by Austin Bay
Fred was a 20-year-old Polish soldier when the Nazi's 1939 blitzkrieg smashed his unit in a battle near Warsaw. "Of course," he told me over a long cup of coffee, "we retreated into Russians, invading from the east. Recall, Stalin was Hitler's ally."
Escaping the Nazi and Communist occupation, Fred headed for Great Britain via Hungary. "I had to get back into the war," he said. "To stop the damn Nazis."
Fred got back into it. After Normandy, his Polish armored unit, operating with a mix of Allied equipment, rolled across France. When the Germans surrendered, Fred returned to Poland -- "to leave again," he said, evenly. After a sip of coffee, he added, "I wasn't someone the communists liked."
I chuckled. "Our class communist certainly doesn't like you," I said.
Our conversation occurred in 1984, in a cafe on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Though over 30 years my senior, Fred (he also went by Fritz) and I were the old fogie auditors in a graduate German lit course at Columbia University. Sixty-something Fred --slender, gray hair, clear blue eyes -- was contemplating the poems of former enemies.
That afternoon, the Polish soldier had intellectually and morally stuffed the class Marxist, a bearded nudge in his 20s, whose heaven was Castro's Workers' Paradise. The loudmouth had called the United States fascist one too many times. "I tell you," Fred had sniffed. "Communists, Nazis, no difference. They both murder. I've seen the murders. You are free to believe lies, but your lies insult me, kid."
The graduate red's eyes had bugged, as if Fred were a ghost sent to haunt him.
The year 1984 was a frostbit Cold War year. The Russians had rattled sabers throughout 1983, trying to stop NATO's theater missile deployment. In Poland, the Communists had put the screws to the Solidarity labor movement.
Fred, however, remained an optimist, a man with a grip on the past, looking through the present to a better future. "I'm a New Yorker now," he said. "I visit Poland only as a melancholy tourist. But Eastern Europe will ultimately be free, Austin. Poles, Russians, they know the system's rotten. The key for Poland will be to reach west, once this Cold War is over. Anchor with the United States. We can't be cut off again."
Fred puts a personal face on the often dry-sounding subject of NATO expansion. He helps answer the question "Why NATO?" after the Cold War. His lack of personal antipathy toward Germans and Russians serves as an example for anyone serious about creating the conditions to promote 21st century peace.
I haven't seen the man in 16 years. I don't know if he's still alive, though he was so fit and spry I wouldn't be surprised to hear from him. Still, I thought about Fred last week when I read through President George W. Bush's Warsaw speech. I imagined an I-told-you-so wink when Bush said: "Free Europe is no longer a dream. It is the Europe rising around us."
"I believe in NATO membership for all of Europe's democracies," the president continued. "The question of 'when' may be still up for debate ... the question of 'whether' should not be. ... We will not trade away the fate of free European peoples. No more Munichs. No more Yaltas."
To that, Fred might whisper, "Let's hope."
For democrats throughout Eastern Europe, NATO membership is Fred's anchor made explicit. Guaranteed U.S. support invigorates democratization. NATO entrance requirements offer democratic leaders definite goals, useful political standards when competing with the nativists and ethnic rabble-rousers who plague former communist countries.
Unfortunately, many Russians fear NATO expansion. They see enlargement as "creeping" Western triumph. While legitimate Russian security concerns must be acknowledged (which is why I support incremental expansion), Russian fear of NATO is short-sighted and wrong-headed. In Fred's terms, the regional stability NATO creates serves as an "anchorage" where Russians may ultimately tether their own democracy.
Given Russia's current travails, that may sound wildly optimistic. But NATO is a pragmatic vehicle for optimists who appreciate the power of common sense fired by the promise of political liberty and the guarantee of mutual security. Fred, who lost his country twice, based his optimism on the common sense of "cut off" Poles and Russians trapped inside brutal Cold War dictatorships. Five years after our Manhattan cup of coffee, the Berlin Wall cracked.