On June 26, 1963, at the height of the Cold War, President John F. Kennedy flew to the besieged city of West Berlin to declare: "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner). The response from the huge Berlin crowd was electrifying. Twenty-two months earlier, East Germany had erected the Berlin Wall, isolating West Berlin as an island of freedom entirely surrounded by a seemingly overpowering communist sea. It only seemed like a matter of time before West Berlin too would fall under the Communist yoke. Serious questions were being raised in the U.S. and its allies as to whether it was really worthwhile to risk World War III with the Soviet Union over the fate of one-half of a city.
With only four short words, JFK put an end to the debate whether the freedom of West Berlin and the rest of Europe was worth fighting for. Now, nearly 60 years later, a strong and united Germany is the cornerstone of the estern European and NATO alliance and a testament to the fortitude of the post-war "Greatest Generations." Throughout the Cold War, they were prepared to do whatever was necessary to preserve the right of all peoples to self-determination, including the right to embrace freedom and democracy. Their efforts eventually led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, marking the collapse of the Soviet Union. This freed the former Soviet vassal states such as Ukraine to decide their own futures.
On August 24, 1991, the Ukrainian parliament chose a democratic form of government by enacting the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine. Over the next 31 years, Ukrainian democracy put down firm roots in this former Soviet country. To be sure, it sometimes veered off course, but always corrected itself. During the semi-autocratic pro-Russian regime of President Viktor Yanukovych, for example, Ukraine was being steered away from Western Europe and back into the Russian orbit. But then a violent course “correction” took place. The Yanukovych regime was overthrown by the pro-democracy Maidan Revolution of late 2013. After scores of demonstrators were killed and countless others were kidnapped and "disappeared" by government operatives, Yanukovych was forced to flee Kyiv in February 2014. I was fortunate enough to see up close and personal the moral courage of the unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in the face of overwhelming firepower. Their persistence finally paid off when the country's corrupt political regime was overthrown, and the political opposition leaders I had represented for years were finally released from prison.
As the pro-democracy forces in Germany and Eastern Europe found their champion in JFK, the freedom-loving people of Ukraine and Eastern Europe are finding theirs in Volodymyr Zelensky. This straight-talking and unpretentious President of Ukraine has risen to the occasion. He and the rest of the courageous Ukrainian people are living proof of the truth that emerged from the American Revolution. As Thomas Jefferson famously declared: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." These Ukrainian patriots who are shedding their blood in the just cause of freedom are now calling for our help. We cannot refuse them if we are still committed to the cause of freedom and democracy. The clock is rapidly ticking, and time is running out. This is not a time for hand-wringing and hollow pieties. It is a time for action.
Will we take a stand, like every generation of Americans has taken a stand before us in the name of freedom? Dictators and despots for the past 250 years have learned to regret their assumption that Americans are too materialistic, too divided, and too self-absorbed to care about the battle for freedom in a distant land. No doubt Putin has made the same calculation. Are we really so ambivalent about our own democratic form of government that we will let the cause of freedom slip away, perhaps forever? I think not.
We are all Ukrainians. They are our brothers and sisters fighting not only for their freedom and independence, but also for our own.
Kenneth Foard McCallion is an international human rights lawyer based in New York who represented the former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, and other Ukrainian pro-democracy opposition leaders jailed in Ukraine before February 2014.