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ROBERT LEGVOLD: (Inaudible)—welcome to the second session—(inaudible)—1956: 50 years later—wonderful session with your group prior to this on Suez in 1956. Now we turn to the other dramatic event, which is Hungary in 1956.
By my calculation, it’s now the middle of the night—15 years—50 years ago in Hungary, but—Charles, correct me on the timing—10 hours or 12 hours ago, Imre Nagy was just made prime minister of Hungary. (Inaudible)—yesterday the people—the young people—(inaudible)—Parliament and begun a protest—(inaudible). They had—(inaudible). And by the next morning, Gero, the Hungarian leader, had asked the Russians to begin defending the Parliament and putting this thing down. So you’d been through a day of turmoil—the second day of this—moving into the extraordinary events of what followed.
We have an exceptional group—threesome—to talk to us about this event. You have the IDs—the CVs from these people, so I won’t take any time on that score.
I want to begin with some questions to Charles Gati, and then let the conversation flow from that, turning to Bill Taubman and to Richard Immerman, and then after half an hour let you join the conversation with your questions and the points that you want to make.
I—(inaudible)—from a board meeting in Washington this morning—(inaudible)—I heard these soft, gentle tones of (Charles Gati ?) on the (radio ?), saying—(inaudible)—preview that he was going to—(inaudible)—“All Things Considered” later in the afternoon. I don’t know what he said on “All Things Considered” later in the afternoon, but the preview said something about the responsibility that the U.S. and its propaganda agencies bore for the events in Hungary. And that’s central to the theme of Charles’s new book, which is on—available to you on sale at the end of the evening.
Before doing that, though, I have to—I have to—going on with what I said I was going to do—(inaudible)—I’m supposed to say to you at this point. The theme of Gati’s book is—(inaudible)—extraordinary. (Inaudible.)
CHARLES GATI: May I interrupt with an important point here?
Yes, I was on the—number one the nonfiction best-seller list, but number 10 was a sexual guide. (Laughter.) And the interesting thing is, some people said that is what explains Hungary’s—(inaudible). (Laughter.)
LEGVOLD: (Inaudible.) (Applause.)
The theme of that book is that Hungary—(inaudible)—lead to the bloody intervention by—(inaudible). And making that argument even to the—(inaudible)—certainly the Soviets and what was going on in Khrushchev’s (entourage ?)—(inaudible)—and the resistance in Hungary, and including the United States, especially that propaganda arm, the Radio Free Europe.
So Charles, what I’d like to begin with is by asking you not merely to defend the notion that it could have turned out differently, particularly if all parties had been willing to accept less than a full (loaf ?); that’s essentially the argument, as I understand it. How would you distribute blame among those three parties for not producing the outcome? Or another way to put it, what would have had to have been different on each of the three parties that I’ve identified in order to get what you think was possible?
GATI: Well, it’s a very difficult question to answer in specific terms, but certainly the major blame remains, as it always has been, with the Soviet leadership and its desire for full control in Eastern Europe, instead of maintaining, let’s say, a sphere of influence—as in Finland or parts of Austria after World War II. That was unacceptable to them, and so I think the blame, even after going through all the archives and interviews I have done, must remain with the top Soviet leadership—including Khrushchev and Mikoyan, who for quite a while did look, as somebody pointed out—I think it was Professor Naftali pointed out earlier—they looked for a political solution.
Now having said that, though, this David and Goliath story that we have known for 50 years doesn’t quite add up. The responsibility of the United States—I think I can discuss that—is quite obvious to me. Perhaps I will say a few words about that. And maybe I will quote—Richard, if that’s okay in this place here—your predecessor.
Is that kosher? (Laughter.) Okay.
He read my book—this is Les Gelb—and he wrote to me—and it will be a blurb added to a second edition of my book, if there is one. Quote: “The main message on U.S. foreign policy in Gati’s book resonates with me. We are forever spouting bullshit in foreign policy for domestic political reasons at great cost to people abroad who take the bullshit seriously,” end quote. (Laughter.)
LEGVOLD: Les Gelb.
GATI: This is Les Gelb. (Laughter.) It’s a good quote. It is very good. It’s a very good summary, also, of what I tried to say.
LEGVOLD: And you think your publisher is going to let you put that on your back cover? (Laughter.)
GATI: I know so. I know so.
Actually in the broadcast that you referred to, I quoted it, and they said, “Well, we cannot do ‘bullshit’ on ‘All Things Considered,’ but could you say, ‘BS’?” So I had to re-record it, and we’ll see what—I don’t know they did broadcast.
But more seriously, though, the policy of liberation and rollback, I refer to as NATO—it’s “no action, talk only.” It was only meant for domestic political consumption, as you probably all know. It was meant to satisfy the McCarthy wing of the Republican Party. It was not staffed out. In the State Department there wasn’t a single paper preparing us for such an eventuality, which after the East Berlin riots in ‘53 we could have done.
