Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service director Ted Lipien and VOA English Service correspondent Wayne Corey interviewed the then Vice President George H.W. Bush on September 24, 1987 in his office in Washington shortly before his trip to Italy to see Pope John Paul II and to Poland to confer with government and opposition leaders. The faltering government of General Jaruzelski agreed to a visit by the U.S. Vice President, during which he urged Jaruzelski to come to terms with Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa. Subsequent negotiations between the regime and the opposition resulted in a peaceful transition to democracy in Poland.
Vice President Bush also met with Polish Catholic bishops and visited the grave of Father Jerzy Popiełuszko who had been murdered by officers of the communist secret police because of his support for the Solidarity independent trade union and pro-democracy opposition movement in Poland. The Vice President met at the gravesite with the parents of the slain priest.
Ted Lipien traveled with Vice President Bush to Poland and filed reports in English and in Polish for the Voice of America.
Avoiding being monitored by the secret police, Lipien went by train to Gdańsk to conduct an interview with Lech Wałesa.
Vice President Bush’s visit to Poland in 1987 on behalf of President Ronald Reagan came shortly before the fall of communism and the end of Soviet domination.
Both the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe contributed to supporting democratic opposition in Poland with uncensored information and, primarily in the case of Radio Free Europe, commentary on human rights violations and other problems of communism. In later years, especially during the Reagan administration, the Voice of America also started to report extensively on domestic developments in Poland and regularly broadcast telephone interviews with Polish opposition leaders.
Former President George H.W. Bush died in Houston, Texas on November 30, 2018 at age 94.
Highlights of Vice President George H.W. Bush 1987 Interview with Voice of America
Vice President George H.W. Bush: I’m very much looking forward to this visit. It gives me the opportunity to do two things: consult with the Western European leaders the alliance, NATO, discuss the recent developments in arms control, take a look at the future as well, in secondly to go to Poland.
There’s great affection from the American people for the people of Poland.
And this visit, the highest level visit some 10 years, will give the United States that America through me an opportunity to express our feelings about the Polish people, the heroism of the Polish people, to deal openly with the government and hopefully to move forward the relationship that has great potential in the future.
Wayne Corey, VOA: Poland will be the main focus of your trip. Why are you going to Poland now and is there anything specific you hope to accomplish in terms of agreements?
Vice President George H.W. Bush: Well, there are one or two specific things that frankly I am not at liberty to speak about here that I do want to talk to General Jaruzelski about. It is a forward step in our policy and differentiation.
There is an affection in the United States for the people of Poland. It’s important that that affection be expressed through high-level visits from time to time. We have differences on the system but we want to narrow those differences as best we can.
I’ll be meeting with the leaders of Solidarność and our country stands for free unions and human rights. And I’ll have of opportunity to discuss these along the way that both the government and other others, Church people. So, it’ s visit of showing our belief and affection for the people.
Ted Lipien, VOA Polish Service: What specific steps can the United States government take to help Poland economically and would such help depend on the human rights situation and economic reform?
Vice President George H.W. Bush: Well again, I won’t go into the details on the specific steps, but clearly our policy is looking for changes in human rights, changes in respect for institutions and individuals. Some progress has been made, but we, the American people, believe firmly that more changes must take place, and that of course is the position of the (U.S.) government.
We have been helpful, things have improved, but I’ll be talking about some specifics, may be things we can do to make the lot of the Polish people better, but it needs, it will need cooperation from the government.
Ted Lipien, VOA Polish Service:Is there a consensus between the Administration and the Congress on U.S. policy toward Poland and generally toward Eastern Europe?
Vice President George H.W. Bush: Generally, there is. As I mentioned, there’s a policy of differentiation. We recognize realities, but we want to encourage people to to come forward on human rights. We want to encourage more trade. We want to encourage more flexibility. These are sovereign countries. They should be as flexible as possible, move at their own pace as much as possible. So, the policy that’s referred to as a policy of differentiation does have the support, I think, of the Congress and of our government.
