The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 1
The Ideas of the Hungarian Revolution, Suppressed and Victorious 1956–1999, Columbia University Press, New York, 2002, p. 112–141.
Between December 11 and 14, 1956, the North Atlantic Council held a meeting in Paris with the participation of the foreign ministers of the NATO countries, the final communiqué of which established the following: “The Council Members have followed the course of events in Hungary with shock and revulsion… The peoples of Eastern Europe have the right to choose their own governments freely, unaffected by external pressure and the use of threat of force… ”2 This document was the first public reply on the part of the Western military bloc to the Hungarian revolution that had broken out on October 23 that year. What were NATO’s reactions to rumors of the Hungarian crisis in the weeks prior to the ministerial meeting? To what extent did the organization anticipate the events? How did it interpret them, and what was the role of NATO in Western decision-making concerning the Hungarian revolution? How did the Hungarian case influence NATO’s policy concerning Eastern Europe, and relations between East and West in general? These are the questions we hope to answer in the following pages.
The attitudes towards the Hungarian revolution of American, British, and French diplomacy, which countries played a decisive role in the foreign policy of the Western bloc, can be studied on the basis of archival sources since the 1980s.3 The opening of the NATO archives for research in 1999 made a more authentic reconstruction of Western policy towards Hungary possible.4 The documents of the International Staff, not to be found in the national archives of the NATO member states and secret until quite recently, are used in the present paper for the first time to find answers to the questions presented above. The minutes of debates in the NATO Council and other forums of the Organization reveal the changes of the individual members’ standpoints and their interplay in connection with the Hungarian revolt and the Kádár regime establishing itself in the wake of the Soviet intervention. The comprehensive analyses prepared by the individual committees and by the central administration of NATO-with a view also to NATO’s multi-stage mechanism of decision-making based on consensus-reveal the special synthesis of Western ideas concerning the questions of the day. The relevant documents of the NATO Desk of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs and of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, especially the reports of the French and the Belgian ambassadors to NATO, offer important details about the treatment of the Hungarian question in NATO circles.
Before proceeding to survey the NATO attitudes to the Hungarian revolution on the basis of this rich and substantial source material, let us briefly examine the questions on which the Organization focused in 1956-1957, the mechanism of its decision-making concerning Eastern Europe, and the antecedents of the NATO policy concerning Hungary during the revolution.
In the mid-1950s, NATO still had to face the problems of a divided Germany, the Soviet expansion in the Near East and in the Third World in general, and the threat of the growing Soviet economic and military potential. Western decision-makers continued to regard the intentions of Khrushchev’s Soviet Union concerning the West, advocating peaceful coexistence, as aggressive. As will turn out below, they proved to be right. As a reply to these challenges, the NATO Council decided, at its ministerial meeting in May 1956, that it would extend the Organization’s activities outside the military sphere, promoting by this unity, solidarity, and cooperation among the member states. The recommendations of the so-called Committee of Three5 were approved at the NATO ministerial meeting of December 1956. It was emphasized there that it was very important to hold intensive and efficient talks on all problems that could be detrimental to the Organization. The declaration of unity and solidarity was especially important in a period when the Suez crisis had led to a confrontation between France and the United Kingdom on the one hand and the United States on the other.6
By adopting the report of the Committee of Three, the North Atlantic Council gave a new impetus to consultations among the member states concerning all aspects of the East-West relationship. The Council that had worked in Paris as a permanent institution since 1952, as the highest forum of consultation and decision-making, dealt extensively with the developments in Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1956. Teams of experts prepared reports for the Council. One of them specialized in the military, political, and economic conditions of the Soviet satellites and made reports on them from 1951, and another one dealt with trends of Soviet policy from 1952. From 1957 onwards, their functions were taken over by the Political Committee formed on the proposal of the Committee of Three, which discussed almost all important aspects of the Hungarian question. The reports of the Committee on Information and Cultural Relations and the team working on the comparative analysis of the economic tendencies in the NATO states and the Soviet Union similarly served to help the North Atlantic Council in forming its opinion. Also, the Political Division of the International Staff supported and coordinated the activities of the North Atlantic Council. Preliminary studies prepared by the diplomatic bodies of the individual countries, and the talks of invited experts, played an important part also in analyzing the situation in Eastern Europe. The general aim in the course of this work was to reach a consensus in harmony with the NATO principles of decision-making.7 The military aspect of the events in Hungary was covered by the executive agency of the Military Committee, the Standing Group. (The normal function of the Military Committee was to give recommendations to the Council in times of peace.)8
In order to understand the Western response to the crisis in Hungary in the autumn of 1956, it is worth becoming acquainted with the opinion of the competent organs of NATO about the Soviet Union and its satellites in Eastern Europe prior to the Hungarian revolution, and with the standpoint and attitude the member states were to assume in the case of a crisis.
