Policy of Containment

Indochina: The Background to War

The opposition to the French imperial presence, competing factions in Vietnam, and involvements of Western powers, China, and the Soviet Union led to the First and later Second Indochina Wars.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the factors leading up to the First and Second Indochina Wars

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • In the late 19th century, the French colonized Indochina. Various Vietnamese opposition movements existed during this period, but none was as successful as the Viet Minh common front, which was founded in 1941 under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh.
  • The First Indochina War (1946–1954) involved French troops supported by Emperor Bao Dai’s Vietnamese National Army pitted against communist forces led by Ho Chih Minh. The war took place all over Vietnam, although it was concentrated around Tonkin.
  • At the International Geneva Conference in 1954, the French government and the Viet Minh made an agreement that was denounced by the government of Vietnam and by the United States, but which effectively gave the Communists control of North Vietnam above the 17th parallel. The Geneva Accords also promised elections in 1956 to determine a national government for a united Vietnam.
  • When the elections were cancelled, the Viet Minh started to fight the government. The confrontation gradually escalated into the Second Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War in the West and the American War in Vietnam.
  • At the beginning of the war, the United States was neutral in the conflict. By 1949, it began to strongly support the French as the two countries were bound by the Cold War Mutual Defense Program. On June 30, 1950, the first U.S. supplies for Indochina were delivered.
  • In 1954, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower explained the escalation risk, introducing what he referred to as the “domino principle,” which eventually became the concept of domino theory. It speculated that if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, then the surrounding countries would follow in a domino effect.

Key Terms

  • domino theory: A theory prominent from the 1950s to the 1980s, which speculated that if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, the surrounding countries would follow, falling like dominos. Successive U.S. administrations used this line of thought during the Cold War to justify the need for U.S. intervention around the world.
  • Việt Minh: A communist national independence coalition formed on May 19, 1941. It initially was formed to seek independence for Vietnam from the French Empire. When the Japanese occupation began, it opposed Japan with support from the United States and China. After World War II, it opposed France’s re-occupation of Vietnam and later opposed South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam War.
  • 17th Parallel: The provisional military demarcation line between North and South Vietnam established by the Geneva Accords of 1954. The line ran approximately along the Ben Hai River in Quang Tri Province to the village of Bo Ho Su, and from there due west to the Laos Vietnam border.
  • First Indochina War: War fought between French forces and their Viet Minh opponents in French Indochina between 1946 and 1954, leading to the withdrawal of France and the entry of the United States into what would become the Vietnam War.
  • August Revolution: A revolution launched on August 14, 1945, by the Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) against French colonial rule in Vietnam.

Background

France began its conquest of Indochina in the late 1850s, and completed pacification by 1893. The 1884 Treaty of Hue formed the basis for French colonial rule in Vietnam for the next seven decades. Despite military resistance, by 1888 the area of the current-day nations of Cambodia and Vietnam was made into the colony of French Indochina (Laos was later added). Various Vietnamese opposition movements to French rule existed during this period, but none was ultimately as successful as the Viet Minh common front, which was founded in 1941 under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh, controlled by the Indochinese Communist Party, and funded by the United States and by the Chinese Nationalist Party in its fight against Imperial Japanese occupation.

During World War II, the French colonial authorities, in French Indochina, sided with the Vichy regime. In September 1940, Japan invaded Indochina. Following the cessation of fighting and the beginning of the Imperial Japanese occupation, the French colonial authorities collaborated with the Japanese. The French continued to run affairs in Indochina, but ultimate power resided in the hands of the Japanese. The Viet Minh was founded as a league for independence from France, but also opposed Japanese occupation in 1945 for the same reason.

The Viet Minh took power in Vietnam in the August Revolution (launched on August 14, 1945, by the Viet Minh against French colonial rule). However, the major allied victors of World War II—the United Kingdom, United States, and Soviet Union—all agreed the area belonged to the French. As the French did not have the means to immediately retake Vietnam, the major powers came to an agreement that British troops would occupy the south while Nationalist Chinese forces would move in from the north. Nationalist Chinese troops entered the country to disarm Japanese troops north of the 16th parallel on September 14, 1945. When the British landed in the south, they rearmed the interned French forces as well as parts of the surrendered Japanese forces to aid them in retaking southern Vietnam, as they did not have enough troops to do this themselves.

