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Setting the Record Straight:
Role of Radio Free Europe in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956
A Ross Johnson1
© A. Ross Johnson
Many Hungarians have testified to the positive role played by Radio Free Europe (RFE) for over 40 years in helping Hungary return to the community of free nations. Prime Minister Antal wrote to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) in June 1990: "Radio Free Europe has … given us the gift of truth about our own country and the world at large, and has done so at a time when telling the truth was counted as a crime against the state.” President Goncz wrote to RFE/RL in 1991: "one of the important possibilities of expression for those in Hungary who raised their voices for changes was Radio Free Europe." Just as for Lech Walesa in Poland and Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, RFE served as a megaphone by which independent figures in Hungary, denied access to local media, could speak to their fellow citizens. Former Hungarian Party ideological chief Janos Berecz said he “ became convinced that Western broadcasts were among the accepted sources of information among the youth.” The Hungarian Government honored RFE Hungarian broadcasters for their service to the nation in a ceremony in Budapest in 2000.2
While Hungarians of all political persuasions credit Radio Free Europe with helping to bring about the end of the Communist system, RFE’s role during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution is the issue most cited, along with RFE’s original CIA sponsorship, in the literature on the Cold War. This paper, part of a longer study of the history of RFE and RL, attempts to set the record straight. It first lists the principal criticisms in the literature concerning RFE’s role in Hungary in 1956. It then tests these criticisms against the evidence, as we best know it today, and offers judgments about the soundness of the assertions. The “facts” emerge from documents in the RFE/RL archives, now at the Hoover Institution and the Open Society Archives, from declassified State Department and German Foreign Office records, and from memoirs of and interviews with participants. The most important archival source is the RFE/RL Collection at the Hoover Archives, which includes the RFE corporate records, the texts (scripts) of most Hungarian broadcasts, and the audio recordings of all Hungarian broadcasts during most of this period. Finally, drawing on the experience of 1956, the paper suggests some dilemmas and lessons that arise for external communicators into crisis areas.
A major deficiency of this paper is the absence of comparative analysis of the performance of the three major Western broadcasters to Hungary in 1956 – RFE, the Voice of America (VOA), and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). While there have been numerous examinations of RFE’s 1956 Hungarian-language broadcasts, there are no comparable studies of VOA and BBC programs. The attention paid to the 1956 RFE broadcasts, then and subsequently, is a remarkable tribute to the impact of a radio station that was then only five years old. But VOA and BBC, too, deserve some of the credit or blame. Relevant BBC archives evidently exist;3 comparable VOA archives have not been located.
I am indebted to Paul Henze, Gene Parta, William Rademaekers, and Ralph Walter for comments on an earlier draft.
The literature on the role of RFE in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution contains six principal critiques:
1) RFE incited the Hungarian Revolution. “We are convinced that … RFE’s aggressive propaganda is responsible to a large extent for the blood-bath which has occurred in Hungary…”4
2) RFE both urged Hungarians to fight the Soviet army and promised the insurgents5 Western assistance that was never in prospect, raising false hopes among Hungarians, encouraging them to continue the uprising, and contributing to a bloodbath when the Soviet Union cracked down. “[RFE] encouraged the hapless insurgents to go all the way against the Kremlin and even broadcast lessons on how to make molotov cocktails.”6 “… a review of American-sponsored Radio Free Europe’s broadcasts shows that the station cavalierly suggested that Western military assistance might be forthcoming if the rebels held out.”7 “[RFE] encouraged [the Hungarians] with promises that the U.S. military would rush to their aid.”8 Communist propaganda at the time played this theme endlessly. 9
3) RFE broadcasts were a significant factor in the Soviet decision to crush the Revolution. “[RFE’s] ‘informational activities’ and broadcasts in the 1950s probably precipitated…the Soviet crackdown on Hungary on November 3-4, as well as increased the number of casualties.”10
4) RFE undermined through both personal invective and amplification of radical indigenous political demands the position of Imre Nagy. It thus weakened the only Hungarian politician who might have consolidated a government cohesive and popular enough to enforce internal and external policy limitations sufficient for the Kremlin to tolerate a less repressive but still Communist “Nagyism.” “[RFE broadcast] a massive hate campaign (Hetze) against Prime Minister Imre Nagy, the one individual for whom unconditional support in those days might have meant success for the Hungarian struggle for freedom.” 11 Relatedly, RFE reduced the chances of formation of a limited-reform government that might have been tolerated by the USSR through over-reporting maximalist demands of Hungarian insurgents for domestic freedoms and national independence. “[RFE] egged on the most radical insurgent groups to fight on until all of their demands were met.” 12
5) RFE broadcasts were highly emotional, included tactical advice, and otherwise fell short of normal standards of journalism. “[While RFE broadcasts were generally in line with Western policy] what was absent was an understanding [of the situation in Hungary] … and professionalism in daily work.”13
6) RFE was out of control, pursuing a policy divergent from that of the U.S. Government. “The problem was not that the CIA was pursuing its own policy … there was also the problem of the control of the Hungarian desk in Munich.”14
Evidence and Judgments
What does the historical record, as best we know it today, tell us about the validity of these criticisms? Certainly the documentary record is not complete, the broadcast recordings themselves await comprehensive contemporary review, and different conclusions may be drawn from the same body of evidence. What follows are my interpretations and conclusions.
