December 23rd, 1981 Reply


By Tom Quiner

Today, international drama rages in the Mideast. During the Reagan years, it raged in Eastern Europe.

A dozen days before Christmas in 1981, the communist government in Poland declared marshal law on their citizens. Poles were devastated.

President Reagan sprung into action. He called Pope John Paul II and offered support. Two days before Christmas, he met with the Polish ambassador and his wife in the White House. He walked the distraught Poles to their car in the freezing rain. Then he addressed the American people, as you can watch above.

The details of this encounter are worth reliving, as written by Dr. Paul Kengor.

***

Christmas 1981 – A Flame for Freedom in Poland

By Dr. Paul Kengor

December 2011 might not be an anniversary on the minds of American Catholics, but it is close and near and dear to the hearts of Polish Catholics. As American Catholics, we ought to pause here, today, to consider why. The reasons are historically and even spiritually inspiring.

It was 30 years ago, December 13, 1981, that martial law was imposed upon Poland by the communist government. Poles were aghast, horrified, frightened. And so was the man in Rome, a Polish native named John Paul II, and so was another man thousands of miles away in Washington, DC, President Ronald Reagan.

When word of the communists’ actions reached the White House, President Reagan was furious. He wanted to help the people of Poland in any way he could. At that very moment, Reagan committed to save and sustain the Polish Solidarity movement as the wedge that could splinter the entire Soviet bloc, as the first crack in the Iron Curtain.

One of Reagan’s first responses was to call someone he deeply respected: John Paul II. On December 14, he told the Holy Father: “Our country was inspired when you visited Poland, and to see their commitment to religion and belief in God. It was an inspiration…. All of us were very thrilled.”

At that point, Reagan had not yet met John Paul II in person. Reagan had been president only for 11 months. Both he and John Paul II had been shot earlier in the year. Reagan told the Pope that he looked forward to a time when the two men could meet in person. The imposition of martial law added a special urgency. Reagan wanted to meet with the Pope to plan ways to cooperate.

Reagan followed up with two letters to John Paul II, dated December 17 and 29, 1981, neither of which was declassified until July 2000. In the December 17 letter, he asked the Pope to urge Poland’s General Jaruzelski to hold a meeting with Lech Walesa and the Poland’s Archbishop Glemp. In the second letter, Reagan explained the counter-measures his administration was taking against the USSR; he also asked the Pope to use his influence with the Polish Church to lift martial law, to gain the release of detainees, and to resume a dialogue with Solidarity; and he requested that John Paul II press other Western countries to join the United States. “If we are to keep alive the hope for freedom in Poland,” said Reagan, “it lies in this direction.”

There is much more I could say about all of this, having written books on the subject, but one item that happened precisely 30 years ago, right now, on December 23, 1981, is especially moving and notable:

On that date, Reagan held a private meeting in the White House with the Polish ambassador, Romuald Spasowski, and his wife, both of whom had just defected to the United States. Michael Deaver, a close Reagan aide, witnessed the meeting. Deaver later recorded:

The ambassador and his wife were ushered into the Oval Office, and the two men sat next to one another in plush-leather wingback chairs. Vice President Bush, and the ambassador’s wife, sat facing them on a couch. 

The ambassador had in his hand a pocket-sized note pad with wire rings and lined paper, and he was obviously referring to notes he wanted to give to the president of the United States. Meanwhile, his wife, a tiny, delicate-looking woman, kept her head in her hands the entire time, while George Bush put an arm around her shoulders to comfort her. 

The ambassador said, “It is unbelievable to me that I am sitting in the office of the president of the United States. I wish it were under better circumstances.” 

He begged the president never to discontinue Radio Free Europe. “You have no idea,” he said, “what it meant to us to hear the chimes of Big Ben during World War Two. Please, sir, do not ever underestimate how many millions of people still listen to that channel behind the Iron Curtain.” 

Then, almost sheepishly, he said, “May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put in the window tonight for the people of Poland?” 

And right then, Ronald Reagan got up and went to the second floor, lighted a candle, and put it in the window of the dining room. 

President Reagan escorts the Polish ambassador and his wife to their car.

Later, in what I still recall as the most human picture of the Reagan presidency, he escorted his guests through the walkway and out to the circular drive on the South Lawn of the White House. In a persistent rain, he escorted them to their car, past the C-9 Secret Service post, holding an umbrella over the head of the wife of the Polish ambassador, as she wept on his shoulder.
That candle might have brought to mind those lit after Mass by a young Karol Wojtyla. Then and now, they burned bright for Russia’s conversion.

