49th Parallel

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The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and the Shortcomings of U.S. Strategy Towards Eastern Europe

Steve Long

Steve Long is currently a postgraduate student at the University of Birmingham.


On November 3, 1956 the Red Army launched “Operation Whirlwind”, an all-out military offensive consisting of 200,000 ground troops to crush the ongoing rebellion against communist rule in Hungary. The following day Soviet soldiers were entering the capital city Budapest, and by November 7 the revolt had essentially been suppressed. The American response was limited to government denunciations of Soviet brutality and the offering of aid and sanctuary to the thousands of refugees who were flooding daily over the border into neutral Austria. U.S. inaction contrasted starkly with the activist rhetoric of pre-eminent Republican figures like John Foster Dulles during the presidential election campaign of 1952. The Republican foreign policy platform was based upon reversing the defensive “negative, futile, and immoral [Democratic] policy of ‘containment.’”[i] Presidential candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower would insist upon Dulles to moderate his comments with the qualification that the U.S. would not militarily intervene in Eastern Europe, but rather hoped for liberation of the satellites by peaceful means. Yet the prospective Secretary of State repeatedly asserted that it should be “publicly known that [the U.S.] wants and expects liberation to occur.”[ii] Ambiguity and confusion over just how satellite independence could be achieved without either armed internal revolt or U.S. military intervention certainly perturbed critics of the Republican campaign. Four years later and just a matter of days before the Eisenhower administration was to be given the electoral mandate to continue its foreign policy into a second term, the events in Hungary appeared to suggest that its strategy on liberation had failed to resolve such fundamental questions and was woefully inadequate to deal with the crisis.

            The Eisenhower administration’s strategy towards Eastern Europe took its roots from its predecessor, President Harry S. Truman’s government, despite the election campaign lambasting. In the context of the early Cold War “covert psychological operations” had been formally established as a component of U.S. foreign policy in December 1947 with Truman’s approval of NSC 4-A.[iii] Under the direction of George Kennan’s action plan to conduct political and psychological warfare behind the Iron Curtain, NSC 4-A was then superseded by NSC 10/2, which gave broad definition to covert operations:

Specifically, such operations shall include any covert activities related to: propaganda; economic warfare; preventive direct action, including sabotage, anti-sabotage, demolition and evacuation measures; subversion against hostile states, including assistance to underground resistance movements, guerrillas and refugee liberation groups, and support of indigenous anti-communist elements in threatened countries of the free world.[iv]     


Supplementing overt activity with this covert component, U.S. strategists then defined policy objectives in NSC 20/4 on November 23, 1948. This first comprehensive Cold War policy paper stipulated that a principal American aim was to “encourage and promote the gradual retraction of undue Russian power and influence from the present perimeter areas around traditional Russian boundaries and the emergence of the satellite countries as entities independent of the USSR.”[v]

            Therefore, before the shocks to strategists of the ‘loss’ of China to Mao Tse Tung’s communist rule, the Soviet acquirement of a nuclear capability and the outbreak of the Korean War, the U.S. government had wedded an overt and covert foreign policy with the overall goal of checking and rolling back communist power not only in Eastern Europe, but globally. America’s foreign policy establishment now had the dilemma of balancing a Soviet nuclear threat against potentially provocative U.S. covert activities in communist-dominated regions. However, the determination to counteract these perceived gains of World Communism led Truman finally to approve NSC 68, in which the administration assessed that “it is clear that a substantial and rapid building up of strength in the free world is necessary to support a firm policy intended to check and to roll back the Kremlin’s drive for world domination.”[vi]  Supplemented by NSC 10/5, U.S. strategy was now formulated on the premise that preponderant power through a massive conventional military build up combined with the development of the hydrogen bomb would sufficiently deter Soviet reprisals against provocative American covert activities behind the Iron Curtain. By this logic, America could take the offensive and intensify its political warfare operations “when and where appropriate in the light of U.S. and Soviet capabilities and the risk of war, [thereby contributing] to the retraction and reduction of Soviet power and influence [….]”[vii]

