One of the favourite quotations of President Barack Obama—he had it embroidered into his presidential rug in the Oval Office—is from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
King himself adapted it from the abolitionist Theodore Parker, who in 1853 preached: "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice." King used it in his preaching frequently, and in 1965, on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery, Ala., he asked himself how long black Americans had to wait for justice. "How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice."
It is part of Obama's fundamental worldview that history moves towards justice, slowly or quickly but inexorably. In his first inaugural speech, he addressed the tyrants who deny justice: "To those who cling to power through corruption, deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are the wrong side of history." As president, when faced with the expansion of tyranny or lethal brutality, he solemnly warns the perpetrators that they are on the wrong side of history, as if history moves only in one direction of its own accord. It's more than a little embarrassing that the leader of a country borne in violent revolution and that re-established the vast bloodletting of a civil war thinks that justice is somehow inevitable. Indeed, the fact that the arc of history is not inevitable is demonstrated by the fact that King was quoting Parker more than a century after the latter spoke, and King himself laboured mightily to bend the arc of history. History does not bend itself.
The year 1989, beginning with the Solidarity "round-table discussions" in the spring, the first free Polish elections in the summer, and the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in the fall, was the most triumphant moment of recent history – the moment when it was manifest that history could indeed be bent, even against the might of the tyrants who thought they were the engine of history. About the events of 1989—and the subsequent dissolution of the Soviet Union itself in 1991—Margaret Thatcher would say of Ronald Reagan: "He won the Cold War without firing a single shot."
That's not true, but there is considerable truth in it. No one person won the Cold War alone, and the principal protagonists of the triumph of 1989 were the enslaved peoples of the Soviet empire who refused to be slaves. Yet is true that Reagan played a central role. More important is that individuals do play a central role in history—it is not the product of impersonal forces of politics or economics or strategic considerations. History is bent by free peoples exercising their freedom, and in marking the 25th anniversary of recent history's greatest moment, we celebrate the inspiring freedom of those who bent history in a more liberal direction.
I remember watching, 25 years ago this November, the stunning images of the Berlin Wall being breached. Hundreds of us students watched on the lone television in our university residence, the Internet being a thing of the future. The Berlin Wall was the most dramatic domino to fall. The first "domino" to fall was Poland, in which negotiations between the Polish communists and the Solidarity movement led to the first free elections since the Iron Curtain divided Europe at the conclusion of the Second World War. Solidarity won every seat open to them, and before long the question was no longer if, but when, the communists would be chased out of Poland.
What followed though was unexpected—the speed with which the contagion of liberty infected the rest of the Warsaw Pact countries. Moscow could only watch as Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia were pried free from the grip of the Russian bear. By the end of the year, the Soviet external empire was no more. Within two more years, the Soviet Union itself would be no more, as its internal empire also collapsed. The Cold War had been won and communist totalitarianism utterly routed. It was one of the greatest triumphs of the human spirit in history.
It is an immense honour for Convivium to include in this issue a conversation with Lech Walesa, the electrician who inspired that triumph from the shipyards in Gdansk. Central to the entire communist project was its reading of history, in which the future of social realities was determined by forces larger than the human person. The engine of history was economics, which drove politics, and free men and women were merely along for the ride. It was never truly tenable, for communism was only ever implemented with totalitarian coercion—there was nothing gentle about the arc of that history. The hammer and sickle were ostensibly about craftsmen and farmers but more aptly represented the communist view of history, something to be hammered into ill-fitting moulds, with the sickle at the ready to dispatch any who were not sufficiently intimidated by the hammer.
Walesa speaks in our interview about the central role of Pope John Paul II, who knew that the key to history was neither the hammer nor the sickle but the cross. Saint John Paul the Great's biographer, George Weigel, explained how this was something of a surprise to those who prided themselves on being in the vanguard of history.
"The surprise was that this man who had lived most of his adult life under totalitarian systems had a deeply thought-through understanding of the moral dynamics of freedom rightly understood, as applied to everything from the ethics of interpersonal relationships to the construction and flourishing of free polities and economies," Weigel explained. "The surprise, for those who imagine that politics, economics, or some combination of politics and economics drives history, was his demonstration that culture—in the form of aroused consciences – can bend history in a more humane direction."
In 1989, a great contest ended that began dramatically with the visit of John Paul II to Poland in June 1979. He went to Warsaw's great central square, to the monument of the Unknown Soldier and stood under an enormous cross. The question he posed to his fellow countrymen was simple: Were they capable of the revolution of conscience, the revolution of spirit, the moral revolution that would demonstrate that the Cross was stronger than the hammer and sickle?
Four years later, the answer was clear. Veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen recalls the scene: "In June 1983, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, then prime minister of Poland, received Pope John Paul II at the Belvedere Palace in Warsaw. It was the Pope's second trip to his home country, but the first since the general had imposed martial law 18 months earlier. And in a speech before their meeting, the general defended his decision. Despite the defiant tone of the speech, many reporters noticed, General Jaruzelski's knees were shaking."
