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COLD WAR: 1953-60 (11 of 18)

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Poland and Hungary

Imre Nagy

Imre Nagy, a Communist who wanted a multi-party democracy

By February, 1956, Khrushchev had become First Secretary of the Communist Party, and that month, at the party's 20th All Union Congress, Khrushchev gave his famous six-hour "secret speech" denouncing the "crimes of the Stalin era." Journalists and foreign party members, including Italy's Togliati, were not allowed to attend. But, of course, the contents of the speech became widely known, and in the satellite countries it aroused a sense of justification for reforms.

In June, 1956, a revolt against Soviet influence erupted in Poland, and it was defeated by the Polish army. But the Poles gained some concessions from Moscow. Wladyslaw Gomulka, who had been accused of Titoism in the late forties, was released from prison, became the head of Poland's Communist Party and won the backing of Poland's workers against the Russians. And Poland won control over its own economy while remaining loyal to the Warsaw Pact and friendly toward the Soviet Union.

Communists in Hungary also sought changes, as did university students, who were expressing solidarity with the Poles. Here resentment remained over the looting and raping by Russian troops in 1945, and resentment over the punishment of people who did not deny that such things happened. In 1955, Khrushchev had replaced the more liberal communist, Imre Nagy, with the hardliner, Rakosi, believing that Rakosi might better be able to hold Hungary together under communist leadership. Now, in 1956, in response to troubles in Poland, demonstrators in Hungary's capital, Budapest, filled the streets. A party hardliner made a truculent speech over the radio which set off an explosion of protest. Armed workers and others overwhelmed the secret police and the hardline government.

The hardline government in Hungary called in Soviet troops. Then Soviet authorities concluded that Hungary's communist leadership had acted stupidly, and in mid-July the Russians removed them from power. Soviet tanks merely sat about, their crews smiling and talking with the Hungarians in the streets.

On October 22, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles stated that the world was seeing the beginning of Poland's return to independence and liberty. Describing the Eisenhower administration's position, he barred use of U.S. arms to help the Poles, stating that outside military action could lead to a world war.

On October 23, students in Budapest demonstrated. The Hungarian police denied them access to radio to broadcast their demands for independence and the withdrawal of Soviet troops.

On October 24, street fighting erupted in Budapest. Secretary of State Dulles suggested that the UN Security Council should convene to discuss the situation in Hungary.

On October 25, Soviet tanks fired upon demonstrators. On the 26th, uprisings spread to Hungary's countryside. On the 28th, the former prime minister, Imre Nagy, was made prime minister again. His deputy was the communist Janos Kadar, who had been in prison his hostility to Stalinism. Nagy, on the radio, promised reforms and declared that the Soviet troops would be leaving the country, that the secret police, the AVH, would be disbanded and that Hungary's traditional flag would return.

On October 30, the Russians left. Hungarians were joyous. Then Nagy abolished the one-party system and announced the coming of elections. He had gone too far for the Russians, who feared losing Hungary. On October 31, Russian troops turned around and headed back to Budapest. People in Hungary asked "where is the American army?" On November 2, Hungary's Cardinal Mindzenty appealed to the West for support. On November 4, a large Soviet force moved into the city of Budapest and into other regions of the country. Fighting erupted between Soviet tanks and those called freedom fighters. Nagy complained that a new entry by Soviet troops violated the Warsaw Pact Treaty, and he announced that unless the troops withdrew he would withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Treaty.

Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. More than 2,500 Hungarians died in the conflict, as did 700 Soviet troops. Something like 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. The Russians put in power a new regime headed by Janos Kadar, who had been between the hardliners and Nagy. Nagy was taken to the Soviet Union and imprisoned. He was charged with treason and in 1958 was to be executed.

In talking to President Eisenhower by telephone about the crisis, Secretary of State Dulles said that it was "very difficult to know how to handle the situation." President Eisenhower handled it by choosing not to intervene militarily on the side of the Hungarians, fearing that it might start a war with the Soviet Union.

During the 1952 political campaign, Dulles had railed against the Truman administration for its immoral policy of mere containment rather than "roll back." With the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in ashes, Dulles' talk of "roll back" appeared to be fantasy or empty political hyperbole. People behind the "iron curtain" would have to do what social revolutionaries often had to do: maneuver for political change in a manner that circumstances permitted.

On December 19, 1956, Dulles addressed the Soviet Union with sweet reasoning rather than talk of America's ability to obliterate it. He proposed that if Moscow ended its curbs on East Europe, this would justify a general review of U.S. policy in the area.

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