Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks to Polish Americans in Chicago, Illinois

June 23, 1983

Thank you, Al Mazewski. As a matter of fact, I would have rather just stood there and listened to some more— [laughter] come up here and talk.

Father Pajak, Senator Percy—and I know your secretary of state is here, Jim Edgar, you ladies and gentlemen, the distinguished guests who are here:

Our country's composed of cultures, races, and ethnic groups. But there's one thing we all have in common, something that ties us together as one people and is at the very heart of our national character, and that is a fervent love of liberty.

I've found that I can't lean on this on account of if I do it sinks. [Laughter] So, I'll stop leaning.

It's this heartfelt conviction that today finds us, not just Polish Americans but all Americans. And it binds us with those who struggle for freedom and independence in Poland. Let no one mistake our fortitude. Time may pass, but the American people will never, never forget the brave people of Poland and their courageous struggle. It seems like only yesterday when all of us were so filled with hope. Solidarity, a truly independent labor union, had emerged. And with it came new recognition of freedoms of speech, press, and the right to free association to strike and to reap the fruit of one's labor. Perhaps nothing more clearly demonstrates the repressive and insecure nature of communism than the tremor felt throughout the Communist world as a result of Polish workers and citizens exercising inalienable human rights, the rights that are so fundamental to free Western societies and that we too often take for granted.

Solidarity was born not only of the failure of the Polish Government to meet the needs of its people but also from a noble tradition of freedom preserved and nourished by the proud Polish people through two centuries of foreign and domestic tyranny. Symbolizing the battle of real workers to sustain fundamental human and economic rights in a so-called worker's state, Solidarity sought to address and to resolve Poland's deep-rooted economic ills. It acted in good faith, and it pursued a path of constructive dialog with the Polish Government. Despite these peaceful efforts on the part of Solidarity, a brutal wave of repression descended on Poland on December 13th, 1981.

The imposition of martial law stripped away all vestiges of the newborn freedom. Polish authorities resorted to arbitrary arrests, imprisonment, and the use of force. The free flow of people, ideas, and information was suppressed. A darkened cloud descended on Poland. But not all has been darkness.

Despite the unyielding repression for the last 18 months, the will of the Polish people has not yet been broken, and we've seen that on television over these last several days. And the Papal visit to Poland, which ends today, is truly a ray of hope for the Polish people and an event of historic importance.

During these 8 short days, the Pope's message of hope and faith has helped to inspire millions of Poles to continue their struggle to regain the human rights taken from them by the Polish authorities on December 13th.

I was deeply moved, as I know you were, by the Pope's outspoken defense of the Polish people's human rights. His frequent statements of support for the interned, the imprisoned, and those dismissed from work for their political activities were poignant reminders to the Jaruzelski regime and the Soviets that they cannot hope to permanently erase the historic August accords. Freedom-loving people everywhere support His Holiness' call for social renewal, social justice, and reaffirmation of national sovereignty.

I've long felt that many, if not all, of the problems faced by the Polish people could be resolved if Warsaw's neighbors would permit that beleaguered nation to work them out undisturbed. And you're aware of the neighbor particularly that we're talking about.

I've developed a new hobby. It is one of finding and then verifying from some of the dissidents who are here in our country, who've escaped, the jokes that the Russian people are telling among themselves which shows their cynicism about their own government. And one of the recent ones is that they were saying that if the Soviet Union let another political party come into existence, they would still be a one-party state, because everybody'd join the other party [Laughter]

I have to tell you the latest one that I found is so typical. And this, too, is of the Soviet Union and its failures. The story is that a Commissar visited a collective farm, and grabbed one of the workers to talk to him and said, "How are things here?" "Oh," he said, "everything is just wonderful." He said, "There are no complaints, haven't heard a single complaint." "Well," he said, "how are the crops? .... Oh," he said, "the crops—never better, everything just fine." "What about potatoes?" He said, "Potatoes," he said, "if we piled them up in one pile, they'd reach the foot of God." [Laughter] And the Commissar said, "This is the Soviet Union. There is no God." He said, "That's all right; there are no potatoes." [Laughter]

But seriously, the need for dialog and reconciliation in Poland has never been more evident than it was during the Pope's visit. The gulf separating the Polish people from their government remains vast. And nothing showed this more clearly than the faces, the words, and the signs carried by the millions of Poles who traveled great distances to see and hear the Pope. His call on the need to find a humane way for a peaceful and rational solution to the conflict offers the only prospect of bridging this gap between the people and their government.

