The Hungarian Question in the U.N. Security Council: the secret negotiations of the Western Great Powers during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

Csaba Békés
Research Chair, Centre for Social Sciences, Institute for Political Science, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest, Hungary; Founding Director, Cold War History Research Center, Budapest, Hungary; Professor of History, Corvinus University of Budapest, Budapest, Hungary

The leaders of the Western great powers, the United States, Great Britain, and France – unlike their public opinion, which expressed vivid solidarity with the Hungarian Revolution from the beginning – were acutely aware of their extremely limited room to maneuver within the existing European status quo and reacted with great caution to the uprising in Hungary from its very beginning. Consequently, in most instances, they went so far as to give explicit public endorsement of the principle of nonintervention. Behind the Western response to the Hungarian Revolution was the realization that under the prevailing international political circumstances, any sort of Western military intervention in Hungary contained the implicit threat of a third world war with the Soviet Union, to be waged with thermonuclear weapons, which would likely first lead to the obliteration of the very Eastern European peoples which intervention was designed to liberate, and then of the rest of the world.[1]

It was at this time that the Eisenhower administration was confronted with the fact that, contrary to one of the predominant themes of the massive liberation propaganda it aimed at Eastern Europe since 1953, even the United States, the world's greatest military power, had extremely limited options regarding any sort of intervention within the Soviet sphere of influence. It was nonetheless very important for Washington to conceal this impotence in order to preserve its international prestige; therefore, the U.S. administration decided on October 25 that, in concert with its closest allies, it would initiate discussion in the United Nations (U.N.) on the subject of the Hungarian uprising.[2] The British and French initially expressed reluctance when U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proposed on October 26 that the three countries launch a joint initiative to convene a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.[3] With the Suez campaign having already been definitely decided upon, the British and French leadership was worried that if the question of Soviet intervention in Hungary were put on the agenda and discussed in the U.N., it might serve as a precedent for a similar procedure regarding the joint Israeli–British–French attack on Egypt which was to take place at the end of October. But since they had not informed the United States of their plans, they were forced to accede to American pressure and on October 27 the United States, Great Britain,[4] and France[5] submitted a joint request that the Security Council be convened to examine the situation in Hungary.

From this date until November 3, the representatives of these three Western great powers met continually behind the scenes in order to work out a U.N. strategy which all could agree on; the comportment of the United States, Britain, and France during the three Security Council sessions that dealt with the Hungarian question on October 28, November 2, and November 3 was completely planned in advance during these secret negotiations.[6]

In the days preceding the Israeli attack on Egypt, the U.N. representatives of the three Western great powers agreed that it was imperative to voice emphatic public condemnation of the Soviet intervention and that beyond this action they would employ a wait-and-see policy until the confused situation in Hungary became more transparent.[7] The consequence of this policy was that the three Western powers which had placed the Hungarian question on the agenda did not even introduce a draft resolution during the October 28 session of the Security Council. After the widening of the armed conflict in the Middle East with the engagement of Great Britain and France on October 31, the tenor of the negotiations among the Western great powers regarding Hungary changed completely. Eisenhower and Dulles, who had placed increasing importance on establishing good relations with the Arab world with the aim of expanding American influence in the Middle East, reacted furiously to the actions of their European allies. Not only did they publicly condemn the Suez action, but they also instructed the American U.N. representative to submit a draft proposal calling for the immediate cessation of all military operations in the Middle East, a motion that brought about a circumstance that had no precedent in the history of the U.N., with the representatives of the United States and the Soviet Union voting in concert against Great Britain and France.[8]

As a result of the sudden deterioration in relations between the Western great powers, subsequent discussions between them regarding the Hungarian question were conducted in an increasingly icy atmosphere in which the negotiating partners were not really interested in condemning, much less impeding Soviet intervention, but wanted rather to exploit the Hungarian crisis in the name of their own, in this case drastically conflicting, great power interests. Beginning at this time, the British and French undertook to get the Hungarian question moved from the Security Council to the first emergency session of the General Assembly (G.A.) – which had been convened to discuss the Suez crisis on October 31 – where they hoped that the simultaneous treatment of the two issues would lead to a mitigation of the censure they had been receiving. Transfer of the Hungarian question to the G.A. would have been of incidental benefit to the forces of change in Hungary, for in the G.A. there is no veto power, which left at least the theoretical possibility that the U.N. would pass a resolution having a positive influence on the outcome of events in Hungary. The sole objective of the American leadership, however, under the existing circumstances was to resolve the Middle Eastern crisis, which they did; therefore they did everything within their power to frustrate the aforementioned strategy of the British and French. Thus, until November 4 the Americans succeeded in preventing them from submitting a draft resolution concerning the Hungarian question in the Security Council and further blocked them from referring the question to the emergency session of the G.A. via the "uniting for peace" procedure.[9]