The tension between the Western and the Eastern bloc slackened considerably in the wake of the more flexible and more rational foreign policy of the Soviet Union after Stalin’s death in 1953 and the beginning of the policy of détente and peaceful coexistence. However, NATO analysts pointed out that this did not involve a change in the basic intentions of the Soviet Union in her foreign policy as well: “The Soviet leaders see international affairs in terms of a struggle for domination between the Communist and the ‘Capitalist’ worlds. They continue their unremitting efforts to promote the ascendancy of the Communist world and to weaken its opponents,” a document reads.9 The NATO experts gathered from the speeches at the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in February 1956 that the Soviet standpoint regarding the West remained practically unchanged.10 The aims the Soviets still wanted to achieve were the dissolution of NATO and the European Union, the withdrawal of NATO forces from their bases in Europe, and the prevention of West Germany’s effective participation in the Western alliance. In fact, they wanted the whole of Germany to belong to the Soviet bloc.11 The Soviet policy of détente served merely to throw the West off its guard, the experts established.12 What was new in Soviet diplomacy after Stalin was merely the more civilized methods and the shift of geopolitical emphasis. The earlier rigid isolation was replaced by a readiness for discussions, the claim to build economic and cultural relations with the Western countries, especially with the United States, and a return to the traditional methods of diplomacy. Although Western Europe was still the target area for Moscow, the Soviet leadership, respecting the European status quo created after World War II and the realities of the nuclear age, temporarily renounced further direct expansion in the region and shifted the focus of their activities to the developing countries of Africa and Asia, especially the Near East. Soviet penetration there took place mostly by means of economic support and propaganda. Western analysts found its prospects dangerous because they envisaged a significant growth in this field involving other means of expansion. The growing Soviet economic potential naturally threatened a growing military one as well.13
Western diplomacy had precise information about the process of liberalization beginning in the East European Soviet satellites after Stalin’s death. As regards Hungary, a sudden acceleration of development was counted on.14 At the same time, Western experts believed that the so-called de-Stalinization initiated by Moscow and the thaw that ensued in its wake would not shake Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. They maintained that the policy of peaceful coexistence did not involve the slackening of Soviet control over Eastern Europe at all, however hard the Kremlin tried to present its allies as independent states.15 As for a possible open crisis, the NATO experts were convinced that “the Soviet government” was “ready to take the necessary economic, political, and military measures to preserve/maintain its control over the bloc.”16
The opposition of the Eastern and Western military blocs, and the risk of a nuclear war in the case of violation of the European spheres of interest brought about in the wake of World War II, limited the possibilities of the NATO countries for influencing developments in Eastern Europe to a great extent.17 Although they wished to express their sympathy towards the process of liberalization in Eastern Europe in the course of their widening relations with the satellites in the atmosphere of détente, the team analyzing the trends of the Soviet policy and the so-called thaw in Eastern Europe on the eve of the Hungarian revolution established the following: “As we are not prepared to use force to liberate them, we should not encourage futile rebellions on their part.”18
This report, the aim of which was to promote a more active NATO policy towards the satellites and prepare the work of the meeting of NATO foreign ministers planned to take place in the middle of December, 1956, was discussed by the NATO Council on October 24, just the day after the outbreak of the Hungarian revolution. According to the documents available to the present author, the meeting did not deal with the events in Budapest, that peaceful demonstration initiated by the students of the Technical University, which turned into a mass demonstration, and later, when the defenders of the Radio Building opened fire at the demonstrators, into an armed uprising, and the first unsuccessful Soviet intervention. The ambassadors to NATO merely expounded the earlier standpoint of their governments. Some representatives established that the study on thaw in Eastern Europe did not sufficiently underline the role of Titoism in the region. They emphasized the point also that the resolution of the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, acknowledging the possibility of different roads leading to Socialism, had shaken the satellites. Sir Christopher Steel,19 the British Permanent Representative, argued that despite the unrest in Eastern Europe, the opportunities for the satellites to shake off the Soviet yoke were limited, any such attempts being hindered by economic factors, the presence of Stalinists at all levels of administration, the subordination of the armed forces to the Soviet Union, and the former rivalry of the countries of the region that used to characterize their relations prior to the Soviet occupation. The British ambassador did not think direct Soviet intervention likely to suppress the possible revolts, unless the Soviet Union were invited to do so by a political faction of the country in question. Herbert Adolph Blankenhorn,20 the Permanent Representative of the German Federal Republic, warned the Western countries that they should be very cautious not to weaken by any ill-considered measure the positions of the new Eastern European governments, just in the state of formation, that enjoyed a greater mass support than their predecessors but still consisted of communists.21 From then on caution became the key word of discussions about the Eastern European crisis in the NATO Council. The report sent by the French NATO ambassador Alexandre Parodi22 to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs about the meeting of October 24 similarly emphasizes this element, and points out one of the main targets of the joint policy to be elaborated: “The members of the Council agreed that it would serve the interests of the NATO countries if in the course of their relations with the satellites they could motivate them very cautiously to achieve greater independence from the Soviets… ”23 It was also generally believed that the extension of thawing was in the interests of NATO, so it was decided at the meeting to work out a detailed NATO policy concerning Eastern Europe. The Secretary-General was invited in a resolution to suggest a method for the preparation of a document by experts of the individual nations about the policy to be followed with regard to the satellites, which could be discussed at the ministerial meeting in December 1956. Accordingly, on October 27 Alberico Casardi, Deputy Secretary-General in charge of political matters,24 invited the governments of the member states to suggest methods for promoting liberalization in Eastern Europe.25 In response to this invitation, American NATO ambassador George W. Perkins26 emphasized, at the meeting of the Council on October 31, the point that the documents should only suggest some ideas about the common policy to be followed in the future, because the elaboration of the common line should be the task of the ministerial meeting.27 The usual administrative course of making reports was, however, upset by the Hungarian crisis and the Suez war beginning on October 29,28 which were the main subjects discussed by the NATO Council in those days.
