by Andrew Steele
Recent headlines are highlighting the harrowing tale of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident who last week fled house arrest and found safety at the US Embassy in Beijing. This is a fantastic story that further complicates Secretary Clinton’s visit to China for an important US-China annual meeting on security and economic concerns. Realists may be muttering under their breath that this one man jeopardizes fragile relations between the two most powerful countries in the world. This isn’t the first time. When the Cold War was beginning to take shape and clear lines were being drawn all over the world, another individual took refuge in a US Embassy. That individual was Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, a man whose fifteen years of personal sacrifice is memorialized in his home country of Hungary.
Chen stayed inside the Beijing embassy, which is recognized as official territory of the United States, for a total of 6 days. Mindszenty, on the other hand, was a guest of the US government for 15 years. From 1956 to 1971, Mindszenty was granted a small room in the Embassy as his personal quarters while the two great superpowers wrangled over his fate. As Mindszenty was the primate or leader of the Catholic Church in Hungary, Vatican interests were also involved in this convoluted scenario.
Mindszenty had taken an active role in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 and was called to the capital by parliamentary leaders to strengthen the nationalist movement. However, when the Soviets crushed the rebellion it was left to Mindszenty to run through the streets, disguising his religious garb as best he could, and to throw himself to the mercy of the US government. Eisenhower accepted him, but only President Kennedy wrote him a brief letter assuring him that he would be looked after.
Realists of the time were no doubt troubled that Mindszenty, like Chen today, would make a mess of a modus vivendi between the superpowers. Détente was in its infancy as a policy idea, but Mindszenty never wavered in his conviction that Hungary ought to be saved from Soviet oppression; he made that clear in dozens of unreturned letters to the White House that stressed the illegality of Soviet methods. Chen too is a prominent dissident whose childhood blindness has not prevented his study of law or his defense of human rights for Chinese citizens.
The consonance of Mindszenty and Chen’s values with the ideals of the United States rendered impossible the option of throwing these men into the hands of their unjust captors. The United States can’t solve every infraction of justice, but it can use its enormous stores of ‘soft power’ as a lever to effect good in the world. Where possible, US diplomats should be charged with mediating extraordinary instances like Chen’s. Since the days of President Woodrow Wilson, our foreign policy has forever been tinged with moral ideals and not merely base, material interests. This distinguishes America from many and is perhaps our truest case for American Exceptionalism.
Mindszenty was eventually granted safe passage to Vienna in a deal brokered by the executive administrations of President Nixon, General Secretary Brezhnev, and Pope Paul VI. The Hungarian Cardinal’s obdurate rejection of totalitarianism was one of many blows to the Soviet regime and can thus be conceived of as a figurative hammer’s strike against the Berlin Wall. Perhaps the State Department’s apparently honorable dealings with Chen will activate a similarly cataclysmic chain of events and play a small but crucial part in expanding freedom in China.
Andrew Steele is the Coordinator for the Center’s Religion in Public Life Program. Andrew is a 2010 graduate of Hamilton College. He was a double major in Chinese language and Government, spending time in Beijing and Washington, D.C