1) Incitement of Revolution?
The RFE Hungarian Service (like the Czechoslovak, Polish, Romanian, and Bulgarian Services) began broadcasting in the early 1950s to counter the Communist information monopoly, as part of the U.S. effort to constrain Soviet power (without provoking suicidal revolt), keep alive hope of a better future, limit tyranny, and broaden the boundaries of internal debate, all in order to make the Soviet empire a less formidable adversary. RFE covered the declarations of the first Eisenhower presidency on liberation of Eastern Europe (always seen as a political and not military goal). In practice, RFE’s broadcasts were generally more moderate than the slogan “liberation” implied. RFE’s Policy Handbook issued in November 1951 had cautioned against broadcasting any promises of Western intervention. When “liberation” of the “captive peoples” was raised in 1952 Presidential campaign speeches, RFE issued a “Special Guidance on Liberation” dated September 2, 1952, which cautioned that “not one word in these [campaign] statements (on liberation) can be used to encourage militant anti-Communists to go over from passive to active resistance in the expectation that such resistance will be supported by Western elements.” The most extreme 1952 presidential campaign rhetoric on “liberation” was kept off the air on the grounds that it could be misinterpreted in Eastern Europe.15
The crushing of the 1953 East German uprising and Pilsen revolt further sobered RFE management and the Free Europe Committee (FEC), to which it was subordinate, as to the limited possibilities for far-reaching political change in Eastern Europe. RFE viewed the “New Course” of limited reforms introduced in Eastern Europe after Stalin’s death as a sign of Communist regime weakness and an opportunity to reinforce limited popular opposition to Communist rule. Analyzing the Third Hungarian Party Congress of May 1954, RFE Munich policy advisor William E. Griffith drew this conclusion: “As long as the policy of the changed atmosphere continues, as long as the Communists continue their actual or false concession policies in the fields of [local] councils, the People’s Front, and intellectual life, we must play the role of an inner opposition radio. By airing newer and newer demands, we must force the government further and further along the concessionary road.”16
This was the genesis of “Operation Focus,” a media campaign which urged Hungarians through radio broadcasts and balloon-launched leaflets to endorse twelve specific demands – none of them explicitly political or challenging one-Party rule or Soviet presence -- aimed at converting regime mass institutions such as the People’s Front into instrumentalities of popular opposition that could pressure the Communist regime into gradual reforms. The basic “Operation Focus” policy guidance stated: “Our primary purpose is to focus the attention of the Hungarian people upon certain legitimate means by which they can continue to battle, thwart, and wrench concessions from the regime.”17 “Operation Focus” ended in March 1955 after only six months, as its effectiveness was questioned within FEC and the State Department. Hungarian broadcasts continued thereafter without this particular edge, and leaflets became mini-newspapers with more informational content. 350,000 such leaflets were delivered by balloon to Hungary on October 18 and 20, 1956 – the last such deliveries.18
1956 was a year of ferment throughout the Communist world. RFE covered that ferment comprehensively in all its language broadcasts. It reported in March the initial Western press accounts of Khrushchev’s February “Secret Speech”; in June both the full text of the speech as published in the New York Times and coverage of the Poznan riots; and in the fall the events of the “Polish October.” It reported the developing ferment in Hungary in the summer and fall of 1956, including discussions in the reformist Petofi Circle. It continued to report on developments in Austria after Hungary’s neighbor regained its sovereignty and freedom in 1955.
RFE’s basic approach to this ferment in the Communist world was outlined in several “guidances” or statements of editorial policy19 issued throughout 1956. Special Guidance No. 26 of March 27, addressing the emerging ferment in the Communist world, cautioned, “There is no likelihood of military action by the West to liberate [the East European] peoples.” Special Guidance No. 27 of July 9 foresaw gradual, in-system change:
We must expect … that no reforms can take place … except under the aegis of the [Communist] party in power and under the guise of the new “benevolence” announced by the 20 CPSU Congress. …While national communism cannot be our goal, we ignore the label attached to a successful movement for reforms (“Titoist,” ‘national communist,” etc.); we judge the specific instance accordingly as it does or does not lighten our people’s burden, take them along the path to democracy.
Drawing on this basic guidance in a policy memorandum dated September 26, 1956, policy advisor Griffith defined RFE’s task as “assist[ing] and prolonging and extending the thaw” and promoting liberalization even under conditions of continued Communist rule.th
RFE Hungarian broadcasts20 prior to the outbreak of the Revolution conformed to these policy guidelines. Examples of such Hungarian broadcasts in the months prior to the Revolution (all objective and dispassionate by any standard) are a July 3 program directed to Hungarian Communists on anti-Stalin ferment in the CPSU;21 a program on August 10 suggesting to the Hungarian Communist leadership that it study the lessons drawn by the Polish Communists after the Poznan uprising about the need for reform; 22 a program on October 6 stressing the need for an independent judiciary;23 and a program on October 11 devoted to the initial purges in the secret police. 24 There were no broadcasts prior to outbreak of the Revolution calling for insurrection, urging violent confrontation of the Communist authorities, or advocating a maximalist anti-Communist platform.
