Foreword (1)

Much has been written about the international aspects of the Hungarian Revolution in the forty years that have since past. However, scholars for the most part were unable to access official documents and had to depend instead upon less authoratative sources such as press and media coverage, official announcements, and memoirs. As a consequence of this limitation, many of the questions surrounding the international aspects of the Revolution could only be answered somewhat speculatively.

In the late eighties, however, American, British, French, and other West-European archival materials from 1956 became accessible to researchers, and, in 1992, the majority of the most crucial Soviet documents were also released. Thus, for the first time it is possible to move beyond speculative analysis to informed scholarship on the Revolution. (2)

This study is an attempt to examine, analyze, and evaluate the international consequences of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the reaction of the Great Powers, and the Revolution’s influence on international politics, using previously inaccessible sources to illuminate the top levels of executive decision-making. I have also relied upon—where relevant and accurate—earlier works on 1956 published in the West(3), as well as the results of Hungarian research conducted after 1989.

With this range of historical sources, this study can be considered a precursor to a larger, more comprehensive work dealing in detail with the roles of the Great Powers in the history of the Hungarian Revolution. (4) The present work already contains the most important theses and conclusions that will form the basis of the anticipated monograph.


Taking a closer look at East-West relations in the fifties, one can see that, American propaganda and Eastern European expectations notwithstanding, between 1953 and 1956 the Soviet Union never considered letting the satellite states desert the Communist bloc and the West did not for a moment intend to liberate these countries. On the contrary: these years saw the emergence of a radically new era of East-West relations—negotiations instead of confrontation—a process that paralleled that of the Soviet Union’s rise to strategic parity with the United States. In respect to Eastern Europe, as early as 1955-56 this new situation was prelude to a consensus between the superpowers that would eventually lead to the codification of the European status quo in the Helsinki agreement of 1975.

Consequently, the Hungarian Revolution was not only against American interests, but an outright inconvenience for the Eisenhower Administration. The turbulent events in Hungary disturbed and—at least for a while—halted the by then promising and successful détente process.

The American leadership, however, having been fully aware from the beginning of how limited their possibilities were, maintained a two-sided approach to the crisis. On the one hand, they tried to minimize the harm that their obligatory condemnation of the Soviet intervention would do to the budding Moscow-Washington relationship. On the other, they were eager to convince the world that the United States was not waiting idly by while an Eastern European nation was fighting for its freedom. In order to promote these contradicting interests, the American leadership was compelled to take improvisational political steps, the most spectacular of which was the presentation of the Hungarian issue to the UN Security Council on October 28,1956.

However, real decisions were not made in the Council meetings, whose debates were well orchestrated for the international public, but instead behind the scenes in secret negotiations between American, British, and French representatives. Yet because of the Suez Crisis, the relationship of the great Western powers had become rather strained by the end of October. From that time on, Great Britain, France, and the United States all tried to use the Hungarian issue to promote their own individual interests. While the French and the British wanted the emergency session of the General Assembly (convened to deal with the Suez Crisis) to discuss the Hungarian question, the Americans tried everything in their power to prevent that from happening. The US government was successful insofar as the UN was not able to make any concrete moves regarding the Hungarian Revolution before the second Soviet intervention on November 4. Consequently, many Hungarians’ expectation of military help from the West as well as the hope that Western political pressure through the UN would prove effective in forcing the Soviet Union to withdraw from Hungary both proved to be illusions.

For the Soviets, the only question was how long they could bring about political solutions—the Polish reform initiative being a case in point—before having to resort to armed intervention. This question was deliberated and settled by the Soviet Politburo in Moscow on the second day of their October 30-31 meeting. They drew the conclusion—rightly—that the Leninist-Stalinist Bolshevik system was in extreme danger in Hungary and that armed intervention was the only way in which they could restore it.

The most important lesson that the non-response of the Western states to the second Soviet intervention taught those willing to abandon their illusions was that—despite the most ardent propaganda to the contrary—a system of Eastern and Western spheres of interest, based on the mutually accepted post-war European status quo, did exist and was in practice. In this system, the region of Eastern Europe was surely consigned to its place within the Soviet sphere. Those who could not acknowledge the reality of the situation, even after having seen the fate of the Hungarian Revolution (blaming the passivity of the West on the Suez crisis, for example), were to be confronted again and again with new proofs of the solidity of the status quo, as the reform attempts of the following decades all failed in Eastern Europe, reiterating a fact that had become obvious in 1956 in Hungary for the first time.