NATO and the News about the Hungarian Revolution
The attitude of the Western allies towards the Hungarian revolution can be divided into the following three phases. The period from October 27 to November 19, 1956, was that of interpreting and discussing the often contradictory pieces of information about the revolt in Hungary, and throwing out suggestions about the possible reactions of the NATO countries. The second phase, lasting until the end of December, was characterized by deeper analyses on the part of the competent NATO organs in order to be able to draw the political and military conclusions of the Eastern European crisis. These ideas were formed into a definite concept in the third phase, that is, in the first months of 1957.
Let us have a look behind the scenes now. Let us listen to what the Permanent Representatives were talking about at the Chaillot Palace in Paris at their meetings, held ever more frequently due to the special international situation, while the young rebels of Budapest were throwing flasks filled with petrol at the Soviet tanks in the streets of the Hungarian capital and the mass movement was spreading also in the countryside.
On October 27, 1956, the North Atlantic Council sat in private and discussed the events taking place in Hungary.29 The British Permanent Representative confirmed that the government of the United Kingdom, similarly to the governments of the United States and France, was for convening the UN Security Council in connection with the Hungarian affair. The Permanent Representative of Norway interjected that other countries should join the motion, too, with regard also to the behavior of Spain in the UN. The French ambassador, Parodi, favored the motion also. Finally it was agreed that the countries wishing to join the motion of the United Kingdom, France, and the United States should contact the New York mission of the three countries through their UN representatives. The Italian and the German Permanent Representatives suggested involving the Council of the Western European Union in decision-making also, as a new forum of the conciliation of interests in the West. The American Perkins objected, saying that it would be wrong to approach the question as a regional one, as it affected the total relationship between East and West. The Greek and the Italian Permanent Representatives suggested issuing a communiqué, so that the world would know that NATO was considering the Hungarian question. The French, the British, and the American ambassadors protested, saying that such a communiqué would immediately be used by the Soviets for justifying their intervention in Hungary. The Council accepted this argument.
In the meantime, events took a strange turn in Budapest. On October 28, Prime Minister Imre Nagy announced an armistice.
At the meeting of October 30 of the NATO Council, the Hungarian developments, in the focus also of the world press, were discussed in detail, besides the news of the Suez war that had broken out the previous day. The Turkish Permanent Representative maintained that there was something more than just a revolt against the Soviet Union. The Hungarians were revolting against the communist regime as such, and NATO should offer them the greatest possible help. In his government’s opinion, NATO should send the Soviet Union a note of protest. The other ambassadors thought, however, that this motion was belated, as the UN Security Council was already dealing with the problem and it had, in fact, denounced the Soviet measures already.30 In connection with the disquieting news about two Soviet armored divisions approaching Hungary from the direction of Romania, the NATO Permanent Representatives dealt also with the military aspect of the situation in Hungary, on the Belgian initiative. The following day, they received information from the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) about the movement of the Soviet forces.31
On November 2, 1956, the members of the NATO Council met again to discuss the ever-stranger news coming from Eastern Europe. It had, namely, come to their knowledge that the Hungarian government led by Imre Nagy had decided the previous day their country’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and the declaration of neutrality.32 At the beginning of the meeting, the British Permanent Representative, Sir Christopher Steel, presented the information he had received from the British ambassador about the official statement of October 30. From this document he drew the unbelievable conclusion that the Soviets did not want to interfere with the Hungarian revolution and, in fact, they regarded the regimes created by them as so fragile that they had no idea how to strengthen them nor the means to restore them. Considering the possible escalation of the revolution to Poland and East Germany, the British speaker believed that the Soviets would soon come forward with the idea of the reunification of Germany through free elections, provided that it would be neutral instead of becoming a member of NATO. It was obviously due to the general hope that had taken possession of the British Foreign Office by then that Sir Christopher interpreted the fact that the Soviets had sent reinforcements to Hungary as a Soviet attempt merely to enter into a more favorable position when it came to bargaining with the new Hungarian government.33 As a matter of fact, the Soviets were preparing for their attack against Hungary, codenamed Operation Whirlwind. The Soviet presidium, meeting almost every day since the beginning of the Hungarian crisis, had decided on October 31, on Khrushchev’s initiative, to suppress the Hungarian revolt by force, in order to defend the strategic positions of the Soviet Union as a great power.
