The embassy guest who stayed for 15 years

Following the overwhelming force of the Soviet invasion launched on November 4th, those who participated in the revolution had to escape the country or go into hiding. Most of them, approximately 200 thousand, chose to emigrate. Hungary’s Cardinal József Mindszenty, however, chose to stay and asked for asylum at the U.S. Embassy. For diplomatic reasons, the American Embassy limited refuge to U.S. citizens, but they made exceptions for Mindszenty and the journalists Ilona and Endre Marton and allowed them into the building. In the meantime, Mindszenty’s personal secretary, Father Egon Turcsányi, was escorted toward the Austrian border on November 10th by an American journalist named Leslie B. Bain. Near Tatabánya, however, plainclothes secret police removed the elderly priest from the vehicle, and in 1958, he was sentenced to life in prison.

Officially, the United States did not wish to comment on Mindszenty’s case, saying that the issue should be resolved between the Hungarian government and the Vatican. Departing from the usual process, however, Mindszenty was quickly granted asylum because there was little doubt that, given the extraordinary circumstances, he would be arrested on sight. So, having just been liberated from prison, the Cardinal found himself confined to a “prison” of a different sort and even his correspondence had to go through diplomatic channels. What’s more, since Mindszenty had been convicted back in 1949 when the new dictator János Kádár was the minister of Interior, the new regime under Kádár had a special reason to make Cardinal Mindszenty one of their prime targets. While Mindszenty was unable to leave the U.S. Embassy, the new government went in search of collaborationist priests who would work together with the regime.

During his time in the embassy, Mindszenty corresponded with President John F. Kennedy, who reassured the cardinal that so long as he felt it necessary, the embassy would give him a place to feel safe. Mindszenty wrote to President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964 in regard to the Holy Crown of Hungary, which had been spirited out of Hungary at the end of World War II and at the time was guarded in Fort Knox. The cardinal also wrote regularly to other American politicians, updating them on the situation in Hungary in the hope that they could exert influence on Moscow, and through the Soviets, on János Kádar as well. This may well have contributed to the general amnesty of 1963, which saw the release of most political prisoners. In the meantime, relations between Hungary and the Vatican improved, with a partial agreement reached in 1964. During these discussions, the situation of domestic political prisoners was also raised.

On September 28, 1971, after an agreement was reached between the Vatican and Hungary (and against Mindszenty’s will), the cardinal, who was obedient to the pope, left the U.S. Embassy and departed Hungary for the West. The cardinal had to accept that his person had become an obstacle to the normalization of relations between the United States and Hungary. In a final cynical gesture, the Kádár regime asked that one of the conditions for Mindszenty’s release be that he should ask to have his conviction from 1949 overturned. The cardinal flatly rejected this demand because everyone knew that his trial had been a complete fabrication.

Cardinal Mindszenty spent just under 15 years living in asylum in the United States Embassy, a record that stands to this day. A plaque near the embassy’s entrance commemorates this historical event.