Man's inhumanity

I was in Poland in the early-middle 1990s, which meant that I was there for the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, of the liberation of Auschwitz (near where I lived), of various lesser known tragedies and of the Warsaw uprising.
I attended lots of commemorations, both in my official duties and as an individual interested in history. It was a very interesting time, although one that raised lots of questions about humanity.

Human capacity to do harm is usually matched by our capacity to endure. I came to wonder about the virtue of perseverance and even bravery, never resolved the issue. Existential struggles bring out the best and the worse in people, often in the same person.

In my discussions with young people (and I almost fit in that group back then), I would often hear harsh judgements of people of the past. “Had I been there, I would have …” was a common refrain.

What would I have done? I like to think I would have been always heroic and selfless, which probably would have meant I would not have survived the war. In fact, I think the best we can hope for is that we would be heroic and selfless in situations where it made a practical difference.

I was competitive swimmer, but nothing compared to a guy like Michael Phelps, winner of 28 Olympic gold metals, but there is a way that he is no better than me – neither of us can swim from California to Hawaii. This is not a trivial thing. There are things beyond human possibilities, but that does not let us off the hook for being better.

I learned a lot about tragedies and pondered human nature. I read Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning”, and I met dozens of people who had endured things I could not imagine. I felt very privileged to talk to many of them at length, including Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, maybe the most impressive soul I have ever encountered.

The thing that impressed me most also surprised me profoundly. These people who had suffered so horribly were very often joyful and had transcended hatred and vengefulness. They did not minimize the suffering and evil; they had just (sorry to use the word again but I can think of none better) transcended it. This made them no less committed to fighting evil and in many ways made them much more effective.

People who fought in the Warsaw uprising were mostly civilians, some children. The Nazis were especially brutal in their suppression of the uprising. Of the combatants that survived, many did so my wading through filth in the sewer system.

There is a coda, a tragic one. For many Poles who fought the Nazis the war did not end in 1945. The communist government did not treat them as heroes. On the contrary, many were persecuted and some executed. The new communist order did not easily tolerate vestiges of the old and personal heroism was especially suspect in their world view.

Describe the worst part of your life

Leaving out periods of sickness or bereavement, two periods of my life compete for “the worst.”

Crashing at the takeoff
It was the worst job year since the Great Depression. Unemployment in 1982 hit post World War II highs (think of it like the Great Recession, only worse) and I was not among those employers most wanted.  Sure, I could read Greek & Latin; employers were unimpressed. Who knew?  I thought I might never find a job outside the fast-food or hospitality industries.

I needed a change, a jump start.  Maybe I thought maybe I could join the Air Force, get some practical experience and maybe get them to pay for some practical education.  I was physically fit, college educated with no criminal history & I did well on standardized tests, so the recruiter saw me as a good prospect.  I got excited about officer training.  I saw “Officer & Gentleman” with Richard Gere.  I figured that I could do that. My plan was to marry Chrissy, go into the Airforce to become and officer and a gentleman.  The marriage was wonderful; the rest, not so much.

The shock came out of nowhere.  As I went through the steps, my blood pressure was excellent, my heart strong and everything was good.  I felt sorry for some of the guys around of me – the one with such high blood pressure that he had to lay down to lower it, the one with only one testicle (Evidently the rule was that you need two); the one humps on his back, kind of like an ankylosaurus. They all passed. Not me.

The doctor told me that I had some earwax and that I was not capable of military service.  Earwax? Turns out my “ulcer” from 11th Grade made me ineligible.  I protested that it – whatever it was – went away.  I was spectacularly healthy, as the tests showed.  I lifted weight, ran long distances and I ate and drank whatever I wanted w/o problems.  It didn’t have an ulcer. It didn’t matter. I was out.

It was like bouncing on the diving board and then seeing the pool was empty.  There was no plan B and no prospects.  I was an “employment refugee,” a ragged man wandering through a ragged landscape.  I worked episodically at “Flexi-Force,” doing things like stuffing newspapers on the night shift and sweeping floors. The idea was to get experience and maybe work into a steady job.  My MA in history meant less than nothing. My less educated co-workers were eager to tell me that we were in the same boat.  The difference was that I had spent years to get there and I had thousands in student loans. My best prospect for continued employment was selling phone service for MCI. I made a good impression on the boss, at least he said so, but I was gone after the temp period.

