A Blueprint For Refugee Resettlement: The Eisenhower Administration and Hungarian Refugees, 1956-1957

By Noah Allyn

            Following the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union took control of Hungary, establishing a communist government in 1948. On October 23, 1956, eight years later, protests broke out in Budapest as students and workers rebelled in opposition to Soviet rule. Urged to continue resisting by the CIA sponsored Free Radio Europe and reassured that the United States or the United Nations would soon provide back-up, Hungarian rebels took up arms as they awaited an imminent Soviet response.[1] Worried about escalating Cold War tensions, the U.S. did not intervene, and within ten days, the Soviet army had crushed the rebellion. The Soviets killed some 2,500 Hungarians and imprisoned tens of thousands of others. Over the course of the following month, around 200,000 Hungarians fled to neighboring Austria.[2]

Hungarian “freedom fighters” hoist their nation’s flag from the top of a Soviet tank after initially pushing back enemy forces in Budapest.
Credit: AP.

            Utilizing visas allotted by the 1953 Refugee Relief Act, President Dwight D. Eisenhower announced that the U.S. would accept as many as 5,000 Hungarian refugees. Despite this gesture, Eisenhower’s failure to intervene militarily in support of the Hungarian rebels during the uprising led to a backlash from European allies, American media outlets, and anticommunist groups in the United States. A mere 5,000 visas would not satisfy critics, especially as the number of refugees in Austria continued to grow. Feeling pressure from the international community, yet hindered by restrictive immigration and refugee policies, Eisenhower took a series of unprecedented steps between early November and the spring of 1957 to resettle 38,193 Hungarians in the United States.[3] Thus began a new era of refugee resettlement as a Cold War foreign policy strategy of the United States. The refugee crisis, like the Hungarian revolution itself, escalated rapidly, forcing leaders in the U.S. to plan and facilitate resettlement as quickly as possible. It was within this two-month period, from November to the end of 1956, that the Eisenhower administration laid the foundations for Cold War refugee resettlement in the United States.

            Hungarians were not the first refugees to come to the United States. Various laws had permitted small numbers of refugees to come to the country since the end of World War Two. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948, for instance, led to the resettlement of some 400,000 refugees from Europe, while also allowing for the naturalization of around 1,000 Chinese immigrants on temporary visas.[4] Yet, refugee laws during this period were problematic for a variety of reasons. Despite implementing a series of temporary laws intended to address Europe’s postwar refugee crisis, these policies remained bound to the country’s extremely restrictive immigration policies, which would not be overhauled until 1965. Not only that, immigration legislation—and, by extension, refugee laws—reflected racialized conceptions of American citizenship, which heavily restricted the admittance of immigrants and refugees from countries outside of Northern and Western Europe. Despite this restrictionist legislation, the Eisenhower administration eventually managed to circumvent these laws and quickly admit tens of thousands of Hungarians. This was an unprecedented move for a presidential administration. It begs the question: why did Eisenhower take extralegal action to create a Hungarian resettlement program in spite of prevailing laws and precedents?

            Refugee scholars have tackled this question. In Safe Haven, David W. Haines underscores the impetus behind refugee resettlement beginning in the 1950s: “anticommunism has been crucial to virtually all refugee admissions up until the 1990s.”[5] Indeed, Cold War foreign policy concerns dictated refugee resettlement, both for Hungarians and later groups. In Americans at the Gate, Carl J. Bon Tempo argues that Hungarian—and, later, Cuban—resettlement represented “important parts of larger Cold War foreign policy initiatives.”[6] However, Bon Tempo rebuffs other scholarly interpretations, arguing that refugee resettlement was also “strongly rooted in political, cultural, economic and social conditions” inside the United States.[7] This is especially so when considering the effects of the social movements of the 1960s on immigration and refugee policy, but Bon Tempo argues that “domestic political developments—like the Red Scare and domestic anticommunism of the 1950s—” also factored into refugee politics. Domestic factors certainly played a role in Eisenhower’s resettlement efforts, but foreign policy concerns—above all else—compelled his administration to take action with Hungarian refugees.

            While the main focus of this article is the Eisenhower administration’s response to the Hungarian refugee crisis, it is important to provide some historical context to understand the United States’ relationship to refugees and immigrants prior to 1956. Next, the article looks to the implementation of various refugee laws starting with the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which provides context behind Eisenhower’s unprecedented decision to circumvent immigration law. Shifting the focus to the fall of 1956, this essay explores various primary documents from the Eisenhower administration and the Army, such as correspondences and a televised documentary meant to garner support for resettlement. Likewise, newspaper coverage also sheds light on public opinion regarding refugees. Lastly, the article concludes by reflecting on the program, both its successes and failures, and assessing its implications for American Refugee policy during the Cold War.

