At the conclusion of the Hungarian Revolution, which began on October 23, 1956, and ended nearly a month later, Hungarian escapees arrived in droves at Camp Kilmer, a then-inactive army post located about two miles east of New Brunswick, New Jersey. The first arrivals came in November 1956, followed by thousands more in the months to come. Some arrived in New York by ship; others by plane. Army buses brought them to Camp Kilmer, where they were billeted in wooden barracks until jobs and housing could be found for them throughout the United States.
The organization for which I worked, Church World Service, set up a temporary office at the camp, where several other employees and I stayed for a few months at the end of 1956 and during the early months of 1957. The acronym CWS was sewn on our armbands to differentiate us from employees of other agencies at the camp, such as IRC (International Rescue Committee) and CRS (Catholic Relief Services). Stacks of dossiers on my desk described the job experience of the hopeful candidates, many of whom sought professional jobs. As they sat in straight-back chairs waiting to be interviewed, frustration and weariness swept over their faces. When they were told that a good job and housing had been found for them, their faces lit up with smiles.
In November 1956, my father (Major General Howard L. Peckham) retired from the U.S. Army. Soon thereafter, he accepted a consulting job with the Free Europe Committee (FEC). At that time, the FEC president was Willis D. Crittenberger, a retired lieutenant general under whom Dad had served during WWII at Ft. Benning. At their first official FEC meeting, he and my father talked about the work of the FEC, whose primary mission was helping nations held captive behind the Iron Curtain become free and independent. Dad strongly believed in this mission. It was also the main goal of the radio division, RFE, and of the publishing division, Free Europe Press (FEP). Among its other tasks, the FEP for many years printed millions of leaflets. These messages of hope were carried by balloons from Germany and dropped into countries behind the Iron Curtain, like feathers drifting down from the wings of eagles. A peaceful end to the Communist regimes in that part of Europe, Dad believed, would be good for America’s national security and for the security of the non-Communist world as a whole.
One of the items they discussed was the FEC’s history. Its remarkable story began when diplomat George Kennan of the State Department made an interesting proposal to the National Security Council (NSC). Why not form an anti-Communist organization to help restore democracy in Central and Eastern Europe? To ensure the effectiveness of this plan, shouldn’t the assistance of talented émigrés from those lands, as well as prominent American citizens, be secured? Kennan’s idea caught fire, and in the following year (1949), the Free Europe Committee, originally called the National Committee for a Free Europe, was created. Covert funding for the FEC, through the CIA, was approved by Truman’s administration and later by the Eisenhower administration.
Hopeful messages from the RFE division were beamed to the captive people like rays from the sun, exposing the fallacies of communism but reminding people to resist it nonviolently. In lands where vacant country churches wore the heavy cloaks of atheism, RFE encouraged parents to teach their children religious values. It also let workers know the ways in which communism was exploiting them.
Church World Service received good publicity for its humanitarian efforts on behalf of the Hungarian refugees. The role of RFE in the Hungarian Revolution, on the other hand, evoked a certain amount of media controversy in the months that followed the brutal crushing of the revolt by the Russians. Respected CIA guru Cord Meyer, whom my father first met during an official visit to the Agency, admits this fact in his book Facing Reality, but he also writes:
“After the Hungarian revolt was crushed, my office in the Agency, with the help of two Hungarian-speaking analysts, did a careful review of the taped broadcasts that had been made in the weeks before the revolution. We could not find evidence that in this period RFE had violated the standing instruction against inciting to violence or promising external assistance. . . .From my own exposure to these events and from the findings of the working group within the Agency that reviewed the taped RFE broadcasts, I am satisfied that RFE did not plan, direct, or attempt to provoke the Hungarian rebellion. . . .”
Many factors entered into the failure of the revolution. Arch Puddington, in his excellent book Broadcasting Freedom, speaks of the confusion that erupted at RFE “and presumably, the American government as the revolution collapsed under volley after volley of Soviet tank fire.” One can imagine those few staff members with knowledge of the Hungarian language rushing to assemble scripts, like marathon runners charging towards the finish line. After noting that it was RFE’s first and last major public scandal, Puddington writes: “This is an enviable record by any reasonable standard, all the more so given the sensitive issues that RFE dealt with on a daily basis, the microscopic scrutiny devoted to its broadcasts by Communist officials, and the intense emotions of the radio staff.”
In regard to the Hungarian controversy, there are two truths that cannot reasonably be disputed by anyone. It was tragic that thousands of Hungarians died while fighting for their freedom. It was also tragic that the West could not come to their aid. Nevertheless, it was rewarding for employees of Church World Service to know that so many Hungarian escapees were settling down in good housing and were working at jobs our organization had secured for them. Also it’s important to note that their countrymen didn’t die in vain, as pointed out in Voices Through the Iron Curtain: The Radio Free Europe Story by Allan A. Michie: “The image of communism as the system of the working people was shattered: a worker’s state had coldly shot down the workers who rose against it.” The author also states that “RFE often became a scapegoat for the revolt’s failure,” when, in fact, the radio broadcasts helped so much in defeating communism.
Under the new name, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the radios continue to give support to nations that are striving for democracy.
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