Christmas 1981 Heralded the Collapse of Communism in Poland

COMMENTARY: Forty years ago, Soviet communists tried to turn out the lights. But like a candle in the White House window, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II and the people of Poland kept a flicker of hope alive.

Clockwise L-R: T-55A on the streets during Martial law in Poland. President Ronald Reagan with Pope John Paul II. ZOMO squads with police batons preparing to disperse and beat protesters.
Clockwise L-R: T-55A on the streets during Martial law in Poland. President Ronald Reagan with Pope John Paul II. ZOMO squads with police batons preparing to disperse and beat protesters. (photo: Public domain)

Forty years ago, on Dec. 13, 1981, late night, darkness overcame Poland, the homeland of Pope John Paul II and the only country in the Soviet bloc where the communist war on religion had not only failed but backfired. 

Crucial to that failure had been not only the Polish Pope, but Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement, which the communists had reluctantly permitted to legally organize in August 1980. 

In retrospect, what a mistake it had been. By December 1981, every man and his sister, brother and mother belonged to the independent, anti-Soviet, pro-Catholic Church trade union. It had become a movement of mass resistance to Soviet Communism.

The communists decided that enough was enough. They had already done everything in their power to stop the Polish Pope, who seven months earlier, on May 13, 1981, the feast day of Our Lady of Fatima, was nearly assassinated. The Kremlin badly wanted to eliminate Pope John Paul II, and it equally wanted to eliminate Solidarity. Dec. 13 was their big chance. 

That night, at midnight, all hell broke loose in Poland. In Warsaw, in Krakow, in Gdansk, in industrial and mining areas, gunshots rang out, tanks appeared, sirens wailed, police trucks raced down streets, and Solidarity members were arrested. Thousands of union leaders, dissidents and intellectuals were shipped off to internment camps.

Walesa and other Solidarity figures in Gdansk were cut off from their headquarters, where all phone lines were severed. Walesa was detained in an undisclosed location. An estimated 5,000 to 50,000 persons were seized without trial. There were hundreds of reported fatalities.

It was a Sunday, the Lord’s Day. That was strangely appropriate, given that this was how communists treated the things of Our Lord.

The entire country was placed under curfew, with army checkpoints set up everywhere. Governors of four provinces were replaced by military men. All flights in and out of the country were banned, except for Soviet planes. All citizens were ordered to carry identification cards.

This was a comprehensive purge. The communists were smashing the workers. It was martial law. 

“It was a real shock,” recalled Father Stanisław Dziwisz, the close aide of Pope John Paul II, so close that he had literally caught the falling Pontiff on May 13 when he collapsed after being struck by two bullets. “Obviously, we were already frightened.” 

He said that the Holy Father was “anguished.” Said Father Dziwisz, “It was a profound humiliation for Poland. After all that it had suffered throughout its history, Poland didn’t deserve this new martyrdom. It didn’t deserve to be punished so severely.”

Likewise anguished was U.S. President Ronald Reagan. He described the situation in his diary: “Word received that Poland has moved on Solidarity. Leaders have been arrested, union meetings & publications banned, martial law declared. … The situation is really grave.”

Solidarity did its best to issue a plea to friends around the world, from the White House to the Vatican, “We appeal to you: Help us in our struggle by mass protests and moral support. Do not watch passively the attempts to strangle the beginnings of democracy in the heart of Europe. Be with us in these difficult moments. Solidarity with Solidarity. Poland is not yet lost.”

Indeed, Poland was not yet lost. In a way, ironically, this crackdown would help Poland find its way to freedom faster — with the help of certain external friends. And such appeals from Solidarity clearly stirred the hearts of John Paul II and Ronald Reagan. 

“The president was absolutely livid,” remembered Richard Pipes, who observed Reagan closely from his seat at the National Security Council. He quoted Reagan’s reaction: “Something must be done. We [must] save Solidarity.”

