Podcast: Irv Gellman on Vice President Nixon and the Hungarian Refugee Crisis
Portrait of Frederic Daday’s “Nixon at Andau” depicting then Vice President Nixon’s visit to the Austro-Hungarian border in December 1957
Irv Gellman is author of “The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961”
On this edition of the Nixon Now Podcast, we’re talking the Hungarian Revolution and Refugee crisis of 1956, then Vice President Nixon’s visit to the Austro-Hungarian border that December, and his work on the Federal response to the crisis.
Our guest again is Irwin Gellman. He’s a historian, and the author of two major Nixon biographies, “The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946-1952,” and the President and the Apprentice: Nixon and Eisenhower, 1952-1961.”
Jonathan Movroydis: You’re listening to the “Nixon Now” Podcast, I’m Jonathan Movroydis. This is brought to you by the Nixon Foundation. We’re broadcasting from the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California. You can follow us on Twitter at Nixon Foundation or @nixonfoundation.org.
Today we’re talking the Hungarian Revolution and refugee crisis of 1956. And then Vice President Nixon’s visit to the Austro-Hungarian border in December 1956. Our guest, again, is Irwin Gellman. He’s a historian and author of two major Nixon biographies, “The Contender: Richard Nixon, The Congress Years, 1946 to 1952,” and, “The President and the Apprentice, Eisenhower and Nixon 1952 to 1961.” Dr. Gellman, welcome.
Irv Gellman: Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Just to start off, can you give us a bit of a background on Hungary at the time. What was its political status in the communist orbit?
Irv Gellman: Hungary, like most of Eastern Europe that the Soviets had put under their domination were what was Central Europe, before World War II, and then under the Nazi orbit. After World War II, the Soviets assumed control of those governments through puppet regimes for one major reason, and that was to act as a buffer to stop a third invasion of the Soviet Union.
So, there was a whole series of unrest in Eastern Europe after World War II. There was a uprising in East Berlin, there was an uprising just before the Hungarian revolt in Poland. And because of the general conditions in Eastern Europe, as controlled by the Soviet dominated governments, there was a great deal of unrest on the standard of living that those people had.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was Hungary within the Warsaw Pact? And what did that membership entail?
Irv Gellman: Again, yes, because it was a, for want of a better word, a puppet government, it was under the control of the Warsaw Pact with Soviet troops stationed in Hungary, and stationed in Poland, and stationed in East Germany, and stationed in East Berlin.
The nature of the domination, for want of a better word, was totalitarian regimes that were backed up, of course, by Russian might.
Jonathan Movroydis: It had been Nikita Khrushchev’s, the premiere of the Soviet Union, his policy not to be as heavy handed as his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. In that case, did Hungary…did they cross a line that Khrushchev didn’t want crossed despite his, you know, relative benevolence to Stalin?
Irv Gellman: Again, when you kill 20 million people or so, and who’s counting after 20 million people, Stalin was as much of a tyrant as you could get. And, depending on his frame of mind on any particular day, depending on what kind of approach was going to go on, and how many people were going to be butchered.
But Khrushchev, while he said he was more benevolent, to use your word, than Stalin, in the Hungarian situation, he was as much of an autocrat, if not more, than Stalin was.
Jonathan Movroydis: In what ways was he more autocratic?
Irv Gellman: Well, once the revolution or the revolt reached a certain stage, he brought in Soviet troops and tanks and whatever it took to quell the revolt. There was no question that this was not going to be a benevolent thing, but, you know, a certain amount of Hungarians and, for that matter, Russians, were going to die.
Jonathan Movroydis: What was the Eisenhower administration’s policy to this? What was their perspective on Hungary in the Eastern Europe and satellite states? Did they have a…Was there a particular policy evolving within the Eisenhower administration? Was it more of a wait-and-see approach?
