Defeat in Victory - Polish Ambassador to USA in WW2

Defeat in Victory Book Cover

Defeat in Victory

Jan Ciechanowski

London: Gollancz



91 Books about Poland | Polish War Graves in Britain

On 6th March 1941 President Roosevelt welcomed Jan Ciechanowski, the newly appointed ambassador of Poland, to the White House. Poland was at war - Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had attacked Poland in September 1939.

Jan Ciechanowski had joined the Polish government-in-exile in France on 30th September 1939 as Secretary General of the Polish Foreign Office. He witnessed the fall of France in the summer of 1940. The French cabinet had met in Bordeaux in June 1940 to decide whether to fight on or surrender to Hitler. They surrendered.

General Sikorski Flies to London

General Sikorski, commander of the Polish armed forces, arrived in Bordeaux on 17th June 1940. He held talks with the President of Poland Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz and the Polish Foreign Minister August Zaleski. He then left immediately for London to see British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They talked about how the Polish army and air force, fighting in France, could be saved. Sikorski appealed to him to enable the transfer of the Polish Armed Forces to Britain so that they could continue the fight.

Churchill said to Sikorski:

“Tell your army in France that we are their comrades in life and in death. We shall conquer together or we shall die together.” The two Prime Ministers, one the leader of a free Britain, the other of a martyred but undying Poland, shook hands. “That handshake,” Sikorski told us later, “meant more to me than any signed treaty of alliance or any pledged word”. The Polish-British alliance was reaffirmed and cemented. (p. 15)

The British Royal Navy evacuated the Polish President and members of the Polish cabinet on the cruiser Arethusa to England. Jan Ciechanowski recalled the journey:

  • Three nights of futile bombing of the cruiser by single German planes in the port of Le Verdon, near Bordeaux, before they could put to sea.
  • President Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz was welcomed at the railway station on arrival in London by King George VI.

General Sikorski asked Jan Ciechanowski in November 1940 to become Polish Ambassador to the United States. Sikorski felt that American neutrality could not be indefinitely maintained and wanted Poland represented in Washington by someone who had experienced closely the European war events in France and London. Jan Ciechanowski left London on 5th February 1941, with his wife and two youngest sons, heading for Washington via Lisbon.

Nazi Germany Attacks Soviet Russia

On 22 June 1941 Nazi Germany attacked the Soviet Union. British Prime Minister Churchill welcomed unconditionally the Soviet Union into the Allied camp as the latest victim of Nazi aggression. In July 1941 negotiations began in London between General Sikorski and the Soviet Ambassador to Britain Ivan Maisky. The Polish government had put forward two conditions for the resumption of diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union:

  1. USSR to declare Nazi-Soviet pact concerning partition of Poland as null and void.
  2. USSR to agree to free all Polish prisoners of war and all other Polish prisoners deported to Russia.

If these conditions were met the Polish government would agree to collaborate with the Soviet Union in the war against Nazi Germany and to form a Polish Army in Russia. Jan Ciechanowski records that the British government put pressure on Sikorski to refrain from insisting on the re-establishment of the pre-war territorial status of Poland.

Churchill’s pressure on Sikorski appeared to me to express the British tendency of propitiating a new and powerful partner rather than insist on persuading the Soviets to change their attitude toward Poland…What made me more anxious was the rift which was being created within the Polish government itself…[General Sikorski] hopefully believed that the mere annulment of the Ribbentrop-Molotov agreement could only be interpreted as automatically restoring the status of the Riga Treaty…he, like British statesmen, also did not sufficiently understand Russian mentality. (pp. 37-38)

The President of the Polish Republic Wladyslaw Raczkiewicz and the Foreign Minister August Zaleski were both born and brought up under Russian domination. They had a profound knowledge of Russia and her methods. They considered it of paramount importance that any treaty agreement should dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s. These differences of opinion led to the resignation of Foreign Minister August Zaleski when General Sikorski signed the Polish-Soviet agreement on 30 July 1941.

From the very wording of the Polish-Soviet agreement it was evident that any precise definition of the return to the status quo ante preceding the Molotv-Ribbentrop pact had been studiously avoided... (p. 39)

Poles Set Free

The President of the Soviet Union M Kalinin signed a decree on 12 August 1941 which granted an amnesty to all Polish citizens held captive in the Soviet Union. General Wladyslaw Anders, who had been released from the Lubianka prison in Moscow, was appointed Commander in Chief of the Polish Army in Russia. The release of Poles from prison camps did not proceed smoothly.

