Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
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Wałęsa, Lech (1943–)

Title: Lech Wałęsa
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Polish labor activist, Nobel Peace Prize winner (1983), and president of Poland (1990–1995). Born to a peasant family in the village of Popowo on 29 September 1943, Lech Wałęsa completed vocational school and from 1961 was employed as a car mechanic. During 1965–1967 he performed his mandatory service in the Polish Army.

Wałęsa then began work as an electrician in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. In December 1970, following government announcement of price increases, Wałęsa was one of the leaders in a strike at the shipyard. Arrested, he was convicted of antisocialist behavior and sentenced to a year in prison. On his release, he was elected to the new workers' council and acted as a voluntary work inspector. He also participated in various labor demonstrations and rallies.

In 1976, Wałęsa was fired from his job at the shipyard for collecting signatures on a petition to build a memorial to commemorate the 1970 casualties. He supported his family by taking temporary jobs. In 1978, together with Andrzej Gwiazda, Aleksander Hall, and other activists, Wałęsa took the lead in the organization of free, independent, noncommunist trade unions in the Baltic region. The security forces closely observed this activity. Wałęsa was often detained and arrested and could not find a permanent job.

In August 1980 Poland was struck by yet another wave of strikes. When this agitation reached Gdańsk, Wałęsa became the leader of the strike committee. As a result of the wave of strikes and negotiations with the communist government of Poland, he and the strike committee reached an agreement with the government on 31 August that allowed workers to organize their own independent, noncommunist trade unions.

This was the beginning of the Solidarność (Solidarity) trade union. One year later, in 1981, Wałęsa became president of Solidarity, which was joined by some 10 million Polish wage earners, about 70 percent of the employed population. Solidarity became a vast movement that sought sweeping social and economic changes. Although there were voices raised against the Soviet Union and Poland's membership in the Warsaw Pact, Wałęsa and the Solidarity leadership never let the union drift fully into the political arena.

On 13 December 1981, with the Soviet Union threatening military invasion, Polish General Wojciech Jaruzelski proclaimed martial law, whereupon Wałęsa and other Solidarity leaders were arrested. Released in November 1982, Wałęsa returned to work at the Gdańsk shipyard and maintained contact with underground Solidarity leaders.

Although martial law ended in July 1983, not much had changed. With many of the legal restrictions continuing in place, Wałęsa refused to collaborate with the government. In October 1983, at the time virtually under house arrest, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 1989, faced with no economic improvement and a steadily worsening political climate in Poland, Jaruzelski agreed to talks with Wałęsa and his colleagues. These occurred during February–April 1989, with Wałęsa leading the opposition side. The two sides reached agreement allowing semifree national elections to be held in June 1989 that resulted in a new government under noncommunist Premier Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Wałęsa's choice.

With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the end of the Cold War, Wałęsa, still head of the now-legal Solidarity labor union, traveled widely abroad and met with world leaders. In November 1989 he addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress.

In national elections in December 1990, Wałęsa was elected president. His tenure as president was a mixed one, and his effort to make that office a strong one was only partially successful, bringing with it frequent clashes with premiers and parliament. He lost his bid for reelection in 1995. Wałęsa nonetheless remains one of the most important figures in twentieth-century Poland.

Jakub Basista


Further Reading
Craig, Mary. Lech Walesa and His Poland. New York: Continuum, 1987.; Kurski, Jaroslaw. Lech Walesa: Democrat or Dictator. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1993.; Paczkowski, Andrzej. The Spring Will Be Ours: Poland and the Poles from Occupation to Freedom. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003.; Wałęsa, Lech. The Struggle and the Triumph. New York: Arcade, 1992.
 

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