After the second Soviet intervention on November 4, the American U.N. representative, Henry Cabot Lodge, unilaterally implemented the former British–French strategy without asking for the cooperation of his European Security Council allies, with whom he had broken off negotiations regarding Hungary the previous day as a method of punishment for British and French actions in Suez. When the Security Council was subsequently convened upon the arrival of the news regarding renewed Soviet intervention on November 4, Lodge himself initiated a "uniting for peace" procedure that effectively circumvented the Soviet veto and referred the Hungarian question directly to the second emergency session of the G.A. On the afternoon of the very same day, a large majority of this body voted to adopt a draft resolution – likewise submitted unilaterally by the U.S. representative – which condemned the intervention of the Soviet Union, called for it to withdraw its troops from Hungary, and recognized the right of the Hungarian people to a government that would represent its national interests.[10]

At the same time, this resolution made not so much as a reference to Hungary's withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact and the recognition of Hungary's neutrality, declared on November 1, for which Hungarian Prime Minister Imre Nagy had so emphatically appealed in his messages to the U.N. secretary general on November 1 and 2.[11]

This is all the more interesting as the British and the French did support Hungary's neutrality from the outset,[12] hoping that an issue of such importance and an unprecedented move by a Soviet-bloc state would help transfer the Hungarian issue from the Security Council to the G.A. Neglecting this crucial issue in the U.N. G.A. resolution was due to the fact that for Washington, now acting unilaterally in the U.N. in the case of Hungary, the country's neutrality was unacceptable. While the concept of Hungarian neutrality engendered a good deal of support in the State Department, where it had already surfaced as a topic of discussion days before Nagy launched his appeals to the U.N., for the leading personalities of the American leadership this option was intolerable for different reasons. Dulles, who had sharp misgivings regarding the increasingly powerful nonaligned movement and was therefore generally ill-disposed toward the idea of neutrality, not surprisingly came out against the idea with regard to Hungary. He firmly believed that if, perchance, Hungary were to succeed in its struggle to free itself of Soviet domination, the United States should not rest satisfied with the country's neutrality when there existed the real possibility of incorporating it into the Western sphere of influence.[13] President Eisenhower himself sympathized with the idea of establishing a zone of neutral states in Central and Eastern Europe but he hoped to achieve this aim through negotiations with the Soviets in a framework of general reconstruction of East-West relationships. It is a paradox of history that, although the evolutionary views of Eisenhower and Imre Nagy on neutrality were very similar, the Hungarian decision made in an extraordinary situation simply could not be supported by Washington, taking into account real political considerations. Overtly supporting the unilateral radical move of the Hungarian government, that is, recognizing their neutrality, entailed the possible danger that the American government would take on an international responsibility that would be extremely difficult to cast off after the suppression of the Hungarian uprising, which was seemingly close at hand. However, it was even more important for Eisenhower that such a diplomatic move, due to the probably vehement Soviet reaction, would have seriously jeopardized the well-improving Soviet-American relations, and indirectly the whole détente process unfolding after 1953.

In the early hours of the morning of November 4, the United States nonetheless fervently condemned renewed Soviet intervention in Hungary – Eisenhower even sent a personal message of protest to Soviet Prime Minister Bulganin – and in this way succeeded in leading the world to believe that it had, from the very outset, played a constructive role in attempts to settle both the Suez and Hungarian crises.

The real clash of conflicting viewpoints in the U.N., contrary to earlier interpretations, took place not between the Western powers and the Soviet Union during meetings of the Security Council, where what was said on both sides was primarily for public consumption, but behind the scenes, in the course of secret negotiations between the representatives of the United States, Great Britain, and France. The result of the discord that arose in relations between the Western great powers over the Suez crisis was that the U.N. was unable to take firm steps toward the resolution of the Hungarian question at a time (November 1–3) when the circumstances in Hungary, such as Nagy's request for U.N. mediation, made such steps feasible.

One should not overestimate, however, the potential influence of any U.N. resolution by the Second Emergency Session of the General Assembly condemning Soviet intervention, a measure that remained a distinct possibility right up until November 3. The Soviet Union, in light of its status as a world superpower and the reassuring pledges it had received from the United States, was by no means disposed to let the moral authority of U.N. resolutions prevent it from intervening militarily, if necessary, to restore order in a country within its own sphere of influence.

The discord among the Western powers that came about as a result of the Middle Eastern conflict no doubt made things easier for the Soviets, though it is fairly certain that even without the Suez crisis they would have pursued a similar policy. To verify this statement, it is sufficient to examine the circumstances of the 1968 intervention in Czechoslovakia: at that time, the Western alliance's freedom of movement was not restricted by any internal conflict, yet the West still responded to the invasion aimed at rescuing the communist regime with the same passivity as in 1956. Moreover, we now know that U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who at the end of August 1968 condemned the intervention in Czechoslovakia in a high-sounding declaration for the public, barely a few weeks (!) later, in September, proposed a summit meeting with Brezhnev via diplomatic channels on Vietnam and the situation in the Middle East, as well as to discuss the issue of anti-missile systems.[14]

Therefore, Western passivity in 1956 was not caused by the Suez crisis, but by a limitation to its range of options in Eastern Europe implicit in the prevailing European status quo and the notion of spheres of influence. The Suez crisis simply served as a handy excuse, especially for the United States, in order to explain why, after years of liberation propaganda, it was not capable of extending even the smallest amount of support to an East European nation that had risen in arms in an attempt to liberate itself from Soviet domination.