In January 1946, the Viet Minh won elections across central and northern Vietnam. The French landed in Hanoi by March 1946, and that November they ousted the Viet Minh from the city. British forces departed on March 26, 1946, leaving Vietnam in the hands of the French. Soon thereafter, the Viet Minh began a guerrilla war against the French Union forces, beginning the First Indochina War.

First Indochina War

The First Indochina War began in French Indochina on December 19, 1946, and lasted until August 1, 1954. Most of the fighting took place in Tonkin in Northern Vietnam, although the conflict engulfed the entire country and extended into the neighboring French Indochina protectorates of Laos and Cambodia. The first few years of the war involved a low-level rural insurgency against French authority. However, after the Chinese communists reached the northern border of Vietnam in 1949, the conflict turned into a conventional war between two armies equipped with modern weapons supplied by the United States and the Soviet Union.

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A French Foreign Legion Unit Patrols in a Communist-controlled Area: The original caption of this photo reads: “A French Foreign Legionnaire goes to war along the dry rib of a rice paddy, during a recent sweep through communist-held areas in the Red River Delta, between Haiphong and Hanoi. Behind the Legionnaire is a U.S. gifted tank. Ca. 1954.”

The war culminated in a decisive French defeat at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu. At the International Geneva Conference on July 21, 1954, the new socialist French government and the Viet Minh made an agreement that was denounced by the government of Vietnam and by the United States, but which effectively gave the Communists control of North Vietnam above the 17th parallel. Control of the north was given to the Viet Minh under Ho Chi Minh, and the south continued under Emperor Bao Dai (former Emperor of Vietnam and at the time the chief of state of the State of Vietnam, or South Vietnam). The Geneva Accords promised elections in 1956 to determine a national government for a united Vietnam. However, the United States and the State of Vietnam refused to sign the document. From his home in France, Emperor Bao Dai appointed Ngo Dinh Diem as prime minister of South Vietnam. In 1955, with U.S. support, Diem used a referendum to remove the former emperor and declare himself the president of the Republic of Vietnam. When the elections were cancelled, the Viet Minh cadres who stayed behind in South Vietnam were activated and started to fight the government. North Vietnam also invaded and occupied portions of Laos to assist in supplying the guerrilla fighting National Liberation Front in South Vietnam. The war gradually escalated into the Second Indochina War, more commonly known as the Vietnam War in the West and the American War in Vietnam.

Beginning of Second Indochina War

At the beginning of this war, the United States was neutral in the conflict because of opposition to European imperialism, as the Viet Minh had recently been its allies, and because most of its attention was focused on Europe where Winston Churchill argued an Iron Curtain had fallen. Then the U.S. government gradually began supporting the French in its war effort, primarily through the Mutual Defense Assistance Act, as a means of stabilizing the French Fourth Republic in which the French Communist Party was a significant political force. A dramatic shift occurred in U.S. policy after the victory of Mao Zedong ‘s Communist Party of China in the Chinese Civil War. By 1949, the United States became concerned about the spread of communism in Asia and began to strongly support the French, as the two countries were bound by the Cold War Mutual Defense Program. After the Moch–Marshall meeting of September 23, 1950, in Washington, the United States started to politically, logistically, and financially support the French Union effort.

In May 1950, after the capture of Hainan Island by Chinese Communist forces, U.S. President Harry Truman began covertly authorizing direct financial assistance to the French. It was not until June 27 of that same year, after the outbreak of the Korean War, that Truman announced publicly that the United States was doing so. Washington feared that if Ho were to win the war, with his ties to the Soviet Union, he would establish a puppet state with Moscow, with the Soviets ultimately controlling Vietnamese affairs. The prospect of a communist-dominated Southeast Asia was enough to spur the United States to support France so that the spread of Soviet-allied communism could be contained.

On June 30, 1950, the first U.S. supplies for Indochina were delivered. In September, Truman sent the Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG) to Indochina to assist the French. Later, in 1954, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower explained the escalation risk, introducing what he referred to as the “domino principle,” which eventually became the concept of domino theory. It speculated that if one country in a region came under the influence of communism, the surrounding countries would follow; falling like dominos.

