US Policies towards Central Europe in 1956 and After1

the region lies beyond the reach of American power. […] Does this mean that Poland and the Danubian states and Balkan states have no prospect of assured independence, and that they are destined inexorably to become satellites of Russia or to be incorporated into the Soviet Union? The question cannot be answered categorically at this time.
Walter Lippmann: US Foreign Policy: Shield of the Republic. Boston, 1943.

Lippmann’s book came out in a Hungarian translation in 1946. It did not raise hopes in a non-Communist public, including a 14 year-old young man who became Prime Minister in 1990, József Antall. After the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter most clear-thinking and decent Central Europeans hoped that the defeat of Nazi Germany would lead to a fair and democratic post-war world. In 1945 and 1946, however, it became increasingly obvious that they could not count on Western support for standing up to Soviet interference in their internal affairs, but a neutral status, friendly policy towards the Soviet Union, while preserving all the vestiges of democracy, still looked possible. With the gradual ousting of non-Communist politicians from the governments of Poland and Hungary in 1947, and finally after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 the Iron Curtain closed upon the whole East Central European region. American power could have changed that only with the threat of a nuclear strike, or actually dropping an atomic bomb on a major Russian city. Following the common victory over Germany, with the enormous sacrifices of the peoples of the Soviet Union, that was inconceivable for the American public, and therefore for the Administration too. Once the Soviet Union, too, acquired “the bomb”, the fate of the eastern half of Europe was sealed. Despite, or rather because of that, never and nowhere was the US as popular as in East Central Europe between 1948 and 1989. The “captive nations” (to use the contemporary and telling terminology) looked upon American democracy as the ultimate hope that one day freedom would be restored to them – with its help. It was assumed that the policy of containment would eventually lead to a military confrontation with the aggressive policies of Stalin, and the Berlin crisis, later the Korean War, encouraged such hopes. Liberation from the terrible Soviet yoke sounded a war cry when it was promised by General Eisenhower’s electoral campaign in 1952 and by his foreign policy declarations after that.

The moment of truth came in 1956, with the American reaction to the unrest in Poland and to the Revolution in Hungary, the thirteen days that indeed shook the Kremlin – as the Hungarian author Tibor Méray put it.2 Just turning 15, I was already rather well informed on the contemporary international scene, as for years in the evenings I avidly listened to the jammed western radio broadcasts with my father. He told me that the BBC was the most reliable, while Voice of America was somewhat propagandistic, promising more than we could count upon. Of course our ears were also on Radio Free Europe, which was on the air round the clock. I was aware of the enormous military strength of the Soviet Union, and that it kept Hungary in its grip. So when on 23 October 1956, enthralled with the support the 16 points of the students received from the huge crowd, I marched with my schoolmates from the statue of the Polish hero of the Hungarian army of 1848–49, General Bem, towards the Parliament, on the corner of Balassi Street I heard people shouting “Minden ország katonája menjen saját hazájába” (“soldiers of every country should return to their homeland”), my mind said we were crossing a red line, challenging Soviet domination, and that may lead to tragic repercussions. But remembering Khrushchev denouncing Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party earlier in the year, I, too, was carried away with the mood that the unanimous will of the nation might prevail. Having been unable to enter Bródy Street leading to the Radio, for it was packed with people (no shots were heard yet), and seeing damaged and abandoned trams at Kálvin Square, I returned home late in the evening to my worried parents. Instead of scolding me, my father – at the age of 60, which I then thought was a rather old age – greeted me by jumping in the air: “Revolution, revolution! A rising against Communism!” By the morning Hungarian rebels were fighting the Russian occupation forces, whose response to the demands of the people was intervention.

I was more than just an eyewitness, an observer of Hungary’s fight for freedom. I toured the city on foot and by bike, read the billboards and collected a large number of newspapers. On 25 October I looked into the barrel of a Russian gun fixed to the turret of a tank, but the young soldier did not pull the trigger seeing that I did not carry a rifle. I came of age when I stepped over the first dead body of a Russian soldier in Nap Street, just off Corvin Alley, the scene of the most severe fighting. At the end of October all Hungarians thought that the miracle had happened: the Soviets agreed to withdraw their forces from Budapest, and on 30 October the Moscow Politburo issued a statement on the new relationship with the “people’s democracies”, based “on the principles of complete equality, of respect for territorial integrity, state independence and sovereignty, and of non-interference in one another’s internal affairs”.3 After a short period of bliss came the dawn of 4 November. I woke up to the sound of cannonfire, and the window panels of our flat, overlooking Castle Hill, quivered with each shot. Even before my father turned on the radio I knew what was going on. What on the previous days, despite the alarming signs, hardly anyone in Hungary wanted to believe, was now happening: the Soviet Union had launched an attack on Budapest. (Yes, as it was later defined by General Béla Király, the commander of the National Guard in 1956, that was “the first war between Socialist states”.) Everybody listened to the dramatic words of Prime Minister Nagy, informing the country and the world about the aggression committed by the Soviet Army against the legal government of the country. It was followed by the appeal of the Writers’ Union to the international public, to help Hungary.