The assertion that RFE incited the Hungarian Revolution is on its face absurd; uprisings and revolutions have internal causes and dynamics and have never been sparked by external media. In any case, RFE Hungarian broadcasts in the months leading up to mid-October 1956 were generally dispassionate and espoused gradual reform – not “liberation” but what would later commonly be labeled “liberalization.”25
2) Encouragement of Resistance and Promise of Western Aid?
Did RFE Hungarian broadcasts urge Hungarians to fight the Soviet Army? Certainly the thrust of all commentary was solidarity with the Revolution. On October 24 the Hungarian Service appealed repeatedly to the Hungarian army and police not to fire on the insurgents and to regime judges not to impose summary death sentences.26 Many programs relayed with approval domestic Hungarian voices calling for continuation of the Revolution and resistance to efforts to suppress it, for example a report on “the unanimous, brave, and heroic strike of the workers.”27 A program on October 28 said that the Nagy government’s appeal for a cease-fire had to be respected by the Soviet Army to have any meaning.28 Several programs aired in late October (after most fighting had temporarily stopped) offered tactical military advice and claimed that the Hungarian fighters were stronger than the Soviet army.29 A November 1 commentary called on Hungarians to keep their weapons as a guarantee of the freedoms and independence that had been won. “To be clear, we only said … do not give up your weapons. We did not say use them when there is no purpose and no sense in it.”30 Once the second Soviet intervention began on November 4, a commentary declared that Hungary was at war.31 A second emotional commentary that day said that “we, a small people in numbers but a great nation, are fighting against the despotism of the Muscovites… the barricades on which we are shedding our blood will be remembered for centuries to come.”32 A commentary on November 6 said, “the fight of the Hungarian people has not yet ended.”33 A second commentary on that date said that “the fight continues … [it is the workers that] are fighting the terrible, overwhelming Soviet forces the longest, most desperately and unmindful of the lives sacrificed …”34 These programs and others indicate admiration for the insurgents and solidarity with resistance to the Soviet Army. As such they could easily have been interpreted by the listeners as encouraging resistance. But no RFE Hungarian broadcast appealed to the Hungarian people to continue armed struggle against the Soviet Army.
Did RFE Hungarian broadcasts promise military assistance from the West? Cold War histories often cite the single clear-cut case of an RFE broadcast that suggested Western military assistance would be forthcoming if the Hungarian revolutionaries held out once the Soviet attacks resumed on November 4 – a press review of an article in the London Observer dated November 4, with Hungarian Service editor Zoltan Thury’s editorial conclusion: “The reports from London, Paris, the U.S. and other Western reports show that the world’s reaction to Hungarian events surpasses every imagination. In the Western capitals, a practical manifestation of Western sympathy is expected at any hour.”35 This was the only such program identified in the many internal and external reviews of RFE programming listed in the References. It is the only such program cited in the critical Cold War literature on the subject. 36
RFE, VOA, and BBC were the dominant Western Hungarian-language broadcasters during this period, but many other foreign radio stations continued or initiated broadcasts to Hungary in Hungarian during the Revolution. Two of these stations explicitly mentioned military assistance from the West. Radio Madrid, staffed by right-wing exiles in the Franco era, urged Hungarians to keep fighting because Western volunteers were massing on the Hungarian border. The Russian-émigré NTS radio operating out of Germany claimed that the “Association of Former Hungarian Servicemen” in the West was preparing to aid the insurgent forces.37 Given the babble of tens of foreign and domestic Hungarian-language broadcasters during this period and the difficulties of reception through jamming for part of the time, listeners could easily but incorrectly have attributed such broadcasts to RFE and assumed that it was RFE that was urging Hungarians to hold out until Western military assistance arrived.38
The November 4 Observer item should not have been broadcast. But it was one program in a critical month of nearly round-the-clock RFE Hungarian broadcasting of over 500 programs and was not a significant programming theme. To be sure, many or even most Hungarians caught up in the Revolution did come to believe that the West would support them, one way or another, and Western radio broadcasts encouraged them in that belief. This perception is discussed further below. But that was not because of the content of one RFE program, which arguably had little impact. And, as noted, no program advocated continued military resistance. Hungarian listeners may have drawn encouragement from RFE broadcasts both to keep fighting and to expect Western aid – but these were actions the programs themselves neither advocated nor promised.
3) Catalyst of Soviet Suppression?
This charge requires little discussion.39 RFE figures marginally, if at all, in the ample archival documentation on Soviet decision-making in 1956.40 Khrushchev and the Soviet Politburo rationally foresaw the consequences for the Soviet Bloc if the Hungarian Revolution were to succeed and, however reluctantly, used military force to defeat it. They received ample reporting directly from Foreign Ministry, KGB, and military command representatives in Hungary, and special representatives sent from Moscow, about the reemerging multi-Party system and Hungarian determination to leave the Warsaw Pact. They did not need RFE broadcasts as status reports or evidence of Western anti-Communism.
4) Undermining Imre Nagy and Fostering Radicalism?
