Saturday, July 23, 2016

Blast from the Relevant Past: Distinguished U.S. Public Diplomacy (USIA) Official Leonard Baldyga on the Bicentennial exhibit (1976) in Poland

Baldyga image from

The below excerpts from an interview with distinguished U.S. Public Diplomacy official/practitioner Leonard Baldyga are from an oral history interview (2007) with Charles Stuart Kennedy, The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Foreign Affairs Oral History Project.

The excerpts are posted in connection with the forthcoming Public Diplomacy Council/University of Southern California's September 12, 2016 First Monday Forum on Public Diplomacy in the 70s: New Documents Released (by the Office of the Historian at the State Department).

This discussion is to be introduced by Professor Nicholas Cull, widely recognized as the Edward Gibbon of the defunct United States Information Agency (USIA, 1953-1999); see his 2012 book, The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency.

The discussion, with members of the audience invited actively to participate, might also turn to the question of how to categorize "The Age of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt" -- the 1970's, so defined and delineated (1965-1980) by Professor Thomas W. Zeiler in his introduction to the recently published volume (see below)

to which Professor Cull has contributed. Perhaps a key question: How do the 1970s, from a public diplomacy perspective, relate to the 2010s?

The above scholarly volume, marked by an extensive use of archival materials, contains an essay by Paul M. McGarr, "Time to Heal the Wounds: America's Bicentennial and U.S.-Sweden Normalization in 1976."


In connection with Professor McGarr's article, here's the historically valuable excerpt from the interview with Mr. Baldyga about the Bicentennial exhibit in Poland (granted, not Sweden, but still relevant to the topic at hand):

By: The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
Foreign Affairs Oral History Project
Interviewed by: Charles Stuart Kennedy
Initial Interview Date: January 3, 2007
Copyright 2015 ADST

pp. 95-96:

While we were experiencing this opening governmental relationship, or the “Polish/US detente” and, while this surge of all these exchanges and contacts were taking place, the Communist Party Politburo was very concerned and uncertain on how to handle these developments. Specific directives were issued on how to deal with news regarding the Charles and Ray Eames designed “The World of Franklin and Jefferson” Bicentennial exhibition [JB - see] that came to Warsaw after its showing in Paris. The exhibit spanned 120 years of American history from 1706 to 1826. After Warsaw it went to London and then to the United States for a national tour.

The instructions from the censors stated that the only sources for information regarding the exhibition and the Bicentennial celebrations in the U.S. could come through information provided by PAP, the Polish press agency. It was OK to mention the role of Poles in the American Revolution, like Kosciuszko or Pulaski. The historical achievements of the American past were to be contrasted with the socioeconomic problems of the present. It was permissible to write about the exhibition but only if the positive could be balanced by the negative. The specific contents of the exhibit were never fully reported on. And photos were carefully screened. The problem for the censors was the contents of the exhibition itself.

We had huge banners scheduled to be hung, as it was done in Paris, of Jeffersonian quotes translated into Polish. All dealing with freedom of the press. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs requested that we not hang the banners. Our position was clear. No banners, no exhibition. The site of the exhibition was the National Museum. The director of the National Museum was Stanislaw Lorentz, another legendary figure. He had been director since 1936. And he was one of the principal figures in the restoration of the Royal Castle in Warsaw. He and I discussed the Ministry’s request to take down the Jeffersonian quotes. I informed Lorentz that we were not going to remove the banners which were an integral part of the exhibit. I said forcing us to do so would be an explosive move with a great deal of negative publicity for the Museum and for Poland. Lorentz said I should leave it to him to handle the matter. He suggested that he accompany me to the Foreign Ministry to discuss the request, not yet demand, that we remove the banners. Lorentz and I coordinated our presentations. After I spoke justifying the retention of the banners, Lorentz and I then engaged in a faux debate over some extraneous issues we had regarding the mounting of the show. Not over content but over how and where items were to be displayed as to minimize any damage to the Museum walls, etc. I said we and Charles Eames had leaned over backwards to accommodate the concerns of the Museum staff. Lorentz agreed. Yes, the Americans had made concessions. But I added we could not agree to the removal of the banners. Lorentz then said: “I agree. As an historian I cannot accept the tampering with the essence of the exhibition. If you force the removal of the banners I will resign as Director of the museum.” The Ministry officials were taken aback. They then assured Lorentz that the request for the removal of the banners was not a demand but a polite, diplomatic request.And so the banners were hung and displayed. I should add that Lorentz was fired as Director of the Museum in 1982 for joining the Solidarity movement.

