The United States and Poland: Historical Reflections

Piotr Wandycz

American-Polish relations, in a broad sense, stretch over a long period of time, and indeed certain important contacts antecede the emergence of the United States. However inter-state relations, properly speaking, of course have a much shorter span. Still, this relationship is sufficiently long to permit certain generalizations from a historical perspective.

Let me start by saying that there have been lights and shadows in American-Polish relations; this is perfectly normal in intercourse among most nations. It is a historian's duty to note both, since only then can a reasonably full and balanced picture emerge.
What are the specific features that distinguish mutual attitudes, policies and relations in the past and the present; and how may they affect the future? We must approach them on various levels, and I hope that you will allow me to indulge in some sweeping generalizations.
In the first place we are dealing here with an uneven partnership. America has always been more of a giver than a taker. As a Polish historian Jerzy Jedlicki once remarked that America "invaded" Poland with various products, beginning with potatoes and ending with film and technology. The relationship was often of a compensatory nature-the story of American success and the American dream compensating the often dreary reality, lack of freedom, poverty, foreign oppression. America appeared as the promised land, the land of plenty where everyone had a chance to succeed. The American way of life was by definition good and prosperous. That helps to explain why when "A Streetcar Named Desire" was played in Warsaw, the directors avoided showing the squalor of the New Orleans slums for fear of being accused of anti-American communist propaganda.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, very few Poles visited the United States and only some made critical observations, for instance, the writer Henryk Sienkiewicz in his letters from America. If Americans were generally admired, the Poles, by contrast, did not have a good press in the United States. History textbooks invariably mentioned the Polish political follies as exemplified by the "liberum veto," criticized the oppression of peasants and mistreatment of Jews. To many Americans, who bothered to think about the subject at all, the Poles appeared either as vain and ungovernable Polish aristocrats or as poor and backward peasants-the dumb Polacks-subject of the notorious Polish jokes. Please note that I am speaking here about the past rather than about the present.

Another generalization: American and Polish outlooks and attitudes toward culture, politics, society or economics often offered a telling contrast. The Poles, as many Central Europeans, are history-conscious. The burden of the past, often an unhappy past, weighs on them heavily. The period of partitions and oppression by foreign powers produced national complexes. It lends, for instance, to a distrust of such terms as "compromise," for compromise meant surrender to the enemy. Lost causes, heroism, martyrology have occupied a large place in people's thinking. The "gloria victis" (glory to the defeated) mentality made others view the Poles as hopeless idealists and romantics.

By contrast Americans do not care for history and tend to look toward the future. As the writer Emily Hahn once put it, "we always think that what we are experiencing is new." Indeed, a premium is set on the term "new" as it occurs in concepts that range from "new deal" to "new frontier." American idealism, indeed Protestant-tinged moralism and pragmatism constitute the two poles between which most American policies oscillate. If national outlook can be expressed in proverbs, such sayings as "nothing succeeds like success" or "if you cannot beat them, join them" or the expression "selling" a program, seem very American and would appear incomprehensible or unacceptable to the Poles.

A third generalization: during the last 200 years the American story has been a success story. The corresponding period for the Poles was totally different. In the words of a prominent Polish historian, Henryk Wereszycki, during the last 200 years Poland was forced between freedom and oppression. We can note here curious coincidences: the almost simultaneous emergence of the United States and the collapse of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, or the outbreak of the Civil War almost coinciding with the Polish January 1863 Uprising. Both developments had long-ranging repercussions, of which more later.

A fourth general observation: Poland and the "Polish Question," as often as not, have been of marginal importance to the United States. They rose to prominence only at certain moments: toward the end of both World Wars, and at the time of the emergence of Solidarity. The reason for that phenomenon is fairly obvious. The United States as a world power, and subsequently the world superpower has had a global outlook and global concerns. Poland could be of interest to the United States only within a broad context when Polish issues affected the international scene. By contrast, Poland even in the days of its past glory in the 16th and 17th centuries-when it was the largest state in Europe-was always a power with limited interests. Later on, it ceased to determine its own fate and became dependent on others.

