First Domino: International Decision Making during the Hungarian Crisis of 1956 by Johanna Granville (College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2004)

The First Domino: International Decision Making
during the Hungarian Crisis of 1956
by Johanna Granville

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(College Station: Texas A & M University Press, 2004)

Chapter 1: Roots of the Uprising: Spring 1953 to Summer 1956 (pp. 3-36)

This chapter covers factors in Hungary’s anti-Soviet nature, the fluctuating degrees of control Soviet leaders had over Hungarian politics between 1953 and 1955, motives behind the Secret Speech at the Twentieth CPSU Congress, Moscow’s flawed image of Hungarian leaders such as Imre Nagy and Mátyás Rákosi, Hungarian leaders’ “passive aggressive” behavior, and Rákosi’s forced retirement as first secretary in July 1956. According to Johanna Granville, “it is not surprising that Hungary, given its history and culture, was the first “satellite” to challenge Soviet hegemony directly by declaring its withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact” [p. 3] “Hungary has had a distinctly anti-Soviet past, due to such aspects as the Tsarist Russian invasion of 1849, Hungary’s historical rivalry with the Russians over the Balkans, its former alliance with Nazi Germany, its monarchical past, the belated influence of communism in the interwar period, and its vastly different language and culture” [p. 10].
“Many scholars writing about this key turning point in the Cold War have operated on the implicit assumption that the Soviet leaders were the key aggressors and all the Eastern European leaders the reluctant and passive allies. However, while Stalin’s successors did play a strong role in internal Hungarian politics, they certainly were neither omnipotent nor omniscient. They misperceived the Hungarian leaders (Nagy, Rákosi, and Ernő Gerő). Because the Kremlin leaders thought the problem of Hungarian unrest lay at the top, they believed they needed an “iron hand” like Rákosi’s to maintain discipline; no one else could take his place. Thus the Kremlin leaders’ misdiagnosis of the problem further exacerbated it, as they mistook the disease for the cure. The Soviet perceptions of Nagy, Rákosi, and Gerő are worth examining since, arguably, had Rákosi been replaced earlier than mid-July by a non-Stalinist leader like János Kádár or Imre Nagy, the Hungarian revolution might never have taken place. To some extent, as well, the Hungarian leaders subtly manipulated Moscow. The Rajk question, “Farkas Affair,” return of Kádár to the Politburo, Jewish question, use of the Yugoslav press and diplomatic corps, and eventual dismissal of Mátyás Rákosi illustrate this behavior”[p. 3]

Chapter 2: The Role of Yugoslavia and Poland: Summer to Fall 1956 (pp. 37-61)

“Before the opening of communist bloc archives in the early 1990s, scholars habitually analyzed the Polish and Hungarian crises of 1956 from the Soviet viewpoint, focusing almost exclusively on internal factors in one given satellite country and its subordinate relationship with the Soviet Union” [p. 37]. While the Soviet Union dominated the satellites in the 1950s, these satellites were also heavily influenced by their “fraternal socialist” neighbors and Yugoslavia. This chapter examines the influence on Hungary of two Slavic proponents of “separate paths to socialism,” Yugoslavia and Poland.
“Expelled from the Cominform in 1948 and subsequently boycotted by all the bloc countries, Yugoslavia nevertheless persuaded the United States to provide economic aid. Meanwhile, Poland – sandwiched between Germany and Russia, partitioned four times in history, and even wiped off the map at one point – developed a strong sense of unity and grim determination to survive at any cost. This experience helped the Poles deter a Soviet attack later in October 1956” [p. 38]. Specifically, the chapter covers the slow Hungarian-Yugoslav rapprochement (May 1955-February 1956), the role of Polish leader Władysław Gomułka, the Poznań revolt (June 28, 1956), the Rákosi government’s reaction to Poznań, Gomułka and the “Polish October”, Hungarian reactions to the Polish October, and a comparison of the Poznań revolt with the October 23 crisis in Hungary.
“Events in Poland – such as the Światło revelations, the Poznań revolt, and Gomułka’s selection as party leader during the Polish “October” – inspired Imre Nagy and his supporters in Budapest. Gomułka’s success in defying the Kremlin emboldened the Petőfi Circle and the Hungarian students and encouraged them – rightly or wrongly – to view Nagy as a Hungarian Gomułka” [p. 39]. Gomułka himself tried to mediate between Nagy and Kádár.  Poland may have been spared a Soviet invasion by the larger upheaval in Hungary. Later Poland “was one of the very first countries to begin sending generous aid to Hungary” [p. 116].
“In contrast to the situation in Poland, the problems in Hungary had been festering over a longer period, due to Rákosi’s tenacious hold on power. Rákosi’s refusal to take responsibility for Rajk’s execution and to admit to other mistakes, not only troubled the Hungarian people and elicited passive aggressive behavior among Hungarian communist officials aimed at unseating the Hungarian dictator, but it also delayed the Hungarian-Yugoslav rapprochement. Other issues prevented a full Yugoslav-Hungarian rapprochement, including the rehabilitation of Rajk,  the refusal to grant amnesty to all Yugoslav political prisoners in Hungary, unfair treatment of the Yugoslav minority living in Hungary, and delayed payments of reparations to Yugoslavia” [p. 60-61]. 