A good thing about being loosely connected to the job market is that you have time.  I studied for the GMAT and learned some of the math I needed for an MBA, and I took the Foreign Service written test.  The FS test was free and the study books for the GMAT did not cost much.  Things got better in the economy and for me.  I passed the FS written test and started an accelerated MBA program at University of Minnesota in the summer of 1983. They gave me a job as a TA, not sure why, sweet serendipity.

Management is a kind of applied history & even the math was sometimes fun, once I figured out the patterns.  When I took the FS oral exam soon after starting my MBA, I was completely relaxed. I had the MBA thing going for me, so the orals were just exercise.  That is probably how I passed.  Fortunately, the security background check took a long time and I finished my MBA before I got a call for FS. By then I was “director” of Marketing Research at Microdatabase Systems (MDBS). I put “director” in quotes, since I was the only one in the department.

MDBS made a wonderful data base software that was nearly impossible for non-experts. I learned the system with the help of the engineers and after a couple weeks the founders-owners called me. Nice guys. They asked me how I liked the product.  I told them truthfully that it was great but added that it was too hard to use.

The founders were taken-aback.  “If people are too stupid to use our product,” one explained, “perhaps they shouldn’t buy it.”  I figured I ought to flee that scene before it all fell down. I accepted the FS offer the next day. I had worked at MDBS for all of three weeks. Oddly, they asked me to stay on until I needed to leave for Washington, so I worked a couple more weeks, then set off for my new career.

Falling from the heights
The second dip was not existentially as bad.  I still had a good job. I was just worried that there was no future. I feel into the career pit right after the summit of my best of times in Krakow (discussed earlier).

The bureaucracy has no memory
Past accomplishments are no guarantee of future good treatment. The late 1990s were a time of cuts in the FS, especially in public diplomacy.  Lots of good officers were pushed out and those of us left had fewer opportunities.  I got a job at the Operations Center. This sounds exciting, but it was not, at least not for me.

Ops Center is 24-hour shift work. I never adapted.  I was sluggish most of the time, ate too much junk food, & gained weight. My blood pressure went up to “pre hyper tension.  My joints hurt. It was not only the shift work.  I thought my career was finished. I had done my best and ended up on the night shift – better than 1982 but similar time zone.  Our political leaders seemed uninterested in our work. Our USIA director at the time did not like people like me.  He thought the FS was too pale, too male and too Yale, and said so openly.  I had two of those three attributes. His team also emphasized youth. The under 30 crowd had some special attributes, they thought.  So, at 42 ½ I was too old, too pale, too male and maybe not Yale enough, since graduates of Midwestern state schools were lumped in but with none of the privilege or prestige of the Ivy League.

After he found he could not mess with the test to change his “elitist” workforce.  He did the next best thing – shrunk our numbers.  We hired almost nobody and promotions trickled down to almost none. We lost about 1/3 of our public diplomacy officers in those years.  I am convinced that one reason we were unprepared diplomatically after 9/11 was that we just did not have enough experienced boots on the ground, but that is another story.
I hated the Ops Center.  It was the only time in my FS life that I looked for another job.  Fortunately, I got another opportunity before I got too far in to the job search.  They needed someone in Poland to honcho public affairs for Poland’s perspective NATO membership.  I volunteered.  Fluent Polish speakers are not that common and/or not available in mid-year, so I was probably the only one available.  This shows the value of networking, BTW.  I spent a lot of time just talking to people.  I got the job because of my qualifications, but I knew about the job only because of my networking.

They sent me to Warsaw for three months with the mission to care for American academic & media delegations studying NATO. I believed then – and do today – in NATO.  I believed Poland would be a great addition and I worked to convince others to believe it too.  I took visiting delegations to Poland’s great universities and introduce them to Poland’s intellectuals and leaders – living treasures of Poland.  It worked. In a verified example, an editorial writer for the “Chicago Tribune” wrote me that his visit had changed his mind and his paper’s editorials.  I still have the letter.  All I did was make the truth available.  I believed in what I was doing, and I could devote a lot of time to my work, since I had nothing else to do. You can be very effective working full out, but probably cannot keep it up.

I had to go back to the Ops Center. Nothing changed and sill hated it. My work in Poland gave me visibility to get a job as desk officer for Russia and then press attaché for Poland.  You can tolerate almost anything if you can see the finish.  I spent just nine months in the Ops Center, closer to six months if you subtract my sojourn in Poland.

