Secret Negotiations by the Western Great Powers October 26th-November 4th 1956: British Foreign Office Documents

Hungarian Quarterly, Spring 2000

Until recently students of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution considered the role of the UN as more or less long clarified, not expecting any new and surprising discoveries. Unlike foreign policy documents of the Western powers which only became available in the past decade, and those in the Soviet and Eastern European archives whose exploitation started only in the early nineteen-nineties, official UN documents had been available to historians right from the start, that is immediately after their drafting. These included the minutes of Security Council meetings and of General Assembly sessions, the text of resolutions and of draft resolutions moved by member states plus a great many submissions by governments, political and other organizations and private persons. Given that the UN and its various agencies operated in public, all news was promptly reported by the (Western) press. Historians were thus able to provide a fairly faithful picture on the basis of this secondary source of all that the representatives of member states said at the UN for public consumption.

Therefore, the judgement -- accepted as sound for quite sometime -- was formed soon after the event that the Western Powers did their best at meetings of the Security Council between October 28th and November 4th to ensure that the UN take effective measures to help the Revolution, such efforts, however, being aborted by the Soviet veto with the help of Péter Kós, the Hungarian representative at the UN.1 True enough, the Suez crisis which on October 29th turned into an armed conflict, meant that British and French attention was no longer concentrated on Hungary, but the US continued (particularly after November 4th) to oppose Soviet intervention at the UN. This picture was somewhat refined later, which primarily resulted in a more critical view of the American attitude. The general opinion, however, that the principal conflict at the UN in relation to the Hungarian question derived from the irreconcilable opposition between the positions taken by the Western powers and the Soviet Union, has essentially persisted up to recently.

American, British and French archives, made available for research since the mid-eighties,2 show however that this judgement holds at most for the period following the second Soviet intervention, but that the role of the UN at the time of the Hungarian Revolution, that is before November 4th, must be radically re-evaluated. The outlines of the revised story can be summed up as follows on the basis of documents that were inaccessible for decades: It was not the three Western Great Powers, but the United States that was responsible for the Hungarian question being placed on the Security Council agenda. The British and French governments, busy with preparations for the Suez action, only added their support as a result of American pressure. It is also clear now that it was not in the Security Council that the real negotiations concerning the Hungarian question took place, but in a far from official ad hoc committee consisting of the US, British and French UN representatives which met behind the scenes in secret discussion with a view to reconciling differences in the position taken by the three countries.

In the days before the Israeli attack on Egypt (October 29th) the representatives of the three countries agreed that the Soviet intervention must be unambiguously condemned in public but that, given the difficulties of finding out what was really going on in Hungary, wait and see tactics should be employed for the time being. As a result when, at the October 28th meeting of the Security Council, the Hungarian question was placed on the agenda at the request of the three Western Great Powers, no resolution was moved that might help to deal with the situation. Following the escalation of the Middle Eastern conflict on October 31st when British and French forces joined the fray, the character of tripartite negotiations concerning Hungary completely changed. From then on the real aim of the negotiating partners was no longer the condemnation of Soviet intervention, let alone putting obstacles in its way, they wanted rather to exploit the Hungarian crisis to advance their own, in this case drastically conflicting, great power interests.

From then on the British and French wanted to transfer the Hungarian question from the Security Council to a special session of the General Assembly convened to discuss the Suez crisis. They hoped that the joint discussion of the two international crises would significantly improve their position. This course would have favoured the Hungarian Revolution as well since there is no veto in the General Assembly and there was thus at least a theoretical chance that a simultaneous UN resolution would favourably influence events. The American administration, however, which right from the start sharply and publicly condemned the Suez adventure of their closest military and political allies, looking on a solution of the Middle Eastern crisis as their sole objective, did everything in their power to cross the Anglo-French plan. Indeed, they succeeded in preventing the Hungarian issue being referred to the special session of the General Assembly before the second Soviet intervention.3

