John (János) Pelényi – Horthy’s Ambassador who defected to the United States

As part of our series on lesser known or forgotten immigrants in North America from Hungary we remember John (János) Pelényi, Horthy’s Ambassador who defected to the United States in 1940.

On December 5, 1940, Hungary fired 55-year-old ambassador to Washington, Mr. János Pelényi, after he abandoned the embassy in Washington DC and asked for asylum in the United States.  A year later, in December 1941, in one of the darkest moments of Hungary’s history, the Horthy regime declared war on the US.

János Pelényi was born in 1885 in Budapest, educated in Vienna and started a career as a diplomat in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy.  He was soon posted to the United States.  After the League of Nations was formed in 1919, Hungary applied and became a member in 1922.  Pelényi moved to Geneva to represent his country in the League from 1930 through 1933.

Ambassador Pelényi in traditional Díszmagyar (Hungarian ceremonial uniform).

Nazi Germany left the League in 1933, Mussolini’s Italy in 1937 and Horthy also followed his fascist comrades.  In 1939 Budapest announced the country’s withdrawal from the League of Nations.

In 1933 Pelényi, a trusted and skilled diplomat, was sent again to Washington and named Ambassador and Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States, Mexico and Cuba.  His job was “to strive to promote lasting peace and mutual understanding and to solve the pressing problems of the day with wisdom and courage.”  Pelényi had relatives in the United States; ten years before he had married an American woman, Sue Harman.

In 1940 Pelényi abandoned the Embassy and announced that he wouldn’t serve Horthy and would not return to Budapest.  His timing was impeccable, Hungary was not yet in war with the US so Pelényi was not considered an “enemy alien.”  Hungary soon revoked his citizenship.

Pelényi in Washington.

One year later, under his new name, John Pelenyi, he got a job as a part-time lecturer at Dartmouth College.  In 1943 he was named a professor and taught courses in international relations.  He retired from academia in 1954 and died in 1974 at the age of 89 in Hanover, New Hampshire.

Pelényi’s name is often associated with the alleged plan of Prime Minister Pál Teleki to set up a shadow government in exile in case Nazi Germany occupied Hungary.  Teleki foresaw that Horthy’s policies would have tragic consequences and committed suicide in 1941.  Pelényi also had contacts with Tibor Eckhardt, exiled Smallholders party politician in the US.

In general the ex-diplomat kept a low profile.  His long association with the Horthy regime made him suspicious and undesirable in the Hungarian-American community which had strong anti-Horthy sentiments and supported President Roosevelt’s efforts in the fight against fascism.

György Lázár

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