Introduction: East-West Relations 1945 - 1953 (5)

The decades following the Second World War proved undeniably that the post-war European divide determined by the Soviet Union and the United States in 1945 had consigned the countries of Eastern Europe to the Soviet sphere without any chance of alteration until the final collapse of the Communist regimes at the end of the eighties. The superpowers, who together comprised and ruled the bipolar international system, considered the arrangement in Europe to be the cornerstone of the East-West relationship throughout the Cold War. For this reason if no other, it is worth providing a brief account of how the Soviet sphere of influence evolved, took firm root, and finally engulfed Hungary and the other countries of the region.(6)

Over the last two years of the war, the Allied leaders negotiated the future of Europe and plans for reconstruction at three summits held in Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam. The focus of these meetings, however, was not so much on the division of Europe as it was on the “German question”. Thus, while there were agreements in Teheran and Yalta—resulting from Soviet pressure—regarding the new western and eastern borders of Poland, there was no treaty or agreement ever made that granted the whole region of Eastern Europe to the Soviets as a sphere of influence. The Yalta “Declaration on Liberated Europe,” in which the Allied states bound themselves to facilitate free democratic elections throughout Eastern Europe, would actually have represented a concession from the Soviets, had it been taken seriously in Moscow.

The only and thus frequently cited negotiations on the post-war future of Europe where ranges of interest and spheres of influence were mentioned in so many words took place in Moscow between Churchill and Stalin in October of 1944. (7) This meeting resulted in the infamous “percentage division”, which attempted to establish mutually acceptable spheres of influence for the Soviet Union and the Western states in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Though many have accused Churchill—who already knew that most of the Eastern European countries would be liberated and occupied by Soviet troops—of having callously abandoned those states to their fate, he in fact made an attempt to preserve at least a limited Western influence in the region. Of course, this agreement had no official status and was thus never referred to in later negotiations. That is not to mention the fact that the United States, who had emerged as the real victors of the war and whose viewpoint had begun to become the Western alliance’s most important, was not obliged to accept an “agreement” to which it had not been a party. With the benefit of hindsight, it is apparent that the only part of that agreement that retained any “serious” relevance was Churchill’s insistence regarding Greece on a 90/10 percent division of interest between the West and the Soviet Union. This was successful in indicating to Stalin the unwillingness of the British to accept any extension of Soviet influence over that country, which had traditionally been of strategic importance to Britain. Understandably, this was not left to chance; the British troops that liberated the Balkan state in November 1944 gave due emphasis to Churchill’s claim.

The Red Army occupied most of Eastern Europe, as well as the eastern parts of Germany and Austria. It was the hard military facts on the ground, and not any secret pacts, that determined the political fate of the region. In those circumstances, the West was left with a painful dilemma: they could either acknowledge the latest Soviet conquests (they had already been compelled to recognize the Soviet acquisitions of 1939-40 during the war) or, having no alternative solution, they could attempt to force the Soviets back to within their original borders. The Second World War had just finished, and beginning the third one was the last thing the United States and the fatally weakened Britain needed at the time (not to mention France, whose role in great power politics was less than nominal in those years).

What made it considerably easier for the West to give up Eastern Europe, however, was the fact that the western boundaries of Soviet expansion—excepting the eastern regions of Germany and Austria—largely encompassed the periphery of Europe. The Western European great powers had never held any serious influence in that area—the Turkish, Russian, and Hapsburg Empires had occupied or controlled it for hundreds of years, and from the late nineteenth century, it had fallen within the political and economic sway of Germany. In contrast, the British and French colonial empires, though the war had brought the date of their loss significantly forward, were virtually intact in 1945. The foreign offices of these states were thus understandably more concerned with the Mediterranean, North Africa, the Middle East and the Far East. Even the special relationships that Britain and France had enjoyed with some Eastern European countries such as Poland and Czechoslovakia were for the most part symbolic and only served to further accentuate their indifference towards the other countries of the region. The United States had followed a policy of declared isolationism between the wars—with a specific emphasis on keeping out of European affairs. In the immediate post-war period, it had not yet fully assumed its role as a superpower and was thus perhaps particularly given to accept the situation.

