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Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Lech Walesa and the Presidential Citizen's Medal to Lane Kirkland

November 13, 1989

The President. Just before Christmas 1981, a darkness descended across Poland for the third time this century. What had begun as a year of hope and freedom ended in violence and repression. In snow-filled crossroads and town squares across Poland, iron tanks rumbled to a stop. Lech Walesa made the sign of the cross on the foreheads of his sleeping children and was taken away into the night. Solidarity, a movement embracing the Polish Nation, was outlawed. Communications with the outside world were cut. And Poland awoke to snow and steel and silence, an entire nation imprisoned.

But you can't lock up a dream. One by one, candles lit the windows of Poland's farmhouses and tenements, silent beacons of liberty still burning in the hearts of a brave and ancient people. And that Christmas Eve, not far from where we stand, a candle burned all night in the White House, like others all across America, glowing with solidarity with the Polish people.

When spring came, a time of renewal and rebirth, Lech Walesa's fate was still unknown. And as colleges and universities approached graduation, one by one, again and again, the same two names were heard. Lech Walesa and Solidarity. Of course, Lech Walesa could not come to accept those honorary degrees. And so, in crowded assembly halls and packed arenas across America, where every precious space was filled with proud and loving families, stage after stage held a single, unfilled place -- an empty chair, bearing only the Solidarity banner -- awaiting the release of Lech Walesa, the liberation of the Polish people.

We saw empty chairs in Maine and Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Illinois. And at Notre Dame, the crowd stood for 3 minutes in cheering tribute to the empty chair and the man who wasn't there. At Holy Cross, Lane Kirkland accepted the award on Lech Walesa's behalf. And back in Poland, in a humble wooden church on the outskirts of Gdansk, an empty chair was placed near the altar for the baptism of tiny Maria Victoria, Lech's seventh child, a little girl he'd never seen.

For 8 years, these empty chairs and the American people have waited for you to come. We waited because we believe in freedom. We waited because we believe in Poland. And we waited because we believe in you. And today the waiting is over. Lech Walesa, man of freedom, is at the White House. We think of it as the house of freedom. Lech Walesa, on behalf of the people of the United States, I am proud to say to you: Take your place in this house of freedom. Take your place in the empty chair. Now you can have a seat.

In just a few days, you will be the second private citizen from abroad -- second in our history -- to ever address a joint meeting of Congress, after the Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. And like him, you helped win an historic struggle. And like him, you represent not only a people but also an idea -- an idea whose time has come. And nothing can stop an idea whose time has come. That idea is freedom. The time is now.

You were called a nobody, but Lenin and Stalin have been disproved not by Presidents or princes but by the likes of an electrician from Gdansk and his fellow workers in a brave union called Solidarity. The Iron Curtain is fast becoming a rusted, abandoned relic, symbolizing a lost era, a failed ideology. And the change is everywhere -- Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. And ladies and gentlemen, the week that brought Lech Walesa to America is the week that the headlines proclaimed, "And the Wall Comes Tumbling Down."

So, what is happening in Berlin and on our television screens is astounding. World War II, fought for freedom, ironically left the world divided between the free and the unfree; and most of us alive today were born into that sundered world. And now almost 50 years have passed, and some have wondered all these years why we stayed in Berlin. And let me tell you! We stayed because we knew, we just knew -- all Americans -- that this day would come. And now a century that was born in war and revolution may bequeath a legacy of peace unthinkable only a few years ago.

The story of our times is the story of brave men and women who seized a moment, who took a stand. Lech Walesa showed how one individual could inspire others -- in them a faith so powerful that it vindicated itself -- changed the course of a nation. History may make men, but Lech Walesa has made history. And I believe history continues to be made every day by small daily acts of courage, by people who strive to make a difference. Such people, says Lech, "are everywhere, in every factory, steel mill, mine, and shipyard -- everywhere." And we've certainly seen them in the American labor movement, where from the leadership of Lane Kirkland to the rank and file across the country, they have struggled in the vanguard of the free labor movement around the world.

Our own humble electrician, Ben Franklin, declared that "Our cause is the cause of all mankind, for we are fighting for their liberty in defending our own." And like Franklin, who seized lightning from the skies and brought it to Earth, Lech Walesa seized an idea, a powerful idea, and with it electrified the world. The idea is freedom. And the time is now.

