The late-night arrival in Poland was the first stop on a multi-country tour that took Carter on to Iran, India, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and several other places besides. Back at the time, Carter’s few minutes of remarks at the airport made news mainly because of a silly-in-retrospect gaffe-flap about whether the State Department’s interpreter had embarrassingly misrendered some of Carter’s words. When Carter said that he had just “left” America on his journey, did the interpreter convert that into Carter “abandoning” his country? When he said that he wanted to understand the Polish public’s “desires for the future,” did that become understanding their carnal lusts? You can read more about the ins and outs here. And interpretation questions aside, it was anything but an august moment: airport remarks rather than a formal parliamentary presentation, in the stinging snow and freezing winds on the tarmac, under portable lights at nearly midnight Warsaw time.
But what strikes me on rereading Carter’s comments is how plain and simple they were on the question of what America is. Before the trip, there was nonstop negotiation, and occasional tension, among the contending foreign policy figures in the administration about the tone Carter should strike when kicking off the tour in Poland. It was a delicate time, in many ways. A new president was in his first year; crucial arms-control talks were underway with the aging Leonid Brezhnev’s aging (but still nuclear-armed) Soviet Union; anti-Communist reform pressures were building within Poland and elsewhere in what was still the “Iron Curtain” bloc; a lot was at stake.
But despite their differences on matters large and small, Carter’s Polish-born national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and his first Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, agreed that the tone in Poland, and throughout, should emphasize the ideas and the political values that the United States hoped would extend around the world. For example: Any president, going anywhere, will find a way to talk about historic, cultural, and ethnic connections with whatever place he finds himself in. Carter began, as all presidents do, by touching that base.
I am proud to begin this journey in Poland—friend of the United States since the time our Nation was founded. Poland is the ancestral home of more than six million Americans, partner in a common effort against war and deprivation.
Relations are changing between North and South, between East and West. But the ties between Poland and the United States are ancient and strong.
Then Carter started down the list of Polish military heroes in the war for U.S. independence—Casimir Pulaski, Thaddeus Kosciuszko—but he used them as the pivot from “we are connected by history” to “we are connected by an ideal.” Thus (with emphasis added, for the pivot):
For his military skill and bravery, Thaddeus Kosciuszko won the respect of our first President, George Washington, during wartime. And for his commitment to freedom and justice, he won the admiration of our third President, Thomas Jefferson, in time of peace.
These brave men fought alongside Americans in the era which produced three of the great documents in the struggle for human rights. One was the Declaration of Independence from America. The second was the Declaration of the Rights of Man from France. And the third was the Polish Constitution of May 3, 1791.
Then he was on to a brief mention of the other ways in which Poland and America stood for ideas larger than their own immediate welfare, for universal values and hopes. E.g., “Our shared experience in battle has also taught us the paramount importance of preventing war, which has brought devastation to Poland twice in this century. At the end of World War I, a great American, Herbert Hoover, came to Poland to help you ease the suffering of war and to observe the reestablishment of an independent Poland.”