Let me now try to illustrate some of the above sweeping generalizations-I am fully aware that generalizations are little more than working hypotheses-and look at certain aspects of American-Polish relations. As I mentioned at the onset I shall try to point to both lights and shadows in order not to distort the picture.
Polish interest in the New World goes back to the sixteenth century, and as some historians (for instance Janusz Tazbir) have shown, it was quite considerable. There were also early contacts as well as Polish contributions to American growth and development. American Poles are rightly proud of the fact that already in 1608 a group of skilled Polish artisans-presumably brought in by Captain Smith-was active in Jamestown. In the course of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries individuals Poles, frequently Protestants, made their way to America. Names of such towns as Sandusky and Zabriskie testify to the activity of representatives of the Sadowski and Zaborowski families. The Polish Brethren whose signal contribution to the emergence of Unitarianism is generally recognized were very active in the West, and Harvard College early acquired the Bibliotheca Fratrum Polonorum.

The Polish interest and involvement in the American War of Independence has been thoroughly explored by historians. The contributions to the American war effort on the part of such famous volunteers as Kazimierz Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko are well known and need not be stressed here. We are reminded of them by the important monuments near the White House and the annual Pulaski Day Parade. What is less known is the important role the American example played in the debates at the Warsaw parliament which adopted the May 3, 1791 Constitution. It was the first written constitution in Europe and the second after that of the United States. In turn, how seriously the events in Poland surrounding it were treated can be attested by a debate at Harvard in 1972 on the three revolutions: the American, the French and the Polish.

Kosciuszko was lionized when he visited America again almost exactly 200 years ago. By this time Poland had been already wiped off the political map of Europe by the three partitioning powers: Prussia, Austria and Russia. The contrast between the American success and Poland's catastrophe struck a Polish poet already after the first partition when he wrote to his American friend: "When I think, Sir, that with three million people, and without money you have shaken off the yoke of such a power as England, and have acquired such an extensive territory-and that Poland has suffered herself to be robbed of five million souls and a vast country-I acknowledge, I do not understand the cause of such a difference." And he concluded by saying that if God would not show pity on Poland's fate "I will say to my countrymen: Come, cross the seas, and insure to your children liberty and property."

In the words of American historian Albert Lord "for most outsiders the partitions have overshadowed all the preceding periods of Polish history" providing an example of how a state ought not to be governed or how badly people can mismanage its national life. But, there is more to it. During the crucially important nineteenth century when the United States expanded from the Atlantic to the Pacific following what has been called Manifest Destiny, there was no Polish state with which the United States could have had normal inter-state, diplomatic intercourse. I consider this fact of capital importance, for it affected the basis of their very relationship. The Poles deprived of their statehood and rising against the partitioners again and again were worthy of sympathy, pity, even some assistance-moral and material-but were not considered as a political factor.

During the 1830 November uprising, pro-Polish groups emerged in the United States and poems entitled "Freedom! Freedom! Hear the Shout!" or "Rise, White Eagle, Rise" appeared. The Russian tsar was denounced in sharp terms, incidentally, not for the first time, as a tyrant and barbarian. Several prominent Americans, such as Morse, Emerson and Fenimore Cooper organized a Polish-American Committee in Paris which collected donations. A well-known surgeon departed to Poland to repay the debt owed to Kosciuszko and Pulaski. Books with Polish themes, including a History of Poland were published.
The United States, faithful to George Washington's directive of no entangling alliances could offer little tangible political or military assistance. In John Qunicy Adams' words, however, whenever a banner of freedom was unfurled there was America's "heart, benedictions and prayers," and early nineteenth century Poland had a share of them. A significant change, however, took place in the 1860s.

In February 1861, crowds in Warsaw were clashing with Russian troops; in April 1861 the first shots of the American civil war were fired at Fort Sumter. The year 1861 was also a memorable year in the Russian Empire witnessing the emancipation of serfs by tsar Alexander II. A combination of these events had a tremendous bearing on American-Polish relations. Washington's sympathies for Russia-already evident earlier-acquired a new dimension. Internationally, Britain and France which demonstrated pro-Confederate and pro-Polish attitudes found themselves in conflict with St. Petersburg. The Russian fleet, fearing a blockade sailed out of the Atlantic, visiting New York and San Francisco, where it met with an enthusiastic welcome. To Americans watching the reforms in Russia, a Polish uprising appeared not only a folly but a reactionary move by the ever conspiring nobility. Comparisons began to be drawn between the progressive Union and Russia on the one hand and the secessionist South and Poland on the other. As a journalist remarked ironically, had the Polish rebellion broken out three years earlier there would have been a declamations about Kosciuszko and Sobieski and denunciations of the tsar. Now a rebel was a rebel and deserved hanging. A famous cartoon in the London "Punch" showed the tsar with the caption: Abraham I and Alexander II. With the sale of Alaska in 1867 by the "old and faithful friend of the United States" as a contemporary commentator put it, American-Russian rapprochement received another boost.

The significance of all this was fairly obvious. An attitude developed equating the integrity of the United States with that of Russia. Any movements undermining the latter came to be seen not only as unjustifiable but also as undermining a great power needed in the world of states. This, to my mind, explains why the principle of national self-determinations applied after World War I to the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was not applied to Russia-Colonel House, for one, remarked on that. One can turn to more recent times to observe this phenomenon, be it only in American reluctance to see the Baltic states secede from the crumbling Soviet Union, or in the well known remark about the "suicidal nationalism" of the Ukrainians.

In the last decades of the nineteenth century the "Polish Question" largely disappeared from the agenda of international politics. In the United States references to Poland and the Poles remained, however, as part of political discourse. In 1908 President Taft described Poland's partitions as "historical fact lamented by nearly every heart." In 1914 The Nation commented that the partition "was long the favorite example for American orators as a great international crime." But, a few years earlier A History of the American People referred disparagingly to the waves of Polish and other immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe by calling them "men of the meaner sort" who lacked skill, energy or "initiative of quick intelligence." Few people anticipated that the author would shortly become "Poland's inspired protector" and a "foster father of a chiefless land," to cite the somewhat flowery language of Ignacy Paderewski. We are speaking here, naturally, of President Woodrow Wilson.

Historians keep wondering why Wilson became the champion of Poland and proclaimed the need for its independence in the "Peace without Victory" speech of 1917 and the much more famous "Fourteen Points." Was Wilson's championing due to the influence of Paderewski and Colonel House? Did the Polish American vote play a role here? Personally, I tend to agree with the view that Paderewski's contribution apart, the Polish case fitted well into Wilson's concept of national self-determination. The way in which it was originally presented-in terms of relief for the stricken land-gained a good deal of sympathy of the American people. Time does not permit a real analysis, but the President's stand proved very important for the rebirth of the Polish state. The Wilson Square in Warsaw, for one, and the recently reconstructed statue of Colonel House testify to Polish gratitude.

And yet, during the interwar years American support for and interest in Poland dwindled to a minimum. The first Polish representative in Washington, Franciszek Pulaski, rightly remarked that "Poland is treated rather as a romantic cause that lends itself to humanitarian actions than as a political issue." Poland, however, was not a charity case. It had ambition and will to power. Poland's search for security and its war with the Bolsheviks were deemed imperialistic-minor anti-Jewish excesses and quarrels with neighbors earned it bitter criticism Wartime sympathy for Poland began to wane. True, American capital occupied an important place in the country, and the often set forth theories that it operated to the advantage of the Germans against the Poles, are largely unfounded. True, American help in the stabilization loan overcame German opposition. Hoover's program of aid was of tremendous assistance. There was some sympathy for Pilsudski. But, at the same time the policy of the United States tinged by isolationism-a much misunderstood term-favored peaceful revision in Europe to ensure peace and greater stability. In that sense Warsaw had cause to worry.

The Second World War was to bring the "Polish Question" once again into the international limelight. The war years, however, were to show all the shadows of a relationship between a great power, the de facto leader of the anti-Axis coalition and Poland-an occupied country divided between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia-whose inhabitants lived under a regime of terror and whose government in exile commanded only a relatively small number of troops, airmen and sailors, however well and tenaciously they fought on all fronts. The uneven character of the relationship was all too obvious.

I once entitled an article on this subject "Inspiration or Trouble-maker?" referring to President Roosevelt's remarks about Poland made before the United States entered the war and at the Yalta Conference. At the early stage Roosevelt extolled the Polish underground and its heroic fight against the German occupiers, as part of his campaign to overcome isolationism and educate American public opinion to the Nazi danger. By the time of Yalta the Polish issue became for him an awkward problem complicating the relations with Moscow. Actually, the president had little genuine concern for Poland. His vision of the postwar world was based on the cooperation of the great powers-the Four Policemen idea--to which all others were to adjust. In Roosevelt's utterances Wilsonian ideals mingled with Realpolitik, and in his dealings with foreign statesmen the proverbial charm served often as substitute for his limited diplomatic experience.

The Poles found themselves in the unique position of having in fact two enemies: Nazi Germany, against which they fought physically, and Soviet Russia which was one of the pillars of the Allied coalition and which aimed at subordinating Poland to its will. The only chance of success which Polish diplomacy had was to convince Great Britain and particularly the United States that victory over Germany would be incomplete if Soviet Russia were to rule over half of Europe. But, such arguments fell on deaf ears. Besides, the West badly needed Soviet cooperation to win the war and was not going to endanger it by taking Poland's part. General Sikorski's efforts, supported by the British, to work for a postwar regional organization of East Central Europe which could better resist Russian encroachments, met with polite phrases in Washington. In reality, Roosevelt felt that it was up to the great powers to decide "what Poland should be," and he wasn't going to "bargain with Poland or the other small states." In fact, he became increasingly annoyed with the Poles-hence the remark recorded by Churchill that Poland "has been a source of trouble for over five hundred years." Why five hundred years, I am not quite sure.

Churchill's formula for resolving the "Polish Question" was based on the assumption that if the Polish government in London made territorial concessions to Soviet Russia it could gain in exchange internal freedom for Poland. Washington seemed to believe the opposite. Relegating the border question to the future, largely in the belief that events would take care of it, the United States wished for the Poles to become "friendly" to the Kremlin ruler. Roosevelt termed the Polish reaction over Katyn "stupid," and although Soviet behavior at the time of the Warsaw Uprising was deemed reprehensible-there was no clear reaction from Washington. Here, I would tend to agree with Adam Ulam's view that the primary defect in the American diplomacy was "the failure to make itself respected." The Polish case "demonstrated to Stalin that America was unsure about her policies and ignorant of the vast material and moral assets of which she disposed to the Soviet Union."

Let me turn now to a very brief summary of American relations with Poland during the second half of the twentieth century. It is obvious that after World War II the "Polish Question" became part of a larger problem: that of the division of Europe and of the Cold War. Poland occupied a more visible place within that context than other so-called satellites at certain specific times, especially in the late 1940s, in 1956, 1980?81, and as communism collapsed in 1989.

The transition period of 1945?48 exposed the bankruptcy of an important assumption of the American diplomacy, namely that the Soviet Bloc would be an open sphere of influence, open in the sense of free flow of economic goods and ideas. The provisions about free and unfettered elections proved illusory, and we can only debate whether the Yalta Accords were violated or whether they were so flexible that they could be stretched by the Soviet Union all the way without being technically broken. The United States came to adopt the Containment Policy, which seemed to imply disinterest in East Central Europe, Poland included. The "rape" of the latter, to use Mikolajczyk's term, or its "betrayal" to use that of Ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane, played an important role (together with the 1948 coup in Prague) in the formulation of the Republican's policy of Liberation. Was the latter only a myth while Containment under different forms continued to operate in all those years?
Liberation was certainly not a policy aiming at freeing East Central Europe by force. It suffered from an ambivalence-especially after the Stalin Tito break-whether liberation meant freeing a country from communism or from its dependence on the Soviet Union. The Doctrine of Liberation never recovered from the 1956 crisis. John Foster Dulles had publicly "ruled out the use of United States armed forces to help Poland regain her freedom." The Hungarian freedom fighters faced Soviet tanks alone. Yet, one could argue that in Poland's case Gomulka's rise to power offered an example of a limited "self-liberation" process which was to be sustained by American economic aid.

John Kennedy's dictum that this aid was "too little and too late" was based on the belief, shared by many, that a bold American initiative could have decisively affected an evolution toward freedom and democracy. From a historical perspective this seems an unfounded hope. Such aid as was given was substantial and by and large timely. The same was true for the opening of travel, particularly academic exchanges between the United States and Poland. If the Liberation rhetoric sounded rather hollow it would be a mistake to underestimate its main byproduct, namely the propagandistic activities and especially Radio Free Europe. Its impact on Poland was considerable both before and after the Polish October 1956.

The Radio operating from Munich had to stay clear, however, of an important issue, namely the German-Polish frontier on the Oder-Neisse (Odra-Nysa) line. This postwar border which involved the expulsion of millions of Germans was to be officially recognized at a future peace conference with Germany. In the meantime the United States was determined to avoid recognition because of the need of cooperation with Germany. There the expellees from Poland acted as pressure groups. This situation allowed the Polish communist regime to represent the USSR as the sole guarantor of the Oder-Neisse border and denounce German revisionists and their protectors in Washington. It was not until the collapse of communism that final recognition, largely due to the United States, accompanied the accords on the reunification of Germany.

The decades stretching from the late 1950s to the late 1970s witnessed several phases distinguished by such names as Peaceful Engagement, Bridge Building, Détente. The continuing American aid was periodically questioned by the Congress wishing to see political results follow economic largesse. This created problems for the White House. The election of President Kennedy, his Polish connection and his style in politics elated the Poles and his death caused genuine mourning in Warsaw, yet it is hard to see how he could have promoted more effectively American-Polish relations. Bridge Building under President Johnson emphasized trade, the flow of ideas, visitors and humanitarian aid. Still, by 1968 political overtures and initiatives toward Poland fell more to the Germans and the French. If the Polish March 1968 crisis and Poland's participation in the invasion of Czechoslovakia lowered pro-Polish sympathies in the United States, the rise of Gierek in 1970 seemed to offer new hopes for a more constructive relationship. Nixon's visit to Warsaw in May 1972 and Gierek's to America in 1974 were taking place in the aura of East-West détente. If massive economic investments in Poland temporarily improved living conditions they did not resolve the mounting political crisis. Yet, neither Gorbachev's reforms nor the volatile situation in Poland prepared people for the sudden outburst and the magnitude of Solidarity.

In 1980 Poland figured larger in American policy and public opinion than ever before. Lech Walesa came to be admired. Solidarity appeared as ex Oriente Lux. Threats of Soviet intervention were discussed not only in Washington but in telephone conversations between the White House and the Vatican, conversations held in Polish for the first time in the history of the two institutions. I refer to those between Zbigniew Brzezinski and Pope John Paul II. According to a contemporary wit the Poles needed only a third man, namely in the Kremlin.

The American role in the Solidarity crisis was, I think, on the whole positive and imaginative. The American stand may well have prevented an invasion in 1980. One cannot forget the statements of President Reagan and the program "Let Poland be Poland." The subsequent policy of "stick and carrot" as carried out by Ambassador John Davies helped to prepare the ground for the Round Table talks and the "negotiated revolution."

The end of the Cold War imposed huge responsibilities on the United States. It became imperative to have a vision and to formulate a program for a New World Order-a tremendous task which is not yet completed. There are people who miss the apparent stability and the simplicity of a bipolar system forgetting its iniquities. Poland came to occupy a larger place then before in American diplomacy. We are witnessing an "Americanization" of Poland in many fields which means that the country begins to share all the current problems of the West.

The new great issue facing American foreign policy which is bound to affect greatly American-Polish relations is the expansion of NATO. There is no unanimity of views in this country over that issue while almost 90% Poles desire to join NATO. I am cautiously hopeful about the final outcome, just as I am optimistic about the future of American-Polish relations in which American Polonia has traditionally played an important and positive role. These relations have always been friendly, but I would wish them to become "normal." interstate relations, just as many Poles desire their country to be neither an inspiration nor a martyr nor a source of trouble, but a normal European country remaining true to its old heritage while building a better future.

Professor Piotr Wandycz, a historian at the Yale University, gave this speech on May 2, 1997 at the Library of Congress. The occasion was the opening of an exhibit, Emblem of Good Will, organized by the staff at US Library of Congress in conjunction with the Embassy of the Republic of Poland, and sponsored by Federation of Polish Americans. Additional support for the exhibit comes from AMPLICO Life, the US-Europe-Poland Action Commission, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

TST, Vol. 5, No. 16-17/1997

The Summit Times

© Copyright 1996 by Andrzej M. Salski