In 1956, just after my sixth birthday, my father was asked by American Secretary of State Dulles and President Eisenhower to take over the State Department Refugee Relief Program to deal with the thousands of Hungarian refugees fleeing the Soviet invasion. For the next year, I seldom saw my father. Some nights he would appear on American television talking about Hungarian Freedom Fighters. Most of the time he was away in Europe. When he was back in Washington DC, he was so busy that he was almost never home. I do remember sitting in pajamas in the backseat of our beat-up Chevrolet station wagon as my mother drove my dad through the White House gates where he was to brief the president on the Hungarian crisis.
My dad referred to all Hungarians fleeing Soviet tyranny as “Freedom Fighters”. Many had in fact been freedom fighters but others were simply fleeing Soviet rule. In Europe today, those others might have been described as “economic migrants.” That is not the term my father would have used to describe those fleeing Soviet oppression, whether or not they had actually battled the Soviets. His work and that of others in the Eisenhower administration and Congress made it possible for over 30,000 Hungarians to emigrate to the United States. My father was always proud of this achievement. He considered Hungarians a noble people. He felt that people who fled their country to escape tyranny or simply to give their children a better life were the bravest people on earth. He believed that refugees like the Hungarians who came to America after the revolution made the United States strong and renewed our democracy. (My father’s example was followed by my brother Pierce Gerety Jr. who devoted his career with the United Nations to working on behalf of refugees but sadly was killed on Swissair 111 on Sept. 2, 1998 as he was headed to the Congo on a peace mission to stop that war from going regional.)
If my father had lived to see your nation, after it had thrown off the yoke of communism, put up razor wire fences to keep out refugees fleeing rape, murder and religious oppression — far worse than Hungarians fleeing the Soviet invasion faced in 1956— he would have been deeply saddened.
Rather than following its better lights, Hungary seems to have forgotten the brave struggle of its people to achieve freedom and escape tyranny. This is a moment when history will look back on the world’s treatment of these refugees, just as we look back on how nations treated those fleeing the Holocaust. Hungary can choose a nobler path, a path of compassion and decency. No democracy is weakened when it offers a helping hand to those who have learned from bitter experience the virtues of freedom.
Son of Pierce J Gerety Sr., Former Director of the American Refugee Relief Program