It reads better than it was lived
Looking back, my worst of times were not very bad, but they read better than they were lived. In the 1982 episode, I almost lost hope.  In 1997, I thought that the career that I had learned and loved had hit a brick wall.  In both cases, the despair was fueled by outside issues.  In 1982, it was the economy – stupid, but after that we enjoyed a quarter century of good times, which encompassed much of my working and investing life.  1997 was a more nuanced. We were being cut and the powers that be made it clear that they did not like people like me.  In both cases, the remedy was to adapt and overcome, but in both cases I was saved more by changes in climate than by my own actions. What I did to adapt was necessary to success, but not sufficient.

In the 1997 case, there is an interesting coda.  The 1990s were plague years for the FS.  Lots of good colleagues were pushed out of their jobs, especially at the 01 level.  As I wrote, we lost about 1/3 of our public affairs officers, and the carnage hit hardest at the FS-01 level.  After the end of the plague years, Colin Powell rightfully saw that we needed to rebuild.  His diplomatic readiness initiative brought in hundreds of new people above the attrition rate. They came in as junior officers. The plague opened the way for middle ranked (at the time) people like me.  As after a medieval plague, there were lots of empty spots to fill.  The hard times of the 1990s almost certainly delayed my promotion to FS-01, but likely created opportunities after that, so on balance the hard times were good.

For better and worse
The most important factor through these hard times was Chrissy.  I try not to comment too much about family, since I don’t think it is fair for me to tell their stories, but w/o her love and support I well might have got stuck in the swamp of despair.  Studies show that people with stable relationships are happier, healthier & wealthier.  I can well understand that. I talk a lot about sweet serendipity, but nothing is sweeter than that relationship.  It takes a lot of effort to be spontaneously lucky.

What were you doing when you were 40?

My story worth for this week. What were you doing when you were 40?

I thought it was the best of times, and it was the best of times up to then. The worst of times was just around the corner, but I didn’t know it at that time and that is another story.
It was the middle of my time as public affairs officer in Krakow. It was the best possible job I could have had at my rank and I knew it. Poland was emerging from the darkness of communism and it was an amazing privilege and joy to be there to watch it, have a small part in helping it along. You could see the improvements week-by-week. The air was getting cleaner. Shops were opening and electricity was becoming more reliable. It was like springtime after a long, dark and dreary winter. And my work was rewarding. Opportunities were so thick that my only problem was deciding among them. I got rock-star reception everywhere I went. I liked to think it was me, but I knew that they really loved the America I represented and that was okay too.

My Polish was not great, but it got me what I needed. Polish is hard for English speakers & Poles were glad to hear Americans speaking their language. They seemed to have no problem understanding, but I think my accent was amusing. My nearest guess is that I sound like Pepe Le Pew. I often talked on radio or TV, so it was not an impediment. My best teacher was my driver – Bogdan. My district included the whole south of Poland. Visiting all the places I needed to go kept me on the road. Bogdan and I spent many hours driving together, so much so that my more educated staff members joked that I should not talk so much to Bogdan. I was starting to sound like a peasant, they said. I think it was a joke.

Representing the USA in those days opened lots of doors and gave me lots of work. In retrospect, I think that I worked too much, more precisely that I did not adequately understand the nature of diplomatic work. I should have focused on fewer priorities and applied more leverage to everything else. Good diplomats work through others. I did too much myself and did not let others do as much as they could. I don’t beat myself up too much on this. This is common behavior of mid-level officers. Later when I was the big boss, mentoring younger officers, I tried to explain, but they more often did what I did, not what I said. Maybe it is a stage we need to go through on the way to better understanding. There is a time for energy, after all. It was my job to tell them and their job to do something else. And even looking back with my greater experience, I still judge my time in Krakow was a great success, despite my youth and inexperience.

A few anecdotes from those times.

Espen was a little boy and he learned Polish, at least at the little boy level, but he would never speak Polish with me. He claimed he could not. I heard him speaking to the cleaning woman in fluent Polish, so I asked him about it. “I thought you could not speak Polish,” I told him. He answered, “I don’t speak Polish. Those are just the words I have to use with her.” What an insight! That is one reason why kids can learn language so well. What is language, after all? You make a series of sounds and something happens.

My funniest Polish radio interview had to do with Christmas traditions. The interview was going well. I thought we were talking about Christmas trees. I talked about the tradition of decorating them and how each family had their own traditions. The interviewer nodded. I went on to explain that some people go to the forest to cut their own trees. Suddenly, the interviewer looked very confused. We talked a bit more. Turns out that I was using the wrong word. The Polish work for tree is “drzewo.” I was using “drzwi,” which means door. Funny, that it made sense. You could – and some do – decorate doors. Had I not talked about the cutting; nobody would have been any the wiser. This is a caution when you are speaking a foreign language and everybody seems to understand.

