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It Didn’t Start with Elián

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MOST AMERICANS probably believe that it is wrong for the U.S. to return a refugee to an evil tyranny from which he has escaped even if they question whether this principle applies to a small child like Elián Gonzalez. Most Americans probably also believe that our government has generally acted in accordance with this principle. Not so. Our history of forced repatriation includes such infamy as Lincolns enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. And lessons learned from such horrors tend to be quickly forgotten.

In 1939 nearly 1,000 German Jews boarded the ocean liner St. Louis, desperately seeking to escape Nazi Germany. After the Cuban government, which had issued visas in Germany, changed its mind, the ship entered American territorial waters off the Florida coast, only to be driven off by the Coast Guard. The refugees returned to Germany, where most perished in death camps.

Then, at the end of World War II, the leaders of our great generation sent between two million and three million Soviet citizens back to almost certain death, torture, or misery. Some were soldiers and officers, and some of those had joined the Nazi armies and fought against us and the Russians. Others were innocent civilians who had become conscripted slaves of the Third Reich. Still others, like the Cossacks, were enemies of the Bolshevik regime who had long lived in the West and had seized the opportunity to fight the Soviets.

We did not distinguish among them. Stalin wanted them all back, and although many begged for asylum in the West, and although our policy violated international law and a formal undertaking from our acting secretary of state, we delivered them to him. They were executed, tortured, jailed, or shipped to the Gulag Archipelago, where Alexander Solzhenitsyn heard their stories. He later wrote about those civilians of all ages and of both sexes who had been fortunate enough to find shelter on Allied territory, but who in 1946-1947 were perfidiously returned by Allied authorities into Soviet hands.

The most famous single group thus betrayed was what Solzhenitsyn calls the Vlasov people, named after Gen. Andrei Andreyevich Vlasov, a heroic Red Army commander who brought his million men over to the German side after being betrayed by Stalin at the battle of Leningrad in 1942.

Vlasov was driven at least in part by a lust for vengeance, but in truth the captured Russians had little choice in the matter. The Nazis would enter prisoner-of-war camps and ask for volunteers, and the first to refuse was shot on the spot. The rest were quick to seize the opportunity for a longer life, a bit of food, and a new German uniform.

At wars end, Stalin was eager to get Vlasov and his million followers into early graves, or slave camps, and we and the British were quick to accommodate him. We knew their destiny, since we knew that Stalin had defined all those who surrendered to the Germans as traitors. Vlasov was hanged, his severed head displayed in Red Square. Almost all the other officers were executed, and hundreds of thousands of his followers were sent to die in the gulag.

The case of the Cossacks was similar, but even closer to home. Thousands of Cossacks enlisted in the German army to avenge their defeat after the Russian Revolution, and many of them ended up in American POW camps in this country and in Central Europe. They fought desperately to stay in the free world. Nearly 200 of them, held in Fort Dix, N.J., rioted when they were loaded onto a ship and literally wrecked the engine with their bare hands. Brought back to Fort Dix, they implored the Americans to shoot them on free soil. Instead, we drugged them and shipped them off.

With such enormous numbers, there were many Eliáns in this terrible drama, children with parents both inside and outside the Soviet Union. Those who had taken their children out of Soviet territory often preferred mass suicide to a return to slavery. As Lord Bethell wrote in his impassioned book, The Last Secret, The Cossacks were drowning not only themselves, but also their children.

Forced repatriation took a moral toll on Allied soldiers, and there were clear signs of rebelliousness, sometimes at very high levels. British Field Marshal Alexander, for example, wrote to his political bosses that the policy was contrary to democratic principles and urged that it be changed. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower, after several months of acquiescence to Stalin’s wishes, called an end to the dreadful operation.

When the facts became known, the outcry was loud enough to produce congressional hearings. By the time the Cold War began, our leaders were resolved that such a thing would not be permitted again. So firm was our resolve that the end of the Korean War was delayed for nearly two years because we refused to agree to Chinese and North Korean demands for forced repatriation of all their nationals.

Repatriation in recent times

Later in the Cold War, we again forgot our principles. In November 1970, a Lithuanian seaman, Simas Kudirka, leapt from a Soviet fishing vessel onto a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, ironically named the Vigilant, and requested political asylum. Although the U.S. did not recognize the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, the ships captain was ordered to deliver Mr. Kudirka into Soviet hands. Six Soviet sailors boarded the Vigilant, beat Mr. Kudirka unconscious, wrapped him in a blanket, and carried him back to slavery. He was sentenced to 10 years in the gulag.

Once again there was public outrage and new congressional hearings. Although no one was punished or even reprimanded, we were again reminded that Americans are supposed to protect refugees from evil regimes.

It was inevitable that the defeat of Soviet communism would weaken our resolve, and our asylum policies have steadily eroded ever since. Early in President Clinton’s first term, the Navy found a shipload of refugees from China in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The nearest port was Guam, where the Chinese could have requested asylum. Instead, the Navy towed the Chinese ship 1,000 miles to the Marshall Islands, where they could not file such requests. Even though several of the women on board wrote letters asking not to be sent back to China, where they would face punishments like forced abortion, no request was even considered. The whole lot were sent back to Chinese oppression.

Our Cuban policy has evolved along similar lines. Throughout the Cold War we acted on the reasonable assumption that anyone who fled Cuban tyranny was obviously a political refugee and was entitled to an asylum hearing. But we have systematically undermined these practices. We have established a quota for Cuban immigrants. We have required would-be immigrants to line up in front of our Havana offices, where the Cuban authorities can identify them and single them out for punishment and humiliation. And we have put our own Coast Guard at the service of a tyrannical regime, searching the high seas for refugees in order to repatriate them forcibly.

The same can be said about Haiti, a case rendered more complicated by this administrations desire to claim that all is well on that hellish island. The White House knows that many thousands of Haitians would race for our shores if we permitted them to do so. Indeed, the CIA has been ordered to focus its digital eyes and ears on Haiti and to inform the administration immediately at the first signs of tumult. As with the Cubans and citizens of other unfortunate nations our leaders seek to placate (such as Vietnam), Haitian refugees are plucked from the ocean and forcibly repatriated.

We are therefore dealing with something far greater, and even more alarming, than the Elián Gonzalez affair. We have once again abandoned a fundamental component of our national character: the enthusiastic embrace of all those who come to us in flight from tyranny. If history is a reliable guide to the future, it will require a spectacular incident to rekindle the righteous indignation of the American people. Then, perhaps, our elected representatives will once again enforce our core values, even if it does mean inconveniencing our diplomats and politicians.

Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal 2000 Dow Jones and Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

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    Dr. Ledeen is resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, "Tocqueville on American Character", will be published this summer by St. Martin’s Press.