Charles Gati: Says Soviets may have allowed limited freedom for Hungary in '56

Fifty years ago today, thousands of students and workers took to the streets of Budapest to demand democratic reform. Among them was Charles Gati, who was then a young newspaper reporter.

Twelve days later, Soviet tanks rolled across Hungary, crushing what had become a broad popular revolt. Before the end of November, Mr. Gati, like tens of thousands of others, had fled the country.

Today Mr. Gati is a senior adjunct professor of European studies at the Johns Hopkins University. In a new book, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Stanford University Press), he argues that the Soviet military action was not inevitable. If the White House and Hungary's volatile, reform-minded prime minister, Imre Nagy, had played their cards differently, Mr. Gati says, the Soviets might have tolerated a semi-independent Hungary.

Mr. Gati recently spoke with The Chronicle about his journeys through the archives of Washington and Moscow.

Q. What are your memories of October 23?

A. I went with the students to the statue of General Bem, a Polish general who had helped the Hungarians in 1848 and who is regarded as a good guy. The march was partly in response to events in Poland, the so-called Polish October. ... Change was in the air in Poland, especially with the rise of a more nationalist communist leader, Wladyslaw Gomulka.

I have to tell you that I was not particularly politically astute back then, as you may have gathered from the book. I just got caught up in the mood when I heard that the demonstration was taking place, and I joined it with a friend. I didn't plan the march; I didn't help prepare it; I did not play any kind of important role at all. I was just there.

Q. Then, on November 3, you were in the Parliament building to cover what turned out to be the last press conference of Imre Nagy's reform government.

A. I was there not to report the big event, for which I was totally unqualified, but rather to record some colorful tidbits that I might have picked up. Which I did. I was ready to do that for the next afternoon's paper. But at dawn on November 4, the Soviets crushed the revolution, and my paper never appeared again.

Q. After it witnessed the Berlin uprising of 1953, what sort of plans should the United States have had in place for the next time something similar happened?

A. Let me go a bit further than I go in the book. I would now go so far as to say that the dominant view in the White House, held particularly by [Vice President Richard] Nixon, was that gradual change in Hungary, à la Titoism, would not help American interests. So they used very strong language on Radio Free Europe, and the thought was that either Communism collapses, and that's good for us, or else Soviet tanks would keep the regime in power, which is good propaganda for us. ... We believed, like Stalin, the worse, the better. And that, I must say, was unfortunate, and wrong.

Q. What do we know now from the Kremlin's archives about the range of outcomes that the Soviets might have been willing to tolerate?

A. First, I should emphasize that whatever options they may have considered, that does not change the brutality of their ultimate decision to crush the revolution. So while I am critical of American policy, and while I am critical of the Hungarian leadership's incompetence, the key issue remains as it has been, which is that a small country wanted to be independent, and the Soviets did not allow that to happen. The basic story has not changed.

Having said that, we do now know that from the very beginning, ... they were considering a range of options. As late as October 30, they reached a decision not to act militarily, and they were hoping, expecting, that Imre Nagy would save their cause. So it might have been a slightly different country ... with some kind of limited pluralism and perhaps some mom-and-pop stores representing free enterprise. And if things went too far from the Soviet point of view, they could hope to roll back the gains over time....

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