This critique (two separate but interrelated charges) goes to the heart of RFE’s mission and performance during the Hungarian Revolution. RFE policy guidelines for treatment of Imre Nagy written in New York and Munich embodied skepticism about and generally directed a “wait and see” attitude toward Nagy, as they generally did about the Polish leader Wladyslaw Gomulka. New York Daily Guidance of October 23 drew parallels between Nagy and Gomulka. Daily Guidance of October 24 said “The fact that Nagy called upon foreign troops to restore ‘order’ [which was not the case, but was believed by all observers at the time] is a fact he will have to live down. He will live it down by keeping his promises [for reform].” An FEC guidance of October 28 stated that it was up to the Hungarian revolutionary groups to decide on their leaders: “Radio Free Europe will avoid to the utmost extent any explicit or implicit support of individual personalities in a temporary government – especially of communist personalities such as Imre Nagy or Kadar… It will be for the patriot groups (many of whom seem to believe that Imre Nagy can and will further their wishes) to decide whether any individual should stay or go, under developing conditions.”41 RFE Munich agreed in a teletype response: “Concur entirely RFE avoiding support individual personalities.” 42
RFE Hungarian commentaries, by and large, did not observe these guidelines (which implied but admittedly could have more explicitly cautioned against undue criticism as well as support).
There was a role for sober critical analysis of Nagy’s past record, sources of current support, and choices ahead. Instead, many RFE Hungarian commentaries were blanket condemnations of Nagy, sometimes in personal, emotional, and vituperative tones.43 RFE’s New York Headquarters first registered concern about the anti-Nagy commentaries and communicated this concern to Munich on November 2.44
While RFE Hungarian broadcasts are properly faulted for their derogatory treatment of Imre Nagy, they cannot be faulted – as a number of sources have done45 – for advocating Cardinal Mindszenty as an alternative political leader. Several programs written and aired by the Hungarian Service’s staff priest called for Cardinal Mindszenty’s release from prison “to be permitted to return to Esztergom in order to take over there the governance of the Hungarian Catholic Church.”46 Another commentary welcomed emotionally his release from prison on October 31: “Hungary … expressed the demand, ‘Free Mindszenty and put him back in his lawful position as Primate.’”47 While RFE commentaries urged and then welcomed Mindszenty’s release from prison, and celebrated his moral authority (as did RFE Polish broadcasts with regard to Cardinal Wyszynski), no RFE broadcast treated Mindszenty as a political alternative to Nagy.
RFE Hungarian broadcasts also included treatment of Nagy in unedited rebroadcast of reports and commentaries of the “ Freedom Radios” (local regime radio stations taken over by the insurgents) around Hungary. Some of these local radios also carried reviews of the many newly established independent newspapers around the country. These independent radio and newspaper accounts included a variety of views on Nagy, both supportive and critical. They generally became more critical of Nagy’s leadership in late October (before he clearly distanced himself from the October 24 crackdown and included non-Communists in his government), shifting to full support for him on November 1 when he promised free elections and international neutrality. 48
RFE’s treatment of Imre Nagy in its Hungarian broadcasts is explained in part by the fact that there was almost no independent information from Hungary during the first days of the Revolution, when international communications were blocked. RFE (as others in the West) labored under the misconception spread by Communist Party chief Gero that Nagy shared responsibility for the initial decision to “request” Soviet military assistance against the rebels and impose martial law. It was only on October 28 that Nagy acknowledged that the uprising was “a broad democratic mass movement” and not a “counterrevolution.” It was only on October 30 that he endorsed a return to a multi-Party political system and made clear that the imposition of martial law and initial call for Soviet troops had been taken without his knowledge. These circumstances notwithstanding, the many derogatory and vituperative RFE Hungarian broadcasts about Nagy cannot be justified by any standard. They deviated from both U.S. Government policies at the time (as discussed below) and from written RFE policy guidances. These broadcasts should not have been aired.
On the other hand, it is difficult to accept the argument of Charles Gati, Jan Nowak, and others49 that in October 1956 RFE should have backed Nagy, as it did implicitly at a critical juncture with Gomulka in Poland.50 or, even more ambitiously, actively promoted a national, reformist, but still Communist “Nagyism.” Simply stated, Hungary was not Poland. In Poland in October 1956 power resided in Party and government offices, with the levers of Communist power intact and the danger of future mass protests and future armed conflict between Soviet and Polish military units the backdrop for the confrontation between the Soviet and Polish Party leaderships that resulted in Soviet acceptance of Gomulka. In Hungary, in contrast, an insurgency had begun, the Soviet army and Hungarian Communist forces had already killed hundreds, the institutions of repression and control were crumbling, and power was shifting to the streets.
In short, a national anti-Communist and anti-Soviet revolution was underway.
Let us imagine a different Hungarian scenario, a “Polish” scenario. A peaceful student protest in Miskolc is broken up by the AVH (internal security forces) and tens of students are killed. Responding to ferment outside and within the Party, Nagy replaces Gero as Communist Party chief and purges the leadership of the worst Stalinists. He gains control of the internal security apparatus while acknowledging the legitimate reform demands of students and others, so long as Communist Party rule is not threatened. He quickly releases Cardinal Mindszenty from prison. He vows to defend Hungarian national interests, while urging all Hungarians to acknowledge the geopolitical reality of Soviet influence, including continued membership in the Warsaw Pact. In such a scenario, RFE’s Hungarian Service would have done well to broadcast commentary along the lines of Polish Service director Jan Nowak’s 1956 commentaries:
Incidents like [the Poznan revolt in June 1956] play into the hands of …[the] Stalinist clique, who want the return of terror and oppression. The struggle for freedom must end in victory, for no regime based on repression can last. But in that struggle prudence is necessary. And therefore in the name of the ardent desire, common to us all, for Poland’s freedom, we must call on the people to preserve calm and refrain from acts of despair. (June 29)
The Communist program will never be our Polish program … [but] whoever acts to defend the independence of his country will have the support of the entire society, without regard to his political outlook or party affiliation. (October 23).
