How the U.S. Helped Poland Regain its Freedom

Wilson and Hoover are among the Poles' best-known American presidents.

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A major role in Poland's rebirth was played by the 28th President of the United States –Woodrow Wilson.

Millions of Americans of Polish and other Central-East European ancestry had helped make the US an economic powerhouse through their low-paid, back-breaking toil in coalmines, steel mills, auto plants and slaughter houses. And, when the opportunity emerged, the United States was largely instrumental in facilitating the freedom and independence of their ancestral homelands which had long been under the boot of foreign rulers. Poland was a particular case in point. 

The sprawling medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (Rzeczpospolita Obojga Narodów) had been one of Europe’s largest land empires. It had stretched from the Black Sea to the Baltic and at times rivaled the German-ruled Holy Roman Empire in territory. But in the late 18th century Poland’s neighbors carved it up between themselves, and for the next 123 years Poland would be under the rule of not one or two but three aggressive powers. Only when the Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed in the wake of World War I, did the prospect of regained independence loom. 

A major role in Poland’s rebirth was played by US President Woodrow Wilson whose peace proposals included the 13th of his well-known Fourteen Points which stated: “An independent Polish state should be erected which should include the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations, which should be assured a free and secure access to the sea, and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by international covenant.” 

The American Polonia actively supported Poland’s quest for freedom through generous cash donations and war-relief drives. The Polish Falcons were largely instrumental in the creation of a Polonian volunteer army that joined General Józef Haller’s nearly 100,000-strong force and helped defeat the invading Bolsheviks and recapture parts of Ukrainian-occupied Poland. 

Somewhat less known are the exploits of the Kościuszko Squadron, a volunteer force comprising some two dozen American airmen and several Poles. The unit pioneered the use of a train as mobile headquarters as well as aircraft supply and repair facilities able to follow the battle front. The Squadron flew some 400 combat missions in 1920 and was known for strafing Semyon Budionny's Bolshevik cavalry with low-altitude machine-gun fire. “Although exhausted, the American pilots fought tenaciously. Without their help, we would have been done for,” remarked Polish commander General Leon Pachucki. 

Already back in the 19th century a number of young Americans had volunteered to fight for Poland in its 1831 anti-Russian insurrection including poet Edgar Allan Poe. Writer James Fenimore Cooper (of “The Last of the Mohicans” fame) appealed for a US-wide fund-raising campaign to aid the Polish cause.  

Although largely associated by Americans with the Great Depression, Poles remember US President Herbert Hoover as a great friend and benefactor. Before serving as president (1929-1933). As far back as 1915, while World War I was already under way, he was engaged in providing food relief to the people of war-ravaged Poland. His plan was blocked by the British and Germans, but in 1922 Poland granted Hoover honorary citizenship for his effort. Hoover never abandoned his project and was able to re-launch it a quarter-century later.  

  Soon after the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in September 1939, the former chief executive set up a Commission for Polish Relief which soon became known as the Hoover Commission. Its purpose was to provide food and clothing to Poles in German-occupied Poland. Despite restrictions imposed by the Nazis, it managed to provide meals at special soup kitchens to 200,000 malnourished Polish children, women and elderly. Polish American organizations also donated over 400 thousand dollars for that purpose. 

Wilson and Hoover are among the Poles’ best-known American presidents and are commemorated in Warsaw by squares bearing their name: Plac Wilsona and Skwer Hoovera. A more recent presidential memorial is the Ronald Reagan monument honoring the US president Poles credit with helping liberate them from Soviet domination.