Richard M. Nixon was one of the most controversial and divisive men ever to occupy the White House. But love him or hate him, he made history by becoming the first sitting American president to visit Poland, in 1972.
It was not Nixon’s first visit to Poland. He had also visited the country as vice president in 1959. In both instances the stops were made after strategically important visits to the Soviet Union and were restricted to Warsaw.
The vice president had paid an official visit to Moscow, where he had engaged Soviet Premier Khrushchev in the famous “kitchen debate,” and he arrived in Warsaw in the afternoon of August 2, 1959 for a three day visit. A hundred thousand Poles lined his motorcade route from Okęcie Airport to the city center, waving, cheering and throwing flowers, mobbing his car. Polish officials worried about how it all looked just two weeks after Khrushchev had received a cool reception in the same place.
Nixon made many appearances, laying wreaths at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Try as they might, communist officials could not completely stop Nixon from meeting ordinary Poles. In phrases learned for the occasion, Nixon shouted out, “Niech żyje Polska!” (Long live Poland) and “Czołem robotnicy!” (Greetings workers) to a group of laborers. The crowds yelled back, “Niech żyje Nixon! Niech żyje Ameryka!”
The vice president met with Communist Party boss Władysław Gomułka, discussing improved relations and cultural exchanges. Not wanting to directly offend his hosts but wishing to show his respects to the Catholic population, he did not meet with Church officials but visited St. John’s Cathedral while Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński, leader of the Roman Catholic opposition, was out of town.
A later crackdown on liberalism in the country was blamed on the enthusiastic greeting given by the people to the U.S. vice president. It was less a love fest for Richard Nixon than a dramatic demonstration of the Poles’ friendship for the U.S. and a detestation of communism. American diplomats in Warsaw determined that the visit had rekindled ties between the Polish and American people. Nixon himself presciently called Poland “the true Achilles heel of the Soviet system.”
Once he had become president, Nixon made an official visit to Moscow for important talks with Premier Leonid Brezhnev. After a one-day stop in Iran the president landed in Warsaw on May 31, 1972. Though he received a more subdued reception than in 1959, the people were enthusiastic and an estimated 300,000 reportedly turned out to see him despite government attempts to downplay the visit.
Nixon’s first stop was Castle Square where the royal palace was being rebuilt. Then the motorcade proceeded to Victory (now Piłsudski) Square. The president laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier then plunged into a crowd of some 20,000 onlookers, shaking hands. The people chanted, “Nix-on, Nix-on” and began singing Sto Lat.
Nixon and his entourage met with Communist Party leader Edward Gierek and other officials for extensive talks. Agreements were reached on an expansion of trade, the opening of new consulates, and direct air links between the two nations. The Americans expressed approval of a recent treaty between West Germany and Poland that recognized the Odra-Nysa line as Poland’s permanent western border, agreed on the need for a European security conference, and a reduction in arms. Both sides hailed the visit as a new opportunity for cooperation and friendship between the countries.
Polish officials were nervous about this Nixon visit lest they be seen as taking a separate line from Moscow in relations with the West. They were careful to give credit to the Soviets for leading the way in diplomacy, with party newspapers downplaying the visit as low key and dignified.
Mr. Nixon’s 1972 trip to Poland may be seen as an attempt to gain favor with Polish American voters in the middle of his re-election campaign, but he was also eager to treat Poland and other Soviet satellites as independent states that need not follow Moscow’s dictates, and to remind their people that America was a friend who had not forgotten them and not given up on their hope for freedom.
Private citizen Nixon had been denied a visa to visit Poland in 1967, but as an elderly former president he returned in 1993, once again after a stop in Moscow. He was amazed at how vibrant the post-communist Polish capital seemed compared to his previous visits. “My God! Warsaw has become a different world. It has come alive.” He met with President Lech Wałęsa, held a press conference and strolled through the old town. He stayed the night then left for Prague the next morning.