by Yale Richmond
Every diplomat, whether admitted or not, has his or her favorite posting. After reading this you will know why our author considers Warsaw his “best.” –Ed.
In my 30-year career in the Foreign Service, Warsaw, where I served as Cultural Officer 1958-61, was clearly my best post. It was three years of practicing Public Diplomacy, although the term had not yet been coined. A few examples herewith will illustrate what was possible in a country governed by communists, but with a long history of being culturally a part of the West.
Poland, in 1956, had a revolution that replaced a Stalinist regime with one of national communism. The new government continued to follow the Soviet line in foreign policy but showed considerable independence in domestic affairs. It reversed the forced collectivization of agriculture, supported academic freedom, ended overt harassment of the Catholic Church, and sought better relations with the West, and with the United States in particular.
As a newcomer to Eastern Europe, I called on the American Embassy’s Political Officer, Richard G. Johnson, and asked his advice on what was possible in Poland. “If you can show the Polish officials you work with,” he replied, “that you really like Poland and its people, you can do almost everything you want here.” I followed that advice for the next three years, and success came easily.
Liking the Polish people was easy. I soon learned that uttering the magic word “cudzoziemiec” (foreigner) opened doors and put you, at Polish insistence, at the head of the line you were standing in. At Poland’s Zakopane ski resort, when Polish skiers who were waiting with me in the ski-lift line, learned that I was a foreigner, they insisted that, as a guest in their country, I had to go to the head of the line. And it seemed that almost every Pole I met in Warsaw had a relative in Chicago.
The Polish language was initially a challenge, although I eventually gained fluency. But most of the officials I dealt with had a good command of English, French, or German, languages in which we were conversant, and I soon learned that if I did not know a cultural expression in Polish, I could take the French equivalent, add a Polish ski or ska ending, and it was often the correct word in Polish I was looking for.
Starting academic exchanges was my first task. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations had been active in Poland since 1957, awarding grants to prominent Poles for study in the United States or Western Europe in the humanities and natural sciences, but there were no US academic exchanges. However, the head of Warsaw University’s English Department was Margaret Schlauch, an American and a worldwide authority on Middle English, Chaucer, and Nordic literature, who had served as Professor of English at New York University from 1924 to 1950. She had immigrated to Poland to be with her sister, her only living relative, who was married to Leopold Infeld, a naturalized Canadian nuclear physicist who had worked with Einstein at Princeton, and had been offered the job of Poland’s top nuclear physicist. But no one in the American Embassy had had any contact with Schlauch who was a Marxist, had become a Polish citizen, and whom the embassy regarded as a renegade. But she was, I thought, someone I could work with.
With permission from U.S. Ambassador Jacob “Jake” Beam, I called on Schlauch who welcomed me with the simple greeting, “I’ve been waiting for you,” and together, in a few minutes, we worked out an initial exchange of graduate students and professors. The governments in Washington and Warsaw quickly gave their approval, and that initial exchange, within a few years, grew into a much larger Fulbright Program, which is still exchanging American and Polish academics today. And for that effort, the Polish President, in 2009, awarded me a medal, the Commander’s Cross, Order of Service of the Polish Republic.
My next challenge was to reopen the American library, which I did in the embassy. There had been an American library in Warsaw after World War II but the communist government in 1950 had closed it. Ten years later, without any fanfare, I opened a small library in the embassy for use by the Polish public. And as librarian, I hired the daughter of the Indian ambassador who was a recent graduate of Cornell University, and needed something interesting to keep herself busy in Warsaw. Polish university students frequented the library, encouraged by Professor Schlauch to do so, and the Polish police at the embassy entrance never stopped them from entering. Our busiest patrons, however, were Poles who wanted the address or telephone of some US organization or person with whom they wanted to cooperate or start an exchange, and for them we built up the reference section of the library. A few years later the library was moved to a former Polish palace near Warsaw’s Old Town, and when a USIA budget cut later mandated its closing, the library’s collection of 10,000 books was donated to Warsaw University’s Center of American Studies.
Several other Public Diplomacy programs with Poland were also started in those years. The Information Media Guaranty (IMG) enabled Polish government agencies to buy US media products, paying in Polish zlotys, which the US government converted into dollars at a favorable rate. By the mid-1960s, the IMG program had facilitated Polish purchases of nearly $7 million worth of US books, periodicals, newspapers, authors-rights, and Hollywood feature films.
In addition to the IMG, we had a very active book presentation program. I asked USIA to send me via air pouch each week the book review section of the Sunday New York Times, and I learned that I had carte blanche to order almost anything I wanted, and in any number of copies, for presentation to Poles or institutions I planned to call on. I was always welcomed warmly, with my books of course, and was never refused a visit.
Also in those years, we signed an agreement for distribution in Poland of 30,000 copies of a Polish-language edition of USIA’s monthly Ameryka, an illustrated magazine with articles from the US media supplemented by articles written by USIA’s Washington staff. That was no problem for the Poles because in 1956 we had signed a similar agreement with the Soviet Union for a Russian-language edition of our monthly, Ameryka, Poland, in those years, had a network of International Press and Book Clubs, as they were called, one in each capital city of Poland’s eighteen provinces. Essentially they were Polish government reading rooms, open to the public, where Poles could peruse foreign magazines and newspapers. The reading material was especially strong on the publications of foreign communist parties, including France’s l’Humanité, Italy’s l’Unità, London’s Morning Star, and New York’s Daily Worker (later Daily World), all of which were of great interest to Poles because they reported much more than did the Soviet newspapers. And I was surprised to see that there was even a copy of the Paris International Herald Tribune, for which there was usually a waiting list of would-be readers.
That prompted my visit to the director of those reading rooms, Helena Michnik, a charming and beautiful woman who spoke excellent English, and who gave me a briefing on her Press and Book Clubs. Noting that they did not have copies of Time or Newsweek, I asked if she would like to have eighteen free subscriptions to those US publications. “Why, of course,” replied Madame Michnik with a warm smile. USIA in Washington came through with the subscriptions, and a few weeks later when I visited several of her reading rooms, Time and Newsweek were prominently displayed. Mme Michnik, it should be added here, was the mother of Adam Michnik who today is editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, a major Warsaw newspaper.
And now, a final reason why Warsaw was my best post. A few months before departing Washington for Warsaw, I was married and subsequently embarked on a three-year honeymoon in Poland at government expense. Amor vincit omnia!
Yale Richmond is a writer and former Foreign Service Officer who lives in Washington, D.C. His latest books are Understanding the Americans: A Handbook for Visitors to the United States (Hippocrene Books, 2009), and From Nyet to Da: Understanding the New Russia, 4th edition (Intercultural Press, 2009). In addition to his posting to Warsaw, he also served in Moscow as Counselor for Press and Culture, 1967-69.