I gained access to the operative—operational files of the CIA for the first time, and I couldn’t believe what I was reading. There was only one CIA agent in all of Hungary after 1952. There was one at the—at our legation during the revolution. He was not allowed to leave. He couldn’t leave the legation itself because he was the only Hungarian speaker there at that time, so they asked him to open—he was a doorman, basically, more than anything else. He had to go and get the petitions from various groups and people who appealed to us.
What else can I say? There were some high-level CIA agents at the Austro-Hungarian border, including Frank Wisner, and they were hoping that the Eisenhower administration would allow us to send in some, let’s say, communications equipment, maybe some weapons. And so they wanted to find out if we had any weapons in Western Europe. And please believe me, I’m not making this up, but they were looking for it at the end of October, and they found only the first week of December where we had hidden such weapons. In other words, we didn’t have anything available, even if the administration had decided otherwise.
I could go on. It’s an interesting story of big words and no deeds.
But the major problem was not just the hypocrisy of U.S. policy, but it came through Radio Free Europe—an organization, I have to say—or a broadcasting company that I do approve of. And I think they learned a lesson after Hungary. And I’d like to emphasize that I’m a supporter—I became a supporter of RFE. But in the—the 1950s was really a disastrous chapter in an otherwise very good history.
They made two fundamental errors in ‘56. One was that they opposed the prime minister of the revolution, Imre Nagy, from the beginning because of the idea that when you’ve seen one commie, you’ve seen them all—as if Tito did not exist, and so on; as if de-Stalinization had not happened.
The second error was that they went for maximalist goals, as Bob mentioned—go all the way, and in fact going for a touchdown instead of carrying the ball for, you know, five or six yards at a time and hoping that later on time will be on our side.
Of course, the revolutionaries had excessive goals—that was another major problem. And the leadership was weak. Imre—(inaudible)—the first few days of the revolution was dithering, and the second four days of the revolution, he accepted all of the demands that he should have known better—that the Soviets could not accept.
He did not put a map in front of the revolutionaries and say, “Look, fellas,”—young hotheads. About 15,000—up to 15,000 had weapons—not as many as you would think. Most of them had—80 percent of them had only eight years of education. So this was not exactly, you know, a Council on Foreign Relations crowd, with weapons, if I may say so. (Laughter.)
So he didn’t put a map—the mature politician should have put a map in front of them and say: “Look, fellas, this is where the Soviet Union is. They have so many tanks. This is where we are—a little country. Okay? We make good food, but that’s—can’t go much beyond that.” (Laughter.) I’m trying to be funny, and it’s not funny. “Here’s how many tanks they have. This is how many soldiers they have. We don’t have a chance if we go for everything.”
But there might be—in the spirit of de-Stalinization, after the Austrian peace treaty, after the summit with Eisenhower in Geneva, after the 20 th Party Congress, after peace with Tito—you know, he used to be called the chained dog of imperialism—some of you may remember that—then he became Comrade Tito—there was a chance. There was a chance. But the leadership was weak; the revolutionaries were hotheads; the U.S. wanted to go all the way, which was a terrible mistake.
But I think there’s an explanation for that, and here I would disagree with some of what was said downstairs about the Eisenhower administration. They did not take de-Stalinization seriously. They thought it—they wanted to get Khrushchev’s secret speech, and in the CIA documents you find the extraordinary effort to get that speech as soon as possible, and then they leaked it to the New York Times.
But they did not really want to try and see whether some accommodation in Europe might be possible. This is why they had no proposal. The alternative to World War III or doing nothing was to make some diplomatic offers. There was none. And so I am very critical of the U.S., but please keep in mind that the ultimate responsibility for what happened there remains with Moscow.
LEGVOLD: Thank you very much, Charles.
I want to eventually get to Richard for his take on the Eisenhower administration and how Hungary fit in, and Charles’ judgment about the responsibility they—at least RFE—bears on it.
But first I want to turn back to the Russian—the Soviet question with Bill Taubman—if you’ve looked at the biography, you know he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Khrushchev—and ask him how he sees Khrushchev’s position about this time in 1956. Particularly, there is a special moment in these dramatic events in Hungary that Charles explores that I think is important in understanding why he argues there could have been a different outcome.
October 30: The Politburo voted—or presidium voted, the senior agency within the Communist Party—unanimously not to intervene with military power; 24 hours later, on October 31 st, they voted unanimously to intervene.
Bill, both in the broader context and this specific context, what was going on with Khrushchev?
WILLIAM TAUBMAN: That October 30 th discussion—the shorthand minutes of which we got only very recently—is an absolutely stunning picture of something we never expected to find in the Kremlin, namely Khrushchev and his colleagues on that day—October 30 th—not just deciding not to intervene in Hungary, but telling each other the reasons why they shouldn’t. And it sounds like a gathering of a faculty club in New England or something like that.
They sit around and one says something like, “Well, it would be a mistake.” Another says, “We are really responsible for the troubles that have developed in Hungary, not them.” Another says, “We will discredit ourselves in the eyes of the world”—all of the things that you would have wanted them to say but never thought they would say. And yet, as Bob says, a day later, they decide to go in, in the second intervention—the first one being a little earlier; this one being the one that crushes the revolution.