It was at this NATO meeting of November 2 that a closer cooperation among the member states concerning the Hungarian affair began to take shape. The Dutch ambassador Eelco N. van Kleffens suggested that the UN discussion of the Hungarian question should be exploited for demonstrating the perfect unity of action among the NATO states.34 The Suez war had led to severe tension between the United States on the one hand and France and the United Kingdom on the other, the UN becoming one of the major scenes of discord working against Atlantic solidarity.35 Every Permanent Representative agreed with the Dutch motion, and the common approach to the Hungarian question remained on the agenda of the North Atlantic Council. The West German motion to coordinate sending relief to Hungary similarly met with general acceptance.36
The following day, the NATO ambassadors continued to discuss the Hungarian events. They even raised the question of how to react if the Imre Nagy government turned to the West for armed support. The American and the French Permanent Representatives dismissed the idea by emphasizing the possibility of a peaceful settlement. On the basis of information received from Charles E. Bohlen, American ambassador in Moscow, Perkins found it possible that the Soviets and the Hungarians would form a joint commission to find solution for the points raised by Imre Nagy.37 Parodi said that the French military attaché in Moscow did not expect another turn in events, and regarded the sending of Soviet reinforcement to Hungary merely as a measure of precaution to prevent the rebels from killing the Soviets and the communists there.
The united action of the NATO countries in the UN was similarly discussed again. Adolfo Alessandrini, the Italian NATO Permanent Representative,38 demanded most emphatically that the allied governments should instruct their UN delegations to hasten the convocation of an extraordinary general assembly in order to discuss the Hungarian question.39 Naturally, no one wanted another world war to break out, so the Italian diplomat found UN actions the only possible means of protest against the Soviet measures. The Norwegian Permanent Representative Jens Boyesen40 similarly hoped that the UN General Assembly would nearly unanimously denounce a possible Soviet attack, which would put political and moral pressure on Moscow. The Canadian Permanent Representative, L. Dana Wilgress,41 who had suggested setting up a special UN armed force to be deployed in Suez, called attention to the importance of drawing a parallel between the Hungarian question and the French and British intervention in Egypt: “If the General Assembly denounces the possible Soviet attack, the moral and political weight of this measure will depend on how France and the United Kingdom will receive the resolutions concerning them.”42 At that the French NATO ambassador Parodi expounded the standpoint of his government, saying that there was no connection whatsoever between the two events. France and Britain could not be compared to the Soviets, nor the Hungarian insurgents to Gamal Abdel Nasser. He added a bitter remark that UN measures always fell on those who observed the international rules of conduct.43 As a consequence, no settlement acceptable for all was reached at the meeting of November 3 either.
As is well known, the second Soviet invasion against Hungary was launched at dawn, November 4, 1956. In the meantime, the British and French air-raids against Egypt, the landing on November 6, and the American counter-measures, much stronger than expected (for example, economic measures against the United Kingdom), increased the tension between the United States and its most important allies. Consequently, the discussion of the events in Hungary and the Near East continued to go hand in hand in the NATO Council, the UN, and the world press alike. At the meeting on November 4, the Italian Alessandrini emphasized the point that the Soviet Union had taken advantage of the Near East crisis and the broken unity of the West in order to restore its rule in Hungary, and considered, therefore, the restoration of this unity and the elaboration of a common approach a question of high priority. He believed the NATO Council to be the best scene for this process. NATO Secretary-General Lord Hastings Lionel Ismay similarly believed that re-establishing the unity broken by Suez was the most important issue, without which a dangerous political vacuum would arise, one that could, in turn, be exploited by the Soviets once again.44
On November 5 and on the subsequent days, the North Atlantic Council went on discussing the possible consequences of the double crisis intensively. The American Permanent Representative expounded on November 5 that “under certain circumstances Russia could be forced to take the public opinion of the world into consideration. It is important, therefore, that the governments… should protest at Moscow emphatically and let their peoples express their indignation freely.”45 This idea seemed the more practicable, as public opinion in the NATO countries had really been shocked by the brutal aggression against Hungary. The threats in the letters sent by Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Aleksandrovich Bulganin to the British, the French, and the Israeli governments on November 5 caused a great stir also. At the meeting of November 6, the members of the Council already made some concrete decisions. They declared anew that the cooperation among the UN representatives of the NATO countries was very important. They found putting a constant pressure on the Soviet Union desirable, by keeping certain topics (such as the sending out of observers, the deployment of international forces, and humanitarian questions) continuously on the agenda, so that they could take shape in draft resolutions presented to the UN General Assembly. They considered also the possibilities of a diplomatic boycott against Moscow, and decided to keep away from the ceremonies of the Soviet national holiday on November 7. The suggestion of the Italian Permanent Representative of breaking off diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union met, however, with immediate American disapproval. Blankenhorn, the West German Permanent Representative, raised the idea of recalling the ambassadors in Moscow for consultation.46