The Pope, who began his Petrine service by exhorting the world, especially behind the Iron Curtain, to "be not afraid," stood before Moscow's communist puppet. It was the puppet, not the pastor, who was literally shaking with fear.
That the Polish general's knees were knocking together was not inevitable. Millions of Poles, under the leadership of John Paul and Walesa, made him afraid. If he had only read history as a matter of historical trends, Jaruzelski would have thought his position secure, for Polish liberty was not the norm in recent centuries. In 1795, Poland was removed from the map of Europe, its land divided among the Russian, Prussian and Austrian empires. Poland regained its independence in 1918, only to be divided again between Russia and Germany in 1939 at the outset of World War II. The arc of history seemed to trap Poland in a cycle of foreign occupation. Consider that for more than two hundred years no Pole over 25 years of age has lived his entire life in a free Poland1. The young students now graduating from university will be the first free generation to do so since those born before the American Revolution.
The Polish communists, indoctrinated in atheism, may have been unable to detect the spiritual, let alone religious, movements returning Poland to its roots in freedom and faith. Yet Christian faith was not necessary to see that the arc of history was being bent by humane and spiritual forces. Only a few months after the Berlin Wall came down, John Paul came to breathe the air of freedom himself – but in Czechoslovakia not Poland. In April 1990, the new president of the newly liberated Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, himself an atheist, detected that the spirit was blowing in one of the most remarkable presidential speeches of our time. Welcoming John Paul to Prague, Havel spoke of how history was shaped by broader forces than are usually recognized:
"I am not sure I know what a miracle is. In spite of this, I dare say that, at this moment, I am participating in a miracle: the man who six months ago was arrested as an enemy of the State stands here today as the president of that State, and bids welcome to the first pontiff in the history of the Catholic Church to set foot in this land….
"In a country devastated by the ideology of hatred, the messenger of love has arrived; in a country devastated by the government of the ignorant, the living symbol of culture has arrived; in a country that, until a short time ago, was devastated by the idea of confrontation and division in the world, the messenger of peace, dialogue, mutual tolerance, esteem and calm understanding, the messenger of fraternal unity in diversity has arrived.
"During these long decades, the Spirit was banished from our country. I have the honour of witnessing the moment in which its soil is kissed by the apostle of spirituality."
The Meaning of 1989
A t a remove of 25 years, what do we learn from the miracle that Havel described? What did we learn about history? One profound answer came from John Paul's own successor, who travelled to the Czech Republic in 2009 for the 20th anniversary of the liberation of Eastern Europe.
"My pastoral visit to the Czech Republic coincides with the 20th anniversary of the fall of the totalitarian regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, and the ‘Velvet Revolution' which restored democracy to this nation," Pope Benedict XVI said in the historic presidential palace in Prague, addressing the civil authorities and diplomatic representatives on the true meaning of 1989. "The euphoria that ensued was expressed in terms of freedom. Two decades after the profound political changes which swept this continent, the process of healing and rebuilding continues, now within the wider context of European unification and an increasingly globalized world.…Today, especially among the young, the question again emerges as to the nature of the freedom gained. To what end is freedom exercised? What are its true hallmarks?"
The freedom that was celebrated in 1989 was in major part a freedom from tyranny. The peaceful overthrow, after generations of oppression, of the totalitarian communists marked the end of evil. Liberty was first experienced as no longer having to contend with the manifold absurdities and indignities of communism. But what would this new freedom bring? What was this new freedom for?
"Every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous search for the right way to order human affairs, seeking to understand the proper use of human freedom," Benedict continued. "And while the duty to strengthen ‘structures of freedom' is vital, it is never enough: human aspirations soar beyond the self, beyond what any political or economic authority can provide, towards a radiant hope that has its origin beyond ourselves yet is encountered within, as truth and beauty and goodness. Freedom seeks purpose: it requires conviction. True freedom presupposes the search for truth—for the true good—and hence finds its fulfilment precisely in knowing and doing what is right and just.Truth, in other words, is the guiding norm for freedom, and goodness is freedom's perfection."
That rich paragraph seeks to explain what happened in 1989. It was not a mere revolution of a people throwing off a ruler, but rather a defence of the truth about man, the truth about the subjugated nations, and the truth about the human spirit in history. One of those central truths was that man was created to be free, and to enslave him was an offence against both man and his Creator. The reason that the revolution against communism began in Poland was that the Polish nation had long been taught those truths by its Christian faith.
"For Christians, truth has a name: God. And goodness has a face: Jesus Christ," explained Benedict. "The faith of Christians, from the time of Saints Cyril and Methodius [the first missionaries to the Slavic peoples] and the early missionaries, has in fact played a decisive role in shaping the spiritual and cultural heritage of this country. It must do likewise in the present and into the future. The rich patrimony of spiritual and cultural values, each finding expression in the other, has not only given shape to the nation's identity but has also furnished it with the vision necessary to exercise a role of cohesion at the heart of Europe."
Does Europe have a heart? The Czech Republic is at Europe's geographic centre, but the Holy Father had something more in mind. The experience of 1989 revealed what lies at the heart of the idea that is Europe.
