When President Bush visited Hungary, he helped the nation commemorate its failed 1956 uprising against Soviet domination. But Charles Gati wrote that a Clinton-style apology would have been more in order:
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.
Gati is an academic and a researcher. It is apparent from his column that he’s formed his opinions about 1956 at least in part from digging he’s done in the CIA’s archives to research a book. They also owe much, it seems, to material from Soviet archives that were available to researchers after the fall of the USSR.
We now know from Russian archives that the Hungarians did have a chance to gain some of what they sought.
I have every sympathy with the Hungarians. I remember reading a white paper account of the events of 1956 when I was a teenager and thinking it was one of the great tragedies of the Cold War. And seeing how the Red Army brought in its Asian units to grind the boot down on genuine factory workers gave the lie to the whole cardboard edifice of Marxist-Leninist rhetoric.
But Gati seems to me to be in violation of one of my cardinal rules: In judging the acts and words of people of the past, judge from what they knew, not what you know now.
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, Gati writes, and probably correctly, “[T]he 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.”
Thanks to people like Gati, we know what the American and Soviet leaders of 1956 said among themselves. But they couldn’t hear each other at the time.
Gati says other U.S. approaches to the Hungary crisis would have succeeded. But even after you’ve read all the archives, you don’t know that. Once you take a single step outside the historical flow of events, once you introduce a single “what-if,” the butterfly effect kicks in and the entire course of events becomes utterly unpredictable.
It is possible to see similarities between the 1956 uprisings in Poland and Hungary and the events of 1989: A new leader in the East was denouncing old tyrants, admitting mistakes, and promising more openness and better lives for people. Subject populations reacted by rising up not only against their local overlords but the entire Soviet system.
But the similarities mask deep differences. Khrushchev, for instance, was under intense pressure from Mao not to let the Soviet system run off the rails. The audacity, or genius — or luck — of Reagan was to see that the moment had come to press against the rotten regime. The mass rising from below in Eastern Europe was strong enough in 1989, and the change at the top was real enough, and the hollowness of the regimes was so advanced, that the circumstances were just right.
But the main thing Gati seems to have forgotten is the awful dilemma that chilled every day of the Cold War. Every international crisis brought a risk of nuclear annihilation. After a few of them in the first post-war years, the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. learned to avoid them — without making that too obviously the main rule of the game.
Stability always is the ideal for world powers, in any era, but in the Cold War it became the only guarantee of survival. Both sides, though they occasionally tested each other (especially at times of a change in administration in Washington) quickly retreated into the fetish for stability. When the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, Kennedy in public used it as an excuse to, correctly, lambaste the Soviet “worker’s paradise” ideal as a sham. But privately he accepted it: “It’s not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war.”
The U.S. invested thousands of lives and millions of dollars in maintaining a status quo that was morally indefensible and that compromised our ideals. We muzzled our commitment to democracy and embraced dictators if they pronounced themselves anti-communists. And what was the inhumane doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” but hostage-taking on a global scale?
It was a system that elevated stability over justice. What was the alternative? Bold moves only drove the world closer to the thermonuclear precipice. Before it’s all forgotten, let someone write down the helpless terror felt by average people during the Cuban Missile Crisis; how my parents said good-bye to each other every morning as he went to work, crying and thinking this would be the day the skies blossomed obliteration all over them.
The Cold War need to deter a nuclear war at all costs short of surrender evolved in the minds of leaders from being a temporary and very regrettable condition, to a necessity, to a proper relationship, and finally to a positive good.
In 1956, it had at least reached the level of “necessity.” John Foster Dulles said in a public interview during the crisis that American military intervention to free the Hungarians would “precipitate a full-scale world war and probably the result would be all these people wiped out.”
The lines had congealed on the map when the armies halted in 1945. As Gati writes the rhetoric was launched over the barbed wire, but not the soldiers. Dean Rusk, later and in another context, said what happened in Eastern Europe had “never been an issue of war and peace between us and the Soviet Union — however ignoble this sounds.”
Do you wonder why some of us literally felt born-again in 1989, and why we still prefer the current idealistic follies in the name of freedom and gambles on nation-building? Better that than the grim death match grappling of the Cold War. Yet many people yearn for the “balance” of the past, and want something/anything — Europe, the U.N., even the Islamists — to rise up and force America to back down and return to all talk, no action.
Gati rails against the hypocrisy of an America that talked a good game of liberation and the rights of people everywhere to live free, but was unwilling to put any muscle into the promises:
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.
That’s an artful conclusion. It can be read two ways: “We should back up our talk with robust action,” or “we should stop talking about freedom being a human right since we’re not sincere about helping make it happen.”