116. Memorandum From Helmut Sonnenfeldt of the National Security Council Staff to the Presidentʼs Assistant for National Security Affairs (Kissinger)1
- The Crown of St. Stephen: Should We Return It?
The Crown is the property of the Hungarian nation and a Hungarian national treasure which came into U.S. custody toward the end of World War II. Unsettled conditions within Hungary and chronic strains in U.S.-Hungarian relations made consideration of the Crownʼs return to Hungary inappropriate and it has therefore remained in U.S. safekeeping.
Our prolonged custody of the Crown and the question of its ultimate return to Hungary have many delicate aspects. We are mindful not only of the unique character of the Crown as an historic relic of great symbolic and constitutional significance to the Hungarian people but also of the political and emotional sensibilities with which Hungarian émigrés and many Hungarian Americans regard the Crown.
The Hungarian Government has raised the matter of the Crownʼs return in recent years as relations have gradually improved between the United States and Hungary. It was last raised formally by the Hungarians in 1965, but has been mentioned in conversation from time to time since. The Hungarians are confident that we understand their concern about getting the Crown back “sometime.” They also understand that we know the Crown belongs to them, not us. However, they also understand our domestic émigré problem and are not pressing us.
Last year the Hungarians celebrated the millennium of the birth of St. Stephen, and, not unexpectedly, there was press speculation here that the U.S. was giving very serious consideration to returning the Crown of St. Stephen which came into the possession of U.S. forces in Austria in May of 1945. This speculation, in turn, created a flood of inquiries from Hungarian-Americans who demanded that we not return the Crown. You corresponded with Mr. Pasztor (of the Heritage Groups [Page 280] Division of the Republican National Committee), Congressman Hogan and Ambassador John Lodge on this subject and assured them that there were no present plans for the Crownʼs return.2
Pros and Cons on Return
The traditional—and perhaps most telling—factor against a return of the Crown is the domestic U.S. impact. Mr. Pasztor last year indicated that if the Crown were returned, “we can write off the votes of the majority of Hungarian-Americans and those of a significant portion of other Captive Nations people.” There are essentially two reasons for this sort of negative reaction:
- —the Crown has traditionally been regarded as the main symbol of governmental/constitutional power in Hungary; hence, to return the Crown to the Kadar regime would be a breach of the trust under which we have safeguarded the Crown since 1945 for a future legitimate Hungarian Government.
- —the return of the Crown would in the eyes of some finalize our acceptance of the status quo in Eastern Europe more than any other form of action or declaration. This would symbolize a moral approbation of the legitimacy of the Kadar regime, in particular, and other Eastern regimes in general. (This effect would be more accentuated if Mindszenty were also leaving our Embassy refuge at some close point in time.)
Aside from the domestic implications, it has generally been thought that the Crown should not be returned until there had been an improvement in U.S.-Hungarian relations. In recent years, the Czech invasion, and the snub over the proposed astronaut visit, have ruled out any serious thought of returning the Crown. In addition, there was little sign of movement on a variety of bilateral issues—such as claims negotiations, consular relations, etc—to justify a major symbolic gesture on our part.
Those who would argue for the return of the Crown claim that the domestic problems can now—after 25 years—finally be managed. From the foreign relations standpoint, some symbolic gesture may be in order for the most liberal communist regime in Eastern Europe. In strictly bilateral terms, there has been some improvement: the Hungarians have finally indicated a willingness to proceed with claims talks; civil air agreement negotiations may begin in the fall; and we may soon proceed with negotiations on a consular convention.
Ambassador Puhan recommended3 at the beginning of the year that we consider, at an appropriate moment, turning the Crown over to the Vatican for safekeeping and eventual return. (The analogy to the question of Cardinal Mindszenty is clear.) An intermediate move of [Page 281] this kind should reduce to a minimum the domestic problem, and would rid us of the Crown as a problem in our bilateral relations with Hungary. However no indication is available of how the Vatican would react to such a proposal; it might not want a hot potato of this sort while it is normalizing relations with the East Europeans.