Mr. Captive Nations

A true hero of the Cold War is being honored in Washington, D.C., this week: Lev E. Dobriansky.

This is “Captive Nations Week,” and Dobriansky wrote the 1959 resolution that first proclaimed it. A former U.S. ambassador, distinguished professor of economics, prolific writer, renowned lecturer and global strategist, he certainly deserves high praise.

Dobriansky will be getting the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Captive Nations Committee and the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America for “his inspiring leadership and unwavering commitment to the Liberation of all Captive Nations and the National Independence of all Peoples.”

Captive Nations Week has been officially proclaimed for nearly five decades by every American president from Dwight Eisenhower through Bill Clinton to George W. Bush, whose July 15 proclamation urges Americans “to reaffirm their commitment to all those seeking liberty, justice and self-determination.”

A typical presidential comment was that of John Kennedy, who said, “This country must never recognize the situation behind the Iron Curtain as a permanent one, but must, by all peaceful means, keep alive the hopes of freedom of the peoples of the captive nations.”

How much the communists hated and feared Captive Nations Week can be seen in their denunciations of it. Going Orwellian, the Soviet government newspaper Izvestia called it “a propagandistic trick of the American enemies of the freedom and independence of nations.” Radio Pyongyang described the week as “a despicable animal campaign of the U.S. ruling circles.”

Noting the vehemence of the communist reaction, prescient American leaders referred to the captive peoples behind the Iron, Bamboo and Sugarcane Curtains as the West’s “secret allies” in the Cold War. Ronald Reagan in particular understood their critical role in the protracted conflict between freedom and tyranny.

In 1978, two years before he successfully ran for president, Reagan devoted one of his radio commentaries to Captive Nations Week, reminding his listeners that the Soviet Union still held “millions of people in bondage” and asking, “Are we really serious about human rights?”

Once in office, President Reagan proved his resolute commitment to human rights and freedoms by resolving to defeat — not merely contain — communism. He instituted a multi-faceted foreign policy offensive, including the Reagan Doctrine, a policy of assistance to anti-communist forces in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Angola and Cambodia.

He sanctioned covert and other support to the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland and signaled his support of captive peoples everywhere by holding a public ceremony marking Captive Nations Week in the Rose Garden of the White House — the first president to do so.

Reagan hastened the collapse of communism when he stated that the West should recognize that the Soviets “are the focus of evil in this modern world” and the masters of “an evil empire.” When Reagan visited Poland and East Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former dissidents told him that when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” it gave them enormous hope. Finally, they said to each other, America had a leader who “understood the nature of communism.”

One person who aided Ronald Reagan’s understanding of communism was Lev Dobriansky — “Mr. Captive Nations.” Dobriansky had predicted the collapse of the Soviet Empire as early as 1967, in a published work called “The Vulnerable Russians.” His work spotlights the inherent weakness and vulnerability of totalitarianism and the “invincible” desire for independence and self-determination in the hearts and minds of the captive peoples — ideas worthy of close study and appropriate application in our conflict-torn world.

While the Soviet Empire is no more, there still are captive nations such as China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba, whose people live — but not by their choice — under communism. Captive Nations Week affords an opportunity for us to reassert our determination to keep alive the hopes of freedom of all the captive peoples.

Captive Nations Week enables us to say that we believe in the power of words — like “captive nations,” “evil empire” and “tear down this wall” — to change history for the better. And it gives us the opportunity to remember those who, like Lev Dobriansky, used words to do just that.

Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at The Heritage Foundation and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.