Chapter 19 - Taking on Soviet Imperialism in Poland and Eastern Europe

Secretary of Defense Weinberger: . . . Let’s not be mistaken. What Poland has now in Jaruzelski is a Russian general in Polish uniform. The Soviets are getting what they want. . . . We have to stop licenses. . . . This is a chance to seize the initiative. . . .

Haig: . . . This is the first time in my memory that we have a pretty solid consensus that the time has come to do something. What I had in mind is that we send Eagleburger to Europe to talk tough. Also, your letter to the Allies is tough and mine to the Foreign Ministers is even tougher. But if we decide here today to step away from incremental pressure, the pipeline . . . this is all a laugh . . . In Moscow, they are still uncertain. If you now slap on a full-court press, then [the Soviets] can say to themselves they have nothing left to lose. . . . We should not do this until we have, at least, warned the Soviets in an unequivocal way. We have planned for a speech on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. . . . We must decide that we are prepared to act.

The President: That doesn’t bother me at all. If we don’t take action now, three or four years from now we’ll have another situation and we wonder, why didn’t we go for it we had the whole country with us. I am tired of looking backward. . . .

Weinberger: My worry is that we will wait too long because a single Ally can hold us back. If there is moderation in the Soviet position, the way to find out is not to hold back, but to make the speech, then if there are no results, spell out the specifics of what we will do. This would be similar to the [INF] “zero option” speech.

The President: . . . What we should say is an overall expression of what we will do is an absolute quarantine of all trade as President Roosevelt had proposed in 1938.

Haig: . . . It will take three days to find out our Allies’ position . . . [Also] we don’t know what the Church is doing, but we might be in trouble if you come down too hard.

The President: We will make it known that this is what will be done if they do not release Walesa.

[U.N. Ambassador Jeane] Kirkpatrick: Mr. President, you must tell the truth. You must stand by the central core of this administration. The speech will be an important act. . . . You should receive the [defecting] Polish Ambassador—in front of the TV cameras. It is also time for a letter to Brezhnev. We must set this event in history. We need to do this vis-a-vis our Allies. We need to assure them that we plan to stand against oppression . . .

Haig: Let us make no mistake. This . . . is a matter of life and death for the Soviet Union. They would go to war over this. We must deal with this issue with this in mind and have no illusions. There are no “cheap runs.” . . .

The President: Remember, everyone stock up on vodka!9

Second NSC Meeting after Martial Law—No “Chicken Littles” or “Wringing of Hands.” The next day, an NSC 34—Poland meeting on December 22, 1981 began with a review of the situation, noting the close correlation of Walesa and the Church’s viewpoints and their joint negotiation leverage against the regime. Also noted were a Swedish report on possible Soviet-Czech military intervention on December 26; the reluctance of Zurich bankers to make a major loan to the Poles; and a range of Allied views on Poland (with the West Germans the softest). At this point, Reagan overruled Secretary of State Haig’s hesitation and spoke in strong “must have” language on the importance of decisive U.S. action. Thus:

The President: The thing that bothers me—the constant question is—that we continue to deplore, but isn’t there anything we can do in practice? Those “chicken littles” in Europe, will they still be “chicken littles” if we lead and ask them to follow our lead?

Haig: The answer, Mr. President is “yes and no.” They are not the most courageous people . . . but they have more at stake than we do. They are closer to Poland than we are. . . . We ought to be careful (with our demands) until we decide we want a break with them over this matter. . . . We will be in for a long, torturous period with the continuation of martial law and negotiations (between Solidarity and the Polish Government) going on.

Weinberger: Concerning our Allies and the stakes we have in this matter, we have over a million people in Europe. It is comfortable for the Europeans to do nothing. If you take the lead and give a strong speech, they will be in an uncomfortable (moral) position and they may be dragged along with our actions.

Haig: . . . As of today, on economic sanctions—and on some political actions—Europe would break with us.

The President: Well, Al, it seems to me on this we make up our minds on what is right to do. We say to the Soviets tomorrow, right, we will proceed with actions, without spelling them out—actions that will isolate them politically and economically. We reduce political contact; we do all we can to persuade our Allies to come along, unless and until martial rule is ended in Poland and they return to an antebellum state. We have to deal with our own labor movement. They are shutting off shipments to Poland, though church shipments are still going. . . .

[Book pg. 466]