US rhetorical support for the Hungarian ’56 uprising got a lot of people killed by mattsteinglass
June 18, 2009, 2:05 pm
Filed under: Europe, Iran, United States

The Wall Street Journal editorial page get things backwards. (Via Hilzoy.)

Someday a future president may have to apologize to Iranians for Mr. Obama’s nonfeasance, just as Mr. Obama apologized for the Eisenhower administration’s meddling. But the better Eisenhower parallel is with Hungary in 1956. Then as now a popular uprising coalesced around a figure (Imre Nagy in Hungary; Mir Hossein Mousavi in Iran), who had once been a creature of the system. Then as now it was buoyed by inspiring American rhetoric about freedom and democracy coming over Voice of America airwaves. And then as now the administration effectively turned its back on the uprising when U.S. support could have made a difference. Hungary would spend the next 33 years in the Soviet embrace.

The support of the US government for the Hungarian uprising in 1956 “could have made a difference” only if the US were prepared to invade Hungary and go to war with the USSR. The US would quickly have lost such a confrontation to the overwhelming Soviet superiority in conventional forces in Europe, and would have risked seeing Soviet tanks roll into Western Europe as well. The US would then have been faced with the decision of whether to launch a nuclear war. President Eisenhower made the correct — the only possible — decision, in declining to intervene in Hungary.

The error in 1956 was on the part of Radio Free Europe, in holding out to Hungarian resisters the false hope that the West would or could intervene on their behalf. It would be similarly cruel and immoral to give Iranian demonstrators the false idea that we in the democratic world can offer them anything more than our sympathy. We can’t. We will not invade Iran, and nothing else we do will have much of an effect on the behavior of a regime fighting to retain its hold on power. The demonstrators in Iran must know that they have to win the struggle for a fair election on their own, and must be prepared to face the consequences of failure. And they do know this. That is precisely what makes them so courageous. It would be stupid and irresponsible of the US to use their struggle as an occasion for ineffectual rhetorical grandstanding, and fortunately President Obama, unlike our last President, seems able to resist the temptation.

4 Comments so far
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In terms of political optsions, I do not think 1956 Hungary makes a very good comparison with 2009 Iran. The Hungarian dissidents may have desired a Western invasion to liberate them from the Communists, and ultimately the Soviets, but there’s no way any group in Iran wants an American invasion of that country. I think this is a lame apologetic for a do-nothing strategy. The do-nothing strategy may turn out to have its benefits in the long run (or not, time will tell), but I don’t think this is a very strong defense of it.

Comment by Ron Henzel

I don’t really get the argument. What is it you think the US can do in Iran? It seems to me there is nothing the US can do, and that in the absence of the ability to do anything, empty declarations of solidarity are irresponsible. More important, the struggle here is not just about Iran. It’s about the wider Muslim world, where the less directly involved the US government seems to be in these events, the better. Look: everyone in the world knows that America and Americans sympathize with reform, with the demonstrators, with fair elections. Nothing needs to be done to make this more explicit. The story here is about the isolationist, xenophobic, militarist side an Islamic regime cracking down on the open, reform-oriented, democratic side. We can’t do anything that will have a concrete result on this struggle; why should we do something symbolic that will only screw up the world’s understanding of what’s happening and put us in a worse strategic position, regardless of which side wins?

Comment by mattsteinglass

Your response would be more credible if you included your disapproval of covert American or Soros support for the demonstrators – which is almost certainly occurring.

Comment by Frank

What George Soros does is his own doing, and the CIA does not have the power to bring hundreds of thousands of people on to the street. For the life of me I cannot see what support the US can offer peaceful demonstrators other than allowing them internet access, better communications etc.

The thing which worries me is what may happen should a civil war result. Ahmedinejad may not have received 27 million votes, but he certainly has the support of a substantial portion of the populace. Western involvement on one side in a civil war in a potentially nuclear state, where other countries may offer support to the other side – this would be a dangerous state of affairs.

Comment by FOARP

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