A Short Course in a Secret War

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James McCargar in his Navy uniform in 1944. As a Russian speaking officer, he served as a liaison officer in the Aleutian Islands coordinating between the U.S. Navy and the Soviet civilian fleet. This was also his first semi-official intelligence gathering mission, which he picked up again in 1946 serving in Budapest. (Photo taken from the documentary “A titkos háború” (2000) directed by Sándor Mihályfy)

Did you know that 200,000 Hungarian refugees fled the country in the immediate aftermath of the crushing of the 1956 revolution? Some of them feared for their lives as they had taken up arms to fight the Soviet Army and the hated Hungarian Secret Police, the ÁVO, but most of them simply wanted to start their lives over in a place – any place – where they could find freedom, could express their thoughts, and did not have to pretend anymore. 30,000 of the refugees were taken by the USA, after a pretty thorough screening process. Many Hungarians ended up in France, Germany, the UK and Australia, but virtually all non-Communist states in the world accepted at least a few hundred refugees.

Hungarians of course started to flee much earlier, right after the end of World War II, when it became clear that the victorious Red Army was not going to leave. As the Communists gradually took over the government by cunning, treachery and brute force, more and more people tried to find a way to defect through the sealed Western borders – the infamous Iron Curtain. Western powers tried to assist those members of the parliamentary opposition who were in danger of imminent arrest, torture and execution.

Probably the most well-known such helper was American secret agent James McCargar, who, operating under diplomatic cover in the U.S. Legation in Budapest, helped exfiltrate around 75 opposition figures to Astria through the trafficking network in 1946-47. In his book “A Short Course in a Secret War”, written under the pseudonym Christopher Felix, he wrote a whole chapter about his operation in Budapest. As he still had to protect some operational secrets, what he wrote is not always 100% factual, but nevertheless it is a fascinating read with lot of insights. If you come to my private tour, I can tell further details about his activities.

One of the prominent opposition politicians McCargar smuggled out of the country was Zoltán Pfeiffer, founder of the anti-Communist Hungarian Independence Party. He had close ties to McCargar under the code name “Paul”.

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Last photo of Zoltán Pfeiffer, leader of anti-Communist Hungarian Independence Party taken before undercover secret agent and U.S. diplomat James McCargar smuggled him out of the country hidden in a case hidden in the trunk of a military truck in 1947. That was the only time McCargar personally took any dissident out of the country, but he had to make an exception because Pfeiffer’s arrest by the Communist Secret Police was imminent.

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