The President's Decision
T HE RESULTS FRAUDULENTLY PRODUCED BY THE COMMUNISTS from the 1947 Hungarian elections were cleverly conceived, and just as cleverly exploited. Stalin was temperamentally susceptible to one serious tactical error-as Lenin had long before noted: he was prone to violate the rule that it is not always advantageous to take immediately all that is within your potential grasp. He was to demonstrate this failing six months later in seizing Czechoslovakia, which finally stirred the West to some sense of danger. In Hungary, however, whether because they realized that the rebuff to the Soviets of the 1945 elections could not be erased in a single stroke, or because more astute counsel prevailed, the Communists avoided the appearance of an overt seizure of power. Those who were aware of the fraud in the elections were, of course, stunned. But as no politician could safely stand up and publicly denounce the elections for what they were - Pfeiffer was to try, and to pay, for it - the masses were unaware of the vast extent of the fraud.
The Communists continued the comedy of the coalition, modestly nominating a Smallholder puppet as Prime Minister. For themselves, in the Cabinet, they added only the Foreign Ministry. The real power in the Foreign Ministry became the Communist Director of Political Affairs, Gybrgy Heltai, an educated, cultivated and intelligent man. (Imprisoned later as a "Titoist," Heltai escaped during the 1956 Revolution, and now directs the "Imre Nagy Institute" in Brussels, a study and research centre for "national Communism.") These changes in the Foreign Ministry were most welcome from the point of view of my network, since Sara, the agent recruited by George before his departure, was a trusted employee in the Political Department.
Meetings with Sara were difficult. She didn't dare use the telephone, and to have been seen together would have been fatal. Furthermore, she was wary of long or unusual absences from her normal routine. We therefore met by prearrangement at various street addresses and always after dark. These addresses were reasonably close to her normal route from work to home, or from home to evening lectures she would have to attend. Having ascertained that I was not followed, I would drive early to a point near the rendezvous, watching her arrival to see that she was not being followed. If all was clear, we would both get in the car, and while driving to a point near her next stop, she would give me oral reports. We never had more than fifteen minutes, but they were well worth it. On one occasion she had full information on the use being made by the Communists of the Hungarian Legation in Bern for espionage purposes, supplemented by the interesting information that the Soviets in Switzerland were using the Hungarian couriers for transmission of their own material. This information I sent to both Washington and to Peter in Switzerland; as the Hungarian couriers transited the American Zone of Austria en route from Bern to Budapest, the information turned out to be of great practical value.
On the political scene, the seeming Communist moderation had the effect of lulling some of the opposition politicians into the belief that they would survive. Such hopes once again operated to prevent the kind of unity which alone offered any hope of saving the situation. The Communists could therefore continue their tactics of destroying the opposition piecemeal. For his temerity in questioning the elections, Pfeiffer and his Independence Party were the first targets for liquidation.
On September 20 Edmund reported to me that the A.V,O. had received orders to visit all those persons who had signed the Independence Party's election petitions in the various districts. This involved thousands of persons, but it was done by the end of September. Under A.V.O. threats, 70 per cent. of the signers of the petitions withdrew their signatures. The Communists convoked a Parliamentary Committee, and the procedure began to declare all votes for the Independence Party null and void, and dissolve the Party.
What was needed now was an authoritative voice to speak out honestly on the subject of the elections, Zoltan Tildy, the President of the Republic, was obliged by the Communists to make a public statement expressing his satisfaction with the conduct of the elections and their results. Any lesser voice could be calumniated and silenced, so, on hearing Tildy's statement, I concluded that was that. Or so I thought.
Two days later Mark, with ill-concealed glee, asked me to see Dr. Viktor Csornoky, the President's son-in-law. Csornoky had a not too savoury reputation as a black-marketeer and general profiteer from his father-in-law's high position. He came to my apartment quite openly, and, notwithstanding his reputation, I found him likeable. He was of an ebullient nature, and obviously enjoying his vicarious importance. He got to the point quickly. "The President," he said, "wishes to escape the country. Once safely in the West, he will make a statement finishing with these ridiculous elections once and for all. What can you do for us?" I was flabbergasted - but I felt an instant excitement. Tildy's role in the past two years could not easily be forgiven or forgotten, but the fact was that he was the President of Hungary. This single gesture, if it could be pulled off successfully, would compensate for at least some of his errors; its international effect would be tremendous.
