Strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. 1980 (T. Michalak)

Strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk. 1980 (T. Michalak)

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ABSTRACT: Declassified documents show that information regarding the emergence of Solidarity, the reaction of the Warsaw Pact leaders, and General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s justification for his proclamation of martial law in Poland as it was presented to public opinion world-wide then and since, had little in common with reality in Warsaw and Moscow in 1980-1981. Not only was Soviet invasion and occupation of Poland never a seriously considered option throughout the 1980s, but the U.S. was fully aware of that. Records also show that Jaruzelski’s successor as head of state, Solidarity leader and first democratically elected president Lech Walęsa, received highly preferential treatment from the communist government, especially under martial law, and lived better than Poles outside the governing elite. This article examines the level of disinformation induced by East and West in equal measure for media consumption and justification of policy in a masterpiece of public diplomacy.

It is an axiomatic fact of realpolitik that public diplomacy carries neither a presumption of truth and accuracy nor of completeness and objectivity. It behooves us never to forget that it is first and foremost an instrument of advocacy, a means to an end. Its purpose lies in the state actor’s preference for low-level engagement as opposed to the cost, on various levels, of having to employ means more expensive by multiple criteria.

Among the tools employed, use of information reported by ostensibly independent media to the extent of creating factual disinformation figures prominently. It happened over and over in modern history that the creation of a smokescreen, a distraction, permitted a power player to conduct or justify in its shadow policies that would have been far more difficult to rationalize for public acceptance by other means. It is a strategy the U.S. does – and is still well-advised to – employ in a multitude of confrontations that have not passed the threshold of direct international military engagement.

During the 1980s, a time of substantial economic fortunes in the U.S., it was in the interest of the Reagan administration to maintain at all times the highest justifiable level of pressure on the Soviet Union it had labeled the “Evil Empire.” This was accomplished by maintaining the arms race at a level assured to be unaffordable given the flagging Soviet economy, through aggressive postures labeled as “defensive” such as the forward stationing of Pershing II missiles in Europe, as well as by inciting internal opposition by exploiting the incontestable issue of human rights. The latter was considerably more cost effective to Western governments than training, stationing and equipment of considerable additional military presence would have been – aside from the fact that the expected survival time of any military asset on the ground in the event of the Cold War turning hot would have had to be measured in hours at best and the preparedness of the European allies to accept significant casualty figures was superficially rhetorical at best.

The Human Rights agenda, embodied in the Helsinki process, permitted a complete reversal of this cost structure by causing the Warsaw Pact nations significant risks and expenses from within that, whichever way they chose to respond to it, would not allow them to look good and aside from that would undermine the level of political control their regimes were necessarily built on. The attractiveness of open societies and free markets provided the background for a chronic discontent[1] that allowed for the cost and sacrifices of opposing the regime to be shifted to domestic payers within the opponent societies—typically the young generation and intellectuals without a vested interest in the limited but not insignificant benefits of the communist system.

Because of the inherent attractiveness of capitalist societies—whose excesses remained considerably more tempered until the early nineties throughout the West by elements of a functioning welfare state despite the ideological opposition of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations—it was sufficient for the West to put pressure on relatively few and comparatively incontestable basic rights: the right to free flow of information and unimpeded access to it, the right to travel (which in many if not most cases implied the reality of defection of the most qualified travelers), and the right to peaceful association in order to participate in the process proclaimed by Marxism as its greatest achievement in the empowerment of the working class.

Poland presented itself as the most attractive proving ground for Western interests because of its strategic location between the Soviet Union to the East, the inherently unstable puppet state of the German Democratic Republic in the West, and the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic to the South that had been the venue of an ugly Soviet crackdown just a little more than a decade earlier. Steeped in anti-Russian enmity following centuries of Russo-Prussian partition and occupation, the loyalty of the Polish armed forces in the event of military confrontation could never be relied on realistically by the Warsaw Pact, to the extent that Soviet garrisons had to be kept as far out of sight of the local population as possible. In Poland, even communists attended mass, and the election of a Polish pope in the second 1978 conclave, along with the failed 1981 assassination plot of the Bulgarian State Security Service acting on behalf of Soviet interests, had created an atmosphere ripe for overt public dissent that, in a population of almost 40 million, could not be suppressed militarily at justifiable expense by the communist regimes.