For Reagan, this was a dismal moment, a sad one, but it was also a huge opportunity. Ever since Reagan in June 1979 had watched news footage of John Paul II’s visit to Poland, he told his advisers that the Pope was “the key.” Now, too, Solidarity was the key. Reagan believed that Solidarity was the wedge he had waited for to splinter the entire Soviet bloc from top to bottom. It was the crack in the Iron Curtain.

One of Reagan’s first actions in response to martial law was to directly telephone John Paul II at the Vatican. He made his disapproval clear, while also trying to uplift the Pope, telling him, “Our country was inspired when you visited Poland, and to see their commitment to religion and belief in God. It was an inspiration. … All of us were very thrilled.” 

The president told the Pope that he looked forward to a moment when the two men could meet in person, a desire made more acute by events of the previous 24 hours. The Pope felt the same way. Two days later, Reagan met at the White House with Cardinal Agostino Casaroli, the Vatican secretary of state. 

Things got more intense the next two weeks leading up to Christmas, as did communication between the White House and Vatican. Reagan followed up with two letters to John Paul II on Dec. 17 and 29. In the first letter, he asked the Pope to urge Poland’s communist leader, Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, to hold a meeting with Walesa and Archbishop Józef Glemp of Warsaw. In the second letter, Reagan explained the countermeasures his administration was taking against the USSR. He also asked the Pope to use his influence with the Church in Poland to get the civil authorities to lift martial law and gain the release of detainees. They together must “keep alive the hope for freedom in Poland.”

Reagan would say the same when he and the Holy Father met face-to-face at the Vatican in June 1982, as both men then shared their conviction that God had spared them from assassination attempts in March and May 1981 for a special purpose. They believed that defeating atheistic Soviet Communism was part of that purpose.

There is much more I could say about all of this, having written a lengthy book on the subject, but one added related item that happened 40 years ago this month is especially notable and touching:

On Dec. 22, 1981, Reagan held a private meeting in the White House with the Polish ambassador, Romuald Spasowski, and his wife, Wanda, a lifelong Catholic. Both had just dramatically defected and were now sitting in the Oval Office with the president of the United States and vice president. The couple was distraught. Wanda kept her head in her hands the entire time, while Vice President George H.W. Bush put his arm around her. After a tearful conversation, the ambassador made a special request: “May I ask you a favor, Mr. President? Would you light a candle and put it in the window tonight for the people of Poland?” 

What a gesture it was, with Christmas just three days away. Without hesitation, recalls Reagan aide Mike Deaver, the president “right then” stood up, went to the second floor of the White House, found and lit a candle, and put it in the window of the dining room. 

That candle meant a lot. It might have brought to mind those lit after Mass by a young Karol Wojtyla for Russia’s conversion. 

But Reagan did more than light that one candle. The next evening, Dec. 23, he gave a nationally televised speech in which he connected the spirit of the Christmas season with events in Poland. 

“For a thousand years,” he told his fellow Americans, “Christmas has been celebrated in Poland, a land of deep religious faith, but this Christmas brings little joy to the courageous Polish people. They have been betrayed by their own government.” 

He made an extraordinary gesture: The president asked Americans that Christmas season to light a candle in support of freedom in Poland.

This was a remarkable display, one that placed all Americans on the side of freedom for Poland, on the side of Pope John Paul II — and against the Soviets and communists.

Forty years ago, in December 1981, communists tried to turn out the lights in Poland. But like a candle in the White House window, Ronald Reagan and John Paul II and the people of Poland kept a flicker of hope alive. In June 1989, Poland held free and fair elections — the first real crack in the Iron Curtain. 

In November 1989, the Berlin Wall cracked and fell. And on Christmas Day 1991, 30 years ago this month, Mikhail Gorbachev resigned as president of the Soviet Union and thereby also resigned the USSR. The Cold War was over, peacefully, without a shot fired — just as the people of Poland, Solidarity and the Pope and the president had wanted.

It may seem like a long time ago, distant to the interests of Americans today. Nonetheless, this was a crucial turning point for the world, for freedom and for faith. It is an inspiring history lesson worth taking to heart, especially this Christmas 2021, a time when so much of the news around the world is depressing. Here was something truly uplifting for those who love faith and freedom. Sometimes, there really are happy endings.