featured in American Ambassadors Review, Fall 2019
by Ambassador Donald Blinken
The imminent return of Radio Free Europe service to Hungary is a new chapter in an old story, a case of history reinventing itself. Radio Free Europe was an indispensable resource during the Cold War. Its broadcasts were often the only truthful information available to people behind the Iron Curtain, countering their governments’ lies and propaganda. But with the fall of Communism and the advent of open, democratic political systems throughout Central and Eastern Europe, the need for Radio Free Europe ceased. At that time, its broadcast office in Munich was being shut down, and its radio archives could no longer be stored there. Officials planned to discard the trove of audio tapes and transcripts. But today, some 22 years after the return of the tapes, Hungary once again faces a serious free-press deficit: the Hungarian people now obtain their news from government-controlled or -monitored print and online sources. Radio Free Europe’s return to Hungary, therefore, could not come at a more necessary and important time.
But before focusing more on the current situation, I offer some history on how the return of the tapes in 1997 came about in the first place. While serving as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 1994–1997, I met for several months with A. Ross Johnson, a counselor to Radio Free Europe in Washington, to try to save the tapes. We both felt that it was essential for the United States to practice the democratic values it preached by putting the Hungarian-language material into Hungarian hands, so that it would be freely available to scholars for generations to come. I was gratified that our efforts succeeded. It was my honor on May 27, 1997, to turn over to Hungary’s National Szechenyi Radio Library more than 5,000 audio tapes and 650,000 pages of program scripts generated by Radio Free Europe from 1951 to 1994. In speaking at the ceremony, I noted that the materials from the 1956 uprising were especially important historically, even if they reflected poorly on U.S. foreign policy. “They provide the opportunity both to reconsider the past and think about the future, as well as the opportunity for the Hungarian people and Hungarian historians to regain a missing segment of their history,” I said. A once-secret 1956 U.S. report that had reviewed Radio Free Europe’s role in the Hungarian Revolution concluded that the agency had not incited the Hungarian people to revolution; instead, the report noted that “the uprising resulted from 10 years of Soviet repression and was finally sparked by the shooting on October 23 of peaceful demonstrators.”
What remained open to debate was whether the Hungarian Freedom Fighters were misled by broadcasts after the revolution began. Charles Gati, head of the State Department’s Planning Office and an American of Hungarian birth, had been highly critical of Radio Free Europe’s actions during the insurrection. Gati had been a valued mentor to me during my preparation for my ambassadorship. He strongly criticized Radio Free Europe’s encouragement of its listeners to persist in their uprising despite the apparent futility of armed conflict with the Soviet Union. Today, fortunately, professor Gati has been leading the effort to return Radio Free Europe to Budapest. I sidestepped this earlier contentious issue and concluded that by turning over the tapes to Hungary, America was providing the evidence to the Hungarian people so that they could make up their own minds about Radio Free Europe’s role in the 1956 uprising.
To help explain the twists and turns of Hungary’s relationship to a free media, it helps to understand two unfortunate Hungarian characteristics. First, the Hungarian people are very smart, but when anything goes wrong in Hungary, many see it as someone else’s fault. Second, unlike in the United States, politics in Hungary is personal, not local. During my time at the U.S. Embassy in Budapest, we helped the Hungarians define and implement the role of a free press. This proved invaluable: between 1994 and 1998, three years after the last Soviet forces left, privatization of the Hungarian economy grew from 25 to 75 percent. The Hungarians prepared for NATO membership through the Partnership for Peace, and later, by their critical staging of NATO’s Bosnian peacekeeping role after the Dayton Accords. And finally, becoming members of the European Union. A free and competitive press played an invaluable role in these achievements. Nonetheless, the dissatisfaction of Hungarians living outside of Budapest with not achieving the economic success they’d hoped for, coupled with the worldwide recession in 2008–2009, were the launching pads for an illiberal, authoritarian government.
The original flourishing of a worldwide free and competitive press was due in part to the valiant efforts of Hungarian-born Joseph Pulitzer. He would have applauded today’s return of Radio Free Europe to a nation that needs it badly. Bringing back Radio Free Europe to Hungary is good news; the Hungarian people and the role of a free press can only benefit from a hands-off press policy by Hungarian political leaders.
AMBASSADOR DONALD BLINKEN served as U.S. Ambassador to Hungary from 1994 to 1997. Ambassador Blinken is the first U.S. Ambassador to receive the Republic of Hungary’s highest civilian honor. He and his wife Vera are major outside supporters of the Open Society Archives which holds the Vera and Donald Blinken Collection including records relating to Hungary’s joining NATO, the country’s post-Communist economic growth and political opening.