Bilateral Cultural Relations between Hungary and the United States of America
in the 20th century Besides the traditional diplomacy of treaties, exchanges of diplomats, and trade agreements, famous and gifted Hungarians and Americans have contributed to the arts, sciences, and public service in both countries, enriching culture and society. Despite the fact that both countries found themselves on opposite sides of two World Wars and the Cold War, the two peoples maintained close cultural ties.
Before World War I
The migration of Hungarians to the United States amplified at the beginning of the 19th century, establishing communities to preserve their own language and heritage in Cleveland, OH, Chicago, IL, and New York City, NY. Many of these communities retained their language and cultural ties to their home country through churches, fraternal organizations, and Hungarian-language newspapers. Opening consulates in the above mentioned cities led to a larger expansion of cultural ties between the two countries during the 1920s and 1930s. Prominent Hungarian-American journalist and publisher Joseph Pulitzer set new precedents for journalism with his aggressive news coverage. For a detailed list of prominent Hungarian Americans, please click here.
Between the two World Wars
Americans became more interested in Hungarian classical composers and musicians, while Hungarians read stories about cowboys of the American West published in the newspaper Pesti Hírlap. Also, American movies and music were popular in Hungary. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Fox, and Warner Brothers all distributed pictures in Hungary, and the musical works of Irving Berlin, as well as George and Ira Gershwin were favorites. Between the two World Wars, educational and cultural contacts continued to improve, although often on an unofficial basis. One author estimated that approximately 10,000 Americans visited Hungary each year.
There were American students at the Academy of Music in Budapest, and in 1927 the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace sent a group of editorial writers to Hungary. Hungarian classical music was very popular in the United States, where Ferenc (Franz) Liszt and Béla Bartók were well known. The American Legation worked closely with the Royal Hungarian Ministry of Public Worship and Education and the Hungarian Council of Arts, and Hungarian artists exhibited their work in the United States. In 1931 Minister Nicholas Roosevelt and his Hungarian counterpart, László Széchenyi, along with the College Art Association, sponsored an exhibit of Hungarian art that travelled to Chicago, New York, Harvard University in Cambridge, and the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. A bright spot in Hungarian-American cultural relations was the Hungarian pavilion at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.
After World War II
As the international political climate changed during the second half of the twentieth century, different periods of the American foreign policy during the Cold War (containment, détante, Helsinki Process, Reagan-era) presented both challenges and opportunities for closer cultural relations. In Hungary, some restrictions were slowly relaxed in the cultural spheres. Eastern European countries began to encourage tourism, and American newspaper articles and advertisement spoke of the cultural, gastronomic, and historical attractions available behind the Iron Curtain. According to one report, more than 20,000 American tourists visited Hungary in 1963.
Cultural contacts were kept informal and nonofficial, in order to facilitate such communication without the need for extensive negotiations, or the resolution of other outstanding issues. Radio Free Europe reported that in 1961, novels by Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, and plays by Arthur Miller, were available in Hungarian translation. In late 1963, American author John Steinbeck and playwright Edward Albee visited Hungary as part of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In 1965 a demonstration in front of the American Legation caused some damage, and Hungarian officials joined a greater Communist “freeze” on talks and cultural relations. Later on, the United States participated in the Budapest International Fair for the first time and its exhibit met with an “enthusiastic response” on the part of the Hungarian public. During the 1960s, the Inter-University Travel Grant Committee (IUTGC) and the Office for International Education expanded scholarly exchanges with Hungary, until the Hungarian Government cancelled the IUTGC exchanges in November 1967.
The Johnson Administration also created the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, to create nonpolitical links between Western and Eastern Europe. In 1969, the United States sent a piece of moon rock to the National Museum in Budapest, for Hungarian citizens to see, as part of a global commemoration of the first moon landing. In 1972, during his visit in Hungary, Secretary of State William P. Rogers witnessed the signing of a scientific and technical exchange agreement between the Hungarian Institute for Cultural Relations and the U.S. National Science Foundation.
In 1978 the Carter Administration returned to Hungary the highly symbolic Holy Crown of St. Stephen that the United States had held for safekeeping at Fort Knox, Kentucky since the end of WWII. As part of the return, the United States sought to ensure that the crown would be displayed for the Hungarian people. Cultural relations between Hungary and the United Sates continued to improve throughout the 1980s.
In December 1981, the two countries signed an agreement establishing a 2-year program of cooperation and exchanges in culture, education, science, and technology. The first CSCE forum in Budapest was devoted to discuss the cultural affairs, and the first to be held in a Warsaw Pact country. The United Sates sought to improve relations with members of the Warsaw Pact individually, rather than as part of the block.
In 1989 President Bush met with Hungarian officials in Budapest and announced plans to open a Hungarian-American Enterprise Fund to promote wider cultural and educational exchanges, passage of science and technology agreement. Also, he established a Peace Corps program to teach English in Hungary. The members of the Hungarian Diaspora in the United States followed events in their homeland closely and played an important role in the changes then taking place. One of the most prominent examples of cross-cultural communication took place in October 1990, when Péter Zwack presented his credentials as Hungary’s Ambassador to the United Sates.
In a symbolic attempt to come to terms with one of the darker pages of recent Hungarian history, President Göncz attended the dedication of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC, in 1993. The dynamic relationship between the United States and Hungary manifested itself on several levels, both official and unofficial. Scholar exchange programs, international conferences and symposia, and increased interest in the history and culture of the two nations were just some of the ways in which people from the two countries interacted and exchanged views. Also, cultural contacts have continued.
The U.S. Embassy opened “American corners” in Pécs, Veszprém, and Debrecen. These partnerships between the U.S. Embassy’s Public Affairs Section and host institutions provide access to current and reliable information about the United States to the general public, as well as space for various public diplomacy activities.