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

Two events set the stage for the dramatic emergence of Solidarity: one unprecedented, the other familiar. The unprecedented occurrence was the 1979 visit of Pope John Paul II to his homeland, a moment of immense national pride for the Polish people.

[Solidarity, an Independent Labor Union] The other event was a 1980 decree raising meat prices. Polish workers rose in protest, but instead of marching in the street, they remained in the factories and conducted peaceful sit-in demonstrations. The strikes spread and shipyard workers in Gdansk were joined by striking miners in Silesia. An electrician named Lech Walesa climbed over a fence to join the Gdansk strikers, and soon found himself [through Solidarity] negotiating with the government as the representative for more than one-half million workers. With patience, determination, and a refusal to be intimidated, Walesa and his negotiating team won virtually all their demands. Among the most significant: the right to an independent union, the right to strike, a relaxation of censorship and more freedom for the Church.

[The Gdansk Agreements of August 1980 and Soviet Intervention] The historic Gdansk agreements of August 1980 signaled an extraordinary, long-awaited flowering of freedom in Poland. Solidarity gained rights taken for granted elsewhere: It published its own newspaper; the state television network carried Sunday church services for the first time; new passport regulations enabled Poles to travel more freely; writers, scholars, artists and filmmakers began exploring a world whose boundaries had suddenly broadened.

Solidarity grew to a membership of 10 million: Together, union members and their families comprised a majority of Poland’s population. Farmers organized and won approval for a rural counterpart to Solidarity. At the same time, some 900,000 Poles quit the Communist Party, and dozens of corrupt officials were forced from positions of authority. Poland was a nation where freedom was no longer an abstraction, but a daily reality in the lives of millions. . . .

Publicly, the Polish government endorsed a dialogue with the representatives of Solidarity and the Church. But in practice they proved unwilling to implement their promises of reform and unable to reconcile themselves to sharing power with groups they could not dominate. In fact, the Communist Party was so demoralized and unstable that it could barely manage its own internal affairs. . . . For their part, the Soviets engaged in undisguised intervention in Polish affairs. They leveled a steady barrage of false or wildly overblown charges at Solidarity, repeatedly demanded suppression of the Solidarity movement, and conducted intimidating military exercises that underscored the threat of invasion. (headings added)2

Reagan’s Presidential Transition at the Time of an Expected Soviet Invasion. Reagan entered office at a time when the growing popularity and power of Poland’s ten million member anti-Communist Solidarity movement and its leader Lech Walesa reached a crisis point for the Polish regime, the Warsaw Pact headquarters in the Polish capital, and the Soviet Union. The stakes were high, and a Soviet military invasion of Poland appeared increasingly imminent. For Reagan’s Defense Transition Team and his incoming National Security Council team, a potential invasion ranked high with other crises (including the American hostages held in Iran) as a top concern that required serious U.S. contingency planning.

An Early U.S. Intelligence Estimate—January 1981. With the Reagan administration in office for only ten days, and no doubt also reflecting strong Reagan interest in the subject expressed during the transition, a new Special National Intelligence Estimate was issued on Poland on January 30, 1981, SNIE 12–6–81—Poland’s Prospects Over the Next Six Months, which covered information available as of January 30, 1981. Its key judgments address the historic challenge to Communist rule and the Soviet Union/Warsaw Pact’s rationales and military capabilities for rapid intervention:

The present crisis in Poland constitutes the most serious and broadly based challenge to Communist rule in the Warsaw Pact in more than a decade. Recurrent confrontations between the regime and the unions have moved Poland ever closer to the edge of Soviet military intervention. The main factors sustaining the protracted crisis—persistent union demands, factionalism in the Solidarity leadership and indiscipline in the union ranks, the continuing erosion of party authority, and the fact that Solidarity represents a massive emotional rejection of the way the party has managed the county—are contributing to an increasingly anarchic situation which no single authority seems capable of controlling. . . . We see no prospect for the resolution of basic tensions. . . . No coherent regime strategy has yet emerged to limit workers’ political demands and to stem the consequent erosion of the party’s authority. . . . We believe that the Soviets will not allow the present deteriorating situation to continue indefinitely. . . .

[Book pg. 462]