Where are they all? Is it too early to express ourselves on the subject? Or does it require, before Lech Walesa qualifies as an international hero, that he actually effect the liberation of Poland?
Where are the labor unions? It has been years, decades even, since they had a genuine hero. We tend to forget, what with the bureaucratization of union life, that the historical champions of the working class were primarily men and women who stood up against tyranny, however expressed, whether by political leaders, imperialists, or monopolies. It is ironic that, at union conventions, you will probably hear more ballads sung to the memory of Tom Mooney, the romantic, bibulous pre-WWI leftist, than to Lech Walesa, who is very much alive, or at least was when these words were written.
It isn’t that Walesa is unknown; it is that he is substantially uncelebrated. In our day we have made heroes, as distinguished from celebrities, of many Americans, and not a few foreigners. The city was, however briefly, ablaze for Lumumba. Castro’s reception back in 1959 (standing ovation at Harvard) could be compared to Lindbergh’s. The whole world finally decided it was easier to Free Huey Newton than to trip over all those people and signs urging that this be done. Jane Fonda will get standing ovations everywhere, save possibly the White House. Daniel Ellsberg was king of the mountain, until the mountain finally dissolved in Cambodian blood. The list is endless.
Is it that an emotional identification with Walesa is deemed provocative? I sit here wondering (but I shan’t use the telephone to satisfy my curiosity) how many sermons William Sloane Coffin Jr. has given urging help for a man who attends his church every day of the week, and who stands up against tyranny in a way that Ellsberg, Fonda, and Ramsey Clark never did. The late Sir Arnold Lunn, on being named “courageous” at some ceremony or other, interrupted his prepared speech to say that he did not consider himself courageous. “They’re only courageous,” he said, “who risk torture, and killing, and separation from their family. Whatever I have done, in fighting Nazism and Communism, hasn’t, so far as I know, threatened me in the places I regularly inhabit, Great Britain, Switzerland, and the United States.” Walesa’s courage, like Solzhenitsyn’s, is quite simply monumental.
Heroes, more readily than nations, capture the public imagination.
Although it is generally true that the Soviet Union scorns world opinion, it is not unaffected by emphatic demonstrations in the matter of individuals. It was the international concern over Solzhenitsyn that effected his delivery, and most recently Sakharov’s fast, and the emotional concern expressed for his welfare, that got from the Communists the stupendous concession of permitting one young woman to come to the United States to join her husband.
International expressions of concern for Walesa are unlikely to affect Soviet determination to reaffirm their control over Poland. But heroes, more readily than nations, capture the public imagination. And the cause of Poland can be anthropomorphized. True, the Polish government, following orders from Moscow, could deport Walesa. But to do so would be to galvanize the Polish people even beyond their current state of solidarity.
At this writing it isn’t known exactly where he is. Emanations are traced to him. One transmission says that he is broken-hearted. Psychologically disturbed over the adamancy of Solidarity. He wishes, it is said, that the whole thing had been managed differently. Whatever indications we have of Walesa’s “thoughts” during the following few days will have been authorized by the Communists, and concocted by them. Whether, in this day and age, they would submit Walesa to the kind of treatment given to Cardinal Mindszenty in Budapest, which included chasing him about a room naked, with taunts and improvised whips, until his feet were bloody with splinters and the forgers were ready to transcribe his confession, is doubtful. That kind of thing takes a few weeks, sometimes a month or more, and one doubts the Polish surrogates have that kind of time. It can’t be long before either the Polish spirit is broken, and we are left merely with one more Hungary, one more Czechoslovakia: or the Soviets come marching in, on the grounds that nothing but their active presence in the country will be sufficient.
Meanwhile, watch Walesa, and praise his name. It ranks, already, with the names of those whose devotion to their country and its freedom created, against the greatest odds, a communicable joy, resolution, self-transcendence. Free Lech Walesa.
— William F. Buckley Jr. was the founder and editor of National Review.