State of the Union

What Biden Can Learn from Eisenhower's 1957 State of the Union

The world's conscience had been shocked by Russia's recent invasion of a sovereign European state. Ike responded with sober, long-game containment in Europe...and more reckless escalation in the Middle East.


When President Joe Biden ambles to the podium at a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, he will be at an odd place for an American president. His country sits transfixed by a war more than 4,500 miles to the east, rooting openly in solidarity for the hopelessly outgunned underdogs fighting bravely for their homeland against a ruthless invader from Moscow. Hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees have already poured out to the West, while the young men back home fashion Molotov cocktails to hurl at tanks. The United States, unusually, is not a central protagonist in this military conflict, to the disappointment of both the ragtag rebels and some overenthusiastic hawks back home.

U.S. history being long enough, the above description fits another State of the Union address: Dwight D. Eisenhower's somber message to Congress on January 10, 1957, two months after the dramatic and bloody Soviet putdown of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, an event seared into the memory of the Americans who lived through it. Time had declared the "Hungarian Freedom Fighter" its 1956 Man of the Year; Elvis Presley hawked donations for refugees on The Ed Sullivan Show. Even Jean-Paul Sartre broke with his longtime communist comrades (as did many fellow travelers in the West).

Ike's rhetorical and policy response in that tumultuous season gives Biden and the rest of us plenty to ponder about what Washington should—and should not—do in 2022. It also reminds us that the belly-gnawing anxieties of the present can look almost manageable compared to the globe-rattling challenges of the past.

Like many authoritarian tragedies, the Hungarian Revolution began with a liberatory hope. Josef Stalin's death in 1953 kicked off a comparatively reformist era in Soviet politics, culminating in Nikita Khrushchev's shocking denunciation of Stalin's cult of personality and brutal internal purges at the February 1956 Communist Party Congress. The speech was secret but obtained by Israeli intelligence and shared with the Eisenhower administration, which leaked it to The New York Times in June. Then Radio Free Europe beamed a reading of it behind what Winston Churchill had christened a decade before as the "Iron Curtain."

Churchill himself had some fingerprints on that continental divide, via his participation in the February 1945 Yalta Conference (in Crimea, as irony would have it) with Stalin and then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, at which the three great soon-to-be-victorious opponents of Nazi Germany sketched out postwar plans for small-country Europe. While the two democratic leaders deluded themselves into believing they had meaningfully codified principles of independent self-determination for the long-abused peoples of Central Europe, in fact Churchill and F.D.R. ceded political veto power over Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria to the U.S.S.R., which promptly ignored the agreement's promises to allow for free and fair elections and then cemented military/political control over East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Albania, and elsewhere.

News of Khrushchev's de-Stalinization speech emboldened Central Europeans to challenge their satellite-state governments. First came the June 1956 Poznań strike, protests, and riots in Poland, which were viciously suppressed by Polish and Red Army soldiers and tanks that killed more than 50.

The clash nonetheless led to that year's Polish October, in which newly elected Polish leader Władysław Gomułka, a reformer, successfully stared down Khrushchev (who had mobilized two armored divisions toward Warsaw) in removing various pro-Soviet toadies from the senior ranks of the Polish government.

Radio Free Europe broadcasted news of Gomulka's success into Hungary, touching off demonstrations of sympathy and student-led demands for their own reforms. On October 23, 1956, some 20,000 protesters gathered in Budapest to demand independence from the Kremlin. Police opened fire, protesters battled back, the Hungarian government called for assistance from the Red Army, rebels attacked the Parliament, leaders of the puppet government fled to Moscow, and for the next three weeks (during which Eisenhower won re-election in a landslide) the world stood riveted at the conflict.

A new rebel government headed by Prime Minister Imre Nagy emptied political prisons, executed pro-Soviet political leaders, and declared Hungary's withdrawal from the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact military alliance. Khrushchev then ordered a massive retaliatory attack. When the dust cleared, around 2,500 Hungarians were dead, 200,000 escaped to the West, and Moscow once again exerted political control along the Danube.

Eisenhower's perceived inaction against the Soviet crackdown was a topic of intense controversy at the time (and even decades after). Cold War hawks and Central European anti-communists complained bitterly that Ike reneged on his 1952 campaign promise of engaging in a "rollback" of Soviet domination rather than mere containment, while falsely getting hopes up via Radio Free Europe and the CIA.

All this (and much more) was the backdrop not just of Eisenhower's January 10, 1957, State of the Union speech, but also his January 21 second inaugural address and (most of all) his January 5, 1957, address to a joint session of Congress laying out what would come to be known as the Eisenhower Doctrine.

"At no time in the history of the Republic have circumstances more emphatically underscored the need, in all echelons of government, for vision and wisdom and resolution," Eisenhower declared in the first paragraph of his SOTU speech. "In the world today, the surging and understandable tide of nationalism is marked by widespread revulsion and revolt against tyranny, injustice, inequality and poverty. As individuals, joined in a common hunger for freedom, men and women and even children pit their spirit against guns and tanks….The existence of a strongly armed imperialistic dictatorship poses a continuing threat to the free world's and thus to our own Nation's security and peace."

Having foregrounded this "season of stress that is testing the fitness of political systems and the validity of political philosophies," Ike then laid out two very different approaches to confronting it: patient institution-building in Europe, and a more hegemonic responsibility for security arrangements in the Middle East. Biden would be good to learn lessons from both.