Poland remains in the Soviet embrace … Russia with its enormous military might is near, and the United States is too far away to effectively protect Poland from Soviet attack. (November 9)51
But of course Hungarian developments took a different, accelerated, and more violent turn. Nagy was not Gomulka. He was often indecisive. He issued contradictory statements, initially condemning insurgents and justifying the Soviet intervention, and then saying the opposite. 52 He was not Communist Party chief but prime minister with uncertain powers. He could not oppose Soviet intervention; it had already occurred. He could not avert violence; it was increasing daily. He could not win support by endorsing limited in-system reform; popular demands for decollectivization of agriculture, reestablishment of non-Communist parties, and free elections were escalating. Under these circumstances, RFE’s proper role was not to condemn or endorse Nagy (or Nagyism), but rather to report the range of domestic and international opinion about him and refrain from original commentary.53
RFE’s coverage of Imre Nagy in its Hungarian broadcasts is closely linked with its broadcast treatment of radical political (meaning anti-Communist) demands by Hungarian insurgents. RFE could hardly ignore these demands, just as it could not ignore the calls of the Poznan demonstrators in June for freedoms as well as bread. RFE relayed (with explicit U.S. Government authorization, discussed below) reports of the many, now non-Communist domestic radios that conveyed demands for radical political change on the part of the non-Communist revolutionary councils and other independent organizations and media that mushroomed around Hungary after October 23.54 One such RFE program of November 1 carried (by then non-Communist) Radio Budapest and Radio Gyor reports on the newly-formed National Council of Transdanubia’s decision to support continued labor strikes, a report from Radio Szombathely on the local Bishop’s prayers for fallen Freedom Fighters, and additional reports from Radio Budapest on popular demands for withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact, purge of Communist leaders from the Smallholders’ Party, and peasant demands for economic and political freedoms.55 Judging by a sample of several of these rebroadcasts (all of which were re-voiced, not the replay of the original sound), RFE limited itself to relaying the substantive information they contained without undue emotion or third-party editorial comment. For example, RFE reported the 18-point demand of Miskolc students issued over Radio Free Miskolc on October 26. 56
Once the Revolution began, RFE policy officials foresaw – like the leading Hungarian insurgents - the consolidation of a post-Communist system that would be tolerated by the Soviet Union. The FEC New York guidance of October 28 previously cited (PREB 15) defined RFE’s task as associating itself with the far-reaching demands of the “patriot groups” in order to promote democratic freedoms and avoid a Communist counterrevolution. By October 31, policy advisor Griffith saw as likely (albeit not inevitable) continued withdrawal of Soviet forces and “establishment [of a] western-type democracy, with Hungary either neutral like Austria (or at worst, from our viewpoint) a Finnish-type solution. [The] Nagy “government” [is] surely more and more in [the] hands of [the] Revolutionary Council, which must have the real power in its hands by now.”57 By that early date, RFE Munich management raised the possibility that, once free elections were held and a free government established, the “essential mission of RFE in respect to Hungary will be completed.”58
RFE Hungarian broadcasts both improperly denigrated Imre Nagy and properly reported the far-reaching demands from newly formed independent groups and independent media around the country for basic freedoms and democratic change. Given the nature and pace of the Revolution, it is difficult to imagine that an opposite approach on either count – active support of Nagy and active downplaying of popular demands for system change --could have significantly increased the chances of the emergence of a reform Communist “Nagyism.” It was not, in any case, RFE’s function to do either.
5) Bad Journalism?
By all accounts, both contemporaneous reviews and current sampling, the quality of many – but certainly not most -- RFE Hungarian broadcasts was poor. The December 1956 internal RFE policy review found many good programs; 171 of 308 programs were rated excellent or good. But the remainder were rated mediocre or worse, and Griffith concluded that the bad and mediocre programs overshadowed the many outstandingly good ones. (It is an open question how these proportions would compare with review of other RFE broadcast services except the Polish Service, and of VOA and BBC, in the same period.) The top-of-the-hour newscasts (always a mainstay of programming, and not examined in any of the post-mortems) were (judging by a few that I have sampled) dispassionate, objective, and professionally competent by any standard.59 Field correspondent reports from European capitals and the United States were factual. It was the series of political commentaries that all too often failed to meet minimum journalistic standards, since they included far too much emotion, preaching, unsubstantiated opinion, condescension, vituperation, and tactical advice. These failings characterized most of the programs graded as “D” or “F” in the December 1956 Griffith review. Additionally, as noted above, four programs egregiously disregarded policy guidelines by offering tactical military advice (3)60 and suggesting Western assistance (1).
Perhaps the worst aspect of RFE Hungarian programming during this period was periodic anonymous exhortations injected into the broadcasts, such as “Safeguard Revolutionary Unity!” and “With Murderers There is No Peace. Repeal Martial Law Immediately!”
