We the people
Lech Wałęsa addresses joint session of the United States Congress
November 15, 1989
For only the third time in history, a foreigner who is not a head of state addresses a joint meeting of the United States Congress. Lech Wałęsa visited Washington, D.C. just a few days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He is a symbol of the bloodless and effective fight against communism. In his address, he notes that Poland’s ambitions for freedom – indeed, the whole region’s ambitions – have not yet been fulfilled. The transformation process can only be successful with the active involvement of the West.
Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, members of the Cabinet, distinguished members of the House and Senate.
“We the People”. With these words I wish to begin my address. I do not need to remind anyone here where these words come from. And I do not need to explain that I – an electrician from Gdansk – am also entitled to invoke them.
I stand before you as the third foreign non-head of state invited to address the joint Houses of Congress of the United States. This Congress, which, for many people in the world, oppressed and stripped of their rights, is a beacon of freedom and a bulwark of human rights. And here, I stand before you, to speak to America in the name of my nation. To speak to citizens of the country and the continent whose threshold is guarded by the famous Statue of Liberty. It is for me an honor so great, a moment so solemn, that I cannot find anything to compare it with.
People in Poland link the name of the United States with freedom and democracy, with generosity and high mindedness, with human friendship and friendly humanity. I realize that not everywhere is America so perceived. I speak of her image in Poland. This image has been strengthened by numerous favorable historical experiences, and it is very well known that Poles repay warm heartedness in kind.
The world remembers the wonderful principle of American democracy: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
I do remember these words. I, a shipyard worker from Gdańsk, have devoted my entire life, along with other members of the Solidarity movement, to the service of this idea: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Against privilege and monopoly. Against violations of the law. Against the trampling of human dignity. Against contempt and injustice.
Such, in fact, are the principles and values reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln and the founding fathers of the American Republic, as well as the principles and ideas of the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. These principles are pursued by the great Polish Solidarity movement; a movement that is effective.
I know that Americans are idealistic, but at the same time, practical people, endowed with common sense and capable of logical action. They combine these features with belief in the ultimate victory of right over wrong. But they prefer effective work to making speeches, and I understand them very well. I am not a fan of speeches. I prefer facts and work. I treasure effectiveness.
Ladies and gentleman, the fundamental and most important thing that I would like to tell you about is that the social movement bearing the beautiful name “Solidarity”, born of the Polish nation, is an effective movement. After many long years of struggle, it bore fruit and the results are there for all to see today. It set the direction and developed a way of action that has affected the lives of millions of people speaking different languages. It has swayed monopolies,
And the struggle was conducted without resorting to violence of any kind, a point that cannot be stressed too much. We were being locked up in prisons, deprived of our jobs, beaten, and sometimes killed. And we did not so much as strike a single person. We did not destroy anything. We did not smash a single window pane. But we were stubborn. Very stubborn. Ready to suffer, to make sacrifices. We knew what we wanted, and our power prevailed in the end.
The Solidarity movement received much support and scored victories, because at all times and in all matters, it opted for the better, more human, and more dignified solutions, standing against brutality and hate.
It was a consistent and persistent movement, never giving up. And that is why after all these hard years, marked by so many tragic moments, Solidarity is today succeeding and showing the way to millions of people in Poland and other countries.
Ladies and gentleman, it was ten years ago, in August 1980, that the famous strike began in the Gdansk shipyards that led to the emergence of the first independent trade union in communist countries, and soon became a vast social movement, supported by the Polish nation. I was ten years younger then, unknown to anybody but my friends in the shipyard, and somewhat slimmer. And I must frankly say that it was important. I was an unemployed man at that time, fired from my job for earlier attempts to organize workers in the fight for their rights. I jumped over the shipyard wall and rejoined my former colleagues, who promptly appointed me leader of the strike. This is how it all began.
When I recall the road we travelled, I often think of that jump over the fence. Now others jump fences and tear down walls. They do it because freedom is a human right. But there is also another reflection that comes to mind when I think of the road behind us. In those days, at the beginning, many warnings, admonitions, and even condemnations reached us from many parts of the world.
“What are those Poles up to?” we heard. “They are mad!” “They are jeopardizing world peace and European stabilit!” “They ought to stay quiet and not get on anybody’s nerves”. From those voices we gathered that other nations have the right to live in comfort and prosperity, they have the right to democracy and freedom, and it is only Poles who should give up these rights so as not to disturb the peace of others.
In the days before the Second World War there were many people who asked: “Why should we die for Gdańsk, isn’t it better to stay home?” But war soon paid them a visit. And they had to start dying, for Paris, for London, for Hawaii. This time, too, there were many who complained: “There is that Gdansk again, disturbing our peace!”