The Polish Embassy in Moscow had to intervene repeatedly…to point to the desperate situation of Poles still deprived of freedom in the Arctic regions of Russia. General Anders was…uneasy when he found an unusually small percentage of officers among the 46,000 soldiers who had succeeded in reaching the Polish training camps. (p. 56)

General Sikorski in order to try and speed up the forming of the Polish Army in Russia decided to travel to Moscow to meet Stalin. He arrived in Moscow at the beginning of December 1941. The Germans were only 20 miles from Moscow. He told Stalin that many of the most valuable Polish soldiers were still held in captivity in Russia. Stalin denied this and said that any missing Polish officers must have escaped. General Anders asked where could they have escaped to. Stalin replied that they may have escaped to Manchuria.

General Sikorski told Stalin that Polish forces were fighting everywhere.

We have an army corps in Great Britain…nearly 20% of all German losses in the air in the Battle of Britain were accounted for by Polish pilots…Poland is in Hitler’s hands and our only human reserves are over here. I would like to form seven divisions in Russia and send about 25,000 men from here to Scotland…for the air force and navy….but the present conditions [in Russia]…our men wake up in the morning with frostbitten noses and ears. They are literally starving. Under such conditions one cannot form an army. (p. 70-71)

General Sikorski pressed Stalin to improve conditions for Polish soldiers in Russia or allow them to be evacuated to Persia where they could be supplied by the British. In 1942 Stalin ordered that all Polish soldiers be transferred to the Middle East and that no more should be recruited.

General Sikorski meets with President Roosevelt

General Sikorski made his third and final visit to Washington in December 1942. He met with President Roosevelt and expressed his concern about the growing tension in Soviet-Polish relations. Jan Ciechanowski warned Sikorski that because of uncritical pro-Soviet enthusiasm within the American government he might not get the support he needed from the Americans to get Stalin to change his hostile policy towards Poland.

Jan Ciechanowski had his last conversation with General Sikorski in New York on 10 January 1943. General Sikorski expressed the fear that American policy was becoming one of appeasing Soviet Russia. Jan Ciechanowski said goodbye to General Sikorski with the premonition that that he might never see him again. General Sikorski’s parting words were:

I shall live, because I have still one thing to do. I shall lead our troops in a victorious offensive into Germany, and through Germany back to Poland. (p. 135)

Polish-Soviet Relations Worsen

On 16 January 1943 the Soviet government declared that all Polish deportees in the Soviet Union were now Soviet citizens. The Polish government protested strongly that it could not accept this and demanded that the decision be reversed. Jan Ciechanowski notes that they had done this:

As a sort of reprisal for the refusal…of the Polish government to recognise “the sovereignty of the USSR” over the Polish territories of Western Byelorussia and Western Ukraine. (p. 138)

The Soviet government also refused to grant any more exit permits for the families of already evacuated Polish soldiers. They were trapped in the Soviet Union.

Polish citizens were being summoned daily to Soviet police stations where their Polish passports were confiscated…our people were detained for long periods of time in police stations without food or water…in many localities Polish citizens were beaten. (p. 150)

Jan Ciechanowski pointed out to the US State Department that a lack of American and British intervention on behalf of Poland was leading Stalin to believe that he had Poland at his mercy. The Soviet Union was preparing to annex half of Poland and instal a puppet government loyal to Moscow.

In April 1943 the Soviet Union broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government. The pretext was the Polish response to the discovery, by the Germans, of mass graves at Katyn containing the bodies of thousands of Polish Army officers. The Polish government requested that the Red Cross carry out an investigation in order to determine who was responsible for their murder. The Soviet Union accused the Polish government of conniving with Hitler and broke off relations.

Jan Ciechanowski met with Lord Halifax, the British Ambassador to the United States. Lord Halifax asked him what he thought would be the next stage in Soviet policy towards Poland.

I replied that it would probably be the announcement of the formation of a puppet government for Poland…There could be little doubt that Stalin was out to gain complete control of Poland and of its government…"If that is the case" replied Lord Halifax, "then we have very little hope of settling the Polish-Soviet dispute." (p. 162)

General Sikorski Killed

In July 1943 General Sikorski was killed in a plane crash just after take off from Gibraltar. He was returning to London after visiting Polish forces in the Middle East. His daughter and other passengers were also killed.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke in the House of Commons on 7 July 1943.

