What Biden Can Learn from Eisenhower’s 1957 State of the Union

Joe Biden, the President of the United State will appear at an unusual place to be for an American president when he takes to the podium Tuesday night at a joint session. As his country is engulfed by war 4,500 miles away, he stands openly to support the brave underdogs who are fighting for their homeland from a brutal invader from Moscow. Many thousands of refugees are already fleeing to the West. Meanwhile, young men in their homeland make Molotov cocktails and launch at tanks. Unusually, the United States does not play a key role in this conflict. This is disappointing for both rebel rags and overenthusiastichawks.

U.S. History is too long so the following description can be used to describe another State of the Union address. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s January 10, 1957 message to Congress from Dwight D. Eisenhower. The message was sent two months after the Soviet repression of the Hungarian Revolution of 1960, an incident that will remain in the minds of those who were there. TimeHungarian Freedom Fighter had been declared its 1956 Man of the year; Elvis Presley sold donations to refugees Ed Sullivan Show. Jean-Paul Sartre, like many other travelers to the West, broke off with longtime communist comrades.

Ike’s rhetorical and policy response in that tumultuous season gives Biden and the rest of us plenty to ponder about what Washington should—and should not—do in 2022. This also shows us how the current’s belly-aching anxieties can seem almost manageable when compared with the world-rattling problems of the past.

As with many tragedies of authoritarianism, the Hungarian Revolution started as a hope for liberation. Josef Stalin’s murder in 1953 sparked a period of relatively reformist Soviet politics that culminated with Nikita Khrushchev’s astonishing denunciation at Stalin’s cult-of personality and the brutal internal purges of the February 1956 Communist Party Congress. Although the speech was classified, it was obtained secretly by Israeli intelligence. It was shared with Eisenhower’s administration who leaked it. The New York TimesIt was June. Radio Free Europe broadcast a reading from it in June behind the curtain Winston Churchill had named the “Iron Curtain” a decade earlier.

Churchill himself had some fingerprints on that continental divide, via his participation in the February 1945 Yalta Conference (in Crimea, as irony would have it) with Stalin and then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at which the three great soon-to-be-victorious opponents of Nazi Germany sketched out postwar plans for small-country Europe. The two leaders of democracy deluded themselves into thinking they had effectively codified principles for independent self-determination of Central Europe’s long-abused population. However, Churchill was and F.D.R. The U.S.S.R. was granted political veto over Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. This agreement promised free and fair elections. It then established military/political control of East Germany, Hungary Czechoslovakia and Albania.

News of Khrushchev’s destalinization speech empowered Central Europeans and gave them the courage to challenge their satellite state governments. First came the June 1956 Poznań strike, protests, and riots in Poland, which were viciously suppressed by Polish and Red Army soldiers and tanks that killed more than 50.

The clash nonetheless led to that year’s Polish October, in which newly elected Polish leader Władysław Gomułka, a reformer, successfully stared down Khrushchev (who had mobilized two armored divisions toward Warsaw) in removing various pro-Soviet toadies from the senior ranks of the Polish government.

Radio Free Europe reported Gomulka’s victory into Hungary. This triggered demonstrations and student-led calls for reforms. Some 20,000 demonstrators gathered in Budapest on October 23, 1956 to protest against the Kremlin. Protesters fought back as police opened fire. The Hungarian government asked for Red Army assistance. After rebels stormed the Parliament, leader of the puppet government fled from Moscow. This conflict lasted three weeks. Eisenhower became the winner in a huge landslide.

A rebel government under Prime Minister Imre Nagy declared Hungary’s withdrawal form the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact Military Alliance. Khrushchev ordered an en masse retaliatory strike. After the dust had settled, around 2,500 Hungarians died. Around 200,000 fled to West Europe, where Moscow again exercised its political control on the Danube.

At the time, Eisenhower’s inaction towards the Soviet crackdown was the subject of much controversy. This topic was even debated for many decades. Cold War hawks, Central European anticommunists grumbled bitterly about Eisenhower’s 1952 promise to engage in a “rollback of Soviet dominance” rather than just containment. They also falsely hoped for success via Radio Free Europe or the CIA.

These were just a few of the many backdrops Eisenhower used to deliver his State of the Union speech on January 10, 1957. He also gave his second inaugural address on January 21, 1957. And, perhaps most important, he addressed a joint session of Congress on January 5, 1957. This address laid out the foundation for what was to become the Eisenhower Doctrine.

In the opening paragraph of Eisenhower’s SOTU speech, he stated that “no time in the Republic’s history have the circumstances more emphatically highlighted the need for all echelons government for vision, wisdom, and resolution.” Today’s world has a rising tide against nationalism. This is reflected in widespread revulsion, revolt, and injustice towards tyranny and poverty. As individuals, joined in a common hunger for freedom, men and women and even children pit their spirit against guns and tanks… The existence of a strongly armed imperialistic dictatorship poses a continuing threat to the free world’s and thus to our own Nation’s security and peace.”