I think what I’d like to say is this, that you can see the somewhat longer-term reasons for both the decision on the 30 th and then the shift to reverse the decision on the 31 st. And then you can see what happened on the night of the 30 th and the day of the 31 st, which swung it. The slightly longer-term reasons: Khrushchev, of course, had given the famous secret speech denouncing Stalin in February 1956, had hitched his star to de-Stalinization and reform, and was trying to continue it insofar as he could in the situation that confronted him in East Europe, where the Hungarians and the Poles—but especially the Hungarians—wanted to go farther faster than he wanted to.
He probably was tempted—because he was afraid they would go too far and Communism would go down the drain in Hungary—to go in immediately, and in fact they had that first—the first intervention on October 24 th. But to do so, to crush what was happening in Hungary, was to in effect admit the bankruptcy of de-Stalinization.
On the other hand, not to crush it, to let it take its course in Hungary and have it end up with the overthrow of Communism, was also to reveal the bankruptcy of his policy. So the man was torn. And in fact he said later, in conversation with his son, that he couldn’t make up his mind and that he vacillated. He didn’t want to go in. He wanted to go in. And so it’s all too natural that he first decided not to, and then he decided to.
But the question is, what happened on the 31 st that swung it? We know that he says in his memoirs: “I couldn’t sleep the night of the 30 th. Hungary was like a nail pounding in my head.” But a couple of things happened on the 31 st. One was the lynching of the Hungarian—
GATI: You mean the 30 th.
TAUBMAN: The 30 th—sorry—the lynching of the police in Hungary by these insurgents that Charles is talking about. And the other is the declaration by Imre Nagy that Hungary would henceforth have a multiparty system. Both of these things made his sticking to the original decision not to go back in and crush this untenable, or increasingly untenable. There are other things that you can talk about—the fact that one of his advisers in Hungary, Sous Fluf (ph) had switched and was telling him now that this has got to stop, whereas Miko Yan (ph), the other adviser, was saying, “Let them take more time; we can work this out.”
Mao Tse Tung changed his mind on that same day. And we don’t have—at least I don’t know the exact timing of when Mao, whom Khrushchev was listening to, in part a reflection of how unsure he was himself about what to do—when Mao decided to shift from saying, “Don’t crush it,” to “end it.”
So there’s things that happened on those two days that swung it, but there’s also the background—Khrushchev’s having a stake in de-Stalinization, but being afraid that if Hungary continued along the course it was taking, he would be discredited at home.
LEGVOLD: Thank you, Bill.
Let’s bring the U.S. side in. You’ve heard Charles’s characterization. As you know from Richard’s CV, he’s done a lot of work on Eisenhower, on John Foster Dulles, and more recently on the Central Intelligence Agency.
What’s your take on the American side during these events?
RICHARD H. IMMERMAN: Let me preface my remarks that I frequently find myself in this position of sort of defending the Eisenhower administration. And that seemed to have happened this morning at the earlier session without my even trying. And so I don’t want to give that impression.
Having said that, I just want to make a couple points that perhaps we can develop. The first is that the United States never had a policy that supported liberation—ever—at least in the Eisenhower administration. It was a campaign article. It was a campaign plank and a platform. That’s very different from a policy.
Whether it was going to become a policy was debated very strenuously in that—in early—in ‘53 and into ‘54, and it was squashed. Now that’s not to say that there weren’t those who continued to support liberation, primarily in the military, and also some who were in what you might call the psychological warfare shop—C.D. Jackson being an example—and others, all of whom—certainly after Hungary, as you know—became very disillusioned and left the administration, or, in the case of Frank Wisner, suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide. So I mean, there were tremendous sort of stakes involved here.
But the point is that by the end of 1953 at the latest, the notion of liberation—which I would also, by the way, differentiate between rollback and liberation—liberation was sort of more of a political process that would take place; rollback required—or sort of inherently was more coercive and—but in any case, it was gone.
Now the question—and I don’t have an answer to that—is—this isn’t denying that during the campaign and during the plank there were discussion of captive peoples and liberation and policies of boldness and all of that. As a historian I find it difficult to believe that they were that significant, because it gives agency to people who in fact were in no position really to do very much. But nevertheless, unless the expectation is that Eisenhower or Dulles would sometime at the beginning of—end of ‘53, early ‘54, make a public declaration that “all that liberation—never mind”—I’m not sure really what could he have done at that point.
There was the view that it was important to keep alive a certain amount of a spirit of discontent to place pressure on the Soviet bloc, but it certainly wasn’t any objective, any goal, to in fact split off Eastern Europe. In fact, to the contrary, there was concern that if that happened it might provoke a Soviet reaction. Eastern Europe was not considered particularly strategically valuable. There weren’t any resources. It was really all about nuclear weapons, and Eastern Europe didn’t play into that.
So while I think the administration early on can be faulted to some extent—and perhaps sort of the Radio Free Europe part certainly fanned the flames, although sort of recent work by Ross Johnson and others calls that into question to some extent—you know, I really don’t think that the United States was a significant variable in the equation.
