13. Despatch From the Legation in Hungary to the Department of State0

No. 302


  • Legation Despatch No. 249, October 23, 19581


  • The Future of Cardinal Mindszenty

The Legation has, from time to time, sought to comply with the requirement contained in the Department’s telegram No. 241 of November 16, 1956,2 which concluded: “Legation’s recommendations invited regarding future of Mindszenty”. Recent developments, connected with the Conclave at the Vatican for the election of Pope John XXIII, would seem to make it desirable that the situation of Cardinal Mindszenty again be reviewed and the Legation’s recommendations be brought up to date. The present despatch is designed to meet this requirement and this purpose.

Regime Officially Informed

The Hungarian Government has now been “officially” advised of the presence of Cardinal Mindszenty in this Legation. No such advice was made to the Government until the presentation of the Legation’s note No. 136 on Saturday, October 18, 1958.3 On two previous occasions, officials of the Foreign Ministry had made oblique reference to our harboring a Hungarian national, but the name of Cardinal Mindszenty was not mentioned and there was no discussion of the subject. high officials of the Government had, however, repeatedly attacked the United States Government and the Legation (in public speeches, in statements to the press, and in reply to direct questions from visiting Americans) for giving “asylum” to a “Hungarian criminal”.

Despite the “after-the-event” knowledge of certain “observers” that the Hungarian Government was bound to refuse the request for a [Page 55] safe conduct,4 there was no way of knowing before the matter was officially broached to the Hungarian Government what its reply would be. The Cardinal (Legation telegram 119, October 9)5 thought that the choice for the regime would be a difficult one, but was inclined to believe that the authorities would like to have him outside the country. The Legation (Legation telegram 124, October 10)6 felt that it was “not entirely clear” what decision the regime might reach, but pointed out that recent statements by Government officials had indicated a “general hardening” on the subject of the Cardinal’s possible departure from Hungary. The Vatican (Rome telegram 1172, October 13)7 appears to have had information that the regime would not be opposed to the Cardinal’s release, provided he would not return to Hungary. While the Department was not favorable to initiative being taken by the United States in the matter (Department’s telegram 1304, October 10, to Rome),8 the Legation was subsequently instructed (Department’s telegram No. 97, October 14, No. 1356 to Rome)9 to negotiate with the Hungarian Government, on behalf of the College of Cardinals, for a safe conduct, thus seeming to indicate a belief on the part of the Department that there existed some possibility of procuring such safe conduct.

There is, of course, nothing final about a decision taken by a communist government; it is perfectly capable of reversing that decision without any new developments having intervened to give even a semblance of justification for such reversal. However, the refusal of the safe conduct for attendance of the Cardinal at the Conclave was so categorical, and was given at a time and under circumstances which might have been expected to give perhaps the maximum of justification for the Hungarian regime to grant it, that the Legation sees little or no likelihood of any change of attitude in the ascertainable future. Only the agreement of the United States Government to exchange Chiefs of Mission with the regime and, thereby, to accord the regime full international [Page 56] status would seem to be a likely “bait” to bring about a radical change in its attitude and policy toward this question. The regime’s note of October 2210 would seem to make clear that the Hungarian authorities (and, presumably, the Kremlin) are satisfied that the presence of the Cardinal in the Legation is a matter of greater embarrassment and concern to the United States Government than to the Government of Hungary.

No such situation can, however, remain permanently static and it is at least within the realm of the possible that, sooner or later, a move will have to be made by one of the interested parties—the Holy See, the United States Government, the Hungarian Government, or the Cardinal—for a solution of this problem. Since, as became abundantly clear during these recent negotiations, the attitude of the Cardinal could be of crucial importance in effecting any solution, the Legation would like to set forth for the consideration of the Department its thoughts on this aspect of the matter, in the hope that means and methods might be found to influence the Cardinal’s thinking, in advance of the event, along the lines desired by the Department and/or by the Holy See.

