John F. Kennedy photo

Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, Polish-American Congress, Chicago, IL

October 01, 1960

Senator KENNEDY. Mr. President, Mayor Daley, Congressman Machrowicz, Congressman Pucinski, members of your organization, ladies and gentlemen, I want to express my appreciation to all of you for your generous invitation to be here today. I hope I can in the words of the oldtime orators claim kinship here. I am not of Polish extraction, but I have been interested in Poland and the people of Polish extraction for many years, stretching all the way back to 1939, when I visited Warsaw and Danzig, and spent nearly a month of late July and early August in the summer of 1939, traveling through Poland. On that occasion, I came to have the greatest possible respect for those who, faced with threats east and west, were nevertheless willing to stand up for their country and to die for it, if necessary.

That interest built then was stimulated some years later when I read a book written about the Polish Army in exile, which had been captained by General Anders originally, and which had, of course, fought in the Middle East and Italy. After the war, I visited the Polish cemetery in Italy. Some of you who have been there may recall that at the cemetery are written the words, "These Polish soldiers for your freedom and theirs have given their bodies to the soil of Italy, their hearts to Poland, and their souls to God."

I am a friend of freedom and where freedom is I feel at home, and therefore I feel at home today. [Applause.] As a result of that visit and that book, I cosponsored at the end of the 1940's a bill which would have permitted members of the Polish Army in exile, most of whom had gone to England after the war, to come into the United States in greater numbers than our immigration laws permitted. It has been a source of regret to me that the United States did not do in that case as much as some other countries scattered around the world. Many of those soldiers settled in England, some in Canada, some in Australia, some in the United States, but no nearly as many as I think this contribution to our security and freedom warranted.

In 1955 I visited Poland again and spent some days there and traveled on that occasion to Czestochowa. It is an interesting fact that those of us who are students of American history to some degree, and who have seen the names of Pulaski and Kosciuszko and the others, who came to the United States and helped fight for our freedom, it was interesting to me on that occasion to see the sword of John Sobieski, with which he had saved Vienna in the battle against the Turks in the middle of the last of the lOth century, to see a crucifix of Kosciuszko, to see a tiny model carved by Pulaski of Czestochowa, all of which are in the great library in that old shrine which symbolizes the great religious and national heritage of that great country.

Since that time I have labored in the Congress, in attempts to try to establish closer ties between the people of Poland and the people of the United States. Poland moves into a dark period of its history and has since 1939. But my own conviction is that the words of the Polish National Anthem have great relevances to this meeting today. "As long as you live, Poland lives." As long as you continue to meet together, as long as we in the United States continue to maintain our strength, and send out rays of freedom around the world, then in my judgment the situation behind the Iron Curtain can only be regarded as a temporary one. [Applause.]

During the last months many of us have read some of the speeches given by distinguished world figures before the United Nations, and one of the subjects which is constantly discussed and constantly harped upon are the evils of colonialism. This is particularly stressed by the people of Africa, who have emerged in some cases from two or three hundred years of colonialism and are now independent nations. They were joined in those attacks on colonialism - and the definition of colonialism, of course, is the rule of one country by another - they were joined by Mr. Khrushchev, and I thought that surprisingly few found that completely unsatisfactory. The fact of the matter is that the greatest slave master and colonial power in the world today is the Soviet Union, and should so be regarded. [Applause.]

I have never defended Western colonialism. In fact, I have criticized it when it existed in Indochina or Algeria or any other place in Africa. But, therefore, I think we are in a good position. As long as we maintain that we are for freedom wherever it may exist, I think we are in a very good position to demand an accounting of the Soviet Union, because it holds a great - [applause] - it holds as a colonial power not only the Baltic Republics and Poland and Czechoslovakia and Hungary and Bulgaria and Rumania; it holds as a colonial power countries within the boundaries of the U.S.S.R., countries which up to the end of World War I had a long tradition of freedom and independence, countries which have the Mohammedan religion, which are descended from the people of the Middle East, which had an ancient culture, which worshipped their own gods in their own ways. Therefore, it is only in recent years that the Soviet Union has extended its power to them to destroy their culture, destroy their religious freedom, destroy their traditions. It is within the boundaries of the Soviet Union as well as eastern Europe that the Soviet Union holds under its sway the greatest number of people that any colonial power has for many, many hundreds of years, and they hold them with little hope for freedom. The British, the French, the Belgians, however unfortunate their record may have been in the past, at least their countries now that they once held are moving into the sunlight of freedom, and within 2 or 3 years one-quarter of all the nations of the General Assembly of the United Nations will be Africans, which 5 or 10 years ago were held by the colonial powers of the West. Now we ask the Soviet Union to do the same. Now we ask them to match their deeds with their words. Now we ask the Africans who are now independent, to join with us in the fight against the colonialism wherever it may exist, and whoever may be the colonial power. [Applause.]

