The Journal of Military History 68.4 (2004) 1310-1311
While nearly five decades separate the Soviet intervention in Hungary from the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, The First Domino reminds us that many of the factors that shape high-level decision making during a crisis do not change with time. Misperception, desires and fears, overestimating one's influence on the target, and efforts to avoid cognitive dissonance apply equally as well to U.S. actions in Iraq as they did with respect to those in Hungary in 1956.
Johanna Granville's The First Domino brings new evidence and insight to a well studied topic. Exploiting previously unavailable primary source material from multiple East Bloc countries and new evidence from U.S. sources, Granville paints a complex picture of internal and external factors, their interaction, and how they shaped the Hungarian Revolution and reactions to it by multiple nations. She uses six chapters—two of which are dedicated to Hungarian internal factors, and four to external actors (the Soviet Union, Poland, Yugoslavia, and the United States)—to complete this portrait, revising several previously widely held views in the process. For example, Granville demonstrates that Soviet decisions were neither as clear nor straightforward as previously believed—that in fact considerable indecision and "zigzags" characterized the Soviet reaction to the 1956 events in Hungary. Her examination also reveals that the Soviet "prescription" for Hungarian Revolution was based on a flawed diagnosis of the problem. The Soviets, Granville demonstrates, mistakenly interpreted the roots of the uprising as emanating solely from the failings of the country's leadership, overlooking the widespread dissatisfaction among the populace. Her archival work and synthesis of the findings of others likewise reveals that neither Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito nor Poland's First Secretary Wladyslaw Gomulka were as supportive of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution as heretofore thought. On the U.S. side, Granville uncovers new evidence documenting inappropriate broadcasts by Radio Free Europe and their influence on the Soviet leadership and Hungarian populace. Beyond decision making, The First Domino provides a valuable look at Soviet military plans for invading Hungary as well as an overview of U.S. covert actions behind the Iron Curtain during the 1950s, including plans to create a military force composed of East European escapees.
While far outweighed by the book's strengths, The First Domino has its shortcomings. For all Granville's painstaking research, there are some key areas where she does not consult or use key primary and secondary studies. Declassified U.S. intelligence assessments of conditions in Hungary and several recent secondary sources on U.S. policies toward Eastern Europe are two such omissions. Lastly, although generally well written, the book's organization is a bit disjointed, with U.S. actions examined almost as an afterthought in the final chapter. Nonetheless, The First Domino: International Decision Making during the Hungarian Crisis of 1956 should appeal to many different audiences—Cold War students, East European scholars, military historians, and political scientists. Its lessons on the limits of military force and pitfalls associated with decision making are timeless and make it particularly valuable for use at staff and war colleges.
James D. Marchio