"Why has the President already endorsed the elections?" I inquired. Csornoky shrugged. "He was forced to by threats," he said. "You know as well as I do that he is not a completely free agent." This was an understatement, and I refrained from mentioning that the chief hold on Tildy was the A.V.O.'s dossiers on the financial doings of both his son and son-in-law. "It is not an easy operation," I said. "Are you absolutely sure the President is firmly decided on this course?"
"Absolutely," said Csornoky. He then handed me a list containing, including the President's name, those of eleven people in all. "These persons must accompany the President " he said. The list included what appeared to me to be all conceivable family connections of the President and his wife. "How much time can you give me?" I asked Csornoky. "Whatever you need to insure success," he answered. "But the President is extremely anxious that it should be done as soon as possible. He wishes to serve the country in this, and the sooner he can speak out in the West, the greater will be the international political impact." He then gave me some ideas of his own on technique, including his thought that the operation would be much more practicable from the President's country residence at Lake Balaton - a very long but narrow body of water - rather than from the city of Budapest. It occurred to me that if he thought so probably the President's A.V.O. Division XV "bodyguards" thought so too, "Give me two weeks," I said. "And ask the President to spend several days at Lake Balaton during the last ten days of that period." Csornoky agreed, and said he would call on me again in exactly two weeks.
That night I dropped in to see Helen to tell her that I must see Guy the next day. The prospects of this operation both frightened and exhilarated me. Guy's initial reaction was one of disgust. "I wouldn't lift a finger to save any of them, and particularly not Tildy," he answered sourly after I told him of Csornoky's request. "It's not a question of saving Tildy," I reminded him. "The problem is to put the President of Hungary in a safe place where he can render the only valuable service to the nation left to him," Guy thought for a while. From the slow change of expression on his face I could see him being captured by the challenge of the thing. "Let's do it," he said. "It'll really be a good one." He decided to spend the next few days examining the possibilities of running the operation from Budapest, give me his conclusions from that, and then go to Lake Balaton for ten days. "I need a holiday," he said.
For once my headquarters reacted with something approaching enthusiasm, and displayed atypical restraint in not demanding full details of my scheme for the President's escape. As if to compensate for this, however, they sent a message insisting that the situation for Paul had become too dangerous, and that I send him out of the country immediately. I sent this message to Paul through Jane, who promptly brought back the terse reply that he was holding to our agreement that he would tell me when he felt it necessary to leave. Jane left no doubt in my mind that Paul found the message offensive, and considered himself a better judge of his situation than Washington, with which I was inclined to agree. My reply, conveying this idea, produced a prompt rejoinder. "Failure to insure Paul's safety will be on your personal responsibility," the message kindly read. It was a comforting thought.
In a few days Guy brought the results of his survey of the Presidential Palace in Budapest. "It's out of the question," he said. "He's in there like a cigar in its wrapper. We'd never get him out, let alone more than three blocks away, before the entire A.V.O. would be on us. If we had him go to dinner out in Buda it would be even worse. That brigade of bodyguards he travels with surround him even more out than in." He then went off to Lake Balaton, about which he was more optimistic.
Two days later, I was having a drink at my apartment with a correspondent of one of America's best-known publications, when suddenly Csornoky appeared at my door, unannounced and cheerful as ever. I motioned that I had someone with me, at which he none the less entered, introduced himself, and was immediately in lively conversation. Csornoky was no conspirator, for which he would ultimately pay dearly. To my consternation, in the midst of general conversation - I can only assume he felt reassured that my other guest was an American, and felt this to be security enough - Csornoky handed me another list. "These three names must be added to those I gave you," he said. "They are people who have served my father-in-law well, and we cannot leave them behind." I tried to appear to attach small importance to the matter, but Csornoky went on. "As you asked, my father-in-law will spend the next four days at the Lake. I will be there too, to look over the matter. I still believe it must be done from there." I agreed perfunctorily. After some further conversation, in which Csornoky let no opportunity go by to stress to my guest that his father-in-law was the President, he left.
My correspondent friend turned to me laughing. "So the President's taking it on the lam. What a nice story that is." This man had been an intelligence officer of no small accomplishments during the war; I decided that some frankness was the best policy. Giving him no details, I told him that he had stumbled on something, about the importance of which he could have no doubt, and that he was under no circumstances to use this information in any way. I warned him that lives were involved, and United States Government interest as well. He assured me categorically that he would behave as though he had heard nothing. He left for the West the next day. It was not good, but it seemed the best possible in the circumstances, and certainly superior to a denial on my part followed by the correspondent's snooping about after a possible story.