LEGVOLD: Charles—and then back and forth between you and Richard—your evaluation of the U.S. role in this does go beyond RFE, but a large part of your account and your charge is about RFE. How, in a broader sense, do you see the Eisenhower policy on this? And in the end, how do you weigh the attitudes and behavior of Eisenhower himself and Foster Dulles in the context of the broader events under way, including what you were discussing in the earlier panel?
And Richard, afterwards, so far as you know, having looked at the record, what was the assessment by Eisenhower and Foster Dulles of November ‘56?
One other comment: In fairness to this period of time, as Bill pointed out, we only learned recently about the Politburo meetings, presidium meetings—October 30 th-31 st. There was an awful lot that these people didn’t know at the time, and in very complex environment—it’s easier to judge in retrospect than we judge now. That’s an aside.
Charles, I come back to you on how you situation the RFE responsibility in the broader context of Eisenhower and Foster Dulles.
GATI: Well, look. I think, you know, Richard has a point—a very important point—that Eisenhower and even Dulles didn’t mean seriously, perhaps specially by 1954 or so, what they had been saying. But the climate in this country remained what it was. In 1956, before the elections, the Democrats attacked the Eisenhower administration for not being sufficiently aggressive in rolling back Communism from Eastern Europe. So it may be that privately Eisenhower or Dulles thought this or that, but the public view was that this country was doing something. And of course, people over there believed it. Almost 2,000 people died because they believed that the United States meant what it said. So you cannot quite dismiss their statements by saying it was not a policy.
I happen to agree with you. It was not a policy. It was not staffed out. In fact, I had just said that. But there were prayer breakfasts; there were Captive Nations Weeks; there was, you know, rollback—which meant, of course, the rollback of the Democrats from Capitol Hill rather than the rollback of Soviet power from Eastern Europe. (Laughter.)
And as to the question of what could have been done—this is I think a very important question. Earlier, too, downstairs, we heard that, you know, World War III—who would want that? Well, of course, nobody wants World War III. Nobody wanted World War III. But there are things to be done between doing nothing and encouraging people to fight Communism on the one hand, and then doing nothing.
For example, there—and of course, many of these things were said at that time, so I’m not being smart here 50 years later. Why couldn’t the United States have proposed that Hungary could remain in the Warsaw Pact but Soviet troops would leave, while the United States would remove its troops from Belgium, while Belgium would remain a good member of NATO?
In other words, there was here in the mid-1950s an opportunity to deal with a de-Stalinized or de-Stalinizing Soviet Union. We did not take that seriously. I think—I couldn’t agree more with what Bill was saying. That was exactly the issue. And from the American side, the issue was, do we take this seriously, or do we use de-Stalinization as propaganda only?
Here is Richard Nixon at a secret NSC meeting in July 1956, and I quote: “It wouldn’t be an unmixed evil, from the point of view of the U.S. interest, if the Soviet iron fist were to come down again on the Soviet bloc.”
Now you have to ask, what did he have in mind? Well, I don’t know. I didn’t have a chance to interview him. I interviewed almost everybody else, but not him. But my interpretation is that he thought that the result of a Soviet invasion, whether it’s of Poland or of Hungary, would have contributed significantly to Soviet weakness. And indeed, the Italian Communist Party, the French Communist Party suffered greatly. At that time there was an American Communist Party that almost disintegrated—it started before, under the impact of the Khrushchev secret speech.
Now as for the—
LEGVOLD: Charles, I’m going to push you along because we want to begin shifting.
GATI: Yes, I’m too long. Okay.
LEGVOLD: But make your point, briefly.
GATI: Now, about RFE, the only point I would make is that—especially in view of Richard’s view that there was more sophistication to U.S. policy—at RFE they didn’t hear it. They didn’t know it. And so it wasn’t just the Hungarian broadcasters, but the leaders there who allowed them to engage in considerable incitement.
TAUBMAN: I just want to say that, oddly enough, the Nixon point is the point that they were making in the presidium, in the Kremlin on October 30 th. “If we crush Hungary, we’ll have to pay a price.” But they decided they’d have to pay a bigger price if they didn’t.
LEGVOLD: It should now be your turn, but I did say that I was going to press Richard on the question of lessons learned. Were they in any fashion the lesson that Les Gelb told Charles is in this story?
IMMERMAN: I actually think they’d sort of learned that lesson before. One of the interesting sort of evolutions is Eisenhower and Dulles come into power or take office believing basically in the power of words, particularly in terms of propaganda. As you have in your book, Eisenhower is a charter member of the Committee on Free Europe. He surrounds himself with sort of Henry Luce and C.D. Jackson. By ‘54, he’s basically decided that C.D. Jackson is a PR guy who doesn’t have any understanding of foreign policy, and tries to rein him in.
One of the lessons that he’s learned afterward, and it actually is in—they had set up an operation coordinating board to be able to prevent just this type of thing. By the beginning of—by ‘56, ‘57—the second term—they’ve decided that it really didn’t work, that clearly the RFE was operating too independently. It wasn’t coordinated within policy. But also by ‘57, it sort of moved on to other things.
