Through the Eyes of a Strategist and a Diplomat

Polish – American Relations Post-1918

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Robert Kupiecki, ed., Through the Eyes of a Strategist and a Diplomat: Polish – American Relations post-1918 (Scholar Publishing House, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Warsaw, 2019, ISBN 978-83-65390-80-6).

Book Review


This work appeared in connection with the centennial of Poland’s rebirth as an independent state in 2018. Its focus is Poland-United States diplomatic relations. Several highly respected individuals contributed to it.

It is an impressive work. But in my opinion, it would have been better had more attention been paid to the role of Americans of Polish origin, the Polish American community (Polonia), and its civic organizations, most notably the Polish American Congress, in Poland-U.S. relations.

In his introduction, Mr Robert Kupiecki, Poland's Ambassador to the United States from 2008 to 2012, deals with the "a-symmetrical" relationship between the two countries, with the U.S. a great global power and Poland a medium sized European state wedged between Russia and Germany. A second critical factor affecting U.S.-Poland relations is Poland’s wrenching experience over this past century, starting with its rebirth as an independent state in 1918 after 123 years of foreign oppression, followed by the devastation it suffered in World War II, then 44 years of Soviet domination, reversed by a new rebirth as a sovereign democracy in 1989 – the Poland of the Third Republic.

Historian Boguslaw Winid, who was Poland's representative to NATO, offers an impressive review of U.S.-Poland relations from 1918 to 1945. He begins by discussing pianist/patriot Ignacy Paderewski’s extraordinary success in gaining President Woodrow Wilson’s support for Poland’s independence and in working with America’s Polish community for this cause in World War I.

Assessing the interwar period (1918-1939) as a missed opportunity for building closer Polish-U.S. ties, Winid is critical of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's dealings with America's World War II Polish ally. Judging FDR as duplicitous in his treatment of Poland, he concludes that he was clearly no Woodrow Wilson.

Roosevelt’s priorities involved his building trust with the Soviet Union's ever suspicious Josef Stalin to defeat Hitler and gain his support for his own postwar goals, Given these goals, Poland's fate proved to be of little consequence.

Indeed, Poland’s postwar future was sealed in two steps. First, when FDR, Stalin and British Prime Minister Churchill held their first summit meeting in Persia in 1943, FDR agreed, amazingly, to cede half of pre war Poland to Stalin! He asked only that his gesture be kept private! Telling Stalin that he planned to run for re-election and win in 1944, his holding onto the big Polish vote was crucial. In step two, at the ‘Big Three” leaders’ second summit in February 1945 at Yalta, Poland's post war fate as a Soviet-run satellite was agreed to. When FDR addressed the U.S. Congress on the Yalta conference after his return, he glossed this over. Winid concludes by noting the memoir by Jan Ciechanowski, free Poland’s last Ambassador to the U.S. - it's title was Defeat in Victory.

I differ with Winid on one point - I believe he is too severe in criticising the Polish American community for not doing more on Poland’s behalf in World War II. In fact, Polonia was prevented from lobbying for free Poland from 1939 due to U.S. neutrality prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. From then until 1944, most Polonia leaders, except those in the National Committee of Americans of Polish Descent (Komitet Narodowy Amerykanów Polskiego Pochodzenia, KNAPP), mistakenly placed their trust in FDR's and Churchill’s “Atlantic Charter” commitment. In it they had pledged to support their Polish ally’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Another problem was FDR's favored treatment given to three pro-Soviet activists, Prof. Oskar Lange, Rev. Stanislaus Orlemanski, and trade unionist Leo Krzycki, who claimed they spoke for the Polish American community.

In June 1944, Polonia’s leaders did convene a great congress in Buffalo, New York of more than 2,500 elected delegates from across the country. This colossal gathering came at a critical moment. Soviet troops had just entered Polish territory and the great Allied Normandy invasion was about to began. But, since the founders of the Polish American Congress could not know about FDR’s private conversation with Stalin, they pledged him their full support and their commitment to America's victory, a just peace, and a postwar Poland whole and free, based on the lofty ideals of the Atlantic Charter.

In the months after, FDR continued to mislead Polish Americans about his bombshell chat with Stalin in order to hold onto their votes in November. On October 11, in a Pulaski Day ceremony at the White House, he met with PAC leaders seated in front of a giant map of pre war Poland. Then in Chicago, on the very eve of the election, he won PAC president Karol Rozmarek's personal endorsement after repeating his support for the Atlantic Charter. His operatives then broadcast Rozmarek’s personal pledge as if it was the Congress’ official endorsement. (In winning re-election, FDR he received 90 percent of the Polish vote.) [1]

Given these realities, how could Polish Americans in World War II have achieved anything like what their World War I predecessors' had done? Even if Polonia had had an advocate as prominent and eloquent as Paderewski, would it have made a difference?

