Papers of US Intelligence Officer & Diplomat William Tonesk Now Open

Thursday, May 21, 2015
William Tonesk translating for General Dwight Eisenhower, Warsaw, 1945 (William John Tonesk Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
William Tonesk with President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Washington, DC, 1963 (William John Tonesk Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
William Tonesk with President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Washington, DC, 1963 (William John Tonesk Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
William Tonesk translating for General Dwight Eisenhower, Warsaw, 1945 (William John Tonesk Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)
William Tonesk translating for General Dwight Eisenhower, Warsaw, 1945 (William John Tonesk Papers, Hoover Institution Archives)

The Hoover Institution Library & Archives has acquired the papers of William John Tonesk, a US intelligence officer with a distinguished career covering Eastern Europe and the Far East. Born in 1906 as Władysław Jan Toniecki to a Polish immigrant family in Schenectady, New York, his parents instilled in him a deep-rooted interest in Polish culture, language, and literature. During the years 1925–29, Tonesk studied English language and economics, receiving his bachelor’s degree from Union College in Schenectady. He then worked for two years as a supervisor for the International Telephone & Telegraph in New York City. In 1931 he began graduate studies at Columbia University, receiving a master’s degree in English and East European studies the following year.

Tonesk spent the next several years traveling and studying in Eastern Europe, including research at Charles University in Prague, Warsaw University, and the Jagiellonian University in Cracow, gaining a deep knowledge of European languages and cultures. While working on his dissertation on the Polish writer and philosopher Stanislaw Przybyszewski, Tonesk took a job with a travel agency, Raymond Whitcomb, Inc., as chief lecturer for global travel.  He moved on to Pan American Airways in 1940; by 1943, Tonesk had moved to the Office of Naval Intelligence with the rank of lieutenant. 

Tonesk’s first station was Cairo, Egypt, where he established contact with the military intelligence of the Polish army of General Władysław Anders, an army made up of former Polish Gulag prisoners evacuated from the Soviet Union into the British-controlled Middle East. His next post was Moscow, where he worked as interpreter for US ambassador Averell Harriman. In the second half of 1945, Tonesk was moved to Warsaw as aide to US ambassador Arthur Bliss Lane. Soon after, he began working for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

While in Warsaw, Lieutenant Tonesk organized the visits of General Dwight Eisenhower, in September 1945, and Herbert Hoover, in March 1946; most importantly, however, he studied the political situation in the country and reported to Washington.Tonesk grew increasingly disillusioned with the lack of appreciation and understanding by US intelligence authorities of the information he was trying to convey, so when Ambassador Lane quit in protest of the US failure to confront Soviet aggression in Poland, Tonesk soon followed. One of the most positive developments of Tonesk’s Warsaw years was his marriage to Xenia Krajewska, an opera singer and the love of his life.

After leaving the CIA in 1952, Tonesk served as a consultant to the Republican National Committee and directed public relations for the United States Travel Agency in Washington, DC. The election of Dwight Eisenhower encouraged him to return to government service via the State Department, first as political officer and analyst in Washington and then, from 1956 to 1961, as consul and chief of a special intelligence research unit in Frankfurt, Germany. From 1961 until 1964, Tonesk served as deputy chief of protocol of the United States. One of his sad duties was organizing the funeral of President John F. Kennedy.

During the decade of 1964–1974, the years of the Vietnam War, Tonesk was first a liaison officer with the Economic Commission to Asia and the Far East and later the first secretary of the US Embassy in Bangkok, Thailand. In retirement, Tonesk consulted with multiple organizations and corporations regarding business ventures in Eastern Europe, Asia, and the Far East. He also collaborated with his longtime friend and Polish émigré activist, Stefan Korboński, on multiple articles, letters, and editorials concerning the situation in Poland and the Solidarity movement. Korboński, whose papers are also at Hoover, was the last minister of internal affairs of the underground Polish government before its destruction by the invading Soviets. William Tonesk outlived his Polish friend by three years, dying in March 1992, in Tucson, Arizona.  The Tonesk Papers, some nineteen boxes of reports, correspondence, photos, and memorabilia, is a gift from his daughter, Xenia Tonesk King, a professor at the University of Arizona.

For additional information, contact Maciej Siekierski at siekierski [at] stanford.edu.