President Trump’s remarkable speech in Poland on Thursday reminded me in some respects of Churchill’s Zurich Speech, Solzhenitsyn’s Warnings to the West, Coolidge’s Speech on the Declaration, and, at the end, of Churchill’s speech of June 4, 1940, to the House of Commons (“We shall fight on the beaches…”). Yet the president’s speech has its own peculiar scope and ambition.
The official title of the speech is deceptively modest: “Remarks by President Trump to the People of Poland.” But the speech taken as a whole moves from the particular example of Poland, to Western Europe, and then to the West as a whole.
The setting of the speech is Krasinski Square, the site of the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising. The speech ends with a lengthy reflection on that uprising. In light of this, it is worth reminding ourselves of the bare facts regarding it. On July 31, 1944, with the Soviet Army only 15 miles from Warsaw, patriotic Poles rose up against the German occupation forces with the goal of establishing an independent Polish authority before the arrival of the Russians. Five days later, Russian air activity over Warsaw ceased and the Red Army stopped their westward advance. The Russian intention was to allow the Germans to crush the Polish resistance so that they could more easily establish their own authority. That is in fact what happened: The Polish resistance lasted two months, but in the end was savagely crushed and thousands of Poles were executed.
The theme of the first part of the speech is the pride of Poland. “The story of Poland is the story of a people . . . who have never been broken” because they have “never, ever, forgotten who they are.” Poland is a “land.” It is a place. It is “beautiful.” It is at the “geographic heart of Europe.” But more importantly, Poland shows the “soul of Europe.” Poland is great because its “spirit’ is great. In its time of testing, Poland was not erased from the map because its history could not be erased from the hearts of its people.
Why could Poland not be broken? Why did the Polish people never forget who they were? Why did their spirits not collapse after suffering many humiliations and defeats in arms? In answering these questions, the president recounts Pope John Paul II’s visit to Poland in June 1979 and the very moment the Polish Communist state ceased to be. A million Poles shouted, “We want God!” The things of the spirit come first: “They did not ask for wealth, they did not ask for privilege.”
Then, as a transition to the second part of the speech, the president makes a surprising statement. In the face of statistics he asserts not only that the people of Poland, but also the people of America and Europe “still cry out, We want God.” Could the meaning be that spiritually arid Europe and increasing arid America still need God in order to understand who they are? That must be, for the president follows by stating, on the occasion of the Pope’s visit, the Poles “reasserted their identity as a nation devoted to God.”
The president then turns to Europe. The first theme is the “strength” of Europe, which would be “a blessing to the West and to the world.” One is reminded by this of Europe’s grudging resistance to the president’s insistence NATO member nations pony up and contribute their share to their own defense. Is Europe strong? We already know from the Polish example what else is meant by strength.
President Trump then presents a list of “dire threats,” both to “our security and our way of life.” He focuses on three: radical Islamism, Russian adventurism, and the growing administrative centralism in all European countries. In summarizing how we can confront these threats, Trump points to a common thread in these threats. Whether domestic or foreign, they are all aimed at sapping our spirit and weakening our will to self-preservation. They threaten “to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.”
There is a question or a doubt about whether or not we will forget. The president asserts in pep talk fashion that America and Europe will never forget who they are, but in the context of a qualification. “If we don’t forget who we are, we just can’t be beaten.”
The third part of the speech then begins. It is a remembering, an attempt to articulate what is the West, the spirit of the West, who we are.
We are first a civilization that has a political form, “a community of nations.” We are a special community of nations, unlike any others. The president then recounts the major elements of the West, our common inheritance, in which we should take pride. Politics and cultural achievements are included. Science, philosophy, Western music, religious art, political liberty, the rule of law, and the special status of women stand out. Trump wishes to emphasize we have inherited these things. The past is more important to our survival than any progress. No pride can survive the loss of memory. “As long as we know our history, we will know how to build our future.” Concrete things will show whether there will be a way back for Europe, whether there is a will to survive. One concrete thing would be increased spending on national priorities, such as defense. Another would be cultivating “strong families.” European men and women must marry and have children. Let them come to Poland and see.
Trump wishes to emphasize we have inherited these things. The past is more important to our survival than any progress. No pride can survive the loss of memory.
The very significant peroration of the speech comes after a lengthy metaphor, a tale of the Warsaw Uprising. Jerusalem Avenue was a main road in the city. For the resistance to continue it had to be kept open so that fighters could pass and communications could be kept open throughout the city. The blood of many patriots was shed defending this roadway, as the Germans poured relentless fire on anyone who crossed. It was kept open till the very end of the resistance.
What conclusion is drawn from this tale of courage, which ended in temporary defeat? “Each generation must rise up and play their part” in defending the West, and “every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.”
Every foot of ground and every last inch, of what? Of civilization. Of civilization, which can mean every block of Jerusalem Avenue, or every last inch of our spiritual selves.
Indeed, the president explains, our fight doesn’t begin at all on the battlefield, but “with our minds, our wills, and our souls.” As long as Poland’s will to live survived, Poland could not be broken. The president’s speech as a deed is an instance testifying to his manly assertion at the end, that “the West will never, ever, be broken.” Followed by: “Let us fight like the Poles—for family, for country, for freedom, and for God.”
“Each generation must rise up and play their part” in defending the West, and “every foot of ground, and every last inch of civilization, is worth defending with your life.”
I said at the beginning that President Trump’s speech reminded me of Churchill’s Zurich Speech, delivered in September 1946. In it, amidst the ashes following the war, Churchill reflected on a possible future for Europe. In a striking remark, Churchill stated that the revival of Europe depended on a “spiritually great France and a spiritually great Germany.” Trump’s speech explains well what Churchill meant by national spiritual greatness, particularly European greatness. For what is Europe? In that speech Churchill said: “This noble continent . . . is the home of all the great parent races of the western world. It is the fountain of Christian faith and ethics. It is the origin of most of the culture, arts, philosophy and science, both of ancient and modern times.”
Of course, in many respects Europe is worse off than in 1946. A friend of German parentage recently told me a story. She remembered the German women after the war. In the ruins they came out to clean up, they eked out a living, they fed their children. She contrasted that with today. Today, she said, they have lost the will to live. I will see her Saturday. She will be happy with the president’s speech.