Class Of 1964 USAF Academy

Evil Empire--Hungary

By Todd Jagerson

toddmarx.jpg In 1989 the Berlin Wall had just fallen and all seven of the Soviet satellite countries in Eastern Europe were scrambling to escape the Soviet grip. Hungary was one of the first to break free, and I had been invited to Budapest to assess the chaos and see what the US could do to help. At first reluctant, I was told the trip’s focus was on purely academic matters, my role would be limited to adding a minor business perspective, if needed. The academics, I was assured, would definitely be taking the lead and they were an impressive sounding bunch – Deans, Provosts and Chancellor-types all. Thus assured, I signed on, began browsing some Hungarian history, and was looking forward to a relaxing trip on which I would play the role of a potato.

An “international assessment” carried out by a small team of “academic and business leaders.” Sounds pretty fancy – they always do -- but when viewed up-close a trip like this can be as sophisticated as a voyage to Mars planned by the local PTA. When we landed in Budapest we had a week to do whatever it was we were there to do. But nobody knew what that was, not even how to get from the airport into Budapest. None of our group knew a thing about Hungary, had ever been to Hungary, knew a single Hungarian or a word of Magyar (Hungarian), and none had a clue about what to do next. I was starting to get a little nervous, but none of my colleagues seemed concerned, so why should I? I learned why at our first stop, which is always the US embassy. We were greeted cordially and the six of us were shown into a charming sitting room for small coffees and tiny chocolates. The Ambassador got right to it:

“So, gentlemen, why have you come to Hungary?”

I was still inspecting the beautifully sculpted ceilings and only after a moment did I notice the awkward silence. Turning to see which of my colleagues was “taking the lead” I was surprised to find them all looking at me, as if it was I – the would-be potato -- who had just cut the proverbial cheese. A memorable silence. One eventually filled, not with academic issues and ideas, but with the only topic I could think of.

“We’re here,” I blurted, “to develop Hungary’s private sector…!” To my surprise it was nods, smiles, and more silence all around and so, to fill the continuing void, I stumbled on, spelling out, to my own amazement, a plan to turn Hungary into a capitalist paradise.

I had no idea what I was talking about; nor, it seems, did anyone else.

By 1991, just two years later, the Soviet Empire had disappeared completely. In its place were three fundamental realities. First, there were now 22 ‘newly independent states” holding a total of 32,000 former-soviet nukes; most bankrupt; most at each others’ throats; most ruled by second-tier communist thugs and sycophants who were uniquely unqualified to build free market economies, democratic governments, and the Rule of Law.

Second, virtually all of the 22 ‘new’ countries – including Russia herself – had been hysterically loud and enthusiastic in declaring massive reforms that will deliver the fabled blessings of Western democracy and free market capitalism.

And third -- a mixed blessing – most of the fledgling new governments have asked the United States to help plan, implement and manage this revolutionary rush to capitalism. My fate in 1989 was to spend the next 12 years in the midst of this desperate scramble: first, during the initial collapse, as the seven captive satellites rushed to escape; then, during the next decade, the basic mud-to-bricks rebuilding of all the twenty-two ‘new states’ that was to follow. It was a wild time that is considered, by some, to have been one of the most dangerous, creative, exhilarating and disappointing periods of the 20th Century. An amazing ride.
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