And to go back to what I said before, Eastern Europe is so far down on the level of priorities that basically by certainly ‘58 you’ve got Berlin; you’ve got Second Officer—(inaudible). You have Lebanon and everything that—they’ve sort of forgotten that the whole thing happened.
LEGVOLD: And with your further indulgence, Bill, I’ll let you make—
LEGVOLD: Go ahead.
IMMERMAN: I wanted to just tie Suez to Hungary, from my point of view, since we talked about it in the first panel.
I don’t think I quite agree with Tim that Suez was as crucial as you may think, but maybe I’m wrong about what you think. But I think it did enter into it in the following way, that Khrushchev was afraid that he might lose both Hungary and Egypt. And I think what that triggered was as much personal and psychological as it was political. He recalled many times that Stalin had said of him and his other assistants—that is, of Khrushchev and his other assistants—“When I die, the imperialists will ring their necks like chickens.” And he kept coming back to that.
And I think the prospect of losing both Hungary and what they had of Egypt reminded him of that. And I know that because he says so.
LEGVOLD: Bill, if you can do it in two sentences—(laughter)—if you can do it in two sentences, what does Khrushchev say about Hungary by the time he gets around to writing his memoirs, when he’s already been ousted from power?
TAUBMAN: Actually, I don’t remember. (Laughs; laughter.)
In his retirement, he rethought a lot of things. He rethought the policy of censoring poets. He rethought the policy of closing borders and keeping people in. He rethought many, many things. I do not think he rethought Hungary.
IMMERMAN: I can add to that. He did not. He gave—in his memoirs he gives five reasons why they had to move in, and the first one was that communists were being killed.
LEGVOLD: You’ve been patient. It’s your turn.
QUESTIONER: Malcolm Wiener. Just on the drivers of U.S. policy—I think one of the reasons that Eisenhower surrounded himself with C.D. Jackson and the Luce crowd was that there was a very important electoral constituency at stake. In the 1952 election it was widely perceived—is this on?
In the 1952 election it was widely perceived that the critical element had been the swing of the Midwestern working-class Catholic voters to the Democrats. Partly that was due to Cardinal Spellman trying to move the Catholic vote to Eisenhower. But there was a large ethnic component in this, and it seemed a cheap price to pay to let Radio Free Europe go on, and so on.
But I’m wondering, when one comes to the critical moment in 1956, suppose the United States instead of doing nothing or—had issued a statement. I don’t know how much the Soviet Union would have been impressed by withdrawal from Belgium, which didn’t have a common border with the Soviet Union, but if we had said instead that it was our hope that the people of Hungary would be granted the same degree of freedom, say, as the people of Finland or even of Yugoslavia under Tito, and that we had no—and that we would guarantee not to ask Hungary to join any American bloc, would not try to take them out of the Warsaw bloc and would not seek bases there, what effect do you think that would have had?
LEGVOLD: I think that really is to Charles and Bill.
But Richard, you’ve got your body language.
IMMERMAN: I just want to say that this was part of what the United States was thinking. The United States used the term “Finlandization” from 1953 through 1958, frequently. Implementing it was very difficult, and that also assumed establishing a relationship and a trust with Khrushchev that I think never existed, spirit of Geneva notwithstanding.
So just to go back that—this was not sort of conjecture. It was something that the United States was seriously considering.
QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)
TAUBMAN: I don’t think—I think it wouldn’t have counted for very much because they had their mind on—their eye on what was happening on the ground. They had accepted, they had acquiesced in Tito, who had created a different form of Communism and broken with them—or they had broken with him, actually. They had acquiesced just a few days before the Hungary second intervention with Poland. They had acquiesced in Poland with Gomulka as the leader, and they had decided not to intervene in Hungary because they took his measure and decided he would be able to control things.
And the reason they ultimately went into Hungary was they didn’t have the faith in Nagy that they had in Gomulka—that he could control things, and they saw it getting out of hand—witness the lynching of—and all the rest.
And I think with that going on the ground, talk of—from the United States of Belgium or Finlandization or anything like that would have been seen as trivial.
GATI: Walter Lippmann understood that advocating full freedom and independence was as unrealistic as doing nothing was irresponsible. He wrote—three days into the revolt, on October 26 th, he wrote in The Washington Post—Washington Post Herald, I think it was called at the time. He said, “In the interests of peace and freedom, we must hope that for a time—not forever, but for a time—the uprising in the satellite orbit will be stabilized at Titoism.”
In other words, he wanted evolutionary goals and work toward partial gains. This was not picked up and certainly was not implemented.
IMMERMAN: I have one thing—very quickly—because I think it has to do with this, and also relates to the earlier session.
You know, Doug Brinkley several times referred to the Atlanticist critique of Eisenhower and Dulles. The only people who critiqued Eisenhower and Dulles for not being Atlanticists were Nitze and Atchison. I mean, they were as Atlanticist as anyone else, and their top priority was the coherence of the Atlantic alliance.
And I think in many of these moves that they were concerned particularly about the Federal Republic of Germany, how it might perceive an effort on the part of the United States to sort of play Kennan—to sort of somehow neutralize. And that was, I think, a major deterrent to pursuing this Finlandization process, which, as Bill said, probably wouldn’t have gotten them anyplace anyway.