In those unforgettable, hopeful days millions of Hungarians expected the international community, more particularly the United Nations Organisation and the United States of America, to provide political, diplomatic, and, if there was no other way, military help for the revolt against the tyrannical Communist regime, in order to consolidate and defend the restored democracy of Hungary. Was that expectation unforgivably naive?

During the dark years of rule by Stalin and his Hungarian henchman Rákosi Western radio stations held out the hope to the people of Hungary and other captive nations that freedom would return to them soon. We were encouraged when South Korea was saved from the aggression of the North in 1950 through intervention under the flag of the UN. In 1952 General Eisenhower, the victorious commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during the Second World War, won the presidency of the US with the promise of “rolling back” Soviet imperialism and liberating the countries beyond the Iron Curtain. We believed those promises, which were repeated on so many channels and occasions, and were given new emphasis in 1956, as part of the presidential election campaign in the US. During the days of the 1956 Revolution we soon became aware of the tremendous sympathy our fight generated in Western Europe and throughout the American continent. Later on I learned that thousands of Americans volunteered to fight against the Soviet Union for the independence and freedom of Hungary, and they regretted that no action was taken. Millions expected their governments to come to the help of Hungary. Why did all the heroism of the Hungarians and the enthusiasm of their foreign supporters prove futile? Why did the UN fail to act in accordance with its Charter to preserve peace and security and to defend one of its new member states against foreign aggression? For me and my generation, the answer seemed fairly obvious: just for the sake of Hungary the US and its allies did not want to risk a world war fought with nuclear weapons – a war in which most likely we, too, would have perished. Bitter as it was to accept that conclusion, it was understandable. Later many people blamed Radio Free Europe, and directly or indirectly the government of the United States, for having encouraged or perhaps even instigated the uprising, for promising a liberation that turned out to be a lie, a false hope. This charge has lingered among many Hungarians and has become more vociferous recently.

Today we know a lot about the attitude of the great powers toward the Hungarian Revolution. We know when our fate was settled: on 31 October in the Kremlin, when the Soviet Politburo overthrew its earlier decision to withdraw the Red Army from Hungary, accepting that it would be a friendly but not a subservient neighbour. At that fateful session the Soviet leaders decided to intervene for a second time, with fresh and much stronger forces than on 23 October, for fear of the spread of the Hungarian example. There should be no doubt, no ambiguity, about who was responsible for the suppression of the Hungarian fight for freedom, who is to blame for the thousands of dead, for the brutal repression that followed, for the judicial murder of the leaders of the country and hundreds of our countrymen, who compelled two per cent of Hungary’s total population to escape from their homeland. It was the Soviet Union. Russia’s President Yeltsin admitted that on 12 November 1992 in the Hungarian Parliament, calling that an indelible blemish on, and shame of Russia’s history. But what concerns us today is what role – if any – the US and other democracies played in the outbreak of the revolution, and, a far more serious question, why the US and its allies failed to prevent the second Soviet intervention, despite the fact that Hungary’s legal government had declared neutrality and withdrawal from that coalition of the unwilling, the Warsaw Treaty.

More specifically Hungarians and all interested people are entitled to know why the anti-Communist rhetoric proved empty, why the bellicose US Secretary of State failed to act upon his words, what role the Suez crisis played in deflecting attention away from Hungary, why the UN did not react in time to the requests of Hungary, and how much the US presidential elections influenced the overcautious behaviour of the administration.

To give a full answer to these questions would require more than one book. Here I can refer only to the findings of a few books and to new scholarship on the subject. In the wake of memoirs by participants and close observers (József Kővágó, Sándor Kopácsy, Béla Király, László Varga, Péter Gosztonyi and others), the first detailed answer to those questions was provided by János Radványi’s Hungary and the Superpowers (1972), Bennett Kovrig in his seminal The Myth of Liberation (1973), also by Martin B. Schwartz’s doctoral dissertation (A New Look at the 1956 Hungarian Revolution: Soviet Opportunism, American Acquiescence [1998]). Later substantial works included those of Charles Gati, János M. Rainer, Csaba Békés, Barna Büky, László Borhi and Mark Kramer. I benefitted a lot from numerous discussions with those who were compelled to leave Hungary after the suppression of the Revolution and also from the conference I organised at the Embassy of Hungary, Washington DC, on 25 October 2001, “A Crack in the Iron Curtain or a Mortal Wound for Communism?” A conference held at the University of Toronto in 2006 summarised much of the findings.

We Hungarians had no reason to be surprised at the treacherous conduct of the Soviet leadership, who broke their own promise and pledge to recognise the will of the Hungarian people. Neither should anyone be astonished that the leaders of the Soviet satellites were extremely worried by what went on in Hungary, being afraid that their own people would follow suit. That is why they welcomed the Soviet decision to subjugate Hungary. It was more of a surprise for many to learn of the role of Tito, who, while showing strong sympathy for Imre Nagy and other Socialist reformers, eventually also pressed Khrushchev to remove the Nagy government. But why did the US do practically nothing for Hungary?