Chapter 3: The First Invasion, October 23-24, 1956 (pp. 62-93)

“Western observers have long held an image of the Soviet Union as a crafty monolith that expertly, in the realpolitik tradition, intervened while the West was distracted by the Suez crisis. In fact, the documents reveal that the Soviet Union had difficulty working with its Hungarian allies. If Washington’s problems with Paris and London during the simultaneous Suez crisis stemmed from the Allies’ bellicosity and obsolete colonial ambitions, Moscow’s problems with Budapest stemmed from the pro-Soviet Hungarian leaders’ failure to fight resolutely in the period between the two interventions” [p. 62]. “After a brief overview of the events from October 24 to October 31, this chapter will focus on the Soviet process of decision making, the execution of the first Soviet military intervention, the Hungarian style of crisis management, Soviet perceptions of Nagy during his fast-paced reforms, and the plight of the Hungarian communists loyal to the Soviet Union” [p. 62].
“For the Khrushchev leadership, the persecution of the pro-Soviet Hungarians served as a powerful propaganda tool to justify the violation of Hungary’s newly acquired independence” [p. 92]. “The violent October 23 student demonstration had caught off guard the Soviet ‘Special Corps’ stationed in Hungary under General Lashchenko, despite earlier signs of popular agitation. The Soviet military plan, codenamed Volna (Operation Wave) was flawed in several ways and only exacerbated the situation in Hungary.
The insightful notes of Vladimir Malin, a high official of the Soviet Communist Party’s Central Committee, show that the Soviet decision makers did not function as a ‘unitary rational actor’: they zig-zagged from one extreme to another; hawks and doves grappled over the issue; and a good deal of ‘groupthink’ was apparently operative” [p. 92]. On October 30 Soviet leaders published a declaration supporting Nagy’s ‘national communism’. Scholars have previously assumed that this was just a deceptive ploy, and that the use of military force was a foregone conclusion. However, archival documents reveal that Moscow was at first genuinely searching for a political rather than a military solution. They changed their minds in favor of invasion only on October 31, influenced partly by the Franco-British intervention of October 30 in the Israeli-Egyptian Suez Canal War [pp. 65-70].
“Hungarian communists were loath to fight fellow citizens and a mass movement articulating ideas that many of them shared but could not express openly” [p. 92]. “The Kremlin leaders’ support for Nagy – ambiguous to begin with – evaporated as they observed the chaotic activities of his government in the last days of October. His inability, for example, to enforce a cease-fire convinced them in part that Nagy’s government would probably not be able to resist a second, full-scale invasion effectively and that such an operation could be launched and ended quickly in this small, landlocked country”[p. 93].

