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The Prague Spring '68
by Jaromír Navrátil et al. (Budapest: Central European University Press, 596 pp.)
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A National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book
Edited by Malcolm Byrne

November 4, 2002

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Forty-six years ago, at 4:15 a.m. on November 4, 1956, Soviet forces launched a major attack on Hungary aimed at crushing, once and for all, the spontaneous national uprising that had begun 12 days earlier. At 5:20 a.m., Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy announced the invasion to the nation in a grim, 35-second broadcast, declaring: "Our troops are fighting. The Government is in its place." However, within hours Nagy himself would seek asylum at the Yugoslav Embassy in Budapest while his former colleague and imminent replacement, János Kádár, who had been flown secretly from Moscow to the city of Szolnok, 60 miles southeast of the capital, prepared to take power with Moscow's backing. On November 22, after receiving assurances of safe passage from Kádár and the Soviets, Nagy finally agreed to leave the Yugoslav Embassy. But he was immediately arrested by Soviet security officers and flown to a secret location in Romania. By then, the fighting had mostly ended, the Hungarian resistance had essentially been destroyed, and Kádár was entering the next phase of his strategy to neutralize dissent for the long term.

The defeat of the Hungarian revolution was one of the darkest moments of the Cold War. At certain points since its outbreak on October 23 the revolt looked like it was on the verge of an amazing triumph. The entire nation appeared to have taken up arms against the regime. Rebels, often armed with nothing more than kitchen implements and gasoline, were disabling Soviet tanks and achieving other -- sometimes small but meaningful -- victories throughout the country. On October 31, the tide seemed to turn overwhelmingly in the revolution's favor when Pravda published a declaration promising greater equality in relations between the USSR and its East European satellites. One sentence was of particular interest. It read: "[T]he Soviet Government is prepared to enter into the appropriate negotiations with the government of the Hungarian People's Republic and other members of the Warsaw Treaty on the question of the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Hungary." To outside observers, the Kremlin statement came as a total surprise. CIA Director Allen Dulles called it a "miracle." The crisis seemed on the verge of being resolved in a way no-one in Hungary or the West had dared to hope.

But tragically, and unbeknownst to anyone outside the Kremlin, the very day the declaration appeared in Pravda the Soviet leadership completely reversed itself and decided to put a final, violent end to the rebellion. From declassified documents, it is now clear that several factors influenced their decision, including: the belief that the rebellion directly threatened Communist rule in Hungary (unlike the challenge posed by Wladyslaw Gomulka and the Polish Communists just days before, which had targeted Kremlin rule but not the Communist system); that the West would see a lack of response by Moscow as a sign of weakness, especially after the British, French and Israeli strike against Suez that had begun on October 29; that the spread of anti-Communist feelings in Hungary threatened the rule of neighboring satellite leaders; and that members of the Soviet party would not understand a failure to respond with force in Hungary.

Developments within the Hungarian leadership also undoubtedly played a part in Moscow's decision. Imre Nagy, who had suddently been thrust into the leadership role after it became clear that the old Stalinist leaders had been completely discredited, had stumbled at first. He failed to connect with the crowds that had massed in front of the Parliament building beginning on October 23 and seemed himself to be on the verge of being swept aside by popular currents that were entirely beyond the authorities' control. But over the course of the next week, Nagy apparently underwent a remarkable transformation, from a more or less dutiful pro-Moscow Communist to a politician willing to sanction unprecedented political, economic and social reform, including the establishment of a multi-party state in Hungary, and insistent on the withdrawal of all Soviet forces from the country. By November 1, Nagy took the dramatic step of declaring Hungary's rejection of the Warsaw Pact and appealing to the United Nations for help in establishing the country's neutrality.

Meanwhile, in Washington, U.S. officials observed the tidal wave of events with shock and no small degree of ambivalence as to how to respond. The main line of President Eisenhower's policy was to promote the independence of the so-called captive nations, but only over the longer-term. There is little doubt that he was deeply upset by the crushing of the revolt, and he was not deaf to public pressure or the emotional lobbying of activists within his own administration. But he had also determined, and internal studies backed him up, that there was little the United States could do short of risking global war to help the rebels. And he was not prepared to go that far, nor even, for that matter, to jeopardize the atmosphere of improving relations with Moscow that had characterized the previous period.

Yet Washington's role in the Hungarian revolution soon became mired in controversy. One of the most successful weapons in the East-West battle for the hearts and minds of Eastern Europe was the CIA-administered Radio Free Europe. But in the wake of the uprising, RFE's broadcasts into Hungary sometimes took on a much more aggressive tone, encouraging the rebels to believe that Western support was imminent, and even giving tactical advice on how to fight the Soviets. The hopes that were raised, then dashed, by these broadcasts cast an even darker shadow over the Hungarian tragedy that leaves many Hungarians embittered to this day.

