Four thousand four hundred and six miles from here there lies tonight a captive city. While we who are free salute at festive banquets her noble fight for freedom, she weeps for the freedom – and the sons and daughters – that she has lost. While we who acted not deplore the frailties that held us back, she guards the graves of those who gave the last full measure of devotion. While we who only watched and waited seek loudly now to fix the blame and point with shame, she silently waits with ever dimming hope and strength for the keys to her prison door.
This is October 23, 1957 – the first anniversary of a day that shook the world – a day that will forever live in the annals of free men and free nations – a day of courage and of conscience and of triumph. No other day since nations were first instituted among men has shown more conclusively, to oppressed and oppressor alike, the utter, inevitable futility of despotic rule. No other day has shown more clearly the eternal unquenchability of man's desire to be free, whatever the odds against success, whatever the sacrifice required of him.
But October 23, 1956 shall also be permanently etched in man's history of man as a day of judgment – and of failure. For on that grim and tragic day, and all through the bloody, perilous days that followed, we in the West were unprepared to act effectively, unwilling to act decisively, unable to act with unity. To those who sought help and revolution, we offered only hope and resolutions. To those who begged with urgent hearts and eloquent tongues for deeds to match our words, for actions to match our promises, we offered only the cruel disillusionment of "all assistance short of help." There were, to be sure, those among us who asked with passionate interest: What can we do? But we knew not what to do.
I do not offer these thoughts in any partisan spirit, for these are matters too fundamental and grave for purely political considerations. Nor do I point a bitter accusing finger against those who failed to act – for their motives were always high, their weaknesses were in us all and their guilt must be shared by an entire nation, if not all mankind. Nor, finally, have I come to preach a funeral oration over the silent grave of the martyred Freedom Fighter of Hungary. For he needs no eulogies or plaques from us to keep his memory alive.
"Till the future dares forget the past, His fate and fame shall be
An echo and a light – unto eternity."
Rather than conduct either eulogies for dead martyrs or autopsies of past mistakes, let us, in the words of our own nation's Great Emancipator, "here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain… It is for us the living … to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they … so nobly advanced."
Did the Hungarian Freedom Fighters fight and fall in vain? Did they contribute no more to the history of freedom than sealed boxcars to Siberia, homeless thousands in exile and unmarked graves near the avenue once briefly renamed The Street of Hungarian Youth instead of Stalin Road?
The answer is largely in our hands. If the tragic course of events of one year ago taught us nothing, if future October revolutions find us as helplessly unprepared and hopelessly divided as did East Berlin, Poznan, Warsaw, and Budapest, then the world may rightfully ask whether we who enjoy the greatest quantity of freedom do not appreciate its quality the least. If we have only moved as a nation from a grandiosely optimistic conception of what we can do to a passively fatalistic picture of what we cannot do, then freedom's hopes for the future as well as the past lie buried in the rubble of Budapest.
As we meet tonight, the air is filled with talk of new and greater Soviet prestige. The success of the sputnik satellite, it is said, has made a deep impression on the uncommitted world, brought new admiration for the Soviet system and persuaded untold thousands of the benefits to be gained by adopting the Communist way of life. Yet in the midst of all these Moscow boasts and propaganda, in the midst of all these rocket launchings and missile tests, there stands one mute witness to the utter horror of the Soviet system – betrayed and enslaved Hungary. No amount of spectacular rockets firing on the moon will ever wipe out the memory of Russian tanks firing on hospitals and churches, on aged refugees and crippled children. We cannot let the satellite in the Soviet sky dull our memories of the satellites under the Soviet's heel.
There may in the difficult days ahead be further triumphs of Soviet science and further triumphs of Soviet diplomacy – there may be new attempts to portray the face of the Kremlin as the jovial Khruschchev, the stately Bulganin, the calm Zhukov. But in the ancient city of Budapest in the early morning hours of last November 4, the face of the Kremlin tyrant was painted too clearly, too permanently, too tragically for any to forget – a face of savage hate and ruthless power, a face that knows no mercy, no justice, no honor. So long as the memory of that face burns within our minds, let us hear no more about the prestige of the Soviet system or the advantages of the Soviet way.