            Despite Truman’s approval of the hypothesis behind American strategy towards Eastern Europe, differences of opinion existed within government and would become more exacerbated in the final year of Democratic office. A clear split was evident in the Strategic Concept Panel, for instance. Supporters of an aggressive strategy comprising diverse covert operations against the satellite regimes included the main drafter of NSC 68, Paul Nitze, as well as Robert Tufts and Mallory Browne of the Policy Planning Staff (PPS). They were stridently opposed by Charles Bohlen of the State Department and George Morgan from the Psychological Strategy Board  (PSB) who argued that the combined diplomatic and political warfare strategy now in place was woefully inadequate in achieving the retraction of Soviet domination from the Eastern bloc. Such a strategy generated unnecessary risks of Soviet reprisal and should consequently be replaced by a true policy of ‘containment’ predicated on a defensive posture and coexistence.

            It was not only strategic theory that encouraged the dissenters. In practice many of the covert operations being run against the Soviet bloc had indeed proved utter failures. The Office of Policy Coordination (OPC) had been conducting covert psychological and political warfare operations since 1948 in numerous Eastern bloc countries including Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and Soviet Moldavia. By December 1952, not only could these operations not boast of a single tangible success in terms of a liberated communist state, the humiliating exposure of the Polish operation[viii] increased administrative opposition to the ‘secret’ war.

            Political warfare, including paramilitary and guerrilla operations were supplemented with what would emerge to be an extremely significant arm of the covert war, the propaganda network. The U.S. Government’s medium of choice for stirring up unrest in the satellites through propaganda was the radio. Established in June 1949, the ostensibly private but in fact Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) funded National Committee for a Free Europe (NCFE) launched the émigré anti-communist broadcasting network Radio Free Europe (RFE). The avowed purpose of RFE, as it was defined by the official CIA handbook issued in November 1951, was “to contribute to the liberation of the nations imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain by maintaining their morale and stimulating in them a spirit of non-cooperation with the Soviet dominated regimes.”[ix] Yet some in the government were now questioning how RFE, along with other radio networks like the official Voice of America (VOA), Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) and Radio Liberty (RL), could achieve the objective of liberation through means short of war. The principal contradiction appeared to be that the U.S. was calling for the indigenous populations of Eastern Europe to liberate themselves from the Communist yoke without firing a shot. This propaganda message for peaceful liberation seemed an unlikely prospect in a totalitarian system. Furthermore, even the combined covert strategy of psychological and political warfare appeared to some like Frank Lindsay of the CIA, writing in October 1952, totally unfeasible to achieve rollback:

The instruments currently advocated to reduce Soviet power are both inadequate and ineffective against the Soviet political system. The consolidated Communist state […] has made virtually impossible the existence of organized clandestine resistance capable within the foreseeable future of appreciably weakening the power of the state.[x]


The policy papers being drawn up in Washington in 1952 reflected the strategic divisions within government. NSC 135/3, approved by Truman on September 24, 1952 represented as much a compromise foreign policy statement as it did a clear strategy formulation. Policy-makers permitted the continuation of covert operations in order to induce “the exploitation of rifts between the USSR and other communist states thus possibly offering to certain satellite peoples the prospect of liberation without war.” Yet restraint and uncertainty due to the danger of Soviet reprisals against either the U.S. or Eastern bloc populations demanded that psychological and political agitators “proceed with caution and a careful weighing of the risks in pressing upon what the Kremlin probably regards as its vital interests.”[xi]

            The signs were also there that disagreement over potential contradictions within Soviet bloc strategy would continue into the next administration. At the Princeton conference of 10-11 May 1952 prominent members of the Truman administration as well as academics and other individuals from private groups met to discuss liberation strategy. Reflecting divisions within government, opinion split into two camps over how strategy should proceed. Figures like Allen Dulles and C. D. Jackson who would become prominent members of Eisenhower’s government argued for more vigorous policies against the ever-cautious approach promulgated by Charles Bohlen.

