He tells the U.S. Ambassador to Austria, where the refugees were gathered, Lewellyn Thompson: “Well done, keep up the good work.”.
On October 23, 1956, a student demonstration against the Soviet-dominated regime in Hungary became the first serious challenge to Communist authority since the Soviet Union drove the Nazis out and occupied Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. The demonstrators marched to the Parliament building in Budapest, where Hungarian State...
On October 23, 1956, a student demonstration against the Soviet-dominated regime in Hungary became the first serious challenge to Communist authority since the Soviet Union drove the Nazis out and occupied Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. The demonstrators marched to the Parliament building in Budapest, where Hungarian State Security Police detained a group of them who attempted to enter the radio building to broadcast the studentsʼ demands. The police then fired on a group of demonstrators who demanded their release and killed a student. When demonstrators wrapped the body in a flag and paraded it in central Budapest, violence erupted, and news of the event provoked unrest throughout the country. The pro-Soviet government collapsed, and a new government disbanded the State Security Police and announced its intention to withdraw from the Soviet-run Warsaw Pact and to hold free elections.
The Hungarian Revolt was one of the crucial events of the Cold War
On October 31, the Moscow newspaper “Pravda” stated that the Soviet government was “prepared to enter into the appropriate negotiations with the government of the Hungarian People’s Republic and other members of the Warsaw Treaty on the question of the presence of Soviet troops on the territory of Hungary.” That same day, though, unwilling to appear weak to the United States, Soviet leaders reversed course and decided to take military action to crush the rebellion. In the early morning hours of November 4, Soviet troops invaded Hungary. The free Hungarian government fled, and by November 7 the Soviets installed János Kádár as the new Prime Minister. In six days, the Soviet military completely crushed the revolution. More than 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet soldiers were killed. By January, the new Soviet puppet government had suppressed the opposition. However, meanwhile, large numbers of Hungarians were fleeing the country, mostly headed for Austria.
This unfolding drama received hour-by-hour press coverage throughout the world, with film footage appearing every evening on the news in the U.S. and elsewhere. The invasion, with its graphic depiction of Soviet tanks on the city streets in Hungary clashing with demonstrators, destroyed the Soviet argument that Eastern Europe was voluntarily within the Soviet sphere. It also confirmed to those in the West that there was a real Cold War at hand, and that the Soviets were the aggressors, as they could only hold their people by force. Strong anti-Communists, like Richard M. Nixon, then Vice President in the Eisenhower Administration, seemed confirmed in their judgments.
By the time Hungary’s borders were sealed, 200,000 refugees had fled the country. Of those, approximately 180,000 went to Austria, and another 20,000 went to Yugoslavia. The refugees needed care and resettlement, and this required a massive effort, led by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. 37 nations on five continents accepted refugees, with the plurality – 40,000 – going to the United States. Llewellyn E. Thompson was U.S. Ambassador to Austria, so to him fell the main responsibility for managing the American effort to care for them and arrange their resettlement.
Lewellyn Thompson was one of the most important American diplomats of the 20th Century. After two years at his post in Vienna, he would become the United States Ambassador to the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War, serving two separate tours in the administrations of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson, and then acting as advisor to Richard M. Nixon. Few Ambassadors faced as many crises as Thompson did in Moscow – the shooting down of a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance aircraft over Russia, the great confrontation between the U.S. and Soviet Union over Berlin and the building of the Berlin Wall, very difficult summits between Soviet Premier Khruschev and Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, the August 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and tensions over the Vietnam War. But there were also steps toward better relations. At Thompson’s suggestion, Nikita Khrushchev became the first Soviet leader to visit the U.S. in 1959. Thompson helped arrange (and was present for) the 1967 summit in the U.S. between President Johnson and Premier Alexei Kosygin in Glassboro, New Jersey, after the Six-Day War in the Middle East exacerbated tensions. Also in 1967, the Soviet Union and U.S. agreed to begin cooperation in space, with the joint Soyuz-Apollo program. The first treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons was signed on July 1, 1968.
Thompson’s stint as Ambassador to the Soviet Union began in 1957 when President Eisenhower appointed him to the post. President Kennedy reappointed him in 1961, which was a tribute to Thompson, as new presidents usually name their people to the top diplomatic posts. He ended his first tour in Moscow in 1962, when President Kennedy brought him home to Washington to become his Ambassador-at-Large, as a member of the Executive Committee of the National Security Council, advising the President on Soviet affairs. Shortly after returning to Washington, Thompson provided President Kennedy with advice that was crucial to avoiding nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Johnson reappointed him to the ambassadorship to Moscow in 1967, and he served until 1969. He came out of retirement to advise President Nixon on the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) negotiations with the Soviet Union and represented the United States in the SALT talks from 1969 until his death in 1972. He thus was able to provide valuable insight into Soviet thought to four American presidents. Secretary of State William P. Rogers called him “one of the outstanding diplomats of his generation.”
From December 18-24, 1956, Nixon traveled to Austria to get first hand accounts from Hungarian refugees, and inspect their conditions and aid requirements. Thompson aided him during that trip, and Nixon was grateful.
“You can be proud of the magnificent job being done under your able direction to discharge American responsibility in meeting the needs of the Hungarian refugees in Austria.”
Typed Letter Signed, on Office of the Vice President letthead, Washington, January 3, 1957, to Thompson.
“This is just a note to tell you how deeply I appreciated the generous hospitality which you and Mrs. Thompson extended to me and the members of my party during my recent visit to Austria. Due to your efforts and those of your staff, I was able to accomplish my inspection mission in a limited period of time, and I am grateful for the many courtesies which were extended to me.
“You can be proud of the magnificent job being done under your able direction to discharge American responsibility in meeting the needs of the Hungarian refugees in Austria. This compliment is meant for you and your permanent staff of all nationalities and agencies, as well as those who have come from other countries on short notice to meet the need for additional help, the wives and families who have been working long hours as volunteers to relieve hardship, and the hundreds of American and international relief agency workers. All of you have shown a wonderful spirit of dedication in rendering public service in the highest American tradition, and I was highly pleased to find this same devotion to duty and deep interest in the refugee problem reflected among American personnel when we stopped in Munich, in Prestwick, and in Iceland.
“It was a pleasure for me to report to the President on your splendid activities, and I know he would want to join me in saying – “well done, keep up the good work.”
“Mrs. Nixon joins me in sending our very best wishes for the New Year.” The accompanying envelope, which is still present, bears Nixonʼs printed free frank. It was not mailed and therefore evidently was delivered by diplomatic pouch.
This letter comes directly from the Thompson descendants.
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