During the Hungarian uprising help was expected primarily from the UN, also directly from the US, but not from NATO. The Hungarian public in 1956 knew well that membership in the Alliance was unrealistic, but it held out hopes for a neutral status modelled upon Austria’s. That was not totally a pipe-dream, since after the death of Stalin there were several schemes about “disengagement in Europe”, the creation of a neutral zone comprising the two Germanies, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Evidence shows that despite all the talk about liberation and rollback, and all the propaganda efforts to undermine the Communist governments, the US did not plan let alone organise any uprising. Neither was it prepared to help if a rebellion broke out. In fact, it took the administration by total surprise that Hungary rose up, took to the streets and, when attacked, fought back. It was of course a welcome gift for Cold War propaganda; it proved all the baseness of the Soviet Union and the true feelings of the victims of Soviet imperialism towards their Communist masters. But it endangered the balance of power in Europe, the emerging détente, and brought up the danger of a conflict between the two superpowers just when the Soviets seemed to have abandoned their earlier ambition to spread Communism farther west, while having become militarily more formidable. Nevertheless it is erroneous and false to suggest a secret and cynical deal between the Soviet Union and the US to leave Hungary to the tender mercy of the Soviets. The notion of such a deliberate and treacherous conspiracy has become widespread recently, conveyed by Russian agents and duped Hungarians.

In reality, in the case of Hungary it would not have been possible physically to provide material military support, since NATO was geographically separated from Hungary by neutral Austria and Warsaw Pact countries. There is evidence that despite all their sympathy for the Hungarians, the Austrians would have on no account consented to military help passing through Austrian territory or airspace. The US did try to give some political help. On 25 October President Eisenhower deplored (but did not protest) “the intervention of Soviet military forces, which, under the treaty of peace, should have been withdrawn”.4 More importantly, on 26 October, in the first and last discussion of the Hungarian situation at the National Security Council, presidential adviser Harold E. Stassen came up with the idea of assuring Moscow that the US did not intend to exploit the turmoil in Poland and Hungary in order to threaten the security of the Soviet Union, but would offer an enlarged zone of neutral buffer states. Thus the Soviet Union could safely accept the internal changes in Hungary.5 Eisenhower instructed Dulles to explore the idea with the Soviet leadership. That led to the Secretary of State’s speech in Dallas on 27 October. He offered economic help to the captive peoples, without any political conditions. Most importantly he added: “We do not look upon these people as potential military allies. […] We are confident that their independence, if promptly accorded, will contribute immensely to stabilise peace throughout all of Europe, West and East.”6 That message, also conveyed to the Soviet leaders through the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union Charles Bohlen, can be seen as well intentioned. It did not speak about neutrality, the Austria model; it did not contain either any threat or a quid pro quo, a bargain, a call for negotiations. But despite these serious diplomatic shortcomings, if the Soviet Union had been truly concerned only with its own security and had been genuinely seeking rapprochement and cooperation with the West, this reassurance would have been an important argument for letting Hungary go, free to become another Austria. But Moscow interpreted the message differently, as a guarantee that the US had no intention of changing the status quo, no plans to intervene in any way in Hungary. In Soviet eyes it was practically a green light for acting as they pleased.7

The Democrats and their presidential candidate, Adlai Stevenson, were more forthcoming; they called for the UN to take action in defence of the changes in Hungary. The New York Times in an editorial on 27 October stated that there could be no clearer case of foreign interference in the internal affairs of another country, and urged that the Soviet intervention, “these crimes”, be brought before the UN, invoking “all the weapons of international law” and the “moral force of our outrage and horror”.8

The Suez crisis, the Israeli attack on Egypt started on 29 October, diverting attention from Hungary and leading to a deep split between the US and the British–French–Israeli coalition. The US had no previous knowledge of the action, and immediately condemned it, for fear of losing the sympathy of the Arab world and pushing the Middle East towards the Soviets. With attention focused on the Near East, Hungary was practically abandoned.9 The ceasefire and the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Budapest made that easier. It was reassuring for the US to see that the fighting in Budapest ended and the demands of the freedom fighters were met. But more recently it was pointed out by Gati, Borhi and others, that neither the US nor its allies recognised formally Imre Nagy and his rapidly changing governments, while Radio Free Europe continued to speak very negatively of him, although Nagy, when he was installed as Prime Minister after the death of Stalin, had shown already in 1953 that he was serious in demolishing the most dreaded instruments of the dictatorship. From Borhi’s research we even know that the new US Ambassador to Hungary, Wailes, was instructed by the State Department not to present his credentials to Imre Nagy.10 On 31 October Eisenhower welcomed the Soviet declaration of the previous day which promised a radically new chapter in the relations with the satellites, and reiterated his readiness to give economic help to the members of the Soviet bloc. But military help to Hungary was ruled out by the State Department, which stated that American forces stationed in Germany were inadequate for the task, that full-scale intervention would entail the risk of nuclear war and that any intervention would destroy rather than save Hungary. All that sounds disappointing but true.

