Aug 29, 2011

The Phenomenon of Solidarity:
Pictures from the History of Poland, 1980-1981

Remarks by Carl Gershman at a photo exhibition commemorating the 30th anniversary of the founding of “Solidarity”

At the Woodrow Wilson Center, Washington D.C.

I deeply honored to be invited to address this gathering commemorating the 30th anniversary of the founding of Solidarity in Poland. The period of the Solidarity uprising in August 1980, and its above-ground existence in communist Poland until martial law was imposed 16 months later, brings back very vivid memories. I recall a debate that the Committee for the Free World organized on March 30, 1981, at the Polish Institute for Arts and Sciences in New York. It was between Tom Kahn, the head of the International Affairs Department of the AFL-CIO and Norman Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary Magazine. I was the moderator of that debate, which just happened to have been held on the day President Reagan was shot. It was, indeed, a momentous time. The issue we were considering was whether the United States should be prepared to extend credits and economic assistance to Poland at a time when Solidarity was challenging the Community Party and occupying public space in what had been a totalitarian country. Norman Podhoretz took the traditional anti-communist position that we should not help Poland in any way because reform was not possible in a communist state and the US shouldn’t do anything that might prolong its existence. Tom Kahn expressed the AFL-CIO’s position, which was worked out in consultation with Solidarity, that assistance should be provided on the condition that the Polish government continue to respect the rights of Solidarity as contained in the Gdansk Agreement.

The debate showed how important the emergence of Solidarity was to our world of social democratic, trade union, and intellectual anti-communists. It was everything we dreamed about – a workers’ uprising against a communist state which claimed to represent the workers, even though we all knew it brutally repressed them in keeping with its totalitarian character. Tom Kahn, who was a brilliant intellectual, represented the movement led by Lane Kirkland who was an extraordinary leader and much beloved in Poland. The moment Solidarity emerged, the AFL-CIO backed it to the hilt. Teddy Gleason’s International Longshoreman’s Association declared a blockade at U.S. ports of Polish hams and other products from Poland. The AFL-CIO established an aid fund for Solidarity which soon had $160,000, which was a lot of money in the days before the creation of the NED. The AFL-CIO’s demonstration of solidarity with Solidarity alarmed the Carter Administration an even the Reagan Administration after that. Officials from both administrations met with Kirkland to caution him that what was happening in Poland was very “sensitive” and that labor should not do anything to provoke a Soviet intervention. Kirkland’s response was very simple: “Our policies will be guided by Solidarity’s needs.” This message reached Poland and was deeply appreciated there, so much so that Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the Solidarity priest who was assassinated in 1984, included Kirkland’s in his prayers at each mass during martial law.

Lane Kirkland is still remembered in Poland. After the fall of communism, the Polish American Freedom Foundation created fellowships in Kirkland’s name that have brought thousands of young democrats from Ukraine, Belarus and other former communist countries to Poland for study. And in 1999, NED presented its first Democracy Service Medal jointly to Kirkland and Lech Walesa on the tenth anniversary of the conclusion of the Roundtable Negotiations that led to the end of the communist system. Walesa came here for that presentation, and the following evening he passed up a White House dinner to be with Lane on his sickbed. Kirkland died four months later.

There are other people I would like to recognize this evening who have passed from us and who worked closely with the NED in the 1980s when we provided assistance to Solidarity and others in Poland. There was Jan Nowak Jezioranski, who would tell us which groups to fund, and we dared not disobey. And there was Walt Raymond at the White House, and Al Shanker at the American Federation of Teachers who visited Poland on behalf of the AFT and the AFL-CIO soon after Solidarity emerged. Genie Kemble who now heads the Albert Shanker Institute is with us this evening. And there was Jacek Kalabinski, an exiled Polish journalist and the voice of Lech Walesa when he made his triumphal visit to the United States and the AFL-CIO Convention in November 1989. Jacek’s daughter Marta now works at the NED and she, too, is with us this evening.

