Taking in President Donald Trump’s speech in Poland on Thursday, I was reminded of my early childhood years in Germany where my father, a military pilot, was stationed during the height of the Cold War (back when it was West Germany).
In 1968, amid the so-called Prague Spring movement for more democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia, which threatened the Soviet Union’s communist rule of the country, some 200,000 Soviet bloc troops marched in and crushed the movement “in the largest deployment of military force in Europe since the end of World War II,” as the History channel notes.
Poland had seen that kind of aggression in 1939, before it came under Soviet domination after World War II:
“During the German occupation, nearly three million Polish Jews were killed in the Nazi death camps. The Nazis also severely persecuted the Slavic majority, deporting and executing Poles in an attempt to destroy the intelligentsia and Polish culture. A large Polish resistance movement effectively fought against the occupation with the assistance of the Polish government-in-exile. Many exiled Poles also fought for the Allied cause. The Soviets completed the liberation of Poland in 1945 and established a communist government in the nation.”
As young as I was in 1968, I remember well the chill that blew through Europe after the tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia. It went well beyond the alarm that American military kids throughout the region were feeling as their parents shifted to higher alert.
Local shopkeepers who had grumbled over Americans in their stores, or rolled their eyes over the Americans’ fractured attempts at German, suddenly shifted their tone. They knew, and we understood at the time, that America would defend their values of Western civilization, which began with freedom and self-determination. It had just been snuffed out in the Czech Republic.
The experience has stayed with me throughout the years, just as it has with other family members who experienced brushes with East German troops during events such as Boy Scout troop visits to the Berlin Wall.
So to hear and then read the president’s speech in Poland, prior to the G-20 summit and the much-ballyhooed meeting with Vladimir Putin, that the “the defense of the West ultimately rests not only on means but also on the will of its people to prevail and be successful,” is to hear a defense of the West that we have not heard in many years.
It was a speech that touched on history, but connected to the threats we now face, while asking:
“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive. Do we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost? Do we have enough respect for our citizens to protect our borders? Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
“We can have the largest economies and the most lethal weapons anywhere on Earth, but if we do not have strong families and strong values, then we will be weak and we will not survive. If anyone forgets the critical importance of these things, let them come to one country that never has. Let them come to Poland.”
“Those heroes remind us that the West was saved with the blood of patriots; that each generation must rise up and play their part in its defense and that every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.
“Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls. Today, the ties that unite our civilization are no less vital, and demand no less defense, than that bare shred of land on which the hope of Poland once totally rested. Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory.
The Wall Street Journal called it a very important speech that went beyond the “America First” doctrine from his Inaugural address. In “Trump’s Defining Speech,” the WSJ editorial noted:
Six months into his first term of office, Mr. Trump finally offered the core of what could become a governing philosophy. It is a determined and affirmative defense of the Western tradition.
To be sure, Mr. Trump’s speech also contained several pointed and welcome foreign-policy statements. He assured Poland it would not be held hostage to a single supplier of energy, meaning Russia. He exhorted Russia to stop destabilizing Ukraine “and elsewhere,” to stop supporting Syria and Iran and “instead join the community of responsible nations.” He explicitly committed to NATO’s Article 5 on mutual defense.
It is a nationalism rooted in values and beliefs—the rule of law, freedom of expression, religious faith and freedom from oppressive government—that let Europe and then America rise to prominence. This, Mr. Trump is saying, is worth whatever it takes to preserve and protect.
It was an important and, we hope, a defining speech—for the Trump Presidency and for Donald Trump himself.
As we headed back to the states a few years after the 1968 uprising, we always remembered the uniqueness of America and its fidelity to values in the Western tradition: freedom of speech, of association, of religion, to name a few.
In the speech, we heard a defense of the values we learned and understood as Americans abroad:
“And today as ever, Poland is in our heart, and its people are in that fight. Just as Poland could not be broken, I declare today for the world to hear that the West will never, ever be broken. Our values will prevail. Our people will thrive. And our civilization will triumph.
“So, together, let us all fight like the Poles — for family, for freedom, for country, and for God.”
My Polish friends will be talking about this speech for some time. We will be thinking about it ourselves for quite some time.