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November marks the anniversary of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, and of the brutal repression of the revolt by Russian troops. Looking back, 57 years later, there are lessons from the revolt and repression for both progressives and conservatives.


Perhaps the two most important lessons are that even the most noble human endeavors end up clouded by personal interests; and that time is a potent palliative to polemic journalism. The strident maunderings of both the eastern-block defenders of the Russian repression and the western witch hunters lauding the incipient capitalism of those they thought would exorcise communism from Hungary have been shown to reflect much more their writers’ biases than any truths about the revolt. The revolt should remind progressives that history largely marches forward. Yes, there are backward steps. But the general pattern is toward improvements for most people, in most times.

Hungarians rebelled against their Soviet proxy government precisely because of such a backward period in Hungarian history. After WW-II, western European countries worked hard to rebuild devastated economies. All of the economic successes in post-war western Europe built new economies with significant components of both socialism and regulated capitalism. Eastern block countries also attempted to recover from the devastation of war, using economic plans imposed by the Soviet Union.

Under Soviet economic policy, the standard of living for Hungarians plummeted after WW-II. By the mid-1950s, average Hungarians’ incomes were only 2/3s of what they had been before the Nazi invasion of Hungary. This was worse than income had been shortly after the end of the war. These economic policies were imposed by a government propped up by Soviet military force, over the constant objection of Hungary’s people.

In 1956, students rejected the “official” student union and formed an independent union. The union started a series of policy discussions, which ended up attracting thousands of participants, and the participation of the writers’ union. In October 1956, demonstrations against the Soviet occupation government started. On October 23, the writers’ union publicly issued demands for reform, including an independent, democratic government and human rights for everyone. The demonstration at which the demands were first read is reported to have included 200,000 people.

When a delegation of protesters tried to enter the Radio Budapest building to broadcast their demands, the state security police opened fire on the demonstrators. Until then, the demonstrations had been largely peaceful. From that point, there was fighting between Hungarian civilians and the Soviet government. The Hungarian government fell, and reformers tried to start a new government.

On November 4, 1956, Soviet tanks and troops attacked the civilian forces and the new government. By November 11, the last of the resistance had been crushed, and Hungary was placed under firmer control of the Russian government. Many of the reformers were executed and many more were imprisoned or deported to Russia. Tens of thousands fled Hungary for the west, and were accepted as political refugees.

The reform movement which peaked in October 1956 had been spurred by the death of Joseph Stalin, in March of 1953. Upon Stalin’s death, a breath of liberalization swept through all of the eastern block countries. Even Krushchev denounced the excesses of Stalinism. In 1955, the Warsaw Pact was formed, promising that Russia would not interfere in the internal politics of its satellite nations.

Desperate to change economic direction, the Hungarian people were led by events to believe that they had the right to self-rule. Even the United States got involved, engaging in discussions to improve economic relations with Hungary, in summer 1956. When the Soviet government opened fire on the civilians, sparking the rebellion, the U.S. government used Radio Free Europe to encourage the rebellion and to promise U.S. support to the rebels. But such support was never sent.

The Tea Bag Republican Party has been pretty vocal about President Obama drawing a line in the sand about poison gas use in the Syrian Civil War, and then not sending U.S. troops to join the al Qaeda fighters trying to topple the current Syrian dictator. The message of their criticism appears to be that they are pretty completely unaware of the history of their own party.

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To cite just two instances, Eisenhower encouraged the Hungarian rebels before leaving them to the tender mercies of the Soviet tank forces. George H.W. Bush encouraged Iraqis to rebel against Saddam Hussein with promises of support, before abandoning them to Saddam’s angry retribution. President Obama’s position is part of his pattern of adopting Republican governing practices.

But although plenty of Tea Bag Republicans think that Eisenhower was a commie, or at least a fellow traveler, no one can tar him with the brush of cowardice. Ike had been through WW-I and WW-II, had visited the troops after the Normandy invasion and had visited the Korean War battlefields. As President, he brought China to the table and got the armistice negotiated on the Korean War.

When Hungarians revolted in 1956, Eisenhower encouraged them. But as President, charged with defending the interests of the American people, he applied his knowledge and experience of war, and concluded that the U.S. had nothing to gain by diving into yet another war, this time possibly a nuclear war, just to defend people who were saying that they wanted a revolution to install, socialist, democratic self-rule.

Although he hasn’t any military experience, President Obama is charged with the same duty of defending American interests. He has the experience of watching Ronald Reagan embrace and arm the Afghan mujahedeen, that became the Taliban, and of watching as Republicans armed Saddam Hussein and provided him with poison gas to use against his own people. Just as Eisenhower knew the realities of war, President Obama knows the dangers of knee-jerk actions, taken without thought to long term consequences.

There is some humor in watching Tea Bag Republican politicians fall all over themselves to condemn President Obama for refusing to commit the U.S. to jump into a civil war on the side currently dominated by al Qaeda and Hamas fighters. But under the easily available jokes about hypocrisy remains the bedrock truth that the interest of those politicians is driven by a fundamental need to push for whatever action will most enrich their war industry supporters.

Certainly the inherent, and increasingly open, racism of the Tea Bagger movement is powerful motivation for some Republican politicians. But the controlling interest is that of corporations like G.E., which makes the small antipersonnel mines that we drop where children will pick them up, and like the companies who slurp up no-bid contracts to make vehicle- and body-armor that doesn’t stop bullets. And the companies that sell cans of coke to the Pentagon for $5 each, then require the Pentagon to handle delivery to dangerous war zones.

Those corporations, and the politicians they own, don’t care that al Qaeda runs the Syrian rebel cause. They don’t care that arms sent to al Qaeda in Syria will then be turned against us, just as arms sent to the Afghan mujahedeen were turned against us. But President Eisenhower cared that there was no practical benefit to U.S. involvement in Hungary’s civil war, but a terrible potential risk. And President Obama appears to care that there is no practical benefit to U.S. joining into the Syrian civil war, but an almost certain risk that such involvement would backfire against us in the future.

History has established that the Russian repression of Hungarians destroyed the faith of communists around the world in the vacuous promises of the Moscow government. We don’t need to wait for the judgment of history to see how Assad’s repression in Syria is undermining his legitimacy and the vacuous pronouncements of both the Putin government and the Iranian theocracy that prop Assad up.

Tom Hall

President Obama’s decision to avoid going to war, while bringing Assad and Putin to the point of destroying chemical weapons plants and stockpiles, may well prove as transformational a point in our foreign policy behavior as Eisenhower’s decision to build an interstate road network was to our national unity and prosperity.

Tom Hall

Sunday, 10 November 2013