136. Memorandum From the Director of the Office of East European Affairs, Department of State (Andrews) to the Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs (Hartman)1


  • Should We Return the Crown of St. Stephen?

The Issue

For years the US has taken the public position that the Crown of St. Stephen is the property of the Hungarian people and that its return can only be considered “in the light of substantial improvement in our relations with Hungary.” At the same time, we have been concerned about opposition to return of the Crown by Hungarian-Americans. Substantial improvement has occurred recently in US-Hungarian relations. An independent initiative to urge return of the Crown is developing within Congress.2 We, therefore, need to address the issue now.

Our Conclusions

We believe that the time has come to return the Crown to Hungary. The arguments weigh heavily in favor of doing so now. There will inevitably be some opposition expressed here to an announcement that we are returning the Crown, no matter how skillfully it is done. But we believe such opposition is neither deep-seated nor widespread, even among Hungarian-Americans, and that any dust will settle quickly. The factors supporting return of the Crown now—as outlined below—[Page 425]are such that it will be difficult for opponents to justify that we should continue to retain another country’s symbol of nationhood.

A. An early return of the Crown will enhance our position and our influence in Hungary. Aside from MFN, this issue, which has been pending for over 30 years, is the only major unresolved bilateral problem we have with Hungary. Return will strengthen our hand with the Hungarian Government and undoubtedly will generate substantial good will from a nation and people which continues to harbor considerable friendship for the United States.

B. Return will buttress the framework of expanded bilateral relations we have developed with Hungary during the past five years, thereby increasing Hungary’s stake in maintaining this relationship and detente as a whole. Return of the Crown, which really is a relic of the Cold War, would be fully consistent with our efforts to broaden and continue detente. This step would be especially timely during a period in which overall East-West relations are buffeted by the winds of the human rights debate. Furthermore, we believe that achievement of this Hungarian objective would provide an important additional inducement for them to defend with the Soviets their improved relations with us.

C. Return to the Hungarian people of this paramount symbol of the Hungarian nation and its independence will concretely support our long-range goal of encouraging greater autonomy in Eastern Europe. Already a leader within the Warsaw Pact in developing its own distinct national paths in economic management and in its consumer-oriented “goulash Communism”, we believe evolution toward increased Hungarian national identity would be supported by the Crown’s return.

D. Bilateral relations have improved substantially, thus meeting our stated condition for reviewing the issue of return. US-Hungarian relations have improved markedly since Cardinal Mindszenty left Embassy Budapest in late 1971. We have concluded consular and claims agreements; a cultural/scientific exchanges agreement is just about ready for signing.3 With an eye on the Crown as well as on the Johnson Act,4 Hungary has taken special pains to do everything it can to clear away all outstanding financial issues, including payment last December of its sole remaining debt arrearage to the USG.

[Page 426]

Hungary’s attitude toward family reunification is the most liberal in the Warsaw Pact. It has also been the Eastern front-runner in the CSCE implementation. Hungary’s media treatment of the United States, even during the present period of Eastern reaction to human rights criticism, is by and large restrained and lacking in the stridency exhibited by other Communist nations. Vietnam and the Hungarian role in the ICCS are now behind us. The outstanding problem of MFN will not be resolved without legislative action on our side or Hungarian abandonment of an important Soviet policy position. Thus, aside from MFN, our continued possession of the Crown and other coronation regalia is the only major problem separating us from achieving “normalized” relations with this Communist state.

It is evident therefore that, unless we expect a basic change in Hungary’s foreign policy alliance with the Soviet Union, Hungary has done virtually all that can be expected to bring about that substantial improvement in US-Hungarian relations which we have related to return of the Crown. Our policy and position over the past four years has, in effect, encouraged positive action on the part of the Hungarians and created a feeling of anticipation within the Hungarian Government that we will now follow through and return the Crown. Although they appeal to each important U.S. visitor to Budapest, the Hungarians have consciously avoided making the Crown a public issue. However, if no action is taken by us within the next twelve months on this question (frequently likened to another country holding on to the Liberty Bell), an adverse reaction within the Hungarian leadership is certain to grow.

