What brilliant good it can do a country when the world respects, and will not forget, one of its leaders. What was vividly true 30 years ago is true today: The world looks to America. It doesn’t want to be patronized or dominated by America, it wants to see America as a beacon, an example, a dream of what could be. And the world wants something else: American goodness. It wants to have faith in the knowledge that America is the great nation that tries to think about and act upon right and wrong, and that it is a beacon also of things practical—how to have a sturdy, good, unsoiled economy, how to create jobs that provide livelihoods that allow families to be formed, how to maintain a system in which inventors and innovators can flourish. A world without America in this sense—the beacon, the inspiration, the speaker of truth—would be a world deprived of hopefulness. And so we must be our best selves again not only for us but for the world.
These are the thoughts that follow eight days of celebration, in Eastern Europe and London, of the leadership of Ronald Reagan. History is rarely sweet, but it was last week when they raised statues of him in his centenary year. People old and young stopped for a moment to think and speak of him, and to define what his leadership meant to them and their countries. The celebrations in Krakow, Budapest, Prague and London were a reminder that we are all traveling through history together, that you are living not only your own life but the life of your times, as Laurens van der Post once said. And your era can actually be affected, made better, by what you do.
The subject matter was the fall of the wall, the end of communism, the reunification of Europe—those epochal events the world is still absorbing and that in retrospect seem even more amazing. Good people picked good leaders—the Big Three of the Cold War, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Reagan—and together they pushed until walls fell. Man is not used to such kind outcomes. A feeling of awe and gratitude colored the ceremonies: “My God, look what was done, I still can’t believe it. Let’s talk about how it happened and take those lessons into the future.” Now of all times we could use the inspiration.
In Krakow, the city from which Karol Wojtyla was called to Rome to become John Paul II, there was a thanksgiving mass celebrated by Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, who said in his homily: “President Reagan . . . took great pains to bring about the demise of that which he so aptly named ‘the evil empire.’ This empire of evil denied many people and nations their freedom. It did so by way of a pernicious ideology . . . the result of this experiment was the death and sufferings of millions.” “There can be no doubt,” he said, that Reagan and John Paul brought about “the collapse of communism.”
In Budapest, in a special session of the Hungarian Parliament, Deputy Prime Minister Zsolt Semjen spoke of the end of Hungary as a captive nation and its beginnings as a democracy. Reagan, he said, “helped Hungary find itself.” Member of Parliament Janos Horvath spoke of Reagan’s style of peaceful liberation. What America did by being strong, by being serious in its focus, by speaking plain and true, not only inspired the victims of communism but weakened their oppressors. Reagan had “the imagination” to understand that the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a historic event: “He kept quoting Harry Truman’s commitment to the liberation of the captive nations. That, for Reagan, was a more important thing than for other presidents.” Hungary knew Truman had been “infuriated” by what the Soviets did, “arresting people, including myself.” Reagan made clear he “felt the indignation.” And so, “Hungary took seriously what America meant—human rights, democracy.” It left Horvath an optimist. “I have faith that the right thing prevails. This is the Ronald Reagan mentality.”
I asked a member of Parliament whether the people of Hungary had felt any bitterness over the fact that President Eisenhower did not commit U.S. military forces to help the Hungarians in 1956. At first he was puzzled. Bitterness? Any residual disappointment, I said. No, he said. “We understood your position.” Meaning, he explained, our position as a superpower in the nuclear age, and our position on freedom. They knew whose side we were on.
A veteran diplomat in the area, an American, said later that everything he’d heard in the speeches left him thinking how the great progress of the past quarter-century had been made not through warfare but through diplomacy, tough decisions, aid, encouragement and rhetorical clarity and candor.
At the unveiling of the Reagan statue in Freedom Square, Prime Minister Viktor Orban said Reagan “managed change wisely and preserved peace. This is why he needs to have a statue in Budapest.” In tearing down “the distorted and sick ideologies of the 20th century,” Reagan “remade the world for us.”
Rather stunningly, the leader of Hungary’s government bluntly ended his speech with a sentiment often heard in Omaha, Tucson, Morristown and Tallahassee: “We need a Ronald Reagan. Is he there, somewhere, already?” The world misses him as much as we do. It misses grand leadership as much as we do.
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In Prague they named a street for him. In London, on the Fourth of July, 235th birthday of the United States, they unveiled a statue in front of the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. Two other presidents grace that square: a heroic FDR in flowing cape, and a steely-eyed Eisenhower in army uniform. The day was nonpartisan, non-narrow. A great American was being justly honored by his British friends who, as Foreign Secretary William Hague said, “will never forget” him. A statue, he said, is not just a remembrance. With statues we come “face to face” with the great men and women of the past, and ponder their greatness.
That night, members of Parliament gathered for a formal dinner in London’s magnificent Guildhall. There were speeches, some beautiful. Among the packed tables there was a former member of Mrs. Thatcher’s cabinet, who in his day had taken heavy blows for his unrepentant conservatism. Now, white-haired, he listened to the speeches, as across the room a woman watching him remembered the greatest speech in English history: “Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot/ But he’ll remember with advantages/ What feats he did that day.”
And so Mr. Reagan’s centennial nears its close. We remember him—and Thatcher, and John Paul—for many reasons. To reinforce and reinspire. To keep fresh our knowledge that history can be made better. To be loyal to the truth.
And another reason. That night in conversation, former Prime Minister John Major asked how our teaching of history was in America. Not good, I said. He said in Britain it was the same, and it concerned him. We were across from a huge, heroic sculpture of the Duke of Wellington. If we don’t teach who he was and what he did, we will not make any more Wellingtons. Glory lives only when you pass it on.