On October 18, Hungarians and Americans gathered to remember the Revolution and Freedom Fight of 1956 and celebrated 90 years of diplomatic relations between Hungary and the United States at the U.S. Institute of Peace – carrying a symbolic message of our joint commitment to peace and liberty as well as promoting democracy and human rights.
In October 1956, Hungarians protested in large numbers, demanding democratic government and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary. Clashes broke out across the country. Many Hungarians listened to Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty broadcasts, and many believed American support would be forthcoming. Nonetheless, unwilling to risk an all-out war with the Soviet Union, the United States did not intervene when the Soviets moved in to crush the rebellion. The United States did take in thousands of Hungarian “Freedom Fighters” and refugees, and offered asylum in its Legation to the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church. 56 years later, on October 18, 2012, about two hundred Hungarians and Americans gathered for a special gala event to commemorate these historic events which have shaped not only the history of a small nation but that of the whole world.
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Ambassador György Szapáry, who himself is a 1956 political refugee, recalled the events that shook Hungary and changed the course of the lives of so many, including his own. “Although we did not know the outcome of the revolution, I knew that this system cannot go on…..the rotten apple eventually falls from the tree.” And fall it did. But it also took individual courage to achieve a transition to democracy. Among those effecting the change was Prime Minister Orbán, the Ambassador recalled, who, as a young politicial speaking for future generations at the reburial of Imre Nagy, the reform Communist PM during the revolution, demanded that the Soviet troops to leave.
Foreign Minister Martonyi opened the evening with a personal recollection of the uprising and the tremendous impact it had on him. The lesson of 1956, as he pointed out, was that we should preserve our optimism even for small and the remote events – for they might very well turn out to be history in the making.
Congressman Diaz-Balart (R-FL), member of the Hungarian American Caucus, said that the call of the 1956 freedom fighters “is as urgent now for the pro-democracy movement as it has ever been, as it was in 1956”. He also remarked that “Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who lead by example and the people of Hungary are among the greatest of people. If the fight for freedom, the solidarity against oppression…if that’s what makes great people than there is not greater people than the Hungarian people.”
Former Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, who was stationed as a naval pilot in Europe in 1956, recalled that the events made indelible impressions on him and the spirit of the freedom fighters inspired the future generations as well. “In my view, the Hungarian Freedom Fighter of 1956 remains an enduring symbol of man’s enduring desire to be free.” He also hoped that all of the world’s nations’ leaders shall understand this ultimate desire of humankind.
For George Pataki, former governor of New York, remembering 1956, was, he said, very personal: “I remember so clearly October of 1956 when the revolution started, all of us gathered in front of a flickering black and white television set….and I remember the incredible joy as we saw the flags with the hammer and sickle being cut out from the middle. I have never seen more joy in my family than during those days.” He said that although the history books might tell us that the revolution has not succeeded, it has certainly planted the seeds of liberty which came to fruition 33 years later.
Dr. Lee Edwards, Chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation announced that the Hungarian Government has pledged to support financially the establishment of a bricks-and-mortar museum for the Victims of Communism, which has been a declared goal of the Foundation for many years. “This is something that needs to be done, should be done, must be done, so that the wonderful stories and the messages that we have heard tonight can resonate here in Washington, DC and around the world,” he said. “I am so grateful to the people of Hungary and particularly to Viktor Orbán who is a true Hungarian freedom fighter.”
Ambassador Szapáry announced that the Hungarian government has pledged $1 million toward the construction of the museum in Washington, DC, which will, he hopes. kick-start a wider fundraising effort for the museum.
Special guest of the evening, Zsuzsa (Susan) Francia, a Hungarian-American two-time Olympic champion rower, presented her gold medals to the audience and said “I think it is so important that we never forget our roots and where we came from and who we are.” She said that “representing the U.S. as an athlete is nowhere close to the bravery and what it took for these men and women to stand up for their peace.”
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sent special video messages in which they commended the Hungarian people for their courage to stand up against Soviet tyranny.
Special guests of the evening included Assistant Secretary Ms. Heidi Crebo-Rediker, Chief Economist at the State Department, Evelyn Farkas, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Defense, Philip Reeker, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State at the Department of State, Ambassadors of Austria, Poland, Croatia, Serbia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovak Republic, Lithuania, H.E. Thomas Robertson, Former Ambassador to Slovenia H.E. April Foley, Former Ambassador to Hungary, H.E. András Simonyi former Ambassador of Hungary to the United States and Managing Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Transatlantic Relations, H.E. Victor Ashe, Former U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Mr. Doug Rediker, member of the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund, Paula Dobriansky Former Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, Annette Lantos, wife of the Late Congressman Tom Lantos Edith Lauer, chairman emerita of the Hungarian American Coalition, Max Teleki, President of the Hungarian American Coalition, Ferenc Koszorús President of the American Hungarian Federation, John Lipsky, Former Senior Deputy Managing Director of the IMF, Hungarian Honorary Consuls from Chicago and Puerto Rico, Atlanta, New Orleans, Károly Dán, Consul General of New York, László Kálmán, Consul General of Los Angeles, and friends of Hungary from the think tank and Hungarian American community.
Guests who were seated at tables named after American cities with the largest Hungarian American population, like Cleveland, Los Angeles, New York and Toledo, left with a bottle of Tokaji wine presented by Tokaji Kereskedőház Zrt, typical Hungarian pogácsa prepared by the Embassy’s award-winning chef and an elegant souvenir notebook from Cinq Filles depicting fin-de-siècle Budapest.