Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 22 – Hungary

Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 22 – Hungary

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the twenty-second chapter of his book, called “Hungary: Upheaval in the Empire”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

In 1956, the Suez crisis and the Hungarian uprising marked a turning point in postwar international relations, signaling the complexity and depth of the Cold War tensions. The Western Alliance was disillusioned by the Suez crisis, realizing that their interests might not always align as perfectly as previously believed. Meanwhile, the violent suppression of the Hungarian uprising by the Soviet Union made it clear that the Soviets were determined to maintain their control over Eastern Europe, crushing any hopes of liberation from communist rule. This period underscored the enduring and bitter nature of the Cold War, with both sides prepared for a prolonged ideological and military standoff.

The Hungarian resistance was a direct result of longstanding Russian imperial ambitions, Soviet ideology, and Hungarian nationalism. Historically, Russia had suppressed neighboring nations that pursued independent policies, a trend that continued under Soviet rule, which proved costly and unproductive for Russia. The Soviet expansion during Stalin’s era further extended into Eastern Europe, establishing a satellite orbit of communist states that were economically and politically controlled by Moscow. This imposed rule was marked by widespread resentment and economic degradation, as seen in the drastically lowered living standards across Eastern European nations such as Czechoslovakia and Poland, which suffered under the ineffective Soviet-style economic planning.

In these satellite states, communism was seen as a foreign imposition, stifling traditional national identities and contributing to a pervasive sense of oppression among the local populations. Despite the communists’ control over major societal institutions, they remained a minority, struggling to maintain order and justify their dominance. Stalin’s methods of maintaining control included brutal suppression and purges, which eliminated any potential for dissent but also highlighted the moral and operational failures of the communist system. The purges not only removed capable leaders but also demonstrated the system’s inherent brutality, further alienating the people it governed.

After Stalin’s death, the Soviet leadership faced dilemmas regarding the balance between repression and reform. Efforts at liberalization, such as reconciliation with Tito of Yugoslavia and attempts to soften policies in Eastern Europe, were continually undermined by the inherent contradictions in Soviet policy. The leadership feared that reducing repression could lead to a loss of control, yet they also recognized the need to reduce tensions with the West. This precarious balance was evident in the mixed responses to Khrushchev’s reforms and the ongoing challenges in managing nationalist sentiments in the satellite states.

In the U.S., there was a debate over the approach to Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe. John Foster Dulles criticized the policy of containment for being too passive and advocated for a proactive stance that promoted the possibility of peaceful separation from Soviet influence, akin to Yugoslavia’s stance. However, the practical application of Dulles’ “liberation” policy was more about increasing the costs for the Soviet Union than actively encouraging uprisings, which could lead to violent suppression. Institutions like Radio Free Europe played a dual role in broadcasting ideals of freedom while also stirring up sentiments that could lead to unrest, often blurring the lines between non-official encouragement and official U.S. policy.

Thus, as the Western powers grappled with the Suez crisis, the Soviet Union faced significant challenges in managing its satellites, particularly in Poland and Hungary, revealing the persistent and complex strains within the Soviet sphere of influence and the broader Cold War landscape.

In June 1956, Poland was the site of significant unrest, as riots broke out in the industrial city of Poznan. The government’s response was harsh, resulting in numerous casualties. By October, the Polish Communist Party, reeling from the impact of Stalin’s earlier purges, shifted toward embracing Polish nationalism. This shift was symbolized by the return of Władysław Gomułka to leadership and the dismissal of Soviet Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky from his posts, signaling a move away from direct Soviet control. The Party declared that Poland would follow a “national road to socialism,” a concept that unnerved Moscow, suggesting a possible deviation from strict Soviet orthodoxy.

The Kremlin considered military intervention as Soviet tanks rolled towards major Polish cities. However, a meeting between the Polish leadership and Soviet officials led by Nikita Khrushchev at Warsaw’s Belvedere Palace marked a pivotal moment. The Polish leaders stood firm, and Khrushchev ultimately withdrew the troops, formally endorsing Gomułka’s leadership while securing a commitment to maintain the socialist framework and Warsaw Pact membership. This concession allowed Poland some degree of autonomy within the Soviet sphere, reflecting Moscow’s reluctance to engage in a potentially costly repression of Poland’s large and resistant population.

