(HOST) During the last days of October fifty years ago, commentator Vic Henningsen says that the world watched in amazement as it appeared – for an all-too-brief-moment – that an eastern European nation might throw off the yoke of Soviet oppression.
(HENNINGSEN) In 1956 things were looking up for nations behind the so-called “Iron Curtain”. In February, Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev denounced his predecessor, Josef Stalin, the man responsible for Russia’s continued occupation of Eastern Europe after World War II. During the summer, riots in Poland led the Soviet Union to soften aspects of its rule there. Encouraged by these events, Hungarians rose on October 23rd to overthrow their Soviet-backed government.
For a little while it looked like they might pull it off. As late as October 30th, Krushchev contemplated withdrawing Soviet forces from Hungary. But he changed his mind and, on November 4th, 1956, sent 200,000 troops and 4000 tanks into Budapest, the Hungarian capital, to crush the revolt – revealing the Soviet Union as a tyranny unwilling to tolerate freedom of expression within its sphere.
But it’s important to remember that when the Hungarians rose, they anticipated American help.
For almost four years, the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower had publicly promoted rollback of Communism and liberation of captive peoples as national goals. CIA-backed broadcasts over Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America incited eastern European opposition to Soviet control. Secretary of State Dulles promised economic aid to those who severed their ties with the Kremlin.
But military realities meant that such aid would never come. The U.S. was in no position to dispatch forces to a landlocked nation occupied by the Red Army – the world’s largest. In those days America’s main military might lay in the threat of nuclear attack – what was called “massive retaliation”.
That would have destroyed Hungary, not saved it. Despite the rhetoric of his administration, President Eisenhower feared nuclear war more than he hated Communism. He had no intention of aiding the Hungarians and, when he didn’t, he was widely praised for avoiding what would have been an unwinnable conflict.
Unfortunately, many ordinary Hungarians joined the revolt expecting aid from a nation that championed liberation of the oppressed. Desperate freedom fighters pleaded for help as their small arms and Molotov cocktails proved no defense against Soviet tanks. Forty thousand Hungarians died as their revolt was crushed.
It would be over thirty years before Hungary finally threw off the Soviet yoke in 1989. It became a parliamentary democracy the following year and currently enjoys cordial relations with the United States.
But Hungarians were largely silent last June when President Bush laid a wreath at a Budapest memorial to the failed revolution. At that ceremony the President said – quote – “We’ve learned from your example, and we resolve that when people stand up for their freedom, America will stand with them.” End quote.
Survivors of the revolt learned through bitter experience not to trust American rhetoric. I guess it shouldn’t surprise us if they – and others – remain somewhat skeptical of our rhetoric today.
Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.