Hungarian Revolution 1956




on November 4, 1956 at 4:15 a.m. Soviet forces launched a major attack on Hungary aimed at crushing, once and for all, the spontaneous national uprising that had begun 12 days earlier. At 5:20 a.m., Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy announced the invasion to the nation in a grim, 35-second broadcast, declaring: "Our troops are fighting. The Government is in its place." However, within hours Nagy himself would seek asylum at the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest while his former colleague and imminent replacement, János Kádár, who had been flown secretly from Moscow to the city of Szolnok, 60 miles southeast of the capital, prepared to take power with Moscow's backing. On November 22, after receiving assurances of safe passage from Kádár and the Soviets, Nagy finally agreed to leave the Yugoslav Embassy. But he was immediately arrested by Soviet security officers and flown to a secret location in Romania. By then, the fighting had mostly ended, the Hungarian resistance had essentially been destroyed, and Kádár was entering the next phase of his strategy to neutralize dissent for the long term.

The defeat of the Hungarian revolution was one of the darkest moments of the Cold War. At certain points since its outbreak on October 23 the revolt looked like it was on the verge of an amazing triumph. The entire nation appeared to have taken up arms against the regime. Rebels, often armed with nothing more than kitchen implements and gasoline, were disabling Soviet tanks and achieving other -- sometimes small but meaningful -- victories throughout the country. On October 31, the tide seemed to turn overwhelmingly in the revolution's favor when Pravda published a declaration promising greater equality in relations between the USSR and its East European satellites. One sentence was of particular interest. It read: "[T]he Soviet Government is prepared to enter into the appropriate negotiations with the government of the Hungarian People's Republic and other members of the Warsaw Treaty on the question of the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Hungary." To outside observers, the Kremlin statement came as a total surprise. CIA Director Allen Dulles called it a "miracle." The crisis seemed on the verge of being resolved in a way no-one in Hungary or the West had dared to hope.

But tragically, and unbeknownst to anyone outside the Kremlin, the very day the declaration appeared in Pravda the Soviet leadership completely reversed itself and decided to put a final, violent end to the rebellion. From declassified documents, it is now clear that several factors influenced their decision, including: the belief that the rebellion directly threatened Communist rule in Hungary (unlike the challenge posed by Wladyslaw Gomulka and the Polish Communists just days before, which had targeted Kremlin rule but not the Communist system); that the West would see a lack of response by Moscow as a sign of weakness, especially after the British, French and Israeli strike against Suez that had begun on October 29; that the spread of anti-Communist feelings in Hungary threatened the rule of neighboring satellite leaders; and that members of the Soviet party would not understand a failure to respond with force in Hungary.

Developments within the Hungarian leadership also undoubtedly played a part in Moscow's decision. Imre Nagy, who had suddently been thrust into the leadership role after it became clear that the old Stalinist leaders had been completely discredited, had stumbled at first. He failed to connect with the crowds that had massed in front of the Parliament building beginning on October 23 and seemed himself to be on the verge of being swept aside by popular currents that were entirely beyond the authorities' control. But over the course of the next week, Nagy apparently underwent a remarkable transformation, from a more or less dutiful pro-Moscow Communist to a politician willing to sanction unprecedented political, economic and social reform, including the establishment of a multi-party state in Hungary, and insistent on the withdrawal of all Soviet forces from the country. By November 1, Nagy took the dramatic step of declaring Hungary's rejection of the Warsaw Pact and appealing to the United Nations for help in establishing the country's neutrality.

Meanwhile, in Washington, U.S. officials observed the tidal wave of events with shock and no small degree of ambivalence as to how to respond. The main line of President Eisenhower's policy was to promote the independence of the so-called captive nations, but only over the longer-term. There is little doubt that he was deeply upset by the crushing of the revolt, and he was not deaf to public pressure or the emotional lobbying of activists within his own administration. But he had also determined, and internal studies backed him up, that there was little the United States could do short of risking global war to help the rebels. And he was not prepared to go that far, nor even, for that matter, to jeopardize the atmosphere of improving relations with Moscow that had characterized the previous period.

Yet Washington's role in the Hungarian revolution soon became mired in controversy. One of the most successful weapons in the East-West battle for the hearts and minds of Eastern Europe was the CIA-administered Radio Free Europe. But in the wake of the uprising, RFE's broadcasts into Hungary sometimes took on a much more aggressive tone, encouraging the rebels to believe that Western support was imminent, and even giving tactical advice on how to fight the Soviets. The hopes that were raised, then dashed, by these broadcasts cast an even darker shadow over the Hungarian tragedy that leaves many Hungarians embittered to this day.

Once the Soviets made up their minds to eliminate the revolution, it took only a few days to complete the main military phase of the operation. By November 7 -- coincidentally, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution -- Soviet forces were firmly enough in control of the country that Kádár could take the oath of office in the Parliament building (even though the Nagy government had never formally resigned). Pockets of resistance remained, but Kádár was able to begin the long process of "normalization" that featured suppressing dissent of any meaningful kind and otherwise co-opting Hungarian society into going along with the new regime.

For the next three decades, as a consequence of the crushing of the revolution, the history of the events of 1956 was effectively sealed to Hungarians. Even to mention the name of Imre Nagy in public was to risk punishment. Only after the collapse of the Communist regimes in Hungary and the region in 1989 did it become possible to begin to excavate the archival records and bring out the facts. Since then, previously inaccessible records of the Soviet leadership as well as of other Warsaw Pact member states has beome available that give a much clearer picture than was ever imagined possible of what happened in the corridors of power in Moscow, Budapest and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Even in the United States, government records have recently been re-reviewed and released in more complete form, and personal archives have produced documentation on RFE and other topics that help throw light on the U.S. response and the role of Hungary in the superpower conflict.