Meanwhile, Hungary was experiencing its own crisis. Governed by the Stalinist Mátyás Rákosi and then briefly by Imre Nagy, who was seen as a reformer, Hungary oscillated between repression and tentative reform. Following Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin, Rákosi was replaced, setting the stage for widespread unrest. On October 23, the same day Gomułka was reinstated in Poland, Hungarian protests escalated into demands for more radical changes, including freedom of speech and the withdrawal of Soviet troops. Imre Nagy, reinstalled as leader amidst the turmoil, initially sought to introduce reforms within the communist framework but was increasingly seen as a figurehead for deeper democratic aspirations.

By October 24, demonstrations in Hungary had escalated into a full-blown revolution, with Soviet tanks sent into Budapest meeting fierce resistance. The Soviets initially seemed to relent, mirroring their response in Poland by withdrawing tanks. However, the Hungarian demands went further, seeking the establishment of a multiparty system and complete removal of Soviet influence, which the Kremlin was not willing to concede. Amidst this backdrop, the U.S. maintained a cautious stance, focused on its own rhetoric of “liberation” without substantial intervention, even as Radio Free Europe broadcast messages encouraging Hungarians to reject any compromise and continue their resistance.

The climax of the crisis saw Nagy taking dramatic steps toward democratization by abolishing the one-party system, but the situation remained precarious. Radio Free Europe’s aggressive stance against any communist holdover in the new government underscored the complex interplay between U.S. ideological goals and the practical realities faced by those fighting on the ground in Hungary. The revolution ultimately highlighted the limitations of U.S. influence and the harsh realities of Soviet dominance in Eastern Europe, as well as the tragic personal cost for leaders like Nagy, who was executed for his role in the uprising.

During the Hungarian crisis of 1956, the Eisenhower Administration’s public statements seemed primarily focused on reassuring the Soviets rather than supporting the revolutionaries. Secretary of State Dulles, in a speech on October 27, suggested that the U.S. would support Eastern European countries that chose to break away from Soviet control and pursue a neutral, Titoist model. He emphasized that American aid would not be contingent on these countries adopting a democratic system. This message, intended to reassure, paradoxically fueled Soviet fears of American interference in their sphere of influence, reminiscent of earlier anxieties triggered by the Marshall Plan.

President Eisenhower, in a speech on October 31, further emphasized a non-interventionist stance by highlighting America’s disinterest in seeking military alliances with Eastern European nations. He stressed that U.S. policy was aligned with the principles of the United Nations and not aimed at using force to change the political landscape in Eastern Europe. This renunciation of force was meant to ease Soviet fears, but it inadvertently lessened U.S. influence and potentially emboldened the Soviets to take more decisive actions against the uprisings.

As the situation in Hungary escalated, Imre Nagy, reasserting his leadership amidst revolutionary fervor, formed a new government reminiscent of the pre-communist democratic era, including non-communist figures and releasing prominent political prisoners like Cardinal Mindszenty. Nagy’s administration, reflecting the radical demands of the revolutionaries, began negotiations for the withdrawal of Soviet troops. The Soviet response, as communicated by Politburo members Mikoyan and Suslov, appeared open to negotiations but later statements in Soviet media underscored that any troop withdrawals would require the consent of all Warsaw Pact members, effectively giving the Soviet Union a veto over such decisions.

Amidst these diplomatic maneuvers, Nagy took a bold step by declaring Hungary’s neutrality and announcing its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact on November 1. This declaration went significantly beyond Poland’s reforms and directly challenged Soviet control. He appealed to the United Nations for recognition of Hungary’s neutrality, though no response was forthcoming. Nagy’s actions, while representing a clear break from Soviet influence, also marked him as a target for Soviet reprisal.

The indifference of the international community to Imre Nagy’s appeals for support during the Hungarian uprising in 1956 highlighted a stark disconnect between the severity of the situation and the global response. The United States and its allies failed to prioritize Nagy’s plea in the United Nations, which was largely preoccupied with the Suez Crisis at the time. On November 4, as Soviet forces aggressively suppressed the Hungarian Revolution, the UN’s attention was divided, resulting in minimal impact from its delayed responses to the crisis. János Kádár, previously purged by Stalin and raised to power by Nagy, returned with the Soviet troops to establish a new government, signaling a return to stringent communist control. Key figures such as Nagy and army commander Pal Maleter were arrested, with Nagy eventually executed, underscoring the ruthlessness of Soviet reprisal.