On November 8, the very day after János Kádár had arrived at Budapest in a Soviet tank as the head of the Hungarian “revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government” formed by Moscow, the NATO Permanent Representatives were already considering the methods of a diplomatic boycott against the Kádár government. The Italian ambassador maintained that the Western powers should not recognize the new Hungarian government, and the Belgian Permanent Representative agreed. The decision was, however, postponed, as the presence of the embassies of the NATO countries in Budapest was not seen as automatic recognition for the time being. Several delegations called attention to the fact that both the West and the Hungarian population were interested in maintaining the diplomatic missions in Hungary. However, it was urgent to decide whether the new Hungarian UN delegation, led by Minister of Foreign Affairs Imre Horváth, and going to New York on November 10, should be recognized or not. While the Belgian André de Staercke47 definitely protested against the idea of the UN ambassadors of the NATO countries sitting at the same conference table as the representatives of the new Hungarian regime, the British and the American speaker occupied a more moderate standpoint. Decision was postponed in this question also.48
About ten days later, NATO Secretary-General Lord Ismay gave a short summary of the plan of action that had crystallized during the discussions of the previous period. He said the following: the policy to be followed in the UN should be coordinated in order to exert the necessary pressure on the Soviet Union; an agreement must be reached in connection with the support of the Hungarian refugees and the humanitarian aid to be sent to Hungary. The NATO Council asked the governments to refrain from maintaining social, cultural, and sports contacts with the Soviet Union. Perkins, the Permanent Representative of the United States, said that the United States did not intend to participate at the Soviet international fair of 1957 and had decided to suspend all mutual cultural and technical exchange programs with the Soviets.49 This was the end of the first phase of Western reactions to the Hungarian revolution. The feverish activities of the previous weeks of gathering and interpreting information led to the formulation of a program of action gradually taking shape. The second phase was that of a deeper analysis.
Lessons of the Hungarian Revolution for NATO
The North Atlantic Council regularly received information about the military aspect of the East European crisis and the Hungarian revolution from October 31, 1956. Following the suppression of the revolution, the executive agency of the Military Committee, the Standing Group, prepared its first preliminary evaluative reports, presented to the NATO Permanent Representatives on November 15. The analyses aimed at throwing light mainly on the consequences of the events in Poland and Hungary for NATO, more precisely their influence on the Soviet military potential. According to the report of November 5, the social unrest in Poland and Hungary reduced the strength of the Soviet bloc and the possibilities for the Soviets to attack Western Europe in the near future. It was presumed that the difficulties within their own camp diverted the attention of the leaders in Moscow, part of their military force had to be thrown in for the sake of safety, and they could no longer rely on the Polish and the Hungarian armies as safe partners. The Standing Group maintained also that the possible weakening of Soviet supply routes connecting the Soviet Union with East Germany must have contributed to the weakening of the Soviet military potential. It was, however, seen as a potential threat for NATO that the revolts within the Soviet bloc causing a great stir might be too disquieting for the Soviet leaders, which might make them misinterpret the situation and take steps to divert the attention of the world.50
The November 8 report of the Standing Group dealt with the details of the dangers ahead of NATO. They feared that Moscow might misinterpret the reactions of the West to the Soviet steps in the satellites or their threats against the neutral states. They thought that the Soviets were becoming increasingly aggressive, not only in Hungary but also in connection with the Near East. They found the Soviet support of Egypt especially disquieting, likewise the fact that the Soviet Union was ready for a military intervention in the Near East.51
On November 28, 1956, the NATO Council and the Standing Group held a joint meeting where Lt. General Leon W. Johnson, the chairman of the Standing Group, summarized the military lessons of the Hungarian crisis on the basis of the latest pieces of information from the secret services. He established that the brutal suppression of the Hungarian revolution had proved that the fundamental aims of the Soviet foreign policy had not changed since Stalin’s death. “We are confronted with a Soviet equally ruthless and aggressive, and more prone to miscalculation. Therein lies our greatest danger. Soviet capabilities continue to increase and the risk of war through miscalculation has risen,” the general said.52
The team analyzing the tendencies of Soviet foreign policy arrived at a similar conclusion in their draft report, prepared by the middle of November 1956.53 They found that their interpretation of the intentions of the Soviet Union in foreign policy, as quoted above,54 had been proved by the events in Hungary and the Near East. They believed that the long-term goals of the Soviets continued to be world hegemony and the destruction of the “capitalist world,” and that the Soviet Union remained strong enough to increase its economic and military potential despite the Hungarian crisis. The team interpreted the Soviet reaction to the Hungarian revolution as meaning that the Soviet Union was not willing to tolerate the level of thawing that this country represented among the satellites, and was ready to employ the strongest military measures to secure its rule over Eastern Europe. This was why the NATO experts thought of the danger of a war launched by the Soviet Union with traditional weapons. Considering the possibility of a nuclear war, they believed that the Soviet leaders were afraid of it and would refrain from embarking on such a conflict. A dangerous situation might arise, however, if the Soviets felt their positions in Eastern Europe threatened. Similarly to the Standing Group report, this document called attention to the threat of a nuclear war, which might break out also if the Soviet decision-makers misinterpreted a critical situation. They might, for example, think that their country was being threatened. Their obsession with being encircled might strengthen this impression.
