EDITOR’S NOTE: These two essays on the topic, “Why President Ronald Reagan deserves a street of his name in my town,” were the winners of last year’s Ronald Reagan essay contest, sponsored by AEI’s New Atlantic Initiative, Rzeczpospolita, the Adam Smith Research Centre, the Dell Corporation, and the Committee to Commemorate the Merits of Ronald Reagan in Poland. Ebner won in the high-school category, Paterek in the college category. The essays were submitted in June 2003 and have been translated from their original Polish.
I was born in 1989, two months before the memorable, free parliamentary elections, first in the post-war Poland. The communist system had been overthrown; my motherland had regained its full sovereignty. Luckily I only know about the past from my parents’ stories. My brothers, sisters, and I now live our lives happily in a free country and an undivided world. What we find widely available and take for granted, a dozen years ago was still an unrealistic dream.
Although protests aiming to expand some freedoms in Poland took place repeatedly, with the largest one in 1980, and even though there was no shortage of heroic people, who were willing to suffer in prisons or even die for this great cause, the world seemed to be eternally divided, and the communist system unshakable and winning. The Western world, in which we often hoped in illusion, was stuffed and satisfied, and did not show any willingness to change the status quo. How is it that in such a short period of time, without any wars and the spilling of blood, such fundamental changes took place in the world?
There were two men, who had a crucial influence on the course of history in the last decades of the twentieth century. They both entered the stage of world politics almost simultaneously. They were Pope John Paul II and President Ronald Reagan. Their deeds proved wrong one of the major thesis of communism, which states that it is not individuals but the masses who play a major role in shaping history. Their courageous visions, strength of the spirit, and courage led to the demolition of the iron curtain and freed dozens of millions of people from the totalitarian power. They freed us from the slave cottage and walked us through the Red Sea to the promised land. They took different paths to reach the same goal. George Weigel writes about it in John Paul II’s autobiography titled Witness to Hope.
The Pope and the president shared common beliefs. Both believed that communism is a moral evil and not just an unconventional economy. Both believed in the power of free people to challenge communism. They were both convinced that victory is possible over communism, not just by its adjustment. They also felt that the end of the twentieth century would be dramatic and that the spoken word of truth would undermine communist lies and raise the people to shake off the servitude.
Yes, my parents reminisce how the president’s remarks about the “evil empire” encouraged them. Until then, the world around them seemed to go into the direction of the Orwellian vision. However, those remarks showed that there was light at the end of the tunnel. They brought hope that there is someone who is ready to fight the evil.
I think that the president’s attitude was influenced not only by his personal wisdom and courage, but also by the fact that he was so rooted in the history of his motherland, representing its best traditions and ideals. These ideals and America’s mission were mentioned by John Paul II at his meeting with President Reagan in 1987 during the visit to the United States:
“From the beginning of American history freedom has served to create a well organized society and to develop its peaceful existence. Freedom helped to reach the fullness of human existence, to preserve human dignity and to protect human rights. The experience in freedom regulated by law is an integral part of American history.
“This is the freedom whose experience, protection and handing to future generations, is America’s calling. America is predestined to implement freedom in such a way that also serves the freedom of other nations and other people. (…)
“In a difficult moment in his country’s history, a great American, Abraham Lincoln, spoke about a special mission ’so that this nation under God becomes the witness of a new birth of freedom.’”
We owe to President Ronald Reagan the fact that in 1989 Poland and the world became the witness of the new birth of freedom. Today this means that I can study history which is not falsified, express my very own opinions, and manifest my religion. It also means that I have access to various goods, whose sale is not constrained and limited anymore, and that I can travel and go on vacation abroad without any obstacles.
Taking advantage of the regained freedom, we should not forget the evils of the past. It has to be remembered as a warning because “evil empires” keep returning, though in different shapes. We also have to keep the grateful memory of those who helped us in the liberation.
Thanks to President Ronald Reagan, I am free. That is why the president entirely deserves a street in his name in my city and in many other towns in Poland.
Under the banner of victory
In the shadow of Statue of Liberty
Stands Ronald Reagan
Head of State, sheriff of justice.
Calm and decisive he seems
With his thorough look
And together with John Paul they see
That communism is the freedom’s enemy
So they protect human dignity
All over the world
Strength of these two people
Smashed the Berlin wall.
They destroyed the danger
New Europe came to life.
