My son Andrew and I were at a museum Saturday. It happened to be Polish heritage day. When I saw a picture of President Reagan walking alone with Pope John Paul II in the papal gardens at the Vatican, it got me to thinking about the contributions that the Poles have made to the United States.
The Pope was born in Poland and both of these men now are, of course, deceased. We now know that the two men worked closely together during that critical period in the mid-1980s when communism was coming unraveled. Many historians now credit their collaboration in part with the fall of communism. That certainly was a great contribution to peace and stability.
The Polish contribution to America dates from the Revolutionary War era. Poles later came to identify with the revolution because they saw Americans as a mirror of themselves as they fought a war to achieve independence from Imperial Russia in 1794.
Tadeusz Kosciuszko served in the colonial army against the British. He turned out to be a brilliant military strategist. He made significant contributions to victory at the Battle of Saratoga, which was the turning point in the war. He also helped build the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A plaque at West Point commemorating Kosciuszko says simply, “Hero of Two Worlds.” He also was known to favor the emancipation of slaves. When he died he left his wealth toward that cause. Kosciuszko, by 1789 a major general in Poland, helped defend his own country’s borders.
There is a Kosciuszko statue in Lafayette Park, across from the White House, bearing the inscription, “Liberty shrieked when Kosciuszko fell.” A Kosciuszko club was organized in 1871; its motto, “A good Pole is a good American.”
General Kazimierz Pulaski also came to the aid of the Americans during the Revolutionary War and gave his life to the cause of freedom at the Battle of Savannah in 1779.
There were several waves of Polish immigration. The largest wave occurred in the late 1800s when 1.5 million Poles left their native land for America. Many of these were farmers seeking to avoid religious persecution from the Germans.
Polish Americans have made many contributions to American life some of them unique. Korczak Ziólkowski carved the Crazy Horse statue in the Black Hills of South Dakota. He also helped Gutzon Borglum carve the heads of the four presidents at Mount Rushmore. My high school principal in Wisconsin, Monsignor Stanley Witkowiak, managed to get the world-renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein to play in a concert there. Yes, Mr. Rubinstein was also a Polish-American.
More recently prominent Poles have served in public life. Sen. Edmund S. Muskie, R-Maine, served in the Senate and after running as the Democratic candidate for Vice President, then for President, was Secretary of State in President Carter’s administration. Another prominent Pole is Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security advisor. At first Poles were reliably Democratic but since Reagan they have trended Republican.
Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.