For the previous year, democracy-loving Poles had given communism its biggest internal challenge ever.
The Solidarnosci trade union movement, led by Lech Wałęsa, had started by paralyzing the Lenin shipyard in Gdansk; the strikes spread nationwide; it was becoming an untenable challenge to the Communists.
The movement was snowballing, paralyzing much of Poland’s industry:
Riot at the Nowy Huta Steelworks
On December 13, 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law, breaking up Solidarity strikes by force and arresting Wałęsa and many of his followers.
Jaruzelski acted decisively – siccing the ZOMO riot police (who were to 1981 Poland what Noriega’s “Dignity Battalions” were to Panama in 1989 and the basiji are to Iran today) on demonstrators around the country, attacking them with clubs, dogs, water cannon and worse.
Staring south at a northbound wall of thugs; ZOMO riot police.
While a case can be made that Jaruzelski was acting to prevent a Soviet invasion – like the one that had crushed a similar flowering of pro-liberty agitation in Czechoslovakia only 13 years earlier, or in Budapest and Gdansk just 12 years before that – there was no mistaking it on the Polish street; ZOMO’s boot was on their neck.
Ambassador Spasowski had been a communist his entire adult life – but he was also a Polish patriot; his family had fought in the Polish resistance during World War II; his father had died in Gestapo custody.
And his communism had been eroding over the years. Like all good communists, he’d started out as an atheist. But his wife, Wanda Spasowska, had gradually won him over to Poland’s majority faith, Catholicism. And the elevation of Karol Wojtyła as Pope John Paul II was the last nail in the coffin of his faith in Communism.
And in December of 1981 Spasowski saw what was happening in Poland…
…and he couldn’t take anymore. On December 20, he called the State Department, and expressed his desire to defect to the United States.
And it was 29 years ago at about this moment that Ronald Reagan hosted Ambassador Spasowski and Madame Spasowska to the White House.
Let me re-emphasize that: Ronald Reagan welcomed the highest-ranking defector in the history of Communism to the very seat of American power. He took a source of immense, caustic embarassment to Warsaw’s puppet regime (who held a drumhead “trial” for Ambassador Spasowki and sentenced him to death in absentia in the coming weeks) and their gangster overlords in Moscow, and made him not just a refugee, but a highly-honored guest of the American people. He gave them, in essence, the key to the nation – a ringing endorsement of Solidarnosci, of the Polish freedom fighters, and of the fight for liberty in a dismal land that wanted, and deserved, better.
And then he did it one better. The next day, December 23 1981, he took the traditional Christmas speech to the nation – traditionally a conciliatory, warm, fuzzy affair – and turned it into a broadside of rhetorical grapeshot onto the packed decks of communist boarders. I will add the odd bit of emphasis:
As I speak to you tonight, the fate of a proud and ancient nation hangs in the balance. For a thousand years, Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.
The men who rule them and their totalitarian allies fear the very freedom that the Polish people cherish. They have answered the stirrings of liberty with brute force, killings, mass arrests, and the setting up of concentration camps. Lech Walesa and other Solidarity leaders are imprisoned, their fate unknown. Factories, mines, universities, and homes have been assaulted.
The Polish Government has trampled underfoot solemn commitments to the UN Charter and the Helsinki accords. It has even broken the Gdansk agreement of August 1980, by which the Polish Government recognized the basic right of its people to form free trade unions and to strike.
Compare this to Obama’s initial response to the demonstrations in Iran. If you can.
Reagan didn’t limit things; he went all-in:
The target of this depression [repression] is the Solidarity Movement, but in attacking Solidarity its enemies attack an entire people. Ten million of Poland’s 36 million citizens are members of Solidarity. Taken together with their families, they account for the overwhelming majority of the Polish nation. By persecuting Solidarity the Polish Government wages war against its own people.
I urge the Polish Government and its allies to consider the consequences of their actions. How can they possibly justify using naked force to crush a people who ask for nothing more than the right to lead their own lives in freedom and dignity? Brute force may intimidate, but it cannot form the basis of an enduring society, and the ailing Polish economy cannot be rebuilt with terror tactics.
