Nearly sixty years have passed since an event occurred which is now largely forgotten by Americans of a certain age but at the time seemed to threaten war between the Western powers and what was then the Soviet Union. And since that event roughly coincided with my 18th birthday and my registering for the draft (it was compulsory then), the incident made a special impact on me: If war came, I was likely to have been caught up in it.
But allow me to amend my initial statement--the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 may be largely forgotten by many in this country, but it is definitely not forgotten by the Hungarian people who lived through it, were exiled because of it, or lost friends or family members to the merciless Soviet invasion that extinguished it. Yet many younger people in this country have never even heard of it. Such is the whimsy of history and collective memory: Had it indeed ignited a war--and in a nuclear age that war might well have been the last war--history and memory, if they had survived, would have enshrined it and the holocaust it occasioned. But instead, its sixtieth anniversary seems certain to pass widely unacknowledged.
My 18th birthday fell on Friday, October 21, 1956. I wish I could recall some sense of what that date felt like, smelled like, looked like, but I cannot. October has always been my favorite month with its balmy Indian summer days contrasting with the chill of its autumn nights and the leaves of the hardwoods glowing yellow and crimson, its air sharp and crisp and clean. I must have been savoring that. But despite its significance at the time, my mind seems to have discarded any true sense-memory of that date. I have lost my draft card which, dogeared and fading, reposed in my wallet for years until I knew I had safely aged out of that particular obligation. I wish now that I had preserved it, in case a glimpse of it might recall some detail of that then-significant phase of my life.
But I did not. All I know is that on Sunday, October 23, two days after my birthday, students in Budapest began demonstrating against the repressions of the ruling Hungarian Communist government and the strictures of its masters in Soviet Moscow. The government, headed by homegrown Communist premier Imre Nagy, reacted feebly to the demonstrations at first, as if uncertain whether the movement was a serious threat to its rule or might somehow be harnessed and controlled. But it was not long before the student movement began to attract the sympathies of other elements of the wider population and the Hungarian government made the fateful decision to stifle it but could not. Prime minister Imre Nagy seemed for a while to sympathize with the revolution but his government was of course subject to the will of the Soviet leaders in the Kremlin. As the Hungarian movement grew, it became a fight between growing numbers of students and civilians against the dreaded AVH, the Hungarian secret police, and some elements of the Hungarian army. Vicious battles broke out in Budapest as angry citizens broke into AVH headquarters and hunted down its hated agents and gunmen.
Then on Sunday, November 4, when it was clear the Hungarian government could not effectively resist the revolt, the Soviet Union determined to crush the outbreak and invaded with Red Army troops and tanks. They burst into Budapest and engaged the revolutionists. Young and old, men and women, Hungarians resisted, engaging Red Army troops in violent street battles. Children fought tanks with Molotov cocktails and nitroglycerine. Soviet aircraft bombed and strafed rebel positions. Soviet heavy artillery shattered buildings. It was a scene almost unimaginable to those of us who had come to believe the Iron Curtain had so thoroughly descended as to render armed resistance by the people of the Russian client states impossible. The spectacle of workers, supposedly the darlings of Marxism, attempting to overthrow a Marxist power, was electrifying to the rest of the world. The United States, through Radio Free Europe broadcasts and statements by political figures, had long advocated rollback and freedom for the occupied Iron Curtain nations. As a result, many of the freedom fighters, in staging their rebellion, had hoped their actions would cause the U.S. or the United Nations to intervene on their behalf. Indeed, when the Soviets invaded, the U.S. and other Western powers demanded their withdrawal, and for a time it appeared that a conflict between East and West might come. But no action was taken although the Hungarian patriots pleaded by radio for assistance. But the West did not intervene; fears of a Third World War were too persuasive and the nerves of Western nations seemed to fail. And so, in flames and carnage, by early November 1956 the Hungarian Revolution had been crushed. Imre Nagy, captured by the Soviets, was imprisoned and executed.
The Cold War, so-called, and the international tensions it fostered, are now parts of an ever-dimming past. Today we worry not about the actions of hostile nation states and their clients but the crimes of terrorists both foreign and domestic and the perils of climate change. One may reasonably ask, after the two World Wars of the twentieth century--the worst in all of history--, the expansion and dissolution of the the Soviet system, the Hungarian revolution, the outbreaks of gun violence in our own country and the increasing incidence of violent weather events, whether man can ever live in peace, freedom and safety.