Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy, Pulaski Day Dinner, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 17, 1959

Four years ago last August - more than a year before the peaceful Polish revolution of 1956 - I walked through the historic Cathedral of Czestochowa. Even in that memorable shrine, as an English-speaking priest guided me through the Cathedral's museum, the secret police followed only a few yards behind. I only hope they saw all that I saw. I hope they saw - as I did - the sword of John Sobriecki, the Polish King who proved to the Turks at Vienna that the Polish sprit is never daunted. I hope they saw - as I did - the small scale, centuries-old model of the Cathedral itself made by Thaddeus Kosciuzko, who personified the Polish dedication to liberty in the American Revolution. And, finally, I hope they saw - as I did - a small cross noted by every visitor to that museum - the cross of Casimir Pulaski.

180 years ago this very month the body of Casimir Pulaski was lowered into the Atlantic Ocean somewhere off the coast of Georgia. He was only 32. He was not an American. He had been on these shores little more than two years. He represented a different culture, a different language and a different kind of life.

And yet his death was mourned by Americans high and low - by General Washington and the Continental Congress - by men in ranks of the Calvary Corps he had founded. For Pulaski the Polish Count was a hero of the American Revolution which wanted to do away with Counts and Kings and all titled nobility. He had crossed an ocean to dedicate himself to the cause of liberty and independence. For he knew, though his own native land was still in bondage, that - in the words of the poet:

"Freedom's battle, once begun,
Bequeathed by bleeding sire to son,
Tho often baffled - is ever won."

We pay tribute to Casimir Pulaski tonight by honoring a great American of Polish descent, Clem Zablocki. For he has demonstrated, in Washington and Wisconsin, the same courage and conscience, the same zeal for liberty, the same tireless patience and determination to help all who call for help. He is a great Congressman - not only from Wisconsin - but of the United States . . .

But we also think of Casimir Pulaski tonight because his beloved Poland has once again fallen victim to a foreign power. The independence for which he fought against the Russians at Czestochowa has been once again suppressed - and once again by the Russians. Were he alive tonight, the hero of Savannah and Charleston would weep for his homeland - and we, inwardly or outwardly according to our custom, weep with him.

But weeping is not enough. We know it is not enough. And yet, while we give vent to our feelings of resentment and outrage, we are also caught up in a feeling of frustration. What can we do about the situation in the satellites? How can we help those liberty-loving peoples regain their liberty, without subjecting them to even more cruel repression - or subjecting the world to an even more disastrous war? How can we let them know their fate is not forgotten - that we have not abandoned them to be - like the Irish of 1647 considered themselves when Owen Roe O'Neill was poisoned - "sheep without a shepherd when the snow shuts out the sky?"

This is the dilemma we face, as both last month and next year the President and Premier Khrushchev are pictured together in the press on both sides of the Iron Curtain. And this is the dilemma with which this Administration has been confronted, in trying to make good on its tarnished promises of a new "liberation" policy. For this is no longer an age when minutemen with muskets can make a revolution. Hungary, we know, is not Cuba - and neither is Poland. Mr. Khrushchev is not to be overthrown like Mr. Batista. Brave bands of young men and women may be able to stop a few tanks - but street barricades and home-made hand grenades cannot long stand against a modern army and an atomic air force.

The facts of the matter are that - no matter how bitter some feelings may be, or how confident some are of a victorious war for liberation - freedom behind the Iron Curtain and world peace are actually inextricably linked. For if war should ever break out, the control and occupation of Eastern Europe would certainly be even more rigid and repressive than it is today. That is why, in the days of upheaval in 1956, when Poland could have turned to violent rebellion as Hungary did, Cardinal Wyszynski kept advising his people that the condition of Polish freedom was peace. Many scoffed - many thought him faint-hearted. But by following his advice, Poland has now attained at least a measure of national independence and at least a relaxation of Communist rule. Forced collectivization of the farmers has ceased and most of the collectives were dissolved - religious freedom has been restored in considerable degree - and freedom of speech is returning.

