(June 3): When the Chinese government slaughtered unknown numbers of its own citizens in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago on June 4 (Chinese time), Americans waited in vain for their own president, George H.W. Bush, to issue a stirring ode to freedom.

The ode, though, was delivered in photographic form with the image of the lone, thin man standing, unyielding, before a Chinese tank.

Bush’s muted and later downright obsequious reactions count today as the ugliest blot on his record. “Tank man,” however, inspired hundreds of millions. He assuredly gave courage to those in Eastern Europe who later that year breached the figurative Iron Curtain and then tore down the very real Berlin Wall.

First, Bush: In a near monotone, the president spent about a minute saying he did “deplore the decision to use force” against the demonstrators who “were advocating basic human rights.” Still, he said, “this is not the time for an emotional response” about “a complex internal situation in China.” Less than a month later, despite public pledges otherwise, Bush secretly sent national security adviser Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger to Beijing to reassure the Communist government that friendly relations between the two countries should continue. Five months after that, he sent the two officials again, this time publicly, and Scowcroft literally offered a toast to Chinese leaders.

This was at a time when China was much less powerful, militarily and especially economically, than it is today. Extremely tough sanctions, and even tougher words, could have been visited upon China with much milder economic and military consequences for America. Instead, Bush tiptoed. The message he effectively sent the world was that freedom is nice, but that only mild consequences and restrained verbiage would be visited upon those who crush freedom with brutish force.

One lone man, enjoying neither a lethal weapon nor state power, transcended that message. Standing athwart the path of both history and an armored vehicle, tank man showed that moral and physical courage could, at least momentarily stop armed might…. [The rest of the column is here.]


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