But the recent developments in Gdańsk carried a different message. This is not the beginning, but the true end of that war. That was the beginning of a new, better, democratic, and safe era in the history of our world. It is no longer a question of “dying for Gdańsk”, but of “living for it”.
Looking at what is happening around us today, we may affirm that the path of struggle followed by Poland in quest of human rights, a struggle without violence and characterized by typical Polish stubbornness and firmness in the quest for pluralism and democracy, shows many people today, and even nations, how to avoid the greatest dangers of conflict.
If there is something threatening European stability today it is certainly not Poland. Poland is driving towards its own profound transformation; transformation achieved through peaceful means, through evolution, negotiated with all the parties concerned, which makes it possible to avoid the worst. And perhaps is held up as a model for many other regions. For, as we know, changes elsewhere are not so peaceful. Peacefully and prudently, with their eyes open to danger but not giving up what is right and necessary, the Poles gradually paved a way for historic transformations.
We are joined along this way, to various extents, by others: Hungarians and Russians, Ukrainians and the people from the Baltic states, Armenians and Georgians, and in recent days East Germans. We wish them luck and rejoice each success they achieve. We are certain that others will also take road we have followed, as there is no other choice!
So now I ask, is there is any sensible man understanding the world around him who could justifiably say today that it would be better for the Poles to keep quiet, because what they are doing is jeopardizing world peace? Could we even dare say that Poles are doing more to preserve and consolidate peace than many of their frightened advisors? Could we not say that stability and peace is under greater threat from countries which have not yet brought themselves to carry out far-reaching and comprehensive reforms, which do their utmost to preserve the old and disgraced ways of government, contrary to the wishes of their societies?
Things are different in Poland. And I must say that our task is viewed with understanding by our Eastern neighbors and their leader Mikhail Gorbachev. This understanding lays the foundation for new relations between Poland and the Soviet Union, relations which are much better than before. These improved mutual relations will also contribute to stabilization and peace in Europe, removing useless tensions.
The Poles have a long and difficult history, and no one wants more than we do peaceful coexistence and friendship with all nations and countries, and particularly with the Soviet Union. We believe that it is only now that the right and favorable conditions for such coexistence and friendship are emerging. Poland is making an important contribution to a better future for Europe, to European reconciliation. And also to the vast and important Polish-German reconciliation. To overcoming all the divisions and the strengthening of human rights on our continent. But it does not come easily for Poland.
In the Second World War, Poland was the first country to fall victim to aggression. Her losses in terms of human life and national property were the heaviest. Her fight was the longest; she was always a dedicated member of the victorious alliance and her soldiers fought in all the world theatres. In 1945 Poland was, theoretically speaking, one of the victors. Theory, however, had little in common with practice.
In practice, as her allies looked on in passive consent, an alien system of government was imposed in Poland, without a president in the Polish tradition, unaccepted by the nation, together with an alien economy, an alien law, and an alien philosophy of social relations. The legal Polish government, recognized by the nation, and leading the struggle of all Poles throughout the war was condemned, and those who remained faithful to it were subjected to the most ruthless persecution. Many were murdered. Thousands vanished somewhere into Russia’s East and North. Civilian repression without soldiers of the underground army that fought the Nazis. And it is only now that we are discovering their bones in unmarked graves scattered among the forests.
This was followed by persecutions of all those who dared to think independently. All the solemn pledges about free elections in Poland that were made in Yalta were broken. It was the second great national catastrophe following the catastrophe of 1939. When other nations were joyously celebrating victory, Poland was again sinking into mourning.
The awareness of this tragedy was doubly bitter, as the Poles realized that they had been abandoned by their allies. The memory of this is still strong in the minds of many. Nevertheless, the Poles took to rebuilding their devastated country, and in the first years following the war they were highly successful. But soon a new economic system was introduced, in which individual entrepreneurship ceased to exist, and the entire economy ended up in the hands of the state, run by people who were not elected by the nation.
Stalin forbade Poland to use aid provided by the Marshall Plan; aid that was used by everyone in Western Europe, including countries which lost the war. It is worth recalling now that great American plan which helped Western Europe to protect its freedom and peaceful order. And now is the moment when Eastern Europe awaits an investment of this kind, an investment in freedom, democracy, and peace. An investment adequate to the greatness of the American nation.
The Poles have travelled a long way. It would be worthwhile for all those commenting on Poland, often criticizing Poland, to bear in mind that, whatever Poland has achieved, she achieved through her own effort, through her own stubbornness, her own relentlessness. Everything was achieved thanks to the unflinching faith of our nation in human dignity, and in what is described as the values of Western culture and civilization. Our nation well knows the price of all this.
Ladies and gentleman, for the past fifty years, the Polish nation has been engaged in a difficult and exhausting battle. First to preserve its very biological existence. Later to save its national identity. In both instances, Polish determination was there. Today, Poland is rejoining the family of democratic and pluralistic countries, returning to the tradition of religious and European values. For the first time in half a century, Poland has a non-communist and independent government supported by the nation.
