Early this morning, the world was shaken with the news that Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria were killed when their plane crashed while attempting to land amid thick fog in Western Russia. Ninety-seven people were killed in the crash, including several very high ranking Polish government officials. The President and First Lady were traveling to Russia to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Polish military personnel by the Soviet Secret Police in the Katyn Forest.
The sadness and mourning surrounding Kaczyński’s death is rather personal for me. In July 2007, I met President Kaczyński at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley. Kaczyński traveled from meetings with President Bush in Washington, D.C. out to California to present the Order of the White Eagle, the highest Polish distinction, posthumously to President Reagan. Mrs. Reagan was on hand to accept the award, and George Shultz, former Labor Secretary and later Treasury Secretary to President Nixon and Secretary of State to President Reagan, delivered remarks. From my experience with President Kaczyński that day, I remember him as a calm leader with a sense of humor, deeply committed to his beliefs.
Kaczyński’s service to his country was a very prominent part of his life. In the 1970s, he joined several anti-Communist, pro-democracy organizations, including the Workers Defence Committee and the Independent Trade Union movement. He was active in both throughout the decade.
President Nixon became the first U.S. President to visit Poland in 1972 as a part of his and Mrs. Nixon’s tour of Europe and parts of Asia. There he spoke of a new birth of freedom around the globe, saying, “I can assure you that the major purpose of my visit here, and to the other countries that I have visited over the years that I have served in my present office, is to build a new structure of peace in the world. Poland has suffered too much from war and Poland, along with other peoples in the world, wants peace, and that is our goal: to achieve a world of peace for all nations. I am confident that [our discussions] will contribute to our common goal of friendship between the American people and the Polish people and of peace for all the world. Niech zyje Polska (Long live Poland).”
In the 1980s, Poland would become a symbol of Communist oppression as the Solidarity movement increased in popularity. Kaczyński joined Solidarity and was imprisoned for a short time as an “anti-socialist element” of the country. He later became an active advisor of Lech Wałęsa and went on to serve in a variety of government positions before being elected as President in 2005.
Kaczyński was the embodiment of RN’s dream of increasing “friendship between the American people and the Polish people and of peace for all the world.” He was most definitely a friend of the United States. As more details of the plane crash became apparent, President Obama released a statement reading in part: “Today’s loss is devastating to Poland, to the United States, and to the world. President Kaczyński was a distinguished statesman who played a key role in the Solidarity movement, and he was widely admired in the United States as a leader dedicated to advancing freedom and human dignity… We join all the people of Poland in mourning their passing. Today, there are heavy hearts across America. The United States cherishes its deep and abiding bonds with the people of Poland. Those bonds are represented in the strength of our alliance, the friendships among our people, and the extraordinary contributions of Polish-Americans who have helped to shape our nation.”
By all accounts, President Kaczyński was a true patriot, and an ardent believer in the cause of freedom. He and his First Lady will be missed by millions around the world. Our hearts go out to their daughter, Marta, and their two grandchildren.
President and Mrs. Kaczyński pose with former First Lady Nancy Reagan, former Nixon Administration Labor Secretary and Treasury Secretary and Reagan Administration Secretary of State George Shultz, and Mrs. Shultz, July 17, 2007.