Should we have invaded Hungary in 1956?

The decision to remove missile defense systems from Eastern Europe has provoked a lot of unusually silly commentary, but the latest from Townhall deserves special recognition:

It is all too reminiscent of the Hungarian spring, when the US stood by and let the USSR crush the Hungarian freedom movement. This appeasement will do nothing but embolden the most militaristic and dangerous elements of the Russian ruling class.  Message: America has retreated.

On the merits, this is just terribly confused. No one – not even pro-missile defense analysts – thinks that interceptor sites in Eastern Europe will have any practical impact on the effectiveness of Russia’s nukes. Their arsenal is too massive, their ICBMs are programmed to fly over the North Pole, not Poland, and if the Russians were to invade Eastern Europe, I doubt they’d be stupid enough to nuke the same territory they plan on occupying. Arguing that we’re appeasing Iran at least has the virtue of making sense, but even that doesn’t hold up because we’re developing another program designed to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles in the Middle East.

It’s the analogy between Hungary, 1956 and Poland, 2009 that really confuses me, however. I mean, how should we have responded to the Soviet crackdown? Should we have invaded Hungary and ignited another world war? It seems to me that a devastating conflict fought primarily in Eastern Europe would have been far more detrimental to Hungarian interests than a diplomatic approach that actually helped bring about the fall of the Soviet Union decades later. Obviously, this required some unpleasant compromises with a very repressive regime. Similarly, I’m not thrilled that Putin and Medvedev approve of our decision to remove the missile defense system. This doesn’t mean the decision is wrong on the merits (quite the opposite); it just means that basing foreign policy on the principle that antagonizing unpleasant regimes is always a good thing, while viscerally satisfying, doesn’t produce the best substantive outcomes.

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23 thoughts on “Should we have invaded Hungary in 1956?

  1. I always thought the reason we didn’t invade Hungary in 1956 was because the Republican Book of Prophecy foretold the coming of a great, conservative leader a quarter century later. He would be ushered into office in an electoral flood and his coming would be heralded by fuel famine and a crisis in the land of Xerxes….or something. Thereupon he would defeat the red menace through a cunning combination of brinkmanship and avuncular teasing.

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  2. The Townhall collection of words and punctuation demonstrates multiple levels of historical ignorance, as they conflate the October 1956 uprising in Hugary with the 1968 “Prague Spring.” These are the same poeple who wail that we “gave away” Eastern Europe at Yalta. (Possession is 9/10 of the law, even more so when possession is courtesy of the Red Army.)

    [I]t’s hardly gratifying to learn that removing our missile defense system will elicit nods of approval from Putin and Medvedev.

    The system was a non-functioning boondoggle and its removal is first and foremost a matter of our best interests. International reaction is at best a distant-secondary motivation and the situation is not analogous to giving the USSR a free hand within Eastern Europe. I do not accuse our esteemed hosts of this, but it is hilarious to see the “US goes it alone and the world be damned” types suddenly screaming about international reaction.

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  3. At the very real risk of getting another special blog I have to say that this particular decision on the part of His Magnificence is the best one he’s made. If he were an honorable man he’d bring the boys/girls home from Af. and Iraq.

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    • He’s trying to do so without another ‘Nam debacle. I was a Clinton supporter so I bow to no one in my skepticism of Obamamania but you have to conceed that he (and we) are in it up to our elbows over there, Bob. Now maybe, -maybe- the only option we have it to rip out quick like taking off a bandage. But he’s got to be sure before we do because you and I both know that if we just blast off out of there abruptly the whole place is going to go spectacularily sideways and he has to be able to say with absolute certainty that it was the least bad option.

      That said you’re an honest person to give credit when you think it’s due and I tip my hat to you. Also, question, do you read much Derbyshire?

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      • Answer, no! Try Voegelin…I’m not up to date, that’s why I come here and read you kids. I don’t often agree with your conclusions but you sure have lottsa data.
        Also, Af and Iraq are going “sideways” no matter how it’s done. Get out now, get out of the Pacific, Europe, ect. we aren’t the police of the world. That and the idea of “taking democracy to the middle east” was the thing that drove me nuts about the neo-cons who I judge to be on the same level as the libruls!
        Don’t take offense at my hyperbolic name calling. It pisses certain folks off and I just get a kick outta that.
        Obama and I are not likely to be pen pals, but I’ll give him credit when his decisions reflect an appreciation for certain federalist principles. Other than that:
        One, two, three, four
        We don’t want your f*cking war!
        as we used to say, back in the day!

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  4. Townhallers …
    Since I fear to actually read anything there (cowardly on my part, I know; I also fight the primate urge to look at accidents on the side of the freeway), did our budding Clausewitz demonstrate any knowledge of the fact that there was another international crisis afoot in October 1956 (I was thinking of Suez, of course; I don’t recall any other high temperature crises of the time – hadn’t Poland cooled down after the Poznan riots by then)?