The Exhibit opened on May 17, 1975 to nearly 2,000 invited guests. The largest such opening in the history of the National Museum. The Presidential representative for the opening was Governor Arch Moore of West Virginia. Also attending was the Administrator of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, or ARBA, John W. Warner, who came before the opening. We reported that the Franklin/Jefferson exhibition was the most successful and impressive show the United States had ever mounted in Poland. It remained open until July 9, 1975 when it then moved on to London. After the exhibit opened thousands of Poles streamed through the exhibit with notepads taking down the Jeffersonian quotes. The exhibit continued to draw record crowds until it closed. Many of the visitors were from other East European countries. Press commentaries were mostly about the magnificent design of the exhibit and the fact it contained a massive collection of documents and historical objects. But nothing was said about the banners. And there were no photos or quotes from the documents. Kultura, the weekly magazine praised the exhibition for demonstrating the heroic struggle of Franklin and Jefferson in their “revolt against a reactionary Europe.”

After the grand opening, Warner asked me if there was some place he could ride a horse since he had his riding boots with him. He said he knew of the famous Polish-Arabian horses and wanted to know he could ride one. The Poles were very forthcoming and arranged to have a horse brought to a riding facility just outside of Warsaw. I accompanied him to the facility where they brought out this fantastic looking animal for him to ride on. I and the Poles assumed that Warner would put his booted leg in the stirrup and hop on. He asked for a chair. The Poles gave me that: “We can’t believe it look” but brought out a chair. After a short ride, Warner dismounted without the help of a chair. He was exuberant. The Polish lady who was on hand to assist Warner whispered to me in Polish: “Bardzo mily pan ale bardzo dziwny.” A very nice gentleman but very strange. I hate to pick on Warner but in the press conference prior to the opening he gave a presentation as if he were appearing before a group of Virginians. The Polish journalists present obviously did not have a clue what he was saying about. Charles Eames then stood up and gave an eloquent presentation about the exhibit and why Poland was chosen as a site in addition to Paris and London.

While we had this fantastic show and opening, there were still reservations as to how far the regime was willing to let our presence be felt. ...


Reasserting America in the 1970s also contains a piece by Tesal Muir-Harmony, "Selling Space Capsules, Moon Rocks, and America: Spaceflight in U.S. Public Diplomacy, 1961-1979."

Here's what Mr. Baldyga has to say (in his usual admirably self-deprecating manner) on a matter (indirectly) pertaining to this USIA publicity/outreach on U.S. space achievements covered by the above-cited article:

pp. 18-22:

Q: Well then you came into the foreign service when?

BALDYGA: As I said earlier, USIA called me, gave me a Polish test over the phone, and asked me to go out to Warsaw in 1962 with the “Plastics USA” exhibition as a guide. So I joined USIA in May of 1962, and then converted to the foreign service in August-September when I came back from Poland.

Q: Poland in 1962, what was the exhibit and what were your impressions? “Plastics USA” and which was installed at the Warsaw Palace of Culture. the tallest and ugliest building in Warsaw. The Palace was a gift from the Soviet Union and the Poles generally hated it.

The joke was that the best view of Warsaw was from the top of the Palace because from there you could not see the Palace itself. USIA would organize these exhibits or traveling exhibitions for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. There were six of us, all Polish Americans. To prepare as for the exhibition, the Agency took us to plastics factories around the Washington area to learn something about how plastics were made and where we learned about the differences between polyurethane and polyethylene and got a general orientation about how plastics are made. But somebody in the Agency or at the Embassy forgot to expedite our visas so we missed the opening of the exhibit planned for July 4th. Someone also forgot to provide us information as to the precise plastic composition of the objects on display in the exhibit. So we ended up standing in front of the various objects not knowing what plastics they were made of. And as it was normally done at these exhibits, as guides we stood there for 12 hours talking to Poles about life in the United States but faking it in terms of what kinds of plastics were used in the exhibit.

We had an impressive space flight uniform from one of our astronauts on display, and people would ask me questions about what’s this and what’s that on the uniform. I would just make it up. I had no idea what kind of plastic material went into making of the uniform or of the various hoses and attachments. We also had a large plastic raft, which appeared to be of some kind of rubbery substance. The visitors to the exhibit would ask me what the raft was made of. I would say expertly that it was made of polyurethane. However I noticed that this one Pole kept watching me. I thought maybe he was somebody from the secret police or other special service. He finally came up to me and said, “Mr. Baldyga, I have been listening to you and watching you and you have got it all wrong. I am a plastics engineer and chemist. That is not polyurethane. It is made of polystyrene.” I said, “You know what all these things are made of?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Great,” and I grabbed him and took him all around the exhibit to tell us what kind of plastic was used in each item on display. I took him to dinner as a reward and he came by daily to chat. Another funny thing is we had Teflon covered frying pans and cookware on display. About two or three days into the exhibition, the Embassy received a classified cable instructing us to remove all the Teflon covered materials on display because Teflon was on the restricted export list. So we had to take all the Teflon pans and cookware out of the displays.

Q: That would be the non-stick.