Ike outlined two approaches for dealing with this stress, one for patient institution building in Europe and another for hegemonic security arrangements in Middle East. Biden could learn from these.

Eisenhower declared that the recent events in Hungary are a reminder to all nations of the need to take on the burden of providing asylum for victims of Communist persecution. Also, asylum is not a weapon of mass destruction.

He also stressed non-military ways of strengthening the anti-communist bulwark that still stands in Western Europe’s rebuilding process. “We need to emphasize our support for our friends in building more productive countries and better fulfilling the natural requirements of their people,” he stated. Long-term tariff cuts and cooperation are crucial to this effort. We welcome efforts by a few of our European friends in achieving an integrated community for the development of a common marketplace. Washington considered increasing trade liberalization an integral part of strengthening the “free world” at the time of the Cold War.

These measures did not provide immediate relief to Hungarian students and Polish workers. But—importantly!—they also avoided hot military conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers, while also clearing the way for the eventual anti-communist revolutions of 1989 by the very people who’d been subjugated for so long.

Christopher Condon’s excellent 2006 article explains. L.A. Times piece,

Moscow’s actions revealed the cruelty of Soviet imperialism. Some very well-respected domestic communist movements in Western Europe were permanently fractured.

Hungarians also gained from the revolt, although they did not pay any blood. After years of brutal suppression, the Party granted them gradually greater freedoms, provided they do not challenge its authority. In the Soviet bloc’s 1970s, Hungarians were the most prosperous and free people, having occupied more barracks than any other country. Many argue that concessions made to Hungary partly in fear of another revolt, inexorably reduced Soviet influence. This, they say, helped accelerate the fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain did not fall in Berlin on November 29, 1989. It fell three months prior, however, as Gyula Horn (Hungarian foreign minister) performed the ceremony with two wire cutters at the Austrian border.

Many people never seriously believed that the U.S. Military should have entered Hungary fifty years earlier to start World War III.

Ike’s hesitation was not due to prudence alone. As European colonial nations lost more of their overseas possessions, 1956 was an unholy year for the entire globe. The Israeli attack on the Egyptian Sinai occurred October 29th, during the Hungarian Revolution. It opened the doors for Britain, France, and the Suez Canal to be seized by them one week later. Eisenhower was against America’s former allies and caused a temporary breakup of relations.

President Obama saw the Middle East power vacuum and concurrent rise in Arab nationalism as both a potential Soviet threat and an opportunity to shape regional events more aggressively.[Western Europeans]His State of the Union Address stated that the economic health of the Middle East is heavily dependent upon the free flow of oil from the Middle East.

Ike had just five days earlier, delivered another address at a joint session Congress. He revealed a fatal doctrine that any country in the new independent Middle East could use to call the U.S. for military aid and security guarantees.

“We’ve just witnessed Hungary being subjugated by naked armed force.” Eisenhower stated that after the Hungarian disaster, international respect and belief has dropped to an all-time low. “We have made it clear that our commitment to the principle that force should not be internationally used for an aggressive purpose is unquestioned and that the integrity of the Middle East nations must remain intact.

Unfortunately, this promise will generate doubts.

Today’s world is different than it was 65 years ago. We should be happy about that. The Eisenhower Foundation describes the President’s presidency with a sense of humor that is almost gallows.

1957 was almost impossible. He was disgusted by the politics and struggle necessary for civil rights legislation. He was already faced with the Little Rock school desegregation catastrophe before it could be signed. Immediately after, Sputnik threw the nation into a crisis of self-confidence and worry with demands for education reform, fallout shelters, space exploration, and even more unnecessary — in his opinion — weapons. Although he tried to reassure Americans that they were safe, he also kept the lid off a military establishment that was threatening to blow the country to pieces. In November just before Thanksgiving, the president suffered a mild stroke. The worst part was that 1957 was a year of recession.

Joe Biden could take advantage of 2022’s more favorable climate by having the United States play a smaller leadership role. European countries are eager to play a leading role in the Russia-Ukraine crises in a manner not seen since World War II. President Obama should encourage Paris, Berlin and other European nations to create security structures that are not controlled by Washington. Better to wait three decades than you did yesterday.

Today, Ike’s lessons on tariff reduction and the mutual economic benefits from trade are also relevant, since a second successive administration is following the stupidity of buy-Americanism. Such Eisenhowerian liberalism should also be afforded to refugees—a category of immigrants that the country has shamefully closed off over the past five years.

First and foremost, the president needs to reject any temptations to follow Eisenhower along the path of hegemonic interference in foreign affairs. Refuse to be involved in any hot conflict. Eliminate “regime changes” from your vocabulary. Recall the wisdom from the long term that was highlighted by the heroic actions of Ukrainians over the last week. It is clear that they will continue to fight against all odds for their independence. Those who are able will support them.

Eisenhower, in 1957’s State of the Union stated that the world had shrunk so much that all the nations free of charge are our neighbours. Because of his patience and efforts to contain, the world free has become larger than most people ever dreamed. We hope Ukraine will join the ranks.