In the summer of 1956, riots broke out in Poznan, Poland, inspired, primarily, by grievances over wage reductions. The forces of dissent however grew beyond those economic grievances to express discontent with a range of issues, most notably the influence of the Soviet Union and the presence of Soviet forces in Poland. These local issues were swept up into the Cold War along with the process of de-Stalinization and the idea of “nationalist communism.” In the end, the new regime in Poland convinced officials in Moscow that Poland sought no accommodation with the West, but rather sought to better provide for its citizens and thereby become a better ally of the Soviet Union.
In October 1956, similar pressures broke free in Budapest, Hungary. Mob action spread and the Soviet-backed regime teetered on the verge of collapse. Soviet forces stationed in the country since the end of World War II attacked Hungarian demonstrators and then withdrew from the capital. Over several drama filled days, the disturbances in Hungary began to promise true reform and the re-emergence of the post-war democratic parties that had been outlawed for more than a decade.
The United States signaled it sought no military advantage in Hungarian independence. Soviet leaders proclaimed their respect for the independence of socialist regimes. Negotiations began about the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Hungary. Yet developments quickly took a different course than those in Poland just a few months earlier. After days of promise and tension, Imre Nagy—Hungary’s revolutionary premier—expressed his country’s desire to leave the Warsaw Pact, proclaimed Hungary’s neutrality, and requested UN recognition. By then, Soviet leaders had already reached a decision and rushed troops in to seize control and install a regime more loyal to Moscow.
The conduct of U.S. policy in those critical months of 1956 is best described as a balancing act. On one side, the United States did not want to be seen as encouraging the Hungarian revolutionaries, but on the other, they did not want to abandon them, either. Within the administration, opinions differed at all levels over what course of action the United States should take. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles expressed a keen desire to act, confiding to Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge at the United Nations that he was “worried that it will be said that here are the great moments and when they came and these fellows were ready to stand up and die, we were caught napping and doing nothing.”
In contrast, President Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated remarkable patience in letting events develop. He was firmly realistic in his assessment of the West’s ability to alter events in Eastern Europe. The real source of anxiety for him in those months was the Suez Canal crisis.
At lower levels, a whole range of options were considered, including offers of armed assistance, covert support, humanitarian assistance, and expanded propaganda. That autumn, the National Security Council (NSC) in the White House began work on a revised policy statement in light of events in Poland and Hungary. The draft document included the instruction to “undertake a study of the situation in other European satellites to formulate plans and determine U.S. courses of action in the event of future revolutionary actions or uprisings, whether successful or unsuccessful, in those countries which indicate a movement away from control by the USSR.”
In a word, the Eisenhower administration was surprised. They had no pre-packaged plans for an event which seemed to signal a new period in which regimes might want to move away from the Soviet Union.
When the United States finally did take action, it came in the form of a series of diplomatic maneuvers in the United Nations designed to pressure the Soviets to refrain from violent action in Hungary. The tactic failed. On the morning of November 4, 1956, more than 200,000 Soviet troops and almost 6,000 Soviet tanks moved to put down the Hungarian uprising.
Critics, then and since, condemned the Eisenhower administration’s failure to confront the Soviet Union more directly over Hungary. Many explanations of U.S. policy have been offered since 1956. But the truth can be distilled to two simple concepts.
First, avoid actions that may lead to general war. Eisenhower understood that U.S. action in Eastern Europe would be viewed by the Soviets as a threat to their national security. Such moves were flatly rejected by the NSC in its planning, just as surely as they would have been if proposed to the president. Other ideas, such as a CIA-advocated plan to employ tactical nuclear weapons against the major rail-lines running into Hungary as a means of disrupting the Soviet invasion, or air-dropping supplies to the rebels, were quickly dismissed. Accordingly, the administration signaled the Soviets on several different occasions that the United States would not intervene militarily in the region.
Dulles, despite his early advocacy for action, was one of several public voices about American intentions. He signaled the Soviet Union that the United States sought no military advantage from freedom of the Eastern European satellites. While Dulles praised “the heroic people of Hungary,” and condemned “the murderous fire of Red Army tanks,” Dulles was very direct about U.S. interests in the region. He said “we do not look upon these nations as potential military allies. We see them as friends and as part of a new and friendly and no longer divided Europe. We are confident that their independence, if promptly accorded, will contribute immensely to stabilize peace throughout all of Europe, West and East.” Subsequently, Charles Bohlen, the American ambassador in Moscow, was instructed to bring this passage from Dulles to the attention of Soviet leaders.
On the evening of October 31, Eisenhower delivered a nationally televised address to the nation. While he reminded his audience of the country’s bipartisan policy to end Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, he also noted the very real limitations on U.S. policy. He said, “We could not, of course, carry out this policy by resort to force. Such force would have been contrary both to the best interests of the Eastern European peoples and to the abiding principles of the United Nations.”