When one considers that between 1948 and 2009 the U.S. resettled over four million refugees, 38,000 Hungarians seems modest. However, the United States’ handling of the Hungarian refugee crisis set multiple precedents that would endure the following two and a half decades. Foreign policy concerns, namely that of discrediting the Soviet Union and communism in general, drove Eisenhower to pursue resettlement as a foreign policy strategy in the first place. This was not the only precedent set by the administration. Among the most important concerns how the Eisenhower administration managed to circumvent immigration and refugee law in the name of foreign policy. In short, the Eisenhower administration exploited the parole statute of the Immigration and Nationality Act, also known as the McCarran-Walter Act, which permitted the attorney general to temporarily admit foreign nationals. Eisenhower used this statute to permit nearly 30,000 refugees, all of whom eventually received permanent resident status.

The implications of these precedents are clear when one considers the refugee resettlement projects of the 1960s and 1970s. Professor of Law Bill Hing contends that “by 1980, 99.7 percent of the more than one million refugees admitted under the parole system were from countries under communist rule.”[8] Eisenhower irrevocably changed the U.S. approach to refugee resettlement during the Cold War by forging a model for resettlement that circumvented immigration law, effectively giving the executive branch an unprecedented amount of power over refugee admissions. In addition to foreign policy and legal maneuverings, the government also had to navigate the court of public opinion. Despite the country’s recent history of anti-immigrant sentiment, the federal government succeeded in garnering widespread support for the program with the help of media outlets. In this sense, Hungarian resettlement also laid a blueprint for convincing the general public to welcome refugees of communism. By rethinking refugee resettlement as a foreign policy strategy, the Eisenhower administration, with the help of media outlets and the U.S. Army, effectively convinced the general public that refugee resettlement was not only the country’s humanitarian duty but also a potential propaganda weapon in the ideological war against communism. The administration rushed to create an infrastructure for resettling refugees by collaborating with various nongovernmental organizations—a model that remained in use through 1980. What, at the time, may have looked like a series of rushed decisions regarding an unfolding event would prove enormously consequential, reshaping the U.S. approach to refugee resettlement for decades to come.

Background: American Encounters with Refugees

Refugees, based on a modern definition of the term, have an extensive history that long predates the Second World War. However, World War II and, more specifically, the rise of the Third Reich, brought the issue of refugees to the forefront of political discourse, both in the U.S. and in Europe. On May 5, 1939, the MS St Louis, a German maritime vessel carrying some 900 mostly Jewish passengers, arrived on the East Coast of the United States. Although the ship’s passengers had originally planned on landing in Cuba, they were denied entry upon arrival. The ship proceeded to reroute to the American East Coast, hoping to find refuge there, but to no avail. President Franklin D. Roosevelt similarly denied the ship’s landing in Cuba based on the recommendation of Secretary of State Cordell.[9] Despite the fact that some 700 of them had registered for American visas and had received affidavits of support; the U.S. turned the MS St. Louis away.[10] In a final ditch effort, the ship sailed for Canada only to be rejected once again. After returning to Europe, many of the passengers found refuge in Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Belgium. In the end, however, 254 of the refugees died at the hands of the Nazis.[11]

The failure of the U.S. to allow the MS St. Louis’ passengers to disembark constituted, in hindsight, a shameful moment for a country that could have resettled some 900 people with relative ease. On the wall of the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration still hangs a picture of the MS St. Louis to remind [employees] of the impact of [their] work and of the individuals behind policy decisions.[12] It wasn’t until after the war that leaders from around the globe took steps to address the issue of refugees. For the U.S.—a country spared from the mass destruction that Europe witnessed— American leaders saw the need to address the situation. What emerged from the ashes of the Second World War, however, was not a comprehensive or permanent refugee policy on the part of the United States. Rather, Washington instituted a series of temporary policies beginning in 1946 that sought to resettle varying numbers of refugees within the existing immigration system. To understand the discourse around refugee resettlement, American immigration policies as well as public perception of immigration should be considered.

Immigration policies from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century reflected growing opposition to unchecked immigration, especially in the case of non-Western European immigrants. As Bon Tempo points out, “immigration politics and laws provided the key backdrop to American refugee policies in the 1930s.”[13] Although the country had accepted nearly 25 million immigrants since 1880, two opposing groups had also emerged during that period: the liberalizers and the restrictionists. However, the aftermath of the First World War gave the restrictionists an edge in the debate. Capitalizing on the xenophobic and anti-immigrant hysteria, the restrictionists in the Congress managed to pass a series of strict immigration laws in the 1920s.[14] The Immigration Act of 1924, for instance, restricted immigrant visas from the eastern hemisphere to 165,000, while placing no quotas on those from the western hemisphere. Moreover, the legislation of the 1920s favored immigrants from Western Europe, while heavily restricting Southern and Eastern Europeans and upholding the outright ban on immigrants from Asia.[15]

By the 1930s despite Europe’s escalating refugee crises, American immigration laws were restrictive, domestic political culture was anti-newcomer, and the nation had played only a small role in solving the previous two decades’ refugee problems.[16] The American restrictionist faction had prevailed during the 1920s and 1930s, and both legislation and public opinion reflected this. However, the tide began to turn during the following decade, reflecting Americans shift away from isolationism during and after the Second World War. Although the country’s immigration policies would not be overhauled until the Immigration Act of 1965, liberalizers and refugee advocates managed to find ways to resettle refugees within the restrictive immigration system.

