Young Jack Kennedy and Poland
When President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr. to be U. S. Ambassador to Great Britain in 1938, it seemed like a strange choice. Kennedy, patriarch of what was to become an American political dynasty, was an Irish Catholic with anti-British sentiments.
The elder Kennedy was also an admirer of Germany, England's long time nemesis. The ambassador was a staunch supporter of appeasement toward Hitler and thought highly of the fascist Generalissimo Franco of Spain. He favored sacrificing the "disposable countries" of East Central Europe to Germany in exchange for world peace and preservation of economic stability. Even after Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Kennedy continued to advocate for American peace feelers toward Hitler, something that FDR rejected out of hand.
Ambassador Kennedy's twenty-two year old son John, on leave from his studies at Harvard, was serving as his father's secretary in London during the summer of 1939 when the ambassador suggested he take a trip through Europe to see first hand the situation there, which was inexorably headed toward war.
Young Jack Kennedy traveled to Paris, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, the Free City of Danzig, Poland and the USSR. As an American ambassador's son, he was given diplomatic courtesies at each American embassy he visited. In Danzig, he was even able to meet with German Nazi officials.
Jack spent four weeks in Warsaw and from there he wrote that the situation was "so damn complicated...Poland is determined not to give up Danzig... What Germany will do if she decides to go to war will be to try to put Poland in the position of being aggressor, and then go to work. Poland has an army of 4,000,000 who are damn good but poorly equipped." He accurately predicted that "the Poles are not Czechs and they will fight [but] Poland will be alone."
Making the rounds of the upper crust of Polish society, he described how "people bow and scrape and the servants wear white wigs etc. All of the young people here own estates of around 100,000 acres with 10,000 or so peasants."
Jack Kennedy thought war in Europe would be avoided, but no doubt was not surprised when it came just as his trip ended. His journey had given him insight into how the German propaganda machine had whipped up its population into a war-like state, and Poland's determination to resist Nazi aggression.
In October 1939, just a few weeks after the war had started, JFK wrote an editorial that appeared in Harvard's newspaper, the Crimson, entitled "Peace in Our Time." In it , he echoed his father's defeatist, non-interventionist views. He urged President Roosevelt to broker a peace settlement with concessions to Germany, a peace based upon reality, he said, lest Europe be destroyed.
Regarding Poland, he wrote that the conquest of that nation should be ignored: "The restoration of the old Poland is an utter impossibility, come what may." Peace, he conceded, "would mean a puppet Poland under German control, and eventually it would mean a free economic hand for the Nazis in eastern Europe."
Despite these opinions, Jack Kennedy in 1940 organized a Harvard student committee to raise funds for Europe's invaded populations. Slowly, his world view changed. He became an admirer of Britain's new feisty Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Eventually, his isolationism turned to interventionism as the war escalated. Several weeks before Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Navy, where he served heroically in the war in the South Pacific.
John F. Kennedy emerged from World War II with a new maturity, ready to confront a re-made world, and with newfound political ambitions instilled in him by his father.
JFK Became a Champion for Poland's Freedom
John F. Kennedy entered the political arena in 1946 when he ran for Congress from Massachusetts. His good looks, charisma and intelligence, backed by his family's fortune, won him the election. Six years later he was elected to the U.S. Senate.
Kennedy was a Democrat, but a centrist. It was said that he could have been equally at home in the Republican party. On one issue JFK was definitely right-wing. He was staunchly anti-communist. No political opponent could ever call him soft on communism. As such, he took up the plight of the captive nations of Soviet Eastern Europe.
One of Congressman Kennedy's first statements regarding Poland involved the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which allowed admittance of thousands of Poles displaced by World War II into the U.S. In a criticism of FDR and his own political party, JFK said for the Poles, the new law could "atone in a small manner for the betrayal of their native country of Poland" at Yalta. A Boston Herald headline proclaimed: "Kennedy Says Roosevelt Sold Poland To Reds."
Kennedy said not much specific regarding Poland in the early 1950s. He took part in a Polish American Congress radio program in 1953, and spoke in generalities against the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. But in September 1955 he visited Poland, traveling to Warsaw and Częstochowa to try to observe conditions there firsthand.
Why did he focus on Poland? He was not ignorant of a large Polish American voting population in Massachusetts. But with his hatred of communism, he especially considered Poland to be the most vulnerable part of the Soviet empire. The Polish people's historically stubborn attitude toward freedom and independence was not lost on him.
Senator Kennedy and his wife tried their best to talk to ordinary Poles, but were followed by secret police who intimidated those with whom they sought to communicate. JFK wrote a report about that trip. He noted the existence ten years after the war of an acute housing shortage, still unrestored areas of Warsaw, and rigid communist control. He thought the outlook for Poland was bleak and warned that "if the Poles come to believe that we in the West have forgotten them, that we are willing to make an agreement with the Russians that does not provide for a free Poland, then their courageous struggle to maintain their freedom may cease." Yet he also described the resilience of the Catholic Church and the fortitude of the people.
