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


  1. As a diplomat Pelenyi had a clear understanding of what it really meant when Hungary fell for the tricks of the Vienna Accord, and the consequences of the alliance with Hitler’s Germany.

    But since he abandoned the Horthy regime, and the Hungarians in the US were strong anti-nazis, how could that effect Pelenyi’s standing with them? It’s a pretty contradictory assumption.

  2. John Pelenyi was an honest, moral and true gentleman.
    He indeed put his future and all his chances just what his moral conviction was.
    He gave up everything. his profession, his position, his income, his home country, his family, and did follow his moral conviction.

    That striped suit, the monacle, the long cigaret holder, and to a degree even his look, a copy of FDR.

  3. Avatar György Lázár says:

    Dear Bendeguz79,

    It seems that Pelenyi just wanted to save his own skin and didn’t want to be involved… The Anti-Horthy League’s influence was strong and Pelenyi was unacceptable to the anti-Fascist Hungarian emigre groups in the US. Otto Habsburg also kept his distance. Otto was also in the US during WWII trying to restore Habsburg influence in Central Europe. I recommend Dr. Katalin Kadar Lynn’s book: Tibor Eckhard in His Own Words….

  4. Mr. Lazar, Let’s try to be fair and honest and do not start with condemnation of that former minister to the US.
    Of course he wanted save his ass, would not you do the same under any circumstances? In 1940 nobody was sure of the future, just as now or ever. He clearly opposed and saw the danger in an alliance with Germany. The Habsburgs were totally irrelevant even in 1918 and even before. They time has expired long before.

    No thanks, I am not interested other folks opinion of Pelenyi. Might consider his own words of telling his own story. Every one should speak for him/herself.

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