Jimmy Carter photo

Remarks at the 100th Anniversary Dinner of the Polish National Alliance in Niles, Illinois

September 20, 1980

President Mazewski, Mayor Byrne, Mayor Blaise, Congressman Dan Rostenkowski, John Berry, former Congressman Roman Pucinski, Francis Meehan, our new American Ambassador to Poland, ladies and gentlemen:

I knew that when I welcomed the Pope to the White House for the first time in America's history and spoke Polish in my welcome that everybody was going to do what I did and take the glory away from me as being the only one to welcome someone in the Polish language. It was easy for me to understand what he said. I could get the words very clear—Taft, Carter, Brzezinski. [Laughter] And I noticed that many of you were in about the same shape I was. [Laughter]

I do want to thank your great president, Al Mazewski, for that fine introduction. In his capacity as president of both the Polish National Alliance and the Polish American Congress, Al is a frequent visitor at the White House. He knows how to get things done. He knows how to get reelected. [Laughter] So far he's in his fourth term; I'll settle for two. [Laughter] And I might say it is good to see him again and also so many other leaders of the Polish-American community. I cannot recognize you all, but there are a few that mean a lot to me and to this Nation, and I would like to recognize their presence.

I may repeat some of the things that the Governor and the mayor have said. But I come here in a unique role as President of our great country, representing almost 240 million Americans, and I want to say those things, because they're important to me, to our Nation, and perhaps to you.

I want to recognize the national president of the Polish Roman Catholic Union, Joseph Drobot; the president of the Falcons, Bernard Rogalski; the chairman of the board of Alliance College, Hilary Czaplicki; and the vice president in charge of the women's division of the Polish National Alliance, Ms. Helen Szymanowicz; and also the president of the Polish Women's Alliance, Mrs. Helen Zielinski. The motto of her organization, as you know, is "The ideals of her women are the strength of a nation," and I agree with that statement. And someone else who would agree with that statement is the mayor of the world's second largest Polish city, Mayor Jane Byrne. As you know, Chicago is also known as "the city of the big shoulders," and during the early years of Chicago and of our Nation, the tough years of building, those were Polish shoulders, here and in many other cities in our country.

And it would be a mistake for us to forget the tremendous contributions of artists and thinkers such as Nobel Laureates Henryk Sienkiewicz—right on; is that right?—and Madame Curie and Joseph Conrad, Arthur Rubenstein, Ignacy Paderewski, one that I can pronounce very easily, Hyman Rickover, who I might add, was my old boss. And of course, we've already had mentioned Secretary of State Ed Muskie and Zbigniew Brzezinski, who are so close to me.

As you know, with Zbig in the White House and Ed Muskie in the State Department, I'm getting used to hearing jokes about the "bipolar" foreign policy. As a matter of fact, with Clem Zablocki, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, what we actually have is a "tripolar" foreign policy. And other nations know that when we speak around the world, we speak with a deep commitment that's been characteristic of the Polish people down through the centuries, which is also the character of America, and I'm proud of that.

Danny Rostenkowski, as you know, is one of the great leaders of the Congress. I meet with him regularly as one of the small, elite, extremely influential group, who has been elected by his own peer group, the other Members of Congress, as their leader. What we have in Washington now is a Polish-American contribution, unprecedented in modern history at least, which is a benefit to all Americans.

It's been estimated that about 30 percent of all Americans can trace at least one of their ancestral lines back to Poland. And for generations, the Polish National Alliance has been the mortar that has held the Polish-American community together. Your first meeting was held in Chicago a hundred years ago, and I'm honored, as President, to join you in celebrating your hundredth birthday. And I'm sure this second century will be just as successful as the first one.

As Al mentioned, I'm only the second President in history to appear before you. The first, William Howard Taft—as Al mentioned in passing—was a Republican. And I'm proud to be the Democrat who's evened the score. I'm not going to talk politics tonight, but I can't help noticing an interesting coincidence. When President Taft spoke to you, it was also an election year, 1912. [Laughter] There was also one Democratic candidate and two Republican candidates, just like this year. And here's the coincidence that I particularly like—the Democrat won.

I'm sure you know your history, but I'd like to point out this other part. The winner of that election, President Woodrow Wilson, played a decisive role in the history of Poland. He made Poland's freedom one of his Fourteen Points. And because of Woodrow Wilson's deep commitment and because he accurately expressed the sentiments, at that time and now, of America, after more than a century of foreign oppression Poland's existence as a state was restored.