Legislating Refuge

Despite the increasing appeal of a liberalized immigration system after World War II, the restrictionist bloc remained strong, as did anti-Semitism. Because of this resistance, the first American refugee laws were problematic and did little to rebuke the racialized conceptions of belonging underpinning the foundation of twentieth-century immigration law. Yet public criticism of these initial refugee acts also suggested that American politicians and the public increasingly viewed racialized immigration policies as archaic and out-of-touch during the immediate postwar years. Frustration with these discriminatory and restrictive refugee policies, as well as with the country’s inability to reform its immigration system, led the Eisenhower administration to take unprecedented executive action to circumvent these laws and resettle a significant number of Hungarian refugees. 

An examination of the development of laws and rhetoric surrounding refugees after World War Two helps to understand Eisenhower’s decisions in 1956. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed the Displaced Persons Act, which was the first legislation dedicated to refugee resettlement. On its face, the law provided aid to the European refugee crisis; however, in practice it placed strict limits on the number of people who could enter the U.S. by deeming any person ineligible for an American visa who had entered a refugee camp after December 22, 1945, thereby effectively prohibiting the entrance of Jews who survived the Holocaust.[17] President Truman, himself disturbed by this aspect of the law, reacted negatively to the Displaced Persons Act, arguing that “the bad points of the bill are numerous.” He continued, “Together they form a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice.”[18] Despite the influence of restrictionists and instances of blatant anti-Semitism in American political circles, Bon Tempo contends, “the political and cultural terrain, then, had shifted in favor of liberalizers.”[19] Through the late 1940s and on to the end of 1950s, liberalizers and restrictionists continued to battle over the fate of refugees. Although restrictionists remained buttressed by American immigration policy, liberalizers eventually found ways to circumvent these obstacles, and temporary refugee laws provided loopholes for doing so.

The Displaced Persons Act, which expired in 1952, was replaced by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, more commonly known as the McCarran-Walter Act. Again, the legislation was temporary and it neglected to establish a permanent policy towards refugees outside the realm of immigration policy. The McCarran-Walter Act upheld the controversial and discriminatory quota system, though it did remove racial qualifications for citizenship—a “symbolically significant gesture to racial egalitarianism” despite the fact that the quota system still heavily favored Western European immigration.[20] The removal of racial qualifications—though understood by many as a performative stipulation that failed to address discriminatory immigration policies—nonetheless permitted the admittance of some Korean adoptees and spouses of American soldiers.

Though insignificant in terms of its impact on the immigration system as a whole, the McCarran-Walter Act included a seemingly minor stipulation that would end up having significant consequences for refugee resettlement in the following decades. In short, the law gave the U.S. attorney general permission to “admit refugees on a parole basis,” though parolees, according to the law, would not receive legal immigrant status.[21] At the time, commentators assumed this to be a “shipwrecked sailor” section.[22] In the early 1950s, a “group of escapees from the Russian-dominated Baltics had arrived in the U.S. aboard a small coastal sailing vessel;” this stipulation, in theory, would allow the U.S. to avoid “handing them, and others like them in the future, back to their Iron Curtain masters.”[23] Unbeknownst to commentators then, multiple presidential administrations would take advantage of the parole section of the McCarran-Walter Act to resettle more than one million refugees from Communist countries by 1980.[24]

“Dissatisfaction with the 1952 McCarran-Walter Act quickly led to” the Refugee Relief Act of 1953 (RRA), providing an additional 214,000 visas, mainly for European refugees.[25] The RRA helped to solidify the association between refugees and anticommunism. Moreover, it reflected concerns about “European political and economic stability and about America’s diplomatic reputation in the . . . Cold War competitions with the Soviet Union.”[26] The debates surrounding the RRA also foreshadowed how refugee politics would play out in the domestic sphere. While it was clear that liberalizers and restrictionists alike “equated ‘Americanness’ with anticommunism,” the former argued that the U.S. should set up comprehensive screenings to resettle more refugees while the latter argued that it would be unfeasible to weed out every communist refugee.[27]

The McCarran-Walter Act and the Refugee Relief Act reveal that refugee policies had started to take on new meaning during the early 1950s. In the domestic arena, a new set of concerns emerged regarding refugee resettlement. Although refugee policies still operated within the confines of the immigration system, discourse surrounding refugees suggests that politicians increasingly viewed them in a separate light from immigrants. Whereas immigration policies had long reflected domestic concerns—both economic and social—the discourse around refugees suggested a new set of concerns related to foreign relations and escalating competition between the U.S. and the USSR. Overall, the refugee policies of the early 1950s foreshadowed the divergence of refugee politics from that of immigration. Refugee resettlement, unlike immigration, could offer the U.S. a strategic edge in the Cold War.          

