Marion Smith was 5 years old when the Berlin Wall fell. Thirty years on, his message to America and the world is simple: “The Berlin Wall fell, but communism didn’t. And, as Americans, we take our liberty for granted.” For most of this past decade he served as chief executive officer of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, an organization authorized by an Act of Congress in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. Early this past year, he became full-time president and CEO of the Common Sense Society, an international educational nonprofit that he founded as a student in 2009. In these roles, Marion has urged all who cherish freedom to rally to defend it.
This mission has taken Marion to places he never imagined. In November 2019, during the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, he visited the Oval Office, where he met with President Donald J. Trump and introduced him to several dissidents and survivors of communist regimes. On another occasion, he spoke with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi about China’s brutal crackdown on human rights 30 years after the Tiananmen Square Massacre. He has visited with Tibetans in Dharamshala and young dissidents in Hong Kong at the height of Beijing’s takeover and been denounced by the Chinese Communist Party.
He’s spoken at the Summit of Americas in Peru and supported the democratic aspirations of Cubans and Venezuelans and has been labeled a “terrorist” by the communist regime in Havana. He served on an official tribunal to hear testimony from actual victims of forced labor in the former German Democratic Republic (East Germany). He has further traveled to countries across the world where brave dissidents continue to stand up to dictatorships that deny individual freedom, and he has met with dozens of current and former heads of state in Western countries.
But when Marion Smith reflects on where his work defending liberty all started, he speaks of his home in the South Carolina Midlands. From an early age, Marion knew that something was special about America. Descended from Colonial Americans, including patriots in the Revolutionary War, he grew up the son of a minister on a small farm outside Columbia and was home-schooled by his mother in his early years.
“It was wonderful to grow up with horses and dogs and reading outside during the day,” he says. “If I expressed interest in any topic, my mother would make sure I suddenly had a half-dozen books to read on the subject. I regularly found that the power cord to my Super Nintendo console was ‘temporarily missing’ to ensure I had the time to read. My parents’ efforts afforded me years of reading hundreds of classic books before I was 16.”
Marion would often ask to be deposited at the State House while his father made his rounds in town. Young Marion would sit in the Senate and House galleries reading books and meeting people and observing state politics. “I became a familiar face for many of the representatives and senators,” says Marion.
Marion says he first began to realize that the world was not as wonderful as his circumstances in South Carolina from the stories of Christian missionaries his parents hosted in their home. He heard firsthand accounts of poverty, oppression, starvation, torture, and mass murder.
Despite these experiences, Marion took a circuitous route to becoming a leading anti-communist voice and defender of freedom. After attending Palmetto Boys State and graduating from Ben Lippen High School, Marion attended Wofford College. He first chose history and archaeology as his focus. One of the benefits, he says, was the world travel that archaeology offered.
One fateful trip changed Marion’s career trajectory when, in 2005, he traveled to southern Israel. He and a team of archaeologists were digging through an ancient Roman fort when he found an ostracon, a broken pottery shard with Greek writing on it. “It was basically a Roman Post-it note,” says Marion, and this one listed a shipment of grain, wine, and other goods.
During the time that Marion was on the dig, fighting broke out between Israel and militants in Lebanon. Fearing for their safety, officials arranged for Marion and the team to take a private bus in the middle of the night to the airport in Tel Aviv. As they approached the coast, military jet sorties could be seen in the sky and rocket fire heard in the distance. The whole experience awakened Marion to the reality of geopolitics and redirected his academic focus.
After finishing Wofford, he went to work for the International Crisis Group in New York City, an organization dedicated to the peaceful resolution of deadly conflict through expert analysis and deft diplomacy. He invested his days researching and understanding the causes of war and peace. More important than international relations, however, was a personal relationship he forged during this time. Marion met his future wife, Anna, while she was an exchange student from Hungary in the Big Apple.
Marion, knowing that he wanted to explore Europe, spent time living and studying in London, Amsterdam, Paris, and other European cities, eventually traveling to Budapest. Marion settled in Hungary’s capital in 2008 to earn a master’s degree from Central European University on a scholarship from George Soros’ foundation.
His time in Europe revealed that in the former Eastern Bloc countries, the bitter legacy of communism was far from resolved. While studying at Central European University, Marion became president of the debating society and began hosting events touching the sacred cows of academia. One debate addressed the issue of whether Europeans have a double standard when viewing Holocaust victims as opposed to the victims of communism. The event attracted attention from students, faculty, and the citizenry of Budapest. The debate was controversial, and the university attempted to restrict the activities of the debating society, citing “insurance reasons.”
Undeterred, Marion took the debates to one of Budapest’s main town squares. The public debate, free from the university’s constraints, again drew crowds. From this event, Marion assumed that when it came to debating the failed ideologies of the past, freedom of expression had its limits in the heart of academia and beyond. To remedy this deficit, Marion and Anna, along with like-minded friends, founded the Common Sense Society, an organization devoted to understanding and defending the ideals and principles that undergird Western civilization.
One of the society’s earliest advisors was the late Sir Roger Scruton, the renowned British conservative intellectual who helped galvanize dissident intellectuals behind the Iron Curtain in Central Europe in the 1980s. He became a close friend and mentor of Marion and Anna. The Common Sense Society would go on to host hundreds of events, concerts, and educational fellowships in Hungary; England; the Netherlands; South Carolina; Washington, D.C.; and elsewhere on a volunteer basis.