RFE Hungarian programs improved in November. Broadcasters who had aired overly emotional and prescriptive commentaries during the heady days prior to November 4 now broadcast perfectly acceptable programs (as they had prior to October 23). An example is Laszlo Bery’s November 20 commentary on deportations of prominent revolutionaries and UN and Red Cross activities to assist Hungary. After the Revolution was crushed, RFE began a daily series of special programs devoted to personal messages from refugees to relatives back in Hungary reporting (with first names or pseudonyms) their safe arrival in the West.61 Some 200,000 messages of this kind were broadcast to relatives back in Hungary, a major public service.
If RFE Hungarian broadcasts were the most problematical of the RFE programs in 1956, RFE Polish broadcasts received the most praise. An internal review concluded, after examining 200 program texts in translation and another 55 in the original: “Programs show constant evidence of skillful, imaginative, and effective policy implementation. The Voice of Free Poland responded to the crisis with discipline, reserve, and a soundly intelligent approach that reflects the highest credit on the desk as a whole. “62 Looking back at 1956 with the hindsight of thirty years, Griffith found the overall tone of the Hungarian broadcasts to have been “insufficiently professional, too emotional, and too didactic. They transgressed against the overriding importance of objectivity and therefore of credibility.”63
The performance of the RFE Polish Service in October 1956 indicated that RFE as an organization understood and was capable of producing responsible, unemotional, high-quality broadcasts. But it failed to do this in the Hungarian case, admittedly a far greater challenge, and that failure was an important negative lesson for the future.
6) A Rogue Broadcaster?
Were the RFE broadcasts to Hungary in 1956 in conformity with or at odds with U.S. policy at the time? The answer requires examination of U.S. Government policy discussions, only some of which are accessible. Available documents published in the Department of State Foreign Relations of the United States series indicate that the USG, like RFE and everyone else, did not anticipate the outbreak of revolution in Hungary. Once the Revolution started, the USG soon became preoccupied with the British/French/Israeli attack on Egypt. It realized it had few instruments at its disposal to try to affect the course of events other than RFE. While suspicious of Imre Nagy, it refrained (as stated in a State Department circular telegram on October 30) from adopting an official position on him one way or another in what was seen to be an unclear and ambiguous situation.64 Hence the extreme negativism about Nagy in the RFE Hungarian broadcasts cannot be attributed (as Katona and Vamos, for example, do) to USG direction.65
Viewing the insurgents as authentic representatives of the Hungarian people, the USG explicitly authorized RFE to serve as a “communications center” for the emerging independent media in Hungary and rebroadcast reports of the often radical “Freedom Radios” around Hungary. This was one policy agreed at an inter-agency Special Committee chaired by Jacob Beam of the State Department that met throughout most of 1956.66 It was only after the Hungarian Revolution was crushed that this policy became a subject of contention within the USG. Undersecretary of State Murphy then questioned RFE’s rebroadcasting of the rebel broadcasts and Beam raised similar objections on November 13, while CIA International Organizations Division head Cord Meyer (responsible within CIA for the Radios) cited prior USG approval. CIA Director Allen Dulles defended RFE’s broadcasts at a meeting of the inter-agency Operations Coordination Board on November 21.67
The available record of USG deliberations in October-November 1956 indicates that, however one judges U.S. policy at the time, RFE’s written policy guidances conformed to that policy, while many Hungarian broadcasts did not. There was a breakdown of control, but it was not between the USG and RFE, but rather within RFE itself. Internal friction began while the Revolution was underway. RFE Director Egan (in New York), following up his communications on the treatment of Nagy the previous day cited above, conveyed on November 3 to RFE European Director Condon criticism of the Hungarian broadcasts for “serious if not flagrant violations” of policy and directed pre-broadcast review of programming by the American management and limitation of commentary.68 The Munich management defended its approach, while granting that a few inadvisable programs had been broadcast, in a letter from Condon to Egan dated November 5. Egan’s strong language notwithstanding, the four programs previously cited and treatment of Nagy were the only real departures from specific policy guidances at this point, although the emotionalism and vituperation of many commentaries were at odds with overall RFE broadcasting policy and standards.
The breakdown of control within RFE had many causes: a new FEC President, retired General Crittenberger, who assumed office on the eve of the Revolution; longstanding bureaucratic conflict between the FEC and RFE New York, on one hand, and RFE Munich on the other;69 divided responsibilities between the policy and program departments in Munich (the program department hired and fired the Hungarian and all other broadcasters); insufficient discussion between the American policy staff and the Hungarian broadcasting management of key programs prior to broadcast;70 and poor internal organization of the Hungarian Service.
The breakdown of control also involved personnel failures, specifically a Hungarian Service director, Andor Gellert, who performed poorly (a problem exacerbated by his illness)71 and a Hungarian broadcast staff that was on balance more “rightist” than opinion in Hungary, demoralized to some extent by recent history (Hungary was truncated after World War I and an Axis-allied power in World War II), and lacking the discipline engendered by past military resistance. This was in contrast to the Polish Service staff, no less anti-Communist but more in tune with local conditions, veterans of the protracted Warsaw Uprising, and able to maintain discipline in a crisis. Perhaps the fatal flaw was that Gellert’s deputies performed abysmally; the worst programs – those that were overly emotional, offering tactical advice, vituperative --were written by the senior editors of the Service, whose job should have been to set a model of good programming and require it from others. These senior editors were not primitive propagandists. In normal circumstances, they were capable of airing good programs. For example, Laszlo Berry and Imre Mikes, whose programs were rated in the December 1956 Griffith review as the poorest of all (with an average grade of D+) wrote good commentaries both before and after the Revolution. They were evidently overcome by emotion and unrealistic expectations with the unexpected outbreak and violent turn of the Revolution. This may help explain their poor performance; but it does not excuse it.