Hungary and Human Rights

With current attention focused on human rights, Hungary presents a substantial contrast to most of its allies. The Communist regime there, as elsewhere, is a far cry from being democratic, but internally and externally, Kadar now runs the least restrictive regime of any in Eastern Europe. He has been more successful than any other Warsaw Pact leader in satisfying the social needs of his people and in tolerating pluralism. The confidence Kadar has gained among Hungarians was demonstrated by his ability to increase meat prices without conflict last summer immediately after the Polish riots.

Hungary’s sole known contribution to this winter’s dissident movement was by a small group of intellectuals who sent a letter of solidarity to the Charter 77 group. The Hungarian Government pointedly took no action against the signatories. (The report at Tab A5 provides revealing evidence that the Hungarian regime is prepared to continue this toler[Page 427]ant line and even to stand up against the Soviets in its defense.) This pragmatic attitude is shown repeatedly, such as in Hungary’s relatively liberal travel and emigration policy, its cessation of jamming of RFE and other Western broadcasts, and its general openness to Western information (including recent telecasting of several unprecedented East-West debates). Hungary’s leaders have also achieved a modus vivendi with the Catholic Church and the Vatican which probably goes as far as anywhere else in Eastern Europe.

If, as a complement to our policy of speaking out on gross violations of human rights, it is useful to respond to positive trends, then return of the Crown to Hungary at this time could be justified further on those grounds.

Opponents and Supporters

While we have long assumed that some vocal Hungarian-Americans would object to return of the Crown, we have been inhibited in our efforts to assess their views more precisely lest we stir up opposition before we were ready to move.

The Freedom Fighters Federation remains the major organization opposing return. The public position of such organizations usually is that the Crown should not be returned until Soviet troops leave and free elections are conducted. Privately, their bottom line seems to be: Don’t return the Crown as long as Kadar, “the betrayer of the 1956 Revolution”, is no longer in control. However, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to get a clear reading of the Hungarian-American attitude, particularly since we are not really able to judge the degree to which the organization’s leaders reflect the views of their constituents. In Congress, supporters and sponsors of periodic resolutions opposing return consist primarily of signers of perennial “Captive Nations” resolutions such as Derwinski (R, Ill.), Crane (R, Ill.), Frank Horton (R, N.Y.), Rousselot (R, Cal.) and Dole.

We are certain the Crown would not be an issue as far as the overwhelming majority of the American public is concerned. If presented in the right terms, we believe they would support return as a moral act of returning an object which does not belong to us. (See, for example, the persuasive Washington Post editorial at Tab B.)6 As for the Hungarian-Americans, in recent years, no doubt partly stemming from the evolution of more liberal Hungarian policies, we have begun to see that this ethnic community is by no means united in opposition to the Crown’s return. Several influential figures, including Ferenc Nagy, the last Prime Minister of non-Communist Hungary, and Zoltan [Page 428] Gombos, publisher of the largest American-Hungarian newspaper, have told us they favor return. As part of this trend, US media reporting last fall of the 20th anniversary of the Hungarian revolution reflected a general recognition of the achievements of the Kadar regime and of its relative acceptance by the Hungarian people.

Recently, movement to return the Crown has begun to emerge in Congress, backed by Vanik (whose Cleveland suburban district includes many Hungarian-Americans), Frenzel (R, Minn.), Frank Thompson (D, N.J.) and Bingham (D–L, N.Y.). At a dinner we attended last month at the Hungarian Ambassador’s, Vanik, Frenzel and Thompson announced to all present that they were willing to gather supporters on the Hill for a resolution urging the President to return the Crown. Following the dinner, Vanik wrote to the Secretary and Frenzel to the President (letters at Tab C).7 Jack Armitage talked to Bill Frenzel this week and learned that Derwinski recently told him he would not have a real problem with a return; Horton, however, was true to form in stressing his opposition. Horton asserts that return of the Crown would be contrary to President Carter’s position on human rights, a charge, as indicated above, we think could be rebutted.

