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Friday, November 10, 2023

Decades After Assisting the Polish Underground During the Cold War, an Economist Will Receive Poland’s Highest Honor

For twelve days in 1986, Lawrence Reed met clandestinely with the Polish Underground, beginning a decades-long relationship with the former Communist nation.

Image Credit: FEE

In November 1986, Lawrence W. Reed arrived at the Warsaw-Okecie Airport in Poland to catch a plane back to the United States after a two-week visit to the Soviet satellite state.

The 33-year-old economist was hoping to be back in time for Thanksgiving, but his plans for turkey dinner hit a snag when a customs agent began to scrutinize his passport.

“Wait here,” the agent said.

Moments later, the agent returned with a Communist official and three uniformed soldiers. Reed was instructed to follow the men and was led to a security cell, where his property was taken and he was strip searched. The Soviet official then began to pepper Reed with questions.

Who did you meet? What was the real purpose of your visit? What do you plan to do with the information you received?

Reed told the men he had just been sightseeing. His response didn’t please the official. The questions persisted. An hour passed. Then another.

Who did you meet? What was the real purpose of your visit? What do you plan to do with the information you received?

Among the Polish Underground

Being strip searched and questioned by authorities is never comfortable, but Reed’s experience was unnerving for another reason. He had been fraternizing with Communist dissidents.

For twelve days, Reed had been clandestinely meeting with the Polish Underground, an organization formed by resistors of the Communist state who were loyal to the Government of the Republic of Poland, which operated in exile from London.

Reed had been invited to Poland by Wojciech Modelski, the founder of the Polish Independent Students Union, a group that had been outlawed by the Communist regime. Modelski had invited Reed to Poland after listening to one of his speeches, which discussed Reed’s support of freedom fighters in Nicaragua against the Sandinistas, a Marxist-Leninist group that had come to power in a violent revolution in 1979.

Modelski, himself a Polish exile, encouraged Reed to travel to Poland to meet resistors of the Communist state. Reed accepted and arranged a flight. Modelski instructed him to enter the country legally like any other tourist, and that someone from the Polish Underground would meet him at the airport.

“I didn’t know exactly what to expect,” said Reed, who had never before been to Poland.

After landing in Warsaw, Reed was met at the airport by Jan Rokita, a young freedom activist and member of the dissident organization “Freedom and Peace.”

Rokita, who years later would nearly become Poland’s prime minister, greeted Reed and provided him with an itinerary.

Over the next week, Reed would mingle with those in the Underground in Warsaw and Krakow—visiting their homes, attending planning sessions, conducting interviews, and assisting the resistance in printing books and other literature the Communist regime had banned.

One night he attended a dinner party where there were underground printers publishing famous works written by classical liberal authors, including F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.

“I asked how I could help,” Reed said years later. “They needed $5,000 to publish Friedman’s Free to Choose. I helped them get the money. Five thousand copies were printed in total.”

That the Polish Underground was able to publish thousands of copies of Friedman’s famous work under the nose of the Communist state might surprise many. What’s even more impressive (and ironic) is that resistors were able to use the government’s own printing presses to publish many copies of the verboten book, which demonstrates the economic dysfunction and confusion Poland had fallen into after decades of Communist rule.

Despite this economic malaise, which included perennial double-digit inflation and chronic shortages of basic goods (including food), Reed found tremendous optimism in Poland.

One of the primary purposes of his trip was to gauge the morale of the resistance. Despite the oppressive government system, the poor economy, and the presence of a secret police force, he discovered a current of hopefulness running through the movement. Read attributes this buoyant spirit to their cause itself, not the fact that freedom was less than three years away, a possibility few dared dream of.

“They felt it was the right thing to do,” Reed told me. “They were profoundly encouraged by John Paul II, and they were proud of the work they were doing—and proud they were getting away with it.”

‘A De Facto Ambassador of Poland’

Whether Lawrence Reed was going to “get away with it” was a question that must have crossed his mind while being interrogated in the holding cell at Warsaw-Okecie Airport in 1986.

As the Communist official continued to pepper him with questions before the stoney-faced soldiers, Reed did his best to remain calm. He answered questions politely, but vaguely. He played dumb and feigned confusion, pretending he was having trouble understanding them.

“Too many z’s in Polish names!” he complained.

After a few hours of questioning, the authorities let him go.

Reed didn’t get off scot free. His photographs and audio recordings were seized, though some of the items were returned to him after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He attempted several times to go back to Poland but his visa was denied every time until the communists were kicked out in June 1989. Then-U.S. Senator Steve Symms of Idaho sent a monthly letter to the Polish embassy in Washington, demanding an official apology. In November 1989, Reed returned to Warsaw to celebrate the country’s freedom with his many Polish Underground friends, some of whom had become members of Parliament. He has been back to Poland many times in the years since, and has spoken at the Warsaw School of Economics, Jagiellonian University, and at other venues.

Though some of Reed’s photographs and interviews remain missing to this day, the memories of that trip he’ll always keep, and the work he did will be remembered—and not just by him.

On Wednesday, Reed once again boarded a plane for Poland. This time, however, he will be received in Warsaw by Polish President Andrzej Duda, who will bestow him with the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit, the highest honor bestowed by Poland upon a foreigner, and whose past recipients include Queen Elizabeth II, Ronald Reagan, and the late British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton.

Reed is not receiving the award just for his work in 1986, however.

In announcing the honor, President Duda noted the many contributions Reed made to Polish liberty spanning decades. Over many years, he organized efforts to translate into Polish numerous capitalist works written by leading free-market thinkers, including works by Ayn Rand, Mises, F. A. Hayek, and others. During the 1980s, he raised awareness of the Polish Underground in America and rallied supporters to its cause. In the decades since, he’s written dozens of articles on Polish history and politics—ranging from the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 to essays on leaders such as Marie Curie-Sklodowska and Witold Pilecki—and visited the country more than a half-dozen times.

“Larry Reed has become a de facto ambassador of Poland within the conservative-libertarian political and intellectual community in the U.S.,” Duda said in his reward announcement

It’s an honor well-deserved for Reed, who is currently President Emeritus of the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), the organization for which I work.

During my five years with FEE, I’ve come to know Larry well. I recognize him as a mentor and a friend, but above all else I recognize him as an evangelist of freedom—and in deeds, not just words.

Ronald Reagan once said that “freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

Reagan was right, but many who cherish freedom would do well to remember that freedom is about more than words. It’s about more than reasoning, memes, and TikTok videos.

Freedom requires courage, both physical and moral.

When Larry Reed receives his award Saturday, let his courage, and that of the Polish Underground, remind us all of that.


  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Senior Creative Strategist of FEE.org at the Foundation for Economic Education.