The NATO Council held a meeting for foreign ministers between December 11 and 14, 1956, one of the main topics of which was the situation in Eastern Europe and its impact on NATO. The aim was to frame a new approach to the Soviet satellites on the basis of the preparatory work of the previous weeks and the lessons drawn from the events in Eastern Europe. The starting point was that the Soviets intended to maintain the communist regimes in the satellites, even by force, and would not permit any of them to withdraw from the bloc. Selwin Lloyd, British Foreign Minister, called attention to the dangers of the pressure which a possible new armed conflict might put on the West for a military intervention to support the rebels.55 The Soviet leaders had, namely, declared, during their visit to London in April 1956, that any Western interference with the events in Eastern Europe would most probably lead to a war with the Soviet Union.56 Consequently, it was vital to avoid encouraging the peoples of the satellites to rise against the Soviet regime, as it was impossible to give them military support. Instead, they should be encouraged to extricate themselves from their shackles gradually.57 In this regard there was obviously no change in the concept as compared to that of the period prior to the East European crisis.
Heinrich von Brentano, Foreign Minister of West Germany, emphasized the importance of caution. He said that it was not in the interest of NATO to support such dramatic events, and that his state was doing its best to exert a restraining influence on the East German population during the crisis, in order to avoid a catastrophe similar to that in Hungary.58 The members of the Council finally agreed that positive results could be expected from ever-more intensive economic, political, and cultural relations with the satellites, rather than from increasing tension with the Soviet Union. They still wanted to maintain the ban on exchange programs introduced after the suppression of the Hungarian revolution for a certain period to come. The West German Foreign Minister found it similarly important that the West should give voice to its long-term intentions concerning the region under Soviet rule. This is why the final communiqué included the sentence quoted above, according to which “ The peoples of Eastern Europe have the right to choose their own governments freely, unaffected by external pressure and the use of threat of force, and decide for themselves the political and social order they prefer.”59
Besides the reconsideration of the NATO policy towards Eastern Europe, the brutal Soviet intervention in Hungary made the meeting of NATO foreign ministers come to another important conclusion as well, namely that the member states had to increase their unity, solidarity, and military potential, in order to be able to remain an effective defensive alliance. This idea was underlined also by Lt. General Johnson, Chairman of the Standing Group, in his report on the military aspect of the Hungarian revolution. Examining the military potential of the Soviet bloc, the experts of the Committee found, in contrast with earlier interpretations, that nothing supported the presumption that the Soviet military potential had been weakened by the events in Poland and Hungary. They still believed it likely that the Soviets could not trust the armies of the satellites as before, which could, in fact, lead to the decrease of the Soviet military potential. The Soviets might find it necessary to deploy military forces for internal security purposes to defend supply routes. Analysts still maintained that the huge Soviet army and the massive presence of tank and armored divisions on the territory of the less trustworthy satellites, as well as the merciless and fast reaction to the events in Hungary, had proved that the Soviets’ capability for action was sufficient for an immediate reaction to whatever happened in the region under their rule. They found that with view to the whole of 1956 it could safely be established that the military potential of the Soviet bloc had increased as compared to that of the previous year, and consequently the NATO forces should raise the level of their preparedness.60
The reinterpretation of NATO’s policy towards Eastern Europe and its relationship with the countries of the region, with Kádár’s Hungary among them, continued at the level of the competent organs of the Organization after the conference of the foreign ministers also. The most important lessons had been drawn, and the third phase of the reactions of the Western bloc to the Hungarian revolution, in other words, the revision of the military and the political attitude to the satellites, began.
Reconsidering the theoretical framework of the problem went hand in hand with solving the practical problems raised by the suppression of the Hungarian revolution. The discussion of the Hungarian affair within the political organs of NATO in the early months of 1957 centered around three main questions: the case of the almost 200,000 refugees going to the West after the revolution, the support of the destitute Hungarian population, and the attitude towards the Kádár government. While the question of the refugees could be settled satisfactorily, that of the aid to Hungary raised the dilemma of how to help the Hungarian population living under very difficult conditions due to the fights, the protracted strikes and the bad economic circumstances resulting from the lack of energy and raw materials, without contributing to the stabilization of the Kádár regime established by the Soviets.61 The final decision was for purely humanitarian aid.
