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The Hungarian Revolution of 1956

The early 1950s witnessed a thaw in the Communist monolith. Stalin’s death in 1953 led to Khrushchev’s “secret speech” in 1956 which condemned excesses of the past. The U.S. and USSR agreed to a treaty in 1955 establishing Austria as a neutral and demilitarized country, which encouraged hopes in Hungary of a similar arrangement. July 1956 saw the resignation of hardliner Mátyás Rákosi, “Stalin’s Best Hungarian Disciple”, as General Secretary of the Party. Just a few months later, in October, the USSR gave in to reformist demands in Poland, which further spurred hopes for concessions in Budapest. All these changes encouraged students, journalists, and writers to openly criticize the form of government and call for reforms.

Soon, student groups across the nations had banded together. On October 23, 1956, several thousand protesters marched through central Budapest to the Parliament building. Some students tore down a monument erected to Stalin and put Hungarian flags in the boots which remained on the pedestal. Someone in the crowd cut out the Communist coat of arms from the Hungarian flag, leaving a distinctive hole and others quickly followed suit.  A student delegation entering the radio building to try to broadcast the students’ demands was detained. When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. As the news spread, disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.

The revolt spread quickly across Hungary and the government collapsed. Thousands organized into militias, battling the ÁVH and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned and former prisoners were released and armed. Radical impromptu workers’ councils wrested municipal control from the ruling Hungarian Working People’s Party and demanded political changes. A new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return.

After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country.

The Hungarian resistance continued until November 10. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter. Public discussion about this revolution was suppressed in Hungary for more than 30 years. With the fall of the Communist bloc in 1989, October 23 was declared a national holiday.

Jordan Rogers was an Economic and Political Officer at the Budapest Legation at the time and discusses the national mood, the evacuation by American families at the Legation, his frustrations with U.S. policy, and his impressions of Cardinal Mindszenty, who was a refugee in Embassy Budapest for more than 15 years. He was interviewed by Thomas Dunnigan in 2006.

Read also about post-Soviet bloc Hungary in 1989 and the return of the Crown of St. Stephen, which had been kept at Fort Knox. Go here for more about the Prague Spring and the 1953 East Berlin Uprising. Go here for other Moments on the Cold War.


“Hungarian soldiers were unwilling to fire on their own people”

ROGERS: [T]he growing dissatisfaction and…demands being expressed by a broader and broader group of Hungarian people, so that the second year, including the period in 1956 when the uprising occurred, were about the most emotional and exciting period of my entire career…

We sensed that trouble was coming. We described it by saying the Russians were on a slippery slope. We saw that the Hungarians were making more and more demands and were getting beyond the sort of usual limits and the Russians were not reacting in the sense that we had become accustomed to. They were not arresting people, they were not as vociferous in their condemnations. So we saw that things were happening.

People ask, “Did you forecast the revolution?” No, we did not. I think it’s safe to say that no one did. Clearly, the Russians had not expected it. Clearly, the Hungarians had not expected it. Clearly the newspaper world, the media had not expected it. The closest claim that I know of now was one made by the Yugoslav Ambassador a number of years later that he advised Belgrade shortly before the uprising that a revolt was likely. I have also seen claims recently that the Soviet military in the summer of 1956 were concerned that things might get out of hand. One of our closest Hungarian friends was then a newspaper reporter for the United Press. She was in London when the uprising broke out.

But we saw that something was happening and I think this illustrates a tremendous shortfall or dereliction on the part of the administration at State, because Ravndal was transferred out, in July, I believe…I’m not sure when a minister was named but no minister had arrived when the revolution broke out…Spencer Barnes [was] in charge. A new minister, Tom Wailes, who I cannot praise highly enough, was sent in. He came in on November 2nd 

Well, on October 23rd and for several days preceding, there were parades and public meetings, speeches, etc., and I went along to several of those, whenever I could. My Hungarian was good enough to pick up something, but not everything. So I went along with Legation officers Anton Nyerges and sometimes Geza Katona, who spoke perfect Hungarian. So we were fully aware of the increasing demands, the attitude and three, to some extent, the reaction. I remember walking in front of the Foreign Office along with a big crowd and seeing somebody I knew peering out the window of the Foreign Office. I put up my thumb and he raised this to me. That didn’t last very long.

