214. Despatch From the Legation in Hungary to the Department of State1

No. 247


  • Comments on Media Policy and Media Treatment of Current Hungarian Events

Although the problems presented by VOA and RFE radio programs to Hungary are complex, it would seem that a look at our past and present media policy is now called for (1) because of the new situation in which Hungary finds itself, and (2) because of some criticism that US media played an inciting role in the revolution by excessively encouraging hope of active Western aid.

The latter problem is of interest primarily in so far as its discussion casts light on our future programming. First of all, it should be pointed out that a thorough reading of VOA and RFE scripts over the past year would probably produce few specific examples of seriously ill-advised statements inciting to revolt or holding forth unwarranted hope of Western aid. However, such a review would, by and large, prove little. We are still faced with the fact that the Hungarians for the most part did interpret our broadcasts in a manner probably never intended or foreseen. The problem that arises is intellectually an intriguing one and involves the whole question of how we as a nation succeed or fail in communicating with other peoples of the world. In the Hungarian case we failed apparently to communicate properly, not because of any isolated statements or misstatements but because the broad contours of our expression meant one thing to the speaker and another to the listener. Obviously one facet of United States policy is the desire to see East European states regain their freedom. But the media represented this facet somewhat more clearly than it presented our other facet of how to go about the problem; particularly, the media did not and could not anticipate the events which arose and prepare the population for the reaction of the West.

Our isolation from so many of the Hungarian people naturally contributed heavily toward the failure of our intelligence to gauge correctly the temper of the Hungarians. Logically, on the basis of our limited knowledge, it seemed proper to follow a program policy of sustaining a long-range resistance to Communist ideology. Our media apparently imagined the need for such sustenance to be far greater than it in fact was. Thus what seemed to us as a defense move of holding the line turned out to imply something far more to a people [Page 521] whose collective intensity of hatred for the Communists was not fully realized by the United States. Had our intelligence, especially among the youth, been able to operate more effectively, we would probably have been able to flash even more warning signals to the media than we did.

The Legation does not have any strongly positive recommendations for media policy at present. It would seem, however, that in the exigency of the present Hungarian situation the media should of necessity be cautious and wait for Western policy makers to find some way out of the dilemma which Hungary’s single-handed fight against Communism presents to the anti-Communist world. Such caution, however, should not go so far as to impose a restraint on the media giving the Hungarian revolutionaries all the moral support possible. Actually our actions have now made it clear to the Hungarians that we do not intend to intervene with any sort of armed aid. Thus there is now little chance of misunderstanding on this score. On the basis of past experience our caution should rather extend to restraint from giving the appearance that we are inciting overt acts of resistance, which are in some degree inevitable anyway.

Future developments in Hungary will of course be the important determinant in the development of a new media policy, when the situation here has become more stable. Actually, in the period preceding October 23, VOA was adjusting itself to a line which probably would have saved it from any criticism of implying active US aid to a satellite revolt. RFE, however, continued to pursue a stronger line, and when Hungarians charge us with not having come to their aid they in general refer to RFE “promises.” These promises, the Legation is sure, were never literally made. For the moment and until some kind of settlement of the Hungarian situation is achieved, the Legation doubts the wisdom of any drastic curtailment or alteration of RFE programs. Such curtailment, especially in number of broadcasting hours, would be widely interpreted as withdrawal of US interest from this area at a time when we can ill afford such an interpretation. But looking farther into the future, the Legation finds it difficult to conceive of a US policy toward Hungary, once the present crisis is passed, which would justify the continuation of RFE exactly along its present lines.

If our policy toward Hungary continues to be one of holding a line of ideological defense, it is on the surface obvious that the long daily hours of anti-Soviet broadcasts by RFE to Hungary is a questionable expenditure of money and effort. The Hungarians have proved beyond any doubt that they want no kind of settlement with Communism, not even a compromise settlement that may eventually be forced on them because the anti-Communist world at the moment lacks the power to force a Soviet withdrawal farther eastward. Thus, assuming our future policy toward Hungary is a negative one, the Legation [Page 522] would recommend a drastic curtailment in RFE’s broadcasting hours. If, on the other hand, we believe that the Hungarian rebellion is a positive factor which may contribute toward affecting the Communist system on a world-wide scale, but is not sufficiently positive to bring us to risk in any degree a third world war, we might continue RFE much along its present lines if its broad contours of expression make it amply clear that we regard the Hungarian situation as a small tessera in a vast mosaic and that we are by no means inclined to give it exaggerated importance in our world policies.

In the period before the Hungarian revolution (as at present) the Legation monitored RFE broadcasts only casually and occasionally. The Legation thus cannot evaluate RFE on the basis of the broadcasts themselves. The Legation bases its attitudes toward the RFE problem largely on Hungarian reactions to and interpretations of these broadcasts, as learned from conversations in the nearly two months since the revolution began. These conversations with Hungarians, incidentally, have been wider than at any time in the pre-revolutionary period, and although Hungarian criticisms of RFE may be emotional, they should be given the most careful consideration and accepted at face value if they are not contravened by some overriding dictation of our own self interest.

As for the current situation, below are listed a number of concrete suggestions as to how the Legation believes it might be handled by the media. These suggestions are presented in individually written memoranda as appendices, which to some extent overlap but in general appear to supplement each other.

