With Joe Biden’s trip to Poland making world news, join us for a look back at previous presidential visits to this fair city…
Dividing opinion, President Biden’s Warsaw speech at the weekend earned a largely enthusiastic response from the Polish public, but a more startled reception from more cautious-minded diplomatic quarters. Quoting Pope John Paul II, the President began his speech with the words “be not afraid”, before going on to underline the Polish capital’s role in modern history. “For generations, Warsaw has stood where liberty has been challenged and liberty has prevailed,” said Biden.
Moving on, the President’s fire and brimstone address appeared to call for a shift in global policy, before concluding with the powerful assertion that “this man [Putin] cannot remain in power.” Flashed around the world, political pundits immediately drew parallels to other great speeches delivered by American leaders on foreign soil such as Ronald Reagan’s 1987 call in Berlin to “tear down this wall”. Controversial to say the least, others have described the speech as “a catastrophe”.
Marking the twelfth time a US president had visited Warsaw, Biden’s appearance could yet come to be remembered as one of the most important presidential trips to occur in half-a-century.
May 31-June 1
For the first time ever, an incumbent US President visits Poland. Flying from Tehran, Richard Nixon’s Boeing 707 was met at Okęcie Airport by Henryk Jabłoński, the chairman of the State Council. The visit had not been approved by the Kremlin – who most likely would have vetoed it – and it is said that Brezhnev only got wind of it after a KGB report warned him that Nixon would imminently visit Warsaw.
Staying overnight in Wilanów Palace due to the shoddy state of the city’s existing hotels, Nixon held a press conference in the Europejski that was attended by around 480 journalists who scrambled to make use of the 16 teletype machines and 30 foreign telephone lines that had been made available to them.
Nixon had actually visited before, once as Vice President in 1959. That time, 50,000 onlookers gathered to see his motorcade and memories of this are likely to have played a hand in his relatively last-minute decision to visit in 1972. In between intense diplomatic meetings, Nixon visited the Old Town, wrote a check for USD 100 to aid in the reconstruction of the Royal Castle (then still a ruin), and laid wreaths at the Palmiry Cemetery and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
July 28-July 29
Up next, Gerald Ford rolled into town in 1975; met at the airport by First Secretary Gierek, the cavalcade then rolled down Żwirki i Wigury and Trasa Łazienkowska. Completed just a year previously, the development of Trasa Łazienkowska had been promoted as a sign of Poland’s engineering prowess, so without doubt the decision to direct Ford down this road was made with the aim of impressing him.
Huge crowds lined the streets, and with no American flags available in shops, people resorted to making their own DIY versions from dresses and suchlike. Staying just for one night in Warsaw, the whistle-stop tour included a visit to the Old Town and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as Polish-US negotiations to buy licenses to produce color television sets.
December 29-December 31
Visiting both the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the Monument to the Heroes of the Ghetto Uprising, Jimmy Carter went off-plan to also swing by Miodowa street for a conversation with Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński. Carter’s visit was notable for many reasons, not least because his press conference in the newly-opened Victoria Hotel became the first ever live and uncensored broadcast by an American president to be delivered behind the Iron Curtain.
The trip was not without amusements, either. Among other mishaps, the translator asserted that Carter had “abandoned America to come for good to Poland,” and that the President “desired Poles”.
1989 & 1992
July 9-July 11 / July 5
George Bush Snr. became the first president to visit after the political transformation, first arriving just weeks after the first partially free election had been held. Taken to Umschlagplatz – the site of Jewish deportations to Treblinka death camp – Bush and his wife met Marek Edelman, the last leader of the Ghetto Uprising, and exchanged hugs and handshakes with the crowd. Later, they joined General Jaruzelski, the leader who had notoriously announced Martial Law in 1981, to raise a toast for Poland.
Far briefer, his second visit to Warsaw was timed at precisely four hours and fifteen minutes and was undertaken so that he could be present for the ceremonial reburial of Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the piano supremo that became Poland’s Prime Minister in 1919.
1994 & 1997
July 6-July 7 / July 10-July 11
Staying at the Marriott, Bill Clinton used his first Warsaw visit to tell Poles that NATO membership was no longer a question of ‘if’, but a question of ‘when’. The following morning, Clinton went jogging in Łazienki (Prime Minister Waldemar Pawlak had politely declined an offer to join him). On his second visit, over 20,000 people descended on Old Town to hear Clinton speak in Pl. Zamkowy, with dozens reportedly fainting in the blistering heatwave.
June 15-June 16
Although George Bush Jnr. visited Poland three times as POTUS, only once did he stop in to Warsaw. Voicing his support for Poland’s proposed membership of the EU, Bush’s visit included a speech inside the BUW building in Powiśle during which he quoted from a song by the folk-rock band Golec uOrkiestra.
Drawing massive attention at the time, the President’s motorcade comprised of 40 Mercs whilst 150 people were employed to ensure every detail during his speech went to plan – according to Gazeta Wyborcza, there was even a worker tasked with checking the backdrop matched the color of the president’s eyes.
With every detail lapped up by the public, the best-selling newspaper also reported on the presidential dinner at the Palace on the Water: crayfish with chanterelles, guinea fowl breast roulade, roe deer pate with marinated porcini mushrooms and tartlets with vanilla cream.
2011 / 2014 / 2016
May 27-May 28 / June 3-June 4 / July 7-July 9
Obama had planned to visit for the ceremonies marking the 2010 Smolensk disaster, but this was disrupted by the volcano explosion in Iceland that put travel on pause. Instead, it wasn’t until 2011 that he touched-down. Whisked around town in The Beast, by this time the presidential motorcade had grown to include 51 cars and nine motorbikes. Meeting veterans of the Warsaw Uprising at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Obama also spoke at the site of POLIN, which was then under construction.
Returning three-years later, this time Obama’s visit included a celebratory dinner cooked by Poland’s first Michelin star holder, Wojciech Amaro, as well as a brief scandal after a video of him working out in the Marriott’s gym was published online. Quickly going viral, some raised security concerns. Last visiting in 2016 for a NATO summit, this time Obama demonstrated less warmth to Poland’s leadership and castigated them for weakening the constitution.
July 5-July 6
Enter ‘the Don’. It took twenty-three planes to transport the President and his delegation to Warsaw, with Trump choosing the Warsaw Uprising Monument as the location to deliver his keynote public speech. Praised by some for “the best speech of his Presidency”, the Washington Post was more critical and lambasted its content for being little more than “white nationalist dog whistles”. More charming was First Lady Melania who took tea at the Belvedere Palace before visiting the Copernicus Science Centre where she challenged a boy to race robots.
The Big Man
As a president Ronald Reagan never visited Poland yet he remains lionized here for his crusade against Communism. However, he did make the trip in 1990 during a 10-day European tour. Speaking in the Royal Castle, his 45-minute speech was interrupted ten times with applause most notably when he said: “I have always believed that, where freedom is, any friend of freedom will feel at home. And I have been waiting a long time to say to the people of Poland, ‘Today, on your soil, I feel at home’.”
Today, Poland’s fondness for him remains undiminished and as such those walking the capital will find a 3.5-meter tall monument facing the US Embassy. Erected in 2011, it depicts him during his epic 1987 speech in Berlin when he implored Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.”