Is US-Taiwan Relations Heading Toward a Hungary ’56 Redux?

Is US-Taiwan Relations Heading Toward a Hungary ’56 Redux?

Is US-Taiwan Relations Heading Toward a Hungary ’56 Redux?

Is the Taiwan of today, or of the near future, the Hungary of 1956? This question arose from a recent Twitter exchange I shared with Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former government official. In response to my contention that there is a coming push in Washington to significantly elevate the US-Taiwan relationship, he suggested that the ultimate result could be “another Hungary ’56 redux.” It is, on its face, an appealing analogy: two superpowers, with unbalanced interests and unequal capacity for armed intervention (in the very near term), face off over the fate of a much smaller country. Some may consider the parallels eerily similar, but a closer review of the historical circumstances reveal that the differences are far more illuminating, particularly for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Even so, there is at least one important lesson for the United States to draw from the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

What Happened in Hungary in 1956?

In a nutshell, a protest in Budapest against both the Soviet Union and the government of the People’s Republic of Hungary transformed into an armed uprising after the State Security Police fired on demonstrators. During what Charles Gati described as “thirteen days of high drama,” Soviet troops intervened indecisively; the government fell; Imre Nagy, a reformist communist, became prime minister and announced the end of one-party rule and Hungary’s intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and join its neighbor Austria as a neutral state; and Soviet troops intervened once again, this time decisively.

Although the Hungarian movement was organic, it almost certainly drew inspiration from the United States. The Eisenhower administration had, in its early days, espoused a policy of rollback of communism. John Foster Dulles, who would later become Eisenhower’s secretary of state, was a prominent proponent of the liberation of states under communist rule. And although NSC 162/2, adopted in October 1953, embraced a more restrained policy of containment, “public statements … portrayed optimistic prospects for the rollback of communism.” [1]

Liberation rhetoric in the United States may have contributed to an environment in which the pursuit of a free Hungary was more likely, but Radio Free Europe broadcasts directly encouraged the country’s revolutionaries. As Gati described:

RFE failed to encourage a gradualist, “Titoist,” or simply anti-Stalinist outcome that had a chance, however slim, to succeed; instead, it egged on the most radical insurgent groups to fight on until all their demands were met. In the end, and tragically, the United States did not find the proper balance between the admirable goal of keeping the Hungarians’ hopes alive and the dubious goal of encouraging them to fight a hopeless battle against the Soviet Union. Thus, the proper question, then or now, is not why the United States refused to fight for Hungary in what could have become World War III; the proper question is why the United States refused to press through its propaganda outlets and diplomatic channels for realistic if small gains.
Why wasn’t something better than nothing? [2]

What’s more, Gati describes the United States as a “disingenuous” actor, “when it kept the Hungarians’ hopes alive—without making any preparations at all to help them either militarily or diplomatically.” [3] Following a heady few days in autumn 1956, the revolution failed and Hungary would remain under the Soviet thumb until the Cold War’s end.

Taiwan and the Hungary ’56 Analogy

There are three primary similarities between the dynamics at play in 1956 and the dynamics that would be in play in a hypothetical Taiwan scenario involving Chinese military action.

First, both cases involve the world’s major powers engaged in a contest over the fate of a much smaller third country. In both cases, the third country is geographically contiguous (or nearly so, in the case of Taiwan) with only one of the two major powers; in both cases, that major power is the authoritarian one. Hungary shared a border with the Soviet Union and was separated from the United States by Western Europe and the Atlantic Ocean. The narrow Taiwan Strait is all that separates Taiwan from China, while the United States sits across the Pacific Ocean.

Second, in both cases, the major powers involved are nuclear states. Any consideration of armed intervention was—and would be—colored by the knowledge that dangerous escalation was, and would be, distinctly possible.

Third, there is arguably an imbalance of US and Chinese interests vis-à-vis Taiwan just as there was an imbalance of American and Soviet interests vis-à-vis Hungary. In the latter case, Khrushchev needed to stave off potential challenges from his left flank following his February 1956 denunciation of Stalin. Moreover, Hungary’s quest for independence posed a threat to the integrity of the Warsaw Pact, and thus to the national security of the Soviet Union. The United States simply did not have as much at stake in Hungary.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), meanwhile, has long seen Taiwan as posing a threat to its rule. Taiwan puts lie to the notion that democracy does not accord with the Chinese-speaking world, while its continued de facto independence keeps the CCP from delivering on promises of so-called “reunification.” The CCP might well consider a Taiwanese declaration of independence or other move towards permanent “separation” as an existential threat (to be clear, no such move is in the offing). The United States, of course, has crucial interests in Taiwan. US concerns, however, do not extend to the very survival of the American constitution order.

Even so, an imbalance of interests does not necessarily lead to an imbalance in commitment and certainly does not predetermine outcomes in a crisis. Here, then, it is worth noting the profound differences between circumstances prior to the Hungarian revolution and those today. Put simply, Hungary was then behind the iron curtain, was a member of the Warsaw Pact, and hosted Soviet troops. Hungary was firmly in the Soviet camp—a successful revolution would have been a loss for Moscow and a win for Washington.

