Conversation with Zbigniew Brzezinski, "The Roots Are Polish" by Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm - ATPC

Heritage: Articles Library, Stories


from The Roots Are Polish

by Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm

Aleksandra Ziolkowska-Boehm: - Could you please tell me about your formative years in Canada and how this period influenced your life. One needs to keep in mind that you spent most of your adult life in the United States, a country of your choice, while your roots are steeped deeply in the history and culture of Poland, your country of birth I believe you were 12 years old when you left Poland to come to Canada. What are your recollections of the country of your childhood? In your book “Power and Principle” you refer to a beautiful phrase from “Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron who compares the American South to Poland…

Zbigniew Brzezinski: - What kind of Poland do I remember?... What were my recollections?

First of all, I left Poland at the age of ten, not twelve. My recollections of Poland are manifold. I was a very patriotic child, and I took enormous pride in the development of the country. I was very pleased to see “Gdynia” built up and very proud that Poland has such a modern port. I was delighted to see the building up of “Zoliborz” in Warsaw and “Saska Kepa”, both examples of modern development. I remember the countryside, the river San at Przemysl, where I used to go bathing, my grandmother used to live there. I particularly recall the various annual military parades, especially those of May 3rd and November 11th. I was enormously proud of the Polish Army, I enjoyed watching it parade down the streets of Warsaw and like many people of my generation, I had enormous confidence in its military capabilities.

A.Z.-B.: - What type of literature had you been moulded by in those early years and in your youth? What types of books do you now read?

Z.B.: - As a child, I read the usual books on Polish history and literature. Now, my preference is to read books on modern history and international relations: my favorite subject is related to the events surrounding World War II.

A.Z.-B.: - One year after your family arrived to Canada, Europe drifted into war. You must have heard news of what was happening in Poland. However, your father was actively interested in the Polish struggle. I have heard, for example, of his valiant attempt to recruit volunteers for the Polish army in Windsor, Ontario. I know your stepbrother, Jerzy Zylinski did volunteer. How did all this affect you?

Z.B.: - I followed the war with passionate, intense interest. We learned early in the morning of September 3rd, and from then on we followed the events of war on a daily basis. Then when I was ten years of age, I followed the newspapers religiously. I would read all the daily dispatches which my father would bring home from his office notably the dispatches of PAT (Polska Agencja Telegraficzna). I visited military barracks in Windsor as the guest of general Duch who was a Polish commander of the newly formed units in North America,and as I looked back at the pages of my diary which I kept as a small kid I’m struck by the fact that I recorded in my diary not so much what I or my brothers or any parents were doing but what would have happened on that given day or did happen on that given day insofar as WWII was concerned. I would simply record in my own diary the events of the day and what was happening on the fronts. I was especially fascinated by what was happening in Poland and followed with the greatest dedication and personal sense the involvement activities of the home army.

A.Z.-B.: - You mentioned the diary. Your book ”Your Years at the White House” contains additional text (as compared with the English version “Power and Principle”) dedicated to issues related to Poland. It suggests it was based on a diary. Do you keep a diary? If you do, tell us since when? Will you publish it some day?

Z.B.: - I do not keep a regular diary, although I did when I was a child and a young man. However, at some crucial moments in my life I tend to dictate notes. I used to do that on a regular basis during the four years I spent at the White House. One day, somebody might be interested in publishing these notes. They reveal the process of coming of age, and the hopes and dreams of an American of Polish background.

A.Z.-B.: - In a review of your book by Joe Hall in the “Toronto Star”, you are quoted with having described yourself as a “Canadian-educated Pole who dreamed as a child of becoming a president of Poland”. Is this remark true?

Z.B.: - I think I did tell some of my friends, and I’m amazed that this would filter down to some Toronto reviewer that I expected some day to be president of Poland and please note, however, that these were child-like remarks made to some friends in Montreal with whom I was playing.

A.Z.-B.: - When the war ended, the political reality of post-war Poland caused your father to decide to stay permanently in Canada. What did you think about this decision? Did you think of Canada as simply the best place to live in under the circumstances, or were you already attached to the new country?