I suspect that the Polish people are even more ready in the aftermath of his visit to begin a dialog. But the real question is not the willingness of the Polish people, but that of the Warsaw Government. I urge the Polish authorities to translate the restraint they showed during the Papal visit into willingness to move toward reconciliation rather than confrontation with the Polish people.

I was also impressed by the Pope's words on the importance of free trade unions, and his quote of Cardinal Wyszynski, the comment that there is an innate right to form free associations and that the state's only role is to protect it, to protect that right.

The actions of the millions of Poles who attended the Masses around the country, inspiring the spirit which gave rise to Solidarity, still flourishes in Polish hearts. There is only one way for the Polish Government to gain the confidence and trust of its own people. And that is to end martial law, to release political prisoners, to restore freely formed trade unions, and to embark on a path of genuine, national reconciliation.

We are currently consulting with our allies on the Polish question. Once these consultations are complete, we'll decide on how to proceed in our relations with Warsaw. In the meantime, I would only repeat what I said in my December 10th speech: "If the Polish Government takes meaningful, liberalizing measures, we are prepared to take equally significant and concrete steps of our own."

Moreover, the United States will continue to provide humanitarian assistance to the Polish people. I know the great sacrifices which so many of you and the Polish American community have been making to send assistance in the form of food and medical supplies. We, too, have participated in this humanitarian effort with more than $40 million worth of aid distributed through CRS and CARE. As I've said before, if the Polish Government will honor the commitments it has made to basic human rights, we in America will gladly do our share to help the shattered Polish economy just as we helped the countries of Europe after both World Wars.

I've talked of freedom. We've talked of freedom many times. Many of you have seen firsthand there, in visits to relatives or in being there before you came here, what is going on. But to many of us, freedom becomes a word, and particularly to our young people. They hear it so often. And they don't have an opportunity to really know what is so important about that word.

And just a few days ago, I received a letter from a woman who had just returned from a visit to relatives in Poland. And yet it was her first visit there. And she said, "I felt that I owed you this letter. Until 3 weeks ago I supported a nuclear freeze and arms reduction," and she went on with some of the other things. "But," she says, "not any more. Not after what I've seen."

I'll only read a few paragraphs. She said: "Poland is a concentration camp encircled by the same double strands of barbed wire that is displayed at Auschwitz and Buchenwald—camps so atrocious they have been preserved so that we shall never forget and never permit this sort of thing to happen again. But it is happening today in the great nation state of Poland. The fear in the faces of men, women, and children is also a reminder of things past. People speak in whispers, look over their shoulders constantly. And a few brave young people will tell you that people still disappear daily from their jobs and their homes. As an American observer, I see little difference between the Gestapo and the KGB."

She goes on eloquently about other things there that she's seen and the differences. She says, "I, too, support human rights. I was in Warsaw and Cracow. And I was asked by the people there if people in America understood what was happening in Poland under Russian domination. I said no. No, because we don't know fear, oppression, religious censorship. We have never known the hopelessness that comes from living under a dictatorship. If there could only be one protest march in Poland today, Mr. President, it would not be for arms reduction or jobs or food or even clothing. But rather for the most prized and valued fundamental right of all—of every living soul in this universe: freedom." And then she asked that we keep that light of freedom burning here, because the whole world is watching and living by its glow.

The visit by John Paul II to his homeland was an inspiration to all who cherish freedom. It vividly showed that no one can crush the spirit of the Polish people. The moving words of the Polish National Anthem, "Poland has not died while we yet live," are more true today than ever. The spirit of Solidarity that unites the Polish people with free people everywhere has never been stronger.

I thank you for letting me be with you this brief time here today. God bless you all. And we shall stay together, and we'll let Poland be Poland.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:20 a.m. outside the Polish National Alliance Hall. He was introduced by Aloysius Mazewski, president of the Polish National Alliance and the Polish American Congress.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to Polish Americans in Chicago, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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