High unemployment. Diminishing confidence in major institutions of the state. Frustration encompassing the entire society. No, this is not the picture of Poland in mid-2003. It is the condition of the United States twenty-three years ago. When in the fall of 1980 Americans elected Ronald Reagan president, many thought they had gone crazy. Reagan’s presidential campaign slogan–”Let’s make America powerful again”–smelled of sheer populism. The president’s age raised doubts too: the almost seventy-year-old Reagan was the oldest president in the American history. People were wondering if he would live up to the challenges, which were part of this incredibly responsible job. History proved that these fears were unjustified. Reagan–California’s former governor and Hollywood’s star–proved that he could be both a charismatic leader and a true head of state.
Reagan did not like to make promises he could not keep. He promised to fix the American economy, and right after taking office he focused that task. The key element of his program became an enormous tax cut (25 percent), which was unprecedented in the United States. As a believer in a limited state, he decentralized the federal government, transferring many prerogatives to the states. Finally, by diminishing the bureaucracy, he decided to stop the waste of public money. These reforms, most of all the tax cut, led the United States from recession to recovery and economic growth. Freed from high taxes, consumers began spending more money, and companies increased investments. The inflation rate dropped from 12 percent in 1981 to 3-4 percent in 1986. Most significantly, unemployment went down too. In 1982–when Reagan took office–it was at the level of 10.6 percent, the highest since 1940. When Reagan’s second term came to an end, unemployment was already cut by half. I dream of a Polish politician, who would be able–like Reagan–to bring back optimism to his countrymen and empower the country.
Why do we love Ronald Reagan? To answer this question, we need to go back twenty years to Orlando, Florida.
It was March 8, 1983. President Reagan was to deliver a speech to a conservative evangelical audience. His speech would have certainly passed without much media attention, were it not for one journalist who took note of the term, which the president used to describe the Soviet Union–the evil empire. These words made news all over the world, including Poland. Here nobody had any doubt that the American president had used the right description and called the Soviet Union by its name.
It was Ronald Reagan who led the western anti-communist crusade. He supported Afghan mujahedin, arming them with “Stinger” weapons. He stopped the Russian expansion in the Caribbean in Grenada. He provided weapons to anti-communist partisans in Nicaragua, where Ortega’s government was transforming the country into a Soviet colony. Reagan also supported opposition movements such as Solidarity in the communist countries in Eastern Europe.
Reagan helped us most, however, in December 1981 when he decided to punish Poland’s communist regime with economic sanctions. This was his answer to the martial law proclaimed by General Jaruzelski. Those sanctions contributed to ending the martial law, freeing political prisoners and forcing the authorities to resume dialogue with the Church and Solidarity.
For a moment, let’s go back again to March 1983. Two weeks after the memorable speech in Florida, the networks transmit Reagan’s address to the nation. America listens carefully. What the president says catches everyone by surprise–he announces that he had just approved the Strategic Defense Initiative–a system that would destroy Russian missiles fired in the direction of the United States in space. The American media vehemently attacks this idea. Some commentators react hysterically and foresee a nuclear attack from Moscow. Others ridicule the project, coining the term “star wars.”
Nothing of what those television “experts” prophesized came true and they must have been quite surprised to see what followed: the Russians were suddenly willing to negotiate the reduction of nuclear arsenals; the relations with the Soviet Union improved; Reagan-Gorbachev summits became almost a routine, and in December 1987 the two leaders signed a treaty in Washington, which eliminated mid-range missiles.
By increasing the military budget, Reagan brought back to the American military the glory and pride that were overshadowed by Vietnam. His great achievement was to impose an arms race on the Soviet Union, which the Russian economy could not sustain. Reagan exposed the communist system’s major weaknesses–the discouragement to take any initiative on part of its citizens.
The crumbling of communism now picked up speed. In 1988, Moscow made the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. In June 1989, the first semi-free parliamentary elections took place in Poland and ended with Solidarity’s spectacular victory. At the end of that year the Berlin Wall fell, and Czechoslovakia witnessed its Velvet Revolution. The general who took charge in this battle and the man who won the Cold War was Ronald Reagan.
I envy the Berliners who sixteen years ago could see and listen to Ronald Reagan utter the words: “MR. GORBACHEV, [TEAR] DOWN THIS WALL!” I have written them in capital letters intentionally, although it is impossible to convey how they raised the spirits of the Germans who were present at that speech. This short sentence says a lot about the feelings in the late eighties in this part of Europe, when millions came out on streets demanding significant changes, and when mutiny was in the air. . . at the same time these words say a lot about Reagan himself and his political style. His courage and decisiveness were the qualities that inspired Poles who chose to implement democracy and free market reforms fourteen years ago. We already have an Avenue of the United States in Warsaw. There is also a George Washington Circle and a Wilson Place. Why not honor the man that we owe so much? As a native of Warsaw, a Pole, a European, and a friend of America I am waiting impatiently for the Ronald Reagan Street in my city.