Does anyone remember when those who long for freedom desperately wanted America to come to their aid? Fifty years ago this week, the Hungarian Revolution began, and I know what it was like on those mean streets. No, not personally. I was a young, young schoolgirl at the time. But my husband was a young, young foreign correspondent working for a British newspaper.
It was October, 1956, and Jeffrey was in Egypt covering the Suez crisis when word came that the uprising in Budapest had started. The Cairo story was waning so he cabled London in the wonderful cable-ese of that era: “Everyone outpulling Budapestward. What should I do?” The reply: “Outpull too.” He caught the first plane to Vienna.
He spent the next ten days covering the student-led revolt, the biggest story of its time. He and his colleagues reported such scenes as the battles between the students and the heavily armed Soviet tanks, the hanging of AVH secret policemen upside down from trees, the tearing down of Stalin’s statue, and the tearing up of the cobblestone streets outside the police headquarters — the students believed there was an underground dungeon there where dissidents were being held.
As a reporter, his biggest problem was that there were no working telephone lines in or out of the city. So each night he and his colleagues had to drive to the border with Austria to a pub where they could make phone calls to London and New York. Then, in the early hours, he would drive back to Budapest and the bloodshed.
He was driving a car he had rented in Vienna He draped a Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes over its hood. Nearing Budapest he and his companions would be greeted by cheering crowds in the street, who, mistakenly, thought, they were the vanguard of American and NATO troops. They thought these troops were coming to their aid. They also, he remembers, kept scanning the sky overhead, expecting planes from the West to land.
Just like today in Iraq, the reporters were in danger. A colleague was wounded in the head, a Paris Match photographer killed, and Jeffrey’s hotel room was damaged by a stray shell. While driving around, covering the skirmishes, a group of “Freedom Fighters” took aim directly at his car. Fortunately, his interpreter called out, “The Press! The Press!” He then explained to my husband that the raincoat he had bought in Vienna at the airport was exactly the same color as those worn by the AVH police. “Don’t wear it again,” he admonished him.
For a few days the students celebrated. They thought they had won, and a new prime minister, Imre Nagy, was sworn in. He declared the end of the one party system and withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact. But it was a very short-lived victory. The Soviets troops came back; this time in strength. They seized the city. The headlines on my husband’s page-one stories were: “The Murder of Hungary” and “Hungary Dies Fighting.”
When the Russians closed the border, he was guided down a rutted road and through a corn field, first by farmers and finally by some Freedom Fighters, across the border to safety in Austria. “Please tell the world what is happening, “they begged. He found out later that the field was mined. His story noted that “the Iron Curtain falls again.”
In the weeks afterwards, my husband went to Moscow, where he discovered there was little known about what had been happening in Hungary. Some students at the university, when they heard he had been there, invited him to come and tell them what had happened. Within hours, the Secret police was at his door. His visa, they said, had expired and they escorted him to the airport where they put him on a plane.
Although Nagy made a desperate plea to the United Nations, nobody came to the rescue. Now historians know that America and its allies made the right, although heartbreaking, choice at the time. And Hungary would have freedom. But it would take another 33 years to achieve.