Poland's Revolution as seen from the U.S. Embassy




The year 1989 began with a contentious Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR) Plenum in January that led directly to the Round Table Negotiations from February 6 to April 5.  Later, on June 4 and 18, Solidarity candidates won landslide victories in elections to the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish Parliament) and the Senate.  These elections were followed by a presidential crisis, then a presidential visit by George Bush on July 10-11.  In a year of surprises, the Solidarity leadership would pull off their most daring coup when in mid-August they orchestrated a Solidarity-led coalition in the Sejm, electing Tadeusz Mazowiecki -- a leading member of Solidarity -- as prime minister and forming Poland’s and the Eastern Bloc’s first non-Communist government since World War II. Ultimately, Poland would be overshadowed by events in Budapest, Prague, and Berlin; however, it was the Poles that led the way for Eastern Europe’s revolutions of 1989.

From the American perspective, President George Bush has characterized American policy toward Eastern Europe during 1989 as that of a “responsible catalyst.”  Presumably this meant that the U.S. worked to support Solidarity in its drive to become part of the Polish government, while pushing the Communists to give up their monopoly on power.  This characterization seems correct for the first half of the year.  However, shortly before the first round of elections on June 4, the U.S. switched gears from pushing for change to restricting the pace of that change.  Concerned that a radicalizing public and an increasingly anxious Communist Party could plunge an unstable Poland into chaos, Washington metamorphosed from a “responsible catalyst” to a “reluctant inhibitor.”  Thus during the crisis months of mid-1989, as Solidarity jousted with the PZPR for control of the office of president and then prime minister, Washington aired on the side of caution, working to restrict Solidarity’s push for power and attempting to insure that the Communists were not left behind.  When Solidarity made their final push for prime minister, the American’s were reluctant to take such a drastic step.  However, by that point in time there was little the U.S. could do as Solidarity took its destiny into its own hands.

Since the declaration of martial law in December 1981, the United States had three simple and publicly acknowledged goals: to obtain the lifting of martial law, to gain the release of all political prisoners, and to realize the resumption of an open dialogue between the Communist government, Solidarity, and the Catholic Church. Martial law was lifted rather quickly. But throughout the 1980’s the U.S. government worked both publicly and covertly to fund, equip, and morally support Solidarity to insure its continuing viability as a dissident voice. The Reagan administration also utilized economic sanctions and leverage over international lending institutions as both carrot and stick to pressure the Polish government toward negotiations and compromise. In mid-1986, the Polish government passed a resolution calling for the release of the last political prisoners in a mass amnesty, fulfilling the U.S.’s second goal. Following miners’ strikes in the summer of 1988, Lech Walesa and Interior Minister Czeslaw Kiszczak met secretly throughout the fall and winter of 1988 opening a Solidarity-government dialogue. During a heated PZPR Plenum in January 1989, the Communist Party finally acquiesced to the last prerequisite for further dialogue—the willingness to discuss the re-legalization of Solidarity. Most importantly, beginning on February 6, 1989, representatives of the Communist coalition,6 the Catholic Church, and Solidarity sat down around a donut-shaped, round table to negotiate Poland’s future. In the minds of American policy-makers in both Washington and Warsaw,7 events were progressing better than could be expected. For the first six months of 1989, there was no need for the U.S. to change directions or push harder on the ground in Poland.

This is not to say that the embassy staff was sitting on their hands; on the contrary, they were sending some absolutely spectacular bits of reporting back to Foggy Bottom, keeping Washington extremely well informed. Throughout the Reagan years, in spite of political roadblocks set by the Communists, John Davis and his staff worked to maintain contact and at least limited discussion with his Communist counterparts, so that by 1989 he had a healthy working relationship with the PZPR. More importantly, the American embassy worked to create and nurture intimate ties with the Solidarity leadership. Throughout his tenure in Warsaw, Ambassador Davis held frequent informal gatherings—evenings ostensibly spent socializing, watching recent American movies, and eating large batches of beef stroganoff or lasagna in the ambassador’s residence—allowing members of Solidarity to meet with each other and to talk with the ambassador. By 1989 Ambassador Davis had assumed the role of a close confidant and advisor to Solidarity’s leadership, allowing the dissidents to act as they saw fit but nonetheless offering his support and input on the most important issues when it was requested.9 More importantly, the embassy’s relationship with Solidarity’s inner circle gave American diplomats an unusually deep understanding of the situation.