To be sure, under the very best of circumstances, the RFE Hungarian Service would have faced an enormous challenge in 1956. Outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution surprised everyone, not least everyone at RFE. Gyula Borbandi (at the time a young broadcaster; later deputy director) recalled that the Hungarian Service was unprepared, stunned, excited, lacking in supervision because of Director Gellert’s illness, and overwhelmed by the quantity of information pouring in.72 The fact remains that, as an internal review concluded: “The chain of command within the [Hungarian] Desk broke down, and discipline was not enforced.”73 RFE Munich leadership acknowledged problems with the Hungarian Service later in November, noting that while the Hungarian revolution was generally “leftist,” RFE Hungarian broadcasters were generally “‘rightist’ in political orientation and they tended over the years to become more and more shrill, emotional and over general in tone, to an extent where we have for some time felt that rather drastic measures are needed to de-emotionalize their scripts. ”74
In retrospect, it is clear that the American management at RFE Munich devoted insufficient attention to the content of the Hungarian broadcasts in the crisis period, in part because it assumed a common understanding of broadcast policy from and expected discipline within the Hungarian Service (both of which, unlike the Polish Service, did not exist) and because it lacked the monitoring, linguistic, and translation capabilities necessary for critical pre-broadcast discussion, real-time broadcast monitoring, and speedy post-broadcast review. Some existing capabilities were diverted to providing New York and Washington with translations of the extensive broadcasts of the Hungarian Freedom Radios.75 Some of its attention was diverted by what seem in retrospect to have been secondary concerns. 76
There was an alternative model. Radio Liberty Russian broadcasts during this period (some directed specifically to Soviet forces in Hungary) were much more tightly controlled and restrained. RL President Howland Sargeant, based in New York, directed early in the crisis that the RL broadcasts limit themselves to news reporting and abstain from rebroadcasting both opinion pieces from international media and especially original commentary. RL broadcasters and American management in Munich strongly resented these limitations, but adhered to them while arguing for their relaxation.77
In early 1957 the Hungarian Service was reorganized. A new director, Istvan Bede, replaced Gellert (who moved to the New York office) and a new deputy director, Karoly Andras, replaced Viktor Matjas, who was terminated, along with twelve other staff members, including Zoltan Thury (responsible for the November 4 Observer broadcast). Imre Mikes’s commentaries were suspended until mid-1957. The new Hungarian Service team proved to be effective professional broadcasters in the 1960s and beyond. Most FEC and RFE management also changed; by the end of 1958, Crittenberger, Egan, Condon, Griffith, Henze, and others were gone. Their immediate successors were less knowledgeable about Eastern Europe and less capable managers, a deficit overcome only in the early 1960s with the appointments of John Richardson as FEC President, Rodney Smith as RFE Director, and Richard Burks and then Ralph Walter as RFE Policy Directors.
RFE Hungarian broadcasts departed from U.S. Government and RFE policy and standards in their emotional commentaries, their negative treatment of Imre Nagy, and their clear violation of policy in four programs on tactical military advice and promise of Western assistance. These failures were the primary responsibility of the Hungarian Service director and his senior staff, who enjoyed great autonomy and trust in the RFE structure and were assumed to be the best judges, within overall RFE policy, of what was and was not responsible and effective broadcasting. These failures were ultimately the responsibility of the American FEC and RFE management as a whole that had hired the Hungarian Service directorate and failed to monitor closely enough and then stop its faulty broadcasts.
The Dilemma of Crisis Influence
An RFE-commissioned survey of one thousand Hungarian refugees in Austria published in February 1957 concluded that foreign radio had been their major source of information during the Revolution on both domestic and foreign developments. Ninety percent had listened to foreign radio, and of these, 81 percent listened to RFE frequently and 67 percent listened to both VOA and BBC frequently. Radio Vienna, RIAS, and Radio Vatican also had significant listenerships.78 A separate survey of Hungarian refugees by the Austrian Institut fuer Markt-und Meinungsforschung found that 72 percent of interviewed refugees listened to Western radio daily, with the highest percentage tuning in to RFE.79 Anecdotal evidence of listening to RFE in Hungary abounds.