Country by country, people by people, year by year, courageous new voices are raised in a hundred languages -- Spanish, German, Chinese, Russian. And yet from these varied lips comes a word all can understand: freedom. And with one voice, the people of the world have spoken: freedom. In America, it's our greatest natural resource, the secret of our success. And freedom will bring success to Poland, too. American aid has begun, and more is coming. From Washington to Warsaw, Kansas City to Krakow, from Green Bay to Gdansk, Americans are linked in spirit with the Polish people in their brave struggle for opportunity, prosperity, and freedom.

Lech Walesa, by your abiding faith and by the miracle of democracy's new birth in your homeland, you have come to personify the new breeze that is sweeping the world, East and West -- the spiritual godfather of a new generation of democracy. And even while Solidarity was banned, your example and the example of the Polish people was mirrored across Asia when "People Power" became a chant, first in the Philippines and then in Pakistan and South Korea and, yes, even in Tiananmen Square. The whole world is watching, and the whole world is with you.

Thank you, Poland, for showing us that the dream is alive. And thank you, Poland, for showing us that a dream wrought by flesh and blood cannot be stilled by walls of steel. Thank you, Poland, and thank you, Lech Walesa.

And now, it is with great pride that I bestow the medal, previously awarded to the likes of Martin Luther King and President John F. Kennedy, Anwar Sadat, Mother Teresa. It is our nation's highest civilian honor. So, Mr. Walesa, if you'll come over here, let me read the citation:

To Lech Walesa, of Gdansk, Poland, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Lech Walesa has shown through his life and work the power of one individual's ideals when combined with the irresistible force of freedom. Through moral authority, force of personality, and demonstrated heroism, he has inspired a nation and the world in the cause of liberty. The United States honors a true man of his times and of timeless ideals: Lech Walesa, distinguished son of Poland, champion of universal human rights.

Mr. Walesa. Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, I'm deeply moved and gratified that I'm here, in the Capital of the United States of America and the White House, greeted so warmly by President George Bush in the company of American-Polish friends.

One of the greatest dreams of my life has thus been fulfilled. I'm full of admiration for your country not because it's a big power and not because it's rich, even though one could envy that. I admire America as a country of freedom -- freedom of man and freedom of a nation. You took that freedom yourself. Nobody gave it to you as a present. You built it through your hard work, step by step. You created wonderful democratic institutions, which are an example for many other countries. But most, before others, you created human attachments to freedom.

America is a free country because American workers and farmers are and want to be free -- technicians and engineers, bankers and industrialists. America is rich with its freedom. It shares it with the immigrants. Some are looking for freedom from misery, and others are looking for freedom from persecutions. That is why I so highly cherish the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Poles know the price of freedom as very few nations of the world. They know how to fight for freedom. They know how to defend freedom. Now my country has entered the road of freedom. It's rebuilding its independence and democracy. It's restoring sense to labor and economy. I'm sure that we will not get away from that road.

Mr. President, for yours and our freedom, for the American Nation, for the freedom of all nations of the world, thank you very much for this wonderful, wonderful distinction.

The President. Please be seated. Before we conclude, there is one more person with us today whose dedication to Solidarity and to free trade unions I feel we must recognize. You all know how crucial has been the work of the AFL - CIO in helping Solidarnosc through difficult times and in promoting free trade unions and democracy around the world. So, Lane Kirkland, would you please come up here, sir. For over a decade, under your leadership, you and the union have been pathbreakers for freedom, continuing the support for free trade unions around the world. And in Eastern Europe, your support was crucial. And you were there -- you, personally, were there -- in the hour of greatest need, helping to keep alive the dream of democracy in Poland.

And so, Lane, on behalf of a grateful nation, I want to present you with the Presidential Citizen's Medal. And the citation reads:

As President of the AFL - CIO, Joseph Lane Kirkland has worked tirelessly and effectively in support of Solidarity, free trade unions, and democratic principles. America honors him for this dedication, which has helped spread the lamp of liberty in Eastern Europe and across the globe.


Mr. Kirkland. Mr. President, you must like surprises because I was extraordinarily surprised by your very generous act in enabling me to share an honor with the man who towers in the world today for his achievements: Lech Walesa.

I can only say that it's what I think I try my best to stand for today that merits any such recognition. And what I do stand for -- the instrument and the principle of free trade unionism -- is today a lever that can move the world. And to serve that is a privilege for any person. Thank you again, Mr. President.

Note: The President spoke at 6:07 p.m. in the East Room of the White House. Mr. Walesa spoke in Polish, and his remarks were translated by an interpreter.

George Bush, Remarks on Presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Lech Walesa and the Presidential Citizen's Medal to Lane Kirkland Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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