This convention meets every 4 years. You meet the same year that there are presidential elections, and I think it is appropriate that candidates for the Presidency should speak to you, because all of us as Americans are concerned about what our country must do and what it must be and what it must stand for and what it must symbolize. I believe that in meeting here today you serve the United States because you serve the cause of freedom, and what serves the cause of freedom serves us. It serves this country. It reminds us of what we stand for. It reminds us of our unfinished business around the world. Therefore, in coming here today, and in considering the problems that may exist in Poland, you are serving the United States in the best sense of the word. [Applause.]

It has been easy in recent years to make speeches for some people, to audiences of Polish extraction. We denounce the Soviets, we talk about liberty. But the question is what real contribution, what genuine contribution can we now make, given the condition of the world, given the intransigence of the Soviet Union, what contribution can we make in 1960? What is the policy that the United States should follow? That has been a matter of great importance to me for some years in the Congress, and we have attempted, as some of you may know, to pass legislation in the Congress which would permit an easing of the tension which now exists between Poland and the United States, to hold out the hand of friendship to the Polish people, to recognize that even though they are in prison, nevertheless we still are tied to them by history and by a common purpose. [Applause.]

I think that this is most important, that we do so, for Mr. Khrushchev knows very well he can read the signs of the times. He knows that the strongest tide that has swept the world since the end of 1945 is the desire of the people to be free and independent. The African experience indicates it clearly. The Hungarian experience indicates it even more clearly. And so does the experience of Poland. These people are determined to be free. They have not accepted the idea that their culture, their religious heritage, their traditions, can be destroyed by domination by a foreign power. Therefore, as long as that spirit remains alive, whether it is in eastern Europe or whether it is in any other part of the globe, ultimately the Communist empire is doomed to destruction. [Applause.]

It is our function to maintain that principle. I spoke in 1956 in regard to Algeria and the necessity of the French recognizing the right of self-determination. The reason I did was a simple one. It was because that September and October before the United Nations the Hungarian resolution was coming. How can we possibly be indifferent and stand for an important principle which is the right of people to be free unless we did it regardless of whether it be a friend or a foe? The principle is the important thing. The principle serves us. The principle serves the cause of freedom. I want Africa to be free, and I want eastern Europe to be free, and I want those who are now free in Africa - I want them to look to the remaining areas of the world, and if we are wrong, I want them to tell it to us. I want the principle to be stood for wherever it may be. I will take the chances in the United States, and I want them to look at the Soviet Union also. I want them to stand for the principle. [Applause.]

Now, the question is: What should the American policy be under these conditions? We recognized after the experience of the 1960's the limitations of the so-called policy of liberation. We do not want to mislead the people of Poland or Hungary again, that the United States is prepared to liberate them. Therefore, within the general framework of present events, what policies should we carry out? What can we do to maintain the spirit of independence? What can we do to help, in Thomas Jefferson's words, the disease of liberty to spread? Poland is a satellite government, but the Poles are not a satellite people. [Applause.] We have no right, unless we are prepared to meet our commitments, to incite them to national suicide. But neither can we abandon them, leaving them without hope for the future. In 1647, when the famous Irish revolutionary, General O'Neill, was poisoned, the poets compared the fate of the Irish people to sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky. We cannot let that be true of Poland today. This Nation, under the new administration must be their shepherd until freedom is theirs again. [Applause.]

Our task is to encourage and pursue a policy of patiently encouraging freedom and carefully pressuring tyranny, a policy that looks to evolution and not toward immediate revolution. More is involved than our policy to Poland alone in Europe. We must show in West Berlin that we have no intention of yielding to Soviet claims, that we believe that history will yield in time a free and united Berlin, and a free and united Europe. We must convince the Russians that we are rebuilding our defensive strength so that the route of military force can no longer be open to them. [Applause.] But the next administration must also devise a specific policy for Poland and eastern Europe, and I would suggest these seven points:

