As President Donald Trump visits Poland this week, he will find a country steeped in history, much of it relevant to the issues of today. He will also be following a path taken by many predecessors in the Oval Office, who came to Warsaw at critical moments to affirm American support for Polish security and independence.
I witnessed three of those previous visits as a member of the U.S. embassy staff in the late 1970s and again in the mid-’90s. The Warsaw stops by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 and President Bill Clinton in 1994 and 1997 were all fraught with drama and political meaning worth re-examining today.
When Carter came to Warsaw 40 years ago (Dec. 29-31, 1977), Poland was still ruled by an unloved communist government. To demonstrate American solidarity with the Polish people, rather than their government, Carter laid wreaths at historic monuments, met with Catholic Church leaders and dissidents, held a news conference televised live and uncensored, and promised more agricultural credits to make up for Poland’s failing grain production. When the trade union/anti-government political movement Solidarity was born fewer than three years later, Poles knew we were on the side of the angels.
By the time Clinton arrived in 1994, the communist system had been cast into the junkyard of history and the urgent question for Poles now had become how to guarantee their newfound independence against a feared resurgence by Russia, which Poles calculated had invaded their country more than 20 times over the centuries.
Clinton brought the wanted answer, telling the Polish Parliament that collective security through membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a question of “not whether, but how and when.” He delivered on that promise three years later when he returned to Warsaw, 20 years ago this week, to announce that Poland — along with Hungary and then-Czechoslovakia — was invited to join the alliance.
Poles will be looking for reassurances from Trump that the U.S. commitment to collective security, so crucial to the future of their own country and all of Europe, remains solid. The doubts on that score sown by candidate Trump during last year’s campaign raised old fears of abandonment, as when Poland and all of Central Europe were consigned against their will to the Soviet sphere of influence at Yalta during World War II.
Poles also remember that when their “Home Army” rose up against their Nazi occupiers on Aug. 1, 1944, they fought on alone, with no help from the Allies or the Red Army, which was then camped just across the Vistula River but did not respond. Some 200,000 Poles died in that two-month battle, more than three times the number of Americans who died in our decadelong war in Vietnam.
Poland is currently governed not by Lech Walesa and the other heroes of the long struggle against communism, but by a right-wing faction that sees eye to eye with Trump on issues such as immigration, climate change and opposition to European Union rules. The latter is especially ironic since gaining membership in the E.U., along with NATO, was a national quest for Poland after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Membership in these two Western clubs has brought Poland unaccustomed peace and prosperity after a long period of oppression and occupation by the Nazis, then the Russians. Poles continue to fear an eventual Russian effort to regain dominance, through subversion and intimidation if not direct invasion. Russian interference in the Crimea and elsewhere in eastern Ukraine stoked those fears.
So this is where Trump comes in. Will he warn Russian President Vladimir Putin to keep his hands off Poland, Ukraine, Estonia and the other Baltic nations? And, for that matter, to quit interfering in our own country or face severe consequences? Or will he confine himself to rhetoric, historic bromides and jibes at fellow Western leaders?
Poland is a serious country with a deep history. It’s no place for an apprentice.
Dick Virden, of Plymouth, is a retired senior foreign service officer.