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

No. 421


  • Legdes 4062


  • Recommended United States Action with Regard to Rajk Revelations in Hungary

This despatch is being written as a follow-up to the Legation’s despatch 406, since I believe that recent political and economic developments in Hungary and recent events affecting the Legation’s relations with this Government need to be considered within a single frame of reference in planning our next moves. We have attempted, as doubtless the Department has, to keep all recent developments and our reactions thereto tied together in our minds; but I feel it might be beneficial now to do so on paper as well.

Our general view of the Hungarian scene prior to the Soviet Twentieth Congress has been made clear, I think, and we have had no indication that the Department’s view has been different. We have seen the past year as a period during which Rakosi endeavored to put his political house in order after the rapid erosion of political controls under Nagy. He cracked down in the countryside (grain collection and collectivization), in the private sector (sharp curtailment of the burgeoning private trade), in industry (better labor discipline), in the Party and in the arts. His primary, though by no means sole, concern was probably political rather than economic. We have felt that he used this period to restore political controls before undertaking a serious attempt to improve Hungary’s industrial efficiency and agricultural output. And in our opinion he has been reasonably successful in this political sphere; more successful than we thought a year ago would be the case.

These efforts in the political field had their effect in the economic field also, and the year saw improvements in some areas, though not in others. In agriculture the regime was aided by better weather than [Page 154] in recent years; in industry at least a partial halt was called to the deterioration in respect to costs and waste which had been going on under Nagy.

But although conditions have improved, they have by no means improved enough. Because the situation in both agriculture and industry is still very bad, the running sore of foreign trade debts has continued and apparently is becoming even worse. The new five-year plan will not only call for increased output, but will also require some reallocation of resources as a result of greater coordination with other countries in the bloc. This may add a further strain. Furthermore, there has also been the factor, we believe, that Rakosi, since the Nagy period, has been under somewhat greater pressure than before to show results. These efforts will call for greater sacrifices from the people, and so be unpopular by their very nature; the precondition for their undertaking, therefore, is firm political control.

With sounder political bases under him, it would have been logical (and in fact we thought signs thereof were beginning to develop) for Rakosi to have launched a serious effort in the economic field during this year. Such an effort is also increasingly necessary. But what has happened? At precisely the moment when one might have anticipated that this would get under way, the repercussions of Stalin’s denigration (particularly, of course, the rehabilitation of Rajk3) swept into Hungary and, initially at least, struck Rakosi a heavy blow and again upset his political balance.

We cannot yet be sure whether he can survive this, or whether it was intended that he should. On the surface, at least, it would appear that he is still in Moscow’s good graces. As a matter of fact one can make a very good argument that Rakosi should be Moscow’s choice for the job, since Moscow has seen once, with Imre Nagy, what can happen in a satellite with a weaker hand at the helm. If there were to be storms here (and everyone must have anticipated them after the November writers’ revolt4), the stronger and more reliable the hand at the helm, the better.

And at first Rakosi seemed to show confidence. The tone of his report on the Twentieth Congress, unless the Legation and other Western observers in Budapest badly misread it, certainly seemed to indicate that, whatever was to happen to Stalin’s memory, Rakosi’s own position was not to be questioned. The personal cult had existed, [Page 155] it was admitted, lower down in the Party, but no suggestion was given that it included, of all people, Matyas Rakosi. The Party later went further and affirmed that the “fight against the internal enemy” would go on in Hungary, if not in Russia, implying strongly that Rakosi would continue for some time still to hold down the political hatches.

We do not know, of course, whether this was the initial intent in Moscow, whether the magnitude of the effect here in Hungary was properly estimated from the beginning, or whether the reaction to the Stalin and Rajk revelations was greater than had been intended. In any event, there have been sharp reactions which have been quite openly admitted, and in the nature of things it would seem almost certain that there will be more. There have also been some indications, including the current high-level Hungarian delegation in Belgrade, that Hungary is finally going to pay the $120 million (or a large part of it) to Yugoslavia, which unless it is underwritten by the Soviets will add a further strain to the country’s finances. If the Hungarians do pay, this could perhaps be construed as the price for leaving Rakosi in his seat.

On the other hand, the dominoes in Eastern Europe have begun to fall. Whatever course may have been intended for Hungary, it is certainly true that the situation here has deteriorated very rapidly, doubtless much faster and further than originally intended. The very sudden decision to postpone the transfer of Soviet Ambassador Andropov is probably an indication of Soviet concern. We are consequently now inclined to believe that there are good chances for Rakosi’s eventual removal—just how good, we of course cannot say definitely. But whatever the Soviets may intend to do with Rakosi, or whatever they finally decide they must do with him, they have certainly made his political position precarious and they may have added to his financial problems. His position is sufficiently precarious, we believe, to offer a possibility for United States action to have some effect on future developments.