QUESTIONER: Jim Dingman, INN World Report. Many talk about how the whole policy of rollback and liberation was crippled by the defeats that had occurred in the covert operations of the late ‘40s and early ‘50s—I think of Albania, for example. And I was wondering how that impacted on the specifics of the Hungarian crisis breaking out, because that was—people do talk about how that whole capability had essentially already been defeated by the Soviets and their security forces prior to the ‘56 revolution.
GATI: There were two major attempts by the CIA to undermine the Soviet bloc. One was Albania—which, by the way, the agency formally still does not—does not yet recognize as having happened.
The other was one in Poland. I don’t quite have the time, I don’t think, to describe that, but that too was a failure.
At the end of 1952, I think—January 1953, perhaps—one of Wisner’s important deputies and a former member of the Council I used to see here—what’s his first name?—Frank Lindsay—resigned, precisely because of what you are talking about. He said that the kind of efforts that worked against the Nazis in the Balkans in World War II, would not work against the Communists. They have a social base, he explained, or whatever else he said there.
And then Allen Dulles said, “Oh, you can’t say this.” It was a secret document. But—“You can’t say this.” But he left and joined the Ford Foundation. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Susan Woodward, the Graduate Center of City University of New York.
Charles, I have a question for you. As we well know, one of the—
LEGVOLD: Susan, directed to whom?
QUESTIONER: At Charles.
LEGVOLD: Charles. Okay.
QUESTIONER: One of the major elements in the end of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe in ‘89-‘90 was the role of historical memory and historical debates. And in Hungary, the reburial of Imre Nagy was really important, as you well know. So now we have also demonstrations going on in Budapest. Is the way in which the Hungarians interpret these events going to be important in what happens politically now? Can you talk about what it means now to them?
GATI: Well, Hungary today is a deeply polarized country, while in 1956 it was largely—not as much as they say, but it was largely united. There are the ex-Communists who hold up Imre Nagy—the Socialist Party that’s the head of the government, the largest party in the government now—they hold up the memory of Imre Nagy as if they had had nothing to do with his execution in 1958. (Laughter.) Kind of ironic. But he was a reformed Communist and remained that to the very end.
The opposition—the right-wing opposition, Mr. Orban’s Fidesz—pretends that everything that happened in 1956 was a kind of right-wing revolution. Well, that’s not so either, because it was primarily a Socialist—curiously enough, a Socialist, though anti-Soviet, revolution.
So there’s total confusion—intellectual confusion—that is exacerbated by political aspirations. And so it just continues. I don’t see any end to that.
TAUBMAN: I wanted to say something about historical memory linking 1956 and 1968. I think one of the reasons that the Soviets eventually moved into Czechoslovakia was that they felt they had succeeded in crushing Hungary without the consequences they had worried about. And there’s a particular individual who looms very large in both of them, and his name was Yuri Andropov.
We have now discovered—I was briefed on this recently by a researcher named Svetlana Savranskaya at the National Security Archive, who’d been looking at Andropov’s memoirs—memos. I know you’ve read some of them, too, Charles. It turns out that Andropov in 1956 was pushing—was warning, warning, and pushing for action as early as the summer of—
GATI: He was the worst.
TAUBMAN: He was the worst.
LEGVOLD: Well, you have to identify what position he was in.
TAUBMAN: Andropov was then the ambassador to Hungary. He later became the KGB chief. That’s what he was in ‘68. And then, of course, he became the leader after Brezhnev’s death.
With something of a reputation for a good guy, but in ‘56—
GATI: He liked jazz. You remember? The closet. He was a closet liberal because he liked jazz. (Laughter.)
TAUBMAN: He liked jazz. Yes.
In ‘56, it turns out that he was talking mainly to Rakosi. He was the ambassador, but he was talking mainly to the Stalinist leader of Hungary and getting his information about what was going on in Hungary from Rakosi.
And apparently, according to this—I don’t know whether you read this, Charles—in the summer of ‘56, he began pushing the Soviet commander in Hungary to prepare a plan, which later was called Wave, which was a plan for how they would move when the time came to crush anything they wanted to crush.
And the commander apparently said to him, “Look, I can’t do anything unless I have an order from the Kremlin.”
So Andropov went to the—another Hungarian leader whose name I’m not sure how to pronounce—Gero? Gero?—
GATI: Mm-hmm. (In agreement.)
TAUBMAN:—also a quasi-Stalinist, and said, “Why don’t you call Khrushchev and tell him to prepare a plan?”
GATI: Not quasi.
TAUBMAN: And according to this—what I’ve been—what I’ve heard recently, Gero called him but didn’t request a plan, as Andropov found out when he called. So it was Andropov who warned them and Andropov who pushed for a plan to invade, and Andropov who triumphed when that was done, and then Andropov in 1968 who pushed again for an invasion of Czechoslovakia on the grounds that this was Hungary repeating itself, and therefore had to be stopped.
LEGVOLD: Further points? Over here.