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“Dissident Activities in Indochina”: The Pentagon’s map of dissident activities in Indochina as of November 3, 1950.

Interventions in Latin America and the Middle East

The aggressive U.S. presence in Latin America and the Middle East during the mid-to-late 20th century had a critical impact on events and development in both regions.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the tense relationship between the United States and Middle East and Latin American countries during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Cold War had key consequences in Latin America, considered by the United States to be a full part of the Western Bloc, also called the “free world.” Fighting communism became the party-line argument justifying the aggressive U.S. presence in Latin America.
  • In April 1948, the Organization of American States was established. Member states pledged to fight communism on the American continent. Twenty-one American countries signed the Charter of the Organization of American States on April 30, 1948.
  • The Cuban revolution became the symbol of U.S. failure to halt communism in Latin America. However, throughout the 1960s and ’70s, the United States supported a number of coups against democratically elected leaders. By 1976, South America was covered by military dictatorships called juntas.
  • The post- World War II end of European rule in the Middle East, and the emergence of a number of newly independent states shifted U.S. attention toward the region and strengthened U.S. political and economic interests there.
  • When radical revolutions brought radical anti-Western regimes to power in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Libya, the Soviet Union allied itself with Arab rulers. After the Six-Day War of 1967 between Israel and its neighbors ended in a decisive loss for the Muslim side, many in the Islamic world saw this as the failure of Arab socialism.
  • Shifting power relations forced the United States to continuously redefine its relations with states in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, and the Persian Gulf emirates. The United States also remained Israel’s greatest ally.

Key Terms

  • Cuban Missile Crisis: A 13-day confrontation in October 1962, between the Soviet Union and Cuba on one side and the United States on the other. It is generally regarded as the moment in which the Cold War came closest to turning into a nuclear conflict.
  • “containment” policy: A military strategy to stop enemy expansion. It is best known as the Cold War policy of the United States and its allies to prevent the spread of communism abroad. A component of the Cold War, this policy was a response to a series of moves by the Soviet Union to expand communist influence in Eastern Europe, China, Korea, Africa, and Vietnam.
  • juntas: A Spanish term for a civil deliberative or administrative council. In English, it predominantly refers to the government of an authoritarian state run by high-ranking military officers.
  • Organization of American States: An intercontinental organization founded on April 30, 1948, for the purposes of regional solidarity and cooperation among its member states. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., its members were the 35 independent states of the Americas. Its establishment was strongly linked with Cold War concerns about preventing the spread of communism in Latin America.
  • Bay of Pigs Invasion: An unsuccessful action by a CIA-trained force of Cuban exiles in 1961 to invade southern Cuba, with support and encouragement from the U.S. government, in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government of Fidel Castro.
  • Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance: An agreement signed on 1947 in Rio de Janeiro among many countries of the Americas, whose central principle was that an attack against one was to be considered an attack against them all; known as the “hemispheric defense” doctrine.

Cold War, Latin America, and “Hemispheric Defense”

The Cold War, officially started in 1947 with the Truman doctrine theorizing “containment” policy, had key consequences in Latin America, considered by the United States to be a full part of the Western Bloc, also called the “free world.” As such, the United States considered it a priority to rid it of any influences from the communist Eastern Bloc.

In Latin America, the U.S. defense treaty called the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance of 1947, or “hemispheric defense” treaty, was the formalization of the Act of Chapultepec, adopted at the Inter-American Conference on the Problems of War and Peace in 1945 in Mexico City. During the war, Washington had been able to secure Allied support from all individual governments except that of Uruguay, which remained neutral. With the exceptions of Trinidad and Tobago (1967), Belize (1981), and the Bahamas (1982), no countries that became independent after 1947 joined the treaty. In April 1948, the Organization of American States was established. Member states pledged to fight communism on the American continent. Twenty-one American countries signed the Charter of the Organization of American States on April 30, 1948.

Operation PBSUCCESS, which overthrew the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán, in 1954, was to be one of the first in a long series of U.S. interventions in Latin America during the Cold War. It immediately followed the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran in 1953.