The demands made by Eisenhower and Foster Dulles during the 1952 election campaign for freedom and independence for the satellite peoples appeared to gloss over the viability of liberation without violent confrontation, as when Dulles spoke to the Council on Foreign relations in October 1952. Liberation would, he explained, “activate the strains and stresses within the Communist empire so as to disintegrate it [….] Activation does not mean armed revolt. The people have no arms and violent revolt would be futile; indeed it would be worse than futile, it would precipitate massacre.”[xii]

            On the one hand Dulles seemed to be agreeing with British conclusions about liberation. The British Permanent Under- Secretary’s Department (PUSD) paper titled “Future Policy towards Soviet Russia” of early 1952 had set out the gradualist approach towards liberation analogous to the approach Bohlen was pressing for, because “operations designed to liberate the satellites are impracticable and would involve unacceptable risks.” Moreover, the PUSD paper raised concerns over U.S. strategy, fearing that the lack of clarity and long-term aims in American policy might result in premature uprisings within Eastern Europe. This would “inevitably lead to a strengthening of the Soviet hold over the whole of the Soviet empire and the liquidation of all potential supporters of the West.”[xiii]

Yet on the other hand, for Dulles as well as for Eisenhower, satellite liberation was a key foreign policy issue that represented the moral dilemma raised by the existence of the Communist empire as well as the clear economic, political and military concerns inherent in the existence of a powerful enemy, and therefore it went beyond campaign rhetoric. The preoccupation with liberation would be illustrated by their continued pursuit of an adequate policy to achieve Eastern European independence throughout their incumbency.[xiv]

The Republican administration that took office in January 1953 included many strident proponents of an offensive strategy towards Eastern Europe. As well as the new Secretary of State Foster Dulles, his brother Allen would be appointed Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). Other notable Cold Warriors included C.D. Jackson as the President’s Special Assistant for Psychological Warfare, Frank Wisner, the former head of OPC and now director of covert operations within the CIA, and Robert Cutler, Eisenhower’s National Security Adviser. This composition, combined with the Republican campaign platform, suggested that a more decisive and unrestrained strategy would soon be adopted.

Eisenhower’s first step towards establishing policy was the ordering of an investigation into American “information policies” on January 24, 1953. The study, chaired by William H. Jackson, issued its conclusions on June 30, yet it still failed to address the inherent contradictions within existing policy. Although it criticised the previous administration for failing “to define its specific goals clearly and precisely” and for promoting “unrealizable goals arousing excessive hopes in the satellite countries or elsewhere” this did not lead to an over all rejection of liberation strategy. On the contrary, it maintained that strategy should continue towards doing “everything possible to aggravate internal conflicts in the hope that this will subsequently help to bring about a retraction of Kremlin control and influence.” The report recommended that the primary means to this end should be through the ostensibly private psychological warfare channel of NCFE:

Far greater effort should be made to utilize private American organizations for the advancement of US objectives. The gain in dissemination and credibility through the use of such channels will more than offset the loss by the Government of some control over the content.[xv]


This statement observed explicitly that utilising the state-private network would lead to governmental loss of command over the implementation of policy, and that Washington’s diminished control was acceptable. Furthermore, still unresolved was how, after U.S. broadcasts had stirred up the desire to be independent within Eastern European populations, liberation would be achieved without either violent indigenous revolt or American military intervention.      

Before the dissemination of the Jackson committee’s report several events seemed to afford significant opportunities for implementing a more aggressive strategy to liberate the satellites. The first of these was Stalin’s death on March 5, 1953. Rather than resulting in the strategists’ decisive execution of policy, the Eisenhower administration actually became paralysed by bureaucratic division. Eisenhower himself lamented over the lack of a clear strategy:

Ever since 1946, I know that all the so-called experts have been yapping about what would happen when Stalin dies and what we as a nation, should do about it. Well, he’s dead. And you can turn the files of our government inside out- in vain- looking for any plans laid. We have no plan. We are not even sure what difference his death makes.[xvi] 


In fact, the PSB had drawn up Operation Cancellation exactly for this situation, although, rather fittingly, it did not actually embody a decisive strategy. The real problem was that implementing an aggressive policy, even at this unique moment, was unpopular with many key government members. Operation Cancellation and other offensive psychological-warfare measures were advocated by C.D. Jackson, Harold Stassen, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), plus prominent private advisers like Walt Rostow and George Kennan. Yet policy decision was blocked by the State Department where, perhaps surprisingly, Foster Dulles supported by his under-secretary Walter Bedell Smith, along with Charles Bohlen and Paul Nitze, all urged a cautious response for fear of aggravating the sensitive situation.