"The recent historic events in Hungary demand that all free nations share to the extent of their capabilities in the responsibility of granting asylum to victims of Communist persecution," Eisenhower said. So asylum, not bombs.

The president also emphasized non-military means of bolstering the anti-communist bulwark in still-rebuilding Western Europe. "We must emphasize aid to our friends in building more productive economies and in better satisfying the natural demands of their people," he said. Critical to that effort were long-term tariff reduction and mutual cooperation. "We welcome the efforts of a number of our European friends to achieve an integrated community to develop a common market." For the duration of the Cold War, increasingly freer trade would be seen by Washington as an essential component of strengthening what was then called "the free world."

None of these measures provided anything like immediate relief for Polish workers, Hungarian students, or other routed freedom fighters in the East Bloc. But—importantly!—they also avoided hot military conflict between two nuclear-armed superpowers, while also clearing the way for the eventual anti-communist revolutions of 1989 by the very people who'd been subjugated for so long.

As Christopher Condon wrote in an excellent 2006 L.A. Times piece,

Moscow's actions exposed the brutality of Soviet imperialism. Domestic communist movements throughout Western Europe, some very popular, were irretrievably fractured.

Hungarians, though they paid with their own blood, also benefited from the uprising. After a few years of merciless suppression, they were slowly granted greater personal liberties, as long as they did not question the authority of the Party. By the 1970s, Hungarians occupied the "happiest barracks" in the Soviet bloc, freer and more prosperous than the Poles, Czechs or Romanians. Some even argue that the concessions granted to Hungary, partly out of fear of another uprising, inexorably undermined Soviet influence and greatly accelerated the collapse of communism across Eastern Europe. It is often forgotten that the Iron Curtain fell not in Berlin in November 1989, but three months earlier, when Hungary's foreign minister, Gyula Horn, did the honors with a pair of wire cutters on the Austrian border.

Few people have ever seriously suggested that the U.S. military should have stormed into Hungary 50 years ago and launched World War III.

But not all of Ike's reticence was attributable to mere prudence. The whole globe was a hot mess in 1956, as European colonial powers lost their overseas holdings one by one. On October 29, in the midst of the Hungarian Revolution, Israel attacked the Egyptian Sinai, clearing the way one week later for Britain and France to seize the recently nationalized Suez Canal. Eisenhower opposed America's old allies, leading to a temporary rupture of relations.

The president looked upon the power vacuum in the Middle East, and the concurrent rise of Arab nationalism, as a threat of potential Soviet malfeasance and an opportunity for the U.S. to more vigorously shape regional events. Western Europeans, "whose economic strength is largely dependent on free and uninterrupted movement of oil from the Middle East, cannot prosper—indeed, their economies would be severely impaired—should that area be controlled by an enemy and the movement of oil be subject to its decisions," he said in his State of the Union address.

Five days prior, in another address to a joint session of Congress, Ike unveiled a fateful doctrine by which any nation in the newly independent Middle East could call on the U.S. to provide military assistance and even a security guarantee.

"We have just seen the subjugation of Hungary by naked armed force. In the aftermath of this Hungarian tragedy, world respect for and belief in Soviet promises have sunk to a new low," Eisenhower observed. "We have shown, so that none can doubt, our dedication to the principle that force shall not be used internationally for any aggressive purpose and that the integrity and independence of the nations of the Middle East should be inviolate."

That latter promise, alas, would generate well-deserved doubts from the get-go.

We can be thankful that we don't live in the world of 65 years ago. As the Eisenhower Foundation puts it, with something approaching gallows humor, for the president,

1957 was a nearly impossible year. First, the struggle and the political expediency necessary to secure civil rights legislation had disgusted him. Before it was even signed, the school desegregation disaster at Little Rock was upon him. Immediately after, Sputnik threw the nation into a crisis of self-confidence and worry with demands for education reform, fallout shelters, space exploration, and even more unnecessary—in his opinion—weapons. The president had done his best to reassure the American people that the United States was secure and to keep the lid on a defense establishment that threatened to spend the country into oblivion. Then in November, just before Thanksgiving, he had suffered a minor stroke. To make things even worse, 1957 was a recession year.

Joe Biden should take advantage of the more favorable 2022 environment by having the United States shoulder less of a leadership role. European nations, in ways not seen since World War II, seem eager to take the lead role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. The president should not only let them but actively encourage Paris and a newly invigorated Berlin to dream up security structures not led by Washington. Three decades late is better than never.

Ike's lessons of tariff reduction and mutual economic gains from trade, too, are salient today, as a second consecutive administration follows the foolishness of buy-Americanism. Such Eisenhowerian liberalism should also be afforded to refugees—a category of immigrants that the country has shamefully closed off over the past five years.

Above all, the president should reject all temptation to follow Eisenhower down the road of hegemonic meddling in the affairs of foreign countries. Repudiate calls to get involved in a hot war. Remove "regime change" from the vocabulary. Recognize the long-term wisdom that has been underscored by the heroism of Ukrainians this past week: That people will fight like hell against steep odds to protect their independence, and those elsewhere who have secured their own will provide an outpouring of support.

"The world has so shrunk that all free nations are our neighbors," Eisenhower said in his 1957 State of the Union. Thanks in part to his patient exertions on containment, the free world has grown larger than many of us once dreamed. Let us hope that Ukraine can join its ranks.