"Europe is more than a continent. It is a home!" exclaimed Benedict. "And freedom finds its deepest meaning in a spiritual homeland. With full respect for the distinction between the political realm and that of religion—which indeed preserves the freedom of citizens to express religious belief and live accordingly—I wish to underline the irreplaceable role of Christianity for the formation of the conscience of each generation and the promotion of a basic ethical consensus that serves every person who calls this continent ‘home!'"
"Our presence in this magnificent capital, which is often spoken of as the heart of Europe, prompts us to ask in what that ‘heart' consists," asked Benedict. "While there is no simple answer to that question, surely a clue is found in the architectural jewels that adorn this city. The arresting beauty of its churches, castle, squares and bridges cannot but draw our minds to God. Their beauty expresses faith…. How tragic it would be if someone were to behold such examples of beauty yet ignore the transcendent mystery to which they point."
Freedom then points towards the truth, and towards God as the source of all truth. Benedict then commented upon the motto on the flag of the president of the Czech Republic—Veritas vincit (truth conquers).
"In the end, truth does conquer, not by force but by persuasion, by the heroic witness of men and women of firm principle, by sincere dialogue which looks beyond self-interest to the demands of the common good," Benedict concluded. "The thirst for truth, beauty and goodness, implanted in all men and women by the Creator, is meant to draw people together in the quest for justice, freedom and peace. History has amply shown that truth can be betrayed and manipulated in the service of false ideologies, oppression and injustice. But do not the challenges facing the human family call us to look beyond those dangers?…Instead, we must reappropriate a confidence in the nobility and breadth of the human spirit in its capacity to grasp the truth, and let that confidence guide us in the patient work of politics and diplomacy."
Benedict, a German, speaking to Czechs about what started in Poland, knew that his audience was all too aware that manipulations and betrayals and falsities are very much a part of history. The arc of history often doubles back on itself, as in the manner of a sickle. The lesson of 1989 is that man in his freedom is the great protagonist of history and, if the arc of history is to be bent in a more humane manner, it is the work of ordering that freedom towards the truth.
1989 was a revolution of the spirit, a revolution of the heart, a revolution of the truth, a revolution of free people insisting upon living in freedom in their common European home. It remains a great hopeful moment that redeemed a century in which history was a great slaughterhouse. We remember and we learn for the task of bending history is never finished. And we remember to honour those who bent it.
George Herbert Walker Bush
When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, Ronald Reagan was already ensconced in his California retirement. So it fell to his successor to preside over the end of the Cold War and – less than a year later – the next global war when Saddam Hussein invaded and annexed Kuwait. Three years after the Wall came down, Bush, having presided peacefully over the reunification of Germany, the expulsion of Saddam from Kuwait and the end of the Soviet Union, was defeated by William Jefferson Clinton. It was as if America knew that, having entrusted periods of great global peril to Bush's generation, it was safe to hand over high office to a lower quality of man, representative of the boomer generation. In his inaugural address at the beginning of the blessed year 1989, Bush spoke better than he knew when he observed that the "generation born after the Second World War has come of age." Indeed it had, as he would discover to his chagrin in 1992.
In 1942, four years before Clinton was born, an 18-year-old George H.W. Bush volunteered for service in the Navy. The youngest pilot in the Navy, Bush flew many missions over the Pacific and was decorated for his service. On one occasion his fighter was hit, and after completing his mission, he parachuted to safety and was retrieved from the ocean after floating for four hours in an emergency raft. That early experience sparked a lifelong love of skydiving, so much so that this past June 12, he marked his 90th birthday with a parachute jump at his family summer home in Kennebunkport, Me. A former president and war hero is able to call on certain help, and so the otherwise wheelchair-bound Bush did a tandem jump in which he was lashed to another skydiver. Still, jumping out of an airplane at 90 requires a certain bravery and zest for life. Bush had marked his 75th, 80th and 85th birthdays with jumps and thought it would be unsporting not to continue the tradition.
At 90, George Bush Sr. is one of the last of a generation of men that led the West through the Second World War and the Cold War. He lived the great American life – adventurous, entrepreneurial, public spirited. He was not the best president America ever had, but he was likely the best man to serve as president. It was commented that Bush actually lived the life that Reagan eulogized as that of the quintessential American: patriotic, pious and devoted to family. He married young and had happy and successful children. Late in life his greatest boast was that all his children still loved to come home.
As a statesman, he contributed mightily to making the end of the Cold War as uneventful as it seemed. Vast empires often disintegrate in upheavals and war; Bush's steady hand contributed to that not happening.
Looking back 25 years, it seems providential that there were so many leaders of unusual quality. Reagan and Bush in the United States, Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom, Helmut Kohl in Germany, Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union, to say nothing of John Paul and Walesa in Rome and Poland. The contrast with today's global leadership is striking. It seems that smaller men now scurry about the stage where once substantive men bestrode it. Over the summer, I was in Quebec City and strolled past the statue commemorating the summits between Churchill and Roosevelt that took place there during the Second World War. It is beyond imagining to think of a similar statue 70 years hence commemorating David Cameron and Barack Obama, the former public relations consultant and former community organizer. One expects both to exit the stage of history with their roles quickly forgotten.