Refugee Resettlement as Foreign Policy

            By the time Eisenhower took office in 1953, Cold War tensions had escalated throughout much of the world. American leaders found themselves in a precarious position during the mid-1950s, and especially after the outbreak of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. American allies in Europe contended that the U.S. had “encouraged the rebellion through its propaganda,” while simultaneously failing to take action to aid the Hungarian revolutionaries.[28] Likewise, the American anticommunist far-right accused the administration of failing to take decisive action to help its allies.[29] For a candidate who had campaigned for stifling and even rolling back communism, this inaction towards its European allies was problematic for Eisenhower.

            Despite widespread criticism, both domestic and international, the President knew he had to tread lightly so as to avoid all-out war with the Kremlin. By the outbreak of revolution in the Fall of 1956, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Dulles believed that the administration had found a happy medium that would both please its anticommunist allies and avoid agitating “delicate American-Soviet relations.”[30] In short, they believed that the best course of action was to provide financial aid to Hungarian rebels and open up a path to resettlement for a significant portion of the 200,000 refugees.

Eisenhower had his reasons for wanting to resettle refugees of the Hungarian Revolution. First, the optics of resettlement could, in the administration’s opinion, bolster the reputation of the U.S. among allies and domestic anticommunists. This was an opportunity for Washington to take concrete action, rather than merely providing ideological and financial support for the cause of anticommunism. Second, according to a confidential 1958 report by Guy Coriden, the CIA described to that Whitehouse that the refugee crises offered “an unprecedented opportunity for the collection of intelligence on a Soviet Bloc country.”[31] While the administration did not publicly describe foreign intelligence as a motivation behind resettlement, Coriden’s report suggested that this was a primary motivating factor. The report detailed the creation of a national security community “faced with the problem of exploiting a large, but indefinite number of sources.”[32] Motivated by a genuine sympathy and admiration for the Hungarians and a determination to take full advantage of the propaganda opportunity against the Soviet Bloc, officials were determined to provide as positive an experience as possible for the refugees.[33]

            Officials promptly began discussing how they could go about resettling refugees in spite of the country’s restrictive immigration policies. Martin A. Bursten, a former journalist and Public Relations Director of the United Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, was an early witness to the Hungarian revolution. In 1958, he published the first comprehensive account of the refugee crisis, Escape From Fear. According to Bursten, the Eisenhower administration held a series of meetings with representatives from each part of the Executive Branch in the fall of 1956. While debates ensued about whether or not to admit refugees as “parolees,” the president’s first course of action was to publicly instruct theTracy Voorhees to “‘take extraordinary measures to secure the entry of 5,000 Hungarian refugees into the United States.’”[34] Because the RRA was set to expire by year’s end, the administration concluded that the agencies involved could reasonably process 5,000 refugees during the following two months. Furthermore, some 15,000 Hungarian refugees had fled to Austria by early November, and 5,000 refugees constituted a significant share of that total at that point. However, the number of refugees in Austria skyrocketed in November, leaping from 15,000 at the beginning of the month to 89,000 by November 27.[35] Although the refugee program had begun issuing around 200 visas per day, it became clear that this program would be insufficient if the federal government hoped to resettle a significant portion of this growing population.

            Bon Tempo writes that “no matter how quickly Hungarian refugees earned their visas, that pace could not match the flow of newcomers into Austria.”[36] Nevertheless, by using a loophole in the McCarran-Walter Act, the administration found a way to admit much more than 5,000 refugees. The parole section of the 1952 act—a supposed “shipwrecked sailor” stipulation—allowed the attorney general to permit “refugees on a parole basis,” though the law did not intend to allow for permanent resettlement of parolees. In December, Eisenhower authorized the parole of an additional 15,000 Hungarian refugees to the United States. This move “stretched American immigration law beyond belief”[37] and handed “an unprecedented degree” of control of refugee policy to the executive branch.[38] This decision had enormous consequences for future administrations’ decisions regarding refugee resettlement.

            Behind the scenes, Eisenhower administration personnel scrambled to orchestrate resettlement efforts. In a letter dated December 4, 1956 sent by former President Herbert Hoover to Tracy Voorhees, the Coordinator of Relief of Hungarian Refugees and the Chairman for the Committee for Hungarian Refugee Relief, Hoover explored a series of issues that the U.S. would have to face in order to resettle some 30,000 refugees. Hoover, who had extensive experience in coordinating relief efforts, was brought in as an outside advisor and played a major role in the shaping and facilitation of Hungarian resettlement. The former president suggested that there might be consensus within the Eisenhower administration about the necessity of resettling Hungarian refugees: “the U.S. must take some part in the burden of their support.”[39] Whereas this suggestion would likely have been controversial only ten years prior, this statement speaks to a shift in how government officials were thinking about refugee resettlement in the context of Cold War politics. Hoover’s statement, after all, reflected a feeling among the general public and staunchly anticommunist politicians that Hungarian revolutionaries epitomized the anticommunist spirit and deserved American support. Refugee resettlement had become less a domestic concern wrapped up in debates over immigration and more of a foreign policy concern regarding the complicated relationship between Cold War allies and adversaries.