U.S. Response to the Cuban Revolution

The Cuban Revolution (1953–’59) was an armed revolt conducted by Fidel Castro ‘s 26th of July Movement and its allies against the U.S.-backed authoritarian government of Cuban President Fulgencio Batista. The revolution began in July 1953, and continued sporadically until the rebels finally ousted Batista on January 1, 1959, replacing his government with a revolutionary socialist state. The Movement later reformed along communist lines, becoming the Communist Party in October 1965.

The Cuban Revolution had powerful domestic and international repercussions. In particular, it reshaped Cuba’s relationship with the United States. It was one of the first defeats of the U.S. foreign policy in Latin America. In 1961, Cuba became a member of the newly created Non-Aligned Movement, which succeeded the 1955 Bandung Conference. After the implementation of several economic reforms, including complete nationalization, by Cuba’s government, U.S. trade restrictions on Cuba were increased. The United States halted Cuban sugar imports, on which Cuba’s economy most heavily depended, and refused to supply its former trading partner with much needed oil, which had a devastating effect on the island’s economy. In March 1960, tensions increased when the freighter La Coubre exploded in Havana harbor, killing over 75 people. Castro blamed the United States and compared the incident to the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine (ACR-16), which had precipitated the Spanish–American War, though admitting he could provide no evidence for his accusation. That same month, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower authorized the CIA to organize, train, and equip Cuban refugees as a guerrilla force to overthrow Castro; this would lead to the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion.

Each time the Cuban government nationalized U.S. properties, the U.S. government took countermeasures, resulting in prohibition of all exports to Cuba. Consequently, Cuba began to consolidate trade relations with the Soviet Union, leading the United States to break off all remaining official diplomatic relations. The United States began the formulation of new plans, collectively known as the Cuban Project, aimed at destabilizing the Cuban government. This was to be a coordinated program of political, psychological, and military sabotage, involving intelligence operations as well as assassination attempts on key political leaders.

Relations between the United States and Cuba culminated in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. The crisis showed that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union was ready to use nuclear weapons for fear of the other’s retaliation, and led to the first efforts at nuclear disarmament and improving relations. Beside this aggressive policy toward Cuba, President Kennedy tried to implement the 1961 Alliance for Progress, an economic aid program.

1960s

In Venezuela, President Rómulo Betancourt faced determined opposition from extremists and rebellious army units, yet he continued to push for economic and educational reform. A faction split from the government party and formed the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR). When leftists were involved in unsuccessful revolts at navy bases in 1962, Betancourt suspended civil liberties. After numerous attacks, he finally arrested the MIR and Communist Party of Venezuela (PCV) members of Congress. In the same period, the United States suspended economic relations and/or broke off diplomatic relations with several dictatorships between 1961 and the assassination of Kennedy in 1963, including Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru. But these suspensions were only imposed temporarily, for periods of only 3 weeks to 6 months. However, the United States finally decided it was best to train Latin American militaries in counter-insurgency tactics at the School of the Americas. In effect, the Alliance for Progress included U.S. programs of military and police assistance to counter Communism, including Plan LASO in Colombia.

By 1964, under President Lyndon Johnson, the program to discriminate against dictatorial regimes ceased. In March 1964, the United States approved a military coup in Brazil, overthrowing left-wing President João Goulart. The next year, the United States, under Operation Power Pack, dispatched troops to the Dominican Republic to stop a possible left-wing takeover. Through the Office of Public Safety, the United States assisted Latin American security forces, training them and sending them equipment.

Juntas

Following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the United States waged a war against what it called “communist subversives,” leading to support of coups against democratically elected presidents such as the backing of the Chilean right wing, which would culminate with Augusto Pinochet ‘s 1973 Chilean coup against democratically elected Salvador Allende. By 1976, South America was covered by similar military dictatorships, called juntas. In Paraguay, Alfredo Stroessner had been in power since 1954; in Brazil, Goulart was overthrown in 1964, as mentioned; in Bolivia, General Hugo Banzer overthrew leftist General Juan José Torres in 1971; in Uruguay, considered the “Switzerland of South America, “Juan María Bordaberry seized power in the 1973 coup. In Peru, leftist General Velasco Alvarado, in power since 1968, planned to use the recently empowered Peruvian military to overwhelm Chilean armed forces in a planned invasion of Pinochetist Chile. A “dirty war” was waged all over the subcontinent, culminating with Operation Condor, an agreement between security services of the Southern Cone and other South American countries to repress and assassinate political opponents. The armed forces also took power in Argentina in 1976, and then supported the 1980 “Cocaine Coup” of Luis García Meza Tejada in Bolivia, before training the Contras in Nicaragua, where the Sandinista National Liberation Front, headed by Daniel Ortega, had taken power in 1979, as well as militaries in Guatemala and in El Salvador. In the framework of U.S.-supported Operation Charly, the Argentine military exported state terror tactics to Central America, where the dirty war was waged until well into the 1990s, as hundreds of thousands “disappeared.”

