Paul Greenberg

What perfect timing. The wire service photo showed an honor guard in Hungary commemorating the reburial of Imre Nagy two decades ago.

Comrade, then Freedom Fighter, Nagy had been the leader of Hungary's ill-fated uprising against its Soviet masters back in 1956. The Hungarians' bravery attracted the sympathy and admiration of the whole world that year. But little else. Fearful of risking a nuclear confrontation, America and the West shrank back. Once again Communism produced a wave of talented and productive refugees, and then silence descended.

As for Imre Nagy and his fellow rebels, their fate was what one would expect in a slave empire: They were arrested, tried in secret and hanged. And then buried in unmarked graves. Only the memory of a brief freedom still burned in Hungary, far below the surface of things. Few at the time realized that one day it would flame again.

Imre Nagy was a good Marxist till the end. He and his comrades had been faithful to the Party till they could no longer close their eyes, or their hearts, to their country's oppression. They had hoped for a peaceful break with the oppressors, or that the Americans would arrive at the last minute and save the day, like the U.S. Cavalry in a Western.

They hoped for too much. And paid for it. Nikita Khrushchev and ruthless company in Moscow were not about to let them take Hungary out of the Warsaw Pact, or even live. Their example might have proven contagious, and the rest of the Soviet bloc was restless, too. So it was decided they would provide a different kind of example: This is what happens to those who dare challenge Soviet power.

Decades passed. The ritual observance of Captive Nations Week in this country was derided as an annual exercise in futility. Also, a danger to Peaceful Coexistence, which had been elevated to a goal of American foreign policy, taking the place of freedom. And any real peace. Even to speak of these nations' captivity struck our intelligentsia as a dangerous provocation. Detente became the objective, not peace. A president who spoke of peace and freedom, like Ronald Reagan, was considered an "amiable dunce" by the sophisticates. The Kissingers and Fulbrights had become our leading lights, or at least leading dimnesses. But a tide was rising in the world, and it was a freedom tide.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.