Poland’s American Presidents
Why is Mitt Romney visiting Poland, of all places? Filip Mazurczak looks at the historical logic behind this trip.
Presumed Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the 2012 United States presidential election surprised many by choosing Poland as the third leg of his July foreign tour. Sure, the United Kingdom, with which the United States has enjoyed a “special relationship” since the Second World War, seems like a logical choice. So does Israel, given its strategic significance as well as the fact that, according to polls, about two-thirds of Jewish-American voters support Romney’s rival Barack Obama.
While Romney’s choice of Poland may have been surprising, historically this Central European nation has often played a crucial role in American foreign policy, especially under the administrations of three presidents hailing from both the Democratic and Republican Parties—Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover, and Ronald Reagan.
Naturally Poland is of political importance to Romney. By visiting Poland and praising the country’s history and current government, he can warm up to American voters of Polish background (not a few of whom live in Illinois, where according to polls support for former Illinois Senator Obama trumps that for Romney). Additionally, Poland is the only European country that avoided recession in 2009, and its centre-right government shunned neo-Keynesian stimulus policies that year, unlike all other parts of Europe. As a fiscal conservative (in the American meaning of the word), Romney can juxtapose Poland with the fiscally unhealthy Mediterranean states. Finally, there is the anti-ballistic missile defence shield that the Bush Administration pursued (strongly supported by both Romney and the 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain) in Poland and which Obama scrapped.
However, in addition to these pragmatic matters Romney’s visit to Poland is, from a historical perspective, logical. Although most Americans know little about Poland, the country’s location in the heart of Europe, between Germany and Russia, has often had key implications for the United States’ policy toward Europe. The first modern American president to gain the Poles’ particular affection was the Democrat, Woodrow Wilson.
A laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to prevent another world war, Wilson was obsessed with the right of nations suppressed by Europe’s empires—Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire—to seek national self-determination. The thirteenth point of Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” speech outlining the necessary conditions for peace in Europe after the Great War given to Congress in 1918 was that of a free Poland with access to the Baltic Sea. During the peace talks at Versailles in 1919, Wilson greatly supported the Poles in territorial disputes, especially with the Germans, who demanded the right to Upper Silesia and Danzig (now Gdańsk), a city belonging to Poland in the Middle Ages but with a population that was 90% German. In part, thanks to Wilson’s support, Danzig became a free city under the protectorate of the League of Nations but whose foreign policy and postal service belonged to the Polish government.
Woodrow Wilson’s friendly policy toward Poland in no small part resulted from his personal friendship with Ignacy Jan Paderewski, Poland’s delegate at the Paris Peace Conference and one of the most talented pianists of his day. Paderewski made several trips to the United States to petition the American government to support the Poles’ efforts to have their homeland restored after nearly a century and a half of foreign partitions.
Woodrow Wilson was highly regarded by Poland. Wilson received the Order of the White Eagle, the Polish government’s highest civilian honour (visitors to the Woodrow Wilson House in Washington, D.C., can see the award, as well as a bust of Wilson sculpted by a Polish artist given to the president as a gift from the Polish nation). After Wilson’s death, Poland declared national mourning, and in 1926 a new plaza in the Żoliborz district of Warsaw was named after him. Still to this day many Poles hold Wilson in admiration.
Wilson’s future successor Herbert Hoover, who became president in 1929, was also greatly respected by the Poles. Immediately following the First World War, as head of the American Relief Administration, Hoover sent significant humanitarian aid to Poland and other Central European states. At a time when newly independent Poland suffered from great poverty, literally hundreds of thousands of orphaned Polish children received food thanks to Hoover’s efforts. During this time, the American Relief Administration initiated a campaign across the United States to inform Americans of the fact that millions of Europeans would be condemned to certain death from starvation without intervention. In addition to humanitarian aid, Hoover initiated an American committee within Poland that aided the Polish government on financial and economic matters, as well as with regards to rebuilding the country’s infrastructure after the First World War.
After the First World War, Hoover became very popular in Poland. In 1922, a monument memorialising Hoover and the American Relief Administration was unveiled in Herbert Hoover Square, in the very heart of Warsaw. However, the monument was destroyed in the Second World War and a mere plaque replaced it. Today, Hoover’s aid to Poland has become somewhat forgotten by the Poles.
Without a doubt the American president most revered by the Polish nation is Ronald Reagan. Today, a large number of streets, roundabouts, and plazas across Poland bear Reagan’s name, while in the past year alone two monuments of the “Great Communicator” were unveiled in the country. Lech Wałęsa unveiled the first, which faces the American embassy in Warsaw, in a ceremony attended by Poland’s political elites last fall. In July 2012, thousands of Poles—despite the heavy rain—attended the unveiling of a monument of Pope John Paul II and Ronald Reagan in Gdańsk, the city where the first shots of the Second World War were fired as wel as the birthplace of Solidarity in August 1980. The message could not be any clearer—to many Poles, the late pontiff and the American president are most responsible for the end of communism.
Even before becoming president, Ronald Reagan predicted, with stunning accuracy, that Poland would be the most unsubordinated Communist state and could potentially start a domino effect in the former Soviet Bloc. Reagan admired the Poles’ steadfast clinging to their culture, language, and religion despite two centuries of almost uninterrupted foreign occupation. And, as someone who voted for and greatly admired Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Reagan felt that the Poles were unfairly treated vis-à-vis at the Yalta Conference that ended the Second World War. Finally, in his radio show in the 1970s, Reagan frequently discussed the Katyń massacre of 22,000 Polish POWs and his conviction that the Soviets and not, as Communist propaganda had it, Nazis were responsible for the crime.
Thus when Reagan became president he greatly supported Solidarity, both financially and spiritually. In his Christmas address in 1981, just days after General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s established martial law in Poland, Reagan urged his compatriots to light candles in solidarity with the Polish nation. He met several times with Pope John Paul II and chief Solidarity leaders, concerned about the state of affairs in Poland. At the same time, Reagan helped finance Solidarity through the CIA and often condemned the Polish Communist regime’s human rights abuses.
Therefore Poland can be seen as a logical choice for the Republican candidate. While Mitt Romney’s trip to Poland may have surprised many observers, Poland has often played a crucial role in America’s European policy. Today, Poland is the sixth most populous member of the European Union, one of Europe’s fastest growing economies, and a loyal and active member of NATO.
Thus regardless of who wins November’s presidential election and whether or not the anti-missile defence shield is built in Poland, the country should not be ignored.
Filip Mazurczak is a graduate student studying international relations and European studies at the George Washington University. His academic interests include World War II history, Polish-Jewish relations, and Christianity in modern Europe.