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Polish Constitution Day

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Washington D.C., Wednesday, May 21, 2014

To all of you here, thank you for helping us celebrate an important day in the country's history, and Poland's history together; it's a pretty remarkable achievement.

To my friends in the Congress here, thank you for your continued support and what you do on behalf of this special relationship.  And thank you for what you do for our country.

To our ambassadors here, for your service to your countries and helping make a better world for all of us, thank you.

And I also want to add my thanks to those here who represent our government -- some from the Defense Department, others from the State Department, and many others here who work in other areas of our government.

To all of you, I want to first acknowledge that it's a privilege to be part of this celebration.

I bring you greetings from President Obama.  I saw the president today -- he knew I was coming over here.  I only asked him not to eat my pierogies...which the ambassador did promise me and I've come to collect.

I long ago got acquainted with pierogies from my Grandmother Kakolewska who, as the ambassador noted, I had the rare opportunity to see and be in the church in Poland in January where my great-grandparents were married.

And the defense minister informed me of the gateway hanging of that church and gave me the copies of the marriage certificates and the birth certificates of my grandmother and her twelve children.  I don't think it's a record, but it made me impressed.

But you mentioned Nebraska in your reference to what happened a hundred years ago.  And I know the history of that Nebraska contribution to the war effort a hundred years ago.  And it is much celebrated today in the cities of three of four of the Nebraska clans there -- the Polish.  There can only be one, but they all claim to be Polish.  We've always admired that, because they take great pride in that history.

Let me also reflect, for a moment, Mr. Ambassador, a couple of serious things.  We are living in a world today -- and you all recognize this -- at a very defining time.  It's a time that we are seeing a new and early 21st century world order being built.

What is remarkable about this time -- not just the conflict and the complications and the interconnections that this world of 6 billion people has -- but I think what's more hopeful than maybe than any other time in the history of the world is we have more opportunities, more possibilities, more resources and more capacity to do more good for more people than any time in the history of the world -- if we're wise enough to use those resources with strong leadership.

The Polish contribution to this is not just about an anniversary date, as the ambassador noted, and a  223 years living constitution, 25 years since free elections, and the 10 year anniversary of Poland's entry into NATO, but it's more than that.

And I'll try to make my point by telling a very brief story about a comment that former West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt made to me years ago.

And Helmut Schmidt, for many years -- I don't think he's as active today as he was years ago -- but each year, would travel around the world for a month.  And he would go to different countries and he would listen and learn.

And he used to come see me when I was in the Senate and I valued those times with him.  And we were talking about Eastern Europe and we were talking about the countries who had been most successful for the quickest in Central and Eastern Europe -- and why was that?

And he said, “The Polish people have taken the opportunities throughout their history more seriously but with the many trials, tribulations, burdens, heartbreaks as any other country.  But what they've done since the implosion of the Soviet Union is that they were able to put a government together quicker, make it more effective, make it work; make it more responsible and more prosperous for its people than any other country.”

And he said, “The reason I that I always believed that is because the spirit of the Polish people was never broken by the Soviets.”  And he said “It is the only country in Eastern Central Europe that I can say that about.”

And I've never forgotten that point -- that the strength of the fiber of the Polish people -- it goes beyond anniversaries.  But anniversaries are important.

And I saw it in my grandmother; I saw it on my mother's side of the family -- all nations, all ethnicities should be proud of their background and should be proud of where they come from and what they believe in.

But the Polish people are special and you deserve to take the special moments to recognize who you are and what you represent to the world, and the larger and larger role Poland can play in defining this time in our world.  It is full of tremendous possibilities.

And because of countries like Poland who understand the dark side of history as well as the bright side -- which the world will look for continued inspiration and leadership and guidance.

So, I want to say that I'm not only proud of my Polish heritage -- and I know every American who is here tonight, every American who has that Polish heritage is very proud, because it's anchored in something bigger than just ethnicity or where you're from.  It's a spirit; it's a belief; it's a sense of who you are and what's positive.

One last point on this day -- I've always thought anniversaries, celebrations are important; always will be important.  And the reason I say that is because they allow us some time in a world that's becoming more and more complex, more consumed with the immediacy of our day, the technology -- it allows us those special moments that we all need in our families, private  lives, public  lives, to reflect on how did we get there?

And anniversaries anchor us back to that reality.  And they push us out into understanding more and more the frame of reference.  That past won’t be comfortable.  But keeping us true with confidence -- where we want to go and who's helped us get there.

And to the great Polish leaders who played pretty significant roles in founding this country -- we have monuments to General Pulaski all over this country -- is one.

But there are so many who have contributed to what we are as Americans and how we have developed -- and in many ways, how we've emulated the Polish people.

So, again, Ambassador, thank you for giving me an opportunity to share this moment with all of you.  And I also want to recognize your strengths -- now that you're -- you're announcing your retirement.

I've been around the world enough to know and have dealt with ambassadors enough all over the world to know that ambassadors' jobs are not easy.  And they're not easy for the family.

And this country, the United States of America, has always been blessed with having tremendous ambassadors here from other countries -- and you are no exception.  You fit the mold. 

I thank you.

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