Once the Soviets made up their minds to eliminate the revolution, it took only a few days to complete the main military phase of the operation. By November 7 -- coincidentally, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution -- Soviet forces were firmly enough in control of the country that Kádár could take the oath of office in the Parliament building (even though the Nagy government had never formally resigned). Pockets of resistance remained, but Kádár was able to begin the long process of "normalization" that featured suppressing dissent of any meaningful kind and otherwise coopting Hungarian society into going along with the new regime.

For the next three decades, as a consequence of the crushing of the revolution, the history of the events of 1956 was effectively sealed to Hungarians. Even to mention the name of Imre Nagy in public was to risk punishment. Only after the collapse of the Communist regimes in Hungary and the region in 1989 did it become possible to begin to excavate the archival records and bring out the facts. Since then, previously inaccessible records of the Soviet leadership as well as of other Warsaw Pact member states has beome available that give a much clearer picture than was ever imagined possible of what happened in the corridors of power in Moscow, Budapest and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Even in the United States, government records have recently been re-reviewed and released in more complete form, and personal archives have produced documentation on RFE and other topics that help throw light on the U.S. response and the role of Hungary in the superpower conflict.

Now, through the collaboration of scholars and archivists operating under the umbrella of the Openness in Russia and Eastern Europe Project, many of the most important of these new records have been collected for the first time into one, English-language publication. Some of these materials were introduced by scholars at the 40th anniversary conference "Hungary and the World 1956: The New Archival Evidence," organized in Budapest by the Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (Budapest), the National Security Archive and others. Other materials were published in their original languages in various Hungarian, Russian and other scholarly volumes and journals. In the United States, The Cold War International History Project Bulletin has reproduced a substantial number of items for a specialized English-language audience.

But The 1956 Hungarian Revolution is the first attempt to put together a major collection of these new materials, in addition to the significant number of items that appear here for the first time in any language, in a single volume. In all, the book consists of 120 documents and totals 598 pages. Each item is introduced by a brief "headnote" that describes its context and significance. In addition, the editors have written introductory essays for each of the three main chapters that give readers a narrative account of the events leading up to, during and after the uprising. A detailed chronology, glossaries, a bibliography and hundreds of footnotes flesh out the materials even further.

The 1956 Hungarian Revolution is the third in the "National Security Archive Cold War Reader" series published by Central European University Press. The first two titles were Prague Spring '68, edited by Jaromír Navrátil et al (1998), and Uprising in East Germany, 1953, edited by Christian Ostermann (2001). Future volumes will focus on the Solidarity crisis in Poland in 1980-1981, and the collapse of Communism in 1989, with separate volumes on the U.S. and Soviet response and the specific experiences of Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Those collections are expected in 2003-2004.

Generous funding for the Openness Project, of which this publication is one outcome, has come from the Open Society Institute, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the German Marshal Fund of the United States.

Readers are encouraged to visit the National Security Archive's reading room at George Washington University's Gelman Library (Suite 701) to view the original versions of these documents, and the many related materials that are also available. Questions about the series or any of the materials included in the volumes may be addressed to Malcolm Byrne. Publication or sales inquiries may be made directly to CEU Press.

Documents in the Briefing Book

[Note: these documents were transcribed for the book for space reasons. Although they are numbered here from 1 - 12, the headnotes often refer to other documents by number. Those numbers are the ones used in the book, not in this selection.]

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1) Study Prepared for U.S. Army Intelligence, "Hungary: Resistance Activities and Potentials," January 1956 (24 pages)

2) Minutes of 290th NSC meeting, July 12, 1956 (5 pages)

3) Report from Anastas Mikoyan on the Situation in the Hungarian Workers' Party, July 14, 1956 (6 pages)

4) National Security Council Report NSC 5608/1, "U.S. Policy toward the Soviet Satellites in Eastern Europe," July 18, 1956 (2 pages)

5) Jan Svoboda's Notes on the CPSU CC Presidium Meeting with Satellite Leaders, October 24, 1956 (6 pages)

6) Working Notes and Attached Extract from the Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium Meeting, October 31, 1956 (4 pages)

7) Minutes of the Nagy Government's Fourth Cabinet Meeting, November 1, 1956 (2 pages)

8) Report by Soviet Deputy Interior Minister M. N. Holodkov to Interior Minister N. P. Dudorov, November 15, 1956 (4 pages)

9) Situation Report from Malenkov-Suslov-Aristov, November 22, 1956 (8 pages)

10) "Policy Review of Voice for Free Hungary Programming, October 23-November 23, 1956," December 5, 1956 (28 pages)

11) Romanian and Czech Minutes on the Meeting of Five East European States' Leaders in Budapest (with Attached Final Communiqué), January 1-4, 1957 (9 pages)

12) Minutes of the Meeting between the Hungarian and Chinese Delegations in Budapest, January 16, 1957 (9 pages)


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