From the first dark days of the Polish catastrophe and the brutal triumph of the German war machine until the moment of his death on Sunday night, he was the symbol and the embodiment of that spirit which has borne the Polish nation through centuries of sorrow. (p. 176)

Gerneral Kazimierz Sosnkowski was appointed as the new Commander in Chief of the Polish Armed Forces. Stanislaw Mikolajczyk, leader of the Peasant Party, became the new Prime Minister of the Polish government-in-exile in London.

Jan Karski - Courier from Warsaw

Jan Ciechanowski was invited to meet President Roosevelt on 28 July 1943. He was asked to bring along Jan Karski so that he could meet the President. Jan Karski was a member of the Polish underground army in Poland who had made the hazardous journey from Poland to London carrying messages from the leadership of the Polish underground to the Polish government. Jan Karski told the President about German methods of terror and the mass murders in the concentration camps. He told the President about the plight of the Jews.

Our underground authorities are absolutely sure that the Germans are out to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe… (p. 182)

Anthony J. Drexel Biddle US Ambassador to Poland

Jan Ciechanowski met with Tony Biddle on 16 December 1943.

Tony Biddle…was Poland’s best friend…Tony and his wife knew everybody in Poland…Throughout the tragic September and October days in 1939, when the Polish Army and the entire nation fought their desperate struggle…Tony and Margaret…faced all the dangers and hardships at the side of the Polish government, whom they never abandoned… (p. 258)

Tony Biddle told Jan Ciechanowski that he was deeply concerned about what he had heard concerning the outcome of the meeting in Teheran between Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin. He intended to tell President Roosevelt that if Poland’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was not going to be defended energetically by the USA then he could no longer continue as ambassador to Poland. Tony Biddle resigned as ambassador a few days later.

Polish Prime Minister Mikolajczyk Resigns

In late 1944 the Soviet Union was ruthlessly destroying the Polish Underground State and Home Army in Poland. Prime Minister Mikolajczyk faced a dilemma:

He knew that, if he remained in office and discontinued his efforts to reach an understanding with Soviet Russia, he would lose the support of Mr Churchill, if, on the other hand, he agreed to yield to Soviet demands, he would lose the confidence and support of the Polish people. (p. 343)

Stanislaw Mikolajczyk resigned as Prime Minister of Poland on 24 November 1944. He explained that he had carried on the policy of conciliation with the Soviet Union pursued by General Sikorksi. He could not however agree to a new partition of Poland and a surrender of her rights.

The Socialist leader Thomas Arciszewski became the new Polish Prime Minister. He had left Poland secretly for London in August 1944 after having led the left wing of the Polish underground for five years.

Soviet Occupation of Poland

The Soviet Red Army captured Warsaw on 17 January 1945. Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin met at Yalta, in the Crimea, from 4-11 February 1945. Jan Ciechanowski went to hear President Roosevelt speak to Congress on his return from the conference. What he heard made him regard Yalta as the final betrayal of Poland.

As I left the House of Representatives I knew that Poland had been “sold down the river”…the sovereignty of the Polish nation…had been appropriated by the Big Three Powers…I knew it was merely a matter of weeks or months before Poland would be handed over, with the consent of the President of the USA and the Prime Minister of Britain, allied to Poland, as the victim of Soviet domination and a prey of communism. (p. 360)

President Roosevelt died on 12 April 1945 and was replaced by Harry Truman. The Polish Foreign Minister toward the end of June 1945 informed Jan Ciechanowski that the withdrawal of recognition of the Polish government-in-exile by both Britain and the USA was imminent. On 5 July President Truman announced that the USA had recognised the provisional Polish government in Poland and withdrawn recognition from the Polish government-in-exile. On 6 July Jan Ciechanowski held his last press conference at the Polish embassy.

The Big Three Powers…had carried out the fifth partition of Poland. They now imposed on her an alien, communist-dominated puppet government. I announced that, rather than be,…the Ambassador of an illegal communist government, I resigned my functions as Poland’s Ambassador in Washington. The officials of our embassy and all the Polish consuls in the US resigned with me. (p. 386)