Forty years ago, in 1983, personal curiosity, academic study, and love for people who risk all for freedom – led me to Communist Poland. By incalculable luck, I stayed with one of Solidarity’s nine leaders, Antoni Stawikowski, and his wonderful family. What he and others did back then, resisting a ruthless government, is an example and may be indicative of 2023.
Caution is wise, but three nations – the people of three nations – are showing revulsion at totalitarian-style repression, one resisting an autocrat, another a ruthless theocracy, and the third Communism. The three are – with rich cultural pasts – Ukrainians, Iranians, and Chinese.
Importantly, many of those brave Poles – like Dr. Stawikowski and Lech Walesa – resisted Soviet Communism in a paced way, knowing good things take time. They knew the fight would be extended, not over in a flash, and might end up deadly, not entirely peaceful. They were right.
They knew undoing decades of institutionalized degradation and suppression of self-rule would take – to borrow from Winston Churchill – “blood, sweat, and tears.” They knew what lay ahead would come at great personal cost, even if they did not back down, especially then. They dug in for the long haul and did not back down.
Historically, once the appetite for freedom begins to build, call it a “freedom wave,” it tends to persist. The Poles’ freedom wave did not crack or crash, even under withering totalitarian pressure, even facing death. All the Poles asked of us, America, was moral support. We gave it.
Somehow, in the 1980s, culturally and spiritually empowering momentum built inside Poland. At first, people doubted this wave would persist, but it did. It became irresistible. Briefly living among them, I could feel it. They knew this was the time, their duty. They became the wave.
When you witness something of that enormity, seeing a “freedom wave” gather strength, rise, tower, and crest after decades of oppression – and crest in just a decade – the thing is inspiring. When you see similar clouds gather, you begin to wonder. Is this another freedom wave?
Whether the battlespace in eastern Ukraine is such a wave, the sort that will stop Putin’s expansion – the way the West might have stopped Hitler in 1939 – is unclear. Whether protestors in Iran, disgusted with unending horrors, can hold on is also unclear. And whether, by the grace of God, nationwide protests in China against communist lockdowns might trigger follow-on protests – is even less clear. But moral courage is surely afoot – and we should say so.
No one has a crystal ball, and no two events in history, despite unchanging qualities of human nature, repeat exactly. But something is building, a quest for freedom. Our moral support is called for – and will help keep the wave coming. We are invariably accused of interference, so we might as well speak our mind in support of those who are risking all for freedom.
Ukrainians are saying they are done with Putin’s assumption they belong to him. They are saying, you can brutalize us individually, but together we will not back down. Iranians are not halting their protests – even as they get executed. They have had it. And Chinese protestors forced the Communist government’s hand, forcing them to abandon “zero COVID” lockdowns. Freedom is like a freight train; once it gets rolling, momentum builds.
So, where will these “freedom waves” lead? Could one of the three find a way to flip tyranny the way Poland did and produce free elections within the decade? Could the power of coercion have met its match? Could one of these population change history, forever throw off the oppressor, and leave their oppression – autocratic, theocratic, or communist naked and illegitimate?
The answer is: We do not yet know. But few thought Poland – or the Soviet Union – would ever see freedom. The power of people, combining for an irresistible “freedom wave,” delivered it.
That is the nub, right there. When a people – any people – recognize their God-given rights affirmed by conscience, then watch out. They become strong and can throw off illegitimate impositions on their humanity, suppression of rights to “life, liberty, and … happiness.”
And a wave that persists is likely to grow, may rise until it towers, falling on decades of oppression. Each of these people has the potential for an irresistible freedom wave, even if different. Freedom-hungry people risk death in pursuit of dignity, all for basic rights, and often win the fight. It happens. Any of these nations could become the leading edge of change.
Often, things move so fast – or so slowly – that we miss them, initially. But that does not mean something life-changing is not happening, quietly building. “Freedom waves” – like those built to free Poland and other Soviet-dominated nations, were like that.
Notably, “freedom waves” did the same in places like the Philippines, India, and Panama, and even in America. The courage that comes from a people denied freedom is strong.
Not every “freedom wave” that begins persists, as evidenced by Tiananmen in 1989, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1967, and many other failed waves. But once the “freedom wave” finally gathers, you can feel it. Something all-powerful, irrepressible lurks. In 2023, from history and experience, one has a strange sense that distant “freedom waves” are forming.
We shall see – and interestingly so will Lech Walesa and Dr. Antoni Stawikowski – both alive and living today, in a free and prosperous Poland. They envisioned it. They fought for it. They believed in the power of the “freedom wave.” And they made it so. Who … may be next?
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.