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The failed Hungarian revolution of 1956, bloodily suppressed by Russian tanks, was a Cold War watershed. It stripped away any pretense of popular consent to the regimes Moscow had imposed on Eastern Europe and showed that the Soviet Union would use force to keep its new empire intact. It also made clear, for the first time, that the West would not send military aid even to a broadly supported, armed anti-communist uprising.

Now, newly uncovered documents suggest that Moscow at least briefly considered letting Hungary go its own way in 1956. On the Western side, there is no indication that intervention was ever seriously considered. But a review of American-sponsored Radio Free Europe broadcasts shows that the station cavalierly suggested that Western military help might be forthcoming if the rebels held out.In June of that year, workers' demonstrations broke out in Poznan, Poland, that eventually brought to power Wladislaw Gomulka on a platform promising political and economic reforms. In Hungary the protest movement went further, bringing a wide cross-section of the population into the streets, where they attacked symbols of Stalinist authority. The uprising, which broke out on Oct. 23, swept to power Imre Nagy, a communist reformer.

New insights on the Soviet reaction come from the publication of notes taken at key Kremlin meetings by V.N. Malin, a communist Central Committee official. The notes show that for the first week of the revolt, Khrushchev weighed withdrawing Soviet troops and negotiating with the new regime. But by Oct. 31, urged by foreign communist leaders like Mao Tse-tung and colleagues in Moscow to crack down, he changed his mind. On Nov. 4, Soviet troops attacked. Despite fierce resistance, the revolution was quickly crushed and a more compliant government under Janos Kadar was installed. Nagy was executed in 1958.

Would a Soviet decision not to intervene have meant the end of communism in Eastern Europe in 1956, as it did when Mikhail Gorbachev stood aside in the upheavals of 1989?

We can only guess. But thousands of Hungarian lives were lost and decades of political despair sealed throughout the region when Khrushchev made his fateful decision to forcibly crush the Hungarian revolution 40 years ago.