At this point, the departure of the Navy's scientists, which had been bubbling along for two months, suddenly came to a boil. At their repeated requests, I had gradually disbursed the entire $5,000 to them. Some of this had been used for bribes to obtain passports, and they had assured me they would be ready to leave early in the week during which Guy was at Lake Balaton, Since they were leaving legally, I had arranged passage for them on the American military aeroplane which flew regularly between Vienna and Budapest, Bucharest and Sofia. The day before their scheduled departure, two of the scientists came to see me. The A.V.O. had categorically refused a passport for one of the wives.
The dilemma they posed was an unhappy one. The husband refused to leave without his wife. The work of the entire group could not go forward with one member missing. And those with passports were certain they would be revoked or discovered to be invalid if they delayed their departure any longer. Guy was at Lake Balaton, and would not be back for a week. Strictly speaking, I should not personally become involved in any operation while the President's escape was still pending. Nevertheless, for all I knew, the failure of these scientists to leave Soviet-controlled territory might ultimately be an even greater blow to Western security.
I told the husband that his wife must come to my apartment immediately after dark-but without having been seen either leaving her own home or en route to me. He was to spend his last night at home, and throughout the evening he was to talk as much as possible, giving his neighbours the impression that he was not alone. In the morning he was to have a tearful farewell at the door of his apartment, taking care that no one was to see that he was crying to an empty foyer. Meanwhile, his wife would have to spend the night in a box-but the box would be on the aeroplane with them in the morning. To my surprise, the husband seemed delighted in the prospect of his forthcoming dramatic performance, and even promised a passable imitation of his wife's voice.
I watched the wife's arrival that evening on the Var - she had walked the entire distance, and was not followed. I could only take her word that no one had seen her leave her home. Fortunately, she turned out to be petite. From my collection of crates I chose one that gave her room to turn from side to side, but not long enough to stretch to her full length. She was due for a rough fifteen hours, but she seemed to find that preferable to the prospect of years before her without her husband. I padded the crate with blankets and pillows to muffle the sounds of her moving, and to make it slightly more comfortable. The joints of the crate were not quite flush, so she would have some air. I hammered down the top, stencilled "Fragile" and "U.S. Government Property', all over the crate, and addressed it to "The American Legation, Vienna." A muffled voice from inside said, "Eet ees quite comfortable." Fifteen minutes later a truck from the Motor Pool drove up, as I had ordered, and two G.I.s loaded the case aboard. I noted it was fragile, and said, "Don't kick that around too much in the garage tonight."
"Nah," one of them answered. "It'll stay on the truck. The rest of this stuff is going on the same plane." That was something at least. It was going to be a long night for both husband and wife, but to have had the truck pick the crate up in the morning and go straight to the airport would have been too revealing, and any movement of such a crate later in the night would have aroused the suspicions of the Hungarian guards who stood by the Military Garage. Some American soldiers in Bucharest had pulled the same trick only a month before with three Rumanians; it had worked, but one week later the Soviet Command had requested by name the return of the three Rumanians who had left illegally on the American aircraft. I hoped the Soviets would assume we wouldn't be so stupid as to try the same trick again so soon.
The next morning, after the plane's departure, I dropped in to see Mark. I knew he had been out at the airport, and he knew that I had arranged the departures of the scientists. He gave me a very fishy look. "Plane get off all right?" I queried him. "It did," he said. "Took off right over my jangled nerves." I looked at him. "The military don't send cases marked 'Fragile' to the American Legation in Vienna," he said. "They send them to the military. But fortunately the Hungarian guards at the airport don't know that and the Russians can't read." He sighed. "I thought it was more diplomatic that way," I said. "Well, we will now hope and pray," he rejoined.
We never heard a word about it from either Soviets or Hungarians. But I heard from the Navy. Several weeks later, when I was in Vienna, Hugh introduced me to probably the most worried-looking Lieutenant-Commander I had ever seen. "Look," he said. "We appreciate all you did, and all that, but that $5,000 was supposed to get those people all the way to the United States. You blew all that money just getting them to Vienna. I can never face the Bureau of Accounts." I signed an affidavit certifying that the money had been properly and necessarily disbursed in Budapest, and that without that having been done there would have been no scientists for the Navy. But I was far from pleased with myself. The operation had been sloppy, risky and amateurish. Such methods could not be permitted with the President.