The non-violent trade union movement Solidarność (Solidarity) did basically nothing more than take Marxist dogma at its word with regard to workers’ right to self-determination and unionizing. It did so with secure knowledge of the existence and political disposition of a large Polish diaspora in the United States, England, France and Germany including artists and intellectuals of international renown, and of the support of the global Catholic Church.[2]

This article will show how selective media presentation of facts and arguments concerning an allegedly imminent military crackdown by the Warsaw Pact was used by both the Polish military dictator General Wojciech Jaruzelski and the West, despite their factual knowledge that such an intervention was not feasible and, if it had been undertaken, would not have been sustainable against world opinion and embargoes, especially that the Soviet Union, aside from its chronic economic failures, was engaged in an extremely costly engagement in Afghanistan at the time. But it behooved both the Jaruzelski regime and the Reagan administration to incite a maximum level of rumors and fearful anticipation of a Soviet intervention in Poland: Jaruzelski was interested in it as a justification for his plan to declare martial law, a measure that could be expected to inaugurate the unstoppable decline of communist power when, not if, it would fail.

This is the only persuasive explanation for the preferential treatment of Solidarity leader Lech Wałęsa who was not only not officially detained, but also not deprived of any creature comfort as a “guest of the state” in affluent accommodations that included his large family. Wałęsa’s treatment with kid gloves was Jaruzelski’s hedge against likely future prosecution, as well as an astute act of ostensible avoidance of creating a martyr and incurring an unmanageable uproar in the international media. Records show that, if Jaruzelski committed treason, it was against the Warsaw Pact by taking a course of action he knew would in any scenario of possible outcomes irreparably damage Soviet interests while hedging against his own future historical and legal responsibility. The latter calculation succeeded as admirably as the first: despite multiple indictments, Jaruzelski, whose integrity with regard to personal benefits was uncontested, never was convicted of a crime and managed to retain a measure of respect as a former president of Poland at a critical juncture in the nation’s history. The interests of the Reagan administration do not require further elaboration. With Carter’s national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski still a widely known and highly regarded public figure, and with several U.S. Senators of Polish descent, advocacy for Polish democracy and liberty interests was a foregone conclusion in Washington as it could be counted upon to place an additional heavy burden on the Soviet Union in world public opinion. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, could not afford to publicly dismiss the option of a multilateral military intervention in Poland without in effect abdicating control not only of the country but also of most if not all of its European allies, as would become inevitable in 1989 as a further consequence of Jaruzelski’s two-faced strategy.

However, more than thirty years after the events, the time has surely come to set the record straight with regard to the facts as they are amply evidenced by now declassified archives, and to distinguish historical reality from however useful fiction and half-truths. Its work done, this masterpiece of Western public diplomacy has more than served its purpose and deserves to be viewed in light of the sole appropriate criterion: creating the mosaic of an unvarnished picture.

The boiling social unrest experienced by Poland in the 1980s galvanized by and organized around the Solidarity movement culminated in the imposition of martial law by the government of General Wojciech Jaruzelski on December 13, 1981. While much Polish research has focused on the internal causes and circumstances of this enduringly controversial political move, this paper places the events of 1980-81 within their larger context of East-West relations. Specifically, it investigates the circumstances of the first successful application of the Mikoyan doctrine[3] in Soviet foreign policy during that era by seeking a substantiated answer to the question whether a Soviet or Warsaw Pact military intervention had, in fact, ever been a realistic actionable possibility, given not only the internal situation of Poland but also, and more importantly, the entirety of existing and evolving Soviet relations with the United States and Western Europe as exemplified by the Helsinki Process. Credible evidence supporting the specter of a Soviet military invasion of Poland, to the extent declassified today, does not exist and Jaruzelski’s claim in numerous testimonies and interviews to that effect must be refuted as a self-serving myth calculated to secure his claim to power until 1989 as well as reasonably civil and lenient treatment by an anticipated non-communist government since 1990.