Fifty years ago this week Soviet tanks under order from the Kremlin rolled into the Communist bloc nation of Hungary and killed upwards of 30,000 citizens—brutally dashing the aspirations of a reformer named Imre Nagy, and viciously informing the Hungarian people that they could not break free from the iron-fisted tyranny of the USSR. The repercussions extended far beyond the confines of the Iron Curtain.
Back in the United States, an actor named Ronald Reagan watched carefully, and was outraged. Reagan stood at a turning point in his professional-political life: He was transitioning from liberal Democrat to conservative Republican, from being (by his own admission) “naïve” to the Communist threat to becoming fully committed to confronting global Marxism.
Reagan was also heading into his third year as host of CBS’s GE Theatre, where he would remain until August 1962. Reagan was already well-known from his movie days. Now, his new post made him (according to surveys) one of the most recognized names in all of America. By the mid-1950s, two-thirds of American homes already owned at least one TV set, and millions of families sat perched in front of “the tube” for hours on end. With very few stations available on the dial, the typical American could not turn on the TV on a given evening without seeing Ronald Reagan’s face in their living room. Adding to Reagan’s notoriety, GE Theatre was a smash. The show took off, eclipsing I Love Lucy only weeks into its debut. It was the top show in the 9:00 PM slot for eight years, and attracted the very best actors and musical talent.
Those old enough recall all of this fondly and vividly. What is generally, forgotten, however, and certainly not known to today’s generation, is that on several occasions Reagan made notable anti-Communist statements during GE Theatre broadcasts—one of them concerning the Soviet invasion of Hungary.
At the close of a February 3, 1957 episode, in which he played a boxing trainer, Reagan stepped back into his host duty to give his customary goodbye and plug for GE products. This time, however, he put in a word for Hungarian refugees: Yes, reminded Reagan, the Red Army had killed thousands of Hungarians, but a large number had managed to escape—though they were not out of the woods. “Ladies and gentlemen, about 160,000 Hungarian refugees have reached safety in Austria,” reported Reagan to his huge audience. “More are expected to come. These people need food, clothes, medicine, and shelter. You can help.” He told his fellow Americans to send donations to the Red Cross or to the church or synagogue of their choice.
Those Hungarians were Reagan’s heroes: the so-called “Captive Peoples” of the Communist bloc suffering the sword of Soviet repression. This was perhaps the Great Communicator’s first use of the TV bully pulpit on behalf of Eastern Europeans.
Ronald Reagan would never forget the bloodshed in Hungary. He vowed that one day, if and when he was in the shoes of then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower, he would not allow a repeat of such a tragedy, whether in Hungary or another Soviet bloc nation like Poland. In that thinking, he would find sympathy from another observer who was similarly appalled in 1956, a young man from Krakow, Poland named Karol Wojtyla—the future Pope John Paul II.
President Reagan’s closest aide, National Security Adviser Bill Clark, witnessed Reagan’s commitment to not allow history to repeat itself in the 1980s, when Soviet troops sat poised on the Polish border, ready to crush Lech Walesa and his Solidarity movement—the heirs to those Hungarian freedom fighters: “The Soviets and their proxies in Poland declared martial law and started in the summer moving troops up to the border,” recalled Clark in March 2000, “which looked like another situation as had occurred in Hungary…. The President said this just simply cannot happen, even if it means meeting force with force.”
That was the level of Ronald Reagan’s dedication to freedom in the Soviet bloc: he actually considered countering the Red Army in Poland with U.S. military force—America going toe-to-toe against the USSR. Mercifully, it never came to that.
What happened in Hungary 50 years ago this week was transformative, not just for Hungarians and for the Communist world, but for a man named Ronald Reagan, who would one day launch what he and the Soviets both described as a “crusade”—not a religious crusade, but a crusade for freedom—to liberate not just Hungary but all of the Captive Peoples behind the Iron Curtain. Those 30,000 Hungarians did not die in vain.