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Wisdom from Warsaw

Wisdom from Warsaw

The Poles were right during the Cold War and and they’re right again today. Does the West fully grasp what’s at stake in Ukraine?

Carl Gershman

Forty years ago, President Reagan gave his famous Westminster Address in which he predicted that “the march of freedom and democracy” would “leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history.” Poland and Solidarity, the country’s first independent trade union that had been suppressed just six months earlier, figured very prominently in that speech. Reagan noted that a marker in downtown Warsaw declared that the city was equidistant from both Moscow and Brussels. He interpreted this to mean that Poland is not East or West but at the center of European civilization, to which it was “contributing mightily” through its unreconciled resistance to communist oppression.

This was a period of great uncertainty and change in the world, and it was not clear if Soviet power was rising or falling, or if democracy was backsliding or growing stronger. Not surprisingly, Reagan projected great confidence and optimism in predicting the downfall of communism, while calling for a global campaign to support the “democratic revolution” that he said was emerging throughout the world.

But such a revolution, even while it was actually gathering strength, was not visible in the early 1980s. Soviet power appeared to be on the rise and dictators ruled throughout Africa and Latin America. On the occasion of the American bicentennial just a few years earlier in 1976, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had just stepped down as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had said that democracy was where the world was, not where it was going. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the crackdown in Poland in 1981 only reinforced that gloomy view.

At the time, I was part of a small social democratic movement in the U.S. All of us were democracy and pro-Solidarity activists, but we were ourselves uncertain about the direction of events. I can recall an internal debate we had before the declaration of martial law in December 1981, when Solidarity was still functioning above ground, that showed how uncertain everything was. The debate was between Tom Kahn, who was AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland’s point person for coordinating support for Solidarity, and Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary magazine. I was working for Jeane Kirkpatrick, then the U.S. ambassador to the UN, and was asked to moderate the debate. At issue was whether the United States should extend credits to Poland, whose debts to the West exceeded $20 billion dollars. Kahn favored an extension of credits, conditioned on the adherence of the Polish government to the twenty-one point Gdańsk Agreement that buttressed Solidarity and safeguarded the rights and interests of workers. Podhoretz opposed this view. He believed that this was wishful thinking about the possibility of communism to be reformed—something that the Soviet Union would never tolerate. Podhoretz argued that we should do nothing to stabilize the Soviet empire, but rather, let it collapse.

That issue became moot when martial law was imposed, but Poland after the rise of Solidarity was not like Czechoslovakia in 1968. Solidarity survived as an underground movement, which was an extraordinary development. When I became the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) founding president in 1984, I vividly remember a visit from Jan Novak, one of the most notable resistance fighters during World War II and the former head of Radio Free Europe’s Polish section. His view was that Solidarity's continued survival after two-and-a-half years of martial law represented an unprecedented challenge to the omnipotence of Soviet totalitarianism. As a result, support for Solidarity and the Polish democracy movement should have, he said, “the highest priority” for NED in terms of funding allocations and “urgency of action.” For Novak, everything relating to the democracy struggle in Poland was urgent. And he was right.


Solidarity’s outlook then is very relevant today, as Russia is conducting a genocidal war in Ukraine. Solidarity’s international perspective, known as the “eastern policy,” was conceived and elaborated in the emigré journal Kultura edited by Jerzy Giedroyc. Developed during the darkest and seemingly most hopeless years of the Cold War, the “eastern policy” anticipated in an astonishing way the collapse of the Soviet Union and envisioned a new way of understanding how Poland ought to defend its independence and security in the modern world. It was based upon the principles of open frontiers, the renunciation of territorial claims against neighboring countries, and respect for minority rights.

The basic thrust of this thread of the Solidarity movement was that there could be no independent and democratic Poland without an independent and democratic Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania. That seems self-evident today, but it was a revolutionary idea when it was first conceived. It meant overcoming the deep-rooted hatreds of the past, as well as the bitter scars from a war that had brought unimaginable destruction to Poland and the entire region, including death on a massive scale and forced population transfers. It meant Poland not only relinquishing territorial claims to Lviv, Vilnius, and Hrodna (Grodno), (cities in present-day Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus), but also accepting borders that were a product of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and that had been ratified by the detested Yalta agreement. Even more, Solidarity’s “eastern policy” meant re-imagining the cherished Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, relinquishing the idea of Polish dominance, and replacing it with the modern concept of a regional community of sovereign democratic nations.

The “eastern policy” would become the foundation of the foreign policy of the newly democratic Poland. Foreign Minister Bronisław Geremek spelled out this policy in an address to the Polish Institute of International Affairs two months after Giedroyc’s death in September 2000. Geremek said that Giedroyc and others around Kultura “presented a radically different concept” from the official wartime policies of the Polish government. They believed that in the world that emerged after World War II, “the Polish national idea could only be the idea of liberty for all the other nations in the region.”

It was this “Polish national idea,” this “idea of liberty,” that became the consensus program of the Polish opposition intelligentsia in the 1980s. It was embraced by the Catholic Church, not least by Pope John Paul II, and it was adopted by Solidarity and thereby became embedded in a mass popular movement. It was also the guiding principle that led a delegation of prominent Solidarity activists in 1989 to attend the first congress in Kyiv of the People’s Movement of Ukraine (Rukh)—the only foreign delegation to attend that historic congress. In the decade after the triumph of Solidarity in 1989, the “eastern policy” was the basis for the pioneering cross-border work of Polish NGOs and their partners that NED supported throughout Central and Eastern Europe. It was also the foundation of the post-communist alliance between Poland and the United States.

The late Nadia Diuk, who oversaw NED’s programs in that region for more than three decades, always stressed something she had heard the Polish dissident Jacek Kuroń declare at a large meeting in Warsaw in the autumn of 1980: “Without a free Ukraine, there cannot be a free Poland.” In the 1980s, Poland was the epicenter of the global struggle for democracy, and its victory transformed the world. Today it is Ukraine that is the epicenter of this struggle, and its battle to prevail against Putin’s desperate attempt to restore the Russian Empire could have an equally transformative effect. Let us celebrate, therefore, the extraordinary courage of the Ukrainian people, even as we grieve for the tens of thousands who have been killed and the many hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians—so many of them children—who have been kidnapped and deported to Russia; for the cities destroyed, and for the millions driven into exile.

The fighting is far from over, and a bitter winter lies ahead. But after almost ten months of a war that was supposed to end in less than a week, we can believe that Ukraine will win, that Russia will lose, and that the cause of democracy will be strengthened in Europe and beyond. For that to happen, however, the West must not relent in providing military and economic aid to Ukraine. Rather, it must be guided by the principle and the example of Solidarity that liberated Poland and inspired the entire world.

Carl Gershman retired last year as the founding President of the National Endowment for Democracy. A version of this statement was first delivered to the Polish Senate on the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the Temporary Coordinating Committee, the underground leadership of NSZZ Solidarity.

Image: A Solidarity demonstration in Warsaw, Poland, August 31, 1984. (Wikimedia: Thomas Hedden)

AuthoritarianismDemocracyEastern EuropeUnited StatesPolitical PhilosophyUkraine

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