After decades of relative peace, the world suddenly finds itself on the edge of global war and nuclear conflict. In Europe, the war in Ukraine has rapidly evolved into a proxy war between Russia and the United States, with Moscow making reckless nuclear threats, NATO powers and the U.S., particularly, getting militarily involved in ways previously considered unthinkable, and fears of fighting spilling over into next-door NATO states. In Asia, U.S. policymakers are already laying the groundwork for a similarly fraught confrontation with China, another nuclear power.
As world powers push deeper and deeper into these treacherous waters, there’s little to no debate about Western policy choices. The current strategy of pursuing everything short of a shooting war—and maybe even a shooting war, if it comes to that—is all but consensus, as political figures and commentators urge us to put aside fear of large-scale conflict and nuclear annihilation for the sake of military victory.
As we find ourselves grappling again with dilemmas and risks we thought we’d left behind in the Cold War, it pays to look at what we can learn from how U.S. leadership responded to similar events at the height of that conflict. In 1956, when the world was barely more than a decade removed from the devastation of World War Two and the atomic bombing of Japan, Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower was faced with not one, but three international crises—and in the middle of a re-election campaign no less. Declassification and hindsight means we now have an unprecedented understanding of the administration’s thinking as the crisis unfolded.
In a world where global war and nuclear destruction weren’t abstract concepts, but very real and recent calamities, Western policymakers responded to the Soviet invasion of Hungary with a caution (some would say excessive) that seems unthinkable today. Perhaps most importantly, their actions and decisions were forged in the heat of a debate that was far more robust and open than in our own political climate—at the tail end of the McCarthyite Red Scare no less, a time when showing restraint toward the Soviets could practically cause one to be accused of treason. The episode is a powerful illustration of how radically our discourse has shifted decades out from the end of the Cold War.
Avoiding World War III
Today, concerns about direct conflict between the two nuclear superpowers go almost entirely unmentioned, or are even explicitly waved away. In 1956, worries about military, and potentially nuclear, escalation were central.
By 1956, the Cold War was in full swing, and Europe was divided by an Iron Curtain. NATO and its allies stood ready in the West to defend against any future Soviet incursion into their sphere, while the Soviet Union and its allies in the Warsaw Pact did the same in the east. Under Eisenhower, a former general who had led the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe, U.S. policy aimed at “keeping the pot boiling” in Eastern Europe—by covertly encouraging unrest and even underground resistance—but not to let it “boil over” into outright war.
But the temperature was raised when two of the Soviet Union’s satellites rebelled. First, Poland saw a mass worker uprising from June onward that year over political and economic conditions, which, after a standoff that nearly resulted in Soviet military intervention, ultimately ended in compromise and concessions.
Come October 23, thousands of protesters poured into the streets of Hungary, demanding democratic freedoms and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from their country. Days of fierce fighting brought reformist communist Imre Nagy to power. He secured the removal of Soviet forces, freed political prisoners, and pledged the establishment of free elections and political freedoms. When Nagy acceded to popular sentiment and announced Hungary’s exit from the Warsaw Pact as well, Soviet leadership, after days of dithering, this time redeployed its military on November 4 and crushed the revolution.
We now know, thanks to a 2012 draft study prepared for the historical office of the secretary of defense, that the decision-making of U.S. and other Western officials throughout these crises was driven by the desire to avoid another world war. Eisenhower, thinking of Adolf Hitler’s actions in the face of defeat in an earlier era, feared that Soviet leadership, “in view of the serious deterioration of their position in the satellites, might … resort to very serious measures and even to precipitate global war.”
Other officials were similarly cautious. The Joint Chiefs discussed the risk that “serious defeat by the Soviets could conceivably result in precipitous action on their part.” Defense Secretary Charles Wilson similarly ruled out military intervention to the press, expressing the hope that things would be solved, as “many times they are, by men of good will … work[ing] something out that is just and fair.”
It’s a far cry from the rhetoric of today’s political columnists, who call for the total defeat of and “humiliation” of Russia in Ukraine, while warning that “a face-saving compromise will only enable future aggression.”
