Khrushchev’s Secret Speech, 1956

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, archivist in Textual Reference at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Josef Stalin presided over the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.) from 1928 until he died in March 1953. (See this post for a humorous reaction to his death.) His standing in the U.S.S.R. at the time of his death was such that his body was placed in the mausoleum in Red Square in which Soviet founder V.I. Lenin is preserved.

In 1956, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union held the first party Congress after the death of Stalin, the twentieth in a line going back to before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.  The Department of State and the United States Information Agency (USIA) sent out a policy statement on the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union on February 8, 1956.[1]  In a statement that soon became supremely ironic, the guidance stated “The 20th Party Congress will probably not bring any surprises on policy issues.”  Thus, the Western Powers were astounded when in March 1956, word began to leak out that Stalin had been censured on February 25 at the Twentieth Party Congress. 

The party Congress took place in Moscow from February 14 to February 25.  At a closed session on the last day, Nikita Khrushchev gave a speech denouncing Stalin.  It became known as “The Secret Speech.”  The open sessions, which had been reported on by U.S. diplomats in the U.S.S.R., had included criticism of Stalin, especially the concept of one-man rule.  Khrushchev had given what U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R. Charles “Chip” Bohlen called a “long” and “tiresome” speech during an open session.[2]  Nothing, however, approached what Khrushchev said on the last day.

Ambassador Bohlen later wrote that the speech “unmasked Stalin as the instigator of the terror of the 1930s, when millions were shot to death; as a coward who was paralyzed by fear at the time of the Nazi invasion; as a stupid military strategist, who sent thousand of troops to senseless deaths; as a supreme egotist, who rewrote books to glorify himself.”[3]  Khrushchev, however, carefully avoided discussing activities in which he would be implicated in favor of focusing on those involving his competitors on the Presidium.  Nevertheless, the revelations sent shock waves through the Soviet bloc.  Communist leaders in the bloc were cast adrift and left without direction on how to proceed.  The revelations may even have contributed to the Polish uprising in June 1956 and the Hungarian revolution of October 1956.

Even before learning the details of and securing a summary or copy of Khrushchev’s speech, the U.S. began to position itself to take advantage of the revelations.  Rumors of the speech first reached Ambassador Bohlen on March 10, at a reception at the French embassy.[4]  Enough was known, or thought to be known, that the speech was the subject of discussion at a March 22 meeting of the National Security Council during which President Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles indicated they believed that the speech could be turned to U.S. advantage.[5]  That same day, the USIA took steps to make that so, issuing interim guidance on how to use what was known about the anti-Stalin speech to U.S. advantage.  Key portions of the guidance include:[6]

word received that Soviet leaders are starting to repudiate Stalin, department does not know why
advises that US attitude from news of the speech should be reasonable and objective
advise that the tyranny described by Khrushchev would never happen in democracy
Excerpts from Joint Dept of State-USIA Circular Telegram 408, Mar 22, 1956 (NAID 171392418)

Still without a copy of the speech, in early April, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles made the following pointed statement.[7]

In mid-April, still without any definitive detailed information about the speech, the Department of State and USIA sent out another guide for use in dealing with the anti-Stalin movement.  It noted that “The U.S. public position has been set forth by Secretary Dulles in a carefully considered statement made at his press conference on April 3.  It should serve as the basic guideline for all official [propaganda] output.”[8]

advises to project an objective attitude to the speech rather than appearing to launch a large US propaganda campaign
US commentary should not edit what was said by the Secretary of State
Excerpts from Joint Dept. of State-USIA Circular Airgram 2005, Apr 12, 1956 (NAID 171392418)

The document included sections headed “The contrast between Communism and the Democratic Way of Life,” “Discrediting Stalin does not Destroy Stalinism,” and “Meanwhile we must keep our guard up.”  It also provided guidance on tailoring the effort to the various audiences: the USSR, the Soviet Bloc, the Free World, and Yugoslavia.  Posts were informed that Guidance on the Far East was forthcoming.

The promised guidance on the Far East, entitled “The Far East and the Soviet Anti-Stalin Campaign,” for use by USIA was issued eight days later.  After four pages of background, the document included the following policy guidance.[9]

Excerpt from Policy Information Statement FE-243, Apr 20, 1956 (NAID 171392418)

The best available evidence indicates that the U.S. secured a detailed summary, copy, or near copy, of the full speech in mid-May.  For more detail on how the U.S. secured the text of the speech and how it was analyzed and used, see Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-57, Volume XXIV: Soviet Union; Eastern Mediterranean and Ambassador Bohlen’s memoir, Witness to History, 1929-1969.

See posts here and here for Department of State reaction to the publication of Nikita Khrushchev’s memoirs.


[1] Policy Information Statement EUR-243: 20th Congress of the CPSU, enclosed in Circular Airgram 6001, February 8, 1956, file 511.00/3-2256 (NAID 171392418), 1955-59 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.  Printed in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-57, Volume XXIV: Soviet Union; Eastern Mediterranean.

[2] Charles E. Bohlen, Witness to History, 1929-1969 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1973), p. 394.  Diplomatic reporting was based on public statements published in “Pravda” or other publications as foreign diplomats were not allowed to attend. 

[3] Bohlen, p. 396.

[4] Bohlen, pp. 396-97.

[5] Memorandum of Discussion, 280th Meeting of the National Security Council, March 22, 1956, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1955-57, Volume XXIV: Soviet Union; Eastern Mediterranean, pp. 72-75.

[6] United States Information Agency, Joint State-USIA Circular Telegram 408, March 22, 1956, file 511.00/3-2256 (NAID 171392418), 1955-59 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[7] Department of State, Press Release No. 171, April 3, 1956, Press Releases, 1912-1990 (NAID 602158), RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[8] United States Information Agency, Joint State-USIA Circular Airgram 2005, April 12, 1956, file 511.00/4-1256 (NAID 171392418), 1955-59 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State.

[9] Policy Information Statement FE-243: The Far East and the Soviet Anti-Stalin Campaign, enclosed in Circular Airgram 8285, April 20, 1956, file 511.00/4-2056 (NAID 171392418), 1955-59 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State. Sent to the embassies and consulates in Bangkok, Canberra, Djakarta, Fukuoka, Hong Kong, Kobe, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Medan, Melbourne, Nagoya, Phnom Penh, Rangoon, Saigon, Sapporo, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney, Taipei, Tokyo, Vientiane, and Wellington. 

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