One of my scariest times was when Richard Holbrook came to visit us. Holbrook was one of the smartest men I have ever men and seemed to me one of the scariest. I met him at the train station and introduced myself. He dropped his luggage and walked off. We always joke that diplomats need to be ready to carry luggage, so I carried his. I must have done a good job, because I was placed at his table for a reception are Ariel Café in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow. It was a big table with lots of people well above my station. I laid low, not wanting to call attention to myself. Holbrook held forth on a variety of subjects. Seemed to know everything. I stayed quiet, speaking perfunctorily to the people near me, so as not to interfere with Holbrook, clearly the main event. The guy sitting next to me was the director of the Holocaust Museum. He was nice. We talked a little about the restaurant, which served traditional Jewish food and featured klezmer music. When we got up to leave, and made the usual goodbyes, the museum director was profuse in praise for the restaurant. I came to understand that he thought I was the owner of the café. I saw Holbrook at the other end of the table and I did not want to be explaining this when he might hear, so I just told the director that we try to please the customers.

On the dark side, Poland was a bloodland. Both world wars were fought over its territory and the Nazi occupation was very brutal. A casual walk in the woods will come across monuments to dozens of hundred of Polish civilians killed by Nazis. There were also remains of American pilots and aircraft. During the Warsaw uprising in 1944, the USA wanted to resupply the rebels. Stalin cynically wanted to let the Nazis wipe out the free Polish army.

Stalin would not resupply the Poles, nor cooperate with the USA to do it. American pilots and crews volunteered to drop supplies to the Polish Home Army. Since Stalin would not let them land in Soviet held territory, they had to try to make the round trip. Many did not make it. 1994 was the 50th anniversary of many of these events. I attended a quite a few memorials.

I was often assigned as site officer for Auschwitz. This is for official visits. The site officer makes sure everything is okay for an important visitor. I did some variation of these five times, including visits by Hilary Clinton and George W Bush. Each time I visited; it was worse. You notice more and more terrible details. My last visit was the worst. It was when George W Bush came to Poland. (This was a little outside the period in question. By then I was working in Warsaw, but they sent me south to help.) I went to the camp in the pre-dawn darkness and walked around the camp alone. Few people get to do this, and I do not recommend it. I will never, ever go back. The cruelty and inhumanity came stronger than ever, so powerfully that even as I write I am feeling physically sick. When people deny or minimize the Holocaust, well I wish I could infect them with this feeling. Well enough.

Poles & siege of Vienna

Vatican museum features a large painting by Jan Matejko, whose work I got to know well during my time in Krakow. Jan Matejko lived in the 19th Century in Krakow. His specialty was massive works depicting great moments in Polish history. Painting in Vatican shows Jan III Sobieski, one of the greatest Polish kings and his victory over the Turks at Vienna.
It was September 1683. The Turks had pushed to the gates of Vienna and were successfully laying siege. The triumph of the jihad seemed assured with the Turks continuing their 300 year conquest of eastern and central Europe. But then the Polish army crossed the Danube under King Jan Sobieski. Soon the Turkish army was fleeing back toward Constantinople. Its expansion finished, a true turning point in history. Never again would Europe face this kind of existential threat.

So the Polish King Jan III Sobieski helped save Europe from conquest by the armies of Islam and Pope John Paul II (Jan Pavel) helps save Europe from Soviet communism. Is there something about the name John or being Polish?

I thought “the Way Back” would be just an adventure movie. It was interesting from the adventure point of view, but I thought it was even more interesting from the point of view of politics & heroism.

The main character is a Polish officer captured by the Soviets after they and the Nazis divided the country between them in 1939. The Soviets massacred many Polish officers at place like Katyn forest, so that he escaped alive was an achievement. It was a terrible time in Poland and not very good in the world in general. It sometimes seemed that the world would be divided between totalitarian communist or totalitarian Nazis, with lots of petty tyrants mixed in but not much space left for freedom. In the movie, the communists throw the guy into a Gulag on the usual communist style charges. There are scenes of the brutality. The main character and some others escape and walk all the way across Asia from Siberia to India.