[1] On the international context of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution see: Csaba Békés, The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and World Politics. Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C., September 1996. Working Paper No. 16.

[2] Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-57. Eastern Europe, vol. XXV (Washington D.C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1990 – henceforth: FRUS vol. XXV), 290–291.

[3] Public Record Office, London-Kew, Foreign Office, General Correspondence, 371 (henceforth: PRO, FO) 122378 NH 10110/188 Foreign Office minute, October 26, 1956; Documents diplomatiques français 1956. Tome III (24 octobre-31 decembre) (Paris: Ministere des Affaires Étrangeres, 1990, 1956), Tome III, 19.

[4] On British policy toward the Hungarian crisis see: Békés Csaba, 'A brit kormány és az 1956-os magyar forradalom' [‘The British Government and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution'], in Évkönyv, 1992, 1956-os Intézet [Yearbook, 1992, Institute for the History of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution] (Budapest), 19–38; see also: James Cable, 'Britain and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956', International Relations 9, no. 4 (1988): 317–333. For British documents produced during the revolution, see: Éva Haraszty-Taylor (ed.), The Hungarian Revolution of 1956. A Collection of of Documents from the British Foreign Office (Nottingham: Astra Press, 1995). This selection primarily includes reports sent by the British legation in Budapest to London, with the Foreign Office's comments, and thus with some exceptions do not touch on the deliberations at the U.N.

[5] On French policy toward the Hungarian Revolution see: Gusztáv D. Kecskés, ‘French Foreign policy and the 1956 Hungarian revolution', COJOURN (Corvinus Journal of International Affairs) 1, no. 3 (2016) at

[6] For the story of the secret talks of the three Western great powers on the Hungarian situation see: Csaba Békés, ‘The Hungarian Question on the UN agenda. British Foreign Office documents from 1956', The Hungarian Quarterly (Vol. 41. No. 157. Spring 2000): 103–122.

[7] See especially the following documents: Telegram by U.K. U.N. representative Sir Pierson Dixon to the Foreign Office, October 27, 1956. PRO FO 371 122376 NH10110/110; Telegram by U.K. U.N. representative Sir Pierson Dixon to the Foreign Office, October 28, 1956. PRO FO 371 122376 NH10110/111; Foreign Office telegram to the U.K. representative at the U.N., October 28, 1956.  PRO FO 371 122376 NH10110/107; Telegram by U.K. U.N. representative Sir Pierson Dixon to the Foreign Office, October 29, 1956. PRO FO 371 122380 NH10110/241.

[8] On the history of the Suez crisis see: Kyle Keith, Suez (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991).

[9] On the emerging sharp conflict between the U.S. and British (and French) governments during the secret trilateral talks in the U.N., see the reports by the U.K. U.N. representative, Sir Pierson Dixon: Telegram by U.K. U.N. representative Sir Pierson Dixon to the Foreign Office, November 2, 1956. PRO FO 371 122381 NH10110/292; Telegram by U.K. U.N. representative Sir Pierson Dixon to the Foreign Office, November 3, 1956. PRO FO 371 122381 NH10110/293; Telegram by U.K. U.N. representative Sir Pierson Dixon to the Foreign Office, November 3, 1956. PRO FO 371 122381 NH10110/280.

[10] United Nations. General Assembly. Official Records. First and Second Emergency Special Sessions, 1–10 November 1956. Plenary Meetings and Annexes (New York: United Nations, 1956). Minutes of the plenary meeting on November 4, 1956. A/3286.

[11]On the history of Hungary's neutrality in 1956 see: Csaba Békés, 'The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the declaration of neutrality', Cold War History 6, no. 4 (November 2006): 477–500.

[12] Foreign Office telegram to the U.K. representative at the U.N., November 1, 1956. PRO FO 371 122382 NH10110/332.

[13] D. D. Eisenhower Library, Dulles Papers, General Memoranda of Conversations Series. Minute of discussion between Harold E. Stassen and John Foster Dulles, October 26, 1956. Printed in: FRUS vol. XXV, 305.

[14] Békés Csaba, Európából Európába. Magyarország konfliktusok kereszttüzében, 1945–1990 [From Europe to Europe. Hungary in the Crossfire of Conflicts, 1945–1990] (Budapest: Gondolat Kiadó, 2004), 236; Anatoly Dobrinin, In Confidence. Moscow's Ambassador to America's Six Cold War Presidents (19621986) (New York: Random House, 1995), 189–195.

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