After this, he was considered Congress' leading authority on Poland. Roman Pucinski, President of the Polish American Congress, said Polish Americans "are more and more looking to Senator Kennedy as the most outspoken defender of freedom for Poland." Following the Poznań riots of 1956 and the relaxation of Stalinist communism, the more moderate communist Władysław Gomułka was restored to power in Poland. JFK saw a real chance for freedom to make inroads there, if only the U.S. would help by allowing American aid into Warsaw. But Congress refused to change the law prohibiting such aid, and did not fully do so until 1979.
Kennedy's thinking was to pry Poland and the other satellite countries away from Soviet control by measures that would help the population, lessen their dependence on the USSR and increase their reliance on Western trade. This, he believed, would eventually cause the people to demand more freedom and ultimately lead to democracy.
But JFK rejected violence. He thought that any violent uprising would not get American help and would lead to increased repression and the possible end to even nominal Polish independence. He accurately predicted that true freedom and democracy would one day be achieved in Poland by gradual, peaceful evolution, not revolution.
Beginning in the late 1950s, Kennedy expressed this in speeches: to the New York City Press Club, the American Relief for Poland Dinner in Detroit, and in a notable Senate speech in 1957; to the Pulaski Day Dinner in Milwaukee in 1959; and to Polish American leaders in Hyannis and to the Polish American Congress in Chicago in 1960. He was fond of pointing out the love of freedom of his Irish ancestors and of the Polish people, seemed to have a great respect for them, and displayed a real knowledge and understanding of Polish history.
Though after he became president, Kennedy tended to focus less specifically on Poland, he never wavered from his advocacy of U.S. non-military aid to the nations and people of the Soviet bloc, and his hope for their freedom.
JFK's Spirit Linked With Polish Spirit
When running for president against Richard Nixon in the incredibly close election of 1960, John F, Kennedy struggled for every vote he could get. One important group he courted was the Polish Americans, and by and large he won them over. On October 1, 1960, he addressed the annual convention of the Polish American Congress in Chicago in a major campaign speech. "I am a friend of freedom and where freedom is I feel at home. Therefore, I feel at home today," he declared to the crowd.
He reiterated his ideas to achieve the ultimate freedom and independence of Poland, and proposed a seven point program of relaxing restrictions on non-military aid that he believed would eventually lead to the peaceful liberation of the Polish people. Once he became president, JFK could focus on Poland only in more general terms, yet he never abandoned his basic idea of gradually weaning the countries of East Central Europe away from the Soviet orbit. This would become the policy of every American president who followed him. His last major address on Poland occurred at the Pulaski Day Parade in Buffalo in October 1962, during which he repeated the same themes.
Following President Kennedy's tragic death on November 22, 1963, Polish Americans mourned along with their countrymen, but perhaps a little more deeply. They had lost a true champion for freedom of their fatherland, as well as the only Roman Catholic ever to be president.
In Poland, the state controlled media announced Kennedy's death in the early evening of November 22. They treated his memory with respect and expressed sorrow and sympathy to both his family and to America, and had almost outright praise for JFK, saying he shared an awareness of the principles of peaceful coexistence and understood the consequences of nuclear war. The Polish people mourned him deeply. The average Pole knew little about President Kennedy, yet his death profoundly affected them. Just as he was to Americans, he was a promise of what could be, the leader of the free world and the enemy of the hated communist regime.
At the American embassy in Warsaw below a photograph of the late president, and at the American consulate in Poznań, 16,000 Poles signed books of condolence and left flowers. American writer John Steinbeck was in the Polish capital on a cultural tour of Iron Curtain countries when news of Kennedy's death reached Warsaw. He was amazed at the demonstration of sorrow, regret and remorse shown by the citizens and said that "it was the most fantastic thing I ever saw. I've never seen anything like it. The Poles said they'd never seen its like either, for anyone."
The Polish government-in-exile in London sent expressions of sympathy to new President Lyndon Johnson and to Mrs. Kennedy. At the funeral, communist Poland was represented by Stanisław Kulczyński, deputy chairman of the council of state, and Piotr Jarosewicz, the deputy premier.
In 1980, the Solidarność movement in Poland began writing the final chapter in John F. Kennedy's peaceful evolution toward freedom in the Soviet bloc. It has been said that all of our presidents from Harry S Truman to George H.W. Bush played a part in bringing down communism in Europe. JFK's contribution ranks highly among them, and for Poles and Polish Americans of certain generations, his spirit holds forever a special place in their hearts.
I recommed An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917 - 1963 (Morland Dynasty), by Robert Malek
I recommend also Wanting to Be Jackie Kennedy, by Elizabeth Kern.