An American schizophrenia

If only our nation’s foreign policy dilemmas would sit still and keep quiet, we could confront them, or avoid them, as we please.

Our most treacherous quandaries, though, erupt without warning around the globe. Fifty years ago this autumn, a bold and heart-rending revolt in the streets of Budapest, Hungary, forced Americans to deal with one perennial dilemma head-on: Should our nation pay the price of planting freedom and democracy in lands oppressed by tyrants? Or should we instead preserve our blood and treasure, and let people of other lands fight their own way to freedom?

Those two questions go to the heart of how a nation forged by revolution 230 years ago sees its role in a world that could use more revolutions. Right now, in fact, those questions echo in our disputes over U.S. efforts to expand liberty in the Middle East and South Asia.

Some among us want an America that transplants individual freedoms and liberal democracies to monarchies, theocracies and thugocracies. Others among us see that instinct as noble, perhaps, but costly and unnecessary.

These divisions in our political culture–in America’s ranks of patriots, really–afflict us with what many outsiders see as an American schizophrenia. Hungary offered the rest of the world one opportunity, but certainly not the last opportunity, to make that diagnosis:

– When freedom-minded Cuban exiles prepared for the Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, would the U.S. go beyond organizing the exiles and throw its military might into a full-scale attack on Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba?

– When Kurds and Shiites sought to oust Saddam Hussein after the Persian Gulf war of 1991, would the U.S. only encourage them, or overtly help shut down Iraq’s slaughterhouse regime?

In those two cases, as with the earlier revolt in Hungary, the calculated answer was no. America arguably had inspired all three uprisings, then had watched from orchestra seating as they played out on stage.

All three failed.

– – –

Hungary cast the mold: The U.S. first stoked hopes of freedom, then abandoned the courageous Hungarians who rose up to demand it.

During the decade after World War II, once proud nations of Eastern Europe had chafed at playing the role of Kremlin puppet states.

Then, in the autumn of 1956, Washington was faced with a terrible choice: Should the U.S. assist the restive people of Hungary–and run the risk of catalyzing World War III?

Earlier that year, a Polish workers’ challenge to Soviet domination had emboldened the equally resentful Hungarians. On Oct. 23, Budapest students gathered at the Parliament building to express national grievances against Moscow. Other citizens joined them by the thousands. After perhaps half of the 200,000 congregants left the square for the streets, authorities fired shots into at least two of the surging crowds.

With that, a demonstration morphed into a fledgling revolution. Fighting escalated, a statue of Josef Stalin fell. At 4 a.m. on Oct. 24, the first Soviet tanks rolled into the capital. Days of fighting followed, with outnumbered but heavily armored Russians battling poorly armed students and workers.

An upstart new government tried to declare Hungary a neutral nation, free of the Soviet yoke. But Russia’s military crushed the rebellion in November. Strikes and protests continued into January of 1957, when another Russian crackdown ended the revolt. Soviet savagery–killings, rapes, tortures, deportations to gulags–had dimmed, although not extinguished, Hungary’s spirit of independence.

Through it all, America … watched and did nothing. Early on, Radio Free Europe led the Hungarian people to believe help was en route: On Nov. 4, 1956, RFE said a “practical manifestation of Western sympathy is expected at any hour.” This as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who had preached opposition to Soviet dominion in Eastern Europe, was quashing that very hope of U.S. intervention. The U.S. didn’t see Hungary as a potential military ally, so America would fight Soviet dominion there with sympathy and little else. In short: Good luck, pals, you’re on your own.

By valuing stability over the spread of freedom, the Eisenhower administration essentially ceded future control of Eastern Europe to the Soviets. Hungarians paid the price of that decision, as did citizens of other Iron Curtain nations.

– – –

Should America have backed Hungary’s freedom fighters in 1956?

As Iraq proves in each day’s headlines, U.S. interventions overseas cost American lives and dollars. The rewards may not come for decades, if at all.

Alternately, though, our isolationism can condemn freedom fighters of other lands to subjugation–and plague us with ongoing crises that demand even greater investments. Imagine how the late 20th Century might have played out if the U.S. had forcefully told an initially confused Kremlin regime to back away from Hungary.

Hungary did puncture the Kremlin’s myth that East Bloc masses embraced communism; that revelation angered and dispirited western Marxists. But Hungary’s greatest impact was within the East Bloc. The revolution of 1956 lived on in the hearts of millions of people in neighboring lands until, after three-plus decades of push and pull, the Berlin Wall finally fell.

Will Iraq have a similar effect on the greater Middle East? Regardless of Americans’ differences on how to end the war there, prosecuting it has disrupted chronic suppression that long masqueraded as regional stability. There can be no unbreaking of the china. In another 50 years, we’ll know whether American intervention in Iraq helped transform the dangerous political culture of the greater Middle East.

These regional freedom fights tend to be long hauls. That’s neither a reason for Americans to join the battle or to look the other way.

Hungary, though, has spent 50 years teaching us one uncomfortable lesson: Not standing with those who stand up for freedom also has its costs.

Chicago Tribune, November 26, 2006

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~ by anick on November 26, 2006.

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