Historian: Poland would probably regain independence without American support, but probably in a different way | dzie.pl
Poland would probably have regained independence after World War I without the support of President Woodrow Wilson, but it would probably be limited, says Prof. John Milton Cooper Jr., biographer of the 28th US president. As he adds, Wilson’s support for Polish independence resulted largely from both personal sympathy and his acquaintance with Ignacy Jan Paderewski.
When in January 1918, President Thomas Woodrow Wilson presented to Congress his vision of a new order and peace after the end of the still ongoing Great War, one of his fourteen postulates spoke of the need to create an independent Polish state, “inhabited by an indisputably Polish population who should be assured of free and secure access to the sea and whose political and economic independence and territorial integrity should be guaranteed by an international alliance. Although some of Wilson’s “fourteen points” did not survive contact with the political reality of the conference in Paris and further perturbations, Polish independence turned out to be one of the most durable demands implemented.
As Prof. tells PAP John Milton Cooper Jr., author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography of the 28th US president, although Wilson has never been to Poland, his support for Polish independence did not come out of nowhere.
“Wilson began to advocate Polish independence very early, even before the United States joined the war (it happened in April 1917 – PAP). He spoke about it, among others, in his famous speech calling for +peace without victory+, on two months before entering the war. This was not a surprise, because both in America and in Western Europe there had always been a lot of sympathy for Poland and awareness of what a tragedy its partitions were. And, like many other Americans, Wilson had in mind Polish heroes of the War of Independence, Kościuszko and Pułaski,” says a historian from the University of Wisconsin.
Cooper adds that Wilson’s personal contacts with leading representatives of the region – Ignacy Jan Paderewski and later the first president of Czechoslovakia, Tomasz Masaryk – were also important.
“Paderewski and his concerts were extremely popular in America at that time, and the musician loudly promoted the Polish cause. He visited the White House many times and Wilson was very fond of him, and it was probably of considerable importance that Wilson was very musical,” says Cooper. He adds, however, that he had a particularly warm relationship with Masaryk – who, like Wilson, was an academic. Despite this, the Polish issue was raised by Wilson first, while the American president initially only argued for the autonomy of the Czechs and other nations constituting Austria-Hungary.
Few are aware, however, that behind the “Fourteen Points” – which, in addition to the creation of the League of Nations and an independent Poland, outline a whole range of changes on the map of Europe, including in the Balkans and the territory of Austria-Hungary – was the work of a huge informal team appointed by Wilson, whose over a hundred experts contributed. Cooper says the process – called “The Inquiry” – was innovative, but many of the team members wouldn’t be called experts today.
“The United States was still a very new power, just entering the game, so Wilson decided that if we were to enter the war and win it, we should plan what to do when it happened,” says the scientist. “What’s interesting, however, is that the White House had to look really hard to find Americans who were experts or at least knew something about Central and Eastern Europe or the Middle East, because at that time there were no area studies devoted to specific regions. So “it was often the case that their expertise was based on the fact that they once lived in these places or spent some time there, and it was not necessarily the subject of their research,” he adds.
The team was led by Wilson’s longtime closest adviser, Colonel Edward House, considered by some to be the “eminence grise” of the White House. The controversial politician from Texas played an important role in promoting the Polish cause, both during the war and during the Paris Peace Conference, where he headed the American delegation after Wilson’s departure from Paris. Even before the US entered the war, House cultivated contacts with European politicians, mainly in Great Britain. In the Polish context, his acquaintance with Ignacy Jan Paderewski was crucial, with whom Wilson became acquainted only later.
“I sat down with the president at half past eleven and we finished creating the new map of the world at half past one,” House wrote in his diary three days before presenting the Fourteen Points.
As Cooper says, in Paris the American delegation supported most of the Polish demands. However, the negotiations in Paris and House’s activities were the reason for the end of their long-standing friendship with the US president. “House was much more on the side of the Entente than Wilson and was much more willing to agree to their demands, even if they went against the values expressed in the Fourteen Points, as well as the president’s vision. Wilson, on the other hand, did not want the signed peace treaty to be + a punitive peace+ that will sow the seeds of future conflict,” says Cooper. “House was the kind of man who loved behind-the-scenes deals and playing political games for the sake of playing them. I think that for him the Polish issue was more of a means to an end or a pawn on a chessboard,” he adds.
Today, both Wilson and his advisor have their monuments in Poland, largely thanks to Paderewski’s efforts (the Wilson monument is in Poznań, Wilson Square in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district, and House’s monument is in Skaryszewski Park in Warsaw).
According to Cooper, these monuments are deserved, because although without Wilson’s intercession, an independent Poland would probably have emerged after the war won by the Entente, but not in this shape and character.
“Perhaps it would be something like a French protectorate,” says the historian. He adds that although more and more voices in the American debate question American involvement in World War I, it had a key impact on ending the war and defeating Germany.
“Historians argue about this, but for me there is no doubt that if it had not been for America’s entry into the war, Germany would have won the war. What would Europe look like then? We know what peace on German terms looked like in the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Perhaps there would have been some Polish state, but it would be a puppet. And yes, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany was not Hitler’s Germany, but ideas such as Lebensraum, the settling of the lands in the east by the Nordic race, were already present,” says Cooper. “It’s fortunate that isolationism and +America First+ did not win in America at that time,” he adds.
From Washington Oskar Górzyński (PAP)