But in our past there looms a serious obstacle. A great danger. Our long subjection to a political system incompatible with national traditions, to an economic system incompatible with rationality and common sense, coupled with a stifling of independent thought and disregard for national interest has led the Polish economy to ruin, to the verge of utter catastrophe. The first government in fifty years elected by the people and serving the people has inherited from the previous rulers of the country the burden of an economy organized in a manner which prevents it from satisfying even the basic needs of its people.
The economy we inherited after almost five decades of communist rule is in need of overhaul. This will require patience and great sacrifice. This will require time and means. The present condition of the Polish economy is not due to change, as it is not specifically a Polish predicament. All the countries of the Eastern Bloc are bankrupt today. The communist economy has failed in every part of the world. One result of this is the exile of citizens of those countries, by land and by sea, by boat and by plane, swimming and walking across borders. This is a mass scale phenomenon, well known in Europe, Asia, and Central America.
But Poland has taken its new road and will never be turned back. The sense of our work and struggle in Poland lies in our creating situations and prospects that would hold Poles back from seeking a place for themselves abroad; that would encourage them to seek meaning in their work and hope for a better future in their own country, their own home. One sometimes hears that people in Poland do not care to work well. But even those who say this know that Poles work well and effectively, if only they see the sense and usefulness of their work. The working people know their arithmetic too. They are working much harder and in worse conditions than their opposite numbers abroad, and on top of that, they are paid much lower wages. The economic system around them is absurd. To make matters worse, every several or dozen years, the country suffered a new crisis, a new crunch, and time and time again it has turned out that past efforts went to waste. Show me the people who would have worked well stuck for decades under such a system. Wouldn’t they too have succumbed to pessimism?
The system has to be changed and the Poles have taken it upon themselves to change it. I know that America has her own problems and difficulties, some of them very serious. We are not asking for charity, we are not expecting philanthropy. But we would like to see our country treated as a partner and a friend. We would like cooperation under decent and favorable conditions. We would like Americans to come to us with proposals of cooperation, bringing benefits to both sides. We believe that assistance, extended to democracy and freedom in Poland and all of Eastern Europe, is the best investment in the future and in peace, better than tanks, warships, and warplanes; an investment leading to greater security.
Poland has already done much to patch up the divisions existing in Europe, to create better and more optimistic prospects. Poland’s efforts are viewed with sympathetic interest by the West; and for this thanks are in order. We believe that the West’s contribution to the process will now grow. We have heard many beautiful words of encouragement. These are appreciated, but being a worker and a man of concrete work I must tell you that the supply of words on the world market is plentiful, but the demand is falling. Let deeds follow words now.
The decision by the Congress of the United States about granting economic aid to my country opens a new road. For this wonderful decision, I thank you warmly. And I promise you that “this” aid will not be wasted and will never be forgotten.
Ladies and gentleman, from this podium I am expressing words of gratitude to the American people. It is they who supported us in the difficult days of Martial Law and persecution. It is they who sent us aid. They protested against violence. Today, when I am able to freely address the whole world from this elevated spot, I would like to thank them with special words. It is thanks to them that the world “Solidarity” soared across borders and has reached every corner of the world, and thanks to them the people of Solidarity were never alone.
In this chain of people linked to Solidarity there were many, many Americans. I wish to mention here with warm gratitude our friends from the United States Congress, the AFL-CIO trade unions, from the institutions and foundations supporting freedom and democracy, and all those who lent us support in our most difficult moments. They live in all states, in large and small communities of your vast country.
I thank all those who through the airwaves or printed word “spread the truth”. I also wish to say thank you and to greet all Polish-Americans who maintained warm contact with their old fatherland. Their support was always priceless for us.
I wholeheartedly thank the President of the United States and his administration for its involvement in my country’s affairs. I will never forget the then Vice-President, George Bush, speaking over the tomb of the reverent Jerzy Popiełuszko, the martyr of Poland. And I will never forget President George Bush speaking in Gdansk, in front of the monument of the falling shipyard workers. It is from there that the President of the United States was sending a message of freedom to Poland, to Europe, to the world.
Pope John Paul II once said: “Freedom is not just something to have and to use, it is something to be fought for; one must use freedom to build one’s personal life as well as the life of the nation.” I think this weighted thought can equally well be applied to Poland and America. I wish all of you to know and to keep in mind that the ideals which underline this glorious American Republic, and which are still alive here, are also alive and well in faraway Poland. And although for many long years efforts were made to cut Poland off from these ideals, she held her ground and is now reaching for the freedom to which she is justly entitled.
Together with Poland, other nations of Eastern Europe are following this path. The wall that separated people from freedom has collapsed.