As Biden arrives in Warsaw for historic talks he becomes ninth US President to visit Poland. So who else was there?
Billed in most quarters as the most important Presidential visit ever made to Poland, Joe Biden’s foray to Warsaw promises to be remembered as a touchstone moment – quite possibly, one with global implications.
His second visit in under a year, it follows on from a trip last March when, despite the gravity of the wider geopolitical situation, there was at least a light-hearted moment when a teary-eyed President asked for a glass of water after eating a jalapeno and pepperoni pizza alongside US troops.
Ordered from Pizzeria Gusto in the tiny town of Głogów Małopolski, the incident catapulted the pizzeria into the global spotlight, prompting the restaurant’s owners to since rename one of their pies the Spicy Joe.
This time, it’s unlikely that the Presidential visit will provide such relief. What it will do, however, is mark an impressive uptick in the number of Presidential visits – six in twelve years, compared to eight in the previous 40-years.
Despite pre-war ties to America (something attributed to Woodrow Wilson’s friendship with Ignacy Jan Paderewski), it was not until 1972 that a President in office visited the country.
Touching down at Okęcie Aiport at 4.30 p.m. on May 31st, Richard Nixon had prior experience of Poland stemming from his visit as Vice President thirteen-years previously. Then, he had mingled enthusiastically with workers at the Huta Warszawa factory; this time around, his visit was several days shorter, but certainly more fruitful.
As a result, American loans and licenses were granted, something which much have rankled with the Kremlin who were only informed of the visit at the last minute via a secret service report.
With hotel facilities lacking, Nixon was lodged in Wilanów Palace though held a press conference in the Hotel Europejski that was attended by nearly 500 journalists. Unprecedented for the time, the press pack was served by 30 foreign telephone lines and 16 telex machines.
Using the Polish language to declare ‘long live Poland’ in a radio address, his whistle-stop schedule also allowed a walk in Łazienki Park, a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a concert recital by the winner of the first Chopin piano competition and a walk around the Old Town with his wife, Patricia.
Shown a model of the Royal Castle, he penned a cheque for USD 100 to go towards its reconstruction.
Proving a PR victory for both nations, within months of his visit Polish and American consulates were opened in New York and Kraków, whilst New York-Warsaw flights were started by LOT.
Gerald Ford’s visit three-years later was similarly seismic – visiting Auschwitz, he became the first President to tour the German death camp.
A keen pipe-smoker, one transcribed conversation between Ford and First Secretary Edward Gierek recalled how the President had asked, whilst visiting the Sejm, if it was permissible to smoke.
“Yes, I think so,” responded Gierek, before pointing out a painting by Matejko.
As had been the case with Nixon before him, Ford had been met with the kind of crowds one usually associates with liberating heroes. Massive crowds lined the streets to cheer the Presidential convoy, with many onlookers resorting to waving homemade Stars & Stripes cut from old clothes.
Unfortunately, Jimmy Carter’s visit in 1977 is best remembered for its comedy value as opposed to any diplomatic progress.
Holding a press conference in the Victoria Hotel, the President’s speech was so magnificently mistranslated by Steven Seymour that it has since made Time’s shortlist of Top 10 Embarrassing Diplomatic Moments.
“Carter said he was happy to be in Poland; Seymour said he was happy to grasp at Poland’s private parts,” wrote the magazine. “Carter talked about leaving the U.S. to go on a trip; Seymour said that he had abandoned America forever.”
As if to confound the public even further, Seymour, seemingly forgetting where he was, then broke into Russian.
Unperturbed, Carter later flashed a glimpse of his own wit during a reception with Edward Gierek: “I asked him if he believed in God,” he later revealed. “Gierek replied that he was a communist, but that his mother was a devout Catholic. I encouraged him to start listening to his own mother!”
It would take another 12-years for a President to visit, perhaps unsurprising given the volatility of Poland’s social situation in the 1980s. With the PRL in its death throes, a cordial George H. W. Bush met General Jaruzelski and suggested that he run for office when free elections would inevitably be held.
“I thought that Jaruzelski’s experience created the best conditions for a gentle transformation of the system in Poland,” the President explained.
Taking the first ever Presidential jog in Łazienki, Bush also met a youth basketball team, visited Treblinka, and spoke with Marek Edelman, the last leader of Warsaw’s Jewish Ghetto Uprising. On his final day, he flew to Gdańsk to meet Lech Wałęsa.
Three-years on, and Bush would return, only this time for a visit timed at just four hours and fifteen minutes.
Bringing with him the remains of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, President Bush joined a procession to St. John’s Cathedral to attend the reinternment of Poland’s former Prime Minister.
Accompanied by Barbara, he spoke at Pl. Zamkowy and credited Poland as “the birthplace of the Revolution of ’89.”
“America stands with you,” he added. “America wants Poland to succeed and to prosper. America wants Poland, now and forever, to be free.”
Two more Presidential visits followed in the 1990s, both of them undertaken by Bill Clinton who used the opportunity to tell Poles that NATO membership was “not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and ‘how’.”
Visiting at the height of summer in 1997, mosquitoes threatened to disrupt the enjoyment of a jazz performance held in the gardens of the Presidential Palace.
“I apologised to our guest for being subjected to such a tiresome attack,” said Aleksander Kwaśniewski, before recalling Clinton’s nonchalant reply. “It’s fine,” responded the President, “in Arkansas the mosquitoes are as big as birds.”
The new millennium saw a further strengthening of Polish-US ties with both George W. Bush and Barack Obama visiting three times a piece. Endearing himself to Poles, George W. Bush went so far as to invoke the Golec uOrkiestra anthem ‘San Francisco’ while delivering a speech at Warsaw’s BUW library.
As much as his eloquence and warmth was well-received, the public’s mania for American presidents hit new heights with Obama with practically every aspect of his visit reported: from his 51-car motorcade (starring, of course, ‘The Beast’), to his personal habits.
“He travels with his own cook, doctor, drinking water and even his own mug so that he doesn’t leave his DNA anywhere,” read one article.
There was, too, scandal after a video was shot of the President gently exercising in the Marriott gym (long the hotel of choice for visiting Presidents). Outrage followed that his security detail could allow such a slip.
Alas, by the time of his last visit, in 2016, schisms had opened and these were accented further when the President used his speech to issue a rebuke of the ruling party’s domestic policies.
With the presidential entourage arriving on 23 planes, Donald Trump’s visit in 2017 was no less extraordinary. Indicative of the President’s divisive nature, some hailed his speech at Warsaw’s Uprising Monument whilst others slammed its rhetoric as “white nationalist dog whistles”.
Awkwardly somewhat, debate raged as to whether or not Poland’s first lady, Agata Kornhauser-Duda, had snubbed Trump after he had seemingly offered his hand.
Less controversial, Melania proved more popular with the FLOTUS using her second Presidential trip to dazzle both the fashion press and the people of Poland.
Visiting the Heroes of the Ghetto Uprising Monument and the POLIN Museum, she also visited the Copernicus Science Centre where she played games with youngsters and posed with a miniature pink high-heeled shoe.
For certain, Joe Biden’s visit will afford no such photographic opportunities, but there can be no doubt, of all the presidential visits this one stands to be truly historic.