With the inauguration of President Jimmy Carter in 1977, the United States moderated for a short time its support to authoritarian regimes in Latin America. It was during that year that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, an agency of the Organization of American States, was created.

Post-WWII Middle East

The British, French, and Soviets departed from many parts of the Middle East during and after World War II. Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Middle East states on the Arabian Peninsula generally remained unaffected by World War II. However, after the war, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus had independence restored or became independent.

The struggle between the Arabs and the Jews in Palestine culminated in the 1947 United Nations plan to partition Palestine. This plan attempted to create an Arab state and a Jewish state in the narrow space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. While the Jewish leaders accepted it, the Arab leaders rejected the plan. On May 14, 1948, when the British Mandate expired, the Zionist leadership declared the State of Israel was established. In the 1948 Arab–Israeli War that immediately followed, the armies of Egypt, Syria, Transjordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia intervened and were defeated by Israel. About 800,000 Palestinians fled from areas annexed by Israel and became refugees in neighboring countries. Approximately two-thirds of 758,000–866,000 of the Jews expelled, or who fled from Arab lands, after 1948 were absorbed and naturalized by the State of Israel.

Middle East in the 1960s and ’70s

The departure of the European powers from direct control of the region, the establishment of Israel, and the increasing importance of the oil industry marked the creation of the modern Middle East. These developments led to a growing U.S. presence in Middle East affairs. The United States was the ultimate guarantor of the stability of the region, and from the 1950s, the dominant force in the oil industry. When radical revolutions brought radical anti-Western regimes to power in Egypt in 1954, Syria in 1963, Iraq in 1968, and Libya in 1969, the Soviet Union allied itself with Arab rulers such as Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and Saddam Hussein of Iraq. These regimes gained popular support through their promises to destroy the state of Israel, defeat the United States and other “Western imperialists,” and bring prosperity to the Arab masses. When the Six-Day War of 1967, between Israel and its neighbors, ended in a decisive loss for the Muslim side, many in the Islamic world saw this as the failure of Arab socialism.

In response to this challenge to its interests in the region, the United States felt obligated to defend its remaining allies, the conservative monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iran, and the Persian Gulf emirates. Iran in particular became a key U.S. ally, until a revolution led by the Shi’a clergy overthrew the monarchy in 1979 and established a theocratic regime that was even more anti-Western than the secular regimes in Iraq or Syria. This forced the United States into a close alliance with Saudi Arabia.

In the mid-to-late 1960s, the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party led by Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar took power in both Iraq and Syria. Iraq was first ruled by Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, but was succeeded by Hussein in 1979, and Syria was ruled first by a military committee led by Salah Jadid, and later Hafez al-Assad until 2000, when he was succeeded by his son, Bashar al-Assad.

In 1979, Egypt under Nasser’s successor, Anwar Sadat, concluded a peace treaty with Israel, ending the prospects of a united Arab military front. From the 1970s, the Palestinians, led by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization, resorted to a prolonged campaign against Israel and against U.S., Jewish and Western targets in general, as a means of weakening Israeli resolve and undermining Western support for Israel. The Palestinians were supported in this, to varying degrees, by the regimes in Syria, Libya, Iran, and Iraq. The high point of this campaign came in the 1975 United Nations General Assembly Resolution 3379 condemning Zionism as a form of racism, and the reception given to Arafat by the United Nations General Assembly. Resolution 3379 was revoked in 1991 by United Nations General Assembly Resolution 4686.