Policy indecision was reflected by Eisenhower’s official response to Stalin’s death, the “Chance for Peace” speech of April 16 before the American Society of Newspaper Editors, which came almost six weeks after the event and needed twelve drafts before completion. More worrying was that Eisenhower’s speech exacerbated bureaucratic indecision. As has been convincingly illustrated by several historians, rather than representing a genuine effort to negotiate with the new Soviet leadership, Chance for Peace was in fact primarily a propaganda effort.[xvii] Consequently, Eisenhower rejected pursuing serious diplomatic negotiations with the new Soviet leadership that might have led to some accommodations over satellite status, yet he had also endorsed the State Department’s blocking of the opposite strategy of a covert offensive. What the eventual strategy following Stalin’s death ultimately represented was an ineffective compromise between these two poles. Liberation in the long-term had not been ruled out, and rather than negotiate with Georgi Malenkov and raise the possibility of detente, Eisenhower preferred the route of Western integration and particularly the rearmament of West Germany.[xviii]

If Stalin’s death came too soon after the Republicans had taken office for them to adopt a clear strategy, his demise generated another opportunity several months later. Unrest broke out behind the Iron Curtain, first in Czechoslovakia and then more significantly in East Germany in June 1953, following Malenkov’s conciliatory messages implying greater satellite independence from Moscow. As riots broke out in East Berlin RIAS broadcasts fanned the flames of discontent, influencing the spread of unrest throughout East Germany, as a State Department official later commented: “It is now pretty clear that [RIAS] played a major role in spreading demonstrations from East Berlin to the [Soviet] Zone.”[xix] But again Washington was divided as how best to respond to events. Supporters of an offensive policy that included arming the insurgents or even through U.S. military intervention were blocked. The strategy finally adopted after the revolt had been crushed involving food kitchens in West Berlin could in no way promote the government’s ultimate objective of East European independence.

Official policy was drawn up a week following the Red Army’s quelling of the riots, in the form of NSC 158, “United States Objectives and Actions to Exploit the Unrest in the Satellite States”. Despite the causal nature of U.S. incitement of satellite dissension and the disastrous consequences of such a strategy, NSC 158 continued to promote American backing of passive indigenous resistance to Soviet authority. This was also in spite of the overwhelming criticism of political warfare that Foster Dulles was receiving from ambassadors and other senior diplomats at the State Department.  One such statement to the Secretary of State declared that “we should never consider that Eastern Europe can be liberated by political warfare devices no matter how well planned and energetic they may be.”[xx] Moscow had clearly demonstrated its desire not to allow the satellite countries to break away, casting extreme doubt on the feasibility for peaceful liberation. Perhaps it would take the most extensive review of U.S. foreign policy since NSC 68, and arguably of the early Cold War[xxi], to resolve the fundamental contradictions that were generating inadequate strategy and government indecision.

NSC 162/2 “Basic National Security Strategy” was approved by Eisenhower on October 30, 1953. The time and resources invested in producing the final, definitive statement of policy were immense. Studies had begun with Project Solarium in May with Eisenhower establishing Task Forces A, B and C to investigate three broad approaches to national security. These ranged from traditional concepts of containment to more aggressive rollback policies to be studied in light of the Chief Executive’s desire to cut back on defence spending and the inevitable Soviet acquirement of the hydrogen bomb. Again the disparate proposals, especially between Task Force A chaired by George Kennan and Task Force C chaired by Admiral R. L. Conolly, reflected the conflict within the administration. The policy spectrum spanned from a strategy based upon restraint and negotiations with the Soviet leadership and the objective of peaceful coexistence to one of an offensive nature incorporating psychological and political warfare, with the ultimate goal being the destruction of Soviet power. The key disagreement became whether U.S. covert operations would provoke Soviet retaliation and therefore general war, an issue that had massive implications on the appropriate policy to adopt. Eisenhower and the National Security Council were unable to resolve the dispute between these two incompatible approaches and this resulted in the final paper incorporating elements of both.

