Charles Gati: Tom Lantos and Hungary


It was three decades ago that Joe Biden, then one of the youngest members of the U.S. Senate and today the vice president of the United States, was planning his honeymoon. His foreign policy advisor, Tom Lantos, came up with the idea that Biden and his brand new wife should spend their honeymoon in Hungary. The Bidens followed his advice. Lantos organized everything and to Biden’s surprise he announced that he and his wife Annette would accompany the newlyweds. And indeed they went. All four of them. Biden later recalled that Lantos presented Hungary as if he were the CEO of a tourist agency. The best fish can be found in Hungary. Lake Balaton is the nicest lake in the whole world. The bridges across the Danube are the most spectacular in the universe. The world’s most famous scientists, actors, mathematicians, composers, and poets were all Hungarians. Not only Biden but scores of American delegations went to Hungary since and they all heard the same accolades from him.

Even in his last years he visited Hungary, often twice a year, and when he had time he went to the theater. To Hungarian theater. Perhaps I don’t have to say how much he loved Hungarian food. His face lighted up when he talked about sausages from Csaba.  Visitors in his Washington office got Hungarian coffee. At home, even under the shower, he sang Hungarian songs. When I visited him the last time, he wanted to hear his favorite Hungarian song. His beloved grandchild was singing on CD selections from old, popular Hungarian operettas.

He became an outstanding orator of the U.S. Congress. He spoke in perfectly constructed paragraphs that could be printed without any editing.  However, he retained a slight Hungarian accent which, as it turned out, was rather similar to mine. Once, more than fifteen years ago, I suggested to him that before he embarks on a trip to the Near East he should ask for detailed information from the research department of the State Department that was headed at that time by my wife. He dialed the number I gave him and put the speaker phone on in order for me to hear the conversation. He was very proud of that phone which for him–someone who didn’t write on a computer, didn’t use a cell phone, and didn’t send e-mails—was the pinnacle of technical development. So, I heard the conversation that went something like this: “Hello, I’m Representative Tom Lantos. May I speak with The Honorable Toby Gati?” After a few seconds of silence my wife, who couldn’t imagine that this famous congressman would call her himself and thought that she recognized my Hungarian accent, answered, “Charles, I’m really sick and tired of your stupid little games. When are you going to grow up?” Actually my wife used stronger words …

Tom Lantos remained Hungarian not only in his accent. He loved Lajos Kossuth and could recite the poetry of Sándor Petőfi. He hummed the melodies of operettas from before the war. Both of his daughters spoke Hungarian as did some of his grandchildren. One of them studied music at the Franz Liszt Academy. Another wrote his doctoral dissertation on a Hungarian topic. Even when he became the chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs and thus was very busy, he always found time to spend long hours with his friend András Simonyi, Hungarian Ambassador to the United States, whom he liked as a person and respected for his views.  And perhaps this is the place to mention a little secret that very people know. Tom sometimes intimated that once he became tired of being a congressman and retired he would consider returning to Hungary for good.


Tom Lantos also became an American patriot. In brief: he loved the United States. If I want to be more expansive: he loved the United States very much. Let me quote what he said once about America: “It is only in the United States that a penniless survivor of the Holocaust and a fighter in the anti-Nazi underground could have received an education, raised a family, and had the privilege of serving the last three decades of his life as a Member of Congress.”

The recurring motif in Tom’s speeches and even in his private conversations was that the United States saved Europe three times from the claws of totalitarianism. First, in World War I; second, in World War II; and third, at the time of the Cold War. He was aware of the fact that gratitude is not a political category.  After all, Tom Lantos was an idealist but not naïve. Yet he was still hurt when he noticed that someone didn’t acknowledge America’s positive contribution. He was equally offended by the appeasement of the Nazis in Munich and by the belittling of the Soviet danger. One must take steps against extremists before it is too late—this is what he learned from the history of the twentieth century. In one of his last speeches before his death he lashed out at the former German chancellor who, so to speak, sold himself to Gazprom, which was under the authority of an ever more aggressive Russian government. He said it jokingly but he meant it seriously: “If the hookers in my district didn’t take offense at the association, I would call the former German chancellor a prostitute.”

What Tom Lantos valued in the United States was not only that the U.S. opposed dictatorships but that it stood for the proposition that even the least effective democracy is worth more than the most effective dictatorship.


He was especially interested in political values. Respect for human rights. The situation of the Hungarian minorities in the neighboring countries. The fight against overt or covert anti-Semitism.

Lantos was always his own man. When in the United States many people think that China shouldn’t be criticized because it is an important commercial partner, Tom was a demonstrative supporter of the Dalai Lama. When in the United States many people believe that one ought to treat Russia with care because we might need her today or tomorrow, Tom didn’t hesitate: he condemned the Russian government for its severe violation of freedom of the press, for the annihilation of an independent judiciary, and for its insensitivity toward the most basic human rights. In 2005 he flew to Moscow where he demonstrated for the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky in front of a courthouse there.

It was this value system that motivated him when in the early 1990s he spoke about István Csurka’s anti-Semitism on the floor of the House of Representatives.  He paid no attention to those who warned him that it is not proper diplomatic form to meddle in another country’s internal affairs. His answer was that nations matter and sovereignty is an essential part of an orderly world, but what is most important is the defense of universal human rights. After all, Tom experienced himself what it means when the world doesn’t act in time against Nazis, Fascists, Arrow Cross hooligans — or their successors.


What would he say today? Surely he would severely criticize President Barack Obama, a member of his own party, because during his negotiations in Moscow he neglected to bring up the question of human rights. He would criticize Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because when she visited Beijing she didn’t talk publicly about the issue of human rights. Lantos didn’t believe that an American politician should criticize the anti-democratic actions of another country only in private.

