Poland, Polish Americans, and the NATO Alliance

Once again, we are starting to see more about the importance of the NATO Alliance in our media. Perhaps, Poland’s place in the Alliance will also get some positive attention. We shall see! But just what is NATO? And how did Poland become a member?

NATO summit 1999 (Source: Wikipedia)

Soon after World War II ended in 1945, the great anti-Hitler alliance collapsed. In its wake, a new “Cold War” arose pitting the Soviet Union against the United States and the free world. Having betrayed his promises at the Yalta Summit conference, Stalin imposed dictatorships in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia and Albania and walled off their devastated peoples behind an “iron curtain” running north to south through the heart of Europe. Worse, the USSR made moves threatening the freedom of countries beyond its reach. In response, in 1947 the U.S. backed Greece and Turkey to prevent their takeover by Soviet-backed revolutionaries. The Marshall Plan was approved, providing hundreds of millions of dollars in economic aid to rebuild war-torn Europe. In 1949, fears about Soviet aggression led to the creation of a new multi-member defensive alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). NATO’s mission was stated in Article Five of its Treaty, where all members committed themselves to the principle of “Collective Self- Defense.” Simply put an enemy attack against any member was an attack on all members - one to be resisted.

At first the Alliance included 12 states – Britain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, Portugal, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Canada and the U.S. In the 1950s, Greece, Turkey, and West Germany joined Spain followed. As time would tell, the Alliance did prevent Soviet expansion. Moreover, its unity of purpose made NATO an invaluable insurance policy that led to enhanced prosperity and social stability throughout western Europe.

In 1989 Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary led the way in ending communist rule and bringing freedom and independence to their citizens. To solidify their national security and economic reconstruction efforts, they sought entry into NATO and the European Union, the key multi-national organizations of the democratic community. Poland’s leaders took the lead in pressing for admission into both alliances, which they saw as the key to their country’s future. But here Poland and its neighbors faced serious obstacles.

Given the grim economic legacy left by communist misrule, the EU refused to consider any early expansion to the east. As for joining NATO, different but equally high hurdles had to be surmounted. At first some NATO leaders argued that with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War’s end in 1991, it was time to disband the Alliance. While this view was rejected, other influential government figures opposed any further expansion of NATO. Instead, they proposed that countries aspiring to join should be made “Partners for Peace,” even though “partnership” did not include the core Article Five commitment that defined NATO’s mission. Poland opposed “partners for peace” and led the East Central European effort to push for full NATO membership.

In the United States, the Polish American Community and its key lobby, the Polish American Congress (PAC), strongly supported NATO membership for Poland out of a belief that NATO expansion was in the best national interests of the United States, its allies and the fledgling East Central European democracies. Formed near the end of World War II, the PAC had unswervingly committed itself to a free, independent Poland and America’s national security. Moreover, it had active members and chapters throughout the country.

In December 1993 the PAC launched a massive campaign, barraging the White House with telegrams, letters, telephone calls, and e-mails in support of NATO expansion. This effort paid off. In January 1994, President Clinton decided to meet with representatives of the Polish, Czech, Slovak and Hungarian American communities to hear their views about NATO expansion. This meeting was held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and was followed up in March by a second meeting with the President at the White House.

In Milwaukee, Edward Moskal, the President of the PAC, made a powerful case for NATO expansion. When the same group met in March, President Clinton pledged his support for NATO expansion. As he put it, “The door to NATO expansion is open.”

I took part in both of these meetings, along with a third in Buffalo, New York in December 1994. There we met with U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright. What I witnessed in these sessions was amazing. It was there that U.S. policy changed. (I have written of my experience as a “witness to history”.)

Of course, something as big as NATO expansion did not happen overnight! All sorts of issues had to be worked out. And ALL 16 NATO states had to approve the new members’ entry as well. In this country, the U.S. Senate had to amend the NATO treaty and by a vote of at least 67 out of 100 members. Here, the Polish American Congress continued its great work. When in April 1998, the Senate approved the admission of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, it was by an 80-19 vote. In those 12 states where the PAC was strongest, the vote was 21 to 3. In June 1999, the NATO leadership formally admitted its new members into the Alliance - on the 50th Anniversary of its creation. Since then 10 more East Central European states have joined - and without much difficulty.

In the years after 1999, NATO has remained a valued defense alliance. Faithful to its founding mission, it has taken on new duties as well. In all its actions, Poland has been a constructive participant in an alliance that continues to enhance the ties that bind the trans-Atlantic community of democratic nations.

Polish Americans and their Polish American Congress can take great pride in a ‘mission accomplished’ of extraordinary importance to peace and security in a critically important part of the world.

Unfortunately, when the first partially free elections were held in Poland in June 1989, Americans, with the exception of the Polish community in the United States, were generally unaware of the nature of what was happening in Europe at that time. Nor did they understand the importance of Poland's role in the whole process of the fall of communism. Unfortunately, the only thing that captured the collective imagination was the fall of the Berlin Wall.


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