Zsolt Németh credits Ronald Reagan with inspiring the Hungarian opposition movement he co-founded that threw off Soviet oppression in
1989.President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev meet in Reykjavik, Iceland, in October 1986.
This week, Németh, Hungary's deputy foreign minister, will join celebrations in Budapest and other Eastern European capitals observing Reagan's 100th birthday and his role in bringing down the Iron Curtain.
Reagan served two terms as U.S. president from 1981 to 1989. He was born Feb. 6, 1911.
Németh says Reagan is admired across Eastern Europe because he told the truth about the oppression of communism and stood up to the Soviet Union despite its nuclear arsenal, hastening its demise. Inspired by Reagan, Németh in 1988 helped found FIDESZ, the Alliance of Young Democrats, now the country's ruling party.
"This opposition was fueled by the fact that in the West, there was truth, political leaders who don't compromise and turn upside down what was true," Németh said in an interview. "Reagan was that type of politician."
The events in several capitals were organized with the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation:
•On Monday in Krakow, Poland, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, archbishop of Krakow, who was personal assistant to Pope John Paul II, will say a Mass of thanksgiving at the Basilica of St. Mary.
•On Tuesday in Budapest, Hungary, a special session of the parliament will honor Reagan.
•On Wednesday in Budapest, a life-size statue of Reagan will be unveiled on Freedom Square in front of the U.S. Embassy. The statue will stand facing one erected by the former Soviet Union to commemorate its defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II, which began the Soviet domination of Hungary. The unveiling also marks the day the last Russian troops left Hungary 20 years ago.
•On Thursday, Prague will rename the street in front of the U.S. ambassador's residence the Czech equivalent of Ronald Reagan Street. Condoleezza Rice will make a speech representing former first lady Nancy Reagan, says Rob Bauer of the Reagan Foundation.
•The events will wrap up on July 4 in London, where a statue of Reagan will be unveiled on Grosvenor Square, where the U.S. Embassy is located.
John O'Sullivan, a speechwriter for former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher who will speak at a symposium in Krakow, says Reagan was instrumental, together with Pope John Paul II and Thatcher, in resurrecting Solidarity, the Polish trade union movement that had been suppressed by the Soviet-backed regime.
Reagan used the networks of the Roman Catholic Church and the U.S. labor movement to generate money and other support for Solidarity, O'Sullivan says.
"It only survived because Reagan supported it and gave it diplomatic, financial and rhetorical support," he says.
Reagan took office in 1981 in a recession but wasted little time taking on the Soviet Union, says biographer Lee Edwards, author of The Essential Ronald Reagan: A Profile in Courage, Justice, and Wisdom.
In 1982, Reagan said the Soviet Union and its economic system was faltering. Weeks later, he told the British Parliament that Marxism-Leninism was headed "for the ash heap of history." And the next year, he first employed his famous description: He told a group of U.S. evangelicals the Soviet Union was "an evil empire."
Reagan backed his speeches with deeds, supporting rebel movements including the mujahedin in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and contras in Nicaragua, and invading Grenada to stop Soviet construction of an airport in the Caribbean nation. He led the biggest military buildup since World War II and proposed the "Star Wars" missile-defense system, which "frightened the Soviets" because they couldn't match it, Reagan speechwriter Ken Khachigian says.
When Reagan walked out on arms-control talks with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, and later obtained an agreement to remove all intermediate nuclear launchers from Europe, Eastern Europeans took notice.
Petr Gandalovic, the Czech ambassador to the United States, was a schoolteacher then in Czechoslovakia. He joined the student demonstration that kick-started the Velvet Revolution nine months after Reagan left office in 1989.
"Reagan showed that America was going to stand up to the Soviet military expansion and it was not going to withdraw from its firm positions," he says. "That was sort of inspiring to us."