And Reagan wasn’t just “expressing concern” or “sending a message”, either:
I want emphatically to state tonight that if the outrages in Poland do not cease, we cannot and will not conduct “business as usual” with the perpetrators and those who aid and abet them. Make no mistake, their crime (!!!) will cost them dearly in their future dealings with America and free peoples everywhere. I do not make this statement lightly or without serious reflection.
We have been measured and deliberate in our reaction to the tragic events in Poland. We have not acted in haste, and the steps I will outline tonight and others we may take in the days ahead are firm, just, and reasonable.
No, not just words. There was a plan – one that would directly separate the people from their oppressors:
In order to aid the suffering Polish people during this critical period, we will continue the shipment of food through private humanitarian channels, but only so long as we know that the Polish people themselves receive the food. The neighboring country of Austria has opened her doors to refugees from Poland. I have therefore directed that American assistance, including supplies of basic foodstuffs, be offered to aid the Austrians in providing for these refugees.
But to underscore our fundamental opposition to the repressive actions taken by the Polish Government against its own people, the administration has suspended all government-sponsored shipments of agricultural and dairy products to the Polish Government…We have halted the renewal of the Export-Import Bank’s line of export credit insurance to the Polish Government. We will suspend Polish civil aviation privileges in the United States. We are suspending the right of Poland’s fishing fleet to operate in American waters. And we’re proposing to our allies the further restriction of high technology exports to Poland.
Knowing the Poles weren’t just a proud people – who isnt? – but a people that had put it all on the line for liberty before. Reagan invoked our shared history…:
When 19th century Polish patriots rose against foreign oppressors, their rallying cry was, “For our freedom and yours.” Well, that motto still rings true in our time. There is a spirit of solidarity abroad in the world tonight that no physical force can crush. It crosses national boundaries and enters into the hearts of men and women everywhere. In factories, farms, and schools, in cities and towns around the globe, we the people of the Free World stand as one with our Polish brothers and sisters. Their cause is ours, and our prayers and hopes go out to them this Christmas.
…tying the American and Polish people together rhetorically as well as through his actions.
Can you imagine the current Administration doing that? Ever?
And finally – something that I think about every Christmas, especially in times like these:
Yesterday, I met in this very room with Romuald Spasowski, the distinguished former Polish Ambassador who has sought asylum in our country in protest of the suppression of his native land. He told me that one of the ways the Polish people have demonstrated their solidarity in the face of martial law is by placing lighted candles in their windows to show that the light of liberty still glows in their hearts.
Ambassador Spasowski requested that on Christmas Eve a lighted candle will burn in the White House window as a small but certain beacon of our solidarity with the Polish people. I urge all of you to do the same tomorrow night, on Christmas Eve, as a personal statement of your commitment to the steps we’re taking to support the brave people of Poland in their time of troubles.
And so Reagan lit a candle. And across America, so did millions more, in America’s Polish hubs in Chicago and Milwaukee of course, but in millions of homes that couldn’t pronounce “Czestoszowa” but who could tell good from evil. And though the puppet regime in Warsaw and their masters in Moscow tried to stifle the story, the word got through to millions of Poles in the street, and thousands in jail; the American President, and the people he leads, are with you.
It would be seven years before Reagan could issue his challenge to Gorbachev to “tear down the wall”; it would be nine years before the Berlin Wall finally fell. But one could make a strong case that the first crack appeared 28 years ago tonight, when a brave man without a country (for a few years, anyway; the Polish parliament reinstated the Spasowski’s citizenship in 1994) met with a visionary, and sent a simple message; “freedom lives, and we support it”.
It was a simple message, but one that turned out to be overwhelmingly successful: in 1980, the world had just 56 democracies. In 1990, the total rose to 76; by 1994, the number reached 114 – a 100% jump in fourteen years.
The Polish National Anthem (“Mazurek Dabrowskiego“), written by Poles who like Ambassador Spasowka were also in exile (in about 1800, with Bonaparte’s Polish Legion), goes:
Jeszcze Polska nie umarła,
Kiedy my żyjemy
Co nam obca moc wydarła,
(Poland has not perished yet
So long as we still live
That which alien force has seized
We at sabrepoint shall retrieve)
It was 28 years ago tonight that the sabre came out – rhetorically speaking. And the whole world is better off for it today.