QUESTIONER: I’m Zoltan Merszei, and I’m the retired chief executive of the Dow Chemical Company, and I was born in Hungary, but I got—by being—having been in residence in Europe at that time, trying to teach Dow that there is a world outside of Midland, Michigan, as well. So I was right on the border when this whole situation happened.
And I learned today a great deal about all the excuses why we did not help the Hungarians and what were the reasons and all the diplomacy that has taken place. But I still don’t understand that how could we permit with the knowledge that those people who created the revolution—they were not prepared for it, which we heard earlier today—and we encouraged this through the Radio Free Europe. I listened to those as a good former Hungarian—always a Hungarian. I couldn’t understand—how could we encourage these people to create a revolution when they were not prepared for it, and this has been going on all the time? So I’m assuming it was done with the encouragement of President Eisenhower and his people, and they received this encouragement—the press, our own newspaper people who encouraged us all the time.
I’ve been recently back in Hungary—I was invited to talk to the graduating students at the Hungarian Polytechnicum, and I can tell you more than half of the questions which was directed to me—“How do explain it that if you know the United States—you are a real bridge between the United States and Europe—that they did not come to our aid when it was in the name of President Eisenhower—we created a revolution and we had no support from the United States?” This happened just in end of April when I was there. And people don’t forget it.
And even though today—I was yesterday at United Nations where they celebrated the 50 years anniversary of this revolution, and it was a beautiful evening, you know. And Henry Kissinger was talking and he’s a great diplomat, and of course he explained in so many words all these excuses that I hear today that had to do with Suez and had to do with Palestine, Israel, and France and all the intrigues, you know, that takes place all the time in the diplomatic service.
But we certainly knew about it, because as we heard, we had CIA people there who reported back, and we had some other people who reported. The State Department certainly must have known, because if they did know about it, they were just as poorly prepared at that time as we are today—poorly prepared for the next problems that we are going to have or already are having in this world.
So I hope we learned something from this for the future, because we are today in a much greater difficulties and problems facing us than we faced at a time 50 years ago.
LEGVOLD: On the first point and question made, Richard, how would you answer the students and the question they asked last April at the practicum?
IMMERMAN: Well, actually, I do sort of a nicer answer and the answer they don’t want to hear.
Sort of the nicer answer is that the United States had no idea there was going to be a revolution—absolutely none. And this encouragement sort of—you’re taking it to a logical conclusion that they did not, that there would actually be a physical uprising.
The not-so-nice question is that people die in a cold war or a hot war. And as I mentioned, the Hungarian people—the Eastern Europe people were not a particularly high priority for the administration. And to show you how this sort of political thing played out is—you asked about Albania and what happened.
Certainly by ‘53, there is no plan. In East Germany, though, the CIA is running a program composed almost exclusively of East European emigres called “red sox/red cap,” which were preparing for some type of covert operation. That program was in existence for years. There was never any intention for them to do anything. But the domestic Eastern European population might know that in East Germany there is this training going on for possible action. I mean, in many ways you could say that that’s pretty sort of cynical, Machiavellian, but that’s sort of the way it was.
IMMERMAN: Are you there? That’s it.
LEGVOLD: Richard Haass.
QUESTIONER: How do you all judge the correctness of Khrushchev’s decision to use force from his perspective? Essentially he bought 30-odd years of continued control, Warsaw Pact domination, what have you. Given his parameters, did essentially he extend Soviet influence for three decades, or could you argue just the opposite—that by setting up Hungary as a kind of experiment in some sort of mild de-Stalinization, some sort of a liberal—quasi-liberal or somewhat limited experiment, he might have actually created the basis for an extension of power? Essentially, did he do the right thing in retrospect, from his point of view?
TAUBMAN: The second possibility is very interesting. To do it he would have had to, in a way, be Gorbachev, and he was not. But had he been Gorbachev, he might have been better able to do it then than Gorbachev was 30 years later. That is to say, the Soviet Union in 1956 had legs; it had energy; it had a future. By the late 1980s, it was, you know, in deep trouble no matter what happened.
So if one can imagine Khrushchev allowing this, and if one can imagine Hungary not taking advantage of what it’s allowed, to turn entirely away and bring back the old order, and thus discredit what he had done, then the second scenario looks good.
But of course, we’ve heard from Charles that the problem in Hungary was that because Nagy was Nagy and weak, and because the insurgents were strong and aggressive, it might not have stabilized in a way that could have allowed Khrushchev to carry it through.
For it to work, Hungary would have had to have been Poland; Khrushchev would have had to have been Gorbachev—(laughter)—and I guess I could figure out some more things. And to say all of that, of course, is to remind ourselves of what a difference 30 years makes.
LEGVOLD: Well, and one—before Charles speaks—one has to remember that you got a version of that afterwards in the Kadar regime. That probably was as far as he could go in that direction.