Irv Gellman: None of the above. What it was, was a whole series of different layers. There were many arch conservatives, for want of a better word, that wanted to have what they would call the liberation of Eastern Europe, or the roll-back of the Soviet satellites. Somehow, various factions within the Republican Party, and, for that matter, in the Democratic Party wanted to remove the Soviets from Eastern Europe, which of course was not going to happen. The Eisenhower administration, and remember that Eisenhower was the first Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. And he knew the amount of power and the amount of armed forces that the Soviets had, the amount of forces that the allies had towards the Eastern Europe block.
And his basic position was, for want of a better world, you nibbled away. You try to influence Soviet policy in Eastern Europe. You try to have better relations with, for example, the Poles, and/or the Hungarians, etc. And probably the greatest benefit was making Austria a neutral country in 1955. So, the idea was to slowly erode Soviet influence in the Eastern European countries.
Jonathan Movroydis: And why was Austria a neutral country at this period of time?
Irv Gellman: Well, again, it was a four-power decision. It was the Soviets, the British, the French, and the Americans that had spheres of influence. And what they decided was, better than having their troops stationed in Austria, they will make a deal with the Austrian Government, promise to be entirely neutral between the East and the West. And the idea behind it was that there was no real advantage for either the Soviet bloc or the allies to maintain troops stationed in Austria. There was no real benefit to either side. So, it was a mutually beneficial thing that all troops were removed from the Austrian state. And again, in addition to that, Austria posed no particular military threat.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there any activity within the Eisenhower administration to support a revolt of Hungarian freedom fighters against, you know, the Hungarian regime and the rolling of Soviet tanks?
Irv Gellman: There were a whole series after the fact of speculation. The radio free Europe or the CIA, somebody was interested in fomenting a revolt in Hungary. I think all of those were specious claims in the United States, especially knowing Eisenhower’s military background, did anything in regard to fomenting a revolt.
The idea to hide fomenting a revolt would mean, in fact, that the Eisenhower administration would have to deploy troops to Hungary, and that was one thing that President Eisenhower/General Eisenhower had no intention of fighting a third world war over Hungary.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was there any idea…Could you tell us, our audience, a little bit about the ensuing refugee crisis?
Irv Gellman: Well, the ensuing refugee crisis was, quite simply, there was this massive outflow of people that were seeking asylum outside of Hungary. They felt, as many refugees throughout the centuries, that they were being politically repressed, persecuted, and in addition, the standard of living was drab, for want of a better word.
The idea was to move out into other countries that would give them a better standard of living. The idea that most of these people, or some of these people thought that, because of their efforts or because of the possibility that the revolt would succeed, that they can move back in a short period of time, which of course never happened.
And in the United States, while there has been over, since the ’20s, a legal status to immigration, that status in 1956, because of the deluge of refugees from Hungary to the United States, the Eisenhower administration had to ask Congress for emergency legislation to allow for this flow of Hungarian asylum seekers into the United States.
And that created problems with Congress with anti-immigration Congressmen over what they were going to do, and how long they were going to do it, and changing the immigration laws which they fought desperately not to change.
Jonathan Movroydis: Talking about the anti-immigration sentiment, specifically, Eisenhower. You write that, “Hiding in plain sight was Ike’s desire to change America’s immigration laws, specifically the McCarran-Walter Immigration and Nationality Act.” What was that about, and how did he ultimately try to seek to change it?
Irv Gellman: Well, the McCarran Act tried to limit immigration, even more so to a specific set of immigrants which frowned upon people from the Soviet Union or Southern Eastern Europe, because they were “less desirable.” What Eisenhower had was The Refugee Relief Act passed in 1953, which allowed for greater flexibility than the McCarran Act allowed for. But even then, there was great hesitation, if not actually anti-immigration sentiment in the U.S. Congress, especially in the House of Representatives to change the legislation.
Jonathan Movroydis: Who in Congress opposed it?
Irv Gellman: The one person that comes to mind is, I think, Congressman Walters, or Congressman Francis, I’m not sure what his name was, but he was very, very powerful in making immigration legislation and very much opposed, as was, as a matter of fact, most of organized labor. They looked upon this increase in refugees coming to hurting the U.S. labor market.