Q: The speeches all had an anti-Soviet tone, I suppose. 

ROGERS: Oh, absolutely. Increasing demands. The thing came to a crux when the crowd went to the Hungarian radio station to ask that these demands be broadcast. And a group…of students, …went in to make these demands and did not reappear. But before this, on Oct. 23, after a certain point the parades and speeches seemed to be ending, so I went home. We’d been invited to dinner by a Hungarian newspaperman, who had John McCormick of The New York Times with him and he had also invited a Hungarian writer whose comments I very much I wanted very much to hear. So I left the speeches, went home.

Helping Hungarians

When I got home my wife said she’d just got a call from a friend of hers saying things are happening at that radio station, “you’d better get down there.” So she and I turned right around, went down to the radio station and saw what I think was really one of the first critical moments of the revolution. The radio station was on a narrow street which was packed with people shouting at the radio station, making their demands when a group of four or five army trucks, filled with infantry, came into the street — Hungarian infantry.

The Russians had not played any role in this, yet. And the appearance of the trucks electrified the Hungarians. They were yelling and shouting and trying to push the trucks back. The trucks moved forward but then all of a sudden they stopped and couldn’t go any further and after a few minutes began to back out. That really electrified the crowd and they jumped up on the trucks and waved flags and the atmosphere changed immediately. I think it was the first occasion when the Hungarian Army had attempted to use force and had found their own soldiers unwilling to fire on their own people.

Well, we left then. We thought that was over. So we left and went on to the dinner but had been there only a little while when both our host and I got calls, I from the legation, saying that somebody had been killed in front of the radio station. So that set off rioting all over town that night… They pulled down…the major, biggest statue of Stalin. Barnes assembled many of the staff at the Legation and we fanned out over town to get impressions of what was going on, then reassembled at the Legation after a couple of hours to put together a telegram for Washington. We got home about three o’clock and at five o’clock I was wakened by Soviet tanks coming into town…. 

These troops came in, we thought then, from Székesfehévar, which is a town about forty miles away, southwest of Budapest. I believe it was the closest point at which Soviet troops were normally based. Later the Soviets brought in troops from outside of Hungary. One military wife who lived on a main street made a record of tank and personnel carrier license numbers from her window, which provided the necessary identification….

I took the Marton family, he was the AP and she the UP correspondent [They were arrested in 1955 and charged with passing state secrets to the U.S. ambassador; their daughter Kati later married ABC news anchor Peter Jennings and then renowned U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke]…; I took them and their two daughters to Vienna…they all had Hungarian nationality, but they also had passports. This was in January, after the revolution.

When the question arises, as to why were they given exit permits, I don’t know. I don’t know why he was released from prison during the summer of 1956, either. You can say that the release fit in with the growing sense of freedom which was beginning to be felt, as well as challenge to the Soviets. I presume that they were given exit permits because if they were refused there would be a lot of badgering from AP and UP; and anyway they were good reporters who knew and understood what was going on so why not just get rid of them and have it all shut up? They left and they had legal permission and so I took them. That’s not the same as, later, my wife particularly worked with another couple who had both suffered from polio in their childhood or as teenagers. They emigrated legally but Sarah was able to get him a job in her hometown of Columbia, South Carolina….

We were constantly being appealed to for help by Hungarians, sort of a generic term but I think most of them were hoping that somebody like [UN Secretary General Dag] Hammarskjöld would suddenly appear in Budapest. We were hoping the same thing and we made the great mistake of supposing that this sort of action was under serious consideration in the UN. I don’t think it was. But the Hungarians were always looking to us for help but without being very specific as to what that help really would constitute.