By that time the fateful decision had been made in Moscow, on 31 October. Of course not knowing that but deeply alarmed by the incursion of a large number of new Soviet military units, the Nagy government proclaimed Hungary’s neutrality on 1 November, and announced its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact. Nagy requested that the four great powers and the UN recognise the decision of the Hungarian people and protect Hungary. It was during the brief interval between the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Budapest and the attack on Suez that the US could have tried to do something for Hungary, preferably in the UN, without the risk of a war. It was late and probably meant only for propaganda purposes that the UK and France, in order to divert attention from their Suez adventure, proposed that the US recognise Hungary’s neutrality, but Ambassador Cabot Lodge was instructed on 2 November to do his utmost to prevent a resolution to be submitted in the Security Council.11 “Washington might have instructed Charles Bohlen, the ambassador in Moscow, to call on the Soviet foreign ministry, preferably with his British and French colleagues, and declare in unmistakable terms that the Big Three had accepted Nagy’s declaration of neutrality and advise the Soviet Union to do likewise. Would it have worked? It might, or it might not, but certainly there was little risk in such a diplomatic move. But Bohlen received no such instructions from Washington.”12 Such a démarche could have made sense only before the Suez crisis. For such an initiative to succeed the action in Suez should have been cancelled or postponed, and talks over the reduction of NATO forces in Europe (or some other confidence-building measures) should have been proposed. Lady Violet Bonham Carter, an influential Liberal Party member, daughter of Asquith, Prime Minister before and during the first years of the First World War, wrote in a letter to The Times: “I am one of the millions who watching the martyrdom of Hungary and listening yesterday to the transmission of her agonising appeals of help (immediately followed by our ‘successful bombings’ of Egyptian ‘targets’) who have felt a humiliation, shame and anger which are beyond expression… We cannot order Soviet Russia to obey the edict of the United Nations which we ourselves have defied, nor to withdraw her tanks and guns from Hungary while we are bombing and invading Egypt. Today we are standing in the dock with Russia… Never in my lifetime has our name stood so low in the eyes of the world. Never have we stood so ingloriously alone.”13 The unpleasant truth is that neither the US nor any other country responded to the Hungarian declaration of neutrality. A group of Hungarian exiles and UN officials called “the Cassandra Club” proposed that the extraordinary General Assembly – convened to discuss the Suez crisis – should also put the Hungarian declaration and the issue of Soviet troop movements on its agenda. Dulles referred the subject to the Security Council. There Sobolev, the Soviet delegate, denied that any Soviet reinforcements were being sent to Hungary and said that negotiations about the final withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary were progressing very well. It was only after receiving news of the Soviet invasion of 4 November that the Security Council was convened at 3 a.m. to discuss the Soviet aggression. Cabot Lodge, the US representative, used highly emotional language. “If ever there was a time when the action of the United Nations could literally be a matter of life and death for a whole nation, this is the time.” Addressing his word to the Hungarians he said: “By your heroic sacrifice you have given the United Nations a brief moment in which to mobilise the conscience of the world on your behalf. We are seizing that moment, and we will not fail you.”

That pledge, if it was ever sincere, was not kept, as we know well. It is difficult to say who let Hungary down, the US, the UN, or Britain and France with the untimely military action in Egypt, or it was the fragile balance of power built on MAD, mutual assured destruction by nuclear weapons, that precluded action. Many said then and would say today that this was just another case of Hungary’s ill fate, “balsors”. But there are other views as well. A Hungarian living in the West wrote me an e-mail fifteen years ago. “The truth is that the US under President Eisenhower showed an astonishing timidity by not acting with firmness to stand up to the Soviet Union in defence of Hungary. The US had strategic bombers that could have been flown to Great Britain to send a warning signal to the Soviets; it could have deployed an aircraft carrier to the Adriatic Sea – gunboat diplomacy – to threaten airstrikes against Soviet forces if they invaded Hungary; it could have refrained from instructing US ambassador at the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge, to say at the United Nations that the Hungarians and the Soviets will resolve the crisis together and alone, this said on the eve of the Soviet invasion and which constituted an actual green light to a Soviet military intervention. […] The US enjoyed total nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union in 1956 in terms of numbers of weapons, types, and the ability to deliver them into Soviet territory; Eisenhower could have threatened the Russians to back off and let Hungary become a neutral country. But he was too cautious to dare take a step in support of freedom. […] The firm stand taken by the US over the Cuban Missile Crisis six years later – and back in 1956 the Soviet Union was much weaker in its nuclear arsenal than in 1962, when it was still weak when compared to the US – would also suggest that when faced with the prospect of a Third World War, the Soviet leadership and Khrushchev in particular would have backed down from the brink.” We will never know, but it cannot be ruled out that had it acted firmly and unambiguously, the US could have “convinced” Khrushchev to let Hungary go. Some would say that harsh words and actions would have only hardened the Soviets – but could they have been tougher than they were from 4 November on?