Z.B.: - I remember vividly the end of the war. We streamed out of our school and marched down the main street of Montreal. Everyone was waving flags mostly American, the British and the Soviet. Curiously in that paroxysm of joy I felt essentially sadness. I felt that Poland was again occupied, and while I anticipated a celebration, I went only through the motions. I did not have feelings of joy. As far as Canada is concerned, I did not begin to feel part of Canada until after the end of the war. The war absorbed me so completely that I was emotionally and intellectually involved primarily in Poland. It was after 1945 that I began to identify with Canada to appreciate its freedom, its enormous opportunity, and the fundamental decency of its people and its system.

We lived in Montreal, but I was not much interested in the affairs of Quebec until the late 1940’s when my father started to work for the provincial government and began to identify more and more with the aspirations of Quebecers. Eventually, I came to awareness that Quebecers were in fact second class citizens. Fundamentally, however, I mingled with the English-speaking Canadians, and I was not really sensitive to these issues.

A.Z.-B.: - Did you perhaps consider your stay in Canada to be simply a temporary accidental situation in which you found yourself because your parents happened to be here for a while. If this is the case, do you think of Poland as your true homeland and of Canada as simply a phase in your life? And do you think of the United States as the country which you consciously chose as your own, your own adopted “father-land”?

Z.B.:- You understate my attachment to Canada. I became very much a part of Canada, and I thought that Canada would be my second home. It was really a matter of chance that I ended up at Harvard and saw the enormous opportunities that were opened up to me in the United States. I become more actively involved in American life. Moreover to the extent that I have always been interested in international affairs, I felt that I identified more and more with the United States. I felt that America had the greater capacity for influencing world affairs for the good, and thus helping to fashion a more just international system that would therefore also help Poland.

Nonetheless, throughout I have felt always a deep affection for Canada, and a sense of identification with the country. Poland is the home of my childhood, the source of my historical and cultural identity, but Canada is the place where I first experienced mature consciousness, where I formed my first mature friendships and had my first romantic experiences; it’s the place where I really grew up. And that is something very precious.

A.Z.-B.: - So, the Canadian phase of your life was very important…

Z.B.:- What I would say is that my Canadian experience, especially my secondary and post secondary education helped me prepare to launch a successful career in the United States. It was precisely here, at McGill University, that I defined/developed my political interests and began studying the Soviet Union. It was where I found a new purpose in life. My orientation shifted: it went from being less focused on Poland and broadened to include international affairs which I found increasingly attractive. Also, the fact of me being referred to Harvard by McGill had significant consequences for me and was of paramount importance for my future direction.

A.Z-B.: – You graduated from McGill with an excellent academic standing. Did you ever think of pursuing an academic career in Canada, or had you always had in mind to go on to graduate work somewhere else? Did you ever think of studying in Europe?

Z.B.: - When I was studying in Canada, I decided to enter the Canadian Foreign Service. When I graduated from McGill I planned to study in the U.K. and even obtained a McGill fellowship to study in the U.K. I doubtless would have come back then from the U.K. to Canada and pursued the diplomatic career. However, in the last minute it turned out that not being a Canadian citizen meant that I could not take advantage of the fellowship to which otherwise I was entitled to and which I had won. As a result, I decided to study in the United States and went to Harvard. From then on my subsequent career, in a sense, took a new course largely dictated by the enormous opportunities first at Harvard and that then America offered.

A.Z.-B.: - If you had remained in Canada, do you think you would have followed a primarily academic career, or would you have tried to become involved in Canadian politics? Do you think this latter course would have been more difficult in Canada than in the United States?

Z.B.: - Had I stayed in Canada, I might have become the “foreign” minister of Canada. However, there is no doubt the process would have been a more difficult one than in the United States which is more accustomed to “foreigners” rising to the top. It is a less probable phenomenon in Canada but who knows; perhaps I might have spearheaded it.

I have a great sentiment for Canadian identity both directly and through my family. As I explained in one of my earlier communications, it is an integral part of my past, a very important phase in my naturalization and in the development of my self-awareness. And that means that Canada is very important to me in an emotional, personal sense, as a country which molded my political and cultural self identity. I am very much a product fashioned by America, Canada and, to a great extent, Poland.

A.Z.-B.: – The economic and cultural dependence of Canada on the United States is a well known fact. What dangers for Canada do you see in this reality? Canada does fashion its own cultural policies as is normal for an independent country. Nevertheless, it has been constantly wrestling with its “national identity”.

