Fulbright Hungary Alum Ambassador Geza Jeszenszky Keynotes US Alumni Return Conference

Written by Fulbright on 02/04/2015. Posted in News

Fulbright Hungary Alum Ambassador Géza Jeszenszky Keynotes US Alumni Return Conference

Géza Jeszenszky, a Fulbright Hungary alum who taught and did research at UC Santa Barbara in the mid-1980s, served as Hungary’s Foreign Minister and as Ambassador to the United States and more recently to Norway, keynoted the 3rd Annual RETURN – U.S. Alumni in Hungary Conference held on January 31, 2015, in the grand hall of the Faculty of Law of Pázmány Péter Catholic University in Budapest. The Return conference featured students, faculty and professionals who participated in US Embassy-sponsored exchange programs. Newly arrived Ambassador Colleen Bradley Bell greeted the audience on behalf of the United States.

Ambassador Jeszenszky’s comments follow.

“Dear Fulbright Alumni,

Please accept my sincere apologies for my failure to address this RETURN – U.S. Alumni in Hungary Conference personally. Today I cannot be in Budapest, so I can great you only with this written message.

I am one of the early birds of the Hungarian Fulbright scholars; in 1984, 18 years after my graduation, when I was already a historian of some standing and an experienced teacher, I successfully applied for a grant to teach Central and Eastern European history at the Santa Barbara campus of the University of California. By that time I visited a few Western European countries and was able to do some historical research in the United Kingdom, but visiting the great adversary of the Soviet Bloc and teaching there, was simply incredible. Incredible even for close friends and relatives who asked me if I had joined the Communist Party, so that I received the permission to accept such a grant and to spend 10 months in the United States. But “the regime” (“a rendszer”) in Hungary in the mid-1980s was already in a crisis and gradually giving up its ramparts, it was indeed “the jolliest barrack in the communist bloc.” The twenty-seven months I spent at UCSB, teaching modern history, provided me with a lot of experience and tools which, upon my return to Hungary, I could use not only in teaching, but also in the political movements that led to the political earthquake in Hungary. A little later, when I was called upon to direct the foreign policy of my country, I found that quite a few “new” politicians from Central and Eastern Europe had also been Fulbright scholars. Foreigners visitors to the U.S. coming from non-democratic countries, exposed to the smooth working of the American political, economic and administrative system, were all upset by the contrast with their home country, and they were keen to introduce all what they found good in their own country. In that way the Fulbright Program contributed to the historic changes, to ending the Cold War and to the collapse of communism quite substantially. Many of those returned Fulbright alumni, having acquired language skills and gained experience in the operation of free societies, played a role in the intellectual ferment which preceded the changes emerged as political leaders and, following the free elections, became members of Parliament, came to serve in the new, non-Communist governments, in major diplomatic posts, in the civil service and in local government. It would be worth while collecting the names of all who rose to positions of prominence in the formerly communist-dominated countries who had been Fulbright scholars.

In the last thirty years hundreds, even thousands of Hungarians were beneficiaries of Fulbright grants. In all the countries involved in the Fulbright Program it contributed to great advances in the home country in politics, economics, science and scholarship. By taking home many results in science, by overcoming ignorance, intolerance, old prejudices; by opening the world for many people who can influence the thinking of new generations, by building friendships, the Fulbright Program made history.

We, who had the privilege to spend considerable time in the United States, learned not only much in our own special field; we came to know North America. The U.S. is not perfect, I am sure we had also some bad experiences there, but I’d be much surprised if we all had not become friends, and in many ways admirers of that country. Today the U.S. is no longer as popular as it had been during the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain. In Hungary, to my regret, there is much ignorance about the “American way of life,” and especially about the policies of the U.S. It is one thing to disagree with certain steps and conduct; that often happens between friends. It is quite another to spread false rumors and unfounded accusations about a country which – in my opinion – continues to be a force for good, and fighting evil systems and practices. I consider it as my duty to enlighten the Hungarian public, as much as I have opportunities, about the values and true intentions of the United States. I hope most of us also feel like that.

Realizing both the great potentials and the great dangers of our new, post Cold War era, we, the beneficiaries and advocates of the Fulbright programs, can give our share to ensure that the 21st century avoided the many dangers and pitfalls it is facing, and realized the great hopes that filled mankind at earlier ages.

I wish all of you a pleasant reunion and a very successful conference.”