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had suggested already on October 24th that the UN Security Council be convened to discuss the situation in Hungary. On matters Hungarian, Foster Dulles acted in close consultation with his brother Allen Dulles, who headed the CIA. What Foster Dulles was afraid of was that, should the US not move in time, Hungarian exiles in the US would see to it themselves that the question be placed on the agenda, making use of the good offices of the Cuban and Peruvian representatives on the Security Council. There was some basis to such a supposition since a number of organizations of exiles, such as the Alliance of European Captive Nations had, already on October 24th, requested a debate on the situation in Hungary and in Poland through a submission addressed to the Chairman of the Security Council. At their meeting on October 25th President Eisenhower suggested to Secretary of State Dulles that at the very least, the major NATO countries ought to be consulted, and that, in any event, a request to put the question on the agenda should not come solely from the United States.4 In the State Department they finally thought it best to consult "friendly" signatories of the Hungarian peace treaty of 1947, and a round-robin cable to that effect was sent the same day to the governments of Great Britain, Canada, India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Albeit France had not been amongst the signatories, she was consulted as well. As regards "semi-friendly" Yugoslavia, it was left to the US Ambassador in Belgrade to decide whether and how he would raise the question with the government. The cable suggested that a letter be circulated amongst members of the Security Council which drew attention to the Soviet intervention and called on members of the Council to examine to what degree the situation threatened peace or security. Another way would be placing the question on the agenda. This would mean the appointment of a fact-finding commission which would report to the Council.5 Then, after appropriate consultations, a resolution would be moved.

By the next day the Administration's ideas concerning possible sponsors had changed, and in the evening of October 26th John Foster Dulles instructed the US Ambassador in London to inform Selwyn Lloyd, the Foreign Secretary, that the situation in Hungary demanded a joint Anglo-American stand so that the question would be placed on the agenda of the Security Council without delay. Foster Dulles also let Selwyn Lloyd know he reckoned with the possibility of behind the scenes discussions with the Soviet representative which, he hoped, would lead to an improvement in the Hungarian situation.6

What follows are Foreign Office documents concerning the preparation, proceedings and evaluation of meetings of the Security Council held on October 28th, November 2nd, 3rd and 4th when the Hungarian question was discussed. They not only offer information on the position taken up by the British government and the Foreign Office, whose attention, at that time, was concentrated on the Suez crisis, but, thanks to the thorough reports by Sir Pierson Dixon, the British representative to the UN, we also get a detailed account of the above mentioned secret consultations between the U.S., Great Britain and France.7 These documents are also evidence that, before November 4th 1956, it was not really the United Nations but the Western Great Powers, who -- their actions being motivated by the Suez crisis -- were responsible for the fact that the UN did not even try to take effective measures in the interests of the Hungarian Revolution.

One should not give too much importance to a possible favourable effect of a UN resolution which the special session of General Assembly might possibly have passed before November 4th. The Soviet Union, conscious of her position as a superpower and in possession of a guarantee excluding American interference, did not judge the role of the UN and the moral strength of its resolutions to be sufficiently great in the shaping of international affairs to allow such a resolution to stop her setting things right by force of arms in a country belonging to her own sphere of interests.



  1. One legend that came into being during the Revolution was only cleared up some time ago. It turned out that Péter Kós never held Soviet citizenship, and that in the Security Council sitting of October 28, 1956 he expressed the position then being taken by Imre Nagy's government. See Gábor Murányi: "A Konduktorov-ügy (The Konduktorov Affair). Magyar Nemzet, August 21,1991.[back]
  2. Some documents relating to the 1956 Revolution are now available in the official foreign affairs collections in the United States and France. See: Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-57. Eastern Europe. Volume XXV. Washington D.C., 1990. (Henceforth: FRUS Vol. XXV, and Documents diplomatiques français 1956. Tome III. (24 octobre-31 decembre). Paris, Ministere des Affaires Étrangeres, 1990. For British documents produced during the Revolution, see: Éva Haraszty-Taylor (ed.): The Hungarian Revolution of 1956. A Collection of of Documents from the British Foreign Office, Astra Press, Nottingham, 1995. This selection primarily includes reports sent by the British Legation in Budapest to London, with the Foreign Office's comments, and thus with some exceptions do not touch on the deliberations at the U.N.[back]
  3. See especially: Csaba Békés: "A brit kormány és az 1956 magyar forradalom" (The British Government and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution). In: Az 1956-os Intézet Évkönyve, Budapest, 1992, pp. 19-38. For the international context of the Revolution, see: Csaba Békés: The 1956 Hungarian Revolution and World Politics. Cold War International History Project, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington D.C., September 1996, Working Paper No.16.[back]
  4. FRUS Vol. XXV. p.273, pp.290-291[back]
  5. Op. cit., p.292.[back]
  6. Op. cit., p.307. [back]
  7. Public Record Office, Kew, London. Foreign Office General Correspondence. (Hereafter PRO FO 371).[back]