While his years in Europe were eye-opening, Marion always intended to come home to America. “My parents worried that I was becoming a permanent expat,” he says. In 2009, he applied for a job at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative public policy research institute. He invested several years studying and writing about the foreign policy of America’s early republic, a topic about which he is currently writing a book. Marion says with a laugh, “I’m probably the only person on earth who received funding from George Soros and The Heritage Foundation in the same year!”
Marion and Anna wed in 2013 in a small evangelical church in Buda Castle, which was bombed during World War II. His father officiated along with a Hungarian minister. “My wonderful sister, Hannah, sang, and Sir Roger spoke as well as wrote an original poem for the occasion.” It was a deeply meaningful coming together of two worlds and two families, each rooted in a different part of a shared Western civilization. The couple now has a young daughter, Emma Marie.
At The Heritage Foundation, Marion continued to write and travel, speaking about the dangers of communism and the importance of remaining true to American founding principles. One of his colleagues at Heritage was the historian Lee Edwards, Ph.D., then chair of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation. The foundation hired Marion as executive director and CEO in 2014.
As director, Marion led the charge to transform a small foundation without offices or staff into an organization able to provide the answers needed for confronting the challenges of communism in the 21st century with congressional leaders, administration officials, foreign heads of state, and dissidents abroad. In the first few years, he often had to make the case about why they should even care about communism, but then history intervened.
It soon became clear how China aggressively challenges American interests in Asia, the Pacific, and beyond, as it has tried to do since 1949 when the Communists came to power. North Korea began testing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles at an alarming rate. Cuba, Venezuela, and other countries of Latin America are held in the sway of communist ideology. And Russia and the former Soviet Union are dominated by the unresolved legacy of communism with tragic real-world consequences.
Yet, as Marion points out, “This attack on individual liberty and the free enterprise system isn’t just happening abroad; it’s happening at home. An entire generation of Americans are growing up without any knowledge of what the Soviet Union was or the evil it unleashed.”
To investigate this hunch, Marion authorized annual polling in partnership with YouGov that revealed a clear majority of millennials (ages 23-38) and Gen Z-ers (ages 16-22) would prefer to live in a communist or socialist country. Appreciation for free enterprise is diminishing, even though Marion says that “it is the greatest engine of prosperity in human history.”
“Someone had to shout from the rooftops about these trends,” Marion argues. True to this aim, he launched initiatives to lay bare the “most evil ideology known to man.” Marion says, “Did you know that communism killed more than 100 million people in its first 100 years (1917-2017)? Did you know that one out of five people alive today still suffers under communist regimes in 2022? I’ve met with individuals who were wounded by bullets and tanks in Tiananmen Square. I’ve met with the dissidents who risked everything in the Soviet Union to practice their faith or publish underground academic journals. In my office, I’ve had people pull up their shirt or pants leg to show me the torture scars they suffered at the hands of state security. I’ve hugged the thin, emaciated frames of teenagers from Venezuela whose family members died of malnutrition and treatable illnesses. These brave souls have shown me the reality of communism. It’s a reality that Americans fail to understand and often misrepresent,” he says.
Marion reports that communism is creating more victims right now, especially in China. “I talk to Muslim Uighurs whose friends and families have been forced into modern-day concentration camps. I personally know the leaders of the freedom movement in Hong Kong. We’re talking about young adults in their 20s who realized that if the Chinese Communist Party swallowed up Hong Kong, they would be the first to disappear. Sadly, they were correct.”
Marion has told these stories in the White House and in both houses of Congress. He led the effort to establish the first ever bipartisan Victims of Communism Caucus in Congress in 2017 and argued for there to be a national day to remember the victims of communism around the world — Nov. 7, which was officially recognized by presidential proclamation in 2017, officially adopted by Virginia soon after, and then adopted by more than a dozen other states in the subsequent few years. Marion also established a China Studies Program that revealed the atrocities happening in Xinjiang, employing top human rights experts like Adrian Zenz, Ethan Gutman, Matthew Robertson, and others. Their work led to major international companies shifting supply chains away from the forced labor in Xinjiang and to Congressional investigations of China. Marion also raised tens of millions of dollars to establish the first ever Victims of Communism Museum in Washington, D.C. He says, “After a hundred years of human experimentation since the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and a perfect track record of failure by communist parties, it’s beyond time for the truth to be known, the victims honored, and the ideology of Marxism rejected.”
Marion’s desire is for the West to understand what American civilization represents and what it must oppose. The Common Sense Society is marking the start of its second decade with plans for expansion in the United States and Europe. Since Marion started as full-time president and CEO last year, Common Sense Society has grown from zero to dozens of staff, supported local community-led initiatives in South Carolina and elsewhere, published high school curriculum resources, hosted national teacher training workshops, sponsored a series of collegiate events on campuses, hosted fellowship programs for young professionals and scholars, produced award-winning video campaigns, and will soon open a 45-person office in the Washington, D.C. area.
Marion’s leadership focus now represents, in his words, “A shift from fighting against communism to fighting for civilization. The mission is intact.” The stated aims of the Common Sense Society are to promote individual liberty; voluntary exchange; free enterprise; creative, innovative, enduring art; and conservation of the natural world. “By promoting liberty, prosperity, and beauty,” Marion says, “we will overcome the dangerous and inhuman ideas surging in our time.”
He is optimistic about all the future holds. “Communist parties in power around the world appear to be gaining ground, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to win. Generations of Americans and generations of South Carolinians have rallied to defend our freedom and our way of life. We will do the same in our time and protect this last best hope on earth for generations to come.”