July 10, 2006

Eisenhower's Ghost

By Callimachus

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." Posted by Callimachus at July 10, 2006 03:19 PM

While many of us wanted to help them, we knew it would most probably start a HOT war with the USSR. One in which we would all lose.

Posted by: Neil C. Reinhardt at July 10, 2006 10:54 PM

There's also the fact that the US was a bit distracted by the Suez Canal crisis, which was deliberately timed to coincide with the Hungarian uprising. One international crisis at a time probably seemed like enough...

Posted by: Jonah at July 10, 2006 11:21 PM

Gati should have gone even 12 years further, to D-Day -- the sacrifice of thousands of Americans in 1944 in order to help Stalin take Poland & Central Europe. A better, more realistic alternative would have been wait one more year when the US had an atom bomb, and prepare to require democracy-only post War regimes; while continuing to fund Stalin (the butcher) in our almost proxy war with the Nazis.

Once the Hollywood beloved commies stole nuclear secrets (would NYT have published them?), the fear of nukes was palpable.

Also in 1956, Ike decided NOT to let victorious, nationalist general Ho Chi Minh win an election in Vietnam, since he was a commie (like Stalin & Mao). The Central Europe Iron Curtain was a hot war border -- post colonial Asia & Africa & Latin America were the cold war proxy war theaters.

In hindsight, one could even claim Ike acted more anti-commie strong in Vietnam due to feeling so weak in Europe.

Americans need to hear that in the future we will not say we seek clearly unattainable goals abroad for political ends at home.

"I look to the future," a World Without Dictators, "and I ask Why not?" Creating a S. Korea like country in S. Vietnam was clearly attainable -- at a 1974 cost of a willingness to stay and fight for some 15 years more.

"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:"
--What he should be railing against is the hypocrisy of Amnesty & Human Rights Watch & the Left, talking about rights but objecting to the use of real, imperfect humans in protecting rights.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at July 10, 2006 11:41 PM

Wonder what Gati would have said about spies Julius & Ethel Rosenberg, Alger Hiss, the Cambridge group, Anthony Blunt, not to mention the never-indicted Ted Hall who gave nuclear plans to the Soviets direct from Los Alamos as a young scientist... he later moved to England and lived unmolested into old age.

Posted by: Todd Grimson at July 11, 2006 01:20 AM

In judging the acts and words of people of the past, judge from what they knew, not what you know now.

A very wise rule.

It was a system that elevated stability over justice.

Not stability. Survival.

It was the correct decision.

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.

This is the thing I do not understand.

It is understandable why some governments might prefer to have two (or more) roughly-evenly-matched powers in the world. They would be able to tip the balance, and that makes them important and influential. This is not possible in a unipolar geopolitical environment.

At the individual level, it is insanity. Why anyone from a western nation would think like that is beyond my comprehension.

Posted by: rosignol at July 11, 2006 04:14 AM

I would guess that for some, this "insanity" derives from the old adage, "those would would trade liberty for a little security deserve neither". Or possibly, "better to die free than to live a slave".

Ohhh, if things were only that simple. I don't have the luxury of only having to look after my own freedoms and security; I have to look after that of my fellows. (It's a democracy, after all.) I tire of sayings like this when I feel forced to trade a little temporary liberty for flat-out survival, or living with a little slavery so that my family doesn't have to die.

Posted by: Paul Brinkley at July 11, 2006 08:40 AM

I tire of sayings like this when I feel forced to trade a little temporary liberty for flat-out survival, or living with a little slavery so that my family doesn't have to die.

The problem is that one rarely gets the 'little' yoke of slavery removed. Sure it happens, occasionally, but for the most part it appears that once given up, freedoms becom hard to reclaim. It may always be a balancing act of cost/benefit, but I wonder how many people know the true costs or what benefits there might be.

Posted by: Ratatosk at July 11, 2006 10:54 AM

Freedoms can occasionally be reclaimed. For example, Britain had identity cards during WW II. A few years after the war, they were abolished.

(Now Blair, no lover of freedom, plans to re-introduce them.)

Posted by: Don Cox at July 11, 2006 11:13 AM

Jeeze, Cox, Give me a Break!

There are a HUNDRED MILLION MOSLEMS willing to take up arms to accomplish the terrorist's PUBLISHED long range goals of taking OVER the WORLD! Killing ALL who resist and putting those left under a Taliban form of government.

And you call Tony Blair no lover of freedom?

You Child, are CLUELESS!

Neil C. Reinhardt
71 year old Atheist Vet

Posted by: Neil C. Reinhardt at July 11, 2006 11:28 PM

Well, I don't know about Tony Blair et al, but I do know a little bit about the Hungary crisis...

While Callimachus has an excellent point about historical perspective, i.e. hindsight is always 20/20, however... I think he places a bit too much reliance on the whole MAD deterrent argument, to the point that (as Jonah points out) he omits any mention of the Suez crisis. Equally, Gati does mention Suez in the original article, but only to discount its importance.

In my mind you really can't detach one from the other, because the two were simultaneous and intertwined. The Middle East was as always a much larger hotspot, involved the interests of the US and its allies more directly, and most of all there was in truth absolutely nothing the US could've done about Hungary, which was already clearly within the Soviet sphere of influence. That's why it was called a Cold War, because the real conflict by necessity took place far away from Europe itself (i.e. the "Third World")... ah, realpolitik at its best....

Speaking of which... I think that both Gati's article and Callimachus' response miss the real travesty of Bush's visit, which was that he actually went so far as to compare the 1956 uprising to the Iraq war. My jaw literally dropped when I heard that speech. Talk about seeking clearly unattainable goals abroad for political ends at home...

Posted by: Zed at July 13, 2006 09:07 AM

uhhh Zed,

Hungary had 300 troops in Iraq and lost one soldier. They still train Iraqi and Afghanistan soldiers today. Bush had to acknowledge the sacrifices and the help that Hungary gave. Most importantly it is his job to make them feel that their effort was worth it.

In that context it is worthy to point out that both countries suffered for a long period of time under totalitarian regimes and now have true Republics with fair representation for their people. That is a reasonable observation.

I noticed that NPRs "All Things Considered" left out any mention of Hungary's membership in the Coalition when reporting on Bush's speech. Certain reporters know how to color their stories to lead their readers to the same type of reaction that you had. I guess you can call them "Some Things Considered" from now on...

Posted by: Freedom Now at July 15, 2006 01:20 AM

it is glad to have poeple like u in my time.good work.help me send a copy of this to my mail (folytaf2003@yahoo.com) and also your knowlge about cold war:deterrence

Posted by: teslim at September 14, 2007 04:38 AM



Posted by: Jing-Xian-Wang-Luo at December 9, 2007 11:48 PM
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