In late October 1956, with Hungary engulfed in an anti-Communist uprising, Western correspondents in Moscow heard rumors of a meeting of Soviet big-wigs facing a fateful decision.
At a diplomatic reception, I tried to smoke out some word from party chief Nikita Khrushchev by saying that my CBS bosses wouldn't let me leave on vacation because of the rumors of a special session of the Communist leadership. Mr. Khrushchev lowered his voice and whispered, "You can go on vacation." Then he added, "If absolutely necessary, we will have the meeting without you."
Finally, 40 years later, I know what was happening then behind the Kremlin walls. I know because the Wilson International Center, as part of its Cold War History Project, has been translating and publishing once-secret documents from the Soviet archives.
On Oct. 28, 1956, the day I talked to Khrushchev, the Communist Party Politburo, or Presidium as it was then called, held the first of a series of meetings to debate how to deal with the Hungarian revolution. At first, sentiment seemed to favor military intervention.
Khrushchev expressed alarm because "the workers are supporting the uprising." Hard-line President Kliment Voroshilov called the new Hungarian premier, Imre Nagy, a "liquidator," saying, "We must act decisively."
At the next session, two days later, the mood seemed to have shifted toward avoiding intervention and perhaps withdrawing Soviet tanks from Hungary. But by the next day, opinion started shifting back to crushing what one of them called "a fascist counterrevolution."
Khrushchev stated, "We must not withdraw our troops. And we must take the initiative in restoring order in Hungary." The others, including Bulganin, Molotov, and Zhukov, quickly fell in line behind Khrushchev.
But the blood bath that ensued had its effect on the Communist bosses' nerves. At their Nov. 3 meeting, Khrushchev accused hardliner Molotov of coming up with "the most pernicious ideas." Molotov snapped back, "You should keep quiet and stop being so overbearing."
On Nov. 6, feeling pressure from the hardliners, Khrushchev accused Presidium member Lazar Kaganovich of "toadying to Molotov," and of engaging in "screeching and face-slapping." One can now better understand Khrushchev's purge the following June of what he called the "anti-Party group."
Here were men turning Hungary into a killing field, preoccupied with their personal feuds. Such ordinary men to wield such immense power.
* Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.