And there were others. In London there was Leo Labedz, the editor of Survey magazine and one of the great fighters of the Cold War. And of course there was the great Leszek Kolakowski who was at Oxford at the time and the one member in exile of OKNO, the Committees for Independent Culture. Leszek would transmit to the NED all of the underground OKNO’s requests for support.

And then in Poland there was Sofia Kurotowska, a doctor and later the recipient of the most votes in the first election for the Polish Senate; and Bronislaw Geremek, the great scholar and Solidarity leader who was here at the Wilson Center in 1978; and Jacek Kuron, whom NED honored with its Democracy Award in May 1989.

Mentioning Sofia Kurotowska reminds me of an incident in the 1987 when Congress appropriated a special $1 million for Solidarity. Lech Walesa at first refused to accept the money because he feared that the Polish government would try to portray the assistance as foreign interference. He said the money should go to help the Solidarity Social Fund with medicines and ambulances, and so we worked that out with Sofia, who headed the Social Fund, and the International Rescue Committee in New York. But Walesa then came under criticism in Poland for not accepting the money for Solidarity trade union work, so the Congress appropriated a second $1 million to the NED for Solidarity. And so we got $2 million instead of one, and all because Solidarity had so much support in the Congress, from both parties.

Poland has come so far since then. Just ten days ago the Polish Parliament voted 261-138 to approve funding for the Foundation for International Solidarity, the Polish NED, something our Polish friends have been working to create for ten years. And the Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, during the current Polish Presidency of the European Union, is trying to create the European Endowment for Democracy, a European NED.

I remember a conference we helped that took placed in Wroclaw in November 1989. The purpose was to support democracy in Czechoslovakia. It was funded through a small grant of $25,000 that we made to the Multinational Fund for Friendship and Cooperation. This was a group established in the underground by two young people whose pictures are probably somewhere here in the exhibit – Grzegorsz Kostrzewa-Zorbas, who edited a publication called New Coalition in Warsaw; and Zbigniew Janas, who ran the Wroclaw-based Polish-Czechoslovak Solidarity. The purpose of the Fund was to build stability and security in a dangerous neighborhood based on democratic cooperation. This was the so-called “Eastern Policy” that had been conceived by another great Polish intellectual, Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor of the exile journal Kultura. It’s been the basis for Poland security and independence since 1989. The purpose of the new $25,000 Fund was to implement this idea, and $7,500 of the NED grant went to support the Wroclaw conference. Vaclav Havel, when he addressed the Polish Parliament in 1990, called this conference the “prologue” to the Velvet Revolution that occurred less than two weeks later. We always say at the NED that this was the best $7,500, dollar for dollar, that we ever spent. And beyond that, the Fund started the whole new practice of “cross-border” democracy assistance, whereby NGO activists in the new democracies of Central Europe – not just in Poland but in the Czech Republic and Slovakia and in Lithuania and Ukraine – have helped other activists fighting for democracy farther to the East in Belarus and Russia, and even as far away as Central Asia, Cuba and Burma. They have done this because of their belief in democracy and also because they think that having democratic neighbors will make for a more stable and peaceful region.

This is what has come out of that struggle thirty years ago. When Vice President Biden visited Central Europe in 2009, we were asked by friends in the administration what he should say. We said he should support the Polish idea of cross-border democracy assistance. And so he did in a speech he delivered in Bucharest twenty years after 1989. When people rise up today in Libya or Syria, they very much have Solidarity somewhere in the back of their minds. This has been the impact of Solidarity. Mongolia, which now holds the chair of the Community of Democracies – a global association of democratic countries that was founded in Warsaw in 2000 – has itself just embraced the cross-border idea by announcing its intention to establish, in cooperation with South Korea, the Asian Partnership Initiative for Democracy – a coalition of Asian democracies that will help democracy become consolidated in Kyrgyzstan and hopefully spread some day to Burma and other authoritarian countries in Asia.

So Solidarity has not just brought democracy to Poland and Central Europe. It has also advanced the cause of freedom from the Middle East to Asia. Its emergence 30 years ago changed the world. We were privileged to be connected to that struggle and continue to draw inspiration from its legacy. It’s a legacy that we need to study and remember, because it carries a powerful message for the difficult world we live in today.