Iraqis have endured oppression for decades. They now face the prospect of more tyranny unless the United States stays the course (and even if we do, success is likely to be fleeting). Many Americans are tired of hearing about Iraq, but are we ready to insert our earplugs when those who have trusted in us plead for help as terrorists brutally press a final assault?
Fifty years ago-Nov. 4, 1956-shortwave radio operators around the world heard calls for help. Radio Free Kossuth broadcast from Budapest: "Today at daybreak Soviet troops attacked our capital with the obvious intent of overthrowing the legal democratic Hungarian government." Three hours later the station gave a repeated signal for one minute: "SOS! SOS! SOS!" Then it went off the air.
Another Hungarian station, Radio Free Dunapentele, reported the Russian attack and added, "It is possible that our broadcasts will soon stop and you will hear us no more. We will only be silent when they have killed us." Soon the broadcast stopped.
Radio Csokonay also sent out a desperate broadcast: "Long live freedom, long live the free Hungarian people!" Then came a voice, reading in English, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation conceived in liberty . . ." Noises, perhaps of fighting, drowned out the voice, but then the station broadcast a final few words: "The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract."
The Hungarian rebellion against Communism was a brave but probably unrealistic effort. By Nov. 5 only a few radio stations held out. A voice on Radio Roka was urgent: "We need help! Because of lack of medicines and military help many people are dying. We need food and arms."
One station, Radio Rakoczi, was still alive on Nov. 6: "We appeal to the conscience of the world. . . . Why are only the interests of the great powers important, why are not our hospitals, schools and national treasures important, and why can these be sacrificed to bombs and fire? Why cannot you hear the call for help of our murdered women and children?"
The station stayed on the air until Nov. 7: "In the name of all honest Hungarians we appeal to all honest men in the world. Must we appeal once again? Do you love liberty? So do we. We have wounded who have given their blood for the sacred cause of liberty, but we have no bandages, no medicine. And what shall we give to our children who are asking for bread? The last piece of bread has been eaten."
Later that day the broadcast grew faint: "We are fighting against overwhelming odds. Possibly our radio will soon be annihilated. . . . Continue to listen to our broadcasts. As soon as we have time to come from the firing line . . . we will continue." At 3 p.m. Budapest time came one last announcement: "Soviet tanks and planes are attacking. The battle continues with unflagging violence." That was the end.
President Dwight Eisenhower, probably wisely, was not willing to risk World War III by having U.S. forces directly challenge Soviet hegemony in Hungary. During the past half-century we have sometimes combated oppression abroad and sometimes ignored it: Those are difficult judgment calls. But how should we act when the United States has made direct and unambiguous vows of support?
Look at what happened to brave people in Vietnam and Cambodia when we abandoned those who had sided with us. And look at what may happen to our friends in Afghanistan and Iraq if we tire of our commitments there.
Just before the Iraq War began in 2003, Member of Parliament Ann Clwyd rose in the House of Commons to read statements by Iraqi eyewitnesses concerning Saddam Hussein's brutality. Here's one account of evil: "There was a machine designed for shredding plastic. Men were dropped into it and we were again made to watch. Sometimes they went in headfirst and died quickly. Sometimes they went in feet first and died screaming. It was horrible. I saw 30 people die like this. Their remains would be placed in plastic bags and we were told they would be used as fish food."
Do we want those shredding machines to be switched on once again?