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COLD WAR: 1953-60 (7 of 11)

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Poland and Hungary

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 communist leader Togliatt, were not allowed to attend. But, of course, the contents of the speech became widely known, and in the satellite countries it aroused demands for reform.

In June a revolt against Soviet influence erupted in Poland, and it was defeated by Poland's communist controlled 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. He became the head of Poland's Communist Party. Poland is said to have 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 Matyas Rakosi, believing that Rakosi might better be able to hold Hungary together under communist leadership. Then in 1956, in response to troubles in Poland, demonstrators appeared in the streets of Hungary's capital, Budapest. A party hardliner made a truculent speech over the radio which expanded the protest. Armed workers and others overwhelmed the secret police and the hardline government. The government called for help from Soviet troops. Soviet troops arrived, but Soviet authorities concluded that Hungary's communist leadership had acted stupidly, and in mid-July the Soviet authorities removed the offending communists from power. Soviet tanks merely sat about, their crews smiling and talking with the Hungarians in the streets.

Imre Nagy

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

On October 22, Secretary of State 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 US 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 a radio station to broadcast their demands for independence and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The next day street fighting erupted in Budapest. 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 for 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. Caught up in the nationalistic joy, Nagy abolished the one-party system and announced the coming of elections, but this was too much for the Russians, who sensed this would swing Hungary to the capitalist West. 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 Budapest and 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 elevated Kadar from Nagy's deputy to head of a new regime. Kadar became General Secretary of Hungary's Communist Party. Nagy was taken to the Soviet Union and imprisoned. He was secretly charged with organizing the overthrow of the Hungary's government and treason. He was secretly tried, found guilty, sentenced to death and would be executed by hanging in June 1958.

During the 1952 political campaign, Dulles had railed against the Truman administration for an immoral policy of mere containment rather than the "roll back" of communism. In 1956, talking to President Eisenhower by telephone about the crisis in Hungary, Secretary of State Dulles had 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. With the 1956 Hungarian Revolution in ashes, Dulles' talk of "roll back" appeared to have been fantasy or hyperbole. People behind the "iron curtain" opposed to communist rule would have to do what social revolutionaries often did: maneuver for political change in a manner that circumstances permitted.

But the Soviet Union had also emerged from the Hungarian crisis short of what could be called a triumph. It was still in charge in Hungary and in other Warsaw Pact nations, but its reputation suffered. The battle for hearts and minds was still not moving in its favor. This was evident with Ives Montand and Simone Signoret, a famous French couplet in the entertainment industry on the Left who had been feted in Moscow and enthusiastic about freedom with Khrushchev. This ended for them and others on the Left with the Hungarian uprising and the execution of Nagy.


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