35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Hungary 1956: Reviving the Debate over US (In)action during the Revolution

Published: May 10, 2017
Briefing Book #591

Edited by Dr. Ronald D. Landa
Introduced by Malcolm Byrne
For more information: nsarchiv@gwu.edu, 202.994.7000

Eisenhower’s Caution Broadly Justified, Declassified Defense Department Study Finds

But Swifter, More Imaginative Response Might Have Brought Different Results

U.S. Officials Weighed but Rejected Many Options Including Tactical Nukes

Washington D.C., May 10, 2017 – The United States’ cautious response to the unexpectedly powerful popular uprising in Hungary in 1956 grew out of the Eisenhower administration’s policy of “keeping the pot boiling” in Eastern Europe without having it “boil over” into a possible nuclear conflict, according to an unpublished Defense Department historical study posted for the first time by the National Security Archive at The George Washington University. 

Eisenhower and his top aides, including Secretary of State John Foster Dulles – often seen as one of the most aggressive Cold Warriors – opted for the long view of encouraging a gradual erosion of Soviet domination of the socialist camp.

The study, by Dr. Ronald D. Landa, is a follow-on to another recently posted here entitled, “Almost Successful Recipe: The United States and East European Unrest prior to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.”  Readers are encouraged to examine both documents together since they contain complementary information.

Defending Eisenhower’s reticence to take stiffer action, including covertly assisting the Hungarian rebels or threatening to use tactical nuclear weapons on supply routes into Hungary, the study notes his concerns about inadvertently touching off a nuclear war with the USSR.  At the same time, the author points out that Eisenhower “let the matter slide” by early in the crisis rejecting a recommendation that he convene a special meeting of the National Security Council to consider possible responses, which “undercut the urgency for action.”

This study differs markedly from a number of Hungarian, American, and other historical accounts that take a harsher view of U.S. policy, accusing it of cynicism, hypocrisy, and plain obliviousness about the nature of the crisis.  For one thing, it suggests that the U.N. decision to send an emergency force to the Middle East during the Suez crisis, more than the administration’s rhetoric about loosening Moscow’s ties with the East European satellites or hopes of liberation fostered by Radio Free Europe, was chiefly responsible for any expectations of Western military assistance that Hungarians had.

Today's posting is the third and final in a series Landa completed for the Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense during 2011 and early 2012. The National Security Archive thanks him for donating these materials.

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