Just as the fate of Hungary must touch forever the hearts of uncommitted peoples, so, too, does its lesson command the attention of our own foreign policy makers here at home. Yesterday's New York Times report from behind the Iron Curtain told once again of the ill effects that "stem from (the) basic Washington … feeling that Eastern Europe is a 'lost cause'." The so-called "practical" men who have made these miscalculations are not wholly confined to one party – nor are they foolish, disloyal or unsympathetic. Knowing full well the iron grip with which a Communist regime seizes a nation's schools, and churches, and press, and above all the mind of its youth who recall no better day or other way, these men despair of ever restoring the light of freedom to that dark side of the continent.
But to say that Eastern Europe is a "lost cause," its freedom a futile dream, a vanished hope – to say that these honored dead have indeed died in vain – that, it seems to me, flies in the face of every story written in the streets of Budapest. For the very students in whom the false Gods of Communism had been thoroughly and repeatedly dinned were the first to fight for a liberty they had never known. Workers wooed by the pledge of a ruling proletariat preferred a hero's grave to a seat on the oppressor's council. To give up their chains, intellectuals gave up their studies, shopkeepers their livelihoods, mothers their homes – and even when they saw the odds were hopeless, they did not feel theirs to be a "lost cause".
Viewing their efforts and their sacrifice, by what right do we in this country say that Eastern Europe is a lost cause? What, may I ask, have we tried? A negative policy of containment – an empty, irredeemable promise of liberation – a half-hearted loan that came too little and too late – a series of moral pronouncements that offered neither help nor hope? What have we tried – by way of devising a third course of action, a course that lies between tardy resolutions and total war, between a policy of massive retaliation and no policy at all? What have we tried I ask you, to entitle us to say that Eastern Europe is a lost cause?
Have we exhausted the tools of diplomacy, of political and economic sanctions, of UN and NATO action? Have we backed up our challenge to the illegality of the puppet Kadar regime, and to the illegality of the current executions of patriots? Have we fully exploited the cracks in the Iron Curtain that have appeared first in Yugoslavia and now in Poland – to make new friends, exchange more goods, more ideas, more people, more culture? Have we coordinated Western diplomatic machinery in preparation for the new outbreaks of violence that are certain to come, including the creation of a permanent UN observation commission, ready to fly at a moment's notice to any spot where an advance toward freedom is under fire? Have we revamped our foreign aid legislation which does not now recognize the painful evolutionary path to freedom these nations must take? Have we sufficiently revised our immigration laws, which now leave in limbo the fate of 17,000 refugees from Hungary's reign of terror? Have we reoriented our propaganda agencies that they might be better prepared for the next satellite explosion?
Perhaps all of these steps are not immediately feasible; perhaps some that are feasible will not be wholly successful; perhaps some that could be successful involve an element of risk. But risk for risk, cost for cost, I would rather see us formulate such a course of action, however limited it may be, than to sit timidly by when free men and free nations fall. In the name of those whose valor we honor tonight, let us cast out from their high places these false prophets of pessimism and gloom, these so-called realists who say a cause is lost before they have even tried to win.
Eastern Europe a lost cause? No – never! It is a cause that shall never be lost – not so long as free men and women everywhere keep alive the spirit of those whom we honor here tonight – not so long as we recognize that the destiny of those behind the Iron Curtain is our destiny, their hopes our hopes, their future our concern.
Their cause, our cause, is not lost – and the Hungarian people, after centuries of resisting foreign tyranny know it. The Irish and the Jews and the Vietnamese and the Tunisians, indeed the peoples of practically every nation on earth, and particularly we Americans – we all know it. We all know that, however dark the night of oppression, the day of liberty is certain to dawn. We all know, in the words of Byron, as he fought and fell for Greek freedom in the rain at Missolonghi, that
"Freedom's battle once begun
Bequeathed by bleeding sire to son
Tho baffled oft is ever won."
Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 898, "Annual Freedom Award, the Hungarian Freedom Fighters, New York City, 23 October 1957." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.