February 25, 1956: Khruschev gives a closed-door, four hour speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party. The speech (later known as the Stalin speech) repudiates the actions taken by Stalin over the past 30 years. Khruschev describes Stalin as “a supreme egotist and sadist, capable of sacrificing everything and anybody for the sake of his own power and glory.” Shocking Communists the world over, Khruschev decries the “cult of personality” that Stalin fashioned, the murders he carried out, his “persecution mania,” and his abuse of those he considered to be “enemies of the people.” Thousands of Stalin’s political prisoners in gulags all over the USSR have their sentences committed. The era of de-Stalinization begins.
March 1956: The CIA picks up rumors about the February speech. Allen Dulles desperately wants a copy of the speech. (You can read the speech here.) The CIA relies heavily on foreign intelligence sources to come up with the text. Of course, the CIA is more than willing to pay.
April 1956: Israel’s spies deliver the text to James Angleton, the CIA’s one-man liaison with the Jewish state. This channel produces much of the agency’s intelligence on the Arab world, depending on Israel to explain most events in the Middle East. The Israeli perspective colors American perceptions for decades.
April 17, 1956: The Cominform is dissolved.
May 1956: George Kennan determines that the text in the CIA’s copy of the February speech is genuine, spurring debate within the agency. Some want to keep the speech a secret. Others want to use it to sow discord among the world’s communist parties. According to Ray Cline, Angleton thought that by tweaking the speech with propaganda
he could have used it to such advantage that he would have discombobulated the Russians and their security services and perhaps used some of these emigre groups that we still at that time hoped to activate, and liberate the Ukraine or something.
Most of all, the CIA wants to lure Soviet spies in order to salvage a long-running, but ineffective operation called Red Cap. (For more on Red Cap, see SPYING YEAR BY YEAR: 1952.)
June 1956: An inspector general’s report declares that the Soviet division of the CIA’s clandestine service — run by Harvard grad Dana Durand — is dysfunctional. (The report is declassified in 2004). The report states that the Soviet division could not produce “an authoritative statement of its mission and functions” much less grasp what was going on within the Soviet Union. The report contains a list of the CIA’s 20 “controlled agents” in Russia in 1956. None of them are in a position to have any idea what makes the Kremlin tick.
Early June 1956: Dulles decides to leak the text of Khruschev’s speech. For months afterwards, the speech is beamed behind the Iron Curtain by Radio Free Europe, the CIA’s $100 million media machine.
June 28, 1956: Although the CIA’s best analysts had concluded that no popular uprising was likely in Eastern Europe during the 1950s, after the speech was broadcast, Polish workers began to rise up against their communist rulers. The Polish struggle leads the National Security Council to search for cracks in Soviet control.
John Foster Dulles wins presidential approval for new efforts to promote “spontaneous manifestations of discontent” in dominated nations.
Allen Dulles promises to bolster a Radio Free Europe program that floats balloons over the Iron Curtain, carrying leaflets and “Freedom Medals.”
July 26 1956: Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser challenges the legacy of colonialism by nationalizing the Suez Canal Company, the corporation created by the British and French to run the Middle East’s man-made maritime trade route.
October 22, 1956: Frank Wisner travels to Europe to visit the CIA’s biggest stations. His first order of business is to meet with Sir Patrick Dean, a senior British intelligence officer. They are to discuss plans to topple the Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, but Dean is a no show. He’s in France putting the finishing touches on a coordinated military attack on Egypt by Britain, France, and Israel. The aim is to destroy Nasser’s government and take the Suez Canal back by force. The CIA knows nothing about this.
October 23, 1956: Students take to the streets of Budapest. By November 4, the rebellion is crushed. During the 2 weeks of the Hungarian uprising, the CIA knows no more than what it reads in the newspapers. (For more details see the BBC News Timeline.)
October 24, 1956: A crowd gathers at the Parliament in Budapest led by student demonstrators rising up against the communist government. The security police confront a second crowd at the government radio station. Some of the students are armed, and shots break out. The security police open fire and the protesters fight back. At the Budapest City Park, a third crowd tears a statue of Stalin from its pedestal. Red Army troops enter Budapest in retaliation. At Kossuth Square, crossfire erupts, and at least 100 people die.
October 26, 1956: Although Dulles has been informed by sources that something may be up regarding Egypt, he is disbelieving. At a National Security Council meeting, he informs President Eisenhower that reports of a joint UK-French-Israeli military plan are absurd. That suits Ike just fine since he is obsessed with Hungary.
October 28, 1956: Frank Wisner flies to Paris and meets with Bill Griffith, the senior policy adviser at Radio Free Europe’s Munich headquarters. Beginning that evening, Radio Free Europe urges the citizens of Hungary to sabotage railroads, blow up tanks, and fight the Soviets.
November 1, 1956: At a National Security Council meeting, Dulles briefs Eisenhower on the situation in Budapest. He says:
What occurred there was a miracle . . . . Because of the power of public opinion, armed force could not be effectively used. Approximately 80% of the Hungarian army had defected to the rebels and provided the rebels with arms.
Dulles is wrong. The rebels have no guns to speak of and the Hungarian army has not switched sides. The Soviets are sending more than 200,000 troops and some 2,500 tanks and armored vehicles.
On the morning of the Soviet invasion, Radio Free Europe’s Bulgarian announcer told his listeners that “the pressure upon the government of the U.S. to send military help to the freedom fighters will become irresistable.” But that was not the case.
November 4, 1956: The Soviet onslaught begins. In 4 days, the partisans of Budapest are crushed. Tens of thousands are killed and thousands more are taken to Siberian prison camps. Hungarian refugees begin besieging the American embassy in Vienna, begging America to do something.
November 7, 1956: Eisenhower is reelected. The president wakes up the next morning to a false report from Allen Dulles that the Soviets are ready to send 250,000 troops to Egypt to defend the Suez Canal from the British and French. Also, Ike’s unhappy about the CIA’s inability to report on the actual Soviet attack in Hungary.
November 11, 1956: The Soviets claim victory over the Hungarian freedom fighters.
December 20, 1956: President Eisenhower receives a formal report of a secret investigation into the clandestine service of the CIA. If it were to become public, it would destroy the agency. The top secret report has never been declassified. Its key findings appear in a 1961 record created by the intelligence board.
For his next 4 years in office, President Eisenhower tries to change the way the CIA is run, but he is unable to find a suitable replacement for Allen Dulles. Dulles won’t accept oversight, instead leading the agency into new battles across Asia and the Middle East.
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