It has been more than twenty years since communist collapsed in Europe and Poland led the way to freedom. The horrors of communism have faded from popular memory. It is almost impossible to believe it really happened at all. Whole populations exterminated, people thrown into camps because of their associations, class origins or just for no real reason at all. The wars of the 20th Century were bloody with industrial strength, which makes it even more astonishing that more people died from the murderous internal oppression of revolutionary socialism, like communism and its cousin Nazism,  than in all the battle associated deaths.  When the world started to wake up from that long nightmare, when the Berlin Wall fell and freedom returned to large parts of the world, our joy at the events allowed us to put aside some of the horrible memory. Few Americans have ever experienced anything even remotely like the horrors of the Soviet Union, but it is important sometimes to recall the carnage and suffering committed in the name of progress toward totalitarian utopias.

We like to think that the human race has grown past this kind of thing. People living in just societies in peaceful times can feel that way. History gets sanitized. But the study of history informs us that it good times represent just pushing back the wilderness, in limited times and geography. The demons still lurk out there and even within. World War I opened the door for lots of them and in many ways Lenin, Hitler, Stalin & Mao were made possible by the monumental disruption in the world order. With the passage of time, some of these events and personalities seem less pernicious; they become stereotypical characters, and their murderous henchmen, like Leon Trotsky or Che Guevara can even acquire a kind of radical chic.  

No matter the other merits of the movie, it helped me remember both the horror and the heroism of those who resisted tyranny and ultimately brought it down and also the dangers of revolutionary change. The mostly peaceful general collapse of communism in Eastern Europe may have made us too optimistic. In a place like Poland, it happened smoothly as power moved to a well-prepared and civilized opposition. Despite the past, there were no significant reprisals. As I write this, we are witnessing potential revolutions in the Middle East. I don’t know the details and I certainly cannot predict the future. But I am afraid that behind the revolutions there, there is no Geremek, Onyszkiewicz, Mazowiecki or Wałęsa. I am not sure what the historical analogy will be. When the Iranians knocked down the Shah, worse and more persistent tyranny followed. Just knocking down tyranny is not enough. Some will be there to pick up the pieces. Good does not always get there first with the most. The good people are not always the best organized and the violence, exhilaration and power associated with revolution can corrupt even the best people.

There is no solution to this or a formula that will work all the time. In the times of wrenching change, a lot depends on personalities and luck. Would our post-revolution been so successful w/o men like George Washington?  If the Germans had not “imported” Lenin back into Russia, might their revolution been more moderate and less horrible?  The farther we get from events, the more they seem to have been destined to unfold as they did, but nothing is determined.

Returning to the prosaic, “the Way Back” is a good movie, worth going to see. You can enjoy it as an adventure film and a tale of adversity & triumph and if it makes you think, so much the better.  Colin Ferrell does a great job of playing a murderously dangerous and dumb but somehow likable man.  Ed Harris always does a good job. And Jim Stugess, who plays the Polish officer in the main role, portrays an honorable and determined man in an almost impossibly challenging position. See the movie.

Justice for Poland

Below and at this link is a petition from the Kosciuszko Foundation. I understand that those unfamiliar with the controversy may think it is no big deal, but it makes a big difference to the Poles. You can see why when you read the petition.

IMO, the lack of knowledge on this issue is appalling. I had to explain to many journalists and political staffers that the Poles were invaded by the Nazis, that they never gave in to the Nazis, that many more Poles participated in the resistance & many more died than the more famous French resistance, that Poles served in allied armies, participating as pilots in the Battle of Britain and as soldiers all over Europe, that the Warsaw uprising of 1944 held back the Nazis for two months and at the same time stalled the Soviet advance, since after encouraging the uprising Stalin’s troops paused and waited for the Nazis to destroy the Polish resistance in Warsaw, all the while not helping and in fact hindering relief efforts by others. Had it not been for this wait, the Red Army may have advanced significantly farther west, with fearful consequences for the future of freedom after the war. This is a largely forgotten history, with bravery and sacrifice unrecognized and unrewarded. Shamefully, at the end of the war Poland was subsumed by Stalin’s evil empire. 

The communist government executed many of the brave resistance fighters, cynically labeling them “fascists”. The communists were also a reason why Polish bravery in the war is so unknown outside Poland. The communists systematically denigrated the efforts of Polish resistance and the Home Army (Armia Krajowa) and surviving veterans were not given any justice until Poland regained its freedom, when they were already old men and women. You can see some of them marching in the picture at above & left.

I had the extraordinary privilege of meeting heroes like Jan Nowak Jezioranski and Jan Karski. These brave men risked their lives repeatedly moving in and out of Nazi occupied territory and even into concentration camps themselves, finding evidence and trying to warn the allies about the Holocaust and the fate of civilians populations in Poland. They and the millions of Poles (civilians as well as soldiers) who fought the Nazis and died at the hands of the Nazis deserve better than to be identified with their enemies and murderers.  The constant, ignorant use of the term “Polish camps” disrespects their memories.  Please read and sign the petition below.