University of Wroclaw Professor Jakub Tyszkiewicz’s rendition of United States-Poland relations during the 44 years of the Soviet-dominated ‘Polish People’s Republic’ offers a chronological review of their official relations. He sees U.S. policy as two pronged – with Washington maintaining formal relations with the ‘People’s Poland’ regime while doing its best to develop positive ties with its subjects. Here his focus is on the economic aid programs aimed, with little success, at winning over the Polish regime away from Moscow.

But his presentation is very incomplete. There is very little mention of the chronic crises that impacted Poland – in 1956, 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980 – more than all the rest of the Soviet Union's East European satellites combined - and their impact on U.S.- Poland relations. Absent is any comment on the role of Pope John Paul II after 1978 or the incredible Solidarity movement that brought down ‘People’s Poland’ in 1989. Weren't these critical matters relevant?

Similarly, the activities of the organized American Polonia in the years of 'People’s Poland' are ignored. Unnoticed go the herculean efforts to influence U.S. policy makers about Poland by the PAC's presidents, Rozmarek and his successor, Aloysius Mazewski, émigré activists like Stefan Korbonski of the Assembly of Captive European Nations, and Jan Nowak of Radio Free Europe. No mention is made of Polonia's success in pushing for a U.S. Congressional investigation of the Katyn Forest Massacre, whose findings were acknowledged - forty years after! - by Russia's own leaders, Gorbachev and Yeltsin. Yes, it was the Polish's regime policy to black out or misrepresent Polonia's activities. But these activites are part of this story. [2]

The essays by Ambassador Kupiecki and by Mr Daniel Fried, United States' Ambassador to Poland (2005-2009) deal mainly with relations between the Poland of the Third Republic and the U.S. following the demise of the communist-run regime. Both focus on Poland’s efforts to join the NATO alliance, which they rightly view as key to Poland’s sovereignty, security, and prosperity, and the debates within the Clinton administration over NATO expansion and, indeed, its very future. Overall, their pieces are very well done.

But again, both gentlemen are practically silent on the role played by Polish Americans, as individuals and as activists in the Polish American Congress, on Poland's entry into NATO. Yes, Ambassador Kupiecki mentions Jan Nowak and Zbigniew Brzezinski. But that's it. Ambassador Fried makes only a veiled reference to the "Polish American community" when discussing the effort to expand NATO. In fact, the Polish American Congress and its President, Edward Moskal, were much involved in this concerted lobbying effort. [3]

Indeed, while the authors of this work assume that U.S.-Poland diplomatic relations have for the most part been essentially two-sided in nature, the story is better seen as three-sided - with the vast, well organized Polish diaspora an engaged participant over the past century and more. Indeed, its service can be compared to that of the Jewish American community in U.S.-Israel relations.

Two last points - Kupiecki and Fried both reject Vladimir Putin's claim that the U.S. and its allies reneged on their post Cold War promises not to expand NATO into east central Europe. But both also note that opposition to NATO expansion into East Central Europe has become “dogma" in Russia. Their statements are particularly pertinant today given Putin's reckless invasion of Ukraine and his repeated threats against NATO's "eastern flank" members.

Writing as a friend of Poland, Ambassador Fried ends his highly personal appraisal of U.S.-Poland relations since 1989 with words of advice for Poles to consider. But his comments need to be taken seriously by Americans too, especially in light of Putin's war against Ukraine:

The American leadership in the West, and the free world more broadly, remains indispensable.That leadership is based, at its best, on the recognition of the fact that America’s values and America’s interests ultimately advance together. The history of the last one hundred years teaches us that when America does not lead, others will fill the vacuum. Together Americans and Poles realized a common goal of freedom within central Europe and an undivided Europe in the lifetime of the current generation. It remains a common task to defend this achievement for the sake of future generations.


  1. Adam Olszewski, Historia Zwiazku Narodowego Polskiego (A History of the Polish National Alliance), Vol. 4 (1960), pp. 309-310; Charles Bohlen, Witness to History (1973); and Richard Lukas, The Strange Allies (1978).
  2. For example, on the Polish American Congress and martial law in Poland see The New York Times, December 22, 1981, p.1, and September 25, 1985.
  3. On January 5, 1994 Ambassador Fried, then a high ranking U.S. State Department officer, and I took part in a remarkable meeting in Milwaukee, Wisconsin of leading U.S. government officials and select Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, and Polish Americans (including President Moskal). I later learned that this meeting helped shape the Clinton Administration’s support for NATO expansion. Donald E. Pienkos, “Witness to History,” The Polish Review, 44, no. 3 (1999), 329-337.



Sources/Bibliography:

  • Robert Kupiecki, ed., Through the Eyes of a Strategist and a Diplomat: Polish–American Relations post 1918, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Warsaw, 2019.

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