A Brief Moment in History

by Helen Erwin Campbell

In 1956 Soviet troops marched into Hungary to put down an insurrection; Dwight D. Eisenhower was reelected President with Richard M. Nixon Vice-President; Fidel Castro landed in Cuba with a small armed force in an attempt to overthrow Bautista; and the oral vaccine against polio was developed by Albert Sabin. After marrying Prince Ranier of Monaco Grace Kelly became Princess Grace; popular songs were Blue Suede Shoes and Hound Dog; and the rock and roll dance was in vogue. A six-ounce jar of Maxwell House instant coffee cost one dollar fifty-nine cents, a pound can of Crisco twenty-nine cents, a quart jar of Best Foods mayonnaise sold for forty-nine cents; and U.S. Marine Donald Erwin  was assigned  duty behind the iron curtain in Hungary.

In January, Don left Reyjavik, Iceland, and flew to Munich, West Germany. From there he took the famed Orient Express to Budapest, Hungary. Don remembered feeling the air of mystery on  the train, much like the spy movies of the time. He admitted the mystery was mostly in his imagination, but he felt as if he were in the middle of an Agatha Christie novel. Certainly he had come a long way from a farm in Kansas.

Don wrote home on January 26, 1956, shortly after his arrival at the American Legation in Budapest (Mom forwarded his letters to me at the time, and I gave them back to my brother some thirty years later). “On the way down from Reykjavik my plane stopped at Copenhagen, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Munich. I took the train to Vienna, and stayed there three days before coming on to Budapest. I didn't know what to expect when I got on the train in Vienna, but I was treated okay. The trip took about six hours, and I think they looked at my passport about six times, but since I had a diplomatic passport they didn’t ask to see my baggage.

Budapest has a population of about two and a half million, but judging by the people seen in the streets, you would think the city was deserted. There are many beautiful old stone buildings, but everything is covered with coal soot and it looks pretty dreary. Even the people seem to be covered with soot, but it's really because their clothes are old and worn and either gray or black.

The people, I'm told, are friendly enough but they are afraid to talk to foreigners, especially British and Americans, because usually if they are seen they are picked up and questioned by the police.

The living quarters here are nice, much better than I had in Iceland. At present I'm living with two other Marines, but I'm told that I am to get an apartment to myself as soon as one is available. Where I'm situated now we have a living room, dining room, kitchen, two bedrooms and bath. Labor is so cheap here that I won't have to cook or help clean house as I did in Iceland. For about twenty-five dollars per month, or eight dollars each, we have a woman who cooks, cleans house, does our laundry, etc. We have to watch what we say in front of her, which is the only bad thing about it. They know for sure here that all of the Hungarian employees of the Americans have to report to the secret police periodically for questioning. There was even one instance where radio transmitters were found in the house of one of the big wheels. They wouldn't go to that much trouble with us though. We don't know anything to talk about that would interest them that much.

There are Russian soldiers here also, but I'm told they are seldom seen. The Hungarian soldiers carry burp guns here in town though.” (I am told burp guns are in the same category as a Tommy gun.)

Don tried to reassure Mom as to his safety. "You don't have to worry about me, Mom. It isn't as bad as you hear, and I'm small potatoes. If they would pick up someone like me, it would cause them more trouble than it would be worth to them. And I'm certainly not going to do anything to get into trouble."

Don made the most of those first months in Budapest. He bought a 1950 Ford sedan, and when he was not on his assigned duty he made trips to Vienna, Belgrade, Munich, Salsburg, Hamburg, Copenhagen and Oslo, as well as many trips into the Hungarian countryside. It was a heady time for that kid from Neodesha, Kansas. Twenty-three-year-old Don felt sophisticated and no longer bored.

On April 5, he wrote home: "Everything you ever heard about the communists is true and then some. On the surface it doesn't seem too bad to the casual observer, but I have been here over two months now and I'm beginning to see how things are for the people under communist rule. There is no danger for any of us Americans, as long as we mind our own business that is, and I make a special point of minding mine.

The main purpose of this legation is that of a spy center. It is a gathering place for information. There is certainly not much need of a consulate here. There are only about a half dozen people, other than Hungarian diplomats, ever allowed out of here to go to the States in a year’s time.”

 History lesson: In April of 1941 Hungary aided Hitler in an attack on Yugoslavia and so entered World War II on the side of the Axis. By 1942 Hitler no longer considered Hungary to be a reliable ally and seized the country and in 1944 set up the Hungarian Nazi government. The new government shipped more than five hundred thousand Hungarian Jews to concentration camps, and most of them ended up in the gas chambers. The Soviet Union invaded Hungary late in 1944. In the armistice signed in 1945 Hungary agreed to give up territory that it had gained since 1938. Elections were held in late 1945, and Hungary became a republic, but the communists gradually took over the government. By year’s end there was a communist dictatorship headed by Mahias Rakosi.   

Cardinal Jozsef Mindszenty, head of the Catholic Church in Hungary, opposed the communist takeover and spoke out against it. He was arrested in 1948 and sentenced to prison in 1949.

By early 1950, Rakosi's policies had ruined the economy and produced widespread malcontent among the people. In 1953, Imre Nagy replaced Rakosi as premier. Nagy adopted policies that gave the people more personal freedom and that were aimed at improving their living conditions. But Rakosi and other Party members opposed the reforms and in 1955 forced Nagy out of both the government and the Party.