No one says that land of ancient freedom is once more free again. But if Poland had not accepted this half-way house to freedom, it could have been, as Prime Minister Gomulka warned, wiped off the map of Europe. If the present emphasis on a thaw in the Cold War should end and tensions rise again, the present good relations between Poland and the United States would undoubtedly cease, the growing contacts between the Polish people and the West would be cut off, and the present degree of freedom of speech and religion in Poland would prove to be short-lived. On the other hand, if a real thaw develops and Soviet-American relations improve, the prospects for the continuation and perhaps the expansion of this limited degree of Polish freedom are good. So, in a real sense, the condition for Polish freedom is peace.

But if freedom in Eastern Europe is to come only by peaceful change, what can we do to encourage this gradual evolution - this ferment that recalls the warning of Jefferson that "the disease of liberty is catching"?

Unfortunately, in recent years, our hands have been tied by a rigid statutory perspective of the Communist world. We have, in our laws, seen it in wholly black and white terms. Nations were either for us or against us - either completely under Russian domination or completely free. We did not recognize that the Communist world is no longer a solid monolith - that the Iron Curtain is no longer an impenetrable wall. We admitted that we were not willing to help violent revolution - but neither were we prepared to help peaceful evolution.

Fortunately, in its final week, the Senate passed an amendment to the Battle Act - co-sponsored by Senator Aiken of Vermont and myself - which was designed to provide our government with a more flexible set of economic tools to promote peaceful change behind the Iron Curtain. It would permit the use of such tools whenever it appeared to the President that such encouragement would help wean the so-called captive nations away from their Kremlin masters. We urgently need such legislation, which was originally defeated in the Senate by a one vote margin when I offered it a year ago. We need that legislation if our policy toward Polish liberation is to be one of action instead of slogans - if it is to move with flexibility and imagination instead of being limp with caution and conservatism. We need that legislation if we in this country are finally going to take the initiative in Eastern Europe, instead of merely reacting to every move by the Kremlin.

If this amendment can pass the House of Representatives next year - if our policy can finally begin to recognize that there are varying shades and degrees within the Communist world - then, and only then, can we take the initiative away from the Soviets in Eastern Europe. In Poland in particular - and in any other crack that appears in the Iron Curtain - we can then begin to work gradually, carefully and peacefully to promote closer relationships and nourish the seeds of liberty. Expanded trade between Poland and the United States, increased travel and tourism by Americans in Poland, the use of our capital and technology for Polish industry and housing projects, expanded student and teacher exchanges and more people to people contacts - all of these could play important parts in such a policy - in addition to the usual diplomatic and information projects.

But such a policy, we can be sure, would not encounter a smooth course. Mr. Khrushchev knows the dangers of relaxing tensions too far. The leaders of Communist states, including Poland's Mr. Gomulka, will take pains to make clear their agreement with Soviet objectives that are despicable to us - and ironically enough they will do so in order to remain in a position whereby they can still accept our aid and friendship.

So let us remember that all of this will require patience, imagination and strength on the part of our own government. It will require that we do everything we can to make it easier for the Soviets to take the risks of relaxation - and make it harder for them to revert to the tactics, the tensions and the terrors of Stalin's Cold War. To reach these ends, there are no magic policies of liberation - there is only hard work - but that hard work can and must be done.

And while that work is underway, let us keep alive the faith and hope and love of our friends in Poland today. Let us recall to them - let us instill in them - the spirit of Casimir Pulaski, who never wavered in his belief that freedom would triumph in the end, despite overwhelming odds, despite petty squabbles and despite grievous suffering. Let us remember that he crossed an ocean to fight the good fight of freedom - for that is a continuing fight that knows no oceans, no boundaries, no limitations. And on both sides of that ocean, let us remember how the Moravian nuns of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania presented Pulaski, according to legend, with the banner under which he led his troops - and their hymn of consecration was put into these immortal worlds by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:

"Take thy banner and beneath
The battle-cloud's encircling wreath,
Guard it, till our homes are free!
Guard it - God will prosper thee!"

Today we in the United States hold Pulaski's banner in our hands. It is our duty to hold it high, to be worthy of it, to respond to the challenge of Casimir Pulaski's descendants in Poland today, when they say to us: "Guard it, till our homes are free! Guard it - God will prosper thee!"

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 905, "Pulaski Day dinner, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 17 October 1959." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.