The highly respected British historian Hugh Seton-Watson (the son of the man who did so much to replace the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy with small and weak states) wrote in similar, though in more realistic and less concrete terms. “We must ask ourselves the question: could nothing have been done? I have spent many hours in the last twenty years discussing this with British and American diplomats, journalists and even a few politicians; and all have insisted that nothing could have been done. And yet I confess that I am not convinced. Of course, an American military invasion of Hungary was not possible, still less a nuclear ultimatum to Moscow. Of course formal diplomatic notes could have achieved nothing. But was it really impossible for the United States government, using all the private and public channels of communication available to it and all the means of pressure at its disposal, to have convinced the Soviet government that the consequences of invasion would have been very much more unpleasant for it than the consequences of letting the Nagy government, which was in control of Hungary, stay in power until a settlement, acceptable to all parties concerned, including the Great powers, could be worked out? The truth is that the United States government did not even try. Dulles revealed himself as an empty demagogue. Nobody tried because everybody was obsessed with the presidential election and the Suez Canal.”14 Even Vice President Richard Nixon later explained: “We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against Nasser.”15

Though deeply disappointed and shaken, the Hungarians did not nurture serious resentment over Western policies pursued in 1956 in the following decades, they rather lived in the hope of an eventual victory of the Atlantic values. As after the regime change Prime Minister Antall expressed it to the Atlantic Council on 28 October 1991: “We knew that if Western Europe could not remain stable, if North American presence would cease in Europe, then there wouldn’t be any solid ground left for us to base our hopes upon.”16 That attitude was the very opposite of what the Hungarian public often hears nowadays, that the US concluded a cynical deal with Stalin at Teheran and Yalta, deliberately giving up Central Europe, and faithfully kept that arrangement until the Malta meeting at the end of 1989. The facts do not bear that out, but the question remains whether, by adopting different policies, taking some risks, it would have been possible for 1989 to come in 1956, foregoing 33 years of additional Communism. But while deploring the lack of a more resolute line by the US and its allies, one should not overlook the generous help given by official America and so many Americans, as well as most free countries to the Hungarian refugees and all the sympathy Hungary has acquired in the US, Europe and elsewhere on account of 1956. The public in the free world, unlike the governments, certainly did not let Hungary down.

In my view it is inappropriate to condemn the US and other democracies for their conduct in 1956, but it is entirely justified to criticise and deplore how they handled the Hungarian crisis. They genuinely wanted to help but were afraid to do so. Their own safety and well-being, their short-term interests, weighed more heavily than taking risks for the sake of long-term benefits. While it is understandable that the US was not ready to risk a nuclear war for the sake of Hungary, it was negligent and insincere in its language and actions, it also misread the mentality of the Soviet leadership. What may have been meant in good faith as a reassurance that NATO will not move ahead, so the Soviet Union could safely permit Hungary to become a “Finlandised” neutral state, Khrushchev, prompted by China, Tito and the leaders of the satellites, took the messages from Washington as a green light for the second invasion of Hungary.

In 1956 the United States did not attempt to push back the Soviet system because it overestimated its strength and underestimated the geostrategical significance of Central and Eastern Europe. Prime Minister József Antall, himself a freedom fighter, remarked in his last public speech made at the Budapest meeting of the European Democratic Union on 2 September 1993: “There are moments in history that never come back. … Then we must make firm, hard decisions, there is no time to lose.”17

Such firm decisions were made by the Hungarians in 1956 but they were not reciprocated by the US and its allies.


The most apt summary and judgement of American policy in the 1940s and 50s is the statement: “Never in the history of America’s foreign relations have good intentions reaped such a bitter harvest.”18 Following the suppression of Hungary’s fight for freedom there was much criticism and soul-searching in the US, but it remained official policy to “assure the satellite peoples of the continuing interest of the United States in the peaceful restoration of their independence and political freedom”.19 The puppet regime of Kádár was not recognised; its mandate in the United Nations was not accepted, but that did not prevent the cruel reprisals, the executions and the long prison terms. The US Congress in the unanimously accepted “Captive Nations Resolution” of 1959 denounced “the enslavement” of millions under Soviet imperialism and introduced a “Captive Nations Week” “until such time as freedom and independence shall have been achieved for all the captive nations of the world”. The language was not unwelcome to the anti-Communist public of East and West, but the selective expansion of economic relations by the Kennedy administration was more helpful. In 1963 a secret agreement was reached between the American and the Hungarian governments: the US concurred to remove the Hungarian question from the agenda of the UN General Assembly and, in return, Hungary gave amnesty to the political prisoners. (As it turned out, quite a few, declared to have committed ordinary crimes, remained imprisoned.)

Since “liberation” proved to be an empty and misleading slogan, a myth, it was soon replaced by “peaceful engagement”, stimulating evolutionary change behind the Iron Curtain.20 The erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961 was a setback to improved East–West relations, but at the same time it showed the mutual acceptance of a divided Europe. President Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963 was heart-warming but did not promise anything to the East- Berliners, let alone for the whole Soviet bloc. That was dramatically reaffirmed with the muted reactions to the invasion of Czechoslovakia and to the “Brezhnev Doctrine”. “Washington took pains to assure the Soviets of its limited interest in the mounting confrontation between them and the Czechoslovaks.”21 Such a reaction was a new version of the inaction in the Hungarian crisis twelve years earlier. After the public outcry abated détente, which was initiated not by the US but by France and Germany in the 1960s, was resumed. In 1970 Chancellor Brandt started his Ostpolitik, recognising the eastern borders of the Bundesrepublik and also the so-called Deutsche Demokratische Republik – a typical misnomer.