Z.B.: - Obviously such a problem exists, and many Canadians have given it a great deal of thought. At the same time, there are always certain advantages. Canada, if not located where it was, but let’s say isolated like New England, could be a much more parochial and increasingly sophisticated society and at least in part that is the consequence of the close interaction with the United States.

A.Z.-B.: - As a politician and a scholar, how do you think Canada will develop in the future? What do you think would happen if Quebec separated from the rest of Canada? Walter Gordon, the Minister of Finance in Lester Pearson’s cabinet believes that if Quebec does separate, Canada would become part of the United States within 20 years. What do you think?

Z.B.: - I tend to agree that the fragmentation of Canada would probably result in the accession to the United States of some parts of Canada. I think that it is important that Canada remain united and that Canada has a great deal to offer to the world. In the longer run, however, some form of loose confederation or relationship with the United States creating a confederative North America is not to be excluded given the trust of technological and cultural development. Any such arrangement, however, would have to emerge spontaneously, naturally and with full recognition of the specificity of Canadian culture and Canadian self respect and Canadian desire for sovereignty.

A.Z.-B.: - Due to your father’s activities you must have been familiar with the Polish Canadian community. What are your perceptions of that community?

Z.B.: - My contacts with the Canadian “Polonia” were relatively limited and primarily through my father. I admired the dedication and the determination of the first generation of Polish immigrants who struggled against adversity to shape for themselves a better life abroad and who in the process retained their links with Poland. I particularly admired the group associated with the “Zwiazkowiec” for they represented a genuine dedication not only to Poland, but to democratic principles. Later on during WII and afterwards, there came to Canada new waves of Poles better educated and they also immensely helped to elevate the life of Canadian “Polonia”.

A.Z.-B.: - How do you see the role of the Polish community outside of Poland in reference to its homeland?

Z.B. - It is my belief that members of the Polish community throughout the world are capable of helping their homeland to be a more modern, valuable member of the international community.

A.Z.-B.: - Could you give us some names of Poles living abroad who you admire most? What about their achievements?

Z.B.: - Jerzy Giedroyc, Czeslaw Milosz, Jan Nowak, and others. Their achievements are well known and speak for themselves.

A.Z.-B.: - From my recollections of a conversation I had with your father and the commentary in your own book “Power and Principle”, I know of your close and warm contacts with Pope John Paul II. How would you define the role of the Pope in Catholicism, in the world, after over 10 years of his pontificate?

Z.B.: - To me, Pope John Paul II is the first true spiritual and religious leader on a global scale in the history of mankind. Up until now, all religious leaders appealed to a limited audience both theologically and geographically. John Paul II overcomes these limitations not only by effectively and skillfully using the mass media, but also by the power of his personality and his deep spirituality.

At the same time, as far as the Catholic faith is concerned, the Pope strives to strengthen and rebuild the Church which has gone somewhat astray after the post Vatican II reformatory zeal. The way I see it, the Pope wants to ensure that the Church remains the guardian of faith, while preventing ecumenism from degenerating into indifference.

A.Z.-B.: - What I find striking in your book “Power and Principle. Four Years at the White House” is the loyalty you demonstrate towards President Jimmy Carter. Is loyalty your guiding principle or do you think President Carter does not deserve to be criticized?

Z.B.: - I think loyalty is essential especially among close friends. I believe I owe President Carter such loyalty, and I demonstrate it in the book. It is a pleasure to know you had such an impression. But I do not think President Carter is above criticism, and in my book I do criticize this administration.

A.Z.-B.: - You have reached the highest political position accessible to someone who is not an American by birth. How do you view the way in which you reached that position? Do you think of it as due to your own effort and action, a series of circumstances or providence? I am sure that you know the enthusiasm with which your appointment as President Carter’s security advisor was greeted in Poland.

Z.B.: - You’re very kind to describe me in these terms and I’m touched by it. I assume that my career is in part the product of very deliberate determination. I wanted to be able to influence events to melt though with action. I consider that the highest human achievement for me is to accomplish something positive for America, for Poland, for the free world, and probably for human kind. But obviously, you cannot achieve things you set out to do in life unless fortune, good luck, providence of a divine sort creates also the right moment, the proper opportunity. I was lucky in that respect. I intend to pursue my basic vocation in the future to combine thought action in the hope that it serves some good. No one can predict that opportunities will arise, but certainly my intent, if not to exercise power, then, to at least, influence events in the right direction, and that is a way of exercising power. Hopefully to good ends, and with positive purposes.