But Reagan did more than that. That evening, with Christmas only two days away, the president gave a nationally televised speech watched by tens of millions of Americans. He connected the spirit of the Christmas season with events in Poland: “For a thousand years,” he told his fellow Americans, “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.” He made an extraordinary gesture: The president asked Americans that Christmas season to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.

This was a remarkable display, one that placed all Americans on the side of freedom for Poland—and against the communists.

I’m sure it was appreciated, too, by a Polish Catholic named Karol Wojtyla.

Thirty years ago, December 1981, the communists tried to turn out the lights in Poland. But like a candle in the White House window, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II and the people of Poland kept a flicker of hope alive.

It may seem like a long time ago, distant to the interests of Americans today. In truth, this was a crucial turning point for the world, for freedom, and for faith. It is a history lesson worth taking to heart, especially this Christmas.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press), God and Ronald Reagan, and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.

Do you know anyone Polish? Forward this post, e-mail it, send them the link, and post it on your Facebook page.


The Summer of Hope Reply


By Tom Quiner

It began on June 2nd.  The year was 1979 when the Alitalia jetliner set down in a land that time forgot for 123 years of its thousand year history.  A Man in White with kind eyes stepped onto the tarmac.  He knelt and kissed the earth.

What was he thinking?  How did it feel to be back in his motherland?

His next nine days in Poland would change the world.  For objective reporters on the scene, he would spark a revolution with 37 well-crafted speeches and sermons, delivered with the intelligence of a scholar and the heart of a poet.

To the man on the street, it was more than just the words.  It was the power behind the words.  It was the power defined by their shared religion, language, and literature.  It was the power of the Polish culture.

It was the power of hope.

What was this culture like?  A gathering of local Polish-Americans here in Des Moines shared memories of their life in Poland with me.  In every instance, their Catholic heritage was in the forefront.

Artur Golebeiwski owns the Best Western Inn & Suites in West Des Moines.  He told me how Catholic masses were scheduled all day long on Sundays in Poland.  And they were standing-room only.  He said you wouldn’t even think of getting married in the month of May.  The churches just weren’t available because of all of the first communion masses taking place throughout that month.

Ewa Domagala Pratt, a professor at DMACC, talked about how everyone walked to Sunday mass.  Few owned cars and mass transit didn’t run on Sundays.  The scene on Sunday mornings was pedestrian-packed streets with the same destination:  the Catholic church.

This is the culture that animated Poland when the Man in White, the son of a soldier,  arrived at Victory Square in the heart of Warsaw on that fateful day in 1979.  Victory Square is the site for the Tomb of the Unknown soldier.  It is revered in Poland.

All in attendance for the Mass about to be said had most likely walked to get there, all one million of them!  Needless to say, the Communist government was concerned.  In anticipation of large public gatherings, they put in place 67,000 security forces.  Interestingly, 20,000 of them were undercover.

George Czerwinksi was in the Polish Air Force then, living in Krakow.  (Today he’s a corporate pilot for Meredith Corporation here in Des Moines.)  He related to me that he saw a military truck drive past him.  Leaning out the window was an undercover security agent dressed as a priest!

All that security wasn’t to protect the Man in White, but to protect the communists from the people.  They feared an uprising.

If you were a Pole standing in the crowd of one million that day at Victory Square, your heart was in your throat.  Your beloved friend was home, and his words astounded.

In the heart of Godless communism, he said:  “To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man.  For man cannot be fully understood without Christ.”

Even more, he said that “Poland has become nowadays the land of a particularly responsible witness.”  And with his kind eyes ablaze, he said, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe.  The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.”

Days of endless applause followed.  Despite the Communists best efforts to suppress his schedule, the crowds swelled to three million by the time he reached Krakow a week later.  There, he invoked Poland’s rich thousand year history and culture.

The summer of hope continued.  Ten years later, almost to the day, Lech Walesa, a member of the Solidarity Labor Union, was elected President of Poland as communism began to crumble.

The summer of hope continues today.  While America celebrated its Independence on July 4th, Poland elected a new President, Bronislaw Komorowski.  Poland today is a stable democracy.

Ask any Pole.  They’ll tell you World War II ended and communism fell on the same day, June 2nd, 1979, the summer of hope.  That was the day Karol Wojtya, also known as Pope John Paul II, came home.

[I’m re-running this Quiner’s Diner post in commemoration of Pope John Paul II’s trip to Poland on June 2nd, 1979. His trip truly was the 9 days that changed the world.]