From the 1970s on non-conformist people in Central Europe saw that the West was enjoying its prosperity, it gave up any idea of “liberating” at least the culturally western members of the Soviet Bloc, and what was more, was ready to embrace the Communist bosses who had much blood on their hands, like János Kádár of Hungary. Comparing the conduct of the United States and Western Europe towards the captive Central European nations I concur with the judgement of a little-known chronicler of the Cold War, Barna Büky, a one-time analyst at RFE. According to him, after 1956 the United States assumed that the Soviet Union, “contained” and befriended, would soften its control over East Central Europe, and when its expansion would be checked the whole system would eventually disintegrate. That was indeed predicted by the “father” of the policy of containment, George Kennan. On the other hand, the governments of Western Europe “did not wish for more than tranquillity on the European continent, relative military security against the Soviet threat, and favourable possibilities for cooperation with the Communist world. They would have happily accepted that for time immemorial. It is unlikely that the idea of ‘victory in the Cold War’ ever got into their heads.”22 The recently revealed documents of the Cold War bear that bitter comment from “a Cold War warrior” out. “Liberation” remained an ardent desire only in Central and Eastern Europe, and even there only by a portion of the society.

It was a Republican, then Vice-President Nixon, who in 1956 was the loudest in denouncing the Soviet intervention. But in 1970, as President, he stated that “it is not the intention of the US to undermine the legitimate security interests of the Soviet Union. […] The US views the countries of Eastern Europe as sovereign.”23 That was a far cry from the captive nations resolution. I found it preposterous then – and I still do so. Nixon tried to utilise the Sino-Soviet split and visited both China and the Soviet Union in 1972. The hope was that contacts would “loosen up” the Soviet system. Some even thought that the two systems would eventually “converge”. The Soviets badly needed western technology and hoped that contacts could be held under control. East–West conflicts then were conducted by proxies: Cuba, Vietnam, Arab-Israeli wars, Angola, in general in the battle for the “third world”. Nixon’s national security adviser, later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was convinced that the inability of Socialist dictatorships to modernise would induce favourable change. A policy of differentiation between the Soviet satellites was introduced with the aim “to encourage sentiments of national independence”.24 A country’s external behaviour was to determine the line the US was to take towards it. “Most Favoured Nation” status and, as a concomitant, increasing exports to the US was a real carrot for the command economies always in dire need of convertible currency. Romania was rewarded for its apparently independent stance and its mediation between the US and China – so its repressive home policy was not criticised. That was a disappointment for us in Hungary, but we welcomed the relatively warm relations between the US and Poland. In his 1974 visit to Washington Party Chairman Gierek received a good economic package. Hungary also improved its position both with its internal and external policy, and sought MFN status, but received it only in 1978, three years after Romania. In 1974 the US, too, recognised the GDR – after the agreement with the Soviets on the status of West Berlin.

The United States never recognised the division of Europe as legal, but accepted it tacitly after 1948. With détente going well “the Soviet Union wanted a symbolic, multilateral confirmation of the political and territorial status quo” and the “endorsement of the inviolability of the frontier (meaning a permanent division of Germany)” as well as easier access to Western markets and technology.25 That lay behind their proposal for the Helsinki Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE). After some hesitation the West accepted the idea; it wanted to preserve the possibility of peaceful change and political evolution in the Soviet sphere.

“The great achievement of the CSCE was to firmly entrench human rights on the diplomatic agenda, thereby subverting traditional notions of sovereignty”,26 overcoming strong Soviet opposition claiming non-interference in the internal affairs of a country. “Linking individual rights and freer movement of people and ideas to international security” was pushed not by the US, having “the oldest tradition of idealism in foreign policy”, but France and Italy. Soviet efforts to subordinate “Basket Three” to “the laws and customs of participating states” and thus to counter the impact of Soviet (and other) dissidents, were unsuccessful. The obligation to “endeavour jointly and separately […] to promote universal and effective respect” for human rights went beyond the UN Declaration on Human Rights by allowing external scrutiny of national practices. As we know, the 1975 Final Act does not have binding force, it is full of artfully vague and often ambiguous formulations, but fortunately it was accepted that it would become an ongoing process with follow-up conferences on implementation. Few anticipated the enormous impact Helsinki was to have on the process of East–West relations and developments inside the eastern countries. “The West had conceded nothing, […] the diplomatic wall behind which socialist regimes freely violated political and civil rights had been breached, and the liberal principle of individual liberties had gained at the expense of the socialist premise of collective [social] rights.”27

