Connecting With Eastern Europe
Americans have always sympathized with the Eastern European countries in their struggles for democracy, but for two centuries we haven’t been able to help much. Do we have a chance now? A distinguished expatriate looks at the odds.
November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
Even in these days of nine-hour airplane journeys and instant telephony, the United States and Eastern Europe are very far apart. When it comes to the places and shapes of nations and states east of Germany and west of Russia, there occurs in the eyes of most Americans an instant blur. There are obvious reasons for this. One of them is the plain reality of perspective. When Americans look across the Atlantic, the shapes of the British Isles, of France, of Scandinavia, of the Iberian and Italian peninsulas are recognizable and familiar, even in these times of a scandalously neglected education in geography.
But this is not only a matter of shapes. The states of Western and Northern and Southern Europe are familiar because they are old. This may be true of the nations of Eastern Europe but not of their states. The independence of every one of them—except for Poland—is more recent than that of the United States. Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland—their independent statehoods have come about during the last 160 years. Some of them—like Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia and, to some extent, Romania—were cemented together only after World War I, fewer than three generations ago. But the independence of every one of these countries has been cheered on, promoted, and encouraged by the American people and its governments during two centuries. This still holds true, even as the Russian occupation and the Communist regimes in the eastern half of Europe are vanishing.
The American-Eastern Europe connection is a long and complex story, often entangled with the vicissitudes of American domestic politics. Again the Polish-American connection stands out. Pulaski and Kosciusko are names known and respected by generations of Americans. But while many Americans venerated the cause of Polish independence, the governments of the United States before World War I did not espouse that cause, wishing instead to maintain their relations with the Russian, German, and Austrian empires, which had partitioned Poland among themselves at the time of the first Presidency of George Washington. This discrepancy between American popular sentiment and the interests of American foreign policy as seen by Presidents and Secretaries of State has confused, perplexed, and, on occasion, plagued politicians as well as the potential recipients of their sympathies.
Fifty years after the American War of Independence came the Greek War of Independence against Turkey. Oblivious of the fact that the Greeks could not achieve their independence alone—their independence had to be won through the armed intervention of Britain, France, and Russia, often at cross-purposes with one another—many Americans cheered on the Greek national rising, as had Byron and Lamartine during that halcyon decade of Romanticism. In the 182Os American philhellene societies multiplied; American towns adopted Hellenic names (including Ypsilanti, Michigan, named after a somewhat dubious foreign ad venturer who had brought Russia to the Greek side in the war against Turkey). It was this kind of sentimentalism that John Quincy Adams had in mind in his classic peroration on the Fourth of July in 1821 when he said that Americans are friends of liberty everywhere in the world but that they will not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
Thirty years later came another sentimental wave. The Hungarian nation had risen up against Austrian rule. Alone among all nations of the world, the United States gave official recognition to the Hungarian Republic. The Southern Whig President Zachary Taylor was persuaded to send a minister to represent the United States in Hungary. Before he got there, the Austrian and Russian armies had forced the Hungarian army to surrender. Hungary’s leader, Lajos Kossuth, a classic nineteenth-century figure of a republican and a democrat, had to flee. In December 1851 he came to visit the United States. Enormous crowds greeted him. He was the first foreign statesman, after Lafayette, to receive a ceremonial reception in Washington. By then the President was Millard Fillmore, whose Secretary of State was none other than Daniel Webster. “We shall rejoice to see our American model upon the Lower Danube and on the mountains of Hungary!” Webster declared at the Washington banquet in Kossuth’s honor. There were Kossuth hats, Kossuth coats, Kossuth beards, Kossuth cigars. A county of Iowa was named Kossuth; American children (like George F. Kennan’s father in Milwaukee) were given the first name of Kossuth. Yet except for a few rhetorical battles with the diplomatic representatives of the Austrian Empire, the Kossuth episode led to no change in the course of American foreign relations. Kossuth mania was a result of American domestic politics, exploited by a powerful wing of the Democratic party when the strength and the cohesion of the Whigs were weakening.