AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
A thick cloud of tear gas covers a city bus in Poland’s southern town of Wroclaw as it approaches the local University Polytechnic. There, police are clashing with students protesting the Soviet government’s ban on the Solidarity trade union. Some students held a banner that read “socialism is equality in poverty,” while others decried the heavy hand of the puppet government in Warsaw. When an armed policeman signaled for the bus driver to pull over, its passengers saw a group of bleeding, badly beaten protestors sitting on the pavement.
In a heroic act, the bus driver turned and pointed to a gothic church on the other side of the road. He opened the back door and pressed the pedal to the floor, feigning engine trouble. Amid the confusion, the passengers found sanctuary in the church, where priests closed the door moments before police approached.
As the men and women were seated in the church, with chaos unfolding outside, one woman began to softly mutter a melody. Then a man joined in, and others started to quietly clap. Quietly at first, then growing louder and bolder, the words became clear: “God bless America, land that I love. Stand beside her, and guide her, through the night with a light from above…”
Although those brave Poles in the pews of that church had likely never sung “God Bless America” out loud, they knew it well – it had commenced a weekly program about America on the forbidden radio station, the American taxpayer-funded Radio Free Europe. Suddenly, in that moment, it was clear that people were united by one soul and spirit.
As they sang, the wind unfurled a Polish and American flag which a priest had placed in front of the church. As they prayed, they asked God to take their fear and instead replace it with optimism and hope. They asked Him to bless both Poland and the United States, knowing well how much the ideological roots of their movement owed to America.
As Americans gather each year on the fourth of July to celebrate Independence Day, it often goes unremarked just how significant this day and what it represents is for the rest of the world as well. With the dawn of the American experiment, a great seismic shift occurred in history. That same indomitable spirit which animated the Founding Fathers has continued to reverberate across the centuries and continents, sustaining freedom-loving peoples everywhere.
One such time and place where the power of this American Spirit was acutely impactful was indeed behind the Iron Curtain, as the Soviet Union set out to crush every last vestige of the United States and the West. Yet in the deepest pits of Soviet oppression, the mere sight of an American flag displayed in a show of defiance seemed a ray of light in an otherwise darkened world.
As Alexis de Tocqueville observed when discussing the United States, liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith – a basic truth that informed resistance to the Soviet regime throughout the Communist bloc. To the many millions who toiled behind the Iron Curtain, the hope provided by America and the church were one and the same; they both represented a purity of ideals and goodness that was utterly lacking in the Soviet regime.
It is unsurprising, then, that just as the Soviets attempted to demonize and discredit the church, so too did they wage a war on all things American. Just as the authorities sought to slander priests and the Pope, they published false histories of the United States for use in schools, characterizing America as a racist, exploitative, neocolonial place with no redeeming qualities (not unlike the false account of their history and culture that many American students are tragically subject to today).
Recognizing this trend – and understanding the power of the American story to oppressed peoples around the world – Pope John Paul II upon his visit to Poland in 1987 wove American principles into his teachings, what American philosopher Michael Novak called a “spirit of democratic capitalism.”
With his homilies, John Paul II aimed to convince Poles that the American philosophy of life based on respect for the inalienable dignity of the individual, the rule of law, and compassion for the poor has an inherently greater moral and spiritual power than the idea of socialism. The Pope specifically pointed to “four guiding principles” for Catholic life. Three of those four, “the right to liberty, the right to justice, and the right to truth,” draw heavily from the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and the Pope, like the signers of the American Declaration of Independence, recognized that all humans are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
And so it went, with the definition of America and what it represents becoming a central battleground in the Soviet attempts to brainwash and subjugate the populations under their control. From propaganda films decrying American liberty as a fantasy and portraying the American people as immoral and corrupt, to the imprisonment and torture of hundreds of people deemed too pro-America, the Soviets desperately tried to eradicate the very idea of America as a land of freedom and opportunity.
But such is the genius of the American Spirit that it does not require extreme propaganda efforts to ignite the imagination and desires of the human person. On the contrary, being able to pass unimpeded through the thickest walls, it speaks softly and directly to the depths of the soul.
So as Americans commemorate their independence today, they should also understand that their national epic has given hope to millions around the globe still toiling under oppression. Their history is a proud one that is, most assuredly, worth celebrating.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian and researcher.