Don remembered that during the summer of 1956 in Hungary the political situation began to heat up. The older people could still recall a time when they were free, and the young people had not yet been fully indoctrinated into communism. World War II had been over for only eleven years.

Rakosi’s policies caused great unrest, and he was replaced as Communist Party leader in mid-1956, but the central government’s policies remained unchanged. In October the discontent erupted into street fighting in Budapest. A group of young people, or “Freedom Fighters,” took over the main radio station and preached revolt. Within hours the revolution had spread throughout Hungary. In a very short time a combination of young people, war veterans, Hungarian Army soldiers took over the central government and actually drove the Soviet troops out of the country.

Many political prisoners were freed by the Freedom Fighters, including Cardinal Mindzenty, who sought asylum in the United States Legation. Don was on duty at the time they brought him in.

During this time the Voice of America kept beaming messages of hope to the desperate Hungarian insurgents. “Hold on, don’t give up. The U.S. will help you,” they were told. They did try to hold on, waiting for help that never came. But they were not strong enough.

 On November 2, 1956 Don wrote the following letter home: “Dear Folks: Well, as you undoubtedly know, things are a bit hot here now. But so far there is no real danger for us. There has been a lot of killing here though. These Hungarian kids are really slaughtering the Russians and secret police (also known as A.V.H).

It would be hard for most people to imagine how much the people here hate the Russians and the A.V.H. I was in downtown Budapest yesterday, and the bodies are lying around every place. Naturally the Hungarian dead are taken away and buried right away, but they aren’t in any hurry about the Russian soldiers or the secret police.

Everything is pretty quiet here at the moment, but rumor has it that the Russians are moving in reinforcements, so I guess anything can happen. If it gets too bad we will leave. I’m all packed just in case. We lived at the legation for a week during the worst of it, and we were allowed to go home just last night, but today something happened and we had to return to the legation. My car is packed and gassed up in case we have to move out in a hurry.

I’ll have this mailed in Vienna when we are able to send a courier out. Naturally we can’t mail a letter from here. Everything is shut down. I’ve sent you two telegrams so far. I hope that you received them.

Like I said, everything is relatively quiet, so don’t worry. Unless I get run over by a truck or something I’ll be all right.

Love, Donnie”

But we worried. Mom and Dad were especially anxious, listening to each news broadcast which detailed the escalating crisis in that unfortunate country.

The insurgents in Hungary waited with hope for the help that had been promised, and then with bitterness as they realized that it would not be forthcoming. We at home waited with uneasiness. Would we be in another war? Would Don be caught behind enemy lines? For several days Don and the others at the legation kept their cars packed and in readiness to make a run for the Austrian border.

We were relieved as it became apparent that our government was not going to send military aid to the insurgents. I remember vividly the feelings of relief, sympathy and guilt at the time: relief that the danger of war with the Soviets had probably passed; sympathy for the Hungarians who had gambled and lost; and guilt that America had let them down.

Don remembered that the U.S. diplomatic personnel, as well as that of other western nations, draped the hoods of their cars with their national flags when it was necessary to venture out on the streets of Budapest. A little insurance, they hoped,  that might prevent them from becoming targets of   the Russians, as well as the insurgents.

 Author’s note: In about 1988 I became acquainted with an Hungarian woman, and she told me of her memories of Budapest during the period described above. She was about eleven years old then, and one day—as she walked along the bank of the Danube River near her home—she spotted a body floating down the river. She later discovered that the body was that of her best girl friend. She remembered that her country waited in vain for the promised help from America. She also remembered the bitter disappointment and disillusionment of most of the general population when it failed to materialize.

“But, I guess, America can’t send armies to every country in the world that needs help,” she said. Later her parents, who still had two sons living at home, were able to get their young daughter out of Hungary to live with their oldest son who lived in the United States.

 Soviet forces, lead by columns of T34 tanks, poured back into Hungary in force from neighboring Communist-controlled Czechoslovakia, and quickly put down the uprising. Hungary had been free for about eight days before the Iron Curtain clanged down again. Many Hungarians were killed during the house-to-house and street-to-street fighting, and many others would die later in the Communist torture chambers, but thousands did manage to escape to neighboring Austria while the border was unmanned. Free countries around the world took in the refugees; the vast majority ending up in the United States.

Don remembered seeing and talking to Cardinal Mindszenty during his stay at the legation. The Cardinal had an apartment on the third floor, and almost every evening he would walk along the halls or in the outdoor enclosed patio for exercise. Don, in the course of his watch duty, was required to check in at various stations in the building and enclosed grounds, and often encountered the Cardinal. Don could not speak Hungarian, and the Cardinal could not speak English, but like most older generation Hungarians the Cardinal spoke German as a second language. Don had been taking private German lessons for several months, and although not fluent the two managed to converse very well. The Cardinal was friendly and seemed to enjoy talking to him. As far as Don knew he was the only member of the Marine Guard who could speak German.

Cardinal Mindszenty remained in the American Legation until 1971, when he was recalled to Rome because of failing health. After retirement he settled in Vienna, and died there May 6, 1975. After the fall of the “Evil Empire” his body returned to his beloved Budapest.                                                                        -Ed