In June 1944, the US and its democratic Allies finally took the momentous step of opening a European second front in the battle against Hitler’s Germany. The events of the “longest day” and the invasion of Normandy have been incorporated into the consciousness of Baby Boomers not because they were personal–it was their fathers’ generation who fought the war–but because they have frequently been chronicled and remembered ever since. The 75th anniversary this week will no doubt see a renewed invocation of patriotism, honor, and freedom. But there is another anniversary that should be recalled this week, and it also marks a defining moment for a different post-war generation. Thirty years ago, thousands of protesters in the center of China’s capital, Beijing, were attacked by the People’s Liberation Army, whose victory had secured power for the Communist Party in 1949. Hundreds were killed, many suffered long imprisonment and then exile. Americans who openly wonder what has become of the ideals of individual liberty and democracy should reflect not only on the sacrifice that courageous people around the world have made to nourish them but also on their fragility in the face of indifference or simple ignorance.
Despite its historical proximity, the so-called the June Fourth Incident, also known as the Tiananmen Massacre, can seem more remote than D-Day. It occurred in a nation that relatively few Americans had visited and whose own role in defeating the Axis was relatively unknown, except to students of the Flying Tigers and the Doolittle Raiders. Even more significant, of course, was the fact that China represented a “loss,” a glaring setback in the struggle against totalitarianism. Viewed across a vast cultural and geographic gulf, whatever had caused the world’s most populous country to “go Communist” remained an alarming mystery to most Americans. Decades later, in the midst of glasnost and uncertainty in the tottering Soviet empire, young Chinese students, many of them born into single-child families, joined to demonstrate for reforms and openness within the Chinese state. Their leaders seemed old, corrupt, and hostile to the people’s desire for change. The Party bureaucracy hesitated for weeks before deploying force, but when it did, the results were crushing. In spite of remarkable bravery in the face of overwhelming power–the “Tank Man” is still a vivid icon of resistance–the civilians were no match for the armed military, which swept them from the streets in a few hours.
Since 1989, the image of the People’s Republic has changed dramatically in some respects. China’s economy has modernized through liberalization and foreign investment, lifting millions from abject poverty. But the Tiananmen Massacre is scarcely mentioned, except when one of the political prisoners of the era or another dissident speaks out or dies. The case of Liu Xiaobo, a Nobel Prize recipient, is the most striking recent example; the world briefly recognized the injustice of his treatment but accepted the Chinese government’s stricture against “improper remarks” about its policy. Survivors who have noted the anniversary from their exile in the West lament their own “naivete” and hold out the hope that democracy is not extinguished among the present generation. But the power of media censorship and the sheer weight of silence mean that most Chinese youth have little recollection and scarcely more interest.
We are certainly right to pause in solemn remembrance this week. The gratitude of many French families liberated from Nazi occupation continues to the present day, and the cemeteries on the bluffs overlooking the beaches have awed many American visitors. For Baby Boomers who now worry about the growing influence of China as a world power, one response to these anniversaries might be to discard our own naivete’. Some authoritarian regimes in history have possessed the ability to ensure their survival, by active aggression if necessary. It is not enough to wait them out; they will not acknowledge, much the less be diverted by, the public assertion of individual rights. (Not that it’s useless to try. Some lament, for instance, the failure to link human rights concerns with China trade policy.) The question for defenders of democratic society is to determine when the threat from such a tyranny truly demands the use of lethal force in return. It is worth recalling that the Normandy landings occurred less than two years after the first US troops set foot in North Africa; American forces have now been in Afghanistan for over 15 years. Raised on the myth of unconditional surrender, many aging Boomers are losing patience with “endless war.” Pause to consider how young men and women in military families are coping with it. The “price of freedom” is not always paid in one sudden, terrifying instant.
Another reflection, possibly even more sobering, is that selective forgetfulness breeds complacency and, ultimately, invisibility. The Chinese government continues to assert that the crackdown in Tiananmen was necessary to avert disorder and “revolution.” Most Chinese appear to accept this explanation or, at least, they understand the consequences of questioning it. If, on the other hand, a nation seeks to uncover the “lessons of history,” as opposed to simply making them up, the habit of being satisfied with comfortable answers is dangerous. Among some minorities in the US, the appetite for “telling the truth” seems inexhaustible, raising the uncomfortable corollary that the majority is still “living a lie.” In fact, as Boomers should know from their own experience, none of us can expect to be always on “the right side of history.” The most we should hope for is not to be forgotten.