Guy returned the following week from Lake Balaton. "This is going to be very tough," he said, "but it can be done." He outlined his plan. It was complex, and required split-second timing, but it was feasible. The only limitation was that with the very best of luck it could work for no more than eight people. It was quite impossible to approach the Presidential villa from the land side. The property had a considerable shoreline, however, and the only possible access was thus from the lake. This would involve crossing in boats, taking aboard the family at separate points along the property's lakefront, recrossing the lake to rendezvous points, and probably even travelling in separate groups to the frontier. This meant automobiles, boats, safe houses and, most importantly, men. Guy was sure of only a sufficient number of all four to permit taking care of eight persons. To involve more men would risk a leak; to utilize more cars and boats would make the operation physically too conspicuous and unwieldy. Besides, eight people would take care of the immediate family.
I passed this information to Csornoky. His reaction was to express serious doubt that his father-in-law would be able to go with any lesser number than the fourteen he had already specified. Personally, I felt him to be rather petulant about the matter. I explained the physical difficulties; and then I emphasized the national interest which was at stake. Csornoky promised only to consult the President and let me know as soon as possible. I spoke again with Guy about it: he was adamant, and refused categorically to risk the enterprise with more than eight persons. His point was certainly valid: it was simply that with any larger number some people were certain to be caught; in the confusion he would not be able to guarantee that the President himself would not be among the unlucky ones. I began to worry. Tildy was not a man in whom I had had much faith up to now; if he ran true to form he would make the wrong decision again. But there was always the fact that in crises men often rise above their usual form.
The next blow fell from an unexpected quarter. My correspondent friend's publication came out in America with a report that the President of Hungary was making plans to escape, in order to denounce the Communist frauds in the August elections. It wasn't even one of those "it is rumoured" stories; it was all stated as fact, thereby showing how omniscient this particular journal was, and giving the reader, safe at home, the sensation, cheap but so flattering, of being on the inside. In this case I was sure that, no matter how cheap the sensation, the cost would be high. (My bitterness at this development is not necessarily at odds with my conclusions in Part I about the necessity to hide operations from the Press as well as the public and the opposition. This correspondent was the recipient of a clearly-labelled official confidence which he had given his word not to violate.)
The word spread quickly, and was noted in Parliament. I briefly had the odd impression that I could sense the feelings of the entire country: the great majority of the population quietly - and hopefully - watching to see if it would be true; the Communists manoeuvring quickly but silently to ensure that it would not come true.
I did not expect to see Csornoky again. To my surprise, he came to see me about a week later. His father-in-law was due to speak to the nation by radio that evening, and Csornoky arrived just as the President started to speak. "What is he saying?" I asked him. Csornoky laughed. "He's saying that reports that he is planning to leave the country are hostile fabrications against Hungarian democracy; that the elections were honest and reassuring for the future of the country, and he stands proudly at his post to guide the nation to even greater democratic achievements," he replied. Then, as the President still orated on, Csornoky said, "Now, you will understand that my father-in-law is more than ever anxious to leave - and quickly."
I understood nothing of the kind; here the danger had quintupled, but that seemed to make no difference. Csornoky continued: "However, he cannot abandon those near to him and loyal to him to the fate that would surely come to them if left behind. Therefore, I must insist that we go as fourteen persons." This made no sense at all to me, I told Csornoky that the danger was now infinitely greater, and he should be talking about fewer persons rather than more. The danger and practical risks seemed to count not at all with him, nor was he really in the least disturbed by the American publication of Tildy's intentions. It was plain that he was living in some kind of dream world, and felt no pressing need to adapt to reality; it was as though he felt himself in command of events. "I am sorry," I said. "Eight will be difficult enough, but I cannot take the responsibility for any more." Csornoky did not appear overly disturbed; he simply remained firm. "We are a very close family," he said. "It must be fourteen, or not at all." With that he left. He had little more than a year to live.
(President Tildy stayed in Hungary. Some months later Csornoky was appointed Minister to Egypt. While there, ignoring his surveillance by his own staff, he made blatant attempts to get in touch with Western intelligence organizations. Summoned to return to Budapest for Consultation, Csornoky returned, was arrested, tried and hanged. Tildy was obliged to resign the Presidency, which went to the Socialist Szakasits, who had merged his party with the Communists. During the Revolution in 1956, Tildy, his father-in-law killed by the Nazis and his son-in-law by the Communists, emerged as a Minister of State in the Imre Nagy Government. He is reported to have behaved courageously throughout, refusing to leave the Parliament building during the Soviet attack on the night of November 4 until all other members of the Government, and its loyal employees, had got away. There followed arrest, imprisonment and limited detention until his death in 1961.)