By DON C. BRUNELL
For some, Thanksgiving is a time to gather with family and friends and give thanks for the blessings we enjoy. For others, it's a time to volunteer at soup kitchens to help the less fortunate. For still others, it's simply a chance to eat a huge meal and watch football.
In reality, most Americans have no idea how fortunate we are.
With the exception of military families, too few of us have fought to protect the freedoms we have. Few people alive today experienced the deprivation of the Great Depression. A full one-third of our population was born after the Vietnam War.
Because of that, we don't realize what we have.
America is a stable and open society. People can't be jailed for criticizing the government. Even the poorest among us has access to food and housing. Women are not imprisoned for driving a car and you can't be hanged for practicing your religion. The United State has never been invaded by another country and we have never known the stifling repression of a totalitarian government.
We have enjoyed these freedoms for so long, we take them for granted and assume they will always be here. But as President Reagan warned, "Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation."
Ironically, the greatest risk we face is not external, it's internal. If we lose our freedoms, it will likely be a defeat of our own making, as succeeding generations of Americans decide it's easier to leave all the important decisions and responsibilities to the government.
How would that work out? Ask the people of Poland.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Communist dictators tightly controlled everything in Poland. The government made all the decisions about manufacturing, housing and agricultural production. "Not to worry," the politicians said, "the government will ensure that everyone has what they need."
The Soviet-style system of centralized planning and government control failed miserably. The evidence is on display in the Solidarity Museum in Gdansk, Poland.
The museum features a mockup of a Soviet-era grocery store with only lard and vinegar on the shelves. Walking out of the store is a mannequin of a shabbily-clad Polish woman carrying only toilet paper, because there was no food for sale.
In the end, people took to the streets because they had nothing to lose. Lech Walesa, an electrician at the mammoth Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk, led the Solidarity movement. They struck for better wages, working conditions and to end the austerity. They were promptly jailed by the government.
Poland union leaders had support from AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, who funneled money to the protestors and kept pressure on American presidents to back the movement.
While Kirkland believed that the common people, not top leaders, would free Poland and bring down the Iron Curtain, it was the work of the Polish Pope John Paul II and President Reagan that brought the world's attention to the plight of the Poles.
The rest is history, and today Poland and the other central European nations prosper from the free market system. No matter where you go in Warsaw or Prague, you see shopping malls and fully-stocked grocery stores.
Americans are blessed because we are free to innovate, create and have the opportunity to succeed or fail. No government or nationalized industries can replace our vibrant private enterprises.
This Thanksgiving, we should remember that America is still the place people around the world emulate. But nothing is permanent, and we should remember that freedom is a fragile thing.
Editor's Note: Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state's oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.