If Americans were ambivalent about the Israeli-British-French invasion of Egypt, they identified with the Hungarians. For days after the uprising, the Hungarians were the toast of the West, freedom fighters who had stood up to Soviet tanks and liberated their country from communist tyranny. Seeing film of the Hungarian youth fighting the Russian tanks with rocks and Molotov cocktails, many Americans felt a deep sense of shame that we had not come to their aid.
The Eisenhower Republicans who had taken power in 1952 had spoken boldly of a "rollback" of the Soviet Empire. Nixon had said of Adlai Stevenson, "Adlai has a Ph.D. from Dean Acheson's College of Cowardly Communist Containment."
But when the test had come in Budapest, America had stood by, watching impotently the massacre of thousands of freedom fighters and the deportation unto death of thousands more.
It was a defining moment for America. What Ike -- who had held up U.S. armies to let Zhukov's Red Army take Berlin, because he did not want American troops dying taking German cities that the U.S. government had ceded to Stalinist occupation -- was saying was this:
We admire Hungarian heroism, but we cannot risk war with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union to save a nation FDR ceded to Stalin at Yalta, a nation whose independence is not vital to the United States.
Ike's decision seemed to violate the command of the heart that we should send an army to save the Hungarians. Yet it was a decision rooted in the national interest, as Ike understood it. He would not risk our security for any other country that was not vital to our security.
To those of us then of the same age as the Hungarian students, the heroism of Budapest in 1956 was unforgettable. And what we felt as the Russian tanks crushed them was shame. They had risked their lives in the fight against communist tyranny, but we were not willing to do the same.
But was Ike wrong about Suez and Hungary? Was Ike wrong to invite the "Butcher of Budapest" to the United States, three years later? Or was he doing what was best for the country to the freedom and security of which he had sworn a lifetime oath?