Petition on German Concentration Camps
WHEREAS the media uses the historically erroneous terms “Polish concentration camp” and “Polish death camp” to describe Auschwitz and other Nazi extermination camps built by the Germans during World War II, which confuses impressionable and undereducated readers, leading them to believe that the Holocaust was executed by Poland, rather than Nazi Germany,
WHEREAS these phrases are Holocaust revisionism that desecrate the memories of six million Jews from 27 countries who were murdered by Nazi Germany,
WHEREAS Poland was the first country invaded by Germany, and the only country whose citizens suffered the death penalty for rescuing Jews, yet never surrendered during six years of German occupation, even though one-sixth of its population was killed in the war, approximately half of which was Christian,
WHEREAS educated journalists must know these facts and not cross the libel threshold of malice by using phrases such as “Polish concentration camps.”
BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED that the undersigned request that The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press, include entries in their stylebooks requiring news stories to be historically accurate, using the official name of all “German concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland,” as UNESCO did in 2007 when it named the camp in Auschwitz, “The Auschwitz-Birkenau German Nazi Concentration and Extermination Camp (1940-1945).”

Make New Friends, but Keep the Old

It is great to reach out to adversaries and open a dialogue even with enemies, but in our zeal to make friends of those who have never much liked us, let’s not forget the ones who have stood with us in the past.  Good relationships also require maintenance.  When it is all said and done and when our overtures & concessions to those who don’t like us have produced what results they will, I hope we don’t look around and find we have fewer dependable good friends left.

On the left is a monument to the children of the Warsaw uprising of 1944.  Stalin encouraged the uprising, but then paused to give the Nazis time to destroy the Polish resistance.  The Soviets also interfered with relief efforts mounted by the U.S. and other allies.  As many as 200,000 were killed and 700,000 expelled or escaped, many moving through the sewer system to avoid Nazi patrols. The Nazis systematically destroyed Warsaw in retaliation.

I am upset about a little thing.  I got an email from a Polish friend about an obscure museum in rural Virginia is installing a bust of Joseph Stalin in a place of honor along with those of Churchill & Roosevelt in the D-day Monument.   Friends in Poland have noticed.  It might not matter much … usually, but it comes on top of some recent events and missteps on our part. 

In September, we announced we were backing out of our agreement on missile defense with Poland and the Czech Republic.   Presumably, this would help with outreach to the always sentimental Vladimir Putin and the decision is justifiable on many grounds.   But we announced it on the very day – the 60th anniversary of the day – when Soviet Armies invaded Poland in 1939.  The next month, it was announced that President Obama would not attend ceremonies marking the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Although that took place in Germany, the fall of the Wall was a big deal for Poland and Poles feel justifiable pride in what they did to hasten the destruction of the Iron Curtain.  The fact that the President travels so frequently to foreign destinations made the absence in Berlin seem more calculated than it was in fact. Below are pieces of the Berlin Wall.  I got them when I was in Berlin in 1990.  Of course, they could have been any clunks of concrete, but I got them near the Wall and there seem to have been lots of chunks from the Wall available so I figure it was real enough.

Then a couple days before the Obama-free Wall ceremonies, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced that Poland would not be eligible for the visa waiver program any time soon.   This is a bigger deal in Poland than it would seem to us. I would hasten to add that Napolitano’s decision is sound by the criteria of the program, but if you are looking at this sequence of events from Warsaw or Krakow, it might seem like your old American friends are turning their backs.

That is why the little Stalin thing is so big.  Stalin was indeed a truly odious man.  He was our ally only because Hitler attacked him – reneging on a deal the two dictators made to jointly rape Eastern Europe. While there can be no doubt that we could not have defeated Hitler w/o the Russians, it is also true that w/o our material aid and the second front, the Nazis could have conquered the Soviet Union.   Stalin gave no more than he had to protect his own power and at the end of the conflict he gobbled up as much as he could and imposed a tyranny on Eastern Europe that long outlived him.  The murderer of tens of millions and the architect of a nefarious system that subjugated almost half the world for almost fifty years is not just another interesting and important historical figure.

This is a case where public diplomacy and the perception of events makes as much differences as the events themselves.  Objectively, our decisions were sound and need not have engendered any practical problems.  The perceptions were different.

