The Hungarian Exodus: Flight from Communism After the Revolution of 1956
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The Hungarian Exodus: Flight from Communism After the Revolution of 1956

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 remains a controversy, but it is a fact that 2,500 died while nearly 200,000 escaped in its aftermath.

The year 1956 was a tumultuous one for the world; if Western-bloc nations had not been so fixated upon the Suez canal crisis and upon Soviet Russia, more attention might have been paid toward the revolutionary unrest and the eventual plight of Hungary, and the United States might have had a greater degree of political leverage with which they could challenge Soviet intervention. Native and emigrated Hungarians still vividly remember the events of 1956 and the manner in which their revolution was brutally crushed, and many still harbor bitter anger against the United States for the controversial role of Radio Free Europe in the event. The revolutionary situation in Hungary was met with hesitation and uncertainty by President Eisenhower, who was aware of officially agreed upon policy: that Western powers should attempt to lure Soviet satellite states away from the communist bloc by political means only, and not use force. This effectively left his hands tied; as previously mentioned, Western political clout was currently being used up in the Suez Canal.

Adding to the background noise and confusion was former President Truman's approval of a document from the National Security Councial entitled NSC-68 in 1950. While the document was top secret, it suggested a movement from political resistance to armed resistance against Communism. This document would shape much of the early Cold War policies, and the nuances behind it suggested to Hungarians that the United States would be likely to come to their aid in the event of revolution. Six years, however, was an eternity in geopolitical terms, and the development and blossoming of Soviet Russia's nuclear arsenal became a threat which was causing Western nations to rethink a strategy of armed involvement by 1956. In more ways than one, time was not on Hungary's side.

The historical controversy focuses upon Radio Free Europe, which was at that time administered by the CIA. Radio Free Europe still exists today (see, and while it was clearly originally created with the Cold War in mind, the organization has since fused with Radio Liberty and extended its outreach worldwide. The events which initiated bad feelings toward the United States are something that any Hungarian (resident or not) can easily recall vivid details of the situation on the ground. The Hungarian Revolution had already begun to pick up steam by October 23, 1956, when crowds began massing in front of the Parliament building. An investigation of the incidents (see fifth link below) concluded that a number of Radio Free Europe broadcasts "violated policy," starting with one on October 27. The program is directly quoted to "fairly clearly impl[y] that foreign aid will be forthcoming if the resistance forces succeed in establishing a “central military command.” Andor Gellért was in charge of Radio Free Europe broadcasts in Hungary during that time, and he was responsible for reviewing the content of broadcasts and ensuring that his subordinates followed policy and did not broadcast distortions or falsehood. Yet, despite being counseled by his superiors about the content of some broadcast copy, he repeatedly failed to affix his name as the approving official to a number of broadcasts (primary sources reveal that his subordinates approved the copy themselves). Gellért's failure as a manager inevitably allowed irresponsible radio broadcasts to be heard by Hungarians, who in turn took the advice of the radio. Radio broadcasts offered tactical advice and encouraged Hungarians to basically hang on until help arrived, implying that the United States would step in and help.

There are many accounts of the pitiable situation placing blame on or removing it from various sources. Some of the primary and secondary sources are available in links below. Proof is a difficult thing to find, but the inevitable conclusion is that some misguided radio broadcasts left the United States in an awkward position, and Hungarians suffered for it. In the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution, in which approximately 2,500 Hungarians died, nearly 200,000 took advantage of the chaos to flee into bordering Austria, and more than half of that number found their way into Western countries. There are more than 100,000 Hungarian speakers in the United States today.

Pictured is an example of the extreme revolutionary fervor in Hungary in 1956. Hungarian citizens toppled the statue of Stalin erected in the capital of Budapest and inscribed "W.C." on his head, indicating that the best use for it was as a toilet.


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Comments (2)
Ranked #2 in History

Great article and very interesting. I have known families here in the US that were in Hungary during the Hungarian Revolution and got out at that time. They had no hatred or anger towards the US, but they did have a real hatred towards the Soviet Union. I didn’t know that about the Radio Free Europe. I always assumed that the Soviet Union would have jammed all of those broadcasts to the point no one in Hungary could ever hear it.

Ranked #29 in History

Thank you! I am sure that individual opinions about the situation are varied among Hungarians. Those that escaped in the aftermath of this scenario and live here or in other countries are likely to feel more positive about the situation, especially since they are often younger than many who remained. The attitude I received while traveling in Budapest, however, was one which indicated that many Hungarians felt directly betrayed by the United States. Indeed, at the Magyar Farsangi Bál in Atlanta this February, freedom-style bracelets were handed out to us that said "freedomfighter56" on them, which is a website chronicling the revolution. Hungarians have not forgotten.... You are unmistakably right about the greater hatred being toward Soviet Russia, however! The repressiveness of the system stifled the cultures of all the satellite states. What makes this singular situation so memorable to Hungarians is that they believed they had an opportunity to be supported and throw off Soviet rule, and the disappointment of being crushed was compounded by the lack of expected aid from the U.S. Thanks for the feedback!