The Cardinal and The Vatican

The Legation appreciates and understands the undesirability (as set forth in the enclosure to Mr. Robert McKisson’s letter of March 11, 1957, to Mr. Spencer Barnes)11 of setting up a regular channel of communication between the Cardinal and the Vatican. However, those of us in close, daily contact with the Cardinal have long been aware of his confused thinking on the “deep spiritual problems” which his present situation creates and have felt that some means should, if at all possible, be found to give the Holy See a just appreciation of his mental conflicts and to give him the benefit, on this question only, of guidance and assistance from his spiritual leaders. (My letters of August 21, 1957, and January 16, 1958 to Mr. James Sutterlin.)12 The almost complete lack of understanding between the Cardinal and the Holy See became clearly manifest during the recent negotiations and it was only with the greatest of reluctance that the Cardinal finally gave his assent to departure if a “satisfactory” guarantee could be obtained from the Hungarian Government. (The Cardinal, it should be remembered, has no faith in any promises from the present Hungarian regime and fully anticipated the worst, if an attempt had been made to take him to Austria under any such “safe conduct”.) This reluctant assent was accorded only for the [Page 57] particular circumstances then existing—i.e., attendance at the Conclave—and would, one may safely assume, not carry over to another set of circumstances. It would, therefore, become necessary to “negotiate” once again with the Cardinal and, since the time element might be of extreme brevity, the Legation believes that logic and our own best interests require that the Cardinal be attuned to the thinking and wishes of the Vatican before another crisis arises.

The Legation has sensed for some time, and most particularly during the recent “crisis”, that the Vatican itself has not been of one mind with respect to the policy which it should follow in the matter of the Cardinal’s remaining in or departing from Hungary. Earlier reports on this subject had been conflicting. The direct, official word through the Office of the Apostolic Delegate in Washington was to the effect that he should remain. When, however, a seemingly advantageous opportunity to have the Cardinal leave the Legation and the country presented itself, the Vatican became intent upon his availing himself of such opportunity and considerable pressure was put upon him by the Holy See to follow this course. One is left to speculate whether it was not, perhaps, the late Pope who was inclined to inaction earlier, with the result that those in favor of another policy were in a position to act only after Pius XII had left the scene. The Legation is not in a position to know the correct answer to this question, since it is not aware of the full circumstances (and under whose initiative) the Cardinal chose to seek refuge at the American Legation in the early hours of November 4, 1956. If, however, the late Pope did, during his lifetime, make the final policy determination on matters relating to the Cardinal’s future, the question now becomes once again subject to review because of the presence of a new Pope, whose ideas and conceptions may be different from those of his predecessor. The Legation feels that the Cardinal cannot possibly become au fait of Pope John’s thinking on this matter unless some exchange of ideas (again, on this question only) is permitted and arranged.

The Legation has no illusions about the difficulties inherent in trying to bring the Cardinal into line with the policy of the Holy See, if the Holy See’s ideas and concepts should prove to be different from his own. The Cardinal is imbued with the very special position and powers exercised for many centuries by the Prince Primate of Hungary. The Holy See, however, seems to appreciate (as the Cardinal does not) that the “social revolution” which has occurred in Hungary since World War II has seriously altered (if, indeed, it has not brought to an end) that “special position”. (The unusual position and powers of the Prince Primate are fully set forth in the chapter on “The Church” in C.A. Macartney’s “Hungary”, published in 1934.)

[Page 58]

The Vatican was not, however, always of this view. As late as April of last year (Embassy Rome’s telegram No. 4174, April 16, 1957),13 the Holy See was evincing the desire “to discuss the Cardinal’s departure on quid-pro-quo basis with view to extract some concessions from Kadar’s regime”. While any such concept was unrealistic, even at that date, the Holy See has been in a position, during the intervening eighteen months, to understand the radical changes that have occurred and to alter its concepts and its policy accordingly. Cardinal Mindszenty has not been in such a position; isolated, as he is, from almost all Church developments and from spiritual contact with the Holy See, his views and concepts have fallen behind and out of line with those of his spiritual mentors. It is this lack of rapport—this failure to be “on the same wave length”—which the Legation feels must now be bridged, if we are not to be faced on still another occasion with the necessity of again undertaking difficult and touchy negotiations with the Cardinal under pressure of events which may permit even less time and facility for exchanges between Budapest, Rome, and Washington than existed during the recent “Conclave crisis”.

There appears to be a very general (and perhaps not unnatural) assumption by people outside Hungary (one might almost say, outside this Legation) that the Cardinal would welcome any opportunity to exchange his present place of refuge for a place of safety and a position of Church activity outside this country. Articles in the Western press are almost uniformly written with this assumption in mind. Even the Vatican appears to have expected that the Cardinal would be ready and anxious to avail himself of a safe conduct, if such were arranged for him. The Legation’s telegram No. 170 of November 1914 was dispatched because it appeared that the Cardinal’s firmly held ideas on this matter might not be fully understood in Washington and New York. The officers of the Legation dealing with the question of the Cardinal’s future are so fully imbued with the reality of this situation that it seems important that it again be brought to the attention of those who will be determining United States policy on this question. The Legation feels that the Vatican should likewise be made aware of the problem and, in the light of the recent close contacts between the Embassy in Rome and the Vatican on the subject of the Cardinal, the way would now appear to be paved and the time to be opportune for effecting this objective.


