September 25, 2020

Ukrainian American politics: Vote!

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“Wow! Very impressive!” is how Myron Kuropas in his recent column here described the “Ukrainian-Americans for Biden” ad on these pages which nearly 350 signed, including Republicans. (And me.)

For years, Dr. Kuropas was a top officer in the Ukrainian National Association (UNA); he is a lifelong Republican activist. Where he writes that President Gerald Ford appointed a Ukrainian as White House special assistant for ethnic affairs, he fails to note that person was him. He also writes that Sen. Bob Dole had a Ukrainian on his staff: that too was Dr. Kuropas.

Dr. Kuropas is a historian. His recent column describing Ukrainian American involvement in the U.S. political process going back more than a century was, as always, interesting and informative. Knowing the limitations of a single column, allow me to add.

Many of the first Ukrainian immigrants to America were indeed socialists, bringing their politics with them to an already existing movement here, issues resonating among industrial workers. No wonder. At the Ukrainian Museum-Archives (UMA) we have half a dozen yellowed monthly reports from 1912 and 1913 from the Ruthenian National Association (from 1914, the UNA) listing families who received insurance and noting the cause of death: “died in a mine,” crushed to death on the job,” “killed by a train,” “scalded to death on the job…” Every month, there were four to six industrial fatalities along with other causes: “died in childbirth,” “shot to death,” “infection” (work-related?), “tuberculosis” (could this have been black lung?). Some received insurance after losing an eye or a limb (also work-related?). The American workplace during the Industrial Revolution was extremely hazardous, even fatal.

Before the coronavirus, the UMA routinely welcomed field trips from Cleveland-area schools researching immigration. Displaying the insurance reports, we asked students: “Is it reasonable to assume that only Ukrainian immigrants were dying in America’s factories and mines?” The answer, of course, is no. So we point out: these are documents from America’s labor movement.

The Democratic message to workers in the 1920s? Don’t waste your vote on socialism. Get behind our party for labor rights, safe working conditions and Social Security. After the 1929 stock market crash and the Great Depression, Democrats ran against Herbert Hoover and Republicans for nearly half a century, creating the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Commodity Credit Corporation to support farmers, Medicare, EPA and other programs which today we take for granted. Democrats also promised to repeal Prohibition. There’s a wonderful photo at the UMA of hundreds at a Ukrainian Democratic Club picnic in Cleveland in 1933 with a bunch of guys in the back holding up beer bottles.

And yet, in 1933 in the midst of the Depression and at the height of the Holodomor in Ukraine, President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized Stalin’s Soviet Union. As Dr. Kuropas points out, that opened the door to Soviet espionage and influence in America, which Russia continues to this day – our intelligence services and the FBI warn that even now Vladimir Putin is working to undermine Joe Biden’s candidacy and promote Donald Trump’s re-election.

Back to history: after Pearl Harbor, America set aside the Depression for a national war effort against Japan and Nazi Germany. Ukrainian Americans were totally engaged. In May 1944 – a week before D-Day – a commemorative book from just a single parish in Cleveland, Ss. Peter and Paul, lists 500 members serving in the armed forces, asks for prayers and urges parishioners to buy War Bonds. There were hundreds of similar parishes. Most Ukrainians that year, no doubt voted for FDR, a Democrat.

Ukrainians’ politics changed to Republican after the 1945 Yalta Conference where President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill ceded Eastern and Central Europe to Stalin and the Soviet Union. Other ethnics with attachments to their own heritage agreed – Poles, Balts, Romanians, etc. In 1959, the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA) led the campaign to establish Captive Nations Week and challenge the USSR along national divides, which media elites mocked until, to the dismay of “experts” 30 years later, the Soviet Union collapsed along those very lines. The Captive Nations initiative solidified ethnic identity with Republicans during the Cold War, even as both parties devoted vast military/cultural/political resources and cadres toward defeating communism and the Soviet Union.

In 1976, many Ukrainians switched to Democrat Jimmy Carter after Gerald Ford announced on national television and then reiterated: “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe,” when it was obvious there was. Candidate Carter pounced on that absurdity and then as president announced that America’s policy toward Moscow would no longer be based on fear and launched his pivotal human rights campaign. Advised by his brilliant aide, Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter in 1979 orchestrated the release of dissident Valentyn Moroz from Soviet prison, rewarding the massive Ukrainian community campaign and re-energizing the global anti-Communist movement.

In 1980, most Ukrainians returned to the Republican fold, rallying to Ronald Reagan’s aggressive anti-Soviet stance, which he as president consistently articulated, most famously in Berlin: “Mr. Gorbachev! Tear down this wall.”

And yet again, an ill-considered public statement turned many Ukrainian American voters away from Republicans, this time when President George H.W. Bush in Kyiv in August 1991 exhorted Ukraine to stay with Moscow, just three weeks before the Rada declared the country’s independence. To his credit, that December President Bush recognized Ukraine’s independence, following a historic White House meeting, orchestrated by another UNA activist, Taras Szmagala Sr. President Bush lost to Bill Clinton in the subsequent 1992 election with larger issues deciding, but to his credit, President Clinton engaged Ukrainian Americans of diverse orientations in his pro-Ukrainian deliberations. I was gratified to attend White House meetings on this, including several with the president himself.

Now in 2020, the choice for Ukrainian Americans is between the most anti-Ukraine candidate ever and a lifelong advocate for Ukraine. Votes are critical where small margins in battleground states will decide the election. Ukraine policy is not only vital for the Ukrainian community but also to our NATO allies and their approach to Mr. Putin’s Russia. As if that weren’t enough, there’s managing the coronavirus pandemic; a Depression-era level of unemployment; urban violence; climate change-generated floods, fires, droughts, heat waves, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc. What now? Locusts? Frogs dropping from the sky? America is in chaos. Can we endure another four years of this? The solution? Vote!

Andrew Fedynsky’s e-mail address is afedynsky@gmail.com.