Even if NSC 162/2 failed to impose a clear and unified strategy, it did mark a shift away from aggressive rollback operations in favour of negotiating with the Soviets. For instance, it acknowledged that the “detachment of any major European satellite from the Soviet bloc does not now appear feasible except by Soviet acquiescence or by war.”[xxii] This shift was also implied by the recollections of Robert Bowie, then head of the PPS, of Project Solarium:

I think part of [Eisenhower’s] purpose was to make sure that everyone understood that the basic policy was containment and not roll-back. Realistically the conclusion was that if you tried to intervene you risked a Third World War.[xxiii]


This policy shift in Washington did not translate into the curtailment of liberation activities, however, as the American and émigré anti-communist propaganda networks remained untouched after the completion of NSC 162/2. Additionally, the Operations Coordinating Board (OCB) draft policy paper OCB 16 “National Operations Plan-USSR and European Satellites” of November 1953 appeared to suggest that, at the very least, its author C.D. Jackson did not understand that basic U.S. policy was now containment and not rollback. In a memo to Walter Bedell Smith, Robert Cutler wrote of the still classified document that many aspects in it were “in conflict with policy […] were unclear as to whether or not they conformed to existing policy […] or which seemed to venture into fields where there was no existing policy.”[xxiv]

            This confusion was not resolved by NSC 174 “US Policy toward the Soviet Satellites”, the paper revising government strategy regarding Eastern Europe. It defined American long-term objectives as “the eventual fulfilment of the rights of the peoples of the Soviet satellites to enjoy governments of their own choosing, free of Soviet domination [….]” Yet NSC 174 perpetuated the unfeasible hope that U.S. strategy could achieve these objectives without recourse to war and continued to endorse psychological and political warfare despite observing that the “chances are negligible at the present time that any existing satellite communist regime would or could break away from Moscow under its own power or […] that any anti-Soviet faction could seize or hold power in a satellite and bring about its detachment from the Soviet bloc.” Recognition of the dangers of any confrontation was also articulated:

In its efforts to encourage anti-Soviet elements in the satellites and keep up their hopes, the United States should not encourage premature action on their part which will bring upon them further terror and suppression. Continuing and careful attention must be given to the fine line, which is not stationary, between exhortations to keep up morale and to maintain passive resistance, and invitations to suicide.[xxv]


But still the only realistic way of avoiding U.S. complicity in a bloody conflict, namely through rejecting a strategy aimed at provoking peaceful liberation, was once again evaded.

            Although the shift in Washington’s strategy became more pronounced during 1954 and 1955, the conflict of interest between the desire for peaceful liberation and the threat of Soviet retaliation remained. By 1954 there was a general acceptance within the government that World War Three now had to be avoided at all costs due to the forthcoming parity in nuclear capabilities of the U.S. and the Soviets, and therefore the only realistic approach to decreasing Cold War tensions was through negotiations.[xxvi] A further significant change of outlook had occurred at the State Department where Foster Dulles had begun to re-evaluate the importance of achieving satellite independence:

[Liberation] in itself would not touch the heart of the problem: Soviet atomic plenty […] even if we split the Soviet bloc, in other words, we would still have to face the terrible problem and threat of an unimpaired nuclear capability in the USSR itself.[xxvii]


However, this was still not translated into a coherent and authoritative strategy as Theodore Streibert, head of the U.S. Information Agency complained to Walter Bedell Smith in May 1954: “We are now effectively organized to engage in psychological warfare but we have no long-term strategic plan.”[xxviii]

            On January 31 1955, a revised policy paper superseding NSC 162/2 and NSC 5422/2 was approved by Eisenhower. NSC 5505/1 “Exploitation of Soviet and European Satellite Vulnerabilities” promoted the U.S. desire for “evolutionary rather than revolutionary change” in the satellites. In effect this meant that America was now hoping for modifications in Soviet-satellite relationships, rather than for the total elimination of communist control over Eastern European countries. At first glance this represented a more realistic and obtainable objective, yet the fundamental question still remained unresolved by strategists of how even evolutionary change could be achieved short of war. On top of this NSC 5505/1 still did not lay liberation to rest. As Lucas observes, the paper provided activists with sufficient loopholes to continue their psychological and political warfare operations: “Covert operations (including experimentation with such anti-regime measures as might well be applicable to substantially changed circumstances) [would] not necessarily have to conform to the […] principles [elsewhere in NSC5505/1].” This inconsistency was reflected in Foster Dulles’s desire not to entirely rule out a policy of liberation.[xxix] Moreover, Eisenhower was still enamoured with the Volunteer Freedom Corps (VFC) initiative. VFC had been established in May 1953 in NSC 143/2 as an émigré army that would potentially fight to liberate their homelands in the place of American soldiers. In August 1955 Eisenhower attempted (and failed) to win the West German government’s support for VCF to “provide a cadre of trained personnel to form and control to U.S. advantage any large numbers of defected Soviet Orbit personnel in the event of war.”[xxx]      