RFE unquestionably had large audiences in Hungary during the 1956 Revolution. It also had great impact. But that impact is often exaggerated and mischaracterized. Many foreign stations broadcast in Hungarian, and even after radio jamming (temporarily) ended on October 24, listeners sometimes could not determine which station they heard. In the aftermath of the crushed revolution, feelings of collective Western guilt developed, along with a search for scapegoats. Western journalists in Hungary focused disproportionably on RFE to the exclusion of other stations; the reports and later book of Leslie Bain80 were perhaps most influential in this context. All the Western broadcasters shared in some proportion the credit or blame for the impact of the broadcasts in 1956.81
It has been argued above that RFE’s (negative) impact during the Revolution, in terms of the influence of the content of the few most-cited programs that were clear policy violations, has been greatly exaggerated. RFE Hungarian broadcasts nonetheless evidently contributed to the belief among Hungarians that, one way or another, the West would support them in securing a triumph of the Revolution. The RFE-commissioned survey of refugees in Austria indicated that half the respondents thought that American broadcasts had given the impression that the United States was willing to fight to save Hungary. That was not because of the explicit content of programs; as noted, only one program during the critical month could be interpreted as explicitly suggesting Western assistance. It was rather because RFE projected to Hungary the sympathy and moral and humanitarian support of the entire Western world for the Hungarian cause. If this is judged to have been counterproductive, causing Hungarian listeners to over-interpret the messages and overestimate Western support, then the problem with the 1956 RFE Hungarian programs was not primarily with the bad programs (those contrary to policy or overly emotional). The problem was, rather, with the good programs (of which there were many).
After the Soviet crushing of the revolution, Western journalists, State Department officials, and several émigré interview projects reported a variety of views about RFE held by Hungarian émigrés, including criticism of the RFE Hungarian broadcasts from Hungarians prominent in the revolution.82 Hungarians were understandably encouraged and emboldened by the broadcast of Western press reviews and correspondent reports that conveyed accurately the widespread sympathy – as much in Western Europe as in the United States – for their cause. The Hungarian Service broadcast the passages of the Republican and Democratic Party election platforms, a Senate Resolution, and the remarks of American politicians across the political spectrum supporting eventual freedom of the captive peoples. These sentiments were by no means confined to the United States. On the eve of the Revolution, RFE reported from Strasbourg on Council of Europe discussions about the “captive nations,” concluding with the words of Chairman De la Pussin from Belgium: “Today we are only speaking, but tomorrow we will have to act. History is marching along at increased speed. The rigidity of the Soviet system is not the same as before. Let the unity and determined attitude of the West be the answer. Only thus can we solve the essence of the question: the problem of the united, indivisible, and free Europe.”83
And after October 23, RFE reported the outpouring of support for the cause of the Revolution across the political spectrum in Western Europe as well as in the United States, including the non-Communist European Left. Press reviews ranged from Observatore Romano to the Daily Worker in London and New York. Correspondent reports covered demonstrations and relief efforts around the world. For example, an RFE Hungarian broadcast on October 29 included correspondent reports on solidarity with Hungary at “an enormous New York manifestation in favor of the Hungarian cause [outside the UN],” on a demonstration of five thousand in Cleveland which proclaimed “Long Live Hungary! Help for the Hungarian People,” and on a statement of the Social Democratic Party of Sweden proclaiming that “in a country whose people wish to live in freedom, all attempts to perpetuate the rule of oppressors over small nations must remain unsuccessful.”84 Another correspondent report from Vienna described the relief efforts of the International Red Cross, collection of food and medicine in Dublin, the arrival in Vienna of food, clothing, and blood from the Finnish Red Cross, and the donations of food, clothing, and blood in West Berlin and Munich.85 Hungarians could be further encouraged by RFE reports (which were dispassionate and noted Soviet objections, although perhaps not often enough) on Western diplomatic efforts on their behalf, such as U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge’s appeals at the United Nations beginning on October 29 first to forestall Soviet suppression of the uprising and then to legitimize the Nagy government.86
It is this international reporting, all good journalism, that poses the dilemma of undue influence.
As George Urban wrote: “Supposing. that Radio Free Europe had confined itself to bland observations through the period – the perceptions in the minds of listeners would still not have been very different. Given Radio Free Europe’s mandate – and a similar mentality which informed the broadcasts of the Central European Service of the BBC – a ‘positional’ kind of incitement was inevitable. Surrogate broadcasting from Munich and BBC broadcasting in the languages of Central and Eastern Europe from London were a form of encouragement simply because they, and the sentiments they reflected, existed.” 87 The same applied to the Voice of America.
Listening to the emotional personal commentaries of Hungarian broadcasters, the Hungarian audience could think they heard the voice of the West.88 Listening to objective reports of declarations of moral and economic support in the 1956 U.S. electoral campaign and declarations and demonstrations of support and relief efforts around the world after October 23, the Hungarian audience heard widespread support for their cause. Knowing that RFE broadcast almost around the clock in Hungarian and viewing it – program content totally aside – as an authoritative voice from the United States, the Hungarian audience could easily conclude that, somehow, Hungary would not be abandoned by the West to a Soviet fate.
This then is the dilemma – relevant today, just as in 1956 – of an external communicator who accurately conveys news and information into a crisis region but risks its misinterpretation by the audience as signifying outside support for a particular cause when that is not the case. Responsible journalism can become inadvertent incitement. It was not specific promises or advocacy by RFE Hungarian broadcasters, but rather the emotional tone of some commentaries, the accurate reporting of Western solidarity with the Hungarian cause, and the very existence of RFE that evidently led many Hungarians to the conclusion that the United States supported the Revolution (which was true) and would not let it fail (which was false). This is testimony to the exaggerated influence that RFE came to assume in Hungary – exaggerated because it vastly overrated RFE’s authority and ability to affect the course of events and encouraged illusions of Western support of the Hungarian insurgents that was never in prospect.