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The Poles' Real Hero Is Ameryka

July 09, 1989|ANDREW NAGORSKIBD Andrew Nagorski is a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Poles have a longstanding love affair with Ameryka . President Bush will revel in the outpouring of adulation, but Poland's heart was conquered long ago. No country in the world is as unabashedly pro-American as the Polish People's Republic.

I learned that lesson on my first visit to Poland in 1964. Arriving by coincidence on the same day as Robert Kennedy, I followed the crowds to Warsaw's huge Old Market Square, which was packed with people. When Kennedy emerged from St. John's Cathedral, I found myself literally lifted off my feet by the surging crowd chanting "Kennedy, Kennedy." Twice I dangled above ground, both exhilarated and frightened.

As a 17-year-old American discovering the land of his parents, I was initially reluctant to admit that I was the beneficiary of the fallout effect, not just of the magic of the Kennedy name but the deeper magic of the word Ameryka . When Poles would solemnly declare that I had the "Kennedy look," something no one had ever noticed back home, I chalked it up to their perspicacity. When young women flashed dazzling smiles after they heard me described as an Amerykanin , I figured that Polish women had much better taste than American high school girls.

But soon I had to somewhat sorrowfully admit that other factors were at work, since the evidence was just too overwhelming. Ameryka is associated with everything positive and far away, and the antithesis of all that is sinister and nearby.

Ameryka means wealth and success. Meeting someone who is turned out in fancy clothes or drives a new car, a Pole will say: "I see that Ameryka has opened up to you." A relative of mine went to a wedding in the countryside, where the bride's father muttered as guests heaped on huge helpings of food: "Where do they think they are--in Ameryka ?"

Ameryka also means a state of mind, not just of freedom but of civility in a society based on constitutional rights that may be more mythological than real. If a Pole demands to be treated with respect and talks back to a petty bureaucrat, the bureaucrat is likely to bark: "What do you think, that this is Ameryka ?" The assumption about the meaning of Ameryka is shared by both parties in such an exchange.

Successive attempts by Communist officials to discredit their opponents as American puppets or agents have backfired. Solidarity's support of American economic sanctions against Poland in the wake of the imposition of martial law in 1981 was widely applauded, despite the government's efforts to portray Washington as the cause of the country's economic disarray. Anti-American posters had to be displayed on the inside of shop windows; otherwise, they were immediately torn down.

By the last election campaign, Communist officials were tacitly acknowledging reality and doing everything to obscure their true affiliation. One Communist, an author of several books about the United States, promoted his candidacy by posing against a backdrop of American flags.

Above all, Ameryka represents the forces of good versus the all-too-familiar forces of evil at home and across the Soviet border. When Ronald Reagan began speaking of "the evil empire," Poles were ecstatic that finally an American President was echoing what they had been saying all along.

When West Germans took to the streets to protest the deployment of American medium-range missiles, Poles contemptuously dismissed their concerns. "Better a Pershing than a Soviet soldier in your back yard," they were fond of saying.

If Poles are sometimes disillusioned with American leaders, they can act like lovers scorned. That is why Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is blamed for handing over their country to Stalin at Yalta, arouses such wrath. But even presidents who are perceived as weak--Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter--were greeted enthusiastically on their visits to Poland. Americans may be considered bumbling or naive at times, but any gesture of support is more than reciprocated.

John F. Kennedy and Reagan, who are seen as living up to Polish expectations, are adored. On a visit to Poland last year, I frequently encountered the question: "Is it really impossible for Reagan to run for a third term?" Whatever his record on other issues, Poles are firmly convinced that his willingness to stand up to the Kremlin greatly strengthened their struggle for freedom.

By serving as Ronald Reagan's vice president and visiting Poland in 1987, Bush guaranteed himself the welcome he is getting. But, Mr. President, a bit of advice that should not be taken amiss: They love you more for what you represent than for who you are.

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