            Nikita Krushchev’s speech in February 1956 to the Twentieth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union calling for de-Stalinisation and liberalisation once again had policy-makers scratching their heads and wondering whether an aggressive or more conciliatory approach would best bring about American objectives in Eastern Europe. Washington’s endorsement of the wide public dissemination of Krushchev’s speech through émigré broadcasts into the satellite region was pursuant to an opportunistic policy hoping to exploit the situation and provoke unrest in the satellites, rather than the more gradualist approach generally laid out in NSC 5505/1. Yet NSC 5602/1 of March 15, 1956 repeated the policy of “evolutionary change in the Soviet system.” The inconsistencies in approach became more evident as it emerged that the State Department viewed the new strategy of “evolutionary change” as simply a shift in policy that still pursued the ultimate aim of satellite liberation. In such a way, the U.S. should “undermine the regime by exposing the people to Free World influences.”[xxxi] The final strategy paper before the momentous events of October 1956 continued to emphasise a gradualist policy, including “encouragement of evolutionary change resulting in the weakening of Soviet controls and the attainment of national independence by the countries concerned, even though there may be no immediate change in their internal political structure.”[xxxii]

            As events unfolded in Eastern Europe in October 1956, U.S. strategists were still unsure how to respond. While émigré radio networks continued to broadcast, Washington eyed events with caution. As it emerged that Wladyslaw Gomulka had achieved a modicum of independence for Poland the administration began to feel that its gradualist strategy was being vindicated. Unfortunately, the inadequacies and inconsistencies of this strategy were about to be exposed as unrest spread from Poland to Hungary.

            The demonstrations that erupted in Budapest on October 22 were largely motivated by the popular desire for independence following the concessions achieved by Gomulka’s Polish Government. Imre Nagy’s more strident demands for independence and particularly his declaration of Hungary’s intention to leave the Warsaw Pact were the salient reasons for provoking the deadly Soviet reprisals of early November. Eisenhower immediately rejected any notion of military intervention behind the Iron Curtain for fear of exacerbating an already deteriorating situation, and chose to focus on the unfolding Suez crisis. Following the abortive revolution, the administration’s chief concern was whether U.S. propaganda had played a part in inciting the rioters, and not over strategy. The reports made at the time generally vindicated organisations like RFE for a negligible role in provoking the revolt, including Allen Dulles’s review of émigré broadcasts and the independent study commissioning London University Professor Hugh Seton-Watson. Historians tend to concur that even if many of the rioters had believed the U.S. would intervene once a revolt had begun, America had “fairly clean hands in the Hungarian affair.”[xxxiii]

Yet the fact that the U.S. was not chiefly responsible for either inciting the revolution, nor for provoking the Soviet response, does not alter the evidence that government strategy was woefully misguided and inadequate to deal with the crisis. Inconsistent and contradictory, U.S. public support for liberation had recently been tamed after years of ardent rhetoric, yet the different fates of Poland and Hungary illustrated the fine line that existed between “evolution” and “revolution”. Strategists had never managed to resolve the inherent contradictions in calling for peaceful change in a totalitarian state despite the years of debate in the Truman and Eisenhower administrations, and these inconsistencies were played out to bloody effect in Hungary. Washington’s paralysis as events in both satellites unfolded also illustrated a failure to learn from the East German uprising of three years before, and government strategy only ultimately changed because of the brutality of the Soviet invasion, not through American initiative. U.S. policy endorsed what had been acknowledged for at least two years in the administration, that they were not willing to risk general war with the Soviet Union over strategically-marginal interests like Eastern Europe. This had a further knock-on effect of essentially formalising Eastern Europe as a Soviet sphere of influence. Consequently, the Cold War would now be taken to the Developing World where neither superpower could lay claim to absolute control of regions. Clearly the risks of provocative covert warfare were too great to be undertaken in areas viewed as vital to either side’s national interests.