The Department is requested to send processed copies of this despatch to MRC and PRU Munich; PAD and PRU Vienna; and to the United States Information Agency.

Edward T. Wailes

Enclosure 1



  • Suggestions for Media Treatment of Current Hungarian Events

Positive themes:

Believe factual news, foreign and domestic but particularly former, should receive highest priority.
Suggest special emphasis on news concerning reactions to the Soviet-Hungarian war in other countries, especially the neutralist areas; and including when possible reactions of specific groups such as labor, religious organizations, etc.; as long as such reactions are anti-Soviet in character.
Believe commentary as such on the news should not be overplayed. To the extent commentary is used, a number of specific points are suggested below for possible exploitation:
The fact that one major casualty of the Soviet-Hungarian war has been Soviet-style Communism as an ideology or a way of life, a thing for men to live by or trust in. What is left is Soviet Communism as stark, aggressive imperialism.
A balance sheet of profits and losses to the Soviets from their Hungarian adventure might be drawn up (similar to that in Legtel 294),3 with heavy emphasis (though avoiding exaggeration to point of improbability) on the losses and their permanence.
Might stress repeatedly that Soviet aggression in Hungary, and especially such events as the Nagy kidnapping, have brought about a situation where, until the Soviets withdraw from Hungary physically and leave the nation independent, no volume of promises, protestations, arguments, etc. concerning eventual withdrawal, or for that matter on any other subject, will be accorded the least confidence, trust or credence anywhere in the civilized world.
Stress the contradiction of Soviet aggression with the hypocritically espoused principles of the Bandung4 and Belgrade5 declarations . . . .
It would be well to do all possible to convince the listener that U.S. policy is in no way directed toward restoring the large landowner class, nor is it interested in prescribing any social, economic or political structure.

Negative themes:

Probably preferable not to overplay the mistakes of the Hungarian government and Party as exemplified in the pre-Hungarian-Soviet war period.
Doubtful whether advantageous to emphasize attacks on Hungarian “traitors” by name, since except in the case of top leaders we have too little insight into the thinking of these people.
It would seem unnecessary to overplay the more obvious elements of internal Hungarian news, to the extent this means simple repetition of what most Hungarians already know.
It would seem advisable to tailor presentation to avoid in every way possible the impression of broadcasts being “just propaganda”, something the satellite listening audience is by now allergic to. In this connection unsupported diatribe is probably counter-productive.

Enclosure 2



  • Suggestions for Media Guidance

General tone, background.

Budapest is a city of mourning, with black flags and armbands much in evidence. If restaurants are open, music is considered in bad taste. Five main theaters were ordered to open again December 15. But the workers refused to comply, donated the theaters’ supply of heating coal to hospitals instead.

At the moment there is more unity among city worker, peasant, intelligentsia and bureaucrat than ever in recent history. The populace is Hungarian first, then social democrat, communist, socialist, small holder adherent only second.

The Legation has found very little resentment against Americans. But there is disappointment that the United States and the West did not come actively to Hungary’s aid.

Specific Suggestions.

During recent weeks, particularly during the general strike period, more people have had more time to listen to Western broadcasts, for news, than ever before. Straight news coverage should continue to receive highest priority. Editorial roundups of free world reaction to Hungary’s plight highly interesting to Hungarians.

All steps taken by free world to implement their anger at Soviets, their steps to help Hungary, high priority. Particularly important is the attitude of the so-called neutral nations and leaders of India, Burma, Indonesia, which Hungarians feel carry greatest weight with Soviets.

[Page 525]

ICFTU effort to boycott delivery of goods to the Soviet Union has been acclaimed as the most significant news here. This constituted real and tangible immediate support, by worker for worker.

Internal Hungarian news is important, since communication within the country is bad. Only the Hungarian radio covers the country as an internal medium. Needless to say its reports are biased and incomplete. The Legation feels that media should take no open stand for, or against, the general strike, or the fleeing of Hungarians to the West. With about 1 percent of the total Hungarian population in Austria since the last few weeks, the Legation does not feel U.S. interests here best served by either encouraging or discouraging exodus. In this respect any large volume of taped interviews with refugees might tend, through emphasis, to be interpreted as sign of U.S. blessing. Accent should be on “Care I received from Aid to Refugee Centers,” and not on “How I Escaped from Russian Atrocities.”

Media, in Legation’s opinion, should be particularly wary of all exile politician statements. Extremely few were on the scene during the revolution.

Cross-reporting of events in other satellites to Hungary continues to be useful.

Aid to Hungary by U.S. through Red Cross etc. should be stressed, but not overemphasized.

A theme well worth continued exploitation is that it was the workers, the workers’ districts that bore the brunt of the fighting. Soviet claims of Hungary being a “workers’ paradise” are untenable even to the Soviets. Soviet guided tour for Gheorgiu Dej, Siroky and other satellite leaders through rubble-strewn workers’ districts must have caused serious doubts in their minds too.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 764.00/12–1856. Secret. Drafted by Nyerges and Christopher A. Squire.
  2. Drafted by Barnes.
  3. Telegram 294 from Budapest, November 15, described Soviet propaganda efforts to conceal the nature of their intervention in Hungary. (Department of State, Central Files, 764.00/11–1556)
  4. Reference is to the Afro-Asian Conference, attended by 29 nations in April 1955 at Bandung, Indonesia.
  5. See Document 15.
  6. Drafted by Squire.