In short, Eisenhower refused to take any action that might lead to general war with the Soviet Union. That calculation had guided the administration’s conduct of national security policy from the very beginning of Ike’s presidency, and it guided the president’s conduct in the autumn of 1956 as well. In an interview almost a decade later, Theodore Streibert, who served as director of the U.S. Information Agency in the first Eisenhower administration made clear that from the earliest days of the administration, policy makers had known, “that you could never send American boys across the curtain there to help liberate these countries, that you couldn’t spill any American blood in the process of liberation.” The limits on U.S. policy in the autumn of 1956 were well defined and long-understood by officials. Policy was not wholly improvised, even if specific developments in the Soviet sphere were unanticipated.
In his memoirs, Eisenhower wrote that the president “learns to live with the frustrating fact that many issues on which he is required to work have no immediate, and sometimes not even a satisfactory future, solution.”
Second, U.S. strategy in the Cold War was bigger than Hungary—and events there, no matter the specific outcome, could further U.S. interests. The Eisenhower administration’s conception of the Cold War was a long-term political and economic struggle between the Soviet Union and the West, led by the United States. Accordingly, the administration relied on non-military, primarily political, means to advance the interests of the United States. This required a robust organization for political warfare and a willingness to use it.
During the disturbances in Eastern Europe, the political warriors in the administration sought to use developments there to advance their cause in key target audiences, not in Eastern Europe, but particularly in Western Europe, Asia and Africa. For example, Soviet action in Hungary, reported Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, “had reduced Soviet prestige in Western Europe to its lowest point in many years.” These global political-psychological efforts were horribly undermined by Anglo-French conduct in the Suez Canal crisis, but the Hungarian uprising provided useful political material to help draw the west back together given the immediate example of Soviet ruthlessness.
The peril of general war and the promise of political warfare to advance U.S. interests short of the use of force were the first points Eisenhower emphasized when he met with the bipartisan legislative leadership on November 9, 1956. The meeting notes record the president’s consistency:
As a backdrop to this discussion, the President said, it was necessary to remember that this is the age of the atom and that the world has to find a solution—either we achieve peace or we face extinction. . . . The President wanted to note particularly that Hungarian developments have served throughout most of the world to convict the Soviet of brutal imperialism. This was the opposite of the old situation when neutral nations would never view Russia as being guilty of either colonialism or imperialism, and when Russia would never be disbelieved and we would never be believed. Further, the Hungarian situation warns us again that the Soviet is capable of changing its face almost instantly.
In other words, the Hungarian and Polish uprisings provided ammunition for the Cold War. In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s intervention in Hungary, Eisenhower noted in his diary that there were several tasks before him. The first item, in his judgment, was to share with the world the facts—in both word and moving picture—of Soviet actions in Hungary. “We must make certain,” the president opined in his diary, “that every weak country understands what can be in store for it once it falls under the domination of the Soviets.”
Elsewhere, Eisenhower recorded in his own hand the significance of what he termed the “Hungarian Tragedy.” The events in Hungary, Eisenhower believed, “convicts [the] Soviets before the world of the most brutal imperialism,” and “warns us of no change in purpose” in the Soviet regime. Propaganda gains were also found in the subsequent defection of the Hungarian Olympians “en masse,” the boycott of Soviet goods sponsored by international labor, and the brutality of Soviet actions against Hungarian civilians.
The administration was especially interested in emphasizing the Soviet Union’s brutality in the non-aligned world, particularly in India. Eisenhower speculated events in Hungary might encourage Nehru to distance himself from the Communists and suggested to John Foster Dulles that in asking for Nehru’s counsel in this matter, the United States might draw India closer to the West.
On the most basic tactical level, U.S. propaganda outlets focused on the publication of a “White Book” of Soviet offensives and news reels documenting the attack on Hungary. When in January of 1957, the United Nations noted the urgent need for grain in Hungary to stave off starvation, American cold warriors were quick to contrast that with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s boasting of a bumper crop that year.
These rather paltry moves by the administration, especially given the criticism that the United States had incited the Hungarian uprising, gave fodder to administration critics. Eisenhower, however, was frustrated by that dynamic. He felt the United States had done all it could do. NSC minutes reflected his frustration:
The President said that this was indeed a bitter pill for us to swallow. We say we are at the end of our patience, but what can we do that is really constructive? Should we break off diplomatic relations with the USSR? What would be gained by this action? The Soviets don’t care. The whole business was shocking to the point of being unbelievable. And yet many people seemed unconvinced.
The conversation in the NSC meeting turned to how to better convince the rest of the world. Eisenhower, for example, wondered aloud how any country—Syria, in his example—could still consider fostering better relations with the Soviet Union in light of events in Hungary. “It is for this reason, the president continued, “that we must go on playing up the situation in Hungary to the absolute maximum, so the whole world will see and understand.”
