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Woodrow Wilson and Poland’s Independence

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The Polish Legion
Page 9 of 15

Once the U.S. entered the War, Poles and Polish-Americans began to bombard Wilson and the War Department with requests to form a Polish legion, composed of recruited Polish-Americans, to fight in the war under the U.S. army. Wilson had Secretary of War Newton Diehl Baker seriously look into the matter. The President told Baker that “we should show the utmost consideration and appreciation” to those who made the request, for they “are some of the most influential Poles in this country.”(31) Baker replied to Wilson that the advantage of such a plan would be the attraction of Polish nationals in German and Austrian regiments to a united Polish regiment. Baker, however, felt the disadvantages outweighed the advantage. Baker first believed that other nationalities, such as the Czechs, Serbians, and Irish will want the same. Baker wanted a “homogenous”, united American army, not one divided by nationalities. More important, Baker wanted to wait until the U.S. Army became better organized. He feared possible criticism of using foreign-born citizens to fight the war while natives stayed at home. Such opinion could cause division in the U.S. and aid German propaganda. Wilson completely agreed that immediately granting this request would be a “mistake,” but wanted to keep the proposal “in store.”(32)

Paderewski would not allow the proposal to be shelved. He obtained Britain’s support for the measure. Anxious for the one hundred thousand troops Paderewski claimed he could recruit and the effect they would have on Pole in the Central Power’s armies, the British Government placed in the Poles’ disposal two Canadian training camps, equipment, and training forces. Yet Paderewski showed some sensitivity to President Wilson’s concerns. Paderewski compromised by requesting only the enlistment of U.S. resident but non-citizen Poles to a Polish regiment. Secretary of War Baker brought this proposal to Wilson’s attention, giving his approval, and wishing the President would do the same.(33)

Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing were receptive to this idea. However, to legitimately fund the Polish army, the U.S. Government proposed that a Polish Provisional Government be recognized by all Allies as the independent government of Poland. This proposal by the U.S. would force all the Allies to agree to Poland’s independence as a war aim. The plan also allowed Wilson to appease Paderewski and Polish-Americans. France was already considering recognition of a provisional government.(34)

The British, having not been receptive in the past to suggestions of an independent Poland, also decided to go along with the idea. They had reached a point at this time to accept anything that aided Germany’s defeat. Having Polish troops on the Allied side could, in their view, have an effect on Poles within the power of Austria and Germany. So the British jumped on the bandwagon.(35)

The Russians stayed off the bandwagon. The Russian Provisional Government did not want a separate Polish Army in its territory. As a result, recognition was held up. With Paderewski and Polish Americans continuing their pressure on Wilson, on 6 October 1917, the President and the War Department granted their request to recruit un-naturalized Poles residing in the U.S. before recognizing the Polish National Committee.(36) With Russia being distracted by the Bolshevik Revolution, Wilson decided to proceed with recognition of the Polish National Committee as the official Polish government in exile on 10 November 1917. Paderewski wanted more. In January 1918, he burdened the Wilson Administration with requests to provide the Committee, located in Paris, with more money and to allow them to recruit Polish-American citizens for the Polish Army. The Wilson Administration did not budge on either. To Wilson, loans requested by others for the war effort had already overburdened the U.S. Treasury.(37) It would also set a precedent in which other regions desiring sovereignty would request the same.

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