Lech Wałęsa and Chicago
May 8th, 2012Filed under: Stories
As part of CHM’s Studs Terkel Center for Oral History, we’ve started an initiative called the Chicago Cold War Oral History Project. Five of us, two staff members and three interns from DePaul University’s public history program, have researched, conducted, and transcribed interviews about the Cold War’s impact on Chicago.
This global conflict affected the city hugely through its residents. Many people living here fled communist dictatorships. Others settled in this area as refugees from wars spawned by conflicts between the Soviet Union and the United States. Thus far, we have interviewed people from Bosnia, Ethiopia, Latvia, Russia, and Serbia. We have also talked with members of the US military, the Communist Party of the United States, an artist and peace activist, and many others.
Chicago has long been known as the second largest Polish city, after Poland’s capital Warsaw. This past February former Polish President Lech Wałęsa visited Chicago to receive the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library Foundation’s Lincoln Leadership Prize. At that time, the Foundation arranged for me to interview President Wałęsa as part of our Cold War project.
In three words, it was cool. I had high expectations for an interview with someone of Wałęsa’s stature. I hoped I wouldn’t be disappointed. Delivering newspapers as a kid, I remembered seeing Wałęsa on the front page many times. He worked as an electrician and union leader in the Gdańsk, Poland shipyards from the 1960s to the 1980s. As an activist, Wałęsa stood up to Poland’s communist dictatorship through non-violent means, and in 1990 became the country’s first post-communist Polish president. In the mid-1980s, he was the third most admired man in the United States, behind then-President Ronald Reagan and fellow Pole Pope John Paul II. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983.
For the interview, President Wałęsa came into the hotel conference room where I was waiting for him, shook everyone’s hand, and was then ready to talk. Chicago Polonia supported Wałęsa’s efforts in the 1980s with money, food, and clothing.
Through his interpreter, I asked him about that support. He described a spirited and mutually respectful relationship between his movement and Chicago’s Polish American communities. He even attributed his movement’s victory to Polish support around the world, saying “We would have never won the victory without Polish solidarity in itself.” Wałęsa also talked about communist Polish agents keeping Polish Americans under surveillance, and the difficulty of communicating with Chicago. In an era before social media and cell phones, he relied on landline telephones constantly monitored by the Polish dictatorship.
Wałęsa’s most interesting comments came in response to my question about the Arab Spring revolutions. “…[E]verything that has been happening in the Arab countries,” he argued, “…[and] the protests elsewhere, like there was the Occupy Wall Street movement here in the United States, have been protests against capitalism.” He went on to claim that capitialism was a good system, but it needed reform and monitoring. With that last comment, he rushed off to his next interview about the current state of the world.
Do you have any memories of the Cold War that you’d like to share? If so, please leave a comment.
Listen to Lech Wałęsa talk about communist Poland: