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News > 1939: Former President Benes in New York

1939: Former President Benes in New York

Martin Nekola 24 March, 2018

The President of Czechoslovakia Edvard Benes decided to resign less than a week after the Munich Agreement signed on September 30, 1938, which handed Czech border regions to the German Reich. The betrayal of Great Britain and France, the Czech’s closest allies, on whose diplomatic and, if necessary, military support Benes relied, reduced him to a state of deep depression. After a few months in seclusion in Great Britain, he boarded the SS Washington which sailed from the port of Southampton on February 2, 1939. After six days at sea, he arrived on American soil, as a private person, invited to become visiting professor at the University of Chicago. Before he moved to “The Windy City,” Benes spent a week in New York City.

 

Edvard Benes after his arrival to the USA with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia.

 

Benes, together with his wife Hana and nephew and secretary Bohus, received a warm welcome from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and dozens of New Yorkers of Czech and Slovak descent. Benes spoke into a microphone on the steps of the New York City Hall: “It is one of the greatest pleasures of my life to be today on American soil. I have been since my student days an admirer of your beautiful country. Your struggle for freedom, your material advance, your intellectual development, the growth of your democracy and your political regime taught me how modern freedom was created.“


The popular Italian-American Mayor extended deep sympathies to Benes and shouted: “Those chiselers! Monsieur Daladier and Mr. Chamberlain!“ thus making clear his opinion about both participants at the Munich Conference which had destroyed Czechoslovakia. Unlike Czech public opinion, which often considered him the main culprit in his nation’s tragedy, Benes was seen with the utmost respect in the USA as a wise and prudent statesman who managed to choose the only possible solution, under enormous pressure from all sides.


Barely settled in at the Plaza Hotel, Benes met old friends, such as former Secretary of State Frank L. Polk; head of the American Red Cross Norman Davis; famous German writer Thomas Mann; the older daughter of his predecessor in the presidential office, Alice Masarykova; and Hamilton Fish Strong, the Editor of Foreign Affairs who had also arranged a dinner party at the Knickerbocker Club, followed by many other receptions and demonstrations of sympathy toward the abandoned Czechoslovak nation. Benes gave a lecture at Columbia University at the invitation of its President Nicholas Murray Butler. He spoke at the Council of Foreign Relations as well. One man appeared and offered Benes ten thousand dollars in exchange for a brief endorsement of Orinda bath soap as part of his public speech. It showed how popular and sought after Benes was and that his words were of interest to many listeners. Even this shrewd representative of an American soap company simply wanted to use it. Benes refused, of course, although this amount of money would be more than welcome for the needs of the resistance. There were warnings that Nazi spies might try to assassinate Benes, so he was always accompanied by two FBI agents.

 

Edvard Benes giving a public speech at the University of Chicago.

 

Benes' first lecture at the University of Chicago was delivered on February 17, the last on March 8, under the announced title The Consequences of the World War for the Democratization of Europe. He planned to stay longer, but the annexation of the rest of Czechoslovakia by Germans on March 15, 1939 pushed events forward quickly. He wrote a speech, which condemned the occupation as an international crime and encouraged Czech-Americans to help the old homeland again, as they had in the First World War. Jan Masaryk read the text a day later in front of ten thousand listeners in Pilsen Park in Chicago. In the meantime, Benes sent telegrams to the highest authorities in Washington D.C., Paris, London, Moscow, and to Joseph Avenol, Secretary-General of the League of Nations. Within two weeks, the sender received an answer from the man, in whose sympathies and aid he firmly hoped for, Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


The President of the United States invited Benes for an unofficial and private talk at his private residence in Hyde Park, New York, on May 28, 1939. The meeting lasted nearly four hours. However, it was kept in secrecy and no record was made. Benes received a promise that the USA would, if possible, seek the restoration of an independent Czechoslovak state.

 

The long prepared and awaited New York World's Fair took place in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park between April 30, 1939 – October 27, 1940. The Czechoslovak government had agreed to build a large pavilion (50,000 square feet) and preparations had already begun in 1937. However, geopolitical changes in Central Europe on March 15, 1939, changed the situation. As expected, the new German masters refused any presentation of their protectorate sovereign country. Mayor La Guardia stepped in, denying all sharp protests from Berlin, and supported a separate Czechoslovak exposition and even officially invited Edvard Benes to the World's Fair, where he received full honors as the head of state.

 

Edvard Benes by the Grand Opening of the Czechoslovak Pavilion at the World's Fair, sitting between Ambassador Hurban and Mayor LaGuardia.

 

Czechoslovak Ambassador to Washington Vladimir Hurban (left) and Consul General to New York Karel Hudec.

 

Edvard Benes reviewing troops at the New York World's Fair in May 1939.


The grand opening of the Czechoslovak Pavilion on May 31, 1939, included a satisfied, smiling Benes and Mayor La Guardia, the Czechoslovak Ambassador to Washington Vladimir Hurban and Consul General to New York Karel Hudec. There was a lot to see indeed. The Czechoslovak pavilion consisted of permanent agricultural, industrial, travel and art exhibitions, while ceramics, glassware, and textiles were displayed, and music, literature and theater plays were presented. A unique feature was an outdoor beer garden and restaurant with a seating capacity of 300, where native dishes such as roast duck with cabbage and dumplings, noodle soup or traditional cakes (kolace) were served. The famous Pilsner Urquell beer saw heavy service too, of course.

 

Czechoslovak Pavilion, New York World's Fair.

 

Interior of the Czechoslovak Pavilion.

 

Old Prague Restaurant, Czechoslovak Pavilion.


This was followed by an even more important and visible event, the Sokol Festival at Triborough Stadium on Randalls Island in the East River, taking place on July 2. Some twenty-five thousand American Sokols listened to a live speech by President Benes. The next day, it was secretly broadcast also to occupied Prague and encouraged its suffering public.

 

When Benes left to return to Great Britain on July 12, the pier in New York harbor was filled with people in colorful national costumes (kroj) and cries of “Glory to Benes!“ (Sláva Benešovi), a confirmation of the help for which the President had come to the New World. The long struggle for the liberation of Czechoslovakia had begun.

 

Czechoslovak legionnaires marching at the Sokol Festival at Triborough Stadium on Randalls Island in the East River, taking place on July 2, 1939.

 

All images courtesy of Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad - University of Chicago.

 


Dr. Martin Nekola, Ph.D. received his doctorate in political science at the Charles University in Prague. His research is focused on non-democratic regimes, the era of Communism, and the East-European anti-communist exiles in the United States during the Cold War. He is the author of numerous articles and has published nine books, the most recent of which are Petr Zenkl: Politik a člověk (Petr Zenkl: Politician and Man), 2014, Krvavé století (Bloody Century), 2015, and České Chicago (Czech Chicago), 2017.

 


 


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