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Connecting With Eastern Europe

May 2024
9min read

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.

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.

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?


It should be evident that throughout Eastern Europe, Communist rule during the last forty or forty-five years has been extremely unpopular as well as inefficient. In almost every case that rule was the result not of Communist propaganda or of popular revolutions but of the outcome of the Second World War. The Communist regimes in these countries were imposed by the power of Russia. With the retreat of Russian armed power from Eastern Europe, it is clear that the Communist period was but a passing and unrepeatable episode in the often tragic history of these peoples.


A political power vacuum is now opening up in Eastern Europe. Historical experiences as well as present conditions suggest that this vacuum, after the retreat of Russia, will again be filled by Germany. It would be a very shortsighted policy of the United States not to take into account this situation and not to consider the tolerable limits—geographical, political, economic, and eventually military limits—of the now hardly avoidable extension of German influence over the lives of these again independent but by no means strong nations.

Until now it was the United States that played the role of the principal anti-Communist power in the world. This, together with the prestige of American institutions, the forms of its popular culture, and the reputation of traditional American freedoms, has led to a very large reservoir of affection for America and things American that exist among all of the people of Eastern Europe. But we must be aware of the limits of American influence and of the proper exercise of it. Unlike after World War II, the United States is not able to offer something like a Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe. Nor are the situations and the political and social structures of the present Eastern European nations comparable to those of the Western European ones in 1947.

“Free enterprise” will be much less widespread in Eastern Europe than we think.

In one sense, the social structures of these nations are more democratic than those of the Western European nations forty or forty-five years ago—indeed, more than that of the United States two hundred years ago. By this I mean that Communist rule and industrialization have produced societies that are more homogeneous than they were in the past. Before World War II many of the Eastern European nations were still half-feudal. This is no longer so. The traditional upper classes are gone. The new upper classes have been, by and large, those of the Communist regimes and their beneficiaries, the ruling bureaucracies. These bureaucracies will now be replaced by other bureaucracies—a mix of public and private ones with considerable international connections. Yet both “free enterprise” and “capitalism” will be much less widespread than we are inclined to think, or, what is most likely, they will assume different forms, largely dependent on bureaucratic institutions and regulations.

While there are significant opportunities for American investments in some of these Eastern European countries, their extent and their meaning ought not be exaggerated. The opportunities for German and Austrian investments will far surpass the extent of American participation. This is already happening in Hungary and Yugoslavia, for example. In the long run, too, all international enterprises and industries depend increasingly on their national employees, workers, and managerial staffs. To believe that American management will be able to govern enterprises and industries in Eastern Europe permanently is a mistake. The applications of American management techniques might be appropriate, here and there, in the short run. But these techniques will hardly affect the habits and the inherited ways of thinking of various populations. The presumptions of all kinds of American management experts in teaching Eastern Europeans how to market and how to compute profits are exaggerated.

The same thing goes for the activities, at times ludicrous, of those ambitious young Americans now swarming in Budapest, Prague, and Warsaw, pretending to teach the natives there the techniques of American “democracy”—that is, how to package and hype political parties and candidates for the purpose of winning elections. In the democratic and populist societies of Eastern Europe, the least valuable thing that Americans can teach is how to market politics—in other words, how to reduce liberty and democracy to popularity and publicity contests.

The most valuable asset that a knowledge of American institutions and of the American constitutional tradition may offer to Eastern Europeans is precisely a knowledge of those guarantees of American freedoms that the Constitution of the United States established and protected against the dangers of the tyranny of popular or populist majorities. This is particularly applicable to those Eastern European states where the liberties and the lives of certain national minorities may be even more endangered now than during the wretched uniformities of their Communist governments. It is an open question, too, whether multiparty parliamentary systems—reminiscent of the nineteenthcentury European tradition—will be able to achieve a more or less stable political order in societies whose structure is entirely different from that of a century before. In this respect the American political tradition of two large and ideologically not altogether antithetical political parties; the separation of legislative, administrative, and judicial powers; and the frequent resorting to political coalitions and to legitimate compromises have some things to offer to responsible people in Eastern Europe.

History suggests that a power vacuum opening up in Eastern Europe may be filled by Germany.

At the same time, it behooves Americans to respect and to learn some things from the recent, and often inspiring, history of certain Eastern European nations. The fact that great revolutions may occur without savage violence and bloodshed, the fact that the dangers of revolutionary Communist ideology have been vastly exaggerated, and the fact that the present leader of Russia, alone in the history of continental European empires, has deemed it proper to withdraw peacefully the domination of his empire from a large portion of Europe that Russia conquered but a generation ago—in a war that had been unleashed on it by Germany—should command not only American relief but also respect. A very new chapter has now opened in the relations of the United States with the nations of Eastern Europe—with plenty of potentialities, with promises as well as with problems, both of which may mature faster than we are accustomed to think.

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