            Hoover and Voorhees’ correspondences are also significant in what they reveal about the actual facilitation of resettlement. Although Eisenhower, Voorhees, and other members of the committee appeared to agree about the necessity of resettling refugees as a foreign policy strategy, they remained concerned about how this could be achieved on a relatively large scale. And they were right to be concerned. According to David W. Haines, resettlement required “a level of social engineering virtually unknown in U.S. public administration.”[40] In order to achieve this unprecedented project, Hoover stressed the need for significant collaboration between government agencies and non-governmental organizations, arguing that the U.S. would need to set aside around $50,000,000 to fund the “magnificent activities” of the “dozen or so voluntary organizations in the United States.”[41] To ensure effective collaboration, Hoover believed it necessary to create “a strong central organization … made up of officials from various federal departments, as well as “some persons from civilian life.”[42]

Concerned about inefficiency, Hoover also made numerous recommendations for voluntary agencies, suggesting the establishment of a “Refugee Relief Council” made up of leaders of the non-governmental agencies. He thought that “the major burden of resettlement”—likely a reference to sponsorship, language barriers, and employment— should be taken on by the voluntary agencies under the leadership of the relief council, and that these efforts “should be, if necessary, financially supported by the ‘American Refugee Association.’”[43] Although he was wary about “fraudulent or inefficient agencies,” Hoover’s vision of an American resettlement program relied mainly on non-governmental organizations for on-the-ground operations. The federal government, on the other hand, would provide funding and ensure cooperation between various voluntary agencies. In this sense, Hoover and Voorhees laid out a blueprint for how the U.S. would facilitate resettlement for years to come.

Portraying Resettlement to the American Public

            During the post-war period, the U.S. engaged in the process of shifting away from the era of restrictionist immigration policy and isolationist thought. Nevertheless, this process did not occur overnight, and although government officials increasingly thought of refugee resettlement as a separate foreign policy issue during the 1950s, the general public likely continued to view immigration and refugee resettlement as intertwined matters. Eisenhower, adamant about the plan to resettle Hungarian refugees by late-1956, sought to “‘sell’ the Hungarian refugees to the general public.”[44] Utilizing multiple avenues of dissemination, they hoped to portray refugees as inseparable from the ethos of anticommunism—already a defining characteristic of the American identity by 1956—while also conveying Hungarian refugees’ humanity.[45] In short, the administration not only had to convince the general public that Americans should accept refugees based on their merits as good potential citizens, but also that doing so represented a patriotic duty in support of the U.S. Cold War effort.

            In late 1956, the United States Army’s Pictorial Center broadcasted a 30-minute documentary titled “The Big Picture: Operation Mercy.” The 364th episode of a series that ran from 1951 to 1964, “Operation Mercy” provides insight into the government’s efforts to “sell” Hungarian refugees to the American people. The episode begins by explaining that “there is another side to the contribution of the American soldier to peace and goodwill: the human side.”[46] “The Big Picture: Operation Mercy” framed the efforts of the U.S. military to rescue Hungarian refugees in a humanitarian light. The main focus of the episode, however, is on the Hungarian refugees themselves.

            “The Big Picture: Operation Mercy” outlined a narrative of struggle and survival against communism, while making clear refugees’ association with anticommunist ideology. Footage of the freedom fighters in Budapest, combined with the swift and brutal Soviet response, conveyed the notion that Hungarian refugees fought valiantly for the cause of anticommunism. The narrator continued, “Freedom is a heady tonic that lifts the spirit.”[47] Although severely outmatched by the Soviet military, the Hungarians were driven by a deep desire for freedom and an end to Soviet oppression. Finally, “The Big Picture: Operation Mercy” solidifies the symbolic significance of Hungarian refugees as emblematic of the anticommunist struggle with the words of President Eisenhower himself. “Budapest is no longer merely the name of a city; it is a new and shining symbol of man’s yearning to be free.”[48] This audio clip serves to reinforce the conception of Hungarian refugees as freedom fighters.

            Although the broadcast begins and ends by highlighting the symbology of refugees in the context of Cold War ideologies, it also made a concerted effort to ensure that Americans would empathize with Hungarians. Displaying footage from the boats, the narrator spoke to the diversity of refugees’ skills: “They were students and teachers; they were lawyers and doctors, and the wives of lawyers and doctors; shoemakers and machinists and masons, and those whose motto was ‘better late than never.’” Yet, the narrator also emphasizes the inherent challenges in abandoning one’s homeland, describing how all of the refugees “reacted the same way on the moment of farewell: what smiles there were, all at once, were gone.”[49] By highlighting their professional skills, these statements likely intended to assure Americans that they were welcoming a group of people who would be valuable contributors to the country rather than burdens on society. More importantly, however, is this section’s emphasis on the transatlantic journey itself.