The Summer of Hope Reply


By Tom Quiner

[I was interviewed this morning on KWKY AM radio station about the new musical I am writing and producing, “The Pope of the People.” We begin rehearsals next week. Below is an excerpt from another interview on the subject. In addition, I am re-running the piece I wrote for the Des Moines Register last summer upon which much of the musical is based.]

It began on June 2nd.  The year was 1979 when the Alitalia jetliner set down in a land that time forgot for 123 years of its thousand year history.  A Man in White with kind eyes stepped onto the tarmac.  He knelt and kissed the earth.

What was he thinking?  How did it feel to be back in his motherland?

His next nine days in Poland would change the world.  For objective reporters on the scene, he would spark a revolution with 37 well-crafted speeches and sermons, delivered with the intelligence of a scholar and the heart of a poet.

To the man on the street, it was more than just the words.  It was the power behind the words.  It was the power defined by their shared religion, language, and literature.  It was the power of the Polish culture.

It was the power of hope.

What was this culture like?  A gathering of local Polish-Americans here in Des Moines shared memories of their life in Poland with me.  In every instance, their Catholic heritage was in the forefront.

Artur Golebeiwski owns the Best Western Inn & Suites in West Des Moines.  He told me how Catholic masses were scheduled all day long on Sundays in Poland.  And they were standing-room only.  He said you wouldn’t even think of getting married in the month of May.  The churches just weren’t available because of all of the first communion masses taking place throughout that month.

Ewa Domagala Pratt, a professor at DMACC, talked about how everyone walked to Sunday mass.  Few owned cars and mass transit didn’t run on Sundays.  The scene on Sunday mornings was pedestrian-packed streets with the same destination:  the Catholic church.

This is the culture that animated Poland when the Man in White, the son of a soldier,  arrived at Victory Square in the heart of Warsaw on that fateful day in 1979.  Victory Square is the site for the Tomb of the Unknown soldier.  It is revered in Poland.

Pope John Paul II vs. the President of Poland. Can you sense the President's discomfort with the Holy See?

All in attendance for the Mass about to be said had most likely walked to get there, all one million of them!  Needless to say, the Communist government was concerned.  In anticipation of large public gatherings, they put in place 67,000 security forces.  Interestingly, 20,000 of them were undercover.

George Czerwinksi was in the Polish Air Force then, living in Krakow.  (Today he’s a corporate pilot for Meredith Corporation here in Des Moines.)  He related to me that he saw a military truck drive past him.  Leaning out the window was an undercover security agent dressed as a priest!

All that security wasn’t to protect the Man in White, but to protect the communists from the people.  They feared an uprising.

If you were a Pole standing in the crowd of one million that day at Victory Square, your heart was in your throat.  Your beloved friend was home, and his words astounded.

In the heart of Godless communism, he said:  “To Poland the Church brought Christ, the key to understanding that great and fundamental reality that is man.  For man cannot be fully understood without Christ.”

Even more, he said that “Poland has become nowadays the land of a particularly responsible witness.”  And with his kind eyes ablaze, he said, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe.  The exclusion of Christ from the history of man is an act against man.”

Days of endless applause followed.  Despite the Communists best efforts to suppress his schedule, the crowds swelled to three million by the time he reached Krakow a week later.  There, he invoked Poland’s rich thousand year history and culture.

The summer of hope continued.  Ten years later, almost to the day, Lech Walesa, a member of the Solidarity Labor Union, was elected President of Poland as communism began to crumble.

The summer of hope continues today.  While America celebrated its Independence on July 4th, Poland elected a new President, Bronislaw Komorowski.  Poland today is a stable democracy.

Ask any Pole.  They’ll tell you World War II ended and communism fell on the same day, June 2nd, 1979, the summer of hope.  That was the day Karol Wojtya, also known as Pope John Paul II, came home.

 

The Summer of Hope Reply


By Tom Quiner

As seen in the Des Moines Register on Saturday, July 24, 2010

Millions turned out to see the Man in White

It began on June 2nd.  The year was 1979 when the Alitalia jetliner set down in a land that history forgot for 123 years of its thousand year history.  A Man in White with kind eyes stepped onto the tarmac.  He knelt and kissed the earth.

His next nine days in Poland would change the world.  For objective reporters on the scene, he would spark a revolution with 37 well-crafted speeches, delivered with the intelligence of a scholar and the heart of a poet.  [Continued here …]