When a reporter asked John Foster Dulles if Washington would simply “sit back” and do nothing if the Soviets intervened in Poland, the secretary of state replied that sending in U.S. troops “would be the last thing in the world” that protesters would want, because it “would precipitate full-scale world war, and the probable results of that would be all these people would be wiped out.” Richard Davis of the state department’s policy planning staff produced a paper warning that U.S. intervention, multilateral or not, would lead to “a major crisis with the Soviet Union and possibly the outbreak of general war.”
U.S. allies also feared provoking a bloodbath against the rebels. Canada’s secretary of state for external affairs warned that Western intervention could hurt the Poles and Hungarians “by provoking a cruel and powerful reaction” from the Soviets, “using the excuse of foreign threats or interference from our side.” Despite the UK prime minister’s “sympathy and admiration” for the Hungarian rebels, British officials told the press that direct Western intervention “would certainly lead to harsher punitive measures” by the Soviet Union, and “could also lead to war.” The British foreign office feared that even so much as raising the issue in the UN security council would “encourage the Hungarians to needless self-slaughter” and the Soviets “to be rougher and tougher than they already are.”
A similar feeling prevailed in NATO. One general recalled discussions about “what the hell can we do if we decide to do something … But there was nothing useful or constructive that could be done.” NATO officials decided to kick the ball to the UN, urging that “care should be taken to avoid action or declarations which would give the Russians a pretext for even more violent intervention.” Looking back at the alliance’s response, one scholar would joke its name stood for “No Action, Talk Only.”
Western officials in hindsight were, if anything, too careful, reluctant to even grant the rebels overt political backing or raise the issue in the Security Council lest it provoke a massacre or worse. But their erring on the side of caution reflected their deep concerns about a wider war and nuclear devastation.
The Response Debate
With these concerns in mind, Western officials searched for a response.
The prospect of sending weapons wasn’t seriously considered in the Pentagon, despite requests from the Hungarian rebels. The National Security Council’s planning board rejected proposals to covertly aid the rebels, to redeploy forces to send Moscow a warning, and to try and move to peel Albania and Czechoslovakia from the Eastern Bloc. While U.S. forces in Europe were put on alert, there was no military build-up, nor any major troop movements or threatening maneuvers.
This feeling was shared in Europe. U.S., British, and French officials all moved quickly in a specially called North Atlantic Council meeting to rule out military action. Even West German chancellor Konrad Adenauer and his ministers, who were frustrated with Washington’s hesitance to back the Hungarian rebels, only wanted “the strongest possible United States political backing,” fearing that military intervention could lead to a world war.
Washington made its aversion to war clear to the Soviets. Harold Stassen, Eisenhower’s special assistant for disarmament matters, suggested getting a message to the Soviet defense minister making clear the intervention “would not impel the Western powers to make any warlike move against the Soviet Union.” He urged direct talks with the Kremlin to “confer immediately on the Hungarian situation” and “work out some solution”—but Dulles put the kibosh on the idea, arguing the revolution “was moving in a way that was favorable to United States policy.”
Still, in an October 27 speech, Dulles went out of his way to make clear Washington wouldn’t seek Poland or Hungary’s entry into NATO. The United States “had no ulterior purpose” in calling for their independence, he said, and didn’t “look upon these nations as potential military allies.” Later, during the final speech of his presidential campaign, Eisenhower did similar, condemning Soviet repression of the protesters while making clear the United States “abstained from use of force—knowing it to be contrary to both the interests of these peoples, and to the spirit and methods of the United Nations.”
Such careful public rhetoric seems a world away from the world of 2022, where top Western officials, including the U.S. president, have openly spoken about regime change and weakening Russia as strategic goals.
Not everyone in 1956 was on board with this non-militaristic approach. Ultrahawk CIA director Allen Dulles said privately that he was “not one of those who believes we should be hindered by Undue Caution.” One U.S. official, identified in the 2012 study as probably being CIA official Robert Amory, suggested using tactical nukes on Russian lines of communication, and giving the Soviets an ultimatum. Assistant secretary of defense Gordon Gray questioned whether the administration’s underlying philosophy of not antagonizing Moscow “should not be reconsidered,” to which the deputy secretary replied that Washington “cannot help unless we are willing to risk a full-scale atomic war.”
But for the most part these were minority views among officials. Even Republican officials who favored stronger action would only go so far as calling for sanctions on the Soviet Union or for the country’s expulsion from the UN.