GATI: The only thing I would add to Bill’s comment—with which I fully agree—Richard, you have to keep in mind that Khrushchev did not make the decision by himself, even though it’s very clear from the Malin notes that he was number one on both October 30 th and the 31 st. But he had to keep in mind the Stalinists in the Politburo—you know, Molotov, Kaganovich—still there—names that, you know, few of us remember—Malinkov (ph) there, and of course Suslov, who did seem to change his mind. And the most important person, as Bill mentioned, was Yuri Andropov—and by the way, and his wife, who kept reporting about the atrocities in Budapest on the 30 th.
So even if he had wanted to do it, he really had only—if he had wanted to stay with the October 30 th decision, he would have needed more support than Mikoyan’s, who was the only strong supporter who had faith in Imre Nagy being able to consolidate his power, and therefore Hungary would remain somehow in the Warsaw Pact.
TAUBMAN: Mikoyan comes closer to really being Gorbachev, but has some qualities of character and mind which Gorbachev would have done well to have—that is, he was very wily and a survivor. So if you could take Mikoyan’s wiles and Gorbachev’s vision and settle them somewhere in there, you might have been able to be more successful in the end than either Khrushchev or Gorbachev.
LEGVOLD: Richard, I want to praise you for—and Martina—for organizing these kinds of sessions, and then raise us to a slightly different level from this specific discussion of Suez and Hungary in 1956.
There is now an enormous amount of very good Cold War historiography that’s going on, including the—Fursenko-Naftali book, which is also available to you on the way out, and which I’ve had good things to say about—along with the Gati book and this last issue of Foreign Affairs (I mean heartily ?).
But in the work that’s being done and the new historiography of the Cold War, there is a chance now to explore a number of what social scientists would call counter-factuals, where there could have been very different at other critical moments, including the ‘48 to ‘49 period when we formed NATO. You remember Kennan’s argument was that we unnecessarily militarized the Cold War.
There was another debate about the March 2, 1953, note that Stalin sent arguing for a different kind of settlement of Germany that would have led to something that anticipated Kennan’s ‘57 Reith Lectures and which were dismissed at the time. And there’s been a debate about whether or not the German question could have been handled differently after March of 1953. There are a number of other instances along the way. We get to 1956 and now Charles’s argument.
I guess the question that I would ask the whole panel to wind up the evening is whether they believe that 1956—and from their perspective both Suez and Hungary—is one of those moments where had it worked out, we would have had a very different subsequent stage to the Cold War.
GATI: Well, I would say that I think probably Richard and I would disagree on this—that at that time in the Cold War, with psychological warfare an important part of whatever it is that we were doing, we were not interested in an early detente or accommodation with the Soviet Union, for good reasons. Let me emphasize: For very good reasons, we didn’t trust them. And it wasn’t enough for Khrushchev to go and call Tito a comrade or remove troops from Austria or the Geneva summit or the 20 th Party Congress.
All that was not quite enough to convince us that the Soviet leadership wanted time, which is what they always do, to consolidate their power. But in the process of making communism stronger, which is what they wanted to do—in the process of that, they also wanted to have peaceful coexistence with us. This was a big opportunity that we missed.
IMMERMAN: Okay. Well, first of all, I hope you’re not sort of lumping them together, because I’m not sure how Suez could have worked out well, in terms of creating a better situation.
In terms of Hungary, I would disagree, in that I think that there were many in the United States in the administration who sought some sort of detente. Somewhat ironically is that period ‘57 through ‘59 leading up to the summit—there is momentum at that point, which of course crashes down with the U2 and the summit, reinforcing your point about trust.
GATI: That’s very true.
LEGVOLD: And Berlin crises in between.
IMMERMAN: There are lots of it. But the—I mean, the summit is after Berlin, and of course, at that point, Berlin is more or less resolved, although it goes up to ‘62. But in other words, the ultimatum passes.
So I don’t see ‘56 as a major watershed. I see 1953, ‘54—‘53 particularly, because in terms of quote-unquote “missed opportunities”—I think the death of Stalin is the largest one—again I can’t reconstruct how it could have turned out differently. But certainly between the chance of peace speech and all of that, there was an opportunity. But it—the situation wasn’t right in the Soviet Union.
And then there’s another change between ‘59 and ‘61. But ‘56, I really don’t see how if Hungary had turned out differently it would have changed things, because, as I said, it was really largely about nuclear weapons, and Hungary was not involved in that.
TAUBMAN: On the general question, as I worked on my biography of Khrushchev, it bore in on me again and again the degree to which we in the West did not understand Khrushchev. And one of the things we didn’t understand was how seriously he was attempting to reform his country and to ease, if not end, the Cold War. And this comes up again and again.
And we furthermore didn’t understand when he grew so frustrated with us that he tried to bring us to the table through a different means, by issuing an ultimatum on Berlin.
Adam Ulam—the late, great Adam Ulam at Harvard, historian of the Cold War—once said something about Khrushchev which summarizes how, if we didn’t understand him, it was partly because of how he himself acted. And what Ulam said was Khrushchev’s way of proceeding was to say to the West, “Be my friend, or I’ll break your neck.” (Laughter.)
LEGVOLD: Which is also the theme of the Fursenko-Naftali book, so these people are singing from the same page at this point.
Thank you all, and thank Richard, Charles, and Bill. (Applause.)
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