About the National Archives

The 50th Anniversary of the Hungarian Uprising

Remarks by Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States
February 13, 2006, Washington, DC, at the U.S. State Department

Madame Secretary, Undersecretary Burns, Ambassador Simonyi, Congressman Lantos, Cardinal McCarrick, Rabbi Schneier, Reverend Gunn, and distinguished guests:

On behalf of the National Archives and Records Administration, it is an honor for me to take part in this occasion, and I brought with me a small number of documents related to the historic events we commemorate today.  I also brought with me a personal story.

Only hours after news of the Soviet army’s 1956 invasion of Hungary reached the United States, a New York City College student joined hundreds of other Americans outside the United Nations building on First Avenue in an impromptu vigil, hoping and praying that the world body would take some action—for example, as it had done six years earlier in response to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea—in this instance, some action to halt (or at least to oppose) the imminent Soviet repression of Hungary’s new reformist government and its supporters.  Many, including this student, remained outside the U.N. For days, with some even urging (if necessary) full-scale war against the Soviet Union (in short, World War III) if that was the only way to rescue the Hungarian people from the reestablishment of Soviet control.

I was that student, and this was the first consciously political act of my life.  But, in sober retrospect, I was wrong in believing that world war was a rational strategy at that anguished moment.  I recognize that now. The Hungarian people had the courage to endure continued occupation and oppression while awaiting eventual liberation, and as John F. Kennedy once wrote, “The courage of life is often a less dramatic spectacle than the courage of a final moment: but it is no less a magnificent mixture of triumph and tragedy.”

Tragedy then came in 1956 and in full measure.  Triumph came finally in the late-1980s with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the coming to power of freely elected post-Communist governments in Hungary and elsewhere in the region.  As for that student, I had the privilege of serving at the time as president of the Center for Democracy—assisting on occasion leaders of Hungary’s new parliament and government, even hosting its new President, Arpad Goncz, on an American tour of Monticello, Montpelier, and the National Archives’ Charters of Freedom as part of our Bill of Rights bicentennial celebration, and watching with pride as Hungarians “grew” their own stable multiparty democracy.

A final word.  In the dark days following suppression of the 1956 revolt, bitter humor served Hungarians as occasional solace for the world’s abandonment.  One popular story had three hated pre-1956 communist leaders (Rakosi, Gero, and Farkas) sharing a rowboat on Lake Balaton when the boat suddenly capsized.  None of the three could swim, and all three screamed for help.

Question:  Who was saved?  Answer:  The Hungarian people.  In the end, of course, foreshadowed by their special bravery and courage three decades earlier, the Hungarian people saved themselves.