How it Should be Done

So as not to stir up opposition, return of the Crown should be effected by a clean stroke and with no pre-event publicity, if possible, though we will want to consult with a few key members of Congress. You will find Clayton Mudd’s letter (attached at Tab D8) worth reading with regard to modalities.

Following receipt of a green light from the White House, we would have to proceed quietly and on a very closely-held basis to begin the preparatory process which ultimately would lead to the Crown’s return. For example, we will need to develop a logistical plan, which involves numerous complex questions (e.g., how to move these fragile and priceless objects, and how to pay for the move). Also, under any circumstances, EE officers should soon inspect the condition of the Crown and regalia and their containers, a precaution which has regularly and discreetly been taken as part of our custodial obligations, but which we have not done since December 1973.

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In the light of the enhancement of US interests which would ensue, of the substantial recent progress achieved in US-Hungarian relations, and of the consequent growing expectation of the Hungarian Government, we believe the time is ripe to begin our action on the Crown.

We should begin to move soon. As Ambassador McAuliffe aptly observed in his 1975 recommendation concerning return, the Crown is a “wasting asset”—the longer we hold it, the less benefit we will gain when we finally do relinquish it.9

I recommend, therefore, that, in the context of the PRM–910 review, we seek White House authorization to study the modalities of return of the Crown. We would be pleased to discuss this question further with you, either before or after your visit to Budapest.11

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of European Affairs, Office of Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia, Hungarian Holy Crown—Crown Follow Up and Prior Years 1945–1980, Lot 85D389, Box 1, Political: US-Hungary, Crown Follow up, 1978. Secret; Exdis. Drafted by Schmidt and Gerth. Sent through Armitage.
  2. On February 15, Congressman Charles Vanik wrote a letter to Vance stressing Hungarian performance on human rights and family reunification issues and recommending that MFN for Hungary be considered and that the Crown of St. Stephen be returned to Budapest. On February 15, Vanik sent a handwritten note to Carter recommending that “the time has come to return the Crown of St. Stephen to the Hungarian people.” (Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Europe, USSR, and East/West, Hunter Subject File, Box 14, Hungary: Crown of St. Stephen: 4–6/77). Carter responded on February 24, informing Vanik that the administration will carry out an assessment of the issue. (Ibid.)
  3. On April 6, during his visit to Budapest, Hartman signed the “Agreement on Cooperation in Culture, Education, Science and Technology” with Rudolf Ronai, President of the Institute of Cultural Relations. The purpose of the agreement was the “promotion of cooperation between institutions of higher learning of the two countries, the exchange of scholars and artists, and the translation, publication, and presentation of artistic works of each country in the other,” as well as cooperation in scientific programs and projects. (Department of State Bulletin, April 25, 1977, p. 426)
  4. The Johnson Act of 1934 prohibited the sale in the United States of bonds and securities of and by any nation in default.
  5. Not attached.
  6. Not attached. Reference is to “A Cold War Relic,” The Washington Post, May 14, 1974, p. A22
  7. Representative Bill Frenzel wrote Carter on February 22 urging return of the Crown to Hungary “without strings and without bargaining.” (National Archives, RG 59, Bureau of European Affairs, Office of Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia, Hungarian Holy Crown—Crown Follow Up 1979 and Prior Years 1945–1980, Lot 85D389, Box 7, The Crown of St. Stephen)
  8. Not attached.
  9. In telegram 3098 from Budapest, September 24, 1975, the Embassy described the Hungarian Crown and regalia as “the touchstone of relations” between the United States and Hungary and recommended “the Department to conduct a thorough and basic study of U.S. policy with respect to the continued retention of the Crown.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D750331–0134)
  10. See Document 7.
  11. Hartman indicated neither approval nor disapproval.