With the above background, we have been trying to examine the problem of coordinated United States action. Before going further, however, I think we should have our objectives clearly in mind, or rather what we may realistically hope to achieve thanks to the Rajk revelations and the apparent blessing given to collective leadership. I would submit that, unless the Soviets have more up their sleeve than they have thus far disclosed, we can hardly hope to realize more this time than a repeat, on perhaps a slightly larger scale, of what happened without pressure from us during the Nagy era, when a more “moderate” element was brought into power. To realize this would again set the stage for weakening Party control over its stalwarts, and theirs over the masses, in turn bringing a general weakening of the regime’s political and economic controls. It is, of course, by no means certain that this will be achieved (although the weakening process [Page 156] may have already begun), but I believe that this is a realistic short-term goal which can be reasonably hoped for and striven for. Even this should not be sneered at. Whether such an accomplishment would then move Hungary into a position where she could later be “nudged” still another step is a moot question. But chances appear at least as good as in 1954 and perhaps better, considering the disgrace of Stalin, the position of Tito and the times in general.

The problem of Rakosi’s personal position is closely connected with these general objectives and hopes. For the immediate future, at least, we believe this to be paramount. His removal or retirement, even with high honors, in the near future would be interpreted by the anti-Rakosi faction as a victory for it, by Tito as a victory for him, and by the general population as a victory for passive resistance. It would be interpreted by everyone as a defeat for the policy in effect in Hungary during the past year, which was then fully approved and supported by Moscow. Therefore, as a single target, the removal of Rakosi is our most important short-term aim, however directly or indirectly we try to achieve it. The Rajk statement provides us with a unique opportunity to attempt to exert pressure.

There are other objectives, however, which can also be served by an attack based on the Rajk revelations, and which make such an attack seem worthwhile even if its prime purpose of unseating Rakosi be not attained. These are the following:

To bolster anti-Rakosi strength within the regime itself. This strength has always existed and is now growing. A strong approach properly made by us could encourage this and give ammunition to Rakosi’s opponents. We are convinced that many, perhaps even a majority of Party members, are not fully aware of what the “state within a state” has been up to or of its activities under Rakosi’s direction. Exposing this would, we believe, heap new fuel on the already smoldering fire.
To demonstrate the real intent behind the anti-Stalin campaign in the U.S.S.R., at least as far as it affects the outside world. To go as far as they have in the U.S.S.R. and the satellites, at least in Hungary, without removing the one man who was primarily responsible here for the worst excesses of the period, is to brand the campaign as primarily propaganda. It may be that there is ample evidence of this in the U.S.S.R. itself; but if not, or if it cannot be used, a made-to-order example exists in Hungary.
To maintain our proper posture before the general public. The United States was blasphemed and insulted during the Rajk and other trials, and we should seize every opportunity to clear the record. To fail to do so when presented with such an opportunity as this could be construed as a lack of interest in both that record and in the fate of the Hungarian people.
[Page 157]

To summarize, I believe that the present situation in Hungary is such that appropriate United States action could influence future developments. The Legation has already transmitted its initial views on the proper handling of this situation. We have also strongly recommended (Legdes 3995 and previous) the examination of possibilities for curtailment of Western credits, and action of this type would be particularly appropriate in the near future. Now a third possibility would be an official request to Hungary for an apology to the United States Government and to certain of its representatives for the treatment they received from elements in this Government which are now discredited.

I believe that such a request, if properly handled and if given full publicity, would demonstrate to the world and the Soviet Union the anomaly of permitting Hungary to follow the Soviet lead only half way; of calling Rajk innocent but not lifting the charges against the United States. It would point to the continuation today of practices current in 1950, which the regime is now condemning; and would indicate to everyone who knows Hungary that as long as Rakosi sits on his throne there will be doubts as to Soviet sincerity. All this, we hope, would present the Soviets with a choice between ousting Rakosi or tacitly acknowledging that the anti-Stalinist campaign is a fraud. We would be gambling on their being more interested in global than in internal satellite reactions, and furthermore, on their being willing to run the risks inherent in ditching Rakosi.

It is of course true that any real effort to call black black in Hungary may involve the United States in some risks. If we fail to achieve our end we may draw down the wrath of Rakosi even more on our heads. In our view this is a risk to be recognized and taken. Anti-American propaganda can hardly sink to depths much lower than those already plumbed, and in any event such tactics probably hurt the regime as much as, if not more than, they hurt us. We are most susceptible in relations between the Legation and the Government; but some risk can hardly be avoided here without a complete compromise of principle.

In order to bring maximum pressure to bear on the Soviet Union, and at the same time to have maximum influence in Hungary, it would seem reasonable to take successive actions over a period of time, with the first move coming as quickly as possible.

Initially we had thought of the first note on the Sergeants’ case6 and the second one on the general treatment of the Legation by the [Page 158] Hungarians (tentative draft forwarded with Legdes 406) as setting the stage for the Rajk matter later. Whatever disposition is made of the Sergeants’ note, and even if the protest regarding the Tiedtkes7 is removed from the second note, I would still recommend that the essence of the latter be made use of. The most important element of that note is that it points to the continuing activity of the same state within a state which was responsible for the Rajk “provocation” and which has now been discredited. It also should be evident that Rakosi himself was just as involved as the secret police in 1950 and continues to be today.