Yet why, as the Bruce-Lovett report asked late in 1956, had this not been clearly and universally understood before the Hungarian Revolution?[xxxiv] Ultimately the liberation strategy that had for so long sought to expose dissatisfaction within the satellites resulted in Hungarian bloodshed. The more aggressive strategies being proposed within Eisenhower’s administration would have necessitated military intervention and general war between the superpowers. These strategic flaws had long been recognised, but the policies had never been significantly altered to accommodate this. Only after Hungary, as Moscow reversed its liberalisation programs and once again tightened its grip on the satellites, did policy change. Although NCFE would continue to operate under closer bureaucratic supervision, liberation was unambiguously dead as a concept, much to the chagrin of activists like C.D. Jackson. The government now aligned itself with Soviet policy and adopted a genuinely gradualist strategy based on peaceful coexistence through economic and cultural contact between East and West and economic competition over the Developing World. In such a way it was hoped that the U.S. might still diminish Soviet influence eventually.

Wider implications derived from the lack of strategic insight within the administration. The failure to assimilate views on liberation reflected the wider divisions within government over all the main components of the New Look. Such was the ambiguity and confusion over the “massive retaliation” doctrine that U.S. policy was largely based on bluff and inaction, while simultaneously heightening Cold War tensions. Strategic paralysis set in during many of the other key tests for Eisenhower’s administration, including the offshore Taiwan crises and Suez. While not resorting prematurely to war was commendable, the failure to produce a feasible alternative policy was not. The U.S. never resorted to war largely because liberation and massive retaliation were strategies based on the desire to win wars without fighting them, not because of particularly skilful crisis-management.[xxxv]

The missed opportunity to negotiate with the Soviet leadership, both in Eastern Europe and more generally over Cold War issues, was perhaps the most significant failing. John Foster Dulles, in particular, viewed the Soviets with total suspicion, and his president was also more taken to winning over world opinion than talking seriously with Moscow. It was the overwhelming dominance of a Cold War ideological mindset that blocked more activist, yet conciliatory moves. Instead, as with disarmament, America set the pace for an arms race and concentrated on propaganda victories rather than weapons treaties. Although Eisenhower’s government avoided general war with the Soviet Union, this tendency to preserve strategic inadequacies resulted in inactive policies that still ultimately did more to increase Cold War animosities than to reduce them. Although Hungary illustrated these strategic shortcomings, they had existed all along.



[i] W. Scott Lucas, Freedom’s War: The US Crusade against the Soviet Union 1945-56 (Manchester, 1999), 163.

[ii] Richard H. Immerman (Editor), John Foster Dulles and the Diplomacy of the Cold War (Princeton, New Jersey, 1990), 4.

[iii] NSC 4-A, December 17, 1947, in Michael Warner (Editor), CIA Cold War Records: The CIA Under Harry Truman (Washington, DC, 1994), 174-75.

[iv] NSC 10/2, June 18, 1948, in Warner, CIA Cold War Records, 213-16.

[v] NSC 20/4 “U.S. Objectives with Respect to the USSR to Counter Soviet Threats to U.S. Security”, November 23, 1948, in Foreign Relations of the United States, volume 1 (Washington, Government Printing Office, Department of State, 1948), 663-69. Foreign Relations of the United States will be referred to as FRUS from now on.

[vi] NSC 68 “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security”, finalised April 14, 1950 (though not approved by Truman until after the outbreak of the Korean War), in FRUS, 1950, volume 1, 237-92.

[vii] NSC 10/5 “Scope and Pace of Covert Operations”, October 23, 1951, in Warner, CIA Cold War Records, 437-39.

[viii] In December 1952 Polish radio revealed the complete penetration of the Freedom and Independence Movement (abbreviated in Polish to WIN) by internal communist security forces. For several years OPC had been supplying and funding what they believed to be a genuine indigenous resistance movement and only became aware of the full extent of the fiasco with the radio broadcasts.

