Christmas 1981: A Flame for Freedom in Poland

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.

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.

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3 thoughts on “Christmas 1981: A Flame for Freedom in Poland

  1. Erica says:

    Thanks for a great piece. The pic is here. (I think.)
    http://www.reaganfoundation.org/white-house-diary.aspx

  2. Clare says:

    Thank you so much for this! I am of Polish descent, only 2nd generation and was very young when JPII was elected. My father was absolutely thrilled! I knew that RR was a great president and that he worked with JPII to bring down communism in Europe, but the humanity of RR is wonderful to see. Thank you again for teaching and reminding us of what great leaders do.

  3. Katherine says:

    As a union retiree, I am appreciative that in this instance President Reagan stood with the Labor Union Solidarnosc, and the Union President, Lech Walesa.

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