A group, maybe it was two-three people, came to my house and spoke to my wife once and read her a long statement she then read over the telephone to a secretary, in which they were appealing to the UN to engineer some sort of truce, is my recollection. But I’m sure most people were not in a position to think through what the West was able to do, whether it was able physically to send in military troops, which would have been a very difficult, complicated and dangerous action, even if they were readily available. I have met military persons since then who were stationed in Germany and were placed on alert, but I think any military action on our part to assist the Hungarians would have run a direct risk of war with the Soviet Union. Furthermore, Austria was a neutralized country and to have attempted to ignore that would have opened up a whole array of other problems.

Giving the USSR a free pass to do what they wished in Hungary?

Now what also did, which has drawn down a good bit of criticism, was to assure the USSR that the U.S. had no desire to make Hungary a member of NATO or to become a military ally of the US. Many have thought that this in effect gave the USSR a free pass to do what they wished in Hungary….

Q:  A lot of people say that the U.S. sent the wrong signals to the Hungarian people, through our broadcasts over Radio Free Europe and the Voice of America and left the impression that we were going to do more than we actually did. Did you in the legation have that feeling, too, or not? 

ROGERS: I don’t know that I can speak for the legation. I felt that way but on the other hand I also tend to think that the main driving force which was exercised by the West and by the United States was the fact that we existed as a free society and without our having to broadcast that. I believe Secretary Dulles, when he was talking about… a rollback that would involve some physical action, went too far.

Certainly, he did not intend to imply that if an uprising should occur that the U.S. would support it militarily. But clearly, many Hungarians inferred that much more support would be forthcoming than in fact materialized. But…no one anticipated what would develop. I don’t believe the legation ever, I don’t remember us ever going to Washington and saying, “Cool it!”, I don’t think we were ever asked in advance to comment on Secretary Dulles’ speeches. It’s not often a minister will take it upon himself to cable the Secretary and say, “Bud, you did the wrong thing…!”

Getting Americans Out

Q: Oh, the rollback, that went back to the early part of his administration. Now at one point, I gather, the Soviets prevented the U.S. diplomatic dependents from leaving. Did that affect you at all…? 

ROGERS: Yes, of course it did, because my family was involved in that…The day before [Tom Wailes] came in, we had made the decision ourselves, I guess through Spencer Barnes, that all the families would leave. This was based on the widespread and increasing reports that Soviet forces were reentering Hungary. A convoy was made up. One or maybe two men with them. I believe a finance officer and maybe Dan Sprecher, who was then the economic officer, went with them. They had their families there, too.

But then the convoy reached the border and was turned back by Russian soldiers. That was quite an unnerving experience for them, because it was in a heavy snowstorm and they had driven up to the border and then they had to drive back. But at that time, that same day, the new minister had come in from Vienna. We had sent Brice Meeker up in the minister’s car, the limousine, to pick him up and bring him back. The convoy arrived back at the legation around eleven o’clock. The minister had come in I think in the late afternoon. He had passed the convoy en route and someone said to me he’d gotten out and spoken to them.

They arrived at eleven o’clock, as I believe is described in Bob Clark’s memorandum, the minister called a meeting for midnight and decided then that the convoy would leave again the next morning, early, with husbands. The husbands would go to the border with their families and send them across and then they would come back. In the meantime, we had gone to the Russian embassy in Budapest and gotten assurances…from the Russian embassy that they could go through….

[T]he next morning they went back, with husbands. I went with my family. We got to the border. I had the document in Russian, My memory says it was a Russian document, prepared by the Russian embassy. I’m not sure. It may have been a document that we prepared. How we were able to type it in Russian I’m not sure. But I had a document in Russian with red seals on it and when we got to the border there was a Soviet soldier with a machine gun out there in front of us.

So I get out, waving this document and he squats down beside the machine gun. I waved the document at him and he waves me back. And I walk on towards him and he kneels down beside his machine gun. I accept that argument and go back to the car!