I have been Poland-centric in this post, but I have seen similar patterns with other old friends.

“Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold” That is a rhyme I learned in second or third grade.  

It is easy to be beguiled by the possibilities of new relationships.  But dealing with countries is not the same as kids making new friends on the playground.  For one thing, there are no “new kids”.   Every relationship already has a history, usually going back generations.   There may well be a good reason why we don’t get along well.  Sometimes we have conflicting goals.   Often our aspirations do not mesh.   Sometimes it is an identity problem.   There are leaders in the world who derive much of their personality and power from their stance of being opposed to the U.S.   If they couldn’t blame us for their troubles, the blame might fall on them.

Above is the King’s Palace In Warsaw.  The Nazis destroyed it and all of Warsaw in 1944.  The Poles rebuilt.  It was in front of this Palace that President Clinton in 1997 announced our support of Polish NATO membership. Poland formally became a NATO member in 1999.

On the other hand, we have shared interests and shared identities with many countries.   Our allies in Europe, for example, remain our strongest cultural, security, trading and investment partners.   Things generally proceed so smoothly among us that we pay little attention.   Remember our good friends the Japanese and recall when we were not so good friends.   It is a lot better now, isn’t it?  How about our border with Canada?  Good thing on both sides that it is secure and peaceful.  I could make a longer list, but I would inevitably leave somebody out and feel bad about it.  But as I said up top, good relationships do not maintain themselves.  It is a lot less exciting and you cannot do something unprecedented by maintaining the familiar paths, but you often have to pay MORE attention to your friends than your foes. 

It is sort of like the unglamorous job of maintaining underground infrastructure.  It doesn’t seem very important until the water main breaks washing away your car and drowning your cat.

Another childhood story pops to mind.   Remember the Aesop fable about a dog holding a bone in his mouth?  He sees his refection in a pond and thinks there is another dog down there with a bone as big as his own.  He wants that bone too.  So he jumps into the water to take it, only to lose what he had and just come out boneless, frustrated and all wet.

Good Polish Friends

I think it is more important to stand with your proven friend than try to curry favor with adversaries who have shown little inclination to cooperate in the past.  America has few friends as steadfast as Poland.   Polish support for our country goes back before the revolution, when Kosciuszko and Pulaski came to fight along with George Washington just because they loved liberty.  

Yet Poland was devoured by its neighbors, Austria, Prussia and Russia, and it remained an imprisoned nation for 123 years.  Rebirth came in 1918, at the end of World War I, but it was not an easy time.  About two decades later, Nazi armies invaded Poland from the west and the Soviets stabbed them in the back from the east. This happened on September 17, 1939. Remember that date. 

Although Poland was conquered again devoured, partitioned by the two extremes of revolutionary socialism, Poles fought back.   The Nazis lost more troops invading Poland than they did conquering France in the next year and the Poles never gave up. Great heroes like Jan Karski and Jan Nowak-Jeziorański (I had the privilege of meeting both these heroes) warned Franklin Roosevelt about the holocaust and what the Nazis were doing in their conquered territories.  Although Poland was under the Nazi jackboot, Polish soldiers fought in all the allied armies.  Polish pilots were crucial during the Battle of Britain.  Poles served with Americans at Monte Casino and Arnhem.  They always took heavy casualties, fighting bravely and – frankly – being used more freely as cannon fodder. Had Polish soldiers been counted, they would have made up the fourth largest army in the Allied camp.

In September 1944, the Polish home army rose against the Nazi occupiers. Stalin halted his advance, hoping to allow the Nazis to kill off Polish patriots.  He thought it would slow him down for a couple of days.   The Poles held out for months. The Nazis completely destroyed Warsaw and murdered hundreds of thousands.  But the Red Army was halted on the Vistula long enough to lose the campaigning season. This had the unexpected effect of holding Stalin back, allowing American and British troops to advance to the Elbe. Had Stalin not slowed, he may have reached the Rhine, making the post war Soviet tyranny much more powerful and dangerous.

After World War II, Poland fell into the Soviet sphere and they suffered in that communist purgatory until 1989.   The iron curtain cracked in Poland. Solidarity pushed the communist to the wall and then the Poles elected a non-communist government. But they still didn’t feel secure in their new freedom. They wanted to have friends and allies. They became NATO allies in 1999 and proved their worth. Polish troops served in the Balkans and they fought and died along side us in Iraq.  They also agreed to support us with missile defense on their land. I suppose not everyone is as grateful to them as I am. Maybe some actually hold it against them.    It is a fault in our system that we sometimes identify America’s friends as connected with particular American leaders or their policies.