But how should the West approach the Kádár government, which had gradually managed to consolidate its power by increasing terror, large-scale imprisonments and executions on the one hand, and by measures to improve general conditions, such as wage rises and tax reductions, on the other. Finding an answer to this question was urgent, as NATO experts found the diplomatic boycott untenable in the long run. The Hungarian authorities could force the Western government to take sides openly at any moment. They demanded, for example, that the new American ambassador arriving at Budapest in the days of the revolution should present his credentials.62 Three alternatives were outlined by NATO analysts as to the future of the Kádár government in their report of February 13, 1957: the regime could survive in its original form, yield to the demands of the masses, or take up the fight once again.63 The report prepared by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in February 1957 for NATO establishes the following: “The police gathering strength day by day manages to prevent open resistance, which makes it possible for the Kádár government to establish itself. This does not mean, however, that the deep-rooted resistance of the Hungarian people is over. It is rumored that a new uprising is going to break out in spring… ”64 Jean Paul-Boncour, French Minister in Budapest, mentioned in a telegram sent to Paris on March 6, 1957, that, according to information received from the Israeli legation, the Hungarian authorities wished to provoke disturbances in the streets on March 15 (the national holiday of the 1848 revolution) in order to be able to increase repression.65
As NATO found an armed conflict in Eastern Europe not unlikely, it started to work out alternative solutions for the different situations that might arise, in order to avoid being reduced to passivity, as it was in the autumn of 1956, when it had no action plans at all. As a result, the Political Committee of the North Atlantic Council ordered, in February 1957, the analysis of the possibility of revolutions in the satellites, keeping mostly Poland and East Germany in mind. It was presumed that the danger of Western involvement in the fights was the greatest in these countries, which might lead to a world war.66
“In Hungary, the odds are that the people will be prudent enough to avoid a renewal of large-scale bloodshed,” the analysis prepared by mid-April 1957 established.67 The Soviet forces stationed in Hungary were regarded as being sufficient to suppress any revolt in themselves. Under these circumstances, the NATO experts found that the only attitude the West should follow was to keep the Hungarian question in the public eye, mostly by means of propaganda through the UN. “This is an ideal topic to influence public opinion in the non-aligned countries by,” established the analysts openly as the motive of the Western policy in the world organization.
The long-range target of the new NATO policy in Eastern Europe was to help the satellites get rid of Soviet rule and become independent and democratic states. In the short run, they merely wished to encourage the spirit of resistance against the governments established by Moscow and against Soviet rule as such. The best means for that seemed to be the creation of national communist regimes. Thus the West decided to refrain from encouraging the peoples of the satellites to employ force. “… There would be no advantage to the west from incitement to sabotage, rioting or guerrilla operations in any of the satellites. Strikes and peaceful demonstrations, if they were to occur, might play a valuable part in crystallizing popular opposition to the existing regimes in those satellites which have remained relatively quiet (Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Romania).”68 In Hungary the encouraging even of peaceful actions was out of the question.
It becomes obvious from what has been said about the NATO attitude to the Hungarian revolution of 1956 that the Organization treated the events that took place in Hungary in October and November 1956 as an issue of great importance in foreign affairs. The viewpoints on the basis of which the NATO organs analyzed the events in Hungary offer us an explanation for the opinion of Western foreign policy about Eastern Europe in the period in question. For example, the experts of the Western military bloc, starting out mostly from the national interests of their countries, concentrated primarily on the possible changes caused by the Polish and the Hungarian crises in the capacity of the Soviet Union to attack Western Europe and on the degree of how far the brutal Soviet military intervention in the satellites increased the risk of a nuclear war between East and West. It was this realistic view starting out from national interests that helped the Western states accept also the status quo and the new spheres of interest after World War II, as well as their narrow scope in influencing the satellites. The members of the NATO Council, especially the American, the British, and the French Permanent Representatives, immediately ruled out all plans for a determined action in connection with the Hungarian revolution. This restraint can be seen also in the fact that no press communiqué was issued about NATO dealing with the Hungarian question until the middle of December 1956.
The present author still maintains that the Hungarian case was primarily an ideological issue for the West. It offered ammunition for propaganda warfare, an outstanding frontline in the cold war with Russia, in the race for extending their control over the developing countries of the Third World. This is why the Hungarian question remained on the agenda of the UN Assembly in the subsequent six years. The fact that the NATO organs acquiesced so readily in passivity concerning the Soviet intervention was probably due not only to the realistic acknowledgement of the power relations but also to the lack of significant Western economic and political interests in the region of the Soviet bloc.69 This might have been the reason for the fact that although the fate of Hungary and the Soviet bloc was widely discussed at the meeting of the foreign ministers in Paris, in the middle of December 1956, substantial debate unfolded only in connection with questions directly affecting the interests of a NATO country (such as the Suez affair, the case of Cyprus, and the Balkan Pact, among others).
