What Freedom Means: Ambassador Tibor Nagy Shares Thoughts on July Fourth

‘America is the only country in the world that has that kind of a clarion call.’

Ambassador Tibor Nagy

Ambassador Tibor Nagy

Ambassador Tibor Nagy, Texas Tech University’s vice provost for International Affairs, has had a long, illustrious career in foreign service, with administrative stints in Zambia, Seychelles, Ethiopia, Togo, Cameroon and Nigeria before becoming the U.S. Ambassador to Guinea from 1996-1999 and the U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia from 1999-2002.

Long before he represented America on the world stage, he was one of the millions of people outside our borders, trying to become an American. For this Fourth of July, Nagy shared his story and what the idea of freedom means to him:

“I came to the U.S. as a political refugee in 1956. My dad was a high-ranking member of the Hungarian military, and in 1956, when the Hungarian people decided to try and get rid of the Soviet occupation and get rid of the Communist regime, my dad, along with most of the Hungarian army, decided to join the people instead of the occupiers. And as a result, there was a 10-day period of freedom, Oct. 23 through Nov. 3. When the Soviets came back in with 2,000 tanks, it didn’t take long for them to overrun the country, and my dad knew he was going to be charged with treason and executed. So one day in November 1956, he took me for a picnic that ended up in first Austria and then the United States. It involved a night crossing, walking across a very dangerous border; it involved arriving in a country with nothing, including not knowing the language; and it involved not having anything at all for a while. Then it involved coming to a second country nine months later and starting all over again. But the nicest thing was the American embassy in Vienna helped us so much that, even as a young boy, I remember thinking, ‘If I ever make it to America, my dream is to become an American diplomat.’ So some dreams do come true.

“We ended up in Washington; we were very poor. I went to a grade school where there were very few white kids; I think there may have been nine. I had never seen an African-American person before in my life before we got to Washington. It was thanks to the community school that I learned English. There was no English as a second language then. Basically the teacher assigned a kid to help me get acculturated and acclimated, and so I finished high school in Washington, came to Texas Tech as an undergrad and I worked my way through school. We still were not financially very well off then, so it took me six years to do my four-year degree because I was also working almost full-time while going to school. After that, I went back to Washington and took the Foreign Service test and joined the State Department. I spent 20-plus years in Africa and worked my way up through the ranks. I was very fortunate to end up not only being an American diplomat but being an American ambassador twice. And to complete the cycle, I ended up in countries that had lots and lots of refugees, and I made it a point to visit every single refugee camp in countries where I served because, to my knowledge, I’m the only U.S. ambassador to ever spend time in a refugee camp as a refugee, not just as a visitor.

“Freedom for me is a number of things. No. 1 for me, more than anything else, was having the right to the same opportunities as anybody else in this country. Admittedly, when you’re poor you don’t have the same access to a private high school and tutors and piano lessons, but at the end of the day, you can – with your own initiative – go as high as you can. I’ll never forget that the very first thing my dad bought in the U.S., on time payments, was a set of used encyclopedias. We didn’t have a car, didn’t have a television, didn’t have new clothes – we went out and bought used clothes – but he did want me to have access to a set of encyclopedias. So I think that’s freedom No. 1.

“Freedom No. 2 – and I saw this a lot overseas, because a lot of the countries where I served were authoritarian or even worse, dictatorships – is the right of the people to change their government and the right of the people to control their government, instead of the other way around, and the freedom to express your opinions no matter how different they may be from the common view. Having grown up in a totalitarian society made me especially appreciate the freedoms that Americans possess but do not really treasure. Americans take their freedoms for granted as much as they do the air they breathe. For those who’ve been without it, they recognize the real priceless value of being able to say what you want or what you think, write what you think, be able to vote and have a choice when you vote. A lot of people can vote, but not everybody has a choice.

“When you’re overseas representing the United States, July Fourth is very, very special because, when you’re living in a foreign environment, your day-to-day life will contrast what we have in the United States and what is lacking there. It’s a special privilege to represent not just the government of the United States, but what the United States really stands for in a foreign country. July Fourth formalizes that act of representation. I had the privilege as a U.S. ambassador of hosting a number of July Fourth receptions. And overseas, the embassy will host the reception and invite the leadership of the country – the political leadership, the business leadership, the civic leadership – and it’s a real privilege to stand there in front of such a distinguished assemblage of people and exchange toasts with sometimes the leader of the country, sometimes the foreign minister, and to be able to talk about the special qualities that America has, without denigrating, of course, your host, but to be able to promote our values and our system. It really pains me that our general American population just does not really value the privilege they are born into.

“Freedom is an idea. It’s apparent because. at almost every U.S. embassy in the world, every day there’s a long line of people who are wanting visas to come into the United States. They say they want to just visit, but the truth is many want to come here and stay. America is the only country in the world that has that kind of a clarion call, that people from Albania to Zimbabwe know what America stands for, often better than Americans know what America stands for.”


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