With its radically different political role and significance after 1945, the United States, having suddenly become a superpower, was compelled to enter global politics. At that point, it was in the interest of the United States to acknowledge the Soviets’ Eastern European conquests as an immutable reality, while at the same time making it clear that any further attempts at expansion would not be tolerated and could lead to military conflict. This political standpoint manifested itself in the spring of 1947, when the Greek civil war contributed to the inception of the Truman Doctrine, which many still consider to be the opening gesture of the classical Cold War era.

The foreign policy of Stalin and the Soviet leadership was very cautious in the period between 1945 and 1947. (8) Since they were well aware of the United States’ nuclear monopoly and its significantly more advanced economy, the Soviets were anxious to avoid a direct military conflict with the West. Thus, rather than working to expand their empire, they concentrated on the consolidation of their control of Eastern Europe. Considering their capabilities in the region, they initially did this with remarkable restraint—i.e. they only introduced the Soviet system where the internal political conditions made it possible. In Czechoslovakia and Hungary, on the other hand, Moscow even temporarily consented to the introduction of what seemed at the time to be permanent free democratic systems. Coalition governments were formally maintained throughout the region for some time; the Soviets introduced full Communist rule and de facto inclusion within their empire for each Eastern Europe state only after negotiations with the Western allies had completely broken down.

Of the factors that aggravated the increasingly acute differences between the Allies—finally bringing about the disintegration of the anti-fascist coalition—the “German question” seems to be the most important. The Allied leaders had begun to discuss the future of Germany and its possible partition as soon as the end of the war had appeared on the distant horizon. Victory, or more precisely the final position of the Allied armies in their respective occupation zones at the end of the war, made agreement even more difficult. Exactly as it had been a century earlier, German national unity became again the locus of European politics. This time, as the central element of the young “East-West relationship”, the German question had obtained a global importance which it would retain for nearly half a century.

Peculiarly enough, though both the Soviets and their Western allies supported the idea of a united Germany, they could not reach a general agreement. The Soviets wanted a neutral, economically weak and demilitarized Germany that would not pose any further threat to the USSR. Neutrality, in both its strategic and international legal senses, would have barred any possible German accession to an anti-Soviet Western alliance. In addition, Moscow hoped that German neutrality would automatically decrease Western influence, which—taking into account the “beneficially” disintegrating effect of the extraordinary economic situation and the extreme poverty of the post-war era—in turn would make it easier to expand the influence of the German Communist party and, consequently, of the Soviet Union over the whole country. This scenario was exactly what the Western states wanted to avoid. They eventually concluded that it would be better to accept the partition of Germany so that the Western occupation zones could be rebuilt into a strong, economically viable buffer state, than to reunite Germany as a weak and neutral state vulnerable to Soviet subversion.

Negotiation between the Soviet Union and the Western Great Powers on the German question was perhaps the most apparent place where differences approached irreconcilability. But the East-West relationship was even further aggregated in the course of negotiations intended to sort out the status of the smaller Axis allies. The meetings of the Council of Foreign Ministers from September 1945 and later the Paris Peace Conference held in the following year, despite all intentions, failed to achieve their main objective: to prepare the ground for a successful peace treaty with Germany and Japan.(9) On the contrary, they seriously decreased the allies’ earlier readiness to compromise. First of all, the Soviets were resentful of the Western states. These, despite their acknowledgment of the Soviet Union’s vital role in the war and the Soviets’ right to influence in Eastern Europe, also faced pressure from domestic public opinion, and therefore attempted to curtail Soviet ambitions. Moscow often interpreted this negotiating stance as an intrusion into Soviet “internal” affairs.

At the same time, Western distrust was increased by a number of events in 1946-47 that the West regarded as part of a Soviet policy of expansion. Even though Stalin, with the expressed purpose of avoiding confrontation with the West, refrained from supporting the Communist partisans in the Greek civil war, the potential danger that the Greek Communists would win—even without direct Soviet support—and thus bring Greece under Soviet influence, threatened the European status quo of 1945. The Soviet Union’s policy toward Iran was also considered expansionist. Although in 1946, following resolute American demands, the Soviets withdrew their troops from the northern part of Iran (which had been temporarily occupied by the allied forces during the war), the mere fact that Stalin had tried to evade the agreement which was supposed to bind all the parties had far-reaching significance; it considerably diminished the credibility of Soviet cooperation. (10) Perhaps the Chinese Civil War did not directly influence the East-West relationship, but in the global perspective it certainly increased the anxiety of the West. Communist victory in China, if the military situation was anything to go by, was close at hand in 1946-47. This posed the threat that the world’s most populous country, which was of definitive strategic value in the increasingly important Far East, would become part of the Soviet empire.

