This country is anniversary mad. We tend to commemorate the most trivial of events. I say this by way of setting apart a forthcoming anniversary that does matter: on Dec. 13 it will have been one year since the Polish government moved with such agility and skill to crush Solidarity. It is not the mere passage of 12 months that is of importance, but rather what happened in that interval. The Polish government succeeded in breaking the strength of Solidarity, at least for now, and we in this country turned our attention to other things. One year was all that was needed.
Our response took three main forms, by now almost as predictable in their way as was the certainty that Polish and Soviet authorities would not let Solidarity flourish or even survive. First, we picked a fight -- as always, among ourselves. I don't know if this is in the high-level contingency plans for dealing with foreign crises, but it might as well be, since it is what we do. I am using the capacious Western "we" here, since the bickering and strife were among the allies, not just ourselves.
This was not so different from the response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Electric cries of outrage, heart-felt professions of shared determination, spasms of cancellations of this and that and the other thing the wrongdoers were believed to want most -- well, we would make them pay for this, we would make our outrage known and felt. But then we began to understand what such determination would cost. For, horror of horrors, it was going to cost us something. So the falling away and feuding began. What to do about the Polish debt, what to do about the Siberian gas pipeline, and so forth. Answer: ultimately pretty much what we would have done without the crushing of Solidarity. The difference was that we reached this answer by way of a huge eruption of internal and inter-allied animus.
For a country so often accused of sticking its nose into everyone else's business, of trying to play "policeman to the world," there is something awfully self-centered about our approach to foreign affairs. I note that for all the healthy, God-sent domestic reconciliation that occurred during the recent dedication of the Vietnam memorial in Washington, for instance, there was also a quality reminiscent of our involvement in the war to begin with: first we fought each other; now we have made up; for many people, in both of these phases, it has been as if the unhappy inhabitants of Indochina itself did not quite exist -- except as backdrop to the great domestic upheaval and newly proclaimed truce.
I don't argue that concerning Polish Solidarity -- or Afghanistan or the bombed, burned and oppressed people of Indochina or any other foreign victim -- Americans, including those who govern us, don't have strong and genuine feelings. I only argue that we seem at an utter loss to express these feelings in constructive ways or to sustain them for any period of time. And our second principal response is as much a symptom of this disability as is our habit of falling to internal quarreling. That response is to let ourselves be diverted, to get caught up in other preoccupations, to look bemusedly out the window in some unspecified other direction -- to forget.
Lech Walesa was imprisoned for 11 months. The intensity of concern about this quickly diminished almost to the vanishing point. Curiosity and interest both seemed to disappear -- Oh, yes, Poland . . . what's happening there now? Those of us who remember the outcry over the "pacification" of Hungary in 1956 can be forgiven for suspecting that the Polish government could have kept Walesa locked up for a great deal longer, perhaps forever, without reigniting Western anger; on the contrary, the longer the time that passes, the less anger or even memory seems to exist. You don't have to wait very long to outwait us.
There are a couple of special, homegrown American reasons for this. One is that we in the press sometimes seem to have all the powers of concentration of a hyperactive six- year-old who has recently OD'd on sugar-cereal. We go from thing to thing -- can't seem to help it, can't seem to sit still. But more than a mere journalistic quest for novelty is involved here: there is in fact imbedded somewhere in our national idea of proper political behavior an injunction against concentration ("obsession," we call it). Carter and Iran, Kennedy and Cuba -- one did too little, in my view, and the other too much, but both were faulted by the generality of public opinion for having a "hang-up." Let a president or senator or congressman cultivate and pursue an intense interest based on what he regards as a priority, and we let him have it. He is "playing into their hands," we say; he is making things worse; he is letting himself become a "hostage" to "their" whim.
This is but one of our unpersuasive rationalizations for inaction. Rationalization is our third main response. The sophistry starts just as soon as the inconvenience of doing anything becomes apparent. And it is on the basis of all these rationalizations that the internal quarreling gets started, the great hurling back and forth among ourselves of certitudes about how you only hurt the Polish people by fighting with their government or declaring it bankrupt and withholding credits, or how you are encouraging the hard-liners or only hurting your own farmers and how it won't work and the rest. So it is only a short time until we are calling each other moral idiots and monsters and reckless warmongers. The original source of the argument will have sunk beneath the waves of our own mutual recrimination.
I am not a big believer in committees. I think the last one that did any demonstrable good was the one that was named in 1604 to translate the King James Bible. But surely it is about time that some instrumentality were created among us -- the American government and its friends -- to think about how we can and should respond to these conditions in a nonmilitary way that matters and is right. What might we have done to make a difference? How can we get and keep our act together to bring pressure, to help, not hurt the people on whose behalf we make so much unconvincing, short-lived noise?
And did we help or hurt this time? What have we done that was of use to the fighters for Solidarity? Dec. 13 would not be a bad time to start thinking about it. Reprinted by permission; all rights reserved.