The Polish and the Hungarian crises took place in a period when NATO had already started reconsidering its policy towards Eastern Europe. The process was intensified by the stormy events in Eastern Europe in the autumn of 1956, and these had their impact on its outcome as well. The revolt in Hungary and its tragic fate made the work of reinterpretation more realistic with regard to the Soviet Union, the satellites, and the Western bloc alike. The presumed aggression of Khrushchev’s foreign policy was justified by the brutal military intervention in Hungary. It was also proved that the Soviet leaders were ready to maintain their rule over the bloc even by the most ruthless means, by force and at all costs. It also turned out that Eastern Europe was not under such a strong ideological control as had been presumed, and anti-Soviet sentiments could be observed in several areas. As regards the West, it became obvious that it would not intervene in the events in the satellites, whatever happened. This had been the case earlier, too, but now it was openly declared, similarly to the fact that the West wished to refrain from encouraging armed revolts in Eastern Europe that would probably involve a strong Soviet reaction threatening the security of the West.
As forums of coordination in foreign politics, the political organs of NATO played an important role in the treatment of the Hungarian question. In times of peace their teams worked as theoretical workshops elaborating long-range targets of foreign policy. The NATO Council, meeting frequently during the crisis, concentrated first only on the exchange of information and the interpretation of the current situation. Nearly all the important events in the history of the Hungarian revolution were still discussed (such as the arrival of Soviet reinforcements and the declaration of neutrality, among others). A more definite program of action however, took shape only weeks after the outbreak of the revolution. During the twin crises in Hungary and Suez, the most important decisions of the Western world were made by the national governments rather than NATO (see, for example, the American, British, and French declarations recognizing the security interests of the Soviet Union, and the clandestine talks of these nations at the UN). The NATO Council and its organs played an outstanding role mainly in solving smaller strategic tasks demanding organization, such as the question of the Hungarian refugees and sending humanitarian aid to Hungary, and in discussing questions on which all Western powers agreed. Among the recurring subjects were the prevention of Soviet interference with the Third World and the relationship of the West with the Kádár government, whereas the British-French-Israeli action against Egypt was not even mentioned before October 29.
The process of decision-making about the Hungarian affair at NATO was largely determined by the governments of the member states, the NATO Council having merely consultative functions. It can be seen from the debates during the Hungarian revolution that the opinions of the American, the British, and the French Permanent Representatives were more decisive in forming the general standpoint than those of the others. Nevertheless, these ambassadors did not fully dominate the scene: the others, mainly the Italian, the West German and the Belgian Permanent Representatives, were similarly active and put forward significant motions. The International Staff performed important ancillary activities, organized work, and offered expert opinion to the Council. For example, it gave the National Delegations detailed information about the life of Imre Nagy, who played an important role in the revolution. As a contrast, the organizations outside the framework of NATO, for example the Movement for Atlantic Unity (Mouvement pour l’Union Atlantique) and the Assembly of Captive European Nations, which similarly informed NATO about their standpoints in the critical questions, did not play a verifiable role in decision-making.
As becomes clear from what has been said above, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 did not bring about a considerable change in NATO policy towards Eastern Europe. The substantial elements of the idea which had been worked out by the spring of 1957, with the peaceful process of exploiting the ideological weaknesses of the Soviet satellites among them, in other words, encouraging a more independent foreign policy and more liberal domestic policy through economic, political, and cultural relations,70 had already been outlined before the Polish and Hungarian events of October and November 1956, and likewise the principle of the ban on encouraging the “captive nations” of the Soviet bloc to “useless revolts.” The West did not intend to give armed support, as any Western intervention would threaten a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
The Hungarian crisis still led to a partial modification of NATO policy towards the satellites. Due to the cruel suppression of the revolution and the measures of repression on the part of the Kádár government, it was emphatically declared that armed uprisings were not to be provoked or encouraged, and national communist regimes were the best means of realizing Western ideas in the region under the given circumstances. Finally, the military principles of NATO were supplemented by the idea that any revolt in the Soviet bloc endangered the security of the NATO countries, due to the probably very severe Soviet counter-measures.71
Last but not least, the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and its suppression did not bring about a considerable change in East-West relations, either. The decisive centers of decision-making of the day, with the NATO organs among them, carefully observed the unwritten rules of the game, such as the principle of the sanctity of the spheres of interest brought about after World War II. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization not only refrained from directly interfering with the Hungarian affair but also left the ideological battle in the press to the governments of the member states. As has been mentioned above, the NATO Council decided in the first days of the Hungarian revolution not to provide the public with information about its activities in connection with the events in Hungary. The diplomatic, economic, and cultural restrictions introduced as a result of the Soviet intervention in Hungary were gradually lifted in 1957-1958 in the atmosphere of détente.