The embassy understood what the Round Table agreements and impending free elections meant: an overwhelming victory for Solidarity. As Davis wrote on April 19 after returning from a 10-day trip to the U.S., “[The Communist authorities] are more likely to meet total defeat and great embarrassment.” Surveying the mood of the PZPR, the public, and Solidarity, Davis sent back word to Washington that Solidarity would win, and win big. While few others were openly predicting a “Solidarity sweep in the Senate,” Davis clearly saw that June 4 would be nothing but an outright victory for Solidarity. In retrospect, the U.S. embassy’s analysis of events in this instance, as in many others, was first rate and dead on.

In the two months between the signing of the Round Table Agreement and the first round of elections, American satisfaction was replaced with concern. On the eve of the first round of elections, Solidarity’s impending electoral victory was no longer a cause for celebration—it became a threat to the stability of the Round Table framework. Until this point, Washington and the embassy assumed that the elections would lead to a situation in which Solidarity and the Communists would lead jointly over the next six years with Solidarity gaining a full voice in the government only after subsequent elections—a slow transition toward political liberalization.10 In a June 2 cable, Ambassador Davis predicted a “nearly-total Solidarity victory” with the Party only winning 2 or 3 Senate seats. For the first time since the Agreements were signed, Davis even wrote about a possible “rejection of the National List.”11 In the embassy’s analysis this type of complete victory for Solidarity was not a positive development; instead, it “threaten[ed] a sharp defensive reaction from the regime.” A Solidarity victory was now a “specter of utter catastrophe” in which the reform wing of the communist Party could be humiliated and lose its hold on power within the Party, plunging Poland into uncertainty, a military coup d’etat, or even civil war.

By the evening of June 5, even the Party had acknowledged their overwhelming defeat. Solidarity had won 160 out of 161 Sejm seats it was eligible for, as well as, 92 seats in the Senate. More surprisingly, only 2 of a possible 35 Party candidates on the National List received the necessary 50% of votes to be elected to the Sejm. The specter of utter catastrophe still loomed large on the horizon, and the American embassy quickly became concerned that a crisis might ensue over the election of the new Polish president. According to American calculations the Communist coalition would have only a two-vote majority in the National Assembly. With expected defections by at least 10 Communist or Communist-coalition deputies, this gave Solidarity a majority. So, "the assumed election of Wojciech Jaruzelski as president will be re-examined by many" and that "if Jaruzelski is still to be elected president, it will only be with Solidarity acquiescence if not more active support." Because the election of Jaruzelski as president was an unwritten assumption of the Round Table Agreements, the embassy, Washington, and many Solidarity activists correctly felt that if Solidarity reneged on this part of the deal, the whole framework of the agreement might fall apart. Amid other signs of possible radicalization in the public sphere—Davis was particularly concerned with the low voter turn out and the public’s decision to disregard Lech Walesa’s pleas to accept the National List—it now became imperative to insure that General Jaruzelski be elected president. In a stunning shift of policy, the Americans were now campaigning for the Communist incumbent.

 In the next round of elections two weeks later, Solidarity candidates won the only Sejm seat they had not yet taken and 7 of the last 8 remaining seats in the Senate they were allowed to compete for, only strengthening the specter of a presidential crisis. Publicly, tension continued to rise with demonstrations occurring in Krakow calling for Jaruzelski to resign from the government. Privately, members of the PZPR leadership began to pressure American diplomats by stating that if Jaruzelski was not elected president it would effect the upcoming visit of President Bush. Still other communist officials made it clear that "military and militia officers indicated that they would feel personally threatened if Jaruzelski were not president and would move to overturn the Round-Table and election results."12 In direct communications between the PZPR and the Church, Kiszczak said that if Jaruzelski "was not elected president then we would be facing a further destabilization and the whole process of political transformation would have to end. No other president would be [listened to] in the security forces and in the army."13

In this increasingly tense situation, Ambassador Davis met over dinner on June 22 with "some leading Solidarity legislators, who had better remain nameless. "According to a secret cable sent the following day most Solidarity leaders felt that "if Jaruzelski is not elected president, there is a genuine danger of civil war ending . . . with a reluctant but brutal Soviet intervention."  However, most Solidarity leaders had also pledged publicly not to vote for Jaruzelski, so they found themselves in a jam and came to Ambassador Davis looking for advice.  In a rather stunning example of the type of close, advisory position the ambassador had earned within Solidarity, Davis jotted a few numbers on the back of an embassy matchbook to explain the “arcane western political practice known as head-counting” whereby a large number of Solidarity delegates might not attend the election session.  The Solidarity delegates in attendance could then abstain from voting because the Party delegates would have such an overwhelming majority. The U.S. embassy had moved beyond a policy of concern toward the situation and was now actively advising Solidarity on how to elect General Jaruzelski.