The Legation has not tried to draft a note on the Rajk case, since the Department has more complete information available on details of the case and on its relation to the Mindszenty and other cases; and also because it will require legal talent to demonstrate these interrelationships. The Legation’s general ideas, however, would be along the following lines:

to say that the United States had welcomed Rakosi’s statement in Eger8 about the Rajk trial, hoping that it portended a sincere intent to right the wrongs of that day;
that while this may have been the intent, some time has now passed since that statement, and clearly very little has yet been done;
that insofar as the United States Government is concerned its name was slandered in earlier trials and thus far no apology has been forthcoming;
that furthermore, the United States and its official personnel stationed in Hungary were insulted and materially harmed through the declaration of___Legation members as persona non grata;
that the United States has received further material damage at the hands of the same elements in Hungary now discredited in the Eger statement, through the unwarranted arrest of numerous Hungarian employees of the Legation in Budapest and through the harassment of American personnel stationed there; this activity, as indicated by the recent note of___, has in fact continued and even increased to date; and
the note should present a legal argument to demonstrate that the charge against Rajk consisted basically of plotting with outside powers, among which the United States, for the overthrow of the regime then in power in Hungary; and that if Rajk is innocent, the charge must be false including the allegations against the United States.
If possible, the note should carry this argument over into the Mindszenty and Grosz trials.9 It should go on to say, after this presentation of legal argument, that the United States had long hoped for improvement in its relations with Hungary, that it had conducted itself with considerable restraint in view of the past provocations directed against it by the Hungarian Government and that it would welcome any development in Hungary which would give a promise of better relations in the future. It had, in fact, believed some months ago that there might be a chance for such an improvement, but had been forced to cancel plans for any serious discussions with the Hungarian Government because of the activities of precisely those elements which have now been discredited.
We should then call upon the Hungarian Government to carry the process begun at Eger to its logical conclusion, and to clear the record of the infamous charges which have long sullied not only U.S.-Hungarian relations but also the reputation of the Hungarian Government throughout the world. We should refer to our earlier notes and call upon the Hungarian Government also to curb the continuing harassment of the American Legation in Budapest. We should say that, assuming these requests are met, we would foresee an era of definite improvement in relations between the two countries, and would welcome any opportunity to discuss concrete means of achieving this goal.

I sincerely believe that today the United States has the best opportunity in several years to play a constructive role and to undertake positive action to influence the trend of events in Hungary; and that this opportunity should be seized with both vigor and speed.

C.M. Ravndal
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 611.64/4–2756. Secret. Drafted by John T. Rogers, Second Secretary and Consul at the Legation.
  2. In despatch 406, April 19, the Legation proposed sending the Hungarian Government a note charging it with “police-state methods” not in keeping with its stated policy of “peaceful co-existence” and “socialist legality.” This move would be part of a campaign to sow dissension among Hungarian Communists and to demonstrate to the rest of the world that Hungary was still Stalinist. (Ibid., 611.64/4–1956)
  3. See footnote 2, Document 53.
  4. Reference is to demands by Hungarian writers for cessation of bureaucratic restraints on artistic freedom and creativity which took its most dramatic form in a writers’ memorandum to the party leadership, written in mid-October 1955 and released in November. The Hungarian party leadership successfully counterattacked with a resolution of the Central Committee condemning the writers. The Legation’s reporting on these events is in telegram 243 from Budapest, December 16. (Department of State, Central Files, 764.00/12–1655)
  5. Despatch 399, April 13, dealt with Hungary’s international credit position as an opportunity for leverage. (Ibid., 864.10/4–1356).
  6. Reference is to the case of two Army attachés, Sergeants Henry Lybrand and Jennings Siegfried, who were stopped, detained, and questioned by Soviet Army and Hungarian police personnel on April 1 after they passed in front of a Soviet military installation in the Hungarian city of Jaszbereny. (Telegram 374 from Budapest, April 3; ibid., 120.162164/4–356)
  7. Fred Tiedtke, Attaché at the Legation, and his wife were arrested by Hungarian police and charged with smuggling. The Department of State subsequently instructed the Legation in Budapest to inform the Hungarian Foreign Office orally that irrespective of Tiedtkes’ alleged activities, the police acted improperly in arresting a holder of a diplomatic passport. (Telegram 271 to Budapest, May 15; ibid., 123–Fred Tiedtkes)
  8. Apparent reference to Rákosi’s announcement of March 27; see footnote 2, Document 53.
  9. Joseph Grösz, Archbishop of Kalocsa, was arrested in May 1951, found guilty of treason, and sentenced in June 1951 to life imprisonment. In October 1955 the Hungarian Government released him.