Both Nixon and his successor, Gerald Ford, as well as Kissinger believed that Realpolitik required to pursue détente to the extent of acquiescing in Soviet control of the satellites. The rationale behind that was a kind of wishful thinking that the East Central Europeans have come to terms with their fate and are trying to make the best of it. In December 1975 a counsellor at the State Department, Helmut Sonnenfeldt, in a confidential briefing of ambassadors happened to state that “it must be our policy to strive for an evolution that makes the relationship between the Eastern Europeans and the Soviet Union an organic one” accepting “a strong Soviet geopolitical influence”. It was leaked and the alleged doctrine led to a public outcry forcing Sonnenfeldt to retract and to reassure Congress that self-determination for the East Europeans remained a goal.28 Adding to the suspicion, Gerald Ford in the presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in October 1976 said that Romania and Poland as well as Yugoslavia were independent and autonomous countries. Carter’s response – undoubtedly influenced by his foreign policy adviser, Polish- born Zbigniew Brzezinski – was to the point: “I would like to see Mr Ford convince the Polish-Americans and the Czech-Americans and the Hungarian-Americans in this country that those countries don’t live under the domination and supervision of the Soviet Union behind the Iron Curtain.”29 This hard-line position towards Soviet domination helped Carter to win the presidency. Brzezinski became his national security adviser, and he promptly proposed a different attitude to détente: “the abandonment of the policy of benign neglect toward Eastern Europe is desirable, for the United States ought to be at least as interested in Eastern Europe as the Soviet Union is in Latin America”.30 Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty came under attack by the American New Left claiming in 1967 that it was financed by the CIA. In 1971 the charge was taken up by Senator W. J. Fulbright, according to whom the two radios were “outworn relics of the cold war”. Having read about those attacks I was seriously worried that this popular alternative information channel might be compelled to close its activities. I am sure many people behind the Iron Curtain shared my fears. Fortunately Brzezinski prevailed; in fact he ordered RFE’s transmitters to increase the power and area of their broadcasts, a reversal of the Nixon–Kissinger policies.31 It was telling, but not known, that West German Chancellor Brandt thought that the two radios formed an obstacle to détente, and his successor, Helmut Schmidt, objected to Brzezinski’s agenda, even calling for the removal of them from German soil. Brzeziski’s response was unequivocal: the presence of the two stations forms an integral part of American military presence in Germany. That warning put an end to the objections.32

Side-by-side with the western campaign for human rights, the American doctrine of differentiation gained new momentum. Originally it was proposed by Kissinger with a view to strengthen détente with the Soviet Union. With the Carter–Brzezinski team the aim of differentiation was to encourage diversion from the Soviet line either by a more tolerant, more liberal domestic policy, or taking a less servile position in foreign affairs. Although the aim was not to turn the countries of Eastern (meaning Central) Europe against the Soviet Union, but to develop closer relations with them “for [their] own sake and not merely as a by-product of détente with the Soviet Union”.33 Part of this policy was the maintenance of regular contacts with the “dissidents”, intellectuals and artists who openly opposed the Communist system.

The election of a Pole, Karol Wojtyła as Pope in 1978, electrified not only his restless compatriots but all people in Central Europe. He spoke out for human dignity and eternal values, challenging the very foundations of Communism. His visit to Poland in 1979 undoubtedly contributed to the birth of a genuine workers’ movement (the dream of Marx), the ten-million-strong Solidarity Free Trade Union, led by the charismatic personality of an electrician in the Lenin Shipyard at Gdansk, Lech Wałęsa. The European reaction to its suppression by General Jaruzelski’s martial law (“war on Polish society”) was disappointing. The United States at least suspended Poland’s MFN status and Vice President Bush ostentatiously visited the two “more independent” Warsaw Pact countries, Romania and Hungary. What was far more important, in 1983 President Reagan called the Soviet Union what it really was, an “Evil Empire”. While most western Europeans were aghast, we in Central Europe applauded him and started to be hopeful again. Reagan took an aggressive, hard-line stance towards the other superpower, introduced measures matching and exceeding the Soviet Union’s strategic and global military capabilities, and pursued a strategy that would, in his words, “write the final pages of the history of the Soviet Union”.

The most effective weapon of the West in the later phase of the Cold War was prosperity, its consumer goods (in particular the car, the most important status symbol), its pop music, its high and low culture. In all that the United States set the space, dictated the fashion. That was independent of government policy – and it worked.

Undoubtedly the initiatives of President Reagan as well as the internal reforms of Soviet leader Gorbachev were essential in transforming the relations between the two superpowers and the radical changes in the Soviet Bloc. President George H. W. Bush gave strong encouragement to the movement for change by visiting Poland and Hungary in July 1989, but even in June Kissinger said in private that “it cannot realistically be expected that the Warsaw Pact will dissolve and any country can get out of it”.34 That view was shared by Paris, Bonn as well as London, where there was more confidence in the reformist Communist leaders than in the non-Communist opposition. Although the Bush administration credited itself with promoting the democratic transformation and liberation of Eastern Europe, proclaiming that a unique opportunity presented itself for political and economic liberalisation,35 Hungarian sources suggest that in practice American policy, too, remained cautious and had no clear goals in mind as how far democratisation and independence should and could go. The activities of Ambassador Mark Palmer in Budapest were in stark contrast to this,36 sometimes to the embarrassment of the State Department. President Bush and all other western leaders were much concerned that the changes should not undermine the authority of Gorbachev.37

Public opinion, and especially those who believe in conspiracy theories, tend to believe that the miraculous changes in the Communist bloc were the results of a secret deal between Gorbachev and the western leaders. Reagan, Mrs Thatcher, Chancellor Kohl and of course Gorbachev all have their share in this annus mirabilis, in the spectacular changes of 1989, which ended the political ice age, but nothing would have happened without the Polish Solidarity Free Trade Union, the “dissidents” of the Eastern Bloc, and the newly formed Hungarian opposition parties. As a close American observer and adviser noted, “American policy exerted a strong, sometimes decisive influence on the peaceful end of Europe’s post-war division and the collapse of the Soviet empire. […] That the Cold War ended peacefully and on Western terms was an achievement without parallel in modern history.” But “the countries of Eastern Europe were the key to ending the Cold War. […] These developments were deeply rooted in history and driven by the heroic efforts of democratic opposition leaders in Central and Eastern Europe.”38

I think we can accept the conclusion of this contemporary American actor.

