- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 7, 2002

The Founding Fathers, starting with George Washington in 1796, warned the young Republic to avoid "entangling alliances" and against involvement in foreign quarrels. As much as the populace venerated their first president, his advice fell on deaf ears. The leaders of a country who had enshrined the concept of freedom in two historic documents the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution could not suppress a passion among its citizenry to bring the same civic freedoms to Europe. Whether they had willed it or not, the American Revolution inspired generations of European revolutionary intellectuals throughout the 19th century. After all, if a handful of poorly armed American farmers could defeat the British Empire, there was hope for the downtrodden peoples of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires.

As the country's population expanded, more and more Americans watched with approval the struggle of ethnic minorities in Europe for self-government, for democratic rule. That tradition provides an historical context for the support given by Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, for an embattled democratic Israel as it fights for its very existence.

This tradition developed because of the emigration to the United States of some 35 million Europeans in the century between 1815 and 1914. According to Oscar Handlin, the noted Harvard historian, it was the third wave of immigrants comprising "little groups of fugitives, generated by the failures of all the liberal revolutions in Europe" who sparked popular American support for what appeared to be lost causes. And in the Caribbean, too. Towards the end of the 19th century, rebels who fled Cuba established a junta in New York which, with help from the United States, eventually led to Cuba's independence.

The early immigrants, for the most part peasants and laborers, had no attachment to their countries of origin. In fact, they were happy to leave behind them governments which had mistreated them. Later immigrants consisted of artisans, craftsmen, farmers, engineers, physicians, entrepreneurs whose focus, writes Mr. Handlin, "was on the problem of getting ahead." The new European refugees fled to America from unsuccessful revolts in Ireland, France, England and Germany, later from Canada, Hungary, Finland, Poland and Russia. When Emma Lazarus published her famous sonnet in 1883 with its marvelous opening apostrophe "Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free," she could easily have included "your failed revolutionaries" who also yearned to breathe free.

In time these immigrants absorbed "American attitudes toward political action," wrote Mr. Handlin in a 1987 article in The National Interest titled: "Immigration and Foreign Policy: How It Was." They were joined by the offspring of earlier immigrants who identified with their parents' European birthplace. Professor Handlin writes:

"Thus, the struggle for Irish or Polish or Greek independence was not simply an Irish or a Polish or a Greek struggle; because freedom was involved, it was also an American struggle. Particular groups of Americans sustained and supported a country with which they had hereditary or traditional ties of some sort. But Irish-Americans or Polish-Americans participated in these efforts not as Irishmen or Poles, but as Americans.

"They acted in terms of standards that had universal currency among their fellow citizens: the spread of democracy through the world, the self-determination of nations, international action for peace, the desirability of aiding small people against great oppressors."

Support for democratic revolutionary causes was not due to the presence of large numbers of immigrants. There weren't many Hungarians in the United States in 1850 to explain support for the ill-fated Hungarian revolution nor the tumultuous welcome of Louis Kossuth, its defeated leader, when he arrived in America in 1852. There weren't very many Jewish voters to explain diplomatic intervention in 1840 on behalf of 13 Jews convicted in Damascus, Syria of ritual murder. President Martin Van Buren couldn't have been looking for Jewish votes when he, too, protested these outrageous convictions. In 1869, President Ulysses S. Grant met with a Jewish delegation at the White House. Upon hearing the group's plea that the president demand a halt to the harsh treatment of Russian Jews, the American leader immediately fired off a letter to the tsar. As Mr. Handlin writes:

"In the conduct of American foreign policy, ideological imperatives were much more important than pressures from the immigrants." Mr. Handlin informs us about a young Albanian, Fan S. Noli, who came to Harvard as a student and brought together his countrymen in the Pan-Albanian Federation of America, established their national language and their church of which he became bishop. He then persuaded President Woodrow Wilson to support Albanian independence and then served as the new country's prime minister.

So, too, American Czech and Slovak organizations on May 30, 1918 met in Pittsburgh after nationwide rallies in the United States and arrived at an understanding which made possible the establishment in Europe of a new nation, Czechoslovakia. American support for Irish independence came easily because of the growth of Anglophobia in the 19th century. The War of 1812, the burning of Washington, conflicts over the boundaries with Canada, British sympathy for the South during the Civil War made it easy to support the Irish cause. In time, however, there was a rapprochement and emphasis on the common heritage of the "Anglo-Saxon" peoples.

In virtually all cases of American support or intervention in overseas independence struggles, it was ideological, against colonialism, against religious persecution, against racism. "Occasional diplomatic intervention on behalf of Jews also revealed the strength of the ideological commitment," writes Mr. Handlin, "for down to the 1880s their numbers were tiny and they did not form a political factor of any consequence."


Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.


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