Chapter 4: The Second Invasion, November 4, 1956 (pp. 94-124)

In this chapter, Johanna Granville analyzes “the Soviet army’s performance in Operation “Whirlwind” (Vikhr) on November 4, which improved significantly over its execution of Operation “Wave” (Volna) on October 24” [p. 94]. The chapter also resumes the earlier discussion of Yugoslavia and Poland, and their reactions to the Hungarian crisis. It first examines the ambiguous role of the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, who ended up supporting the Soviet use of military force against Hungary. It also explains the hitherto murky circumstances surrounding Tito’s decision to grant Imre Nagy political refuge in his Budapest embassy on the day of the invasion (November 4, 1956). “Tito’s reluctance to surrender Nagy – and the later Soviet abduction of him – chilled Soviet-Yugoslav relations once again” [p. 94].
“Gomułka’s position resembled Tito’s to some extent: publicly he needed to support Nagy’s policies because they were close to his own, but privately he dreaded anything that might spark an uncontrollable revolutionary movement within Polish borders. In contrast to Hungarian reactions to the Polish events discussed in Chapter Two, Polish reactions to the Hungarian Revolution were more complex and in some ways circumspect, due in part to the greater scale of violence in Hungary and to Gomułka’s temperament as a realist” [p. 94].
“The Khrushchev leadership overcame the Nagy regime as much by stratagem as by force” [p. 94]. “The second Soviet invasion, planned on October 30-31 and executed on November 4, came after three days of skillful deception” [p. 94]. “The Russians negotiated with the Hungarians (the so-called “mixed commission” headed by Pál Maléter) about the withdrawal of Soviet troops, but at the same time flew Kádár and Münnich secretly to the Soviet Union on November 1 to establish a new pro-Soviet government”[p. 95]. “Fresh troops began to cross the Hungarian border as early as November 1. After several phone calls to Soviet Ambassador Andropov that day for an explanation, Nagy finally summoned him to a 7 p.m. session of the Hungarian Council of Ministers and demanded a public clarification” [p. 95]. According to Andropov’s telegram on November 1, “Nagy said that, since the Soviet government has not yet stopped the movement of Soviet troops and has not explained its actions satisfactorily, he proposes to confirm the decision made that morning to renounce the Warsaw Pact and declare the neutrality of Hungary” [p. 95]. Hence, contrary to many standard accounts, Moscow’s decision to invade Hungary preceded Nagy’s declaration of neutrality, not vice versa.

Chapter 5: János Kádár and the Normalization Process (pp. 125-157)

This chapter focuses on the personality and behavior of János Kádár. “Khrushchev openly lamented his promotion of Gerő instead of Kádár during the November 3, 1956 Presidium session” [p. 156]. “Specifically the chapter will investigate Kádár’s involvement in the Rajk Affair, his prison experiences, his activities between November 1 and 4, 1956; and his roles in the abduction of the Nagy group and the post-invasion ‘normalization’ process. Just as the Soviet leaders were not omniscient in the summer months of 1956 and allowed Rákosi to stay in power too long in Hungary, so also they did not succeed in quickly subduing the Hungarian population after the intervention. The normalization process proceeded more slowly than the West knew, due in part to the persistence of small-scale fighting and the passive resistance of the Hungarian population; disagreements between the Kádár and Khrushchev regimes about the pace and scale of mass arrests and deportations; and the lack of coordination between the Soviet Committee of State Security (KGB) and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) in carrying out the arrests. The more advisors the Kremlin sent to remedy the situation, the more irritated the Hungarians became. Even when the situation became outwardly calm, Hungary was not completely subdued”[p. 125].
Somewhat akin to the American experience in Vietnam after the murder of Ngo Dinh Diem in August 1961, the Kremlin had decided to intervene militarily in Hungary the second time because they believed there was no effective Hungarian government to control the situation. At the October 31 Presidium session during which the decision to invade was reached, Khrushchev himself had said ‘[T]here is not now any government…We should create a Provisional Revolutionary Government (headed by Kádár)’ [p. 125]. “In any case, the Soviet leaders were able to avoid the kind of “tar baby syndrome” that perplexed Pentagon leaders in Vietnam, having been fortunate to find in János Kádár a flexible and realistic politician to pacify Hungary. Despite their initial doubts about Kádár’s effectiveness, the Soviet leaders were largely able to leave him in charge and issue orders from Moscow” [p. 125-126].
“The chapter also covers the role of Romania and Nagy’s exile there, the timing of the decision to execute Nagy, and the influence of the Anti-Party Group in Moscow. In late November and December of 1956, Kádár pleaded with the Russians to adopt a more lenient approach to the insurgents, but later became firmer when Nagy was deported from Hungary and could no longer challenge his authority. We now know that Kádár approved of the secret KGB plan to arrest Nagy and his followers as soon as they left the Yugoslav embassy. Despite the prolonged restlessness of the population long after the crushed revolution and the bloody repression of 1957-1958, Kádár’s regime after normalization and Nagy’s execution in June 1958 represented a sharp move away from the conditions under Rákosi. Kádár managed in the 1960s and 1970s to develop his own brand of lenient national communism (‘goulash communism’) and to earn a measure of grudging respect from the Hungarian people” [p. 156].

