Barack Obama’s muted and ambivalent response to the events in Iran raises the question whether he cares about the fate of freedom in Iran, and what his attitude toward the Iranian regime is. Does he identify with the regime or its opponents? Does he care?
Ronald Reagan’s reaction to the imposition of martial law in Poland provides an instructive contrast with Obama’s muted reaction. On arriving in office, John O’Sullivan writes in The President, The Pope and the Prime Minister, Reagan had impressed upon his aides that he wanted to be kept well informed on Polish developments. “Less than two weeks after his inauguration,” O’Sullivan relates, “Reagan met with his senior foreign policy advisers to discuss how to undermine Communist power in Poland and discourage Soviet intervention.”
When the Communist government of Poland declared martial law to crush Solidarity on December 12-13, 1981, more than 4,000 Solidarity activists were arrested, Lech Walesa was interned and Solidarity itself was outlawed. Steven Hayward reminds us in his forthcoming The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution: 1980-1989, “the fact that the Soviets had the Poles do their own dirty work provided enough of a fig leaf for Western leaders to downplay the matter.”
Western leaders spoke up to express their understanding of the government’s crackdown on Solidarity. They all but supported it.
Not Ronald Reagan: “Ronald Reagan,” Hayward recounts, “was livid over Poland.” Ed Morrissey notes that Reagan immediately reacted to the imposition of martial law by publicizing his conversation with Pope John Paul II the next day:
The President. “Your Holiness, I want you to know how deeply we feel about the situation in your homeland.”
“I look forward to the time when we can meet in person.”
“Our sympathies are with the people, not the government.”
Reagan elaborated his views three days later at a press conference:
All the information that we have confirms that the imposition of martial law in Poland has led to the arrest and confinement, in prisons and detention camps, of thousands of Polish trade union leaders and intellectuals. Factories are being seized by security forces and workers beaten.
These acts make plain there’s been a sharp reversal of the movement toward a freer society that has been underway in Poland for the past year and a half. Coercion and violation of human rights on a massive scale have taken the place of negotiation and compromise. All of this is in gross violation of the Helsinki Pact, to which Poland is a signatory.
It would be naive to think this could happen without the full knowledge and the support of the Soviet Union. We’re not naive. We view the current situation in Poland in the gravest of terms, particularly the increasing use of force against an unarmed population and violations of the basic civil rights of the Polish people.
Violence invites violence and threatens to plunge Poland into chaos. We call upon all free people to join in urging the Government of Poland to reestablish conditions that will make constructive negotiations and compromise possible.
Certainly, it will be impossible for us to continue trying to help Poland solve its economic problems while martial law is imposed on the people of Poland, thousands are imprisoned, and the legal rights of free trade unions — previously granted by the government — are now denied. We’ve always been ready to do our share to assist Poland in overcoming its economic difficulties, but only if the Polish people are permitted to resolve their own problems free of internal coercion and outside intervention.
Our nation was born in resistance to arbitrary power and has been repeatedly enriched by immigrants from Poland and other great nations of Europe. So we feel a special kinship with the Polish people in their struggle against Soviet opposition to their reforms.
The Polish nation, speaking through Solidarity, has provided one of the brightest, bravest moments of modern history. The people of Poland are giving us an imperishable example of courage and devotion to the values of freedom in the face of relentless opposition. Left to themselves, the Polish people would enjoy a new birth of freedom. But there are those who oppose the idea of freedom, who are intolerant of national independence, and hostile to the European values of democracy and the rule of law.
Two Decembers ago, freedom was lost in Afghanistan; this Christmas, it’s at stake in Poland. But the torch of liberty is hot. It warms those who hold it high. It burns those who try to extinguish it.
Over the two weeks following the imposition of martial law Reagan convened meetings of the National Security Council about the Polish crisis almost daily. Hayward quotes Richard Pipes’s description of “an emotionally charged atmosphere inspired largely by Reagan’s mounting fury.” Reagan derided the “chicken littles” in Europe.
Turning to archival sources, Hayward finds Reagan at the December 22 NSC meeting declaring that this was “the last chance of a lifetime to go against this damned force.” Reagan expressed his disgust in an indignant message to Brezhnev via the hotline on December 23: “[N]othing has so outraged our public opinion as the pressures and threats which your government has exerted on Poland to stifle the stirrings of freedom.” On December 23 Reagan also gave his eloquent speech condemning the Polish crackdown. Reagan declared:
I want emphatically to state tonight that if the outrages in Poland do not cease, we cannot and will not conduct “business as usual” with the perpetrators and those who aid and abet them. Make no mistake, their crime will cost them dearly in their future dealings with America and free peoples everywhere. I do not make this statement lightly or without serious reflection.
What prevents Barack Obama from making a similar declaration? Does he care?