Despite his frustrations, however, the president, more than anyone else in his inner-circle, retained a dispassionate approach to the crisis. It was a crisis of incredible human tragedy, full of the frustration that arises when leadership is wedded to impotence. But Eisenhower understood it was but one crisis; a crisis about which the United States could do little more than protest, condemn, and offer humanitarian assistance to the victims.
The Cold War was bigger than Hungary and bigger than Poland, and the overall U.S. strategy for waging cold war recognized this. In the passions of the moment, Eisenhower held true to this insight and acted with his long-term vision of the Cold War in mind. He was angry and disturbed by the use of Soviet force against civilians seeking freedom and democracy. But he was not willing to upset the larger, more favorable strategic setting his administration had gained.
A little more than 57 years later, and almost twenty-five years since the end of the Cold War, we find ourselves at a moment when leaders in Moscow have decided, again, to use force against a European neighbor whose people have chosen a different political path than Moscow prefers. As of this writing, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russian troops into Crimea, a peninsula in the south of Ukraine. The American secretary of state has called the Russian action “an invasion.” The new government in Kiev has mobilized its military reserves. Emergency meetings of the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, and the North Atlantic Council are underway.
Russian actions in Ukraine pose the greatest threat to European peace and security since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, and, like Eisenhower, President Obama finds he has few immediate options to alter the reality on the ground in Ukraine short of the use of force. No different from the Cold War, the United States is not going to risk war with Russia over Ukraine. Vladimir Putin knows that and so Ukraine will suffer the curse of geography—so far from God, and so close to Russia.
Eisenhower had one advantage that Obama lacks. In the first year of his Presidency, Eisenhower developed a national security strategy that both reflected and helped strengthen a bipartisan consensus about American national interests, the nature of the international system, and the means to prevail in the Cold War. For example, U.S. policy in the autumn of 1956, focused on the exploitation of Soviet sins in Eastern Europe for propaganda value. Ultimately, U.S. policy sought American security and prosperity as a result of a stable and free international political and economic order, embodied in the United Nations and protected by strong political and military alliances of free people around the world. Soviet actions in Hungary, if nothing else, helped strengthen the bonds between the western democracies.
Since the end of the Cold War, however, the United States has lacked a defining strategic framework. The only true bipartisan consensus to emerge in those years has been the interventionist nexus between neo-conservatives and progressive internationalists—both of whom believe that the problems of the world are best managed by the imposition of American military power: look for examples of their work to the Kosovo Campaign in the 1990s and the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003. In both of those cases, however, the United States failed to receive United Nations Security Council authorization to use force. Yet the President of the United States determined action was necessary and so American forces went to war. Like it or not, the Russian president has done the same thing in Ukraine.
At the end of the Cold War, reflecting on the robust international response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, President George H. W. Bush heralded a “new world order” in which the world’s global institutions worked as their designers intended. Those institutions, built largely to protect a stable world order that greatly benefited the United States, have been ignored by presidents of both parties since then. Those men, and the American public more broadly, seduced by the “unipolar moment” and convinced of America’s benevolence, power, and even righteousness, have let the United States repeatedly undermine the norms of international behavior that our diplomats now cite to Russia.
“In the twenty-first century,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on March 2nd, “countries have been working to establish a different kind of behavior as the norm.” Had the United States spent the last quarter-century since Kuwait building on George H. W. Bush’s vision of international peace and cooperation—a vision wholly one with Eisenhower’s view of success in the Cold War—Secretary Kerry’s remarks might resonate differently. Instead, American political leaders in both parties have undermined the power of the United Nations to arbitrate issues of war and peace by ignoring the world body whenever it would not support the U.S. position. Some might say that prerogative comes with great power, but the result now is that President Obama finds his administration, like Ike’s in 1956, in a position of leadership wedded to impotence.
With or without an overarching ideological foe, the long-term interests of the United States lie in the creation and preservation of an international system of sovereign states, inviolable borders, free trade, and global institutions that reinforce and protect that system. To be truly effective, such a system should be self-sustaining, and not simply the responsibility of the United States to preserve. But for such a system to work, the United States, because of its power, must not just apply the norms of that system to others, it must live by them itself. The alternative, as we have seen, is empty rhetoric in times of crisis and too many deployments of American troops acting as the world’s policemen.
Russia has invaded Ukraine. They are sure to seize Crimea. Whether they move against the rest of Ukraine remains to be seen. The question for Americans today is whether our response will be tactical—responding only to the immediate crisis in Ukraine—or if we will take from this moment the inspiration to commit ourselves more fully to the creation and preservation of an international system that better protects American security, and the security and freedom of people around the world.
The United States does not have the power to impose its will everywhere around the globe. We’re better served by an international system that reflects our will and protects our interests. We’re a long way from there today.
Note: Dr. Jim Ludes is Executive Director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy. From 2002 to 2006 he advised then Senator John Kerry on matters of defense and foreign policy. From 2006 to 2011 he was Executive Director of the American Security Project, a Washington-based think tank. During 2008-2009 he served on President Obama’s transition team in the Pentagon.