Many of the frantic events of the late 1970s in the Middle East culminated in the Iran–Iraq War between the neighboring countries. Iraq invaded Iranian Khuzestan in 1980 at the behest of the latter’s chaotic state of country due to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The war eventually turned into a stalemate, with hundreds of thousands of dead on both sides.

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Begin, Carter, and Sadat at Camp David (1978), photo by Bill Fitz-Patrick.: The Camp David Accords were signed by Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin on September 17, 1978. The two framework agreements were signed at the White House and witnessed by U.S. President Jimmy Carter. The second of these frameworks led directly to the 1979 Egypt–Israel Peace Treaty. Owing to the agreement, Sadat and Begin received the shared 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. The first framework, which dealt with the Palestinian territories, was written without participation of the Palestinians and was condemned by the United Nations.

Tension with the USSR

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a revolt against the pro-Soviet People’s Republic of Hungary’s government that was crushed by the Soviet Union’s military intervention.

Learning Objectives

Analyze the contributing factors to, and the ultimate defeat of, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (also known as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956) was a nationwide revolt against the government of the People’s Republic of Hungary and its Soviet-imposed policies.
  • The suppression of civil rights and liberties combined with the consistently worsening economic situation led to increasing social unrest. A short term of the reformist Imre Nagy  as prime minister raised hopes, but by April 1955, Nagy was discredited and removed from office.
  • After Mátyás Rákosi’s resignation, students, writers, and journalists, who largely supported Nagy, demanded reforms, including free elections, a multi-party system, Soviet troop withdrawal from Hungary, and Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.
  • Students flooded into Budapest with their demands. The Hungarian Secret Police fired into the crowds and bloodshed followed almost immediately. The Soviet Union sent tanks, escalating the situation.
  • By October 24, 1956, Nagy was back in power as prime minister, but the unrest continued. The second Soviet intervention, codenamed Operation Whirlwind, combined air strikes, artillery, and the coordinated tank-infantry action of 17 divisions. Within days, the Soviet tanks pounded Budapest.
  • The U.S. response to the events was largely limited to diplomatic gestures as the international situation favored the U.S. focus on non-escalation of hostile relations with the Soviet Union.

Key Terms

  • Hungarian State Security Police: Hungary’s secret police force from 1945 to 1956, known from its Hungarian name as AVH. It was conceived of as an external appendage of the Soviet Union’s secret police forces, but attained an indigenous reputation for brutality during a series of purges beginning in 1948, intensifying in 1949, and ending in 1953.
  • Radio Free Europe: A U.S. state-funded broadcasting organization that provides news, information, and analysis to countries in Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, “where the free flow of information is either banned by government authorities or not fully developed.”
  • Imre Nagy: A Hungarian communist politician (1896–1958) who was appointed chairman of the Council of Ministers of the People’s Republic of Hungary on two occasions. His second term ended when Soviet invasion brought down his non-Soviet-backed government in the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This resulted in his execution on charges of treason 2 years later.
  • Hungarian Working People’s Party: Hungary’s ruling communist party from 1948 to 1956. It was formed by a merger of the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) and the Social Democratic Party. Its leaders were Mátyás Rákosi until 1956, then Ernő Gerő in the same year for three months, and eventually János Kádár until the party’s dissolution.

Background

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (also known as the Hungarian Uprising of 1956) was a nationwide revolt against the government of the People’s Republic of Hungary and its Soviet-imposed policies. It lasted from October 23 to November 10, 1956. Although leaderless when it first began, it was the first major threat to Soviet control since USSR forces drove out Nazi Germany from the territory at the end of World War II and broke into Central and Eastern Europe.

After World War II, the Soviet Army occupied Hungary, with the country coming under the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. After the 1945 elections, the portfolio of the Interior Ministry, which oversaw the Hungarian State Security Police (Államvédelmi Hatóság, later known as the ÁVH), was forcibly transferred from the Independent Smallholders Party to a Communist Party nominee. The ÁVH employed intimidation, falsified accusations, imprisonment, and torture to suppress political opposition. The brief period of multi-party democracy came to an end when the Communist Party merged with the Social Democratic Party to become the Hungarian Working People’s Party, which had its candidate list unopposed in 1949. The People’s Republic of Hungary was then declared. By 1949, the Soviets had concluded a mutual assistance treaty, the Comecon, with Hungary, that granted the Soviet Union rights to a continued military presence, assuring ultimate political control.

