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Thoughtless Rhetoric and Foreign Rebellions

Bryan Cartledge’s history of Hungary, The Will to Survive, has been described by no less than John Lukacs as “the best history of Hungary in the English language.” Here Cartledge discusses the 1956 revolution and the possibility of Western intervention:

There was never any question of military intervention by the West, Suez or no Suez. It is all the more regrettable that the American propaganda machine, through the medium of Radio Free Europe, had encouraged the youth of Poland and Hungary in particular to believe in the eventual liberation of ‘the captive nations’ by ‘the forces of freedom’. This thoughtless rhetoric aroused expectations that could never have been fulfilled [bold-mine DL]. (p. 455)

This is why I keep emphasizing the dangers of offering rhetorical encouragement to foreign protesters and uprisings. For many people in the West, speaking out in support of a popular protest or anti-authoritarian rebellion is treated simply as a matter of affirming “values” and showing solidarity with another nation, but this fails to take into consideration that rhetoric, even empty boilerplate rhetoric, can have serious and sometimes deadly consequences for other people. Hawks are rarely satisfied if our government pays only lip service to a foreign cause, since they would often prefer that the U.S. provide more direct assistance, but they are the first to demand that the government lend rhetorical backing to foreign protesters or rebels no matter what consequences that might have for them or for the U.S.

If hawks are notorious for insisting that the U.S. “do something” about a foreign crisis, they are even more likely to insist that a president say something, no matter how useless or harmful it might prove to be. The desire to take sides and cheer on one side against another has a lot more to do with affirming and congratulating ourselves than it does with aiding foreign causes. That becomes clear the moment that our government’s rhetorical support requires anything of us. The Hungarian case is especially egregious, because the gap between official rhetoric and what the U.S. was actually prepared to do was so large. This doesn’t mean that the U.S. should be more willing to back up careless rhetoric with action, as Syria hawks keep urging, but that its officials at all levels should be much more careful in what they say.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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