A.Z.-B.: - What do you most appreciate in people? What quality do you appreciate in yourself?

Z.B.: - Involvement and dedication, besides personal courage. I hope I do have some of these qualities.

A.Z.-B.: - In “Power and Principle”, this is how you describe the 1977 visit to Poland you made with President Carter...” I have to admit that, as compared with what I saw a few years ago, there has been a great improvement in the overall appearance of Polish soldiers; I find them to be more tidy and neat. Generally speaking, I can not escape a vague feeling of depression. The commanders seem bland, lethargic, lacking refinement. Women are stocky, pudgy...” What impressions did you have after subsequent visits to Poland?

Z.B.: - When, after the war, I went back to Poland for the first time, there was a shift in the definition of my identity. I realized that I was no longer a Pole, but an American of Polish descent. Subsequent visits deepened my sense of cultural and historical attachment to Poland, as well as a heightening on my awareness - the way I understood it - of my being an American of Polish descent. The element of conflicting duality that may have existed gradually receded.

A.Z.B.: - Nurtured in a household of rich Polish cultural traditions, were you able to pass them down to your children? And on account of your wife’s Czech background, hers as well? You yourself were brought up in a home where traditional values and culture were important. Do you feel that these values have significantly influenced your own life and decisions? Do you try to pass on any of those traditions to your children?

Z.B.: - The Polish traditions were very important to me in shaping me, and they continue to influence my life, my instincts and my spontaneous reactions. It is, however, very difficult to transmit these transitions to children whose mother is not Polish and who does not use her native tongue. My children, much to my regret, do not speak Polish. I’ve tried to make them aware of the Polish background. I had hoped to be able to take them to Poland, but unfortunately events have prevented that so far, but I intend to do so in the future. I certainly have tried to make them proud of their Polish origins and make them aware consciously of the importance of Polish tradition and history. But it is a difficult task. My hope is that as they get older they themselves will develop a greater interest and awareness of their own which make them find their own roots. Roots which obviously in a deep sense are quite Polish.


A.Z.B.: - In 1997, I asked Zbigniew Brzezinski about the younger generation of the Brzezinski family - what was going on in their lives? Here is the answer I received:

Z.B.: - As to the younger generation, you may be interested in knowing that my oldest son, Ian, having spent almost two years in Ukraine as a volunteer, helping the Ukrainians with their national security problems, is now working as the foreign policy advisor to Senator Roth, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and the recently elected president of the North Atlantic Assembly. He has been particularly active with regard to NATO expansion, especially as it applies to Poland and the Ukraine.

My second son, Mark, spent two years in Poland as a Fulbright scholar, both studying and occasionally teaching at the Warsaw University. He then went to Oxford, where he completed a doctorate, focusing on the introduction of constitutionalism into Polish democracy. His thesis will shortly be published. He is a lawyer by profession and has just resumed his legal career here, in Washington.

My daughter, Mika, is married; has just given birth to our grandchild and is very visible in Connecticut, where she is the national co-anchor for CBS television “Up To The Minute News”. She appears under her maiden name and is often invited by Polish-American communities to address them on special occasions. Her husband, James Hoffer, is an ABC-TV reporter, who has recently won several Emmy awards.

As you know, my younger brother, Lech Brzezinski, continues living in Montreal, where he works as head of a large engineering company, while his wife, Wanda (from Poland), has a medical practice. Their oldest child, Matthew, has become a newspaper reporter and has spent two years in Poland, and is currently reporting from Kiev for the Wall Street Journal. He has written some very controversial and interesting articles.

Brzezinski (left) and Aleksandra (right).

This conversation appeared as a chapter in the book “THE ROOTS ARE POLISH” (second edition 2004) published in Canada under the care and with the support from the Canadian Polish Research Institute in Toronto.

Menu to writings of Aleksandra Ziólkowska-Boehm:

This story is presented here with permission of the author. -
Share your article/story, contact: ATPC - Articles/Stories.