By the end of June with President Bush’s visit rapidly approaching, the newly elected government had not yet settled the presidential crisis.  In fact, General Jaruzelski began to show signs that he was not willing to run for election, further endangering the precarious balance.  As Davis noted in his June 23 Cable:

the General is determined that he will not ‘creep’ into the presidency.  He is understandably reluctant to face another public humiliation after the defeat of Party reformers on the National List in round one of the elections.  Consequently, Jaruzelski is doing his own head-counting and, if the numbers don’t come out right, might well decline the nomination.

Privately, Jaruzelski voiced his reluctance to run for president during the 13th Plenum of the PZPR Central Committee on June 30, confirming Davis’s fears.

On the evening of July 9, President Bush landed in Warsaw for a two-day visit which included private meetings with General Jaruzelski and Lech Walesa, a reception at the Ambassador’s residence, and the historic opportunity to speak before the Polish parliament.  In the words of the embassy, President Bush would “find himself in the center of the world’s most pro-American country,” nearly guaranteeing that Washington’s goal of utilizing the trip to show moral support for the reform process in Poland would be a success.  On a less positive note, Davis also notes the Poles’ “hopes [for economic assistance that are] certain to exceed our capacity to deliver.” n the private conversation between Bush and Jaruzelski at Belwedere Palace on the morning of July 10, however, a main purpose of his trip seems to have been to push General Jaruzelski to run for president. As President Bush recalls:

Jaruzelski opened his heart and asked me what role I thought he should now play. He told me of his reluctance to run for president and his desire to avoid a political tug-of-war that Poland did not need. I told him his refusal to run might inadvertently lead to serious instability and I urged him to reconsider. It was ironic: Here was an American president trying to persuade a senior Communist leader to run for office.
According to others present during the meeting, President Bush may have overstated the degree to which Jaruzelski “opened up his heart,” and the actual affects this conversation had on Jaruzelski’s thoughts are a matter of interpretation. But, with these recently declassified documents, Bush’s motivation for pushing a senior Communist leader to run for office becomes clear -- Jaruzelski was an absolutely necessary part of any new government if Poland were to remain stable. Similarly, when in public with General Jaruzelski, Bush’s body language was very open and positive towards Jaruzelski. Some observers have commented that Bush seemed more comfortable with Jaruzelski than he did with Walesa. In light of the fact that the U.S. embassy had been reporting for months on the increasing radicalization of the Polish public and the fear and concern anti-Jaruzelski demonstrations caused amongst Party members, it was completely consistent for President Bush to demonstrate America’s support for Jaruzelski -- anything less would have only increased criticism and upped the tension. A week after President Bush departed Poland for Hungary, General Jaruzelski became President Jaruzelski, narrowly winning victory in the National Assembly by one vote.

Unfortunately, before President Jaruzelski was even elected, Poland was already in another crisis situation, this time surrounding the question of a prime minister and the creation of a government. From the beginning, the U.S. embassy had assumed that the PZPR and its coalition partners would utilize their mandated majority to create a communist coalition government. On July 3 in the midst of the presidential crisis, Adam Michnik, a leading Solidarity intellectual, proposed an agreement that would allow the PZPR to retain the presidency while a member of Solidarity would become prime minister.20 The Communists countered this offer with their own compromise to create a “grand coalition” in which PZPR delegates would maintain control over key power ministries such as the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Defense, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In return, Solidarity delegates would receive key positions in economic and social ministries, as well as a deputy prime minister position.

At the beginning of August, however, Walesa openly rejected the idea of a “grand coalition” government, and Bronislaw Geremek (another leading Solidarity figure) stated that the Solidarity delegates would not support Czeslaw Kiszczak for prime minister.  Moreover, Lech Walesa and Solidarity leaders began to court members of the Communist Party’s coalition partners to join a Solidarity-led coalition.  Although a few U.S. cables had mentioned the possibility of members of the Communist coalition -- particularly the SD and ZSL -- breaking ranks with the PZPR and voting with Solidarity, the reality of the situation seems to have taken Ambassador Davis by surprise.  As he recalls:

What I didn’t predict, what I couldn’t predict was that the two satellite parties would be willing to break away and form a government with Solidarity.  ...  It was an item of doctrine with [the Solidarity leadership] that these were contemptible satellites that had no independent views of any kind and should never be treated as anything separate from the Party itself.  That was the general view that prevailed for many, many years.  And it misled us in the end, because [the ZSL and SD] turned out to have their own interests.  Walesa and some of his people saw this and knew how to exploit it...  It was a brilliant political maneuver.

