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

Communist proxies brought along from Moscow to impose Marxist-Leninist blueprints on the newly captive nations of the Soviet empire, which the Kremlin called the “Socialist Camp.” In March 1954, the Kremlin declared the Polish capital to be the headquarters of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact, even as millions of Poles, most of them faithful to the Polish Catholic Church under Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski, and many more millions of East Europeans, continued to seek freedom of religion, speech, assembly, multi-party systems, an independent judiciary, and other core rights of democracy denied by their Communist rulers.

Captive Nations, Victims of Communism. Anne Applebaum’s book Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, published in 2012, demonstrates in vivid detail how, behind the Soviet Union’s fortified Iron Curtain and its “shoot to kill” death strip to block escapes, Soviet military and intelligence forces claiming the cause of “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule, instead violently imposed Communist totalitarian regimes in control of all political, economic, and cultural life over captive nations and millions of victims of Communism throughout Eastern Europe. One of the detailed classic descriptions of the brutal Soviet Communist consolidation of its East European captive nations is Zbigniew K. Brzezinski’s 1961 book, The Soviet Bloc, Unity and Conflict. Over the next four decades of the Cold War, millions of people became prisoners and victims of the Communist way of life imposed throughout Moscow’s “Socialist Camp” and its Warsaw Pact armies. Hundreds were shot by border guards as they sought to escape through the Iron Curtain including the section at the Berlin Wall constructed beginning in August 1961. In addition, Soviet armored divisions and Soviet Special Forces crushed large-scale anti-Communist popular uprisings in cities throughout the “Democratic People’s Republics” of Eastern Europe.

Uprisings and Proxies. Major national uprisings against Soviet imperial domination included those in the capitals and major cities of East Germany in June 1953, Hungary and Poland in October 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Gdansk and other Polish cities in December 1980. The people of these and other East European countries, including the three Baltic nations (whose forcible occupation and incorporation into the Soviet Union the U.S. never recognized) were all victims of Communism. And while the Soviet leaders were less successful in making obedient proxies of the Communist dictators in Yugoslavia (Tito), Romania (Ceausescu), or the People’s Republic of China (Mao), each of these nations were Communist tyrannies ruled by dictators and massive internal security forces and each crushed uprisings against Party rule.

Reagan’s Inheritance and New Strategy. Such was the Cold War situation in Eastern Europe that Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter sought to moderate through the U.S. “détente” policy of the 1970s. Yet they had little or no success, notwithstanding false Soviet promises—especially concerning the Nixon-Brezhnev U.S.-Soviet détente agreements of 1972 and 1973 and Ford’s multilateral Helsinki Agreement of August 1975 in support of international standards of human rights. This was also the situation with the Soviet Union’s violations of international agreements and its violent warfare against its own people and neighbors that Reagan inherited when he became president in January 1981.

This chapter provides an overview on how Reagan and his national security team radically changed U.S. policy and the East European situation through a new Cold War strategy that stressed U.S. and Western pressure on the Soviet leaders and strong alliance with, and support of, freedom forces in the U.S. and abroad. In the United States, Reagan worked notably with the AFL-CIO labor union, Catholic Church leaders, and anti-Communist members of Congress. In Poland and abroad, he worked with the Solidarity labor union’s leaders like Lech Walesa and the Polish Catholic Church. In Western Europe, new conservative leaders like Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and West Germany’s Helmut Kohl replaced weak accommodationist parties and leaders and joined Reagan in his freedom strategy. Throughout Eastern Europe, Reagan worked closely with the new Polish Pope John Paul II (the former Cardinal Karol Wojtyla of Cracow, elected pope on October 16, 1978) and with notable dissident voices like Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, and Natan Sharansky and other major dissidents in the Soviet bloc. This coalition of anti-Communist leaders built on Reagan’s new freedom strategy to win the Cold War and pressed the Communist leaders to loosen visa restrictions, open their closed societies, and create a new path of freedom.

A Note on Pope John Paul II. The critical role of Pope John Paul II in changing the terms of the Cold War in Eastern Europe is beyond the scope of this book, but can be reviewed in a book published in 2010 by George Weigel, The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II: The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, and in a 1996 book by Carl Bernstein and Marco Politi, His Holiness: John Paul II and the History of Our Time. It should be noted that the Pope’s nine-day visit to Poland in June 1979 significantly helped to change history by inspiring the faith, courage, and resistance of the Polish people. (An example of his sermon/speeches

[Book pg. 460]