Chapter 6: The Role of the United States (pp. 158-201)

This chapter begins by reviewing the reactions of the US policymaking community to Stalin’s death and to the new “collective leadership” in the Kremlin. The dictator’s death on March 5, 1953 “perhaps confused U.S. foreign policy officials as much as it did Soviet citizens themselves. While Stalin was alive, the United States had a concrete enemy against which to plan its policies. After his death, US policymakers lacked plans and methods for gauging the motives of the new Kremlin leaders” [p. 159].
The chapter then examines the propaganda and news-disseminating activities of Radio Free Europe (RFE) and shows how they may have undermined the Nagy regime as early as 1953. “Ironically, in seeking more aggressive ways to ‘overload the switchboard’ of the Soviet and East European countries, and to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the newly independent Third World nations, RFE’s propaganda may have harmed the very ‘national communists’ it should have nurtured. Despite vigorous denials by RFE officials even to this day, RFE did indeed broadcast at least sixteen scripts during the revolution that seriously distorted US policy and misled the ‘freedom fighters’. Had American officials been proofreading the scripts before they were read over the air, they probably would not have approved of them to be broadcast” [p. 159].
“The newly declassified notes of the emergency sessions in the Soviet Presidium suggest that some Soviet and Hungarian officials genuinely feared a U.S. intervention and viewed Western radio broadcasts as a key factor in the anti-Soviet sentiment in Hungary” [p. 200]
“In any case, RFE neither ‘caused’ the Hungarian Revolution, nor stood alone in weakening the Nagy government; U.S. diplomats also advocated neutrality toward Nagy as early as October 15, 1956, hoping to make amends for ‘Operation Focus’. Ironically, the Free Europe Press-sponsored balloon operation coincided with the popular, reformist Nagy regime (1953-1955), and ended just when it might have done the most good, when the unpopular Hungarian Stalinist Rákosi took over” [p. 201].
This chapter also discloses the hitherto secret plans for an emigré army or ‘Volunteer Freedom Corps’. “The fact that the VFC was never implemented illustrates the Eisenhower Administration’s growing caution about the potentially destabilizing policies of liberation and rollback, especially in the aftermath of the popular unrest in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary” [p. 159]. After some analysis of the level of Soviet knowledge of émigré activities, Granville investigates the intelligence processing of the Hungarian refugees at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. “While Kádár grappled with the task of normalizing the population within Hungary, U.S. officials struggled to manage the exodus of Hungarians overseas, a task which proved to be troublesome but rewarding” [p. 159].

Chapter 7: Conclusion (pp. 202-14 )

In this chapter, Granville explains four of the most common misperceptions among policymakers, as laid out by political scientist Robert Jervis. These include the misperception of centralization, the overestimation of one’s importance as influence or target, the influence of desires and fears on perception, and cognitive dissonance. The chapter evaluates these four patterns of misperception with regard to the groups of decision makers discussed throughout the book.

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