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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
Thirty years after Kossuth’s visit a new element began to appear within the structure of American politics. Beginning about 1880, considerable numbers of immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived in the United States. Unlike the trickle of German and Hungarian émigrés after the German and Hungarian revolutions in 1848, few of these newer immigrants were political refugees. They were, for the most part, poor people, as were the Jewish immigrants from the Russian Empire and Romania whose personal freedoms had been restricted and whose very existence was often endangered in those countries, against which the American government, on occasion, protested. Yet while Eastern European immigration was steadily increasing, it took some time—again about thirty years—until its political influence began to be felt.
Suddenly, in 1918, that influence became decisive—decisive, that is, for Woodrow Wilson, who briefly became powerful enough to act as the principal political personage in the world. He was not well equipped for such a task. He knew British political history, but his knowledge of the political and national complexities of the European continent was wanting. In his Fourteen Points Wilson proclaimed America’s support of an independent Poland (and of its outlet to the sea), which was both right and just and in accord with most of the Allies, but Wilson’s error was his espousal of the dangerous and revolutionary principle of “national self-determination,” leading to the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg Empire, which, with all its shortcomings, was an element of stability in the crucial area of Europe between Germany and Russia.
While Americans venerated the cause of Polish independence, the government did not.
At the end of World War I eight new states appeared in Eastern Europe, between the retreating German and Russian empires and consequent to the dissolution of the Austrian one. But that—temporary—retreat of Germany and Russia brought about a very unstable condition. After twenty years none of these successor states were strong enough to withstand the expansion of a recovered Germany.
This is important for us to consider, because in the twentieth century the point of gravity of European (and perhaps of world) history has shifted eastward. Both World War I and World War II broke out in Eastern Europe. The decisive land battles of World War II were fought in Eastern Europe when the power of Germany was such that in order to conquer the Third Reich, the United States and Britain had to share the victory with Stalin’s Soviet Union. Because of geography, most of Eastern Europe was “liberated” not by Anglo-American but by Russian armies toward the end of the war. Only two states, Finland and Greece, respectively on the northern and southern edges of Eastern Europe, escaped that fate.
The result was the so-called Cold War. Fearful of the possible spreading of Communism into Western Europe, the American government adopted the policy of committing the United States to the defense of Western and Southern Europe (including Greece and Turkey). By doing this, it did not wish to challenge effectively the Russian and Communist domination of most of Eastern Europe—except rhetorically, for domestic and not altogether honest political purposes. In 1952 the Republican party swept into power mostly because of an anti-Communist wave of public opinion and popular sentiment. Yet Secretary of State John Foster DuIles’s statement about the eventual “liberation” of Eastern Europe and the “rollback” of Soviet power meant little or nothing—as the Eisenhower administration’s reactions to the East German, Polish, and Hungarian risings in 1953 and 1956 showed.
At the same time, American consciences were alleviated by special immigration legislations. As early as 1948 Congress passed the Displaced Persons Act, which eventually permitted the entry of 415,744 people, mostly Eastern European refugees then living in Germany and Austria who were unwilling to return to their homelands under Communist rule. In 1956 additional regulations provided for thousands of refugees from Hungary after the Hungarian rising that year. This led to a significant increase in the number of Americans of Eastern European origin, but compared with that of other ethnic groups, their political influence has been relatively limited.
During the last twenty or twenty-five years a new development affected the lives of Americans of Eastern European origin. Differing from country to country, the restrictive measures of the Communist regimes have been weakening. It became possible for Americans, including relatively recent refugees or émigrés or escapees from Eastern Europe, to revisit their homelands remarkably soon after their having emigrated. The number of Eastern European visitors to the United States increased, too, and not many of these visitors chose to stay on as immigrants. These rapid, and often brief, travels back and forth amount to a new phenomenon, the cultural, economic, social, and psychological consequences of which have not yet been subjected to serious study.
And now we arrive at the present—with the dissolution of Communist rule in nearly every Eastern European country. What does this mean to the United States?