Political Repression and Economic Decline

Hungary became a communist state under the severely authoritarian leadership of Mátyás Rákosi. Under Rákosi, the ÁVH began a series of purges, starting with the Communist Party, to end dissent. From 1950 to 1952, the Security Police forcibly relocated thousands of people to obtain property and housing for the Working People’s Party members. Thousands were arrested, tortured, tried, imprisoned in concentration camps, deported to the east, or executed; which was the fate of ÁVH founder László Rajk. In a single year, more than 26,000 people were forcibly relocated from Budapest. Consequently, jobs and housing were very difficult to obtain. The deportees generally experienced terrible living conditions and were put into forced labor on collective farms, where many died as a result of poor living conditions and malnutrition.

The Rákosi government thoroughly politicized Hungary’s educational system. It sought to supplant the educated classes with a “toiling intelligentsia.” Russian language study and Communist political instruction were made mandatory in schools nationwide. Religious schools were nationalized and church leaders were replaced by those loyal to the government. In 1949, the leader of the Hungarian Catholic Church, Cardinal József Mindszenty, was arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for treason. Under Rákosi, Hungary’s government was among the most repressive in Europe.

Although national income per capita rose in the first third of the 1950s, the standard of living fell. Mismanagement created chronic shortages in basic foodstuffs, which resulted in rationing of bread, sugar, flour, and meat. Compulsory subscriptions to state bonds further reduced personal income. The net result was that disposable real income of workers and employees in 1952 was only two-thirds of what it had been in 1938; whereas in 1949, the proportion had been 90%. These policies had a cumulative negative effect and fueled discontent as foreign debt grew and the population experienced shortages of goods.

Social Unrest

On March 5, 1953, Joseph Stalin died, ushering in a period of moderate liberalization, when most European communist parties developed a reform wing. In Hungary, reformist Imre Nagy replaced Rákosi as prime minister. However, Rákosi remained general secretary of the party, and was able to undermine most of Nagy’s reforms. By April 1955, he had Nagy discredited and removed from office. After Khrushchev’s “secret speech” of February 1956, which denounced Stalin and his protégés, Rákosi was deposed as general secretary and replaced by Ernő Gerő in July 1956.

Rákosi’s resignation emboldened students, writers, and journalists to be more active in, and critical of, politics. Students and journalists started a series of intellectual forums examining the problems facing Hungary. These forums, called Petőfi circles, became very popular and attracted thousands of participants. On October 6, 1956, the body of László Rajk, who had been executed by the Rákosi government, was reburied in a moving ceremony that strengthened the party opposition.

On October 16, 1956, university students in Szeged snubbed the official communist student union, the DISZ, by re-establishing the Union of Hungarian University and Academy Students (MEFESZ), a democratic student organization previously banned under the Rákosi dictatorship. Within days, the student bodies in Pécs, Miskolc, and Sopron followed suit. On October 22, students of the Technical University compiled a list of 16 points containing several national policy demands. When the students learned that the Hungarian Writers’ Union planned to express solidarity with pro-reform movements active in Poland the following day by laying a wreath at the statue of Polish-born General Józef Bem, a hero of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 (1848–’49), they decided to organize a parallel demonstration of sympathy.

Revolution

On the afternoon of October 23, 1956, approximately 20,000 protesters convened next to the statue of Bem—a national hero of Poland and Hungary. Péter Veres, president of the Writers’ Union, read a manifesto to the crowd, which included: the desire for Hungary’s independence from all foreign powers, a political system based on democratic socialism (land reform and public ownership of some businesses), Hungary joining the United Nations, and the demand that citizens of Hungary should have all the rights of free men. At 8:00 p.m., First Secretary Ernő Gerő broadcast a speech condemning the writers’ and students’ demands. Angered by Gerő’s hard-line rejection, some demonstrators decided to carry out one of their demands, the removal of Stalin’s 30-foot-high (9.1-m) bronze statue that was erected in 1951 on the site of a church, which had been demolished to make room for the monument.