The Army Pictorial Service framed the refugees’ transatlantic voyage, as well as their processing, in a way that would have been familiar to many Americans. It alludes to Hungarian refugees as an extension of a longer, idealized narrative of immigration to the U.S., with the added element of anticommunism. Footage of the Statue of Liberty set against the backdrop of Manhattan served to reinforce the narrative of starting anew in America. Although the episode briefly comments on Hungarian culture and language, this is overshadowed by its emphasis on the idea that the refugees had abandoned everything in search of a better life: “the job was easy for the customs officers—these people had little to declare.”[50] Rather than highlighting the complexities of the Cold War and the refugee crisis in general, “The Big Picture: Operation Mercy” paints a picture of assailable refugees eager to adapt and thrive in American society. Ultimately, these aspects of the episode worked in tandem to place the story of Hungarian refugees within a broader narrative of immigration—one that many Americans could personally relate to based on their own ancestors’ stories of immigration.

Hungarian refugees gather for a photograph after arriving to Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. Credit:Central European University.

            To what degree “Big Picture: Operation Mercy” was responsible for “selling” Hungarian refugees to the American public is unclear. What is clear is that Americans generally saw resettlement as “a welcome humanitarian gesture” on the part of their government.[51] Between the fall of 1956 and the winter of 1957, newspapers throughout the country conveyed a general sense of enthusiasm and interest in Hungarian refugee resettlement. The Washington Evening Star, for instance, featured pictures of Hungarian children above headlines such as “From the Heart of America … an answer to Hungarian prayers.”[52] A newspaper article from Bluffton, Ohio, worried that refugees would not be resettled there due to the lack of local Hungarian speakers,[53] while a Jewish newspaper based in Phoenix, Arizona, expressed concern for Jewish Hungarian refugees and commended the Eisenhower administration’s resettlement efforts.[54] Considering the widespread public support for resettlement, it is perhaps not surprising that Time magazine gave the man of the year award to the “Hungarian Freedom Fighter” in 1956.[55] Clearly, Hungarian refugees had won over the American public.

Reflecting on Resettlement

            On December 31, 1957, Eisenhower announced the termination of the Hungarian resettlement program. Some 38,000 refugees had resettled in the United States. “Of the 38,000 refugees,” according to the official Whitehouse statement, “6,130 received immigration visas” before the expiration of the Refugee Relief Act, “the remainder were admitted into the U.S. under the parole provisions of the Immigration and Nationality Act [McCarran-Walter Act].”[56] However, parole status, as part of the Act, did not guarantee permanent legal residence for the majority of Hungarian refugees. One month after his announcement about the termination of the refugee program, Eisenhower asked Congress to “enact legislation giving the necessary discretionary power to the attorney general to permit aliens paroled into the U.S., who intend to stay here, to remain as permanent residents.”[57] It would take more than a year, but Congress eventually passed a bill in July 1958, allowing for parolees to apply for permanent residence.[58]

The resettlement of Hungarians had proven to be a demonstrable success on multiple levels. The Eisenhower administration orchestrated and oversaw collaboration between various non-governmental organizations that were essential to the effective resettlement of refugees. Reflecting on the process in 1958, Bursten argues that the success of resettlement “was due to the machinery of the voluntary agencies, including the three large sectarian groups, CWS, CRS-NCWC, and United HIAS service [the Christian World Service, the Catholic Relief Services-National Catholic Welfare Conference, and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, respectively], each of which had a network of cooperating groups over the width and breadth of the country.”[59] These non-governmental networks, in hindsight, represent one of the most enduring legacies of Hungarian resettlement, as future administrations would rely heavily on such organizations to facilitate larger refugee resettlement projects.

            From the perspective of the Eisenhower administration, the program was also a success in terms of reshaping the image of the U.S., both internationally and domestically. By providing financial aid to Hungarian refugees and resettling a significant portion of them, the U.S. had managed to improve its reputation among its allies, while avoiding the rapid deterioration of the unstable relationship between the Washington and Moscow. This foreshadowed the use of resettlement as a foreign policy strategy as multiple future administrations would similarly pursue refugee resettlement.

            Given the country’s recent history of anti-immigrant sentiment and restrictionist policies, the Eisenhower administration could not have been certain as to the American public’s reaction to resettlement. Despite concerns, the general public’s reactions to resettlement were overwhelmingly positive due to a variety of factors. The short-lived revolution, which was broadcasted in the U.S. “from its outbreak to its end,” made a strong impression on the American public.[60]  Millions of Americans tuned in, resulting in “an outpouring of enormous sympathy, which was reflected in the media.”[61] Media coverage of the revolution, combined with President Eisenhower’s public addresses, solidified in American minds the idea that a significant portion of refugees had been freedom fighters during the revolution. In reality, as Hungarian historians Steven Béla Várdy and Julianna Puskás estimate, “only some five percent of the refugees took up arms during the short-lived revolution and hence saw the need to escape to avoid persecution.”[62] Indeed, the 1958 “Report on Hungarian Refugees” also suggested that only a fraction of Hungarian refugees had been involved in the uprising. Nevertheless, the optics of refugees as freedom fighters proved advantageous to building sympathy among the American public.