In the meantime, Dan Sprecher, who had been in the first convoy, had been in contact with a school there. I don’t know exactly how that happened…[T]hey were willing to put us up. So we went, this was a substantial number, not only of Americans but of some people from other legations and some Red Cross people and newspaper people and a goodly crowd of probably 70 people and they were able to put us up. Not only that, but they fed us! But we came under Russian guard, with Russian soldiers around the school, for a while….

The dispatch does not report, since it happened later, that sometime in the spring of 1957 several Legation representatives (I participated, but I don’t remember who else) visited the school to thank them for their assistance and to make a financial donation. I don’t remember whether the money was raised locally or included official funds.

Little Help from the UN

Q: What was the UN doing during all this period that gave any aid and comfort to the Hungarians? 

ROGERS: I think very little. For one thing, it was the eve of a presidential election. Secretary Dulles was in the hospital for a cancer operation. And most important, the Suez crisis had just erupted. So I think what happened in the UN was, action was being postponed because the U.S. had the impression, and certainly wanted to believe, that they were still negotiating with the Russians. I remember being pretty critical of Lodge, who was I think our ambassador at the UN, because he was willing to let the matter not go forward. Now I blame the Legation and I blame myself for my role in this because we did not make a concerted, strong pitch to get Hammarskjöld in there.

If you look back at the Russian reinvasion, the second time, on November 4th, one of the few things that had any chance of stopping that would have been had Hammarskjöld come into Budapest at the right moment and been there physically. But this is complicated by the fact that we were not aware until Nov. 1 that Soviet troops were reentering Hungary, and so it is hard to see how a high-level UN representative could have gotten to Hungary before Nov. 3, when the Soviets were on the verge of their second onslaught.

But we had thought about that a great deal. In fact, there had been rumors that Hammarskjöld had gone as far as Prague and was waiting to come in. We didn’t know whether that was true or not. But we never made a flat, specific recommendation that he come to Budapest. The reason we didn’t was because we could not imagine that that was not under serious consideration in Washington and New York….It was not….

The Hungarians sent a team under Pal Maléter, the most successful military commander against the Soviets during Stage One, to negotiate with the Russians over the withdrawal of Soviet troops. During those negotiations they were suddenly arrested. This was only a short time, a matter of a few hours, before the second Russian invasion began, which was early on the morning of November 4th. When that invasion began, then Nagy took refuge in the Yugoslav Embassy….

The destruction of Budapest took place on two separate occasions. I’m not sure which was worse. Probably the second. In the first invasion, the Hungarians really stood the Russians off with use of Molotov cocktails. You can argue that on October 24th, when the first Russian tanks came in, (a) suppose they had used tear gas instead of bullets, (b) suppose they had used infantry to support the tanks, (c) suppose they had had a heavy rainstorm. Any of those could have changed history.

Well it didn’t rain. They didn’t use infantry. They didn’t use tear gas. But I’m told that the destruction of downtown Budapest by the middle of November was about as bad as it was during World War II….

I think what the revolution was is well known and well accepted. Probably it was the most unifying event that has taken place in Hungarian history, in unifying practically all the Hungarian population in one anti-Soviet and pro-liberty effort. It was not successful immediately but I’m sure it contributed to the weakening and eventual downfall of the Soviet system.

As to what the big issue probably is, what the West or the United States could and should have done, I can only say I remember feeling very strongly that there no realistic possibility of bringing in, trying to use military force.

We did believe that some sort of solution, a neutral state copied after Austria, or some leftist type of government similar to Yugoslavia, was worth striving for. But also it was clear that to go very far to the right would sharply reduce any chances of acceptance by the Soviets, and also would not have reflected the general political views of the Hungarian people. Here, I believe we differed from the Department, including Secretary Dulles, who at one point raised the possibility of Cardinal Mindszenty providing a focal point.

Dealing with the New Hungarian Government

Q: Would the new Kadar government see you or would they talk to you? Did we want to see them? 

ROGERS: Wailes came in and at that point he came in with instructions not to present credentials immediately. The next day (by then our communications capabilities were back to normal) Washington finally said, “Go ahead and present credentials to Imre Nagy.” By then it was too late. He couldn’t possibly have gotten to Nagy. That night the Soviets came back in. And so, there he was. When Kadar was put in place, Washington again said, “Don’t present credentials. Just wait and see.” So he sat there for a month. He came in in early November. He sat there until early February, sometime.