Lastly, I think we’re together with Congress on the approaches we should be taking to Poland, and part of that is because there are so many Polish Americans, so many people in our country who have this love and affection for the homeland. Poland has almost a unique standing in the government, with our government, and with the Congress itself. So, I think we’re together on the policy. There are some difference. Some people are harder-line on one point, softer-line on another, but basically our policy of trying to help with the economy, our policy on human rights has broad support.
Ted Lipien, VOA Polish Service:If I may go back to Poland. President Reagan has shown great personal interest in the situation in Poland. Did you have a chance to discuss this trip with him?
Vice President George H.W. Bush: Yes. As a matter of fact, I’ve just finished lunch with him, just discussed it. You know, it’s my fervent hope that President Reagan could go to Poland some day because, I tell you, he would get a very warm reception from the Polish people. Whether that’s possible or not, I don’t know, but I’m very glad to be going myself as the second highest official in the U.S. government.
Ted Lipien, VOA Polish Service: Do you often have an opportunity to discuss the policy toward Poland with the Polish American leaders?
Vice President George H.W. Bush: I had some opportunity to do that. I visited the Polish-American national Congress out there. We had a visit from its President Al Mazewski here just the other day. I’ve stayed in touch with Polish sentiments through various people, including one of our top people at the State Department, former colleague in Congress Ed Derwinski. I’ve talked to Danny Rostenkowski, the Democratic leader in the Congress about his trip to Poland, to the (Poznan) Fair. So, I’ve tried to stay in touch with the heartbeat of Polish-Americans because we should be responsive to their concerns as we formulate our policy with Poland.
And I think it sums up that most Polish Americans want to help the Polish people but have some concerns about the regime and hope that a visit like this might give us an opportunity to forcefully present to the regime in Poland the concerns of the American Polish community. And I plan to do that and to be frank about it. And I think I’ll have an opportunity to do just that.
Also, the Church. As you deal with Polish Americans you realize over and over again the importance of faith, of the Church itself in Poland. And I go to Poland looking forward to seeing Cardinal Glemp and hopefully other leaders in the Church.
Ted Lipien, VOA Polish Service:Will you also meet with Lech Walesa?
Vice President George H.W. Bush:I think it’s scheduled to do that. And I think it is very important that I do that. And it’s more than symbolism. We respect him as an individual for his courage. That’s been stated over again. But we also want to see Poland lighten up, if they can, on the on the trade union movement. And I think it’s important that Polish leaders know from high-level in this Administration how strongly we feel about individual rights, human rights, the opportunity for individuals to get ahead. And when they are able to make some movement in terms of whether it’s more privatization on farming or whatever it is, and we say hey, that’s good, we like to see more of that.
And they don’t have to do it our way, but to get the kind of support from the United States that many Americans would like to see go to the Polish people, there has to be some forward movement. And, that’s all I’ll say. They can do what they want, but we’re the United States and here are our standards and here is where we would like to see progress.
END OF INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS
In 1987, the U.S. Department of State upgraded the status of the Consulate in Krakow, designating it as a Consulate General. On September 29, 1987, visiting U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush led a designation ceremony and spoke about the strength of U.S.-Polish ties, especially ties with Southern Poland. He also spoke about his visit earlier that day to the Nazi Concentration Camp at Auschwitz. Vice President Bush’s visit to Auschwitz, his visit to Krakow, designation of the Consulate General, and visit to the Polish-American Children’s Hospital in Krakow were major public diplomacy events while Poland still had a communist government.
Vice President George H.W. Bush: “It is my great pleasure to be in this beautiful city today, to participate in this ceremony, which raises our mission here to the Consulate General level.
This mission symbolizes American presence, not just in Krakow, but in all southern Poland which is the ancestral home of many millions of Americans of Polish descent.
This city has long played a central role in the history of Poland and the Polish people. And when one sees the magnificent architecture with which the Polish kings embellished the city, it’s easy to recall that Krakow was once the capital of Poland. In her monuments and art, she remains a royal city.
But the contrast — these achievements and culture, civilization — stand in stark contrast to the barbarism evidenced by the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz which we visited this morning.
The brutal and tragic horrors of Auschwitz serve as grim reminder of man’s capacity for evil.
