Twenty years ago today, Ronald Reagan, standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, challenged Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down one of the most powerful symbols of communism in Europe: the Berlin Wall.
Today, more than 17 years after the dust from the wall has cleared, a different challenge, one rooted in creation rather than destruction, will be issued as the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation unveils a memorial on Capitol Hill.
Located on a plaza at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue, New Jersey Avenue and G Street Northwest, the memorial will take the form of a 10-foot, bronze Goddess of Democracy statue and serve as a tribute to the more than 100 million people whose deaths were caused by the actions of communist governments. The challenge that will be issued is for the American people not to lose sight of these victims.
The dedication of the statue, a replica of one made by Chinese students and destroyed in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, will begin at 9:45 a.m. and feature speeches from President Bush, who for more than three years has served as the honorary chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and California Reps. Tom Lantos (D) and Dana Rohrabacher (R).
Following the dedication, there will be a panel of speakers at the Heritage Foundation and an awards dinner at the J.W. Marriott Hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest.
According to supporters of the memorial, the statue’s unveiling will come at a time when a new generation of Americans is becoming increasingly unaware of the struggles between democracy and communism during the Cold War era.
“The civilized society spent almost two generations in a global struggle against communism,” said Lantos, who grew up in Hungary and left while it was still a communist state. “This whole struggle is viewed as something as remote and distant as the Peloponnesian War.”
Sociologist Paul Hollander, who also grew up in Hungary and will be on the panel at the Heritage Foundation, agreed, noting that there is “incredible ignorance” about the era. “The general public has very little knowledge of the mass murders of communist systems,” said Hollander, who currently is with Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
According to Lee Edwards, the chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, most people are entirely unaware that there are more than 100 million victims of communist governments, a figure the foundation originally came up with after its own research and was later confirmed by “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression,” which was published in 1997.
This lack of knowledge, he said, is understandable given that dictionary definitions of communism or books about it often fail to capture what it was like to live in a communist regime. “It’s all very dry as dust and doesn’t begin to explain what communism was all about,” he said.
The inspiration for today’s event came in January 1990, when the collapse of the Soviet Union was foreseeable and when the memorial’s initial supporters wanted to make sure the Cold War era would not be forgotten. In 1993, Congress and President Bill Clinton supported a resolution that authorized the construction of the memorial, and since then the memorial’s supporters have been working on finding an appropriate site for it, designing it and raising the approximately $950,000 needed to build it.
In terms of location, Edwards said the foundation’s members did not have enough clout to secure a spot on the National Mall, but they felt strongly about the memorial being located on Capitol Hill. He said he is happy with the spot they decided on.
Apart from the time they spent choosing a location, members of the foundation also took part in lengthy deliberations before deciding to replicate the Goddess of Democracy statue, which was modeled after the Statue of Liberty by the Chinese students who made the original.
Although the original was destroyed, photos of it remain and the foundation contracted Thomas Marsh, a sculptor from San Francisco who had previously built three other replicas of the Goddess of Democracy, to construct the statue. He created it at cost.
“I was very moved by the bravery of the students in Tiananmen Square and certainly by the tragedy of the massacre, so I have never wanted to take any money that was based upon their sacrifice,” he said.
According to Marsh, there will be important parallels between the replica and the Statue of Liberty, specifically through the use of radiants, or lines that will extend from the statue and onto the floor of the small plaza that will surround it.
These radiants, which will resemble beams of light, will “[call] to mind the significance of light and enlightenment,” he said, noting that the concept of lighting is especially relevant given that the Goddess of Democracy, like the Statue of Liberty, holds a torch.
Edwards agreed that the connection between these two statues holds particular symbolic significance because it presents “an opportunity to stress the tragic event back in 1989, but also man’s indomitable desire for freedom.”
The timing of today’s event also is symbolic, as it marks the 20th anniversary of Reagan’s speech, which “signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War,” according to Edwards, who has written two biographies of Reagan. “It was a key speech, it was a key event, it was a key challenge,” he said.
The timing will be acutely significant for Rohrabacher, who served as a speechwriter for Reagan. While he did not pen the famous line “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” he was one of the many speechwriters who convinced Reagan to utter it over the objections of some advisers who thought it was too inflammatory, according to Rohrabacher’s communications director, Tara Setmayer.
“[The speechwriters] were ahead of their time. They recognized the historic significance of that line,” she said.
While getting support for it and making plans for its construction were certainly large undertakings, the memorial is only the first of three phases in the foundation’s plans.
According to Edwards, the second phase will be putting together a virtual museum and the third will be the construction of a physical museum, both of which will be a tribute to the more than 100 million victims.
Supporters of the monument hope these endeavors will accomplish the same end as the memorial, a goal they hold dear. “I am fully supportive of any vehicle that will teach the new generation of the struggle that the free world had with communism,” Lantos said.