A few of my friends tease me by asking if I would again play “kingmaker” and help George W. Bush win the 2000 elections, if I could revisit the past. My answer, like that of many Romanian-Americans I know, is a decided YES. We love his steady stand against terrorism and for freedom. And we find he supports the principles and ideals that brought us to this proud country.
Was I a kind of kingmaker? Let me explain.
My first direct contact with American politics inadvertently occurred at the time when George W. Bush won the presidential election with a mere 537 lead in Broward County, Florida, where I live. My involvement, as one of the spiritual leaders of the Romanian-American community, haphazard as it was, may have won over enough voters to tip the balance there. In anticipation of the elections I was asked to arrange for the Hollywood, Florida community to hear James C. Rosapepe, at that time the U.S. ambassador to Romania, as well as a Democrat and friend of President Clinton’s. When the county’s Democratic leader, Mitch Caesar, refused to help me find an appropriate venue, I turned to his Republican counterpart. But the latter’s help did not come without a price—E. Clay Shaw, Jr. asked to be included in the encounter. While the debate remained well within the limits of civility, the Democrat’s indifference and the Republican’s desire to help the community was clear. As moderator, I reminded the public that they would soon have to show their preference.
The event was not without its consequences, as the audience went home to tell all their friends and relatives about what had happened. A couple of months after the elections I was invited to a local Republican meeting and asked about the occasion. I learned there that many other Americans of East European descent have found out about what happened and have generally reacted negatively to the Democrat’s prestation: they wondered if they would not have been treated with the same indifference, had they been present. Even if we discount the 15,000 Romanian-Americans living in South Florida (most of them in Broward County), it should be remembered that in all of Florida only about one in every three citizens was born in the U.S., and that all of the newer arrivals show strong solidarity when it comes to a common cause. During the Cold War, hundreds used to gather every year in Miami for Captive Nations Week.
As an American of East European origin who was a political detainee in his native country, I have a different perspective from people who take freedom for granted. With a double doctorate in science and degree in engineering, published author in both the U.S. and France and owner of three U.S. patents while I was still living in Romania, I might have had a good life if I had remained in that country. But I left everything behind and started a new life from scratch in this great country. For many like me, the Statue of Liberty was an irresistible symbol, calling out to me and to others who could not make accommodations with communism.
Once here as an immigrant, I did my best to adjust to my new circumstances. As a new citizen busy with learning to survive here, for a long time I paid little attention to politics, believing in the soundness of the system. Even today I belong to no political party. I felt that the decisions shaping my life could be entrusted to others who were better qualified that I.
But now I am obliged to rethink my position. There are forces out there that, for the sake of quick political gains, are trying to persuade people to surrender the country’s principles. Instead of fighting terrorism where it originates, these forces advocate retreat. What would that solve?
Spain tried retreat, and the country has lost the stature it once enjoyed. What if the U.S. had backed down after 9/11? Spain may be willing to pay the price, but the U.S. would have lost far more than prestige. When a nation allows its values and virtues to be dissipated or squandered, it collapses. Just think of the Roman Empire. For a short time appeasement may be beneficial, but what will happen when the terrorists strike us again, after we have let down out guard? I recall a quote from an al-Qaida leader claiming that their new strikes will occur when we will be the least pepared. I do not believe al-Qaida will dare to hit us again as long as George W. Bush is still in the White House, as that would revive Americans’ sense of immediate danger and silence his opponents.
Appeasement cost millions of Jews and non-Jews their lives as England and France hesitated too long before realizing that Nazi Germany had to be fought, not subjected to toothless agreements. Appeasement led to the spread of communism in the Soviet Union, then East Germany and then all the rest of Eastern Europe. More recently, when genocide became the norm in Kosovo, the Europeans were still debating while the Americans fought. In Asia, Mao’s disdainful remark that America was nothing but a paper tiger was not ignored by Korea and Vietnam.
If George W. Bush’s opponents have their way, this country’s prestige will be lost forever. I am proud that in these challenging times both the Romanian-Americans I know and the country of Romania unflinchingly support American action in a region that is of importance for the whole world. By so doing, they show that they are able to see further into the future and overcome the sadness of the tribute we all have to pay today. For us, Benjamin Franklin’s dictum carries particular weight: “The man who trades freedom for security does not deserve respect, nor will he ever receive either.”
Claude G. Matasa (www.matasa.net) is a professor at the University of Illinois and Honorary Consul General of Romania in Florida.