Why Did Solidarity Succeed in Poland? They Took the Lead. We Didn't.


Gregory F. Domber is an associate professor history at the University of North Florida and the author of “Empowering Revolution: America, Poland, and the End of the Cold War” (University of North Carolina Press).

This week marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and American televisions will undoubtedly transmit scenes of West Berliners joyfully chipping away at the wall juxtaposed against snippets of Ronald Reagan’s speech imploring Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!”—a combination that provides a neatly triumphalist view of the end of the Cold War in which Reagan’s hardline policies and tough rhetoric brought the Communist system to a breaking point. With former Communist archives and presidential repositories opening up in the two decades since the fall of the wall, we can now see that in contrast to Reagan’s public rhetoric the United States pursued a much more humble policy that accepted the limitations of American power, working instead to enable indigenous forces who could promote American interests over the long term.

Nowhere is this pattern clearer than in Poland, the country that led the way during 1989 by pioneering the round-table pattern of negotiated revolution and forming the region’s first non-communist government, two months before the Berlin Wall symbolically collapsed.

Because of the realities of the Cold War in the European sphere, military means of pursuing American goals to undermine Communist power were off the table. Previous crises in Berlin in 1953, in Budapest in 1956, and in Prague in 1968 had proven that the Kremlin was willing to mobilize force when their security interests were directly threatened by revolutionary movements and that the United States was not willing to go to war to overturn geopolitical realities. The risks of direct confrontation were just too great. As Reagan’s secretary of state George Shultz explained, “You don’t want to lead people to do things that go beyond what you are willing to support. Because we are not going to have a World War III nuclear exchange take place.”

The best path forward, then, was to find local partners who could act in congruence with American goals. In the Polish case, the choice of whom to support was made for the United States by shipyard workers who created their own social and political movement in August 1980: the Independent Self-Governing Trade Union Solidarność, or simply Solidarity. Led by Lech Wałęsa, Solidarity did not call for overturning the communist system but instead focused on gaining greater worker control of the economy and strengthening pluralism in society. In a country where the state’s ideological legitimacy rested upon defending worker’s rights, the founding of an independent trade union clearly overlapped with American goals to weaken and transform the Communist system.

When the Polish communist party declared martial law in December 1981—killing a dozen workers and jailing 3,000 Solidarity activists—the Reagan administration imposed modest economic sanctions. While the sanctions did not hurt enough to get the Polish communists to reverse course immediately, the White House eventually embraced a step-by-step policy in which individual sanctions were lifted when the Polish government took steps to liberalize. For example, after Pope John Paul II was allowed to make a pilgrimage to Poland in 1983, Polish fishing quotas in American waters were restored and Washington stopped blocking negotiations for rescheduling Poland’s substantial debts to Western banks and governments. In 1984 funding for both joint scientific exchanges and regularly scheduled flights to Chicago by the Polish national airline were restored after eleven high-profile opposition figures were released from jail, part of an explicit quid pro quo negotiated in secret.

Americans also provided money and support to opposition members who had managed to stay out of jail. Spearheaded first by non-governmental groups like the AFL-CIO, Americans worked with a network of Polish émigrés operating in Western Europe to send things like printer’s ink, radios, early computers, and recording devices, items all meant to strengthen underground samizdat publications, the social networking and information apps of the day. After the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1984 Congressional money also began to flow, ultimately infusing just under $10 million into the cause.

The importance of this money, however, should not be overemphasized. The opposition movement had been strengthening since at least the mid-1970s (well before American money started flowing), and it drew more inspiration from traditions of anti-Soviet and anti-German partisanship stretching back to World War II than any anti-Communist statements from Washington. It gained more protection from local Catholic churches than from American diplomats. Nonetheless, American money did provide the tools needed for a small subset of the opposition to pursue their activities full time. Western money and material created a kind of full-time, professional opposition of underground printers, editors, and intellectuals.

Ultimately, however, what brought down the Communist system were its own economic inadequacies and political inflexibility. In February 1988, after years of chronic mismanagement and low levels of productivity, in an atmosphere of increasing inflationary pressures, and with no hope for an infusion of needed capital investment from either the West or the Soviet Union the Polish government announced price increases meant to rationalize the country’s balance of payments. Workers in the shipyards and across the country went on strike. While these spring strikes were easily broken, a second round erupted in the summer, centered in the country’s essential coal sector. Faced with signs that a new generation of workers had been radicalized, explicit calls for Solidarity to be legalized, and rising fears that the country might be nearing a breaking point (just like before the declaration of martial law), the Polish government decided to pursue negotiations. The Communists offered Wałęsa a deal: if he could successfully get the strikers back to work, the government would pursue direct talks with the opposition over Poland’s future. By the spring of 1989 these secret meetings led to the convening of public round table talks that set the rules for semi-free elections in June 1989, elections which the opposition dominated, setting the stage for Solidarity and its partners to create Eastern Europe’s first non-communist government since World War II.

The United States did not precipitate the strikes in 1988, nor did Ronald Reagan somehow inspire the coal miners to call for Solidarity’s legalization. These were domestic events based on indigenous factors. But the United States did empower an important segment of the opposition. American support fostered the growth of an opposition elite, a moderate group of activists who could channel the Polish people’s anger through political negotiations, and make the compromises necessary to insure that Poland’s democratic breakthrough in 1989 did not become violent or provoke a crackdown.

In East Germany, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Leipzig in October to discover that the state would no longer impose its rule with deadly force. Then a high-level Communist functionary bungled the announcement that travel restrictions would be relaxed in Berlin—an almost comical misstep that symbolized the larger ineptitude of the system. These were the key domestic events and forces that deserve credit for causing the wall’s collapse. Speeches and statements in the West only influenced events on the margins. Local leaders responding to local concerns deserve credit for what happened in 1989.

As Reagan himself acknowledged when away from cameras and teleprompters, “We did not envision ourselves as moving into a country and overthrowing the government on behalf of the people. No, this thing has to be the internal people themselves . . . . We could just try to be helpful.”

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