First, we must arm ourselves with more flexible economic tools. In 1951, as you know, the Congress passed the Battle Act. The Battle Act says that if any country is dominated by the Soviet Union, no economic assistance, no Export-Import Bank loans, no food loans, no nothing can be granted to any country that is dominated by the Soviet Union. The difficulty, of course, is that the situation has changed to a degree since 1951. Therefore, 2 years ago in the Congress I offered an amendment to the Battle Act which would provide that some degree of economic assistance, some loaning back of the money we may have tied up, the zlotys we may have tied up in Poland, as a result of our surplus food sales, could be loaned back for specific purposes, for health and food and so on, and that this could be done when, in the judgment of the President of the United States and the consent of the Congress, it was in the interest of the United States. This amendment failed by one vote 3 years ago. It passed in the Senate last year by seven votes and failed again this year in the House of Representatives. My judgment is that it is in the interest of the United States and in the interest of Poland and the other countries behind the Iron Curtain that we should have some flexible tools so that if the situation develops that closer relations are desirable, that assistance to the Polish people is necessary, if they should be stricken by economic difficulties which increase their independence on the Soviet Union, then I think we should have tools available to the President and to the Congress. We should prepare the way. Therefore, in my judgment the next Congress and the next administration should support our efforts to amend the Battle Act in the interest of international security. [Applause.]

Second, we must never, at the summit, in any treaty declaration, in our words or even in our minds, recognize the Soviet domination of eastern Europe as permanent. We must never do it. [Applause.] Poland's claim to independence and liberty is not based on sentiment or politics. It is rooted in history, and it is to history that we must address ourselves. [Applause.]

Third, we must strengthen the economic and cultural ties between Poland and the United States, by expanding reciprocal trade, by tourism, by information services. We can encourage the investment of American capital and technology and recognize the needs of Polish ships and airlines, and perhaps most important of all, we can open our doors to refugees from the tyranny of Eastern Europe.

Fourth, we can increase the exchange of students and teachers and technicians, to give more Poles an opportunity to see the blessing of liberty, to give us an opportunity to assist Poland in building an independent economy particularly in agriculture, and the management of medium sized industries. The facts of the matter are that there are 10 times as many students from the Ryukyu Islands in the United States studying with the assistance of the Government as there are from Poland; 10 times. I think we can do better. I think we can do better. [Applause.]

Fifth, we must strive to restore the traditional identification which Poland has had with the Western European community, which goes back into history. It is tied by culture ties. Poland has always looked to the West, never to the East. Therefore, anything that we can do to encourage more intimate relations between France and Poland, Italy and Poland and the test, I think, is in the interest of peace and in the interest of maintaining an independent spirit. [Applause.]

Sixth, we must eliminate Poland's fear of the West, fears that are very real, and this includes in particular fear of Germany. We must make plain our intention that disputes between West and East can be settled by peaceful negotiations and not by force, that never again will Eastern European nations be violently stripped of their territories and their resources, and we should work to encourage a peaceful and mutual accommodation in the spirit of a free Europe. [Applause.]

Seventh, and finally, we must make use of our frozen Polish funds, to remind the people of that Nation that we share their traditional pride in culture, learning, and human welfare and offer the use of these funds to build a national library, an archives, or housing districts, new schools, and I think this would be particularly effective - the reconstruction of the Warsaw Palace which is a great symbol of national independence and national liberty. [Applause.]

The United States under Public Law 480 sells food, surplus food, to Poland. The zlotys that we secure for that food is tied up in Poland, and in most cases is unused. I think there are things that we can use it for which will help maintain the life of the people there and help maintain their spirit and help them know that here in the United States we are still concerned with their welfare, still concerned with their progress. None of the things that I have mentioned, perhaps, have the immediate force of the word "liberation," but we are concerned with trying to help people, not misleading them. We are trying to hold out the hand of friendship to them. Anyone who has looked at the history of the world for the last 15 years and seen friends become enemies and enemies friends, who have seen all the changes in the globe and in science and technology, cannot help but feel that what is now happening in Eastern Europe represents only a step in a long evolution of history. I hold that view and, therefore, I consider our immediate function to be to maintain the spirit in that country, to let them know that we are still concerned, that we are still identified with them, that we believe that they will be free, and that we are devoting our energies to that cause. That is what you do today, that is what we ought to try to do in our national policy. If we do, and if we maintain this spark, this fire, even if it is in the ashes, then some day they will be free and we will have played our proper role. [Applause.]

I know some of the people will say that all this is a wasted effort, that the people of Poland, however brave, are in a prison from which there is no escape or early escape, but is this the reason to ignore their needs? Is this an excuse for inaction? Have we forgotten the words, "I was hungry and you gave me to eat, naked and you covered me, sick and you visited me. I was in prison and you came unto me." Thank you. [Standing ovation.]

John F. Kennedy, Speech of Senator John F. Kennedy, Polish-American Congress, Chicago, IL Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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