During the night of October 23, Hungarian Working People’s Party Secretary Ernő Gerő requested Soviet military intervention “to suppress a demonstration that was reaching an ever greater and unprecedented scale.” The Soviet leadership had formulated contingency plans for intervention in Hungary several months before. By 2 a.m. on October 24, under orders of the Soviet defense minister, Soviet tanks entered Budapest.

The New Government

The rapid spread of the uprising in the streets of Budapest, and the abrupt fall of the Gerő-Hegedüs government, left the new national leadership surprised and, at first, disorganized. Nagy, a loyal party reformer described as possessing “only modest political skills,” initially appealed to the public for calm and a return to the old order.

On November 1, in a radio address to the Hungarian people, Nagy formally declared Hungary’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and its stance of neutrality. Because it held office only 10 days, the National Government had little chance to clarify its policies in detail. However, newspaper editorials at the time stressed that Hungary should be a neutral, multiparty, social democracy. Previously banned political parties reappeared to join the coalition.

Soviet Intervention

On November 1, Nagy received reports that Soviet forces had entered Hungary from the east and were moving toward Budapest. This second Soviet intervention, codenamed Operation Whirlwind, combined air strikes, artillery, and the coordinated tank-infantry action of 17 divisions. Fighting in Budapest consisted of between 10,000 and 15,000 resistance fighters. The heaviest fighting occurred in the working-class stronghold of Csepel on the Danube River.

In the immediate aftermath, thousands of Hungarians were arrested. Eventually, 26,000 of these were brought before Hungarian courts: 22,000 were sentenced, 13,000 imprisoned, and several hundred executed. Hundreds were also deported to the Soviet Union, many without evidence. Approximately 200,000 fled Hungary as refugees. Former Hungarian Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky estimated 350 were executed. Sporadic armed resistance and strikes by workers’ councils continued until mid-1957, causing substantial economic disruption. By 1963, most political prisoners from the 1956 Hungarian revolution had been released.

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A soviet armored car burns on a street in Budapest in November 1956. Photo by Házy Zsolt.: The November 1956 Soviet intervention in Budapest, codenamed Operation Whirlwind, combined air strikes, artillery, and the coordinated tank-infantry action of 17 divisions.

U.S. Response

Although U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles recommended on October 24 that the United Nations Security Council convene to discuss the situation in Hungary, little immediate action was taken to introduce a resolution. This was, in part, because other world events unfolded the day after the peaceful interlude started, when allied collusion started the Suez Crisis. The problem was not that Suez distracted U.S. attention from Hungary, but that it made the condemnation of Soviet actions very difficult. As Vice President Richard Nixon later explained, “We couldn’t on one hand, complain about the Soviets intervening in Hungary and, on the other hand, approve of the British and the French picking that particular time to intervene against [Gamel Abdel] Nasser.”

The U.S. response was reliant on the CIA to covertly effect change, with both covert agents and Radio Free Europe. However, its Hungarian operations collapsed rapidly and it could not locate any of the weapon caches hidden across Europe, nor be sure who they would send arms too. By October 28, on the same night the new Nagy government came to power, Radio Free Europe was ramping up its broadcasts—encouraging armed struggle, advising on how to combat tanks, and signing off with “Freedom or Death!”—on the orders of Frank Wisner, head of the Directorate of Plans of the CIA. When Nagy did come to power, CIA director Allen Dulles advised the White House that Cardinal Mindszenty would be a better leader (because of Nagy’s communist past). He had CIA radio broadcasts run propaganda against Nagy, calling him a traitor who had invited Soviet troops in. Broadcasts continued to cover armed response while the CIA mistakenly believed that the Hungarian army was switching sides and the rebels were gaining arms.

Responding to Nagy’s plea at the time of the second massive Soviet intervention on November 4, the Security Council resolution critical of Soviet actions was vetoed by the Soviet Union. Instead, Resolution 120 was adopted to pass the matter on to the General Assembly. The General Assembly, by a vote of 50 in favor, 8 against, and 15 abstentions, called on the Soviet Union to end its Hungarian intervention, but the newly constituted Kádár government rejected UN observers.

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Nixon addressing Hungarian refugees (1956): U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon (center right, facing refugees) addresses Hungarian refugees, including author S.I. Horvath (center left, facing Nixon).