1 have a special feeling for the sons and daughters of Poland. Poland was the first foreign country that I ever visited * as President of the United States. And I've been inspired by the fact that the Polish people have been among the earliest and most consistent fighters for human rights, not just for a year, not just for a hundred years, but for a thousand years. The entire world was reminded of this fine heritage last year when Pope John Paul II visited our country.

When Pope John Paul II came to the White House, it was the most exciting and gratifying day of my life. It was a beautiful occasion in our country. What a tremendous impact this good and holy man had on all our people. His spirit, his kindness, his personal warmth, his radiance conquered our hearts. That was a proud and a special moment for all Americans. It was doubly so, I know, for Polish Americans. Pope John Paul II, a faithful son of his nation and of his church, became a living symbol of Polish contributions to our common values. The Pope is only the latest of the millions of Poles who have come to America, as visitors and as immigrants, bringing with them a love of human rights.

My second daughter-in-law lives in Pulaski County, Georgia, named after Count Casimir Pulaski. And everyone in my State, and indeed the entire Nation, knows that Thaddeus Kosciuszko was also there, with courage and commitment and the deepest sense of freedom, to help America win our independence. What most people do not know is that Kosciuszko did a noble thing when he left this country. Just before he returned to Poland to fight for freedom in his own homeland, he had a large sum of money coming to him from the Continental Congress. He left that money with Thomas Jefferson, with instructions to Jefferson to purchase the freedom of as many black slaves as possible. That great Polish general very simply believed that slavery was as repugnant here in America as in his own country.

Let me remind you of one more incident in the long history of Polish Americans and human rights. Mayor Jane Byrne mentioned it in passing, but I'd like to elaborate just for a moment. This goes back a long time, more than 350 years, but it's just as fresh as today's newspaper. In 1608, in what is now Virginia, Captain John Smith brought a small group of Polish glassmakers to Jamestown to set up the first factory in America. But the Polonians, as they were then called, were denied the rights of free citizens.

These proud people endured these indignities for 11 years. Then finally in 1619 they staged the first sit-down strike in American history—not for money, but for freedom and for human rights. And because of that, the House of Burgesses, the first legislature in America, passed a bill giving the Polonians the right to vote and the other rights of free people. Think of that, three and a half centuries ago, and then think of the Gdansk workers of 1980. The spirit of the Jamestown Polonians is very much alive here in this room and also across the ocean, and I'm thankful for it.

I was reviewing my notes on the way here early this evening from Camp David, and I thought about my being a southerner and, as a southerner, knowing what it means to be the butt of jokes. It's especially revolting among great and proud people, and I know you share my disgust with this ill-considered habit. For such remarks to be made about the home of a Pope, the home of modern and ancient freedom-fighters, the home of Nobel scientists, the home of the world's greatest musicians, the home of great statesmen, there and here in our country, and of heroes who helped give birth to our Nation is especially incomprehensible to me as President of this country. The joke is on those who are crude and ignorant enough to indulge in such slander. And as an American and a southerner and an admirer of the Polish-American people and the Polish people, I resent it very much.

The events of recent weeks in Poland have indeed inspired the world. During this period of exciting change in Poland, the United States Government, advised very carefully by your own president here, has pursued a careful policy, a policy based on the need for a calm atmosphere, free from outside interference. We will not interfere in Poland's affairs, and we expect that others will similarly respect the right of the Polish nation to make its own decisions and to resolve its problems on its own. It appears, and we pray God that it will be, on its way to a peaceful and a constructive resolution.

But Poland's economic problems remain very severe. Besides the dislocations, there have been terrible floods. Poland needs food. That's why I ordered quick approval of Poland's full request of $670 million in new credit guarantees for 4 million tons of American grain and other farm products. This is the largest such guarantee we have ever made. And also, as you know, we have also, as you know, substantially increased Pacific coast allocations of fish to Poland.

These steps, urged by many of you here tonight, are intended to meet an urgent and a basic need for food. They are also intended to show our admiration for the dignified manner in which the entire Polish nation is conducting itself in this time of wrenching and positive change. And they are intended to demonstrate to the new leadership of Poland our desire for better relations. We want to strengthen even further the human ties of blood, kinship, and friendship that tie our two nations together.