Taiwan, on the other hand, is a member of the democratic community of nations, a key cog in the global economy, and a close US security partner. It would be far harder for Chinese troops to conduct a successful amphibious landing than it was for Soviet tanks to roll across the border into Hungary. Taiwan’s military, moreover, can put up a fight in a way Hungary’s military and insurgents could not. As compared to Hungary in 1956, American military intervention in a Taiwan Strait crisis is far more likely and international opprobrium potentially far more effective due to China’s economic ties to the West (which could, of course, lead to restraint in the West as well).

In 1956, the United States squandered an opportunity to put a dent in the iron curtain, but coming out of the crisis on the “losing” side was entirely bearable. This “loss” meant the maintenance of the status quo in Europe, which was an acceptable outcome for Eisenhower. [4] With respect to Taiwan today, however, there are far more ways for Washington to “lose.” If Beijing coerces Taipei into unification, America’s vital interests are harmed. If Beijing invades and occupies Taiwan while the United States stands idly by, America’s vital interests are harmed. If Beijing invades and occupies Taiwan despite US armed intervention, America’s vital interests are harmed.

One hopes that, to the extent that Beijing looks to this particular historical example in search of insight into how a future conflict over Taiwan’s fate might play out, it takes note of these substantial differences.

One Final Difference

A final, obvious difference: while there was a revolution in Hungary in 1956, there will be no revolution in Taiwan because there is nothing against which to revolt. Taiwan is functionally free and independent, and its government’s legitimacy is effectively unquestioned. (Although you may want to at least consider the dangers of a potentially disruptive scenario in which Taiwan approaches zero diplomatic partners.)

Robert Manning, in his Twitter exchange with me, seemed to suggest that in establishing a more normal relationship with Taiwan (note: not formal diplomatic ties), the United States would somehow encourage Taiwan to declare independence, which would in turn “provoke” Beijing. Getting from closer US-Taiwan ties to Taiwan independence, however, requires a leap of logic that does not make much sense. Indeed, closer US-Taiwan relations should lessen any perceived need on the part of Taiwan to declare formal independence. Why risk throwing away what you’ve got in pursuit of what you already have? [5]

A crisis in the Taiwan Strait is far more likely to be driven by Chinese domestic politics. Accordingly, Hungary ’56 is not useful for illuminating what shape a crisis so driven might take.

Lessons from the Cold War

Even if the analogy lacks predictive value, the Hungarian Revolution was a major event in early Cold War history, and one from which the United States should seek to draw lessons—especially as some experts argue that the United States and China may be entering a new cold war.

One is of particular relevance to the Taiwan Strait: Hungary ’56 clearly illustrated the danger of a gap between words and deeds. In his book, Gati described the Eisenhower approach as NATO: “No Action, Talk Only.” [6] Put simply, American rhetoric encouraged revolution, while the United States took no action to ensure revolution would succeed. The result was the squandering of a potential opportunity for a Titoist resolution—a neutral but still communist Hungary—and the decades long Soviet domination of Hungary and its people.

The US approach to the Taiwan Strait has long suffered not from “No Action, Talk Only,” but rather from “Confused Talk, Confused Action”—more frequently referred to as “strategic ambiguity.” The United States has long refrained from stating clearly if it will intervene in a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait. And although many US actions (arms sales, for example) make clear American interests in Taiwan’s continued de facto independence, the United States has refrained from the sorts of actions that would signal clearer intent to come to Taiwan’s aid—for example, frequent and intensive combined military training involving all three services.

“No Action, Talk Only” helped contribute to a tragedy in Hungary by encouraging the Hungarian people to rise up against the Soviet Union with no intent to assist them. In the Taiwan Strait, the muddle of words and actions that is strategic ambiguity is far more likely to lead to miscalculation on the part of Beijing, not Taipei. Put very simply, one lesson from Hungary ’56 is that the United States should say what it means, mean what it says, and act accordingly. American leaders have not applied that lesson to the perennially tumultuous Taiwan Strait.

The main point: The Taiwan of 2020 is not the Hungary of 1956, but there is at least one important lesson for the United States to draw from the failed Hungarian Revolution: say what you mean, mean what you say, and act accordingly.

[1] Charles Gati, Failed Illusions: Moscow, Washington, Budapest, and the 1956 Hungarian Revolt (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2006), 70-71.

[2] Ibid, 6.

[3] Ibid, 2.

[4] Ibid, 181.

[5] It is worth noting that a Taiwan declaration of independence is far more likely to result from China’s continued poaching of Taipei’s diplomatic allies, as I argued for GTB previously, than from any steps the United States does or does not take.

[6] Ibid, 112.e in the face of an ever more assertive China, it should consider carefully whether its handling of the pandemic may have wider lessons for its diplomatic efforts.

The main point: Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic has shown the Taiwanese bureaucracy at its best. It now needs to apply the lessons more broadly.