    As a side note, it strikes me that, from a military correlation of forces perspective, the best time for the US to engage in brinksmanship to force a major soviet rollback would have been about mid 1961. By then the US had a sufficient ICBM force (Atlas-D and Atlas-E) to have a guaranteed first strike knockout of the (then very small and exceedingly vulnerable) Soviet ICBM force. Theater missiles and air nuclear exchanges would have resulted in GEN Turgidson’s “no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops… depending on the breaks” on the Western side (mostly in Germany, where any nuclear weapon is a tactical weapon, and in the UK), with massive destruction of the USSR and the death of many (most?) of the nomenklatura on the other side. This likely outcome was known to the upper Soviet defense establishment at the time if I understand correctly.

    Note that I am not saying that Kennedy should have done anything of the sort (I’m in the Merkin Muffey camp) – games of chicken too often result in miscalculation. But for a cold blooded game of chicken that was the time to do it.

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  5. Yes, we should have supported the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. We didn’t because of drastic over-estimates by the CIA of Soviet strength. Do any Sovietologists believe it would have risked nuclear war? I don’t know of any.

    Short of that and given actual Soviet strength I think they would have backed down and the history of the next half century would have been drastically different.

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    • What does “support” mean in the context of the 1956 uprising? I also think your decision-making calculus is skewed: short of invading Eastern Europe, the United States had no means of actually stopping the Red Army from rolling into Budapest. On the other hand, needlessly provoking the Russians risked conventional or even nuclear conflict, the consequences of which would have been devastating.

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      • I’m still wondering what “intervention” or “support” means in the context of Hungary in 1956. I assure you that a massively destructive conventional war would have been much worse from the perspective of Hungarians than enduring a few more decades of Soviet repression.

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        • The Soviets would not have risked a massive conventional war over Hungary which was very nearly out of their control anyways. They didn’t have the capacity to actually risk a large scale conflict in Hungary, nor would they have gone nuclear. Indeed the Soviet threat was largely overblown and the residue of that threat remains largely overblown. Had we not urged the Hungarians to revolt and promised them our assistance I might have a different opinion – but we did, and when they took the bait, we were nowhere to be found, which I find utterly shameless and cowardly, and which – it turns out – was also strategically a bad move based on faulty intelligence.

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          • While I agree that Soviet capabilities in general have been vastly overstated over the years, I can’t help but think there’s serious unintended consequence type problems that would arisen from any intervention into Hungary in 1956. It took place concurrently (or about so) with the Suez Crisis, and there were some political stability problems within the Soviet Union at the time. Had the US pushed forcibly into Hungary, could they have still had the leverage to convince/pressure France, Britain and Israel to lay off their claims to the Suez? In the face of losing Hungary would Kruschev have kept power or would it have hastened the rise of a more Pro-Stalin faction within the Politburo? There’s a whole lot of variables to consider here, and I think what Eisenhower wound up doing was ultimately the best course of action, even if it was not the most moral.

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          • The government (I believe it was Allen Dulles’s essentially rogue CIA) shouldn’t have encouraged Hungarians to rise up against the Communists, but the two times we wound up fighting Communist aggression were not victories by any conceivable means. And neither of those had us facing the Red Army directly. Eisenhower wisely chose not to take the risk of escalating the conflict–I’ll admit that intelligence was bad, since the CIA has long been absolutely awful at that, sadly–but he was right to do so.

            There’s something that annoys me about these sorts of arguments. I have no problem with historical counterfactuals, but I guess I’m just annoyed at the notion that it was somehow our responsibility to keep Communism from extending as far as it did. We never had any such obligation. Our obligation was to keep our country safe. We did this by banding together with allies in Europe and elsewhere. We overdid it by forcing noncommunists like Mossadegh, Arbenz and Allende from power, admittedly, but the notion that we were responsible for protecting Budapest from Red invasion is very dubious to me. Why? Must America intervene every time someone invades someone else? Where does it end? And it’s not like warfare is a precision tool. Murphy’s Law often applies, and you can ask Russia about that. And everything gets more complicated when a nuke is involved. Let’s say that there was a 3% chance the USSR would have gone to war over Hungary, and that war would have gone nuclear. Would it have been worth it? Sure, the Hungarians had shittier lives than they would have had if we had acted more aggressively, but they stayed alive, for the most part.

            I think that it just rubs a lot of people the wrong way to say that we should only be looking out for our own interests in global politics–especially considering our country’s Christian disposition. But the rules of international politics are different from interpersonal relations. It is conceivable that a person might sacrifice his or her life for another, and that is extraordinarily commendable. It would never happen in a geopolitical sense. The rules are different, the stakes are different. I think it’s important to distinguish the two.

            But, at the very least, the hawks are invoking an historical moment aside from Chamberlain in 1938, or Vietnam in 1975 (We coulda won!), or Reagan in 1980 (The world knew they couldn’t mess with America anymore?). I’ll give them credit for that, if nothing else. I suspect that the reason why the right doesn’t seem to care too much about the real flow of history is that they see themselves as the fulfillment of it, and that there is therefore no reason to know any more about it.

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