Jonathan Movroydis: You talk about Eisenhower sort of bypassing legislative process and granting visas to Hungarian refugees. Could you talk a little bit about this? How many visas were granted, and overall, how did the Eisenhower administration help with the relief of Hungarian refugees?
Irv Gellman: Well, basically, he used a loophole through reference with the Justice Department into allowing approximately, I believe, 5000 emergency visas for asylum seekers. And it was, quite frankly, from Eisenhower’s standpoint, a public relations move to get Congress to pass emergency legislation to allow more Hungarian refugees in, which, again, there were many in Congress that were recalcitrant, and just didn’t want to change legislation and did not want to allow for these refugees.
What Eisenhower and the administration succeeded in is putting enough pressure on them for enough people in Congress to be willing to temporarily change the legislation. I believe somewhere around 35,000 Hungarian refugees ultimately came to the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: Why did Nixon ultimately send vice…I’m sorry, why did President Eisenhower ultimately sent Vice President Nixon to Hungary in December 1956?
Irv Gellman: Again, it was part of the package of making a greater public statement. By sending Nixon, he was performing a service which drew greater and greater attention. And remember, also, Eisenhower sent Nixon in 1952 to the inauguration of the president of Mexico. In 1953, he sent him on a multi-trip around the world to visit various places to bring greater attention to various individuals.
In 1955-56, Nixon went to Central America and the Caribbean, as well as to Brazil in early 1956. By sending Nixon to Hungary, Eisenhower was emphasizing Nixon’s role, and the goodwill that Nixon had accomplished in these earlier missions. And every time, by the way, Eisenhower sent out Nixon to go in all of these missions, Nixon went to the White House, and informally, Eisenhower briefed him on what he wanted done.
There were no minutes of these meetings, but it was very clear that Eisenhower was using his own presidential prerogatives to instruct Nixon on what he wanted done. And what he wanted to have done in the Hungarian crisis is, one, send more aid to Austria to allow them to take in more refugees, and two, from his standpoint in the American point of view, was to allow more Hungarian asylum seekers to come to the United States. And Nixon handled both of those assignments very well.
Jonathan Movroydis: Was it also in part to signal to the Soviets that their behavior in the region was unacceptable by highlighting at least a vice presidential visit there?
Irv Gellman: Absolutely. The whole idea was, you know, to shine a black on black light on the Soviets to have American propaganda say, “Look, do you want to live under Soviet rule that’s sending tanks into Budapest and killing, you know, thousands of Hungarians and forcing thousands and thousands more to flee?”
It was, you know, a red-letter day, a red-banner day for American propaganda to have this kind of black eye, for want of a better word, on the idea of peaceful coexistence and Soviet benevolence as, you know, going to reach another plateau of heaven by being under the Soviet system.
Jonathan Movroydis: When he was there in mid-December, who did he speak with? You know, he toured refugee camps, he was meeting with diplomats. Who did he speak with, and what were the purpose of those conversations?
Irv Gellman: Well, again, to draw attention. He met with the chancellor, he met with the Prime Minister of Austria, all of these major leaders in Austria saying, “Look, you know, United States has your back. We’re sending you more and more money, we appreciate it.” He visited refugee camps and said, “Look what the Soviets are doing. They’re forcing all these people to flee their homeland. Shame on them.”
He went to the various refugee camps to take photo ops with the little children that were being removed. At one place he played Jingle Bells to, again, the photogenic and the press who followed him. It was a massive, massive press presence and photographic presence of all this material going on, to heighten the awareness of the refugee crisis.
Jonathan Movroydis: There’s a story about President Nixon or Vice President Nixon being at the embassy late one night December 19th, and then taking a smaller group with him back to Andau on the Austrian-Hungarian border. What would he hope to accomplish for this trip?