Now that the Hungarian Government and the Legation have exchanged communications with respect to the presence of the Cardinal in [Page 59] the Chancery, there seems every likelihood that the regime—choosing the opportunity which seems to suit its own purposes best—will mount a full-scale attack on our harboring of a “Hungarian criminal” and will make demands for his departure from the Legation. The limits to which the regime will be prepared to go in ensuring compliance with this demand will depend upon the extent of deterioration in American-Hungarian relations, both bilaterally and in the United Nations. Whether they will be prepared to go to the extent of breaking relations in order (among other objectives) to obtain custody of the Cardinal, is a question to which a firm answer cannot at present be given; but it would appear inevitable that they should play this situation to its utmost in their efforts to get the United States to accord recognition of “respectability” to the regime, by the sending of a Minister to this Legation and by the cessation of our efforts to have the regime comply with the Resolutions of the General Assembly.
The Legation assumes that the United States will continue to do everything possible to prevent the present Hungarian authorities from again obtaining control over the Cardinal, while at the same time seeking a satisfactory permanent settlement of the problem of his refuge. The possibility—if not the probability—of further negotiations on the question would, therefore, appear to be likely to arise in due course (provided, of course, that death or serious illness does not intervene to effect a different solution). The Legation is impressed with the desirability of reaching, in advance of the opening of such further negotiations, a firm and clear understanding among the Government of the United States, the Holy See, and the Cardinal that the Cardinal would leave his refuge in the Legation, if and when a suitable guarantee of his safety might be obtained. The Legation feels, on the basis of its knowledge of the Cardinal’s thinking and of the record during the recent negotiations, that such “clear understanding” cannot be reached with the Cardinal without an exchange of views between him and the Vatican.
Garret G. Ackerson, Jr.
Charge d’Affaires a.i.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 864.413/11–2058. Secret; Limited Distribution.
  2. Despatch 249 contained the recommendations of the Legation regarding the possibility of Cardinal Mindszenty leaving the Legation to travel to Rome for the election of a new Pope following the death of Pius XII on October 9. (Ibid., 864.413/10–2358) On November 4 Cardinal Roncalli, who took the name John XXIII, was chosen his successor.
  3. Telegram 241 to Budapest contained the Department of State’s instructions regarding the Legation’s continuing refuge and protection of the Cardinal. (Ibid., 864.413/11–1656)
  4. Text of this note is quoted in telegram 146 from Budapest, October 24. (Ibid., 864.413/10–2458)
  5. London Times, October 24, 1958, from Vienna: “The Hungarian refusal to grant Cardinal Mindszenty a safe conduct to attend the Conclave of the Sacred College of Cardinals to take part in the election of the Pope, did not surprise observers here, who predicted all along that the Hungarians will describe the American request asking for permission for Cardinal Mindszenty to leave Hungary as ‘gross interference in the internal affairs’ of their country.

    “Hungarian refugees here said today that the timing of the American request coinciding with the eve of the second anniversary of the Hungarian revolt was instrumental for the uncompromising refusal.” [Footnote in the source text.]

  6. Telegram 119 described the Legation’s informing the Cardinal of the Pope’s death. (Department of State, Central Files, 864.413/10–958)
  7. Not printed. (Ibid., 864.413/10–1058)
  8. Not printed. (Ibid., 864.413/10–1358)
  9. Not printed. (Ibid., 864.413/10–958)
  10. Not printed. (Ibid., 864.413/10–1358)
  11. Text of the Hungarian Foreign Office’s note of October 22 was transmitted to the Department of State in telegram 143 from Budapest, October 22. (Ibid., 864.413/10–2258)
  12. Not found.
  13. Copies of both these letters are in Department of State, Hungary Desk Files: Lot 75 D 45, Refuge for Cardinal Mindszenty.
  14. Not printed. (Department of State, Central Files, 864.413/4–1657)
  15. Not printed. (Ibid., 764.00/11–1958)