The United Nations’ response was tepid. A Security Council resolution demanding Soviet withdrawal was vetoed by the Soviet ambassador, and while a General Assembly resolution passed, advocating Hungary’s independence, it was largely ignored in practice. This contrasted sharply with the unanimous support for a resolution addressing the Middle East crisis, highlighting inconsistencies in international responses to similar invasions of sovereignty. The inaction following the Hungarian resolution reflected a broader reluctance by non-aligned nations, including India and Yugoslavia, to criticize Soviet actions, prioritizing geopolitical alliances and practical concerns over ideological consistency.

The aftermath of the uprising prompted reflections on whether Western diplomacy could have been more assertive. The Eisenhower Administration, despite its rhetoric of liberation, had not actively intervened to prevent Soviet military actions. The gap between American declarations and practical support for Hungary was glaring, with no serious attempts made to explore non-military options to influence the situation. The U.S. relied heavily on public statements that ultimately may have reassured rather than deterred Soviet aggression.

In contrast to the lack of action over Hungary, the Western response to the Suez Crisis involved more direct interventions. This discrepancy underscored a missed opportunity to apply similar diplomatic pressures on the Soviet Union, which faced minimal consequences for its actions in Hungary. This period also exposed the limitations of non-aligned nations’ neutrality, as they often refrained from criticizing Soviet actions to maintain strategic relationships, despite their active involvement in global diplomacy.

By December, Secretary of State Dulles was still attempting to reassure the Soviet Union about America’s intentions, emphasizing a desire for peace in Eastern Europe rather than confrontation. This approach starkly contrasted with the harsh realities of Soviet dominance in the region, as evidenced by their forceful suppression of the Hungarian uprising. Dulles’ later comments in Australia in 1957 further highlighted the legalistic and cautious American stance, emphasizing that there was no obligation for military aid to Hungary, which was seen as not beneficial to broader global or European stability.

This cautious diplomacy reflected a broader trend in American foreign policy, which often struggled to reconcile its high-minded principles with the pragmatic demands of global leadership and the realities of Cold War politics. The Suez and Hungarian crises together illustrated the complexities and often contradictory nature of U.S. foreign policy, where idealistic rhetoric often clashed with geopolitical realities and the limits of American influence were starkly exposed.

The events of 1956, juxtaposing the crises in Hungary and Suez, set a new stage for the Cold War dynamics. The Soviet Union successfully maintained its stronghold in Eastern Europe, while the United States and other democracies witnessed a weakening of their influence in the Middle East. The immediate aftermath saw the Soviet Union feeling emboldened, evidenced by Khrushchev’s bold threats of rocket attacks on Western Europe and proposals for joint military operations in the Middle East against Western allies. This period underscored the United States’ failure to support Hungary, leaving it isolated and highlighting the limitations of Western power in shaping the region’s events.

However, the apparent strength of the Soviet position masked underlying vulnerabilities. The persistence of communist rule in Eastern Europe proved costly and unsustainable. The Soviets found themselves burdened with the economic and political stability of these countries, which neither strengthened the Soviet Union nor won them genuine acceptance or loyalty from the governed populations. Despite the facade of control, the Soviet model of governance failed to garner public support, compelling Eastern European communist leaders to gradually incorporate nationalist elements into their governance to avoid relying solely on Soviet military enforcement.

Over time, the Hungarian uprising of 1956 emerged as an early indicator of the inherent flaws in the communist system. The repressive measures initially taken by leaders like Kádár eventually gave way to more moderate policies that aligned somewhat with Nagy’s earlier reformist efforts, although they never reached the point of breaking away from the Warsaw Pact. By the 1980s, Hungary had achieved a degree of internal freedom greater than that of Poland and had developed a foreign policy that was relatively independent of Moscow. This evolution pointed to the deep-seated weaknesses within the Soviet system, which would ultimately lead to its collapse.

The legacy of 1956 was complex, marking another prolonged period of suffering and oppression across the communist bloc. While from a historical perspective this period might appear brief before the eventual fall of communism, it represented decades of acute hardship for millions living under totalitarian rule. The Soviet leadership, misjudging their actual strength and the global balance of power, responded to the events of 1956 with renewed confidence, setting the stage for further confrontations, notably the Berlin ultimatums, which posed one of the most significant Cold War challenges yet.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.




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