Remarks of Ambassador David Pressman
45th Anniversary of the Return of the Hungarian Holy Crown
January 6, 2023
Downtown Parish Church
– as prepared –
Jó estét kívánok.
Rector Mészáros, distinguished guests, good evening.
Tonight, we gather to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the return of the Hungarian Holy Crown. It’s a fascinating, and important, piece of the shared history between the United States and Hungary.
But before I speak about the return of the crown, and why it is so vital that we mark this event, I want to go back a little bit further. Not to the very beginning of the crown. That would take quite a while. The crown has seen over a thousand years of history: kings, queens, popes, and bishops. The rise and fall of empires. Times of war and times of peace. In many ways, the crown has been a witness to the history of Europe since the early medieval period.
So, while the history of the crown is incredible, for the sake of time and the purpose of our gathering today, I will focus my remarks on the crown’s more recent adventures.
In 1945, Europe had been decimated by years of some of the most savage warfare the world had ever seen. Cities lay in ruins. Livelihoods had been destroyed. Millions murdered. World War II had come to an end, but the world would not so easily return to normal. For many Europeans, the horrors of war were about to be replaced by the suffocating shadow and rule of the Soviet Union.
Hungary was about to find itself behind the Iron Curtain, about to endure decades of awful oppression under the Soviet Union. The Hungarian people did not ask for this. They did not welcome it, but at the time they were unable to prevent it.
What they could do, what some brave members of the Hungarian military decided to do, was to take the extraordinary gamble to place their most precious of artifacts into the hands of the United States. The same country Hungary had just recently been at war with.
This 1,000-year-old, priceless artifact made of gold and jewels was hidden away in a plain black satchel by brave, patriotic Hungarians. It was smuggled out of the country and passed from a Hungarian colonel to an American colonel.
Even now, 77 years after the crown was entrusted to the United States, the image remains a powerful and emotional one. A black satchel with a 1,000-year-old artifact passed for safekeeping from the soldier of one country to that of another with whom they had just been at war.
Although our governments may have clashed at the time, the people of Hungary saw a friend in the United States. They saw a people with whom they could entrust one of their most important, meaningful treasures.
And the United States did protect the Hungarian Holy Crown. In fact, we took this responsibility so seriously that we placed it in the famous vaults of Fort Knox. This facility is so famously secure that Fort Knox has become a part of our vernacular when we speak of safe places.
The United States agreed to protect the crown until one day we could return it to the Hungarian people. Not to the government of Hungary. Certainly not to the Soviet Union. Not to a puppet regime. To the people of Hungary.
It was in 1978 that President Jimmy Carter made the difficult and controversial decision to return the crown to the people of Hungary. Of course, at that time Hungary was still under the thumb of the Soviet Union. Some in the U.S. government believed the crown should not be returned until the shackles of Soviet oppression were completely, and finally, thrown off.
But President Carter, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and other advisors, including a junior senator by the name of Joe Biden, thought differently. We were not returning the crown to the government of Hungary — a government, that at that time did not always look out for the best interests of its people — but instead we were returning the crown to the people.
We wanted to provide more than just the crown. We wanted to give the people of Hungary what the crown represented: hope. A hope for a return to a life before the dominance of Soviet oppressors and their minions.
Because it is the people that matter the most. Governments come and go. Political winds shift. Elected leaders have their time on the stage before slipping away into the tides of history.
It is what the people do – their deeds — that matters the most. Do you stand up for what is right? Do you take in your neighbor and offer them comfort during dark times? Are you a champion for the vulnerable? An advocate for human dignity? A voice for good? Do you reject the falsehoods and propaganda used for short term political gain?
In 1978, and the years leading up to that time, President Carter and his team saw positive signs from Hungary. He saw the Hungarian people slowly pulling away from the yoke of Soviet oppression. They were promoting tolerance for religious expression. They were trying to facilitate increased travel and communication between the Communist Bloc states. Hungarians were doing what they could to better the world they lived in, even if it ran opposite to the official Soviet playbook.
Although the government of Hungary was not yet free of Communist rule, the people of Hungary were clearly yearning for freedom. The United States could think of no better symbol to galvanize and recognize the Hungarian people than the return of their holy crown.
The rest, so they say, is history. The crown was returned, not to the government, but to the people of Hungary led by a prestigious delegation of religious, cultural, scientific, and academic leaders.
It would be more than decade for Hungary to finally break away from the rule of the Soviet Union, but it was inevitable in the end that such a system would fail. It did fail, and it will always fail because it is not in the best interest of the people, but instead seeks to only consolidate the power in the few. It strives to force a way of life onto a people who only yearn to be free.
Of course, it wasn’t as easy as perhaps I make it sound in a few minutes of remarks. There were struggles and debates. And, as we all know, around the world shadows still linger from these times. The global fight against the tyranny of authoritarianism is ongoing and it is urgent. One only need look at Putin’s war on democratic Ukraine raging next door.
Whether living in a longstanding democracy or a brand new one, democracy is not to be taken for granted. It is, of course, not lost on me that this evening it is a monarch’s crown that serves as such a poignant reminder of this fundamental reality. Democracy’s future depends on our individual readiness to stand up for values and for institutions essential to its preservation; and to stand proudly with our friends who are doing so.
Just as the United States was honored to offer refuge to the Hungarian Holy Crown as we commemorate today, so too did we proudly offer sanctuary to one of the great Hungarian voices for this country’s free and democratic future.
I am privileged to work every day from an office inside the United States Embassy that was once the very same room which sheltered the extraordinary Cardinal Mindszenty for fifteen years as he sought refuge from the tyranny of communist Hungary.
The United States is honored to have been there for the crown. It is honored to have been there for the Cardinal. We are honored to be here for Hungary today. It is what friends do.
In contrast, Vladimir Putin is a holdover from a time that most of the world has tried to move beyond. He is a small man who can only lead through fear and intimidation. He thought the Ukrainian people would bend once again to a Soviet-style ruler, but he was wrong. The Ukrainians, much like the Hungarians decades earlier, had already made their decision. They had already charted their course, and it did not include a return to a broken, abusive system that had failed them for so long.
We must all decide which course to set during these turbulent times. Who are our friends? Who do we turn to when times are difficult, when we are faced with those who seek to do us harm?
In 1945, a brave Hungarian Colonel entrusted one of his country’s most important treasures to an American counterpart in the hope we would keep it safe. And we did. In 1956, Cardinal Joszef Mindszenty sought sanctuary at the U.S. Embassy, trusting us to keep him safe. And we did.
The United States and Hungary have been friends and allies for many years. We have been there for each other through some pretty dark times. And, although there may be occasional rough seas to sail – and the current seas feel dangerously rough – I am confident that, if we try, we can navigate them together.
Much like President Carter, former Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, and a young then-United States Senator named Joe Biden, I am betting on Hungary and the people of this great country.