Wilson, Paderewski, And
The Re-Birth of Poland
Entitled, “Wilson, Paderewski, and the Re-Birth of Poland” written by Dr. John Radzilowski, this is the second in a series of bi-monthly statements issued by the Polish American Congress regarding the centennial year of Poland’s Independence, November 11, 1918 – November 11, 2018.
Wilson, Paderewski, and the Re-Birth of Poland
By John Radzilowski
The re-birth of a free Poland after 123 years of foreign partition and colonial subjection was one of the most improbable yet important events of modern history. While the Poles themselves should get most of the credit, the United States played a key role in Poland’s rebirth and it was the first country to establish diplomatic relations with the new Poland. Few countries strongly supported Polish independence and those that did had some ulterior motive. America, though, had no strong or abiding interest in east-central Europe or in Poland. Her involvement was based on idealism, not realpolitik.
During the First World War, Poland first emerged in American politics as a humanitarian issue. The war had already caused massive destruction in Poland as Russian, German, and Austro-Hungarian armies marched across the land, destroying villages, farms and industry. Hundreds of thousands were made homeless or left destitute. In America, Polish Americans mobilized as never before to raise funds for Polish relief. A key player in this effort was pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski who by 1914 was the single most famous musical celebrity of his day. Already in 1915, Paderewski was able to meet U.S. President Woodrow Wilson through the offices of the president’s friend and advisor, Edward House. Thanks to Paderewski, the Polish relief effort drew in more than just immigrant workers but caught the attention (and the wallets) of many wealthy and well connected Americans.
However, by 1916, it was clear that aid for Poland was going nowhere due to the war situation. Yet, ironically the humanitarian failure opened the door to political action. President Wilson was finding himself increasingly hard pressed to keep America out of the war. And once the United States did enter the war on the side of Britain and France in France, he became an advocate about how America could use her financial, political and military clout to bring the war to an end. But his aim went beyond victory on the battlefield. Indeed, by 1918, thanks to Europe’s self-inflicted wounds, Wilson had emerged as the most powerful and influential politician in the world. Ever the idealist, Wilson’s vision was that victory should not only bring a just and lasting peace. It should lead the victorious powers to address the underlying causes of Europe’s deep crisis. As Wilson was trying to think though the problems of what such a peace would look like that he again met Paderewski. The two men took a liking to each other.
Paderewski for his part was a genuine Polish patriot, like Jozef Pilsudski and Roman Dmowski, but unlike them he was no professional politician. He led no political party and had little grasp of policy. His jealousy and status consciousness – not unknown among celebrities – made it hard for him to work with others. His vision of Poland’s future was vague and somewhat Romantic. Yet, this is precisely what appealed to an idealist like Wilson. The president was uninterested in determining the exact future of Poland, how it might become independent, or what its borders might be. Thus, Paderewski’s eloquence and idealism were what got him Wilson’s ear. Because of this, Poland became Wilson’s best example of what he felt had gone wrong in Europe and what needed to be corrected if peace was to be achieved. In January 1917—a year before the famous Fourteen Points – Wilson gave his “Peace without Victory” speech which laid out his vision for the future of Europe. In it, he mentions only one country by name – Poland. Although Poland wasn’t the only trouble spot in Europe Wilson wanted to address, it was the one he highlighted most clearly and consistently.
Thanks to Wilson (and Paderewski) Poland became more than just a pawn on the chessboard of European politics. Although Wilson left aside the details of how Poland would be re-formed, which contributed to a long series of post-war disputes, his intervention on behalf of a Poland restored to independence set the stage for the re-creation of a country that had disappeared from the map for over a century.
Dr. Mark Pienkos, National Vice President for Public Relations, has assembled a team of eminent Polish American Political Scientists and Historians to alert readers as to the importance of Poland’s contributions to the United States and the World.
Dr. Patrice M. Dabrowski is an historian with degrees from Harvard University (A.B., A.M. and PhD) and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (M.A.L.D.). She has taught at Harvard, Brown, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and recently completed a three-year stint at the Doktoratskolleg Galizien at the University of Vienna. Dabrowski is currently an Associate of the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and editor of H-Poland. Dabrowski is the author of two books: Poland: The First Thousand Years and Commemorations and The Shaping of Modern Poland. In 2014, she was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland.
Dr. John Radzilowski is an historian with degrees from Arizona State University specializing in Modern U.S. History, Public History, Russia/East. Currently, Dr. Radzilowski is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alaska Southeast. Among his many activities, Dr. Radzilowski is a fellow at the Piast Institute: A National Center for Polish and Polish-American Affairs and past president of the Polish American Cultural Institute of Minnesota. He is also a contributing editor for the Encyclopedia of American Immigration (second edition), plus the author or co-author of 13 books.
Dr. Donald Pienkos is Professor Emeritus (Political Science) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He earned his Doctorate (in Russian and East European politics) from the University of Wisconsin in Madison. His many publications include the histories of the Polish National Alliance (1984, 2007), the Polish Falcons (1987, 2012) and the Polish American Congress (1991). He is an associate editor of The Polish American Encyclopedia (2012). In 2010, he was awarded the Officers Cross of service by the President of Poland.