Q: Of course, the Hungarians would not deal with him if he hadn’t presented credentials. 

ROGERS: No, the Hungarians wouldn’t deal with him and that left, where we were before, Spencer Barnes. Wailes was very good for the mission, internally and he was a very good leader, a strong leader and he was welcomed by everybody and I think did the legation a lot of good. But that wasn’t why he was sent there. And so finally, in February, the Hungarians said either fish or cut bait. Either present your credentials or go home.

And so he went home. I think it was a mistake. I’m not sure I thought so then. But because over a period of time I think the Kadar government gradually modified itself. And, besides, I tend to think it’s foolish to refuse to have diplomatic relations with some country because you don’t like them. If they’re in charge, they’re in charge and they’re the people you have to deal with. I think the same thing is true today with respect to Iran. And Cuba and North Korea for that matter. The people you really need to negotiate with the most are your enemies. Anyway, Wailes left. Then Gary Ackerson was sent in as chargé, to replace Spencer Barnes….

Vice-President Nixon came to Vienna fairly early in 1957, and the Military Attache, Col. Pittman, and I were sent out to Vienna to brief him. We met him at the Ambassador’s residence, and waited several hours for him to return from a visit to the border, and finally saw him about ten p.m. I was quite surprised: he asked almost no questions about the uprising, whether the U.S. could have done anything more than it did, what persuaded the Soviets to destroy the new government after they had apparently accepted it, etc. His almost sole interest was in the flow of refugees, and whether the U.S. should seek to encourage more people to leave, etc. I suppose we volunteered comments on the revolution, but that was certainly not Nixon’s prime interest. Later, in Pakistan, I participated again in briefing him when he visited there, and was impressed by the scope of his questions and how much homework he had done.

A Long-time Guest of the the U.S. Legation

Q: Now when did Cardinal Mindszenty come to the legation? 

ROGERS: He came early on Nov. 4th… The bad day, when, after midnight, the Russians began to come back in and when Nagy and others took refuge. We think we had our problem. The Yugoslavs, they had a crowd. They had wives and children, some 30-40 people crowded into three rooms. We had a crowd, too, for a while I guess but nothing like they did. So Mindszenty came on the early morning of November 4th.

Q: This is the man who came to dinner and stayed for a number of years. 

ROGERS: Fifteen years, close to that…[S]hortly after the Kadar government was set up, it told us we had too many people and requested us to cut the staff by…about a third….I believe we let all or most of the Marine guards go, which meant that the balance of the staff undertook the job of duty officer fairly regularly. One duty of that position was to “walk the Cardinal.”

On one side of the Legation was a closed-in courtyard, with other buildings on three of the four sides, perhaps 150’ x 120’, with barbed wire put up on all except the Legation side. Well, we couldn’t take the Cardinal outside, so the duty officer would walk around and around that courtyard, twice daily. So over a period of about a year, I spent a good bit of time “walking the Cardinal.”

He spoke German as well as Hungarian, so between the two we could communicate. He was quite talkative and since he had been in prison for many years, not well-informed. The Legation provided him with a lot of newspapers, I suppose all the local Hungarian press plus Austrian papers, and he was always asking questions. I remember particularly discussing with him several topics current at the time: the issue of using public funds to transport children to U.S. Catholic schools; and the newly-formed Israeli kibbutz, which he took as strong indications of communist tendencies in Israel.

I liked the old man (he was at least 15 years younger than I am now!), but kept saying to myself how glad I was that no Hungarian government was formed with him at its head. He was a Catholic cardinal to the core, and did not seem to have a clear concept of how political power could be shared outside the church.

Sarah and I paid a brief visit to Budapest, with our son and youngest daughter, in 1967, and called on the Cardinal. To my surprise, he had learned English, and in fact, gave the homily at a mass that we attended in English.