The Approach of World War II: A View from the U.S. Embassy in Poland

Today’s post was written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.

The Textual Records Division is in the midst of a large-scale project to identify and refile a large volume of “orphan” records. These are documents and files that have become separated from their proper filing location or were never properly identified.

I have been working with files from various Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, dating mostly from the 1940s and 1950s. Among the records, I found a single 1939 file from the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, Poland. What makes this file special is that it is the only known pre-World War II file from that embassy. All other records of the embassy were destroyed or lost in September 1939, in the confusion after the September 1 German invasion of Poland. How this file survived is not evident, nor is it clear why it was not previously identified.


In 1939, Anthony J.D. Biddle was U.S. ambassador to Poland. He had previously served as U.S. minister to Norway and subsequently he served as U.S. ambassador or minister to the governments of Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Greece, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and Luxembourg in exile in London during World War II. In 1944, he resigned from his diplomatic position and went on active duty in the U.S. Army.

The records in the file document the embassy’s activities relating to evacuation planning during 1939, as tensions between Poland and Germany increased. While much of this documentation is duplicated in the central files of the Department of State, there is some unique material present. Moreover, reading through this file provides a unique perspective on the approach of war. The following is a small selection of documents and extracts of documents from the file.

Among the earlier documents in the file is an April 21 letter from Rear Admiral H.E. Lackey, the commander of Squadron Forty-T, enclosing a copy of an evacuation plan. That squadron operated in the Mediterranean Sea as part of the international neutrality patrol during the Spanish Civil War. As tensions in Europe increased, that squadron was in position to assist Americans in other countries on the Continent. The Admiral asked for comments or suggestions from Ambassador Biddle.

Letter from Rear Admiral H.E. Lackey to Ambassador Anthony J.D. Biddle, April 21, 1939

The Ambassador responded, noting that sea-borne evacuation would likely not be possible for the embassy in Warsaw and describing the possible overland routes, (Letter from Ambassador Anthony J.D. Biddle to Rear Admiral H.E. Lackey, April 26, 1939, p. 1 & 2 below).

In an effort to plan ahead, in late July Biddle sent representatives from the embassy to the city of Brzesc to determine if that place could be used as a concentration point for American citizens if hostilities broke out. As explained in a July 21 memorandum to the ambassador, that city was chosen because it was on the main rail line between Warsaw and Moscow (i.e.-away from the border with Germany). Railways from the north, south, east, and west crossed there, it was considered the “best and quickest means of exit from Poland.” During the visit, a large house and estate outside the city was identified as a possible evacuation site.

A draft memorandum of August 10 discussed evacuation issues. It reads in part (handwritten changes and inserts are in brackets):

     “Since the last plan for the evacuation of American citizens in the event of hostilities was drawn up, political developments have forced the Embassy to make definite arrangements in the event of war between Germany and Poland. Within the past year the German-Polish frontier has been lengthened by the occupation of Moravia and Bohemia and the creation of the “dependent” [Rep. of] Slovakia. It is obvious that in time of war this frontier would be hermetically sealed and it is also obvious that no exit could be made from Poland via Gdynia and Danzig which will undoubtedly be the scene of hostilities from the very outset. Accordingly, this narrows down the means of egress to the following:

  1. Via Hungary
  2. Via Rumania
  3. Via Moscow, or other railway junctions in Russia to Leningrad and Helsinki
  4.  Via Brzesc, Baranowicze, Vilna, to Riga and Tallinn.

     The first route, that is via Budapest, may be discarded not only because of Hungary’s political affiliation with the Rome-Berlin Axis and its possible entry into a war on the side of the Axis, but also because of the great difficulty which would be encountered by refugees in reaching safety from Hungary.

     The second route may be of some value in the event that other routes are closed, but from Rumania refugees would be faced with the necessity of making their way through the Dardanelles, the Agean, and the Mediterranean, which of course would be a part of the war zone. . . .

     The third route, that is via railway points in Russia to Leningrad and Helsinki, would undoubtedly be the safest route from the point of view of military operations, but it must be expected that railway communications in Russia, which even in peace time is none too reliable, will be disrupted especially along its eastern border. Nevertheless, it may be found necessary to use this route and if so, it would perhaps be possible to make the necessary arrangement and through-transportation through our Embassy in Moscow. . . .[1]  

     The fourth route, that is via Vilna and Riga and Tallinn is, under normal conditions, the easiest and quickest way of reaching neutral Scandinavian States. Providing there are no military operations along the Polish-Lithuanian frontier . . . .

