D.C., October 31, 2006 - Fifty years
ago today the Soviet Presidium overturned its earlier decision
to pull its troops out of Hungary in the face of a popular uprising,
yet the CIA--with only one Hungarian-speaking officer stationed
in Budapest at the time--failed to foresee either the uprising
or the Soviet invasion to come, according to declassified CIA
histories posted on the Web by the National Security Archive
at George Washington University (www.nsarchive.org).
Describing the several days in early November 1956 when it
seemed the Hungarian Revolution had succeeded (before the Soviet
tanks rolled in on November 4), a CIA
Clandestine Service History written in 1958 commented:
"This breath-taking and undreamed-of state of affairs not
only caught many Hungarians off-guard, it also caught us off-guard,
for which we can hardly be blamed since we had no inside information,
little outside information, and could not read the Russians'
Through a Freedom of Information Act request and appeal, Johns
Hopkins University (SAIS) professor Charles Gati obtained the
heavily-censored extracts from two previously secret CIA histories
in the Clandestine Service History series for his critically-praised
new book Failed
Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest and the 1956 Hungarian
Revolt (Stanford University Press and Woodrow
Wilson Center Press, 2006).
The extracts come from a two-volume
history of CIA operations in Hungary (dated May
1972 and only 2 copies made) and from a
two-volume history titled "The Hungarian Revolution and
Planning for the Future" (dated January 1958).
Because of the extensive security deletions, it is impossible
to determine the length of each document, but judging by the
page numbers, the first pair of volumes totals at least 99 and
71 pages, and the second at least 106 pages.
The CIA histories show
that the Agency had essentially only one Hungarian-speaking
officer based in Hungary during the 1950-1957 period, and for
several years that person spent "95 percent" of his
time on "cover duties." "He mailed letters, purchased
stamps and stationery ...," among other "support tasks,"
the history noted. At the time of the Revolution in fall 1956,
he was preoccupied with official contacts and doing interviews
with Hungarian visitors.
The name of the sole CIA officer in Budapest in 1956, Geza
Katona, is censored from the CIA histories but included in Professor
Gati's book with Katona's permission. Katona is also the subject
of an extensive oral history interview in the Summer 2006 issue
of Hungarian Quarterly (pp. 109-131), which repeats
his cover story as a State Department official. According to
the CIA histories, Katona took part in no operational activities
because he had no time and was "constrained from so doing
by the US policy of nonintervention." In fact, the histories
say, "At no time in the period 23 October - 4 November,
if one looks at the situation realistically, did we have anything
that could or should have been mistaken for an intelligence
The CIA documents admit that the bulk of the reports CIA received
were from the border areas near Austria. The Agency had no
steady information from Budapest ("the storm center")
or on a country-wide basis. The histories acknowledge this meant
intelligence was "one-sided" and that therefore planning
based on that intelligence was also "one-sided."
On the issue of whether support from outside the country would
have been useful or welcome (which may seem an obvious point,
but until now the evidence has consisted only of memoir accounts
and second-hand literature citing unnamed intelligence sources),
the CIA histories reflect this lingering controversy, reporting
with some feeling that, based on "the whole picture we
now have of the mentality of the revolutionaries ... almost
anyone from the West, of whatever nationality, color or purpose
would have been received with open arms by any of the revolutionary
councils in the cities of Hungary during the period in question."
Two related issues have remained open to debate since the revolution--whether
the United States sent weapons or ammunition to the rebels or
deployed specially trained émigré forces into
Hungary. The CIA records appear to put both questions to rest.
A few days after the revolt broke out, Katona queried the agency
on official policy regarding arms and ammunition. On October
28, Headquarters responded, "we must restrict ourselves
to information collection only [and] not get involved in anything
that would reveal U.S. interest or give cause to claim intervention."
The next day, Washington replied more specifically "that
it was not permitted to send U.S. weapons in." In fact,
the implication in the histories is that transferring arms was
never seriously contemplated: "At this date no one had
checked precisely on the exact location and nature of U.S. or
other weapons available to CIA. This was done finally in early
December" of 1956.
Numerous published accounts have indicated the existence of
secret U.S.-trained émigré groups in the 1950s
identified under such rubrics as Red Sox/Red Cap or the Volunteer
Freedom Corps. But it has never been officially confirmed whether
any groups of this kind played a part in Hungary in 1956. From
the Clandestine Service Histories, it seems clear they did not.
Although the new documents confirm that small psychological
warfare and paramilitary units came into being in the early
1950s, (including the Hungarian National Council headed by Bela
Varga), and occasional reconnaissance missions took place at
that time, the prospects for penetrating into Hungary deteriorated
by 1953 when stepped up controls by Hungarian security forces
and "the meager talent available" among potential
agents made cross-border operations essentially untenable.
Thus, far from revealing the deployment of any organized contingents
that may have existed, the new documents imply that something
much more spur-of-the-moment took place: on October 31, "Headquarters
seconded a scheme which had shortly before come out of [deleted]
and which proposed that certain defectors [deleted] who had
volunteered to go back into Hungary be allowed to go."
The histories contain other interesting insights into CIA operations,
including the complaint that another obstacle to their activities
was the involvement of the U.S. military (presaging current
conflicts between the two bureaucracies in Iraq). The authors
sarcastically write that "If we [the CIA] were in no position
to act efficiently ... the military is, was, and always will
be even worse off." They recommend that in the future the
CIA keep the military "at arm's length" and only do
what's necessary "to keep them happy."
Of course, according to Soviet documents
previously published by the National Security Archive
(click here for
more selections from The 1956 Hungarian Revolution: A History
in Documents, edited by Csaba Bekes, Malcolm Byrne, and
Janos M. Rainer, from Central European University Press), the
availability of an abundance of intelligence assets does not
necessarily provide all the answers. Moscow was also taken by
surprise by the Revolution despite the thousands of Soviet soldiers,
KGB officers, and Party informants present in Hungary. Rather
than understanding the sources of the discontent, it was easier
for Soviet operatives and even the leadership to cast woefully
misdirected blame on the CIA for the unrest. Klement Voroshilov
remarked at the October 28 Presidium session: "The American
Secret Services are more active in Hungary than Comrades Suslov
and Mikoyan are," referring to the two Party leaders sent
to Budapest to negotiate a modus vivendi with the new Nagy government.
At that moment, of course, the Soviet Presidium had more active
members (2) in Budapest than the CIA had case officers (1).
The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe
Acrobat Reader to view.
Clandestine Services History, The Hungarian Revolution and
Planning for the Future, 23 October - 4 November 1956, Volume
I of II, January 1958
Historical Staff, The Clandestine Service Historical Series,
Hungary, Volume I, [Deleted], May 1972
Historical Staff, The Clandestine Service Historical Series,
Hungary, Volume II, External Operations, 1946 - 1965, May
Notes from the CPSU CC Presidium Session, October 28, 1956
Notes from the Session of the CPSU CC Presidium on October 30,
1956 (Re: Point 1 of Protocol No. 49)
Notes and Attached Extract from the Minutes of the CPSU CC Presidium
Meeting, October 31, 1956