Eisenhower’s carefulness came with significant political risks. Not only was the country still in the grip of a Red Scare, albeit one that was on the wane, but it was an election year—with a sizeable number of former Eastern Bloc voters up for grabs.
There was a public clamor for intervention as eyewitness reports about Soviet atrocities piled up. As he drove to a campaign rally in Madison Square Garden, Eisenhower was met by an entire block of demonstrators calling on him to step in.
Both he and Democratic rival Adlai Stevenson talked tough on foreign policy, but agreed more or less on a cautious approach in practice. Eisenhower never really followed through on the policy of “liberation” he’d campaigned on, privately pursuing it as more of a long term goal. Despite the tough talk of “rollback,” Eisenhower had balked three years earlier at the idea of militarily intervening in the East German uprising or even arming those protesters, largely abiding by the 1949 National Security Council policy paper that urged war with the Soviets to be “rejected as a practical alternative,” and “measures short of war” to be pursued instead.
Stevenson never pushed for anything substantively more aggressive, and instead, the two largely debated on the margins. Stevenson blamed Eisenhower for the fact that the Soviets re-invaded on November 4, and called on the president to organize UN peace observer teams to fly into Hungary. Eisenhower vowed to “do all within our peaceful power” to help those under Soviet domination, to strengthen U.S. military might, and to put up a bolder challenge to the Soviet Union, while attacking Democrats for wanting to ban nuclear weapons and end the draft.
Yet in spite of presiding over what would soon be three separate international crises—when on October 29, Britain, France, and Israel invaded Egypt to keep control of the Suez canal—the chaos may have helped Eisenhower. Speaking to voters across the country, the New York Times certainly found Americans disappointed that Eisenhower hadn’t brought the peace he’d promised. But most fretted about replacing a leader in the midst of war, especially an experienced military man. “I’m for Eisenhower,” one Detroiter said. “If we had Stevenson in as president, we’d be in a war in six months.”
With Eisenhower determined not to get into a wider war, the initial response turned to the United Nations Security Council. No one thought UN action alone would stop the Soviets, but it could be used to embarrass and put political pressure on the leadership, including through a multilateral investigation by neutral states. But this, too, was a delicate thing.
The allies intensely debated whether UN intervention would actually benefit the Hungarians, or invite a harsher crackdown. They worried about being accused of having ulterior motives or “conniving” with the rebels. Eisenhower also floated economic aid to the breakaway governments, in line with advice from Eastern European experts at state, who had reportedly concluded that “the prudent thing” was to “watch developments closely and keep quiet.” The White House refused to even agree to sending armed forces under UN auspices, but Eisenhower eventually sent in $20 million worth of food and medical supplies.
The administration’s hope was that, if the invasion could be stopped, Europe would have a new set of independent communist governments similar to Yugoslavia, keeping close ties to the Soviets, but charting their own course. They debated what inducements they could offer that would, combined with political pressure, bring about a Soviet withdrawal.
Dulles knew the Soviets must not be put in a position where they “could not retreat,” and looked for “a tolerable way for the Kremlin to pull back,” advised by diplomats this would only happen if the United States paid “a fair price at the proper moment.” Officials discussed offering to withdraw troops from continental Europe or closing bases in the UK and Spain. A working group at the U.S. embassy in Vienna recommended floating withdrawing forces in Italy, but the idea was never passed on to Washington.
One proposal in particular was floated by several voices: a neutral Hungary, with an explicit U.S. guarantee it wouldn’t join NATO in the future, in line with Finland and Austria. Davis urged the idea in his policy paper, as did NATO’s assistant secretary general for political affairs (and future NATO deputy secretary general) Alberico Casardi, who also suggested it be paired with the country’s demilitarization. So did Stassen, who advised Eisenhower that Soviet leadership “may calculate that if they lose control of Hungary, that country would be taken into NATO by the United States, and this would be a great threat in Soviet eyes to their own security.”
This also became the position of Nagy, whose team likewise came to reject military intervention, at least publicly. “I don’t want military assistance,” one of his cabinet members, visiting New York to ask for support, told the press. “I want no more bloodshed. I have seen so much during the past ten days.” After the Soviet invasion began, Nagy sent the UN security council a letter requesting “the great powers to recognize the neutrality of Hungary” and “instruct the Soviet and Hungarian governments to start the negotiations immediately.” U.S. officials never took up the idea and eight days later the fledgling revolution was crushed.