     As the reports of the Consulate General show, it is almost impossible to estimate the number of American citizens residing in Poland. After the Great War and the re-establishing of the Polish state it is estimated that approximately 60,000 people returned to Poland from the United States, most of whom [had] either [been] naturalized as American citizens or were born in the United States. . . . [T]here may be as many as 10,000 who can lay claim to American citizenship. Most of these, however, it is believed, have no intention of leaving Poland and consider themselves Polish citizens. There may be [anywhere from] two [to five] thousand people who will approach the Embassy and Consulate General in the event of hostilities with [a] request for aid. . . .

     . . . . Warsaw itself, will, of course, not be a desirable place for the concentration of these individuals prior to their evacuation from the country and the Embassy therefore has investigated surrounding localities to the east with the view to establishing a center for the concentration of American citizens prior to their being shipped out of the country. Such a place was found about 10 kilometers from Brzesc which is on the main railway line connecting Warsaw with Moscow and is a junction of railways from the north, south, and east of Poland . . . .

     Since all railway lines from northern, western and southern sections of Poland converge at Warsaw, it is expected that many if not most of the refugees from these sections will make their appearance here, and an effort is being made to locate emergency quarters for such people prior to their proceeding to Brzesc. . . .  It is not intended, however, that refugees will remain in Warsaw longer than is absolutely necessary due to the fact that Warsaw will undoubtedly be a target for enemy planes. . . . It is entirely possible that a good number of refugees will be able to make their way to places of safety outside of Poland by train or otherwise before communications are disrupted, and although it is possible that hostilities may break out on extremely short notice, it is hoped that the Embassy will be able to arrange for the evacuation of certain Americans before hostilities actually begin. It is proposed that all American citizens in Poland be notified at once either by letter, by telephone, or by use of the local radio broadcasting stations when to leave and where to proceed. . . .”

Since there was a distinct possibility that evacuees from Poland could end up in Black Sea ports, on August 14, Third Secretary of Embassy C. Burke Elbrick, wrote to the American Export Lines in Genoa, Italy, asking about a schedule of sailing over the next six weeks:

Letter from Third Secretary of Embassy C. Burke Elbrick to American Export Lines, August 14, 1939

The response he received could hardly be considered heartening:

Letter from Lewis Hart, Passenger Traffic Representative to C. Burke Elbrick, Third Secretary of Embassy, August 18, 1939

On August 18, Ambassador Biddle informed the U.S. embassy in Moscow, USSR, and the American legations in Riga, Latvia, Tallinn, Estonia, and Bucharest, Romania, of the broad outline of the embassy’s plans in case war broke out, (Letter from Ambassador Biddle to Ambassador Steinhardt, August 18, 1939, p. 1 & 2 below):

This elicited the following responses from the U.S. Minister in Riga and the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow:

At 10AM on August 21, Ambassador Biddle sent the following telegram to the Department of State:

That same day, the British embassy in Warsaw issued the following statement to British subjects in Poland. The notice includes a wonderfully British euphemism for war.

Statement from the British Consulate General Warsaw, August 21, 1939.

On August 22, the embassy mailed the following warning to American citizens in Poland and then reported that action to the Department of State.

Statement from the U.S. Embassy, Warsaw, August 22, 1939.
Telegram from Ambassador Biddle to the Department of State, August 23, 1939.

On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland beginning the most destructive war in history.

Among the last documents in the file are the text of a September 1 radio broadcast and a September 2 newspaper notice informing American citizens where to go for assistance in leaving Poland.

Source: All documents come from file “300 Evacuation,” General Records Relating to Evacuation Planning, 1939, Entry P-1036, U.S. Embassy Warsaw, Poland, Record Group 84: Records of Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State.

[1] This was written before revelation of the unexpected rapprochement between Germany and the USSR reflected in the so-called “Nazi-Soviet Pact” of August 23. Under a secret protocol to that agreement, Germany and the USSR divided Eastern Europe into spheres of influence which involved the partition of Poland between those two countries and the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia into the USSR.

2 thoughts on “The Approach of World War II: A View from the U.S. Embassy in Poland

  1. I’d be willing to wager that file was carried by a person within the Embassy personnel as they were evacuating from the Warsaw embassy. This could explain why this one file survived and the rest of the records from the Embassy, probably originally intended to be removed, but never got out in time and destroyed by the war or the embassy personnel before leaving.
    Just a theory anyways.

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