LECH WALESA'S stirring speech to Congress last week marks the first time a private citizen has addressed that body since Winston Churchill did so a few months after losing the 1945 British election. Mr. Walesa, who has symbolized the ``revolution from below'' in Eastern Europe, came to America as Europe was experiencing its greatest changes in 50 years. In no small way, the man from Gdansk has been responsible for those changes.
Amid the fanfare, Walesa's sober reasons for coming can't be overlooked. While the Berlin Wall has captured the West's attention, Poland's economy is coming apart. Soup lines are longer. Basic goods - milk, soap - disappear for days. The Polish zloty is almost worthless - it now takes a Pole a month to earn what a Western worker makes in an hour.
As Walesa told Congress, 50 years of socialism have led Poland to ``the verge of utter catastrophe.''
Congress responded with $852 million in aid - considerably more than President Bush promised last June. Earlier, West Germany promised Poland $1 billion in investment credits.
More important than Walesa's plea to Congress, however, may be his pitch to US corporations. Private enterprise may be Poland's best chance. What's needed is long-term investment, not short-term aid. Walesa would like to attract the kind of deal General Electric made last week in Hungary, putting $150 million into a lighting company.
Poland, however, is caught in a conundrum. It isn't attractive as an investment until it is stable - but it won't be quite stable without more investment. What business may offer Walesa in the short term is expertise and know-how.
Walesa's speech, broadcast to Poland, may help reverse criticism he's been drawing there - for making arbitrary political decisions. But a speech alone won't heal divisions within Solidarity, which could hurt Poland. That task awaits Walesa back home.