27 years ago so many of my contemporaries and I thought that at least now the US seized the new opportunity and contributed to the restoration of freedom and independence in Poland and Hungary, making all the European Communist dominoes fall. Today we know that even then – for fear of Gorbachev losing control – the US and the UK were not happy with the sudden and total overthrow of the Communist system. That inhuman blind alley in history was not defeated even peacefully by the West, it was overthrown by das Volk in Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia, and it withered away in the Soviet Union.


1 My most important sources are: Kovrig, Bennett: The Myth of Liberation. East-Central Europe in US Diplomacy and Politics since 1941. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. Kovrig, Bennett: Of Walls and Bridges. The United States and Eastern Europe. New York: New York University Press, 1991. Borhi, László: Dealing with Dictators. The United States, Hungary, and East Central Europe. Indiana University Press, 2016. Békés, Csaba: Európából Európába. Magyarország konfliktusok kereszttüzében [From Europe to Europe. Hungary on the crossroads of conflicts], 1945–1990. Budapest: Gondolat, 2004.

2 Méray, Tibor: Thirteen Days that Shook the Kremlin. New York: Praeger, 1959.

3 Békés, 104–108. Kovrig, 185.

4 Kovrig 1973, 180. Schwartz gives a detailed account of the Administration’s laggard handling of the rising in Hungary, 296–361, in two chapters with the apt titles: “Signalling America’s Hands- Off Policy”, and “Ignoring Opportunities”.

5 Békés, 56–57.

6 Kovrig 1973, 182.

7 Büky, Barna: Visszapillantás a hidegháborúra [The Cold War in retrospect]. Budapest: Balassi Kiadó, 2001, 115–116.

8 Kovrig 1973, 180.

9 Békés, 59–60.

10 Borhi, László: Magyarország a hidegháborúban a Szovjetunió és az Egyesült Államok között, 1945–1956. Budapest: Corvina, 2005, 311.

11 Borhi 2005, 310.

12 Marton, Endre: The Forbidden Sky. Inside the Hungarian Revolution. Boston: Little Brown and Co, 1971, 28.

13 Wilson, A. N.: Our Times, London: Hutchinson, 2008, 66.

14 Seton-Watson, 6. Marton’s judgement is similar, quoting the memoirs of Anthony Eden, then British Prime Minister, and those of H. Cabot Lodge. Marton, 29–30.

15 Borhi, László (1999): “Containment, Rollback, Liberation or Inaction? The United States and Hungary in the 1950s” (PDF). Journal of Cold War Studies, 1(3): 67–108.

16 Antall, József: Selected Speeches and Interviews. Ed. by Géza Jeszenszky. Budapest: József Antall Foundation, 2008, 275.

17 Ibid., 360.

18 Kovrig 1973, X.

19 Kovrig, Bennett: Of Walls and Bridges. The United States and Eastern Europe. New York: New York University Press, 1991. 105. “Basic National Security Policy”, 3 June 1957.

20 The term was coined in an article in the journal Foreign Affairs, 39, no. 4 (Spring 1961) by Zbigniew Brzezinski and W. E. Griffith.

21 Kovrig 1991, 113.

22 Büky, 284–5.

23 Kovrig 1991, 117.

24 Ibid., 118.

25 Ibid., 167.

26 Ibid., 167.

27 Ibid., 170.

28 Ibid., 124. Twenty-five years later I met Sonnenfeldt in Washington and he insisted that he was misunderstood or misinterpreted: he never meant to abandon the countries that fell under Soviet domination.

29 The New York Times, 7 October 1976, quoted by Kovrig 1991, 171.

30 Brzezinski, Zbigniew: Power and Principle. New York, 1983. Quoted by Kovrig 1991, 125.

31 David Binder: “Carter Requests Funds for Big Increase in Broadcasts to Soviet Bloc”, The New York Times, 23 March 1977.

32 Nuti, Leopoldo (ed.): The Crisis of Détente in Europe: From Helsinki to Gorbachev 1975–1985. London – New York: Routledge, 2009, 19. Cf. Arch Puddington: Broadcasting Freedom: The Cold War Triumph of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. University of Kentucky Press, 2000, 180–186.

33 Kovrig 1991, 125.

34 Borhi, László: “Western Dilemmas and the Collapse of Communism in Hungary”. Manuscript.

35 Bush, George – Scowcroft, Brent: A World Transformed. New York: Knopf, 1998.

36 Borhi, László: Dealing with Dictators. The United States, Hungary, and East Central Europe. Indiana University Press, Borhi 2016, 376.

37 Békés, 298–299.

38 Hutchings, Robert L.: American Diplomacy at the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of US Policy in Europe, 1989–1992. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Press; Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, xi, 1–2.

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