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A western in Warsaw

A Covert Action. Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland. By: Seth G. Jones. Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2018.

When on December 13th 1981 the Polish communist leader Wojciech Jaruzelski introduced Martial Law in Poland, Ronald Reagan, the US president at that time, was vacationing at Camp David. The interpretation of this fact still remains ambiguous today: were the Americans surprised by the decision of the Polish communist authorities? Or was the president’s weekend outing a demonstration of his peace of mind? This question remains unanswered, even though it is widely known that the defecting Polish Colonel, Ryszard Kukliński, had informed the CIA about the communists’ plans to introduce Martial Law. Why, in that case, did the Americans not warn the Polish underground?

March 4, 2019 - Andrzej Brzeziecki - Books and ReviewsIssue 2 2019Magazine

Evidently, the Reagan administration started supporting Poland and dissident Poles soon after December 13th. Numerous activities were launched including diplomatic pressure and sanctions, and the CIA began secret operations. The latter are the subject of a new book titled A Covert Action. Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland, which was authored by the American political scientist Seth G. Jones.

Cautiously and with great care

The Reagan administration held strong anti-communist views that characterised many of the people in the president’s circle, including the president himself. Reagan was also not the type of politician who for hours would deliberate over a policy problem. Conversely, he liked simple answers and quick action. As Jones reminds us in the book, he understood the world in black and white terms. He called the Soviet Union the “evil empire” while proclaiming “Solidarity and its ideology embodied the freedom that America represented”.

Jones further stresses that even before Martial Law was introduced in Poland, “Reagan’s interest in Poland had become deeply personal – even emotional.” Arguably, as Jones further notes, “for Reagan, the struggle in Poland was stark and vivid, like a Hollywood action movie. It had heroes (such as Lech Wałęsa and his brave band of Solidarity freedom fighters) and villains (the communist Jaruzelski regime and their Soviet allies).”

All told, in the aftermath of the introduction of Martial Law, Reagan decided to help the Polish underground. Clearly, such help could not be sent immediately, and any activities had to be cautiously undertaken and with great care. The Soviet Union and its communist propaganda had already been accusing the CIA of inspiring the Polish Solidarity movement to take action. It was thus necessary not to give them any more reason to make such accusations. Equally important was the fact that not all Solidarity activists were open to CIA assistance. Solidarity was, first and foremost, a Polish movement and not a puppet organisation steered by foreign intelligence. Hence, Washington refuted all ideas of direct aid as well as those suggesting the need to provide Polish oppositionists with arms so they could start a military resistance. Solidarity was a peaceful movement, and this, in the end, was its strength and attractiveness, and what brought it worldwide admiration. 

Support and trust

The US undertook activities immediately after the introduction of Martial Law. However it can be surprising to know it was not sooner than November 2nd 1982, as we read in the book, when “Reagan agreed to sign a presidential decree to provide money and nonlethal equipment to moderate Polish opposition groups through surrogate third parties, hiding the US government’s hand.” At first, the Washington machine was operating at a very low speed. The secret CIA programme of supporting Solidarity was assigned the pseudonym “QRHELPFUL”. However, once the machine was put into motion, it started to work, month after month, more efficiently. Overall, the CIA set two directions for its activities. First, the agency offered logistical support to the underground Solidarity. Second, many attempts were made to gather international public opinion around the Polish cause.

The US also supported prominent Polish émigrés who had influence in the country. Among them were the Paris-based Kultura, edited by Jerzy Giedroyć, and a journal called Aneks. The CIA managed to set up smuggling routes through which it sent copying machines, paper and money to Poland. Simultaneously, demonstrations of support were organised in the West. Altogether, almost 20 million US dollars were allocated in eight years to the QRHELPFUL programme, which from today’s perspective seems small. And since 1985, the Americans were supplying the Polish underground with video equipment and computers.

Significantly, from the moment the CIA operatives handed over equipment and money to its intermediaries (e.g. in Paris), the agency would lose control of the transfer. Hence, the whole programme was based on trust of those who were taking part in the transfers.

Beef stroganoff and lasagne

The final moments of the CIA’s activity in Poland were in 1989 when it assisted Solidarity activists during the election campaign. In the spring of that year, the US sent numerous materials to Poland, valued at 105,000 US dollars. It was enough to allow Solidarity to run a dynamic campaign. What is more, after the Round Table talks in Poland, the US Embassy in Warsaw – which, for obvious reasons, had not been active before – started supporting the opposition forces. As Jones writes, “The US Ambassador to Poland John Davis held frequent, informal gatherings with Solidarity members at his residence where they socialised, watched American movies and consumed hefty servings of beef stroganoff and lasagne.”

Not surprisingly, the biggest hit of the election campaign was a poster inspired by the western movie High Noon, in whichGary Cooper walks with a Solidarity badge and election ballot instead of a revolver. Even though, as Jones writes, “QRHELPFUL’s primary supporters did not expect that the programme would lead to the demise of the Jaruzelski regime, let alone the collapse of the Soviet Union or its empire,” the purpose of the programme was “supporting Solidarity as a ‘vital force’ albeit in limited ways”. The history, as we know today, ended happily – just like in a Hollywood film.

Jones, while appreciating the role the CIA played back then, states that “Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity, and the Polish people ultimately won their own freedom – not the CIA”. This statement could be further developed by adding that changes in Poland and the whole Eastern Bloc were possible because of the deep economic crisis in the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies.

Less money, more success

Jones compares the support towards Solidarity with the assistance that the US provided to the mujahideen fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union. Since 1985 as much as 250 million US dollars was spent on this cause each year. And yet, as Jones argues, the results of the support proved controversial. After the withdrawal of the Soviet Union, Afghanistan fell into civil war, and later the Taliban came to power and provided refuge to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida. At the same time, Poland managed to successfully implement economic reform and integrated with NATO and the European Union. Obviously such comparisons should take into account all the differences between Poland and Afghanistan.

In his work, Jones makes a few factual mistakes. For example, the correct name of Łuczywo is Helena, not Halina, while Joanna Szczepkowska announced the end of communism not on June 4th 1989, as it is written in the book, but a few months later. Those minor mistakes do not, of course, undermine the great effort Jones put into describing the events that took place. 

While describing the Solidarity leader – Lech Wałęsa – Jones writes that he had “an innate ability to reduce complex issues to simple words that most Poles could understand”. The same can be said about Jones. In just 300 pages he has managed to cover not only the history of the CIA’s support of Solidarity, but also the overall history of Poland during the 1980s. Additionally, by presenting two of the most important players in these events – Wałęsa and Jaruzelski – Jones has managed to skilfully present a history of Poland in the second half of the 20th century. To be sure, we can point to some simplifications, but for readers from outside Poland A Covert Action is a good introduction to Poland’s more recent history.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Andrzej Brzeziecki is a Polish historian and the editor in chief of the Polish bimonthly magazine Nowa Europa Wschodnia.

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