The shipyard workers in Gdansk, the coal miners in Silesia, the store clerks and workers in Warsaw, and the authorities in Poland who responded to them have sent a powerful message around the world. Poland has reminded us that the desire for human rights and human dignity is universal. Freedom of thought and expression, freedom from arbitrary violence, freedom from violations of personal integrity, due process, participation in government, civil and political and economic rights—these are the very stuff of rights. And tonight I pledge to you this: As long as I am President, this will stand for its beliefs, will stand for its ideals, will stand for its values. We will stand up for human rights.

To those who criticize our human rights: policy and say it is not in our national interest, who say it hampers American foreign policy, I say: How can we, as free people, be indifferent to the fate of freedom elsewhere? How can we, as people with the most abundant economy Earth, be indifferent to the suffering of those elsewhere who lack food and health care and shelter? We cannot be indifferent. And we will not retreat one step from our human rights policy, because human rights is the very soul of the identity of this Nation.

We support human rights, yes, because our conscience demands it, but the fact is that our human rights policy, specifically and in general, also pragmatically serves our national interest. Both our Nation and the world are more secure when basic human rights are respected.

Our words and our actions have left their mark in many places on Earth. Governments have released political prisoners, lessened political repression, eased economic misery. Hundreds of thousands of people have immigrated to freedom from the Soviet Union, from Cuba and elsewhere. Increased trade with African and Third World nations has resulted in part from the growing trust generated by America's human rights policy.

The Soviet Union may not like our human rights policy. Some generals and colonels and dictators in other countries may not like it. Those who tyrannize others will always fear the ideas of freedom and human dignity. But the people in the villages, the factory workers, those who farm the land and who populate the cities—they care and they applaud and they pray that Americans will never abandon them.

Here at home, our Nation's commitment to fundamental values is strengthened by advancing human rights. When we advance human rights overseas and stand firmly for the principles on which our Nation was founded, we help to guarantee equality, freedom, and the respect for individual human beings here in the United States. The rights of all Americans, regardless of color or national origin or language or sex, must be preserved.

That commitment makes us proud to be Americans, and it makes us realize that America's foreign policy in the 1980's will always emanate from those basic values which do not change. We cannot return to the days when we too often gave unquestioning support to repressive regimes. We cannot return to the days when secrecy in foreign policy was used to hide policies and acts which the American people would never have supported had they known what was going on.

We must continue to strengthen our defenses. Our military might must be unquestioned in order for us to keep our Nation at peace. We have had a steady increase in our commitments to a national defense every year since I became President, and we will continue to do the same in the future. But we cannot sap our strength by returning to the days when some would advocate a military solution to every international disturbance. We've learned too much from the last 20 years. Too many American families have made too many sacrifices for their leaders to have their vision blurred by nostalgia for a world that no longer exists. I say to you that America's military might should be used to seek peace and to avoid war. The best weapons are those so formidable that they need never be fired in anger, and the best soldier is one that's not killed in battle.

And I also say to you that America's human rights policy should be used to pierce the curtain of oppression, to throw the searchlight of the world's conscience on those who would smother the winds of freedom. The cause of human rights is a slow process. Results are not always immediately evident. Progress is often painfully slow. Sometimes there are delays, sometimes disappointments, sometimes reverses. But when the cause finally triumphs and the winds of freedom blown, no power on Earth can withstand their force.

We will stand up for human rights in Madrid at the European Security Conference, and Al Mazewski will be there as a member of the American delegation to make sure my promise to you is kept. I pledge to you that as long as America stands true to itself and as long as I'm President, our voice of liberty will not be stilled.

In closing let me say this: America is human rights. That's what America was meant to be. That's what America has meant to the rural people of Poland, to the potato farmers of Ireland, to the Jews of Eastern Europe, to all who were oppressed or seeking a better life, who built and peopled our country. Those inalienable human rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, so eloquently written by Thomas Jefferson and honored by Kosciuszko and Pulaski, so profoundly demonstrated by the Polish workers—they will endure. They will endure for a thousand years.

Thank you very much.

* The sentence should read, "Poland was the first foreign country to which I made a state visit as President of the United States." [White House correction.]

Note: The President left Camp David, Md., early in the evening for the trip to Illinois. Following his arrival in Chicago, he attended a reception for supporters at Heuer's Restaurant. Following the reception, he went to the House of the White Eagle in Niles, Ill., where he addressed dinner guests in the Dining Room at 8:45 p.m. Following the dinner, the President returned to Camp David.

Jimmy Carter, Remarks at the 100th Anniversary Dinner of the Polish National Alliance in Niles, Illinois Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/251429

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