NIXON’S BOLD TRIP — CHRISTMASTIME 1956
On the 53rd anniversary of the famous “first flight” by the Wright brothers, Vice President Richard Nixon was presenting awards at the Washington D.C Aero Club’s Wright Memorial Dinner. The Vice President spoke of a trip he would be taking just a few hours later as an example of the “peaceful use of airpower.” The trip was a daring mission that would take Mr. Nixon right to the border of a country recently crushed under a Communist crackdown. His goal was to study the Hungarian refugee crisis. The result would be a week that changed the world.
On December 18th 1956 VP Nixon boarded the Columbine II and headed to Austria. A few days earlier Nixon was warned against going to the Hungarian border in Austria since Soviet troops had been spotted following refugees across the border. It was not safe.
President Eisenhower used Richard Nixon more and more effectively than any Vice President before or since. Writing in the Chicago Tribune on December 19th 1956- Walter Trohan noted that Nixon had become the “personal ambassador and personal troubleshooter” for President Eisenhower.
The US had taken in some Hungarian refugees but congressional limits were stifling. Nixon said that we needed an overhaul of the immigration system. Eisenhower was determined not to intervene militarily. Nixon brought insulin and financial aid for the refugees while the Soviets brought them starvation and death.
Nixon arrived in Austria on December 19th noting that the United States was going to take over 20,000 refugees and hopefully more. Austria was under heavy strain as they accepted massive numbers of people fleeing death.
The Vice President met scores of officials and ordinary people. He even played “Jingle Bells” on the piano at a Christmas play presented by refugees.
Near the end of his journey — and against previous advice — Nixon asked to go to the border and see the refugee crossings. Nixon arrived in Andau on the freezing morning of December 21st. This town was a few miles from the Hungarian border and a main refugee crossing location.
Sitting in a hay truck along with Bill Rogers and one secret service agent, Richard Nixon was pulled by a farm tractor to the border. The secret trip was slow and the air was frigid.
Nixon arrived at the famous Eisner Canal and “Freedom Bridge” in time to see refugees making a most dangerous escape. Nixon was back home a few days later- arriving in Washington on Christmas Eve. Nixon addressed the nation by radio the next day as part of a fundraiser for Hungarians.
Austrian Chancellor Julius Raab said that Vice President Nixon was “one of the finest men I have evet met in my entire career.” Once home, Nixon continued to be Eisenhower’s tip of the spear on this issue. He went to New York and met with former President Herbert Hoover about the crisis. He then went to a refugee camp in New Jersey. Operation “Safe Haven” was a success.
The Vice President met with congressional leaders with the message that our entire immigration system was inadequate during the harsh realities of the Cold War. Democrats in congress continued to block immigration reform but the Eisenhower administration was still able to save thousands of Hungarians.
A year later Richard Nixon remarked that what happened in Hungary would eventually help end the Communist empire. He was correct.
In 1971 an émigré from Hungary named Ferenc Daday memorialized Nixon’s bold move in a massive painting called “Nixon at Andau.” It is a reminder of America at its best. It is a painting of American spirit, love and leadership.
When Richard Nixon visited Hungary in 1963 he was surrounded by people who remembered his mission almost a decade earlier. One young girl rushed up to the former Vice President and asked, “Are you Mr. Eisenhower’s Nixon?” Nixon got flowers from some of the citizens in Budapest and remarked that he felt they were not given to him as an individual but to the country he represented. It was as if Nixon was back near the border on that Cold War morning in December of 1956.
In the next year, Eisenhower would use his personal ambassador and troubleshooter to help get the first Civil Rights bill since Reconstruction passed despite massive opposition from Lyndon Johnson. Nixon made a bold ruling from as President of the Senate to save the bill. But that is another story, another mission.
What happened at Christmastime 1956 was the start of the end of the Soviet empire. Everything that happened later was made possible because of this oft-forgotten mission. We saw humanitarian America at her best. We saw an America using its bully pulpit and not bombs to make change. We need men like Nixon and Eisenhower now more than ever.
Before Nixon changed the world by going to China, he changed the world by going to Austria. We should thank him for his tireless efforts.