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Dealing with a Dictatorship: The United States and Hungary, 1956-1989

June 03, 2008 // 4:00pm5:00pm
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On Tuesday June 3, 2008 the Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project hosted a discussion on Dealing with a Dictatorship: The United States and Hungary, 1956-1989. Laszlo Borhi, senior research fellow at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences' Institute of History, discussed the evolution of U.S.–Hungarian relations throughout the Cold War.

U.S.-Hungarian relations, according to Borhi, after reaching a low point in 1956, evolved throughout the following decades to reach new highs before the fall of the Berlin Wall. By the time of President George H.W. Bush's visit to Hungary in 1988, the regime considered the U.S. one of its most important Western partners.

Borhi explained that in the years surrounding the 1956 uprising, U.S.-Hungarian relations were strained due to two main issues, both of which related to Hungary's legitimacy as a state. U.S. policy towards Hungary sought to deny the communist regime legitimacy, first by delaying Hungarian ascension to the U.N. until 1955, and secondly by refusing to return Hungary's Holy Crown—the symbol of Hungarian statehood. The crown had been captured by U.S. forces in Austria in 1945, and been held at Fort Knox until its eventual return by President Jimmy Carter on 6 January 1978.

After taking over the party leadership during the 1956 uprising, Janos Kadar was treated by the U.S. as a Soviet puppet. Yet dictators, Borhi contended, want to be treated as independent leaders of sovereign states; therefore, the U.S. policy of linking U.S.-Hungarian relations to U.S.-Soviet relations exacerbated the tensions in the U.S.-Hungarian relationship.

By the 1960s, U.S.-Hungarian tensions had begun to dissipate as both countries realized that they could benefit from "building bridges"—as the U.S. termed the policy—by improving trade and cultural relations. The Achilles' heel of every communist nation, Borhi explained, was the economy. One of Hungary's most important goals in the 1960s was to achieve Most-Favored-Nation (MFN) status. Though the Hungarian government did not necessarily approve of Western democracy, it understood that its people wanted consumer goods like those available in the West.

The 1960s also saw a softening of U.S. policy towards Hungary and other Eastern European regimes. While U.S. policy during the 1950s had emphasized the need to ‘roll-back' Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, during the 1960s, the goal was to oversee the evolution of Eastern European regimes into entities more independent from Moscow. In keeping with this goal, the U.S. developed economic and cultural relations with Hungary as a means of exerting political influence.

With the onset of détente in the 1970s, stability became the main objective of U.S. foreign policy; the U.S. wanted to improve bilateral relations with Hungary without upsetting U.S.-Soviet relations. In the late 1970's, Hungary increasingly decoupled its relations with the U.S. from the general political line of the U.S.-USSR relationship, and it was able to establish a relatively independent foreign policy. Hungary, Borhi argued, had one foot in the Soviet Bloc and another in the West.

By seeking to foster stability and prosperity, Kadar's image as a leader changed enormously. Portrayed as an instrument of Soviet oppression in 1956, by the late 1980s he was viewed as the most respected statesman in communist Eastern Europe. All the while, serious political concessions were made in return for U.S. economic aid.

By 1989, Hungary was seen as the pillar of stability in Eastern Europe, and U.S. policy towards Hungary was summed up by George H.W. Bush during his 1989 visit to Budapest. The U.S. did not aim to cause a problem between the USSR and Hungary, Bush stated, rather the U.S. hoped that liberalization would "spill-over" from Hungary to the rest of Eastern Europe and the USSR at some indeterminate point in the future.

Christian F. Ostermann, Director, Cold War International History Project

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