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Lessons in Restraint From the Hungarian Revolution

Many have compared Russia's invasion of Ukraine to Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland. A better comparison is the Soviet response to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Many have tried to compare Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Hitler’s 1939 invasion of Poland. A much better comparison is Soviet action during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, when, in response to the Hungarians overthrowing the Soviet puppet government, the USSR launched an invasion of Hungary to bring it back into the Soviet sphere of influence.

Then as now, the United States was faced with a crisis in which a rival power violated the sovereignty of a neighboring country to preserve its geopolitical sphere of influence. While many pundits decry non-intervention in the Ukrainian crisis as un-American, the American response to the Hungarian Revolution tells a different story.  

The United States tried to encourage dissidence in the Soviet satellite states throughout the 1950s, but it never expected full revolution to break out in Hungary as happened on October 23, 1956. Hungarians, tired of living under the thumb of the Soviet Union, rose en masse and forced the reinstallation of reformer Prime Minister Imre Nagy. Nagy subsequently announced the introduction of parliamentary democracy, dissolved the secret police, and, most notably, withdrew Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. On November 4, the Soviets launched an invasion of Hungary that crushed the revolution after intense street-fighting in Budapest. 

Though the revolution only lasted for about two weeks, the United States had to decide whether to support it. 

From a moral and emotional perspective, supporting the revolution seemed obvious. Fighting an “evil empire” such as the Soviet Union, the Hungarian Revolution offered an opportunity to roll back communism and safeguard Hungarian independence and democracy. It was a rare example of “good vs. evil” fought on the world stage. Yet the United States did little beyond condemning the Soviet invasion and encouraging some boycotts of Soviet goods. 

Even before the revolution, U.S. policy toward the eastern bloc forbade direct support for an armed rebellion. In 1953, the U.S. National Security Council rejected “A deliberate policy of attempting to liberate the satellite peoples by military force, which,” it added, “would probably mean war with the USSR and…. cannot be given serious consideration.” 

The United States also rejected direct military support to avoid encouraging “premature action on their part which will bring upon them reprisals involving further terror and suppression.” In approaching the Soviet sphere of influence, U.S. policymakers steadfastly refused to directly support, arm, or interfere in an armed rebellion or conflict, which they felt could too easily lead to war and further hurt captive nations. 

This by no means meant the U.S. accepted the legitimacy of Soviet domination of satellite states. The U.S., as a matter of policy, refused to recognize Soviet rights or claims to the Central and Eastern European sphere of influence. The U.S.’s goal was to roll back communism without encouraging or sponsoring open conflict. 

This is why the U.S. neither armed nor directly supported the Hungarian revolutionaries when they bravely rose against the tyrannical Soviet puppet government, choosing instead to offer moral support and fierce condemnation of Soviet action. President Eisenhower and the men who ran the United States understood that while the Soviet Union’s suppression of Hungary was a reprehensible act by an evil regime, it was neither in American nor Hungarian interests to intervene. Had the United States done so, at best, the Hungarian Revolution would have been prolonged and Soviet reprisals would have intensified. At worst, it would have escalated into nuclear war. 

Our current leaders face a similar choice. Unlike the leaders of the past, they lack the willingness to show considered restraint. Not only is the United States actively arming Ukraine, but certain politicians have also suggested military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone. Ukrainian President Zelensky himself made a direct appeal for a no-fly zone in his virtual address to congress yesterday. While it is tempting to support the Ukrainians in their valiant defense against Russian aggressors, the U.S. must once again show restraint. 

All the arguments in favor of the U.S. denying help to Hungary in 1956 are applicable to today’s conflict, while many of the counterarguments available at the time are weaker now. Unlike the Soviet Union, Putin’s thuggery does not have the universalist ambitions of communism. The direct threat posed to the United States by a Russian puppet state in Ukraine is far less than was posed by a Soviet-controlled Hungary. Russia’s current demands do not even require Ukraine to become a puppet state, but rather a neutral buffer zone. Further, Putin’s invasion has turned much of the world against him. His slaughter of Ukrainians has decimated Russian influence and economic power. 

We risk prolonging the suffering of Ukraine should we materially support them. Although Ukraine has dominated the information war and certainly has held off the Russians more than anyone could have predicted, the reality is that Russia is making solid territorial gains and will likely win this war. By prolonging Ukrainian resistance, we prolong the destruction and pain inflicted on Ukrainians. The more difficult we make it for the Russians, the more the Russians will seek to inflict retaliatory pain on Ukraine. Our extensive support discourages Ukraine from negotiating a lasting solution to the conflict. Delaying the Russian takeover by a few weeks or months is not worth the death of countless more Ukrainians, a larger refugee crisis, and further repression. 

Most importantly, what has not changed since 1956 is the risk that conflict will escalate into nuclear catastrophe. This reality must temper our response, now as it did then. Already we risk escalating the conflict by arming and training the Ukrainian army and continuing to supply them in their fight against Russia. As Russian deaths mount, the U.S. will be blamed for their deaths. Had Russia directly armed Al-Qaeda or Iraq during our invasion, the U.S. certainly would have considered it a belligerent in the conflict. Russia has already deemed weapon convoys legitimate targets and begun striking military targets in Western Ukraine as a clear warning to the West. It is not unthinkable that our intervention would provide Putin a casus bellis for a nuclear strike. 

This alone should deter the U.S. from aggressively interfering in the Ukrainian invasion and temper our response. If we wish to strive for a world where Ukraine can be free to pursue its national destiny, then we must not take actions that threaten the existence of the world itself. 

Putin’s invasion is not capable of crushing the aspirations of the Ukrainian people, just as the Soviet invasion of Hungary did not crush the Hungarian spirit. Thirty-three years after the Hungarian Revolution, the Iron Curtain fell, and Hungary was able to join the West. They were able to do this because, in 1956, the United States refused to risk creating a scenario that would foreclose the possibility of freedom for the Hungarian people. It is this choice, one of temperance and restraint, that America must pursue during this current crisis, so that one day, Ukraine, too, will be able to join the West.

Stephen Sholl is a visiting fellow with the Mathias Corvinus Collegium located in Budapest, Hungary. Previously, he worked as a junior fellow with Hungary’s Committee of National Remembrance, a research institution dedicated to researching Hungary’s communist history.