This week, if he were to go to the opening of the Lantos Institute in Budapest at all, what would he say? What would he say about today’s Hungary? After two decades of friendship I don’t find it difficult to imagine that speech. But I will not attend the opening. Relating here the contents of that imagined speech would only ruin the celebration.

Charles Gati is Senior Adjunct Professor of Russian and Eurasian Studies at the School of Advanced International Studies/Johns Hopkins University.

The Hungarian original appeared in today's Népszabadság.

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Interesting article.
But the belief that “the U.S. opposed dictatorships… it stood for the proposition that even the least effective democracy is worth more than the most effective dictatorship.” is hardly supported by history.

Sackhoes Contributor

Paul: having met Tom Lantos on a number of occasions, I truly believe he meant his love of the US and democracy. The trouble is that in the real world, especially during the Cold War, there were not too many democracies to support. North Korea instead of South Korea? The Shah vs. Kohmeni? North Vietnam instead of South Vietnam? Battista instead of Castro? Not that easy to pick the democracy.


Tom Lantos was Jewish. The Johnny Boy element won’t listen beyond this point.


First dreams and illusions:
The best fish can be found in Hungary. Lake Balaton is the nicest lake in the whole world. The bridges across the Danube are the most spectacular in the universe. The world’s most famous scientists, actors, mathematicians, composers, and poets were all Hungarians.
Reality: financial catastrophe, “Gypsy = Rome pogroms”, antisemitism, “decreasing” relations with neighbours …
Polite Hungarians wake up!


Dear Professor,
I do not know if this is possible within Typepad or other resources. But is it possible for the archives not to be on month basis, but on scroll article title basis.
Many times I want to reply on a current article using a previous article as reference. Mostly I remember the title (or part of it), but I am terrible with dates.
Thank you


SC – nice try, but again not supported by history. Again and again the US have supported vicious dictatorships, where it’s suited them.
You might argue that it’s just pragmatic politics – i.e. what’s in the US’s best interests (at least as seen at the time, by some). But what about Nicaragua (just the first example that pops into my head)?
The people rise against the oppressor and wage a bloody war against him. They eventually win and then set about transforming the country: introducing democracy, both national and local, rolling out a free health care service, running a revolutionary campaign to increase literacy rates.
And what does the US do? Funds the Contras, to blow up schools and kill and destroy indiscriminately. Until eventually the economy crashes and the democratically elected government (non-communist, I might add) falls, and everything they created is lost.
And what about the CIA’s role in the fall of democracy in Chile?
Don’t give me ‘Americans love democracy’. You might as well claim that the British transported slaves across the Atlantic and sold drugs to the Chinese out of an altruistic desire to make their lives better!

peter litvanyi

Dear Paul:
Yes you are 100% right.
You know I am an American.
We should totally explore these issues on this /Eva’s/ site: we can’t fight fascism somewhere else if we don’t fight it at home. I am with you.
Yet this was a gentle article about Tom. May he rest in peace now. God knows he did what he could.
Peter Litvanyi


In both cases, Nicaragua and Chile, it was obvious for many, that these countries will turn into Soviet style communist countries with Cuban and Russian help. On the long run we would have had 2 more Cubas. You are biting the typical bolshevik bait: initial social reforms then by the time you wake up you lost all your freedom.


Point taken, Peter, I get a bit wound up about the US sometimes!

Joe Simon

The US did intervene in European affairs in two world wars and it was done, as always, for American interests. The US didnot save Europe. After 1918, it became a ‘tűzfészek’, ready for Round II, that basically finished the old continent. The US became a European power, something she always wanted. The US did nothing to defeat the Soviet Union. It collapsed on its own. Hungary’s 1956 did more to undermine Soviet power than anything the US, including Ronald Reagan, did.

Joe Simon: “The US did intervene in European affairs in two world wars and it was done, as always, for American interests.” As contrary to whom? Are you saying that Hungary ever acted in someone else’s interest? Can you bring me some examples? Hungary actally was involved starting the two World Wars if you forgot, so there was no need for them to get any more involved. Hungary was not invaded he was the invader. Hungary got itself in the mass by the act of its incompetent leaders, and he unwillingness of the Hungarian population to to do something against it. (Detect some similarities?) I must agree with you at one point although, as I never agreed with the theory that the collapse of Hungary, Russia, etc. was due for any “deus ex machina”, but the death of Brezhnev. THere were certainly more then a handful tried to get into the history books when choosing to get involved when it started to became very safe to show strength. (In Hungary this moment arrived with the decline of Kadar’ health.) One of these people were Orban (I still haven’t heard from anyone on this board who can let me know about… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh

Some1: “One of these people were Orban (I still haven’t heard from anyone on this board who can let me know about Orban’s great achievements in opposition prior to 1988.”
I think this is correct. At the same time Gábor Demszky at the moment is fighting for a pension that would take into consideration of six or eight years when he couldn’t get a job as a punishment for his political activities. And by the way, Demszky was never accused of any corruption and he was mayor of Budapest for twenty years. Popularly elected.


Mutt – ” then by the time you wake up you lost all your freedom.”
Which is exactly what happened – US style.
At least under the democratically elected governments they had a hope that things might improve.
The ‘Russia/Cuba’ ‘domino effect’ nonsense was just US propaganda to justify their ‘need’ to keep South America under their control.
They behaved (and still behave) like any empire protecting their (narrowly defined) interests – hence my comparison to the British Empire. We no doubt justified our actions using similar nonsense when we were enslaving, killing and drug dealing.