            Hungarian refugees arriving at Camp Kilmer in late-1956 might have sensed an air of enthusiasm and excitement. The entrance to the camp included a large arch that read, “Welcome to America” in both Hungarian and English. Army personnel greeted refugees in front of a backdrop of American and Hungarian flags, while journalists and filmmakers stood by to capture the event. The American public flooded officials with requests to sponsor Hungarian families, suggesting that the enthusiasm for resettlement was not restricted to politicians, military personnel, and journalists. Contrasting this with the arrival of the MS St. Louis 18 years earlier, clearly that the U.S. had undergone a rapid transformation regarding immigration in general and refugees in particular.

            This sea change in American attitudes towards refugees transpired for a number of reasons. Most importantly, however, was the increased differentiation between refugees and immigrants.Contrasting immigration laws and refugee laws during the 1950s thereby helps to contextualize this shift in attitudes. Though the liberalizer camp had gained the upper hand since the end of the war, debates over immigration remained contentious, and liberalizers would not succeed in dismantling the immigration system until 1965. While politicians simultaneously initiated notions about refugee resettlement as a strategic means of waging the Cold War, the government was taking steps to criminalize illegal immigration. The Bracero programs continued to import temporary laborers from Mexico, while Operation Wetback in 1954 led to the mass deportation of as many as 1.1 million Mexican migrants.[63] Whereas Americans and American laws had conflated immigrants and refugees in the immediate postwar years, the Hungarian refugee crisis signaled a divergent course for Cold War refugees: as victims of Soviet rule and symbols of anticommunism, powerful advocates could leverage this Cold War symbolism as a persuasive appeal to Americans who were otherwise opposed to increased immigration. The lack of widespread opposition to Hungarian refugee resettlement attests to the success of these efforts to frame refugees as inherently anticommunist.  

            The Hungarian refugee program became a blueprint for Cold War refugee resettlement. Although modest in scale, it demonstrated that presidential administrations had the power to unilaterally create resettlement programs, so long as such actions were framed as being in the best interest of the country from a foreign policy perspective. The Eisenhower administration also demonstrated how, with the help of media coverage, the government could avoid widespread backlash to resettlement of refugees from communist countries. This, in short, would remain the model for refugee resettlement until 1980—at which point, the United States had resettled more than one million refugees as parolees.

Erected in Denver’s Hungarian Freedom Park, this statue depicts a young man literally breaking through an iron curtain. Such memorials are relatively common in other large American cities such as Boston and New York City, attesting to the widespread significance of the uprising and the subsequent refugee crisis. Credit: Brian Thomson.


[1] Anita Casavantes Bradford, “‘With the Utmost Practical Speed’:  Eisenhower, Hungarian Parolees, and the ‘Hidden Hand’ Behind US Immigration and Refugee Policy” (Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 39, No. 2, 2010, pp.5-35), 6.

[2] Bradford, 6.

[3] Bradford, 7.

[4] “Refugee Timeline: Immigration and Naturalization Service Refugee Law and Policy Timeline,” U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, accessed February 19, 2021, https://www.uscis.gov/about-us/our-history/history-office-and-library/featured-stories-from-the-uscis-history-office-and-library/refugee-timeline.

[5] David W. Haines, Safe Haven: A History of Refugees in America (Virginia: Kumarian Press, 2010), 7.

[6] Carl J. Bon Tempo, Americans at the Gates: The United States and Refugees during the Cold War, 3.

[7] Bon Tempo, 4.

[8] Bill Hing, Making and Remaking of Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990 (Stanford University Press, 1993), 124.

[9] Michael D. Bulmash, “Transatlantic Liner St. Louis,” Kenyon College.

[10] Haines, 2.

[11] Laura Madokoro, “Remembering the Voyage of the St. Louis,” http://activehistory.ca/2017/02/remembering-the-voyage-of-the-st-louis/.

[12] “Department Remembers M.S. St. Louis” (State Magazine, No. 572, Nov. 2012), https://go-gale-com.aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/ps/i.do?p=AONE&u=auraria_main&id=GALE%7CA311548427&v=2.1&it=r&sid=summon.

[13] Bon Tempo, 12.

[14] Bon Tempo, 13.

[15] Bon Tempo, 13.

[16] Bon Tempo, 16.

[17] “The Displaced Persons Act of 1948,” Truman Library Institute, accessed October 29, 2020, https://www.trumanlibraryinstitute.org/the-displaced-persons-act-of-1948/.

[18] “The Displaced Persons Act of 1948,” Truman Library Institute.

[19] Bon Tempo, 24.

[20] “Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act),” Immigration History, https://immigrationhistory.org/item/immigration-and-nationality-act-the-mccarran-walter-act/

[21] Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act),” Immigration History.

[22] Martin A. Bursten, Escape From Fear, (Syracuse University Press, 1958), 54

[23] Bursten, 54.

[24] Hing, 124.

[25] “Refugee Relief Act (1953),” Immigration History, https://immigrationhistory.org/item/1953-refugee-relief-act/.

[26] Bon Tempo, 44.

[27] Bon Tempo, 44.

[28] Bon Tempo, 64.

[29] Bon Tempo, 64.