Irv Gellman: Well, the idea initially was, he was never going to go to the border because it was too dangerous. The idea was, additionally, he said he had no intention of going to the Hungarian border. But the idea of Nixon going to the bridge to freedom at Andau was such a great opportunity, that he was actually escorted by the Hungarian police through the border, and aided and abetted in this operation, to watch and to even assist some of the Hungarians go from Hungary over the bridge into Austria as a demonstration of how the Soviet system was failing.
Jonathan Movroydis: What recommendations, you know, Nixon completes his trip, he comes back to Washington, D.C. what recommendations does he have to Congress when he comes back? He gives a national broadcast as well. To the American people in general, what does he come back with?
Irv Gellman: Well, again, not only does he come back with, but the first person he sees upon arrival is he goes to the White House, where Eisenhower debriefs him. And again, they discuss what they’re going to do. And he gives not only this national broadcast about, “Shame on the Soviets,” but also the need for the U.S. Congress to allow more of these refugees in.
And when he goes in the national broadcast, it’s also a lobbying effort to get Congress move. And it’s no surprise that because of the pressure of the President, the Vice President, and the people that are influencing those refugees that are already coming, that Congress passes special legislation to allow more Hungarian refugees into the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon also consulted with Herbert Hoover after the trip, who would organize relief for Russia in 1922. What did Hoover tell Nixon?
Irv Gellman: Again, Hoover was all for this because he helped with supplies of food, and clothing, etc. And Hoover, from the standpoint of what he did in World War I for war relief, this was another opportunity for the former president and what he did well, and for what people remembered he did well in World War I, as a projection of what the American public should be doing and what the American Congress should be doing as a sort of, kind of helping in this war effort with these Hungarians fleeing the war-torn country to come to a better place. It was all, again, you know, brilliantly supervised by the President of the United States.
Jonathan Movroydis: This Nixon’s whole experience in the Austro-Hungarian border at Andau was memorialized in a portrait by Ferenc Daday, appropriately called “Nixon at Andau.” Could you tell us a little about the artist and the painting?
Irv Gellman: Well, the painting is huge, and at one point, I don’t know now, but at one point, it was prominently featured at the President’s library in Yorba Linda. I don’t know if it still is or it isn’t, but it was a gift from the painter.
The interesting thing is, they’re crossing the bridge, and prominently featured on this relatively large painting is this picture of Nixon watching these people cross the bridge. It was a very clear description of what was going on in Hungary, how Daday, I think is pronounce his name, I’m not sure, saw this and how grateful the Hungarians were to Nixon, in his efforts to help the Hungarian people.
Jonathan Movroydis: Nixon later said in his memoirs that the United States could not help the Eastern European satellites free themselves completely from Soviet domination. The idea of armed revolt was futile against the Soviet military superiority. Peaceful change, he reasoned, was the only answer. What did Nixon mean by peaceful change?
Irv Gellman: Again, what Nixon learned, especially under Eisenhower, was that there was no military option. That the superiority and military might was so overwhelming that there was no way that the Soviets were going to be forced out of Eastern Europe. And what Nixon meant by that was that the Soviet government, as he would say on numerous occasions, was bound to fail. And in his acceptance speech at the 1960 presidential nomination in front of the Republican convention, I don’t know the exact quote, whereas Khrushchev says, “Your children will live under communism. Let us as Americans say to Khrushchev, that your children will live under democracy.”
And it was probably the most famous lines of that speech. But Nixon was not certain, he had this long range goal that the Soviet system, internally, would self-destruct.
Jonathan Movroydis: Our guest today is Irwin Gellman, historian and author of, “The Contender, Richard Nixon, The Congress years 1946 to 1952.” And, “The President and the Apprentice, Eisenhower and Nixon 1952 to 1961.” Dr. Gellman, thank you so much for joining us.
Irv Gellman: You’re welcome. Thank you.
Jonathan Movroydis: Please check back for future podcasts at nixonfoundation.org, or on your favorite podcast app. This is Jonathan Movroydis in Yorba Linda.