BALDYGA: Exactly, which probably anybody here in the Soviet Embassy could have gone down to a department store and bought off the shelf. But for me the opportunity of talking 12 hours a day to hundreds of Poles from all walks of life was invaluable. And then in the evening we were invited to the apartments of students and others to continue our conversations. That was the most important part of the exhibit experience, the interaction with the Poles.

I was also doing some research for Professor Joseph Rothschild at Columbia University who needed some materials for the book he was writing about General Jozef Pilsudski, the Polish Statesman and so-called dictator, and his role in the May 1926 coup d’etat.

Q: Actually the main thing you were doing was not so much telling about plastics; it was just for an American who spoke Polish to get out there and be able to talk about the United States.

BALDYGA: We talked about social security. We talked about health programs. We talked about wages. We talked about living conditions. We talked about life as a Pole in Chicago or Buffalo or New York. In fact one of the fellow guides was Nicholas Rey who later became our ambassador to Poland.

Q: I have interviewed him.

BALDYGA: You have interviewed Nick. Did Nick talk to you about Plastics USA?

Q: I think so. I take it the great majority of people that you would meet there talked about their relatives in the states. Did they or not, or was there that connection?

BALDYGA: If they had a relative in a particular town, they would ask if you knew anything about the place. But they used to laugh that everybody in Poland appeared to have a relative in the United States. While they were very much interested in knowing something generally about the United States and where their relatives resided, they would also get into political discussions. One question that invariably came up was: “Why did the United States sell Poland down the river at Yalta?” I had one gentleman come up to me and he immediately started complaining about Roosevelt. He finally angrily said, “Roosevelt,” cursed and spat on the floor. I have never forgotten that because when I was growing up in the suburban Chicago Polish community, Roosevelt was “the greatest president” to members of my family and to all the neighbors. I discovered later that my mother-in-law was also a strong admirer of Roosevelt. And, so while everybody back home was raving about Roosevelt, here in Warsaw I had this Pole who hated Roosevelt.

Q: Well Yalta of course, loomed very large. The real answer is what did you want us to do? I mean what did you expect? The Soviet army was already there.

BALDYGA: Yes, that is true but to the Poles that was not an excuse. ...

Q: Well going once back to the Polish plastics exhibit, how did you find the people you met? Were they looking over their shoulders all the time? Did the Poles invite you to their homes or talk to you all the time? How did you feel about the security apparatus?

BALDYGA: We were, of course, briefed before we went about the fact that we were probably going to be observed very closely. Some people were clearly willing to take all kinds of risks to be able to mingle with the Americans. Especially the students. They didn’t care. The older visitors were more cautious. As I say I was doing research for Professor Rothschild at Columbia University. In trying to get material he sought I made the round of bookstores to look for books and manuscripts that were out of print. The Pilsudski material was generally not available as the Communist regime barred any discussion of Pilsudski and banned books and publications about him.

I would ask some of these older Poles if they knew where I could find a set of Pilsudski’s memoirs. Two guys began searching for the volumes for me. Eventually one whispered to me, “I have found a set of the Pilsudski memoirs. If you agree to meet me at the church on Krakowskie Przedmiescie on Sunday, I will give you those volumes.” So on Sunday I went to the church and sat in a pew waiting for him. He arrived and came and sat down next to me in the pew and gave me this bundle. I paid him a sum of money that included the cost of the volumes plus a reward for his effort. Then a couple days later this second
Pole showed up and said, “I have a set of Pilsudski memoirs.” In fact the first Pole only had four of the six volumes. The second Pole had all six. I bought this second set also since Rothschild needed the complete set. This second Pole suggested we make the exchange at a restaurant where most tourists did not go since the featured dish was tripe, or flaki in Polish. We made the exchange and I paid him a bonus for getting the full set.

I also had some meetings with Polish journalists and writers that were from the pre-war period and that Professor Rothschild wanted me to interview. I held these meetings but always with the understanding that I could be trailed and could be watched. What impressed me about the Poles was the defiance that you saw displayed in them and the willingness to take risks, and the young people particularly. I spent one evening with several students from the University of Warsaw who were very much interested in American music and American culture. The amusing thing is that one point in the evening, they said, “We have this one record; we can’t understand what it means. Maybe you could explain it to us?” I gladly agreed and they put it on. It was a recording of Jambalaya.

Q: About Louisiana.

BALDYGA: That is right, the food in Louisiana. The Creoles, we got into that. But that exposure to the Poles in Warsaw at the exhibition was only a preliminary step. When I went back to Poznan later as a Consular officer responsible for press and cultural affairs, I had the same kind of experiences in dealing with Polish contacts. ...

1 comment:

djk said...

Thanks for sharing this. It's interesting to hear perceptions of Americans coming to Poland when I was a kid! This was a very long time ago... :-)