A statue of the 41st President of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush, on Budapest’s Szabadság tér (Liberty Square) was unveiled on Tuesday. He was the first US president to visit Hungary, and played a seminal role in ending the cold war and helping establish democracy in former Eastern Bloc countries.
Summer rain was pouring onto the masses gathered in front of Parliament, yet there they stood, their enthusiasm undiminished by the inclement weather. President George H.W. Bush stepped up to the podium, and tore up his speech. The crowd had been standing in the rain too long, he said. He was going to speak from the heart.
It was July of 1989, an historic time. The Soviet Union was starting to disintegrate. The president saluted the country’s leadership and the recent reforms and change that Hungary was undergoing as it was shedding its communist shackles, touched by the breeze of freedom blowing from the West. He noted the warmth of the welcome he had received from Hungarians, and expressed a special affection for Hungary and its people on America’s behalf. Tim McBride, personal aide to President G.H.W. Bush, reflected on their visit to Hungary, saying
I didn’t realize the historical significance of the visit at the time… but I do now.”
George H.W. Bush was the first US president to visit Hungary. He played a seminal role both as president and as vice president in winning the cold war and helping establish democracy in former Eastern Bloc countries. With politics driven by unwavering moral conviction, and unlike many world leaders before and since, he unquestionably strove to spread the ideals of freedom and justice, and to end tyranny. In his inaugural speech delivered in January 1989, half a year before he visited Hungary, he said:
… a new breeze is blowing, and a world refreshed by freedom seems reborn; for in man’s heart, if not in fact, the day of the dictator is over.”
Indeed, it seemed he was right. Barely a week before he took office, Hungary “paved the way for political opposition to the Communist authorities” by having its Parliament adopt democratic reforms including freedom of the press, of association, and of assembly, and a new election law. Non-communist parties began negotiations with the country’s leadership, and in May, Hungary started dismantling part of the Iron Curtain on its border with Austria, an act of tremendous historical significance.
Taking a key role in negotiations with the communist government and delivering a seminal speech at the reburial of former PM Imre Nagy, who was unlawfully executed by the Soviet leadership, was a young Viktor Orbán. Back then, he was a rising star of the emerging opposition. Now the country’s Prime Minister, he gave an address at the unveiling of the President’s statue. He noted:
“Every Hungarian knows that America is the land of freedom.”
Orbán recalled that when Bush arrived at Kossuth Square to hold his speech in 1989, non-communist leaders asked him to set Hungary free from Yalta, the conference where the handling of post-war Europe was discussed by the UK, US, and USSR. He said that the president understood that whatever nonsense the country’s communist leaders told him in private, it is not a better deal with the Soviet Union Hungarians wanted, but to break free from its control. “We did not merely want to get closer to the free world; we wanted to become part of it,” Orbán said.
He quoted former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, who said that Bush “was a great blessing.” Orbán said that many felt the same way in Europe at the time; that
“…a United States led by him would not let us down.”
30 years have passed since the end of the Cold War, and US-Hungarian relations have flourished through cooperation in trade and via NATO. The American Embassy notes that Bush’s presidency was essential in deepening relations between the countries. His statue will stand beside that of Ronald Reagan, together with whom they helped deliver Hungary from communism and into a world of liberty.
Featured photo by Lajos Soós/MTI