Political leaders, dissidents, and activists on Tuesday evening shined a light on the legacy of communism: a death toll of approximately 100 million in the last century.
The group gathered for the "Survivors of Communism Summit" in Alexandria, Va., paying tribute to the tens of millions who have lost their lives through executions, famines, and forced labor camps from Communist regimes, a fact they said is too easily forgotten.
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"It’s a great failing of our age that the full extent of communism’s inhumanity, it’s not widely known," said Dr. Lee Edwards, a historian and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
"There’s no such public ignorance of Nazism," he said. "Ask anyone—ask yourself—how many Jews died in the Holocaust and they and you will invariably reply 6 million."
"That number has been embedded in our minds by the books and the films, the websites, the lectures, and other information that we’ve absorbed in our lives," Edwards said. "And that’s as it should be."
"But ask almost anyone how many people died from communism in the 96 years since the Bolshevik revolution and very few, very few indeed, can provide an accurate answer."
Edwards then read off a list of brutal dictators, including Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, Mao Tse Tung’s "Great Leap Forward" in China, and Fidel Castro and Che Guevara in Cuba.
"They don’t know that the Communist plague has exacted a death toll of approximately 100 million men, women, and children," he said.
The event, sponsored by the Alexandria Tea Party, featured dissidents from Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Vietnam, and Ukraine, each telling their stories of the horrors of communism and warning America not to repeat them.
Dr. Ileana Johnson Paugh dedicated her talk to her father, who died in a Romanian prison in 1989 after being denied food, medication, and water for 30 days.
"My dad died and the more than 100 million dissenters who fought against the ideology of communism because they disagreed with the Marxist ideology, they protested the confiscation of their homes, their land, their guns, their personal possessions, and they objected to the lack of food, heat, water, proper medical care, medications, and the decent treatment as human beings," Paugh said.
"I know because I lived there for 23 years," she said.
"We did have equality," she said. "Equal misery, equal suffering, equal maltreatment, equal poverty, equal beatings."
Klara Sever worked as a broadcaster for an underground radio show in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. That nation was under Communist rule until 1989. "You were watched all the time," she said. "There was nothing of the sort of being safe in your own apartment, for example, because you knew that everybody was an informer. … The super in the building was an informer."
A sculptor by training, Sever and her family fled Czechoslovakia for the United States in 1969. She went on to start her own company and fulfill the American dream, she said.
Andrew Eiva, a defense policy expert and former lobbyist, was 5 years old when he swore "to destroy the Soviet Empire."
Eiva was born in a Lithuanian refugee camp, and his family fled to the United States when he was one. Upon hearing the story about his grandfather, Gen. Kazimieras Ladyga, he was determined to dedicate his life to fighting for freedom.
"At the age of five when my mom told me her dad was the former chief of staff for the Lithuanian Army, had driven the Bolsheviks out of Lithuania, that he had been executed by Soviets who had arrested him and executed him, I swore, as a five year old, to destroy the Soviet Empire," he said.
Eiva went on to graduate West Point in 1972, and serve in the U.S. Army in Germany with Special Forces. He later supported the Afghan Mujahedin in their fight against the Soviet Union.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R., Okla.), a freshman congressman, said he became aware of the perils of communism when he was sent to South Korea as a young lieutenant in the Navy. "While I was there I took a day off and I went up to the demilitarized zone where the armistice was signed in 1953," he said.
Looking across from the top of a watchtower to North Korea, he saw a big city. "I was astonished. North Korea, I thought it was a place where people are starving to death," Bridenstine said.
He soon learned that what he saw was a "propaganda city."
"The buildings that we could see had no windows, they had no floors, they had no useful purpose," Bridenstine said. "They were built as propaganda to encourage South Koreans to defect to North Korea," at a time when 5 percent of the population in North Korea was starving to death.
He also described billboards that said, "Come to North Korea, the land of opportunity." A message played on a loudspeaker said, "Come to North Korea, our generals are better than your generals."
"In the United States of America we don’t fight for generals," Bridenstine said, who served as a Navy pilot in Iraq and Afghanistan. "We don’t fight for autocrats. We don’t fight for men."
"We fight for institutions," he said. "We fight for the Constitution. We believe in a rule of law, not a rule of man."
Dr. Doan Viet Hoat, chairman of the International Institute for Vietnam, was imprisoned in the Communist country for more than 20 years.
"I feel humble because when I stand here—tell me about my suffering?" he said. "It’s only a very, very little story of the suffering that was talked about, 100 million people around the world."
Hoat’s brother was killed by the regime when he was only 14 years old. "So if I tell about my little story, I think that some of my friends here, they might suffer more than I did," he said.
In 1976 he was imprisoned for the first time without trial, for 12 years. He was allowed to go outside once a month and visit his family once a year for 15 minutes.
After his release, Hoat began his "campaign for freedom," distributing an underground newsletter. He was caught after two years and sentenced to an additional 20 years in prison.
Hoat continued his activism while in prison, forcing the authorities to constantly relocate him to different camps and ultimately landing him in solitary confinement for four years. He was eventually released and exiled in 1998. He has lived in the United States ever since and is now a visiting scholar at Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America.
"America has values that we should promote," he said, adding that U.S. leaders should pressure dictators on human rights.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation has started an online museum dedicated to educating visitors about the negative effects of the political philosophy. Its current exhibits include a virtual tour of the Gulag and a gallery of heroes who fought against communism.
Edwards also is starting a nine-lesson high school curriculum focused on communism, which will be used for the first time at the Heights School in Potomac, Md.
Such a curriculum is necessary when eighth graders are choosing their favorite inspirational quotes from the likes of Mao and Fidel Castro, Edwards said, citing a school in Chicago where students picked quotes from Communist dictators for a "Celebrate the Value of You" bulletin board.
The foundation also has plans for a museum, though it will be a challenge with costs estimated at $100 million.
But Edwards is optimistic.
"Well, we know it won’t be easy to raise $100 million, but 100 million free people can raise it at one dollar each."