A chain of actions that flowed from the growing mutual distrust between the superpowers, such as the Marshall Plan, the Prague coup and the Berlin Blockade, soon played out into beginning of the Cold War between 1947-49, with the result that virtually any form of cooperation between the Soviet Union and their Western allies became impossible. The 1945 demarcation line turned into the “Iron Curtain” symbolizing the partition of Europe, and international politics were increasingly determined by the opposition of the two newly formed military-political blocs and the superpowers that controlled them. In September of 1947, the Soviets created the Information Bureau of Communist and Labor Parties, with the purpose of “sovietizing” the Eastern European security zone and eliminating all elements of uncertainty, in order to safeguard against a potential Western attack. In Hungary and Czechoslovakia, where before this point the democratic model had been left relatively unmolested, this meant a total take-over of power by the Communists. At the same time in the West, Communist parties were excluded from the French, Italian, and Belgian governments, and the Truman Administration launched the Marshall plan, which—together with the general deterioration of East-West realtions—eventually led to the “solution” of the German question: the division of Germany into the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. Finally, the Western allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the purpose of preventing Soviet expansion into Western Europe.

Mutual distrust between East and West, which had been initially based in part upon rational analyses from both sides, started to take on an increasingly irrational complexion, and soon developed into a (world) war hysteria. Both parties tried to convince their public that the enemy was preparing for a final showdown, and that direct military confrontation was inevitable. Of course, the leaders of both the United States and the Soviet Union—which became a nuclear power in 1949—were fully aware of the possible consequences of a nuclear world war, and accordingly tried everything to avoid any direct conflict between the superpowers. Therefore the Soviet Union—their a vague attempt at ousting Western powers from West Berlin in the 1948 Berlin blockade notwithstanding—basically abandoned the possibility of further conquests in Europe once and for all. In return, the West functionally if not publicly accepted the 1945 European status quo, together with the Eastern European conquests of the Soviet Union. Paradoxically, this tacit agreement, which was never codified yet kept in force consistently and practiced even during the coldest years of the Cold War, became the most important factor in preserving the peace.

With their acceptance of each others’ vital interests, the two military blocs, which had become solidified by the late 1940s, never collided, despite all the war propaganda. Between 1950 and 1953, however, an indirect confrontation took place conveniently far from both Europe and North America, on the Korean peninsula. (11)The Korean proxy war did much on both sides to satisfy the war lobbies, while at the same time alleviating the anxiety unleashed by war hysteria. The war also provided an acid test of the Americans’ containment policy, that is whether or not the United States was willing to engage in military conflict anywhere in the world to prevent Communist expansion. The final outcome of the war, which claimed huge losses on both sides and left the situation on the ground all but identical to what it had been before the North had invaded, clearly reflected the stalemate situation between the two blocs in the early and mid-fifties, as well as the relative balance of power.

Perhaps the greatest lesson of the Korean War was that it proved to each party that completely ignoring the interests of the other would lead nowhere; acknowledging this truth later contributed to the re-establishment of Soviet-American political relations. Stalin stated in a Pravda interview as early as February 1951 that war between the two military blocs could be avoided. (12) Even though the idea of peaceful coexistence did not follow automatically from this principle, Stalin’s successors built upon it as a premise after Stalin’s death in 1953. The Soviet Union proposed the idea of a neutral Germany to the West once again in March of 1952, when the East-West relationship had hit bottom. Although the suggestion was primarily an attempt to prevent the former enemy from integrating into the Western Alliance and joining NATO, it was the first time in many years that the Soviet Union had approached the Western powers with a readiness to compromise.

All this proved that even prior to Stalin’s death, there were certain elements in international politics which—however vaguely—referred to the possibility of changing the East-West relationship from one of total opposition to something less ominous.

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Copyright © 2000 National Széchényi Library 1956 Institute and Oral History Archive
Utolsó módosítás:  2006. szeptember 18. hétfő

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