Polish Immigrants and Politics

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Though heavily concentrated in nine industrial states, Polish Americans did not, until the 1930s, begin to flex their political muscle. Language barriers played a part in this, but more important was the fact that earlier immigrants were too concerned with family and community issues to pay attention to the national political scene. Even in Chicago, where Polish Americans made up 12 percent of the population, they did not elect one of their own to the U.S. Congress until 1920. The first Polish American congressional representative was elected from Milwaukee in 1918.

Increasingly, however, Polish Americans have begun playing a more active role in domestic politics and have tended to vote in large numbers for the Democrats. Al Smith, a Democrat and Roman Catholic who was opposed to Prohibition, was one of the first beneficiaries of the Polish American block vote. Though he lost the election, Smith received an overwhelming majority of the Polish American vote. The Great Depression mobilized Polish Americans even more politically, organizing the Polish American Democratic Organization and supporting the New Deal policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt. By 1944 this organization could throw large numbers of Polish American votes Roosevelt's way and were correspondingly compensated by federal patronage. Prominent Polish American members of congress have been Representatives Dan Rostenkowski and Roman Pucinski, both Democrats from Illinois, and Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Democrat from Maryland. Maine's Senator Edmund Muskie was also of Polish American heritage.


Internationally Polish Americans have been more active politically than domestically. The Polish National Alliance, founded in 1880, was—in addition to being a mutual aid society—a fervent proponent of a free Poland. Such a goal manifested itself in very pragmatic terms: during World War I, Polish Americans not only sent their young to fight, but also the $250 million they subscribed in liberty bonds. Polish Americans also lobbied Washington with the objective of a free Poland in mind. The Polish American Congress (PAC) was created in 1944 to help secure independence for Poland, opposing the Yalta and Potsdam agreements, which established Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe. During this same time, Polish American socialists formed the Pro-Soviet Polish American Council, but its power waned in the early years of the Cold War. PAC, however, fought on into the 1980s, supporting Solidarity, the union movement in Poland largely responsible for the downfall of the communist government. Gifts of food, clothing and lobbying in Washington were all part of the PAC campaign for an independent Poland and the organization has been very active in the establishment of a free market system in Poland since the fall of the communist government.