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25 January 2017

Liberation Cancelled! – US Policies Towards Central Europe in 1956 and After

Lippmann’s book came out in a Hungarian translation in 1946. It did not raise hopes in a non-Communist public, including a 14 year-old young man who became Prime Minister in 1990, József Antall. After the proclamation of the Atlantic Charter most clear-thinking and decent Central Europeans hoped that the defeat of Nazi Germany would lead to a fair and democratic post-war world. In 1945 and 1946, however, it became increasingly obvious that they could not count on Western support for standing up to Soviet interference in their internal affairs, but a neutral status, friendly policy towards the Soviet Union, while preserving all the vestiges of democracy, still looked possible. With the gradual ousting of non-Communist politicians from the governments of Poland and Hungary in 1947, and finally after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948 the Iron Curtain closed upon the whole East Central European region. American power could have changed that only with the threat of a nuclear strike, or actually dropping an atomic bomb on a major Russian city. Following the common victory over Germany, with the enormous sacrifices of the peoples of the Soviet Union, that was inconceivable for the American public, and therefore for the Administration too. Once the Soviet Union, too, acquired “the bomb”, the fate of the eastern half of Europe was sealed. Despite, or rather because of that, never and nowhere was the US as popular as in East Central Europe between 1948 and 1989. The “captive nations” (to use the contemporary and telling terminology) looked upon American democracy as the ultimate hope that one day freedom would be restored to them – with its help. It was assumed that the policy of containment would eventually lead to a military confrontation with the aggressive policies of Stalin, and the Berlin crisis, later the Korean War, encouraged such hopes. Liberation from the terrible Soviet yoke sounded a war cry when it was promised by General Eisenhower’s electoral campaign in 1952 and by his foreign policy declarations after that.

The moment of truth came in 1956, with the American reaction to the unrest in Poland and to the Revolution in Hungary, the thirteen days that indeed shook the Kremlin – as the Hungarian author Tibor Méray put it. Just turning 15, I was already rather well informed on the contemporary international scene, as for years in the evenings I avidly listened to the jammed western radio broadcasts with my father. He told me that the BBC was the most reliable, while Voice of America was somewhat propagandistic, promising more than we could count upon. Of course our ears were also on Radio Free Europe, which was on the air round the clock. I was aware of the enormous military strength of the Soviet Union, and that it kept Hungary in its grip. So when on 23 October 1956, enthralled with the support the 16 points of the students received from the huge crowd, I marched with my schoolmates from the statue of the Polish hero of the Hungarian army of 1848–49, General Bem, towards the Parliament, on the corner of Balassi Street I heard people shouting “Minden ország katonája menjen saját hazájába” (“soldiers of every country should return to their homeland”), my mind said we were crossing a red line, challenging Soviet domination, and that may lead to tragic repercussions. But remembering Khrushchev denouncing Stalin at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party earlier in the year, I, too, was carried away with the mood that the unanimous will of the nation might prevail. Having been unable to enter Bródy Street leading to the Radio, for it was packed with people (no shots were heard yet), and seeing damaged and abandoned trams at Kálvin Square, I returned home late in the evening to my worried parents. Instead of scolding me, my father – at the age of 60, which I then thought was a rather old age – greeted me by jumping in the air: “Revolution, revolution! A rising against Communism!” By the morning Hungarian rebels were fighting the Russian occupation forces, whose response to the demands of the people was intervention.

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