Remember that September 17, 1939 date? On September 17, 2009 we decided to pull out of an agreement to deploy missile defense in Poland.  

We made a big effort to help secure Central Europe. It was a success of both the Clinton and Bush administrations. Security is as often about perceptions as it is about capabilities. If an adversary believes the cost of aggression will be great and he refrains from aggression you win w/o spending the blood and treasure needed to fight the real war. 

We sometimes think the age of aggression is over. The Poles have a more tragic history than we do and they are not as certain as some of us might be. 

As I wrote at the beginning, it is better to stand with proven friends. You cannot make friend with everybody.  Some people and some regimes are just playing a zero sum game with us. If we give; they take and ask for more.  They are “satisfied” only when they reach the limits of what they can grab. If you give you can be asked to give again. It is not impossible to reach agreements or to live together in peace and mutual respect. But that respect must be mutual. One-way respect is just for chumps.

I recommend a good article by Ron Asmus, one of President Clinton’s smartest advisers in the Washington Post. 


About 10% of the Polish population was murdered by Nazis or Communists during the war.  The Soviet’s massacred at least 22,436 Polish prisoners at Katyn forest in 1940.  It was not a random selection.  The Soviets were trying to wipe out Polish leadership.  They chose the best and the brightest they could find.   They turned others over others to the Nazis, with whom Stalin still had friendly relations.  The Nazis themselves were working hard to wipe out the vestiges of Polish national feeling by wiping out the people most likely to be able to carry it on – teachers, professors, officers and civic leaders.

The Katyn massacre was particularly noteworthy to the extent that it was premeditated and personal. The Soviet questioned the Poles for months to determine who to kill.  After Hitler attacked Stalin and the Nazis took over Katyn and discovered the crime, they publicized it.  This put the allies in a tough position.  Churchill suspected that Nazis were mostly telling the truth in this particular rare case, but chose plausible deniability.   When you have to work with one horrible tyrant (Stalin) to defeat another horrible tyrant (Hitler) it inevitably entails some moral compromises.  

The Soviets kept an official lid on the story until the fall of the Soviet Empire around fifty years after the event.  Everybody knew about during that time, but there was no official record or confirmation.   Worldwide lefties gave the Soviets the benefit of the doubt they didn’t deserve and it was convenient to blame the Nazis, who were responsible for so many other atrocities and were the default villians of the period.   After the truth came out, there was lots of talk about it in Poland and memorials went up worldwide   But the Katyn Memorial in Baltimore was a surprise.  I just didn’t expect to find something like this here.  I guess there is a large Polish-American community in Baltimore.

LA Times has a good article re.

Hanging in the Sky

I am not sure how much my personalities have in common. People in some professions move more often and maybe even farther from home, but Foreign Service Officers absorb more characteristics of our assignments. Diplomatic life is intense. Everyone knows who we are. We live our jobs to a greater extent than most people. We learn the language of our countries and adopt different personas to adapt to our surroundings. My Polish personality is different than my Norwegian personality and both are different than my Brazilian personality. My American core has become stronger over the years. I know a lot more about my country than I did when I came into the service, but the America I know and love is an ideal place. Now I am headed “home” to Boston, to a place I have never been before in the real America. I still can’t believe the State Department is giving me such a sweet deal. I can think of nothing that could make me happier, at least nothing I could reasonably expect to get. For all the complaining I sometimes do, this is really a great career.

It is fitting that we hang in the sky for several hours between incarnations and go down a long hall to get on and off the planes. The low roar of the jet engines creates a dreamlike atmosphere and the fact that one slips in and out of sleep during the nine-hour flight confirms it. Poland already seems like a dream. I am looking at the pictures I took of my garden on the day I left. I planted lots of trees during my time in Warsaw – tulip trees, oaks and beech – although only two in my own backyard . The garden is full of perennial plants and I improved the soil, so I expect my activities will survive my leaving for at least a couple of seasons. I will remember the good people of Poland and I hope that some of them will remember me, but we pass so quickly. I don’t think any of us leave deep footprints.

My latest American journey starts soon. We will drive all over the U.S. It should be fun. This is our fourth cross country trip, but the first one through the Southern states.

I am not sure what time it is. It doesn’t make much difference in this jet-lagging world. I think it would be morning in the U.S. and afternoon in Poland on June 27, 2003.

Both pictures are my garden in Warsaw. The ivy will eventually cover the walls and the trees will be big.