The denial of human rights, the denial of human dignity leads ultimately to this: the attempted extermination of an entire people.
As Eli Wiesel said to me last week just before I left on my trip, not all the victims were Jews, but all the Jews were victims.
At the end of this Nazi slaughter, six million Jews were dead. Thank God it didn’t succeed completely.
Thank God courageous Poles, risking the lives of themselves and their families, sheltered tens of thousands of Jews from their Nazi enemies. Many of them paid the ultimate price for their courage and humanity.
Hundreds of thousands of Christians met their ends in the awful death camps we paid solemn witness to this morning.
Today we saw the cell of Father Maximilian Kolbe who sacrificed his life for that of a fellow prisoner and was canonized by the Catholic Church.
Let’s all pledge today our eternal vigilance that crimes of this magnitude will happen never again, for it’s been written that in remembrance lies the secret of redemption.
On this trip to your country, Mr. President (Krakow’s mayor) we’ve sought to strengthen the long and cordial ties between the Polish and American people, ties that date to the very birth of the United States.
At the time of the American Revolution, Polish patriots crossed the dangerous ocean to offer their assistance to a people struggling to free themselves from foreign domination.”
In 1987, Poland’s communist regime organized a referendum on political and economic reforms. The referendum was held on November 29, 1987. Around a third of eligible voters did not participate, defying the regime. It was the first time that Communist authorities in Eastern Europe had lost a vote.
Ted Lipien covered the referendum for the Voice of America (VOA) Polish Service. After the vote, he took a train from Warsaw to Gdańsk and interviewed Wałęsa who by then had been already freed by the communist authorities from martial law detention but was still under strict police surveillance. The interview was recorded at the parish house of Wałęsa’s church in Gdańsk. The recording was sent by phone to Washington and broadcast the next day to Poland.
In the 1987 interview, Wałęsa did not attach much importance to the just concluded referendum, which — as he pointed out — was not organized according to basic democratic principles. For one thing, as he pointed out, Solidarity and other oppositions groups in Poland were not consulted on the referendum and had no access to domestic media prior to the vote.
In the interview, Wałęsa said that Solidarity and the government have no choice but to reach an agreement.
He strongly objected, however, to the regime’s reluctance to enter into a real dialogue. In answering a question under what conditions Solidarity would participate in talks with the Communist regime, Wałęsa answered:
“If the authorities invent terms such as ‘socialist pluralism’, ‘socialist economy’, ‘socialist law’ ‘socialist safety net’, then there is nothing to talk about. We can say that the law is good or bad, the economy works well or not, but not to invent absurdities.”
“We propose to the authorities political pluralism, so that we would not find out after 40 years what we are learning today: that Stalin was a murderer, that Khrushchev was an ignorant man who did not use the opportunity to really show himself, that Brezhnev destroyed chances and opportunities and cut the legs under socialism. We need political pluralism so that such things would not happen and we would not be ruled by murderers and others.”
“The condition is to say that there is only one pluralism and that there is no [such thing as] socialist pluralism. If we will talk in these terms, then there are no conditions. We are ready to talk.”
Asked about an upcoming meeting between President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Wałęsa expressed hope that during these talks a point would be made that without real reforms, Poland and the rest of the Soviet block would continue to represent a danger to the rest of the world due to instability and risk of unpredictable events and potential violence.
Asked about the visit to Poland by Vice President George H.W. Bush a few weeks earlier, Wałęsa said:
“I’m personally very pleased that I had a chance to get to know such an outstanding representative of the American people, and now I know that the United States is in such an excellent position because it has such outstanding leaders. I hope that he will lead after the next elections.”
Wałęsa in effect endorsed George H.W. Bush for his planned presidential run in 1988. Asked whether he would like to travel to the United States, Wałęsa said that like everybody else he would like to see America but that current political conditions in Poland prevent him from making a trip.
Wałęsa made it to the United States in 1989. He was the first recipient of the Liberty Medal, on 4 July 1989 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and that same year received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He is the only Pole to have addressed a joint meeting of the United States Congress (15 November 1989).
“There’s great affection from the American people for the people of Poland.” – Vice President George H.W. Bush, September 24, 1987