[ix] Walter L. Hixson, Parting the Curtain: Propaganda, Culture, and the Cold War, 1945-1961 (London, 1997), 61.

[x] Peter Grose, Operation Rollback: America’s Secret War Behind the Iron Curtain (Boston and New York, 2000), 188.

[xi] Gregory Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin: America’s Strategy to Subvert the Soviet Bloc, 1947-1956 (Ithaca and London, 2000), 98.

[xii] Lucas, Freedom’s War, 165.

[xiii] Richard J. Aldrich, The Hidden Hand: Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence (London, 2001), 324-25.

[xiv] Several historians have suggested that Eisenhower and Dulles were never serious about liberation and utilised aggressive campaign rhetoric chiefly to attract votes from Americans of East European descent. See, for instance, John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (Oxford and New York, 1982), 128, H.W. Brands, Cold Warriors: Eisenhower’s Generation and American Foreign Policy (New York, 1988), 10-13 and Grose, Operation Rollback, 204.

[xv] Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin, 125, Hixson, Parting the Curtain, 67, Lucas, Freedom’s War, 219.

[xvi] Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin, 126.

[xvii] For instance see Hixson, Parting the Curtain, Lucas, Freedom’s War and “The Myth of Leadership: Dwight Eisenhower and the Quest for Liberation”, in Constantine Pagedas and Thomas Otte (Editors), Personalities, War and Diplomacy (1997), Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin, and Kenneth A. Osgood, “Form Before Substance: Eisenhower’s Commitment to Psychological Warfare and Negotiations with the Enemy”, in Diplomatic History 24, (Summer 2000). This thesis is that Chance for Peace offered negotiations only at the price of unacceptable conditions to the Soviets and was therefore intended to generate a Soviet rejection in order to win over world opinion to the U.S.. Previously, historians had regarded this and other gestures like the “Atoms for Peace” and “Open Skies” speeches as genuine attempts to initiate talks with the Soviet Union. See particularly Stephen E. Ambrose, Eisenhower: The President, Volume Two 1952-1969, (London and Sydney, 1984).

[xviii] Hixson, Parting the Curtain, 93.

[xix] Ibid., 75.

[xx] Grose, Operation Rollback, 216.

[xxi] See Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin, 134.

[xxii] NSC 162/2 “Statement of Policy by the National Security Council on Basic National Security Policy”, October 30, 1953, in The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition Volume 1 (New York, 1971), 412-429.

[xxiii] Aldrich, The Hidden Hand, 335.

[xxiv] Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin, 153.

[xxv] Ibid., 154-55, Lucas, Freedom’s War, 191.

[xxvi] See NSC 5422 “Tentative Guidelines under NSC 162/2 for FY 1956”, 14 June 1954, which concluded that “the strategic use by both sides of nuclear weapons would bring such extensive destruction as to threaten the survival of Western civilization and the Soviet regime.” Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin, 159.

[xxvii] Ibid., 164.

[xxviii] Lucas, Freedom’s War, 213.

[xxix] Ibid., 236, 237.

[xxx] Aldrich, The Hidden Hand, 337.

[xxxi] Hixson, Parting the Curtain, 101, 108.

[xxxii] Mitrovich, Undermining the Kremlin, 172.

[xxxiii] Aldrich, The Hidden Hand, 340.

[xxxiv] The report investigating CIA and clandestine anti-communist operations is still classified, but was noted in detail in Robert F. Kennedy’s personal files: “The supporters of the 1948 decision to launch this government on a positive (psychological and political warfare) program could not possibly have foreseen the ramifications of the operations which have resulted from it [….] Should not someone, somewhere, in an authoritative position in our government, on a continuing basis, be counting the immediate costs of disappointments, […] calculating the impacts on our international position, and keeping in mind the long range wisdom of activities which have entailed our virtual abandonment of the international “golden rule,” and which, if successful to the degree claimed for them, are responsible in a great measure for stirring up the turmoil and raising the doubts about us that exist in many countries of the world today? What of the effects on our present alliances? What will happen tomorrow?” Grose, Operation Rollback, 219.

[xxxv] See Ambrose, Eisenhower: The President, 626.