer his country between the freedom fighters' maximalist expectations and Moscow's minimalist requirements.

Third, the Soviet leadership in Moscow was not trigger-happy. Too much should not be made of the Kremlin's interest in finding a political rather than a military solution to the crisis; every imperialist country prefers to get what it wants peacefully, without bloodshed. In this sense, no reappraisal is in order, because what matters in the end is what Moscow did rather than the alternatives it considered. Still, the Soviet Politburo's now-available deliberations suggest that if Nagy had led rather than followed-if he had calibrated the insurgents' demands and then convinced Moscow that its own interests would be better served by granting his government a modicum of autonomy-Hungary, in exchange for supporting Soviet foreign policy, might have obtained limited pluralism at home.

This possibility-admittedly only a possibility-takes account of the revolution occurring against the background of three pertinent realities. The first, in 1955, was the surprising Soviet decision to withdraw its military from Austria, Hungary's western neighbor, which allowed that country to embrace neutralism between East and West as well as pluralism and free-market economics at home. The second critical reality was the historic Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956, at which Khrushchev denounced Stalin, anticipating substantial changes in international communism. The third reality favoring Soviet concessions was the fact that Hungary, unlike Poland, where anti-Soviet sentiments were also rising, had little or no strategic significance for the Kremlin. Thus, if Hungarian demands had been less radical, Khrushchev might have allowed Hungary to evolve toward semi-independent existence so that if necessary he could deal with Poland more effectively and at the same time protect his anti-Stalinist platform at home.

Fourth, the United States was both uninformed and misinformed about the prospects for change-even as its propaganda was very provocative. Documents made available to me in 2005 under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) reveal that the outbreak of the 1956 revolt took Washington by surprise. Evan Thomas disclosed several years ago that in Vienna, the nearest Western European capital, the CIA had no Hungarian-speaking official. The U.S. Legation in Budapest had but one fluent Hungarian speaker who, during the revolution, was busy accepting petitions from various Hungarian groups and individuals. Earlier in the 1950s, the CIA did not have an active program in or toward Hungary, which was assigned the lowest priority among the satellites of Central and Eastern Europe. Some, though certainly not all, of the information available to the U.S. government about Hungarian domestic conditions came from profascist Hungarian exiles in West Germany and Austria whose contacts at home were missing the main story of the mid-1950s: that the most promising opposition to the Stalinist dictatorship came not from the country's oppressed, unhappy citizens but from Nagy and his anti-Stalinist supporters in or close to the governing elite, many of them disillusioned Communists.

Radio Free Europe (RFE)-the unofficial voice of America-did reach many Hungarian listeners and readers, too. As part of its psychological-warfare program, at times called Operation Focus, RFE launched helium-filled balloons over Hungary that, among others, dropped a cartoon identifying Nagy as the Kremlin's stooge, saying in effect that when you've seen one Commie you've seen them all.... In broadcasts to its huge and receptive Hungarian audience, RFE should have cautiously supported Nagy's reformist course in 1953-55 but did not; it should have enthusiastically, and with great effect, supported Nagy during the second week of the revolt but did not. RFE failed to encourage a gradualist, "Titoist," or simply anti-Stalinist outcome that had a chance, however slim, to succeed; instead, it egged on the most radical insurgent groups to fight on until all their demands were met. In the end, and tragically, the United States did not find the proper balance between the admirable goal of keeping the Hungarians' hopes alive and the dubious goal of encouraging them to fight a hopeless battle against the Soviet Union. Thus, the proper question, then or now, is not why the United States refused to fight for Hungary in what could have become World War III; the proper question is why the United States refused to press through its propaganda outlets and diplomatic channels for realistic if small gains.

Why wasn't something better than nothing?

* 3 *

Because there is a link between the subject and the author, it may be useful to disclose more about my background and about what I thought then of what I witnessed.

I began my journalistic career in 1953, when the daily Magyar Nemzet (Hungarian Nation) hired me as a cub reporter. At the age of eighteen, I was the youngest member of the staff. Why Ivan Boldizsár, the editor-in-chief, offered me a job remains something of a mystery. Just out of high school with poor grades, I had neither any work experience nor a college education. I could produce no clippings that would have helped him evaluate my skills as a journalist. I submitted no references. I had no pull, no connections. I was not a member of the Communist Party. Of neither working-class nor peasant stock, I did not qualify under the Communist version of affirmative action. (Classified as a petit-bourgeois, my father used to own a small electrical supply store that was closed by the Nazis in 1944 and confiscated by the Communists in 1948.)

During my hour-long interview, which came about as a result of a brief handwritten letter to Boldizsár, I do not recall saying anything wise or witty. I told him that while I lacked proper academic and political credentials, I was nevertheless a born reporter: curious, critical, and a good writer. "Are you a socialist?" he asked. Not knowing exactly what he wanted to hear, I mumbled, opportunistically: "I'd like to be." He nodded and smiled. Mindful of changing political winds after Stalin's death, and of the recent appointment of the anti-Stalinist Nagy as prime minister, he might have wanted a nonparty youngster on the staff. More likely, perhaps, I happened to apply for a position just when he was authorized to hire a neophyte.

I was assigned to the cultural desk to do prepublication and preproduction interviews with writers, playwrights, actors, painters, composers, and musicians. From the beginning, I loved my job and the status that went with it. From the flunky I was in high school a few short months before, I had jumped to the staff of the country's second largest and only prestigious national daily, written and edited for the noncommunist intelligentsia. I had a free pass to the opera, two free tickets to concerts held at the famous Ferenc (Franz) Liszt Academy of Music, and, in the course of my work, I met practically all the leading figures of the world of film and theater, including quite a few of the incredibly attractive actresses of my adolescent fantasies.

By far the most unforgettable moment at Magyar Nemzet was the phone call I received one day in 1954 from Zoltán Kodály, perhaps the greatest composer of his time who was once Béla Bartók's partner and soul mate. Aside from Ferenc Puskás, the soccer star, Kodály was the only world-famous Hungarian who did not leave the country before the Iron Curtain fell in the middle to late 1940s. For this reason, the Communist regime kept him in high regard. Somewhat reclusive, Kodály almost never spoke to reporters; but now, to my total amazement, the maestro himself was on the line. He had read my long article that morning in which I traced the application of the Kodály Method of teaching music to students at every level of education, from kindergarten to high school to college, and he thought it was an excellent piece. After a brief pause, I asked him sheepishly if he would be willing to talk to me some day about other aspects of his work. His answer was music to my ears: "Come over for tea this afternoon at 5:00."

In the next two years, I visited Kodály in his spacious and elegant apartment on several occasions-same time, same room, same chair, same tea. Once I drew his attention to the refrain in his new cantata-"Ne bántsd a magyart!" (Don't harm the Hungarian!)-wondering if it was meant to convey not only a patriotic but an anti-Soviet message as well. He nodded (I thought) but did not say anything. In fact, he preferred not to discuss political topics. To outlast the dictators, he was cautious. To look at himself in the mirror, he did not conform. Life 101 under Stalin had taught him how to survive; Life 101 after Stalin taught him how to balance the needs of conscience with the instinct for survival. He did not fight the regime. He did not collaborate with the regime. He composed music, but his cantatas contained subtle, even hidden, political messages the censors did not dare edit or delete.