The 2012 study admonished the administration for what it called a “feeble” approach that left off the table several possible diplomatic trade-offs, dismissing one official’s claims that they had “considered every possible avenue of the solution” as flatly untrue. Fifty years on from the crisis, experts at a commemorative event held by the Council on Foreign Relations did much the same, putting forward several other ideas.
What if Washington had proposed leaving Hungary in the Warsaw Pact with Soviet troops withdrawn, while U.S. troops left NATO member Belgium? Or what if it had done what several had floated and promised “Finlandization” for Hungary?
This kind of conversation is largely absent today. While Eisenhower came under fire at the time and since for failing to put neutrality on the table, discourse has shifted drastically in the present day. Now, the suggestion to rectify Eisenhower’s mistake by offering Ukrainian neutrality as a diplomatic trade-off is the idea most likely to meet criticism: Before the war in Ukraine, the NATO-funded Atlantic Council dismissed Ukrainian neutrality as a form of appeasement that would only “lead to new crises and further wars.” Since the war, various commentators have labeled it as an unacceptable and unattainable “surrender.”
In any case, the international response to the 1956 crisis was fatally undermined by the invasion of Egypt, distracting international attention from the Hungarian invasion, and damaging the Western allies’ moral authority to condemn and resolve it. A furious Eisenhower was forced to work with the Soviet Union to defuse the Suez crisis, where Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s militaristic approach to defending Egypt very nearly spilled out into nuclear war—but that’s another story.
The outcome was not pretty for Hungary. Twenty-six-hundred Hungarians were killed and 200,000 would flee the country, while Nagy and the other leaders of the revolution were arrested and executed. We’ll never know if a bolder set of diplomatic offers might have averted this outcome because they were never tried; as a result, the Hungarian revolt ended in a bloody clampdown instead.
What the Eisenhower administration did do was avoid a wider war, in line with both the president’s concerns and the wider mood among NATO allies. “Its cautious response, in part because of the Suez crisis, managed to avert an East-West military clash whose consequences would likely have represented a far greater disaster than the snuffing out of a nascent Hungarian democracy,” states the 2012 study.
Needless to say, none of this makes the Eisenhower administration a paragon of restraint. During this crisis alone, the U.S government would be heavily criticized then and since for encouraging Hungarians to revolt while giving them false hope of Western backing, and Eisenhower was soon forced into a game of nuclear brinkmanship over the Suez when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev threatened an attack on Western Europe. Beyond this, Eisenhower had signed off on a policy directive endorsing everything up to the “‘elimination’ of key puppet officials” in Soviet-controlled Europe, and ended his presidency responsible for both the Bay of Pigs fiasco as well as several disastrous coups overseas.
Instead, what’s maybe most striking about the episode is how the thinking that guided Western decision-making over Hungary, and the limited, non-military responses they sought to end the Soviet invasion, has been turned into something extreme and unacceptable in our current political moment.
Suggesting an approach to the Russian invasion which is similar to the Republican Eisenhower’s cautious, war-averse approach of decades ago would currently be considered beyond the pale, even possibly treasonous. Washington and allies’ sensitivity during the conflict to the delicate European balance of power, and their concern around the optics of appearing to overtly meddle in an adversary’s sphere of influence, is today cast as reactionary. The offer of neutrality floated by many at the time as a solution is today considered surrender, or a denial of a smaller state’s agency. Eisenhower’s overriding concern about a possibly catastrophic nuclear war is dismissed as unimportant, as we’re told the world must be willing to risk global destruction.
Even more striking is that this shift has happened 30 years after the end of the Cold War, and decades after the McCarthyite Red Scare now widely viewed as one of the most shameful and dangerous episodes in American history. Eisenhower’s response in 1956 had serious flaws, most notably in his administration’s refusal to make more robust diplomatic trade-offs that could have averted the eventual massacre. But as the United States draws closer and closer to direct conflict with not one, but two, nuclear powers, we may well start to pine for the comparatively freer debate and foreign policy caution of one of the Cold War’s most dangerous crises.