Winner of the 2007 Marshall Shulman Book Prize, awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies

The 1956 Hungarian revolution, and its suppression by the U.S.S.R., was a key event in the Cold War, demonstrating deep dissatisfaction with both the communist system and old-fashioned Soviet imperialism. But now, fifty years later, the simplicity of this David and Goliath story should be revisited, according to Charles Gati’s new history of the revolt.

Denying neither Hungarian heroism nor Soviet brutality, Failed Illusions nevertheless modifies our picture of what happened. Imre Nagy, a reform communist who headed the revolutionary government and turned into a genuine patriot, could not rise to the occasion by steering a realistic course between his people’s demands and Soviet geopolitical and ideological interests. The United States was all talk, no action, while Radio Free Europe simultaneously backed the insurgents’ unrealizable demands and opposed Nagy. In the end, the Soviet Union followed its imperial impulse instead of seeking a political solution to the crisis in the spirit of de-Stalinization.

Failed Illusions is based on extensive archival research, including the CIA’s operational files, and hundreds of interviews with participants in Budapest, Moscow, and Washington. Personal observations by the author, a young reporter in Budapest in 1956, bring the tragic story vividly to life.

Charles Gati is a political scientist who fled his native Hungary during the 1956 revolt, and is now Senior Adjunct Professor of European Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His previous positions have included teaching Central and Eastern European as well as Russian politics and foreign policy at Union College and Columbia University. He served as a Senior Adviser on the Department of State's Policy Planning Staff in the early 1990's. His publications include The Bloc That Failed: Soviet-East Relations in Transition (1990), and Hungary and the Soviet Bloc (1986).



1. Introduction to the Argument

2. The Inadvertent Revolutionary

3. Washington and Budapest before the Explosion

4. Moscow and Budapest before the Explosion

5. The Revolt that Failed

6. The Revolt that Did Not Have to Fail

7. Epilogue: Memories Repressed and Recovered


Failed Illusions casts incisively a new perspective on three key dimensions of the historic drama that was the Hungarian Revolution: the unsavory background and the heroic epiphany of Imre Nagy, the revolution’s tragic leader; the confused, disruptive, and ultimately devious Soviet efforts to manipulate the Hungarian communists; and the impotent futility of US posturing which masqueraded as ‘the policy of liberation.’ Riveting as a story, significant as a history.”—Zbigniew Brzezinski, former U.S. National Security Advisor, author of The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict

“This important work deepens our knowledge of events through scores of new documentary findings, filling in fascinating details about events, decisions, and key players’ personal philosophies and points of view. It’s the only book of its kind.”—Malcolm Byrne, Deputy Director and Director of Research, National Security Archive

“Gati draws on reams of new research and documentary evidence from Hungary, while ferreting out scores of fascinating documents from the U.S. archives. Specialists on this subject will benefit immensely from this work, but the book is written in such an engaging manner that it will also appeal to a more general audience.”—Mark Kramer, Director of Cold War Studies, Harvard University

“Charles Gati’s Failed Illusions is a searching, scholarly account of the political calculations of the Kremlin, the White House, and the Hungarian Communist leadership.”—The New York Times

Failed Illusions sheds new light on American policy, especially the controversial role of Radio Free Europe … Mr. Gati’s excellent footnotes, several quite personal and poignant, give added depth to the story.”—The Economist

“Charles Gati’s Failed Illusions is an outstanding work.”—London Review of Books

“The product of more than 15 years of extraordinary research and interviewing, much of it in Hungarian, his book highlights just how much we have to learn about key Cold War events and, more important, how we should go about learning it.”—Foreign Affairs

“Gati’s Failed Illusions towers high above the rest as by far the best book published on 1956.”—Slavic Review

Failed Illusions is a meticulously documented historical analysis (a magnifying glass will help with the hundreds of fascinating footnotes).”—The Wall Street Journal