Walesa’s coup was effective, and by August 7 Walesa’s work had paralyzed General Kiszczak’s efforts to create a government.

Four days later on August 11, Davis met with Kiszczak as the crisis came near a breaking point.  According to the cable, Kiszczak “explained that Solidarity’s latest proposal that it take over the government in coalition with the Peasant party and Democratic Party ... was unacceptable to the senior officers of the army and police and to the Czechs, East Germans, and Soviets.”  The interior minister continued, explaining that a Solidarity coalition was “regarded as breaking the deal made at the Round Table” -- something the U.S. had attempted to keep alive and viable at all costs.  Kiszczak even alluded to the recent events in Tiananmen Square, but he was not worried about a Soviet military intervention, only the drastic effects Soviet economic measures could have in Poland. Later in the meeting, Ambassador Davis strongly defended the U.S. against charges that the West was behind Solidarity’s push to take control of the government; however, he seems to have taken Kiszczak’s warning about the crisis very seriously.  As the cable concluded:

The clear message conveyed was that a Solidarity government is not acceptable at this time although they are more than welcome to take over a number of ministries.  There was also the very thinly-veiled appeal to the U.S. to restrain the opposition’s thrust for power, something which is probably beyond our capacity now even if we chose to try.  I fear that food shortages and price increases here have taken the situation right to the brink and it will take all the efforts of cooler heads of both sides to avoid a crisis with unpredictable consequences.

America could no longer act as the “inhibitor,” and this worried the embassy.

As events continued on their own momentum, the embassy continued to report back to Washington but received no guidance other than “to keep all lines of communication open” between Solidarity and the PZPR.  However, Washington did take Kiszczak’s warnings seriously, and requested analysis from the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, Jack Matlock, regarding the probable Soviet reaction to a Solidarity-led government in Poland.  Matlock’s response was really quite remarkable.  As the cable concluded:

The Soviet response to the Polish political crisis has thus far been restrained, and barring a major misstep by Solidarity is likely to remain so.  In keeping with Soviet “new thinking” in foreign policy, a strong reaction to Polish events does not seem to be appropriate. ...in the final analysis, although Solidarity may be a bitter pill to swallow, our best guess is that the Soviets will do so, if it comes to that, after much gagging and gulping.  Their essential interests in Poland will be satisfied by any regime, Solidarity-led or not, that can promote domestic stability and avoid anti-Soviet outbursts.

By Matlock’s analysis, Mikhail Gorbachev’s “new thinking” had superceded “fraternal assistance.”  He now believed that the Soviets were willing to accept a non-Communist government in Eastern Europe, so long as that government was not anti-Soviet.  Fortunately, Lech Walesa and Solidarity had played their cards perfectly up to this point to sooth Soviet fears by publicly stating that they would not leave the Warsaw Pact, and by recognizing the importance of a continued, positive Polish-Soviet relationship.  Most importantly, in this August 16, 1989 cable, the embassy in Moscow realized that the Soviet’s trump card in Eastern Europe -- military intervention -- would no longer be used.  Matlock understood that the Brezhnev Doctrine was dead, and the Cold War would not last much longer.

With reassurances from Moscow that the situation was not as dire as Kiszczak had made it out to be, the embassy in Warsaw took no new action. They continued to worry about the outcome; however, it is clear that the Solidarity leadership was now exclusively in control of its own destiny and was no longer turning towards their friends in the American embassy for advice. By August 19 an agreement had been reached for a Solidarity prime minister to create a coalition government with ministers from Solidarity, the SD, the ZSL, and the PZPR.  The crisis officially ended on August when Tadeusz Mazowiecki, a long-time Solidarity leader, was confirmed by the Sejm as prime minister and charged to create a government. With that, Poland peacefully ended nearly a half-century of Communist rule.

In terms of American policy, Ambassador Davis had successfully fulfilled the political tasks assigned to him and he requested new orders.  Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleberger responded, “Your next task is to promote and ensure the realization of economic prosperity in Poland, to include stable growth, full employment, low inflation, high productivity and a Mercedes (or equivalent) in every garage.” Although Eagleberger’s comments do not lack sarcasm, they are indicative of a fundamental change in American policy. For the entirety of the Cold War, the U.S. sought to promote free elections in Eastern Europe and see a popularly elected, democratic government take control. Poland succeeded first, and a major—if not the major—prerequisite condition of the Cold War in Europe ceased to exist. American policy was no longer to end Soviet domination and Communist control of Poland, but to take the next step to promote its economic growth and reintroduce Poland into Europe. On August 24, the Cold War ended in Poland -- the rest of Eastern Europe would not be far off.

Gregory F. Donber