Come Clean in Hungary

By Charles Gati
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

President Bush will be in Budapest tomorrow to visit a good ally -- a member of the coalition of the willing. The first item on his agenda, according to the White House, is to "celebrate Hungary's historic sacrifices in the name of freedom by commemorating the 50th anniversary of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution." Topics of mutual interest will follow.

The president should indeed join Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcs?ny -- Hungary's Tony Blair -- to celebrate that country's recent achievements. But commemorating 1956 is a different matter.

The truth is that at a critical juncture in the Cold War, when Hungarians rose against their Soviet oppressors, the United States abandoned them. After 13 days of high drama, hope and despair, the mighty Soviet army prevailed. For its part, Washington offered a sad variation on "NATO": no action, talk only. The Eisenhower administration's policy of "liberation" and "rollback" turned out to be a hoax -- hypocrisy mitigated only by self-delusion. The more evident, if unstated, goal was to roll back the Democrats from Capitol Hill rather than liberate Central and Eastern Europe from Soviet tyranny.

Until the Soviet tanks rolled in, the Hungarians believed what Washington had proclaimed. They did not know that the United States was unprepared to help them and that a few high officials even expected some political and foreign policy benefits from a Soviet invasion. Vice President Richard Nixon explained to his colleagues at a top-secret National Security Council meeting in July 1956 that "it wouldn't be an unmixed evil, from the point of view of U.S. interest, if the Soviet iron fist were to come down again on the Soviet bloc."

In a similarly cynical vein, American-run Radio Free Europe in Germany encouraged the hapless insurgents to go all the way against the Kremlin and even broadcast lessons on how to make molotov cocktails.

We now know from Russian archives that the Hungarians did have a chance to gain some of what they sought. For on Oct. 30, one week after the revolt began, members of the Soviet Presidium (as the Politburo was called then) unanimously voted not to use military force. Their decision came in the wake of a series of conciliatory, post-Stalin policies, such as the 1955 Soviet withdrawal from Austria and reconciliation with Yugoslavia -- both of which are neighbors of Hungary -- as well as the first summit with the United States in a decade. In the end, the Kremlin intervened because it feared that the situation would spin out of control both in Hungary and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc. Radio Free Europe's exaggerated rhetoric only amplified these fears.

The United States, according to the usual version of what happened, could not help the Hungarians because any action would have triggered a military confrontation with Moscow. This explanation misses the point: There were actions short of war that Washington might have taken. It could certainly have urged the Hungarians to temporize and pursue limited, evolutionary goals. It could have taken the issue to the United Nations before, and not after, the Soviet crackdown. In an imaginative move toward post-Stalin detente, it could have proposed immediate talks about withdrawing American forces from a small Western European country in exchange for Soviet withdrawal from Hungary.

Instead, Washington offered only hope, no help. "Poor fellows, poor fellows," President Dwight Eisenhower said privately as he campaigned for reelection. "I wish there were some way of helping them."

Washington's hands-off stance had nothing to do with the concurrent Suez crisis either. With Suez or without it, the United States had no means available to aid, let alone "liberate," Hungary. For despite all the talk about "liberation" since 1952, neither the National Security Council nor the State Department had devised plans for diplomatic or any other form of assistance. Nor was the CIA ready. When I received permission to study the agency's operational files for my book "Failed Illusions," to be published in September, I was stunned to learn that the CIA had but one official operating in Hungary in 1956. In Austria, as first reported by Evan Thomas a few years ago, the CIA did not have a single Hungarian-speaking agent. The handful of emigres trained for behind-the-lines activity were let go in 1953.

It is time to come clean.

The president should tell the Hungarians that in the 1950s Congress issued politically inspired "Captive Nations" resolutions and held self-satisfying "prayer breakfasts," while Eisenhower delivered empty promises about "liberation" during presidential campaigns in 1952 and 1956 to please Hungarian (and other Eastern European) ethnics in Ohio and elsewhere -- with no plans to carry them out.

The Hungarians need to hear what happened 50 years ago -- and Americans need to hear that in the future we will not say we seek clearly unattainable goals abroad for political ends at home.

The writer teaches European politics at Johns Hopkins University's Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.

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