[30] Bon Tempo, 60.

[31] Guy E. Coriden, “Report on Hungarian Refugees” (Winter 1958: 15-2-1), 85.

[32]Coriden, 88.

[33]Coriden, 86-87.

[34]Bursten, 56.

[35] Bon Tempo, 70.

[36] Bon Tempo, 70.

[37] Bradford, 5.

[38] Bon Tempo, 60.

[39] Tracy Voorhees, “Hungarian Refugee Relief [1956-1947]” (Rutgers University Library), https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/33449/PDF/1/play/, 13.

[40] Haines, 7.

[41] Voorhees, 14.

[42] Voorhees, 14.

[43] Voorhees, 16.

[44] Bon Tempo, 74.

[45] Bon Tempo, 74.

[46]The Big Picture, Episode 364, “Operation Mercy,” Directed by the Army Pictorial Service (District of Columbia: United States, 1956), https://search.alexanderstreet.com/preview/work/bibliographic_entity%7Cvideo_work%7C1790129, 01:17-01:24.

[47]The Big Picture, “Operation Mercy,” 06:11-06:19.

[48]The Big Picture, “Operation Mercy,” 02:55-03:06.

[49]The Big Picture, “Operation Mercy,” 10:40-11:04.

[50]The Big Picture, “Operation Mercy,” 14:22-14:27.

[51] Peter Pastor, “The American Reception and Settlement of Hungarian Refugees in 1956-1957” (e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Vol. 9, 2016), 199.

[52] “From the Heart of America…an answer to Hungarian prayers,” The Washington Evening Star, 01/21/1957.

[53] “Language Barrier Deters Efforts To Bring Hungarian Refugees Here,” The Bluffton News, 01/17/1957, p. 8.

[54] Beth Sieroty, “America Relaxes Control For Hungarian Refugees,” The Phoenix Jewish News, 12/07/1956, p. 2.

[55] Pastor, 199.

[56] “White House Statement on the Termination of the Emergency Program for Hungarian Refugees” (The American Presidency Project), https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/white-house-statement-the-termination-the-emergency-program-for-hungarian-refugees#axzz1szVey4ie.

[57] “Special Message to the Congress on Immigration Matters” (The American Presidency Project), https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/special-message-the-congress-immigration-matters.

[58] Bradford, 27.

[59]Bursten, 166.

[60] Pastor, 199.

[61] Pastor, 199.

[62] Pastor, 199.

[63] Brent Funderburk, “Operation Wetback: United States Immigration Law-enforcement Campaign,” Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Operation-Wetback.


Bon Tempo, Carl J. Americans at the Gate: The United States and Refugees During the Cold War.  

Bursten, Martin A., Escape From Fear. Syracuse University Press, 1958.

Casavantes, Anita Bradford. “‘With the Utmost Practical Speed’: Eisenhower, Hungarian Parolees, and the ‘Hidden Hand’ Behind US Immigration and Refugee Policy, 1956-1957.” Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Winter 2020), 5-35.

Coriden, Guy E.  “Report on Hungarian Refugees.” Central Intelligence Agency, Winter 1958: 15-2-1.

Eisenhower, Dwight. “White House Statement on the Termination of the Emergency Program for Hungarian Refugees.” The American Presidency Project, December 28, 1957. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/white-house-statement-the-termination-the-emergency-program-for-hungarian-refugees#axzz1szVey4ie.

Eisenhower, Dwight. “Special Message to the Congress on Immigration Matters.” The American Presidency Project, January 31, 1957. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/special-message-the-congress-immigration-matters.

Haines, David W. Safe Haven?: A History of Refugees in America. Sterling, VA: Kumarian Press, 2010.

“Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act).” Immigration History, https://immigrationhistory.org/item/immigration-and-nationality-act-the-mccarran-walter-act/.

Hing, Bill. Making and Remaking of Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990. Stanford University Press, 1993.

“Language Barrier Deters Efforts To Bring Hungarian Refugees Her.” The Bluffton News, 01/17/1957, p. 8.

Madokoro, Laura. “Remembering the Voyage of the St. Louis.” Active History: History Matters, 2017, http://activehistory.ca/2017/02/remembering-the-voyage-of-the-st-louis/.

Pastor, Peter. “The American Reception and Settlement of Hungarian Refugees in 1956-1957.” e-Journal of the American Hungarian Educators Association, Vol. 9, 2016.

Sieroty, Beth. “America Relaxes Control For Hungarian Refugees.” The Phoenix Jewish News, 12/07/1956, p. 2.

The Big Picture. “Operation Mercy.” Episode 364 (District of Columbia: United States). Army Pictoral Service, 1956.

Voorhees, Tracy. “Hungarian Refugee Relief [1956-1957].” Rutgers University Library, https://rucore.libraries.rutgers.edu/rutgers-lib/33449/PDF/1/play/.

Walker, Natalie. “The Displaced Persons Act of 1948.” Truman Library Institute, accessed October 29, 2020, https://www.trumanlibraryinstitute.org/the-displaced-persons-act-of-1948/.