Among the less helpful historical analogies that have been rolled out by neoconservative publications such as National Review, the New Republic, and the Washington Post since the onset of the Crimean Crisis are comparisons between what is happening now in Ukraine and what occurred three quarters of a century ago during the Munich Crisis. While anyone possessed of even a modicum of education understands that analogies to Munich serve more to obscure rather than clarify, it should hardly need stating that Vladimir Putin, unlike Hitler, is not an unhinged geopolitical revisionist who harbors a desire to re-make Europe to fit some demonic plan. And yet the tenor of the American media’s coverage of the man actually demands that it be said.
There are, thankfully, more apposite events than Munich which we can draw upon; namely the emergence of—and subsequent attempt to stifle—the Polish Solidarity movement in and around 1980-81. Most readers will recall that by the late 1970’s relations between the United States and the USSR were at their lowest point since the Cuban Crisis some twenty years prior. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 signaled to many Americans—none more so than the 1980 Republican nominee for President—that Soviet Russia viewed the Carter administration as weak and indecisive and was taking full advantage of the fact.
Three years before the emergence of the Solidarity movement in Poland, a novel by retired British general Sir John Hackett called The Third World War envisioned a catastrophic chain of events that began with a worker’s strike in Poland, which led to an invasion of Poland by Soviet troops. This, in turn, heightened the anxiety of NATO and Soviet planners, leading to nuclear war.
That scenario had a patina of plausibility at the time, but ended up—thankfully—being rather off the mark as far as predictions go, which begs the question: Why? There are two reasons: the first has to do with the character of the Polish insurgency; the second, with the reactions of Western leaders to the events in Poland.
The events marking the 18 months between the strikes at the Gdansk “Lenin” Shipyard from which the Solidarity movement emerged in August 1980, and the imposition of martial-law by General Wojciech Jaruzelski on December 12, 1981, are marked first and foremost by the character of the opposition movement. Adam Michnik—a leader of the dissident movement—observed at the time that the “maturity of the workers’ demands” manifested itself by demanding “a substantial change in the system of exercising power but stopped just before the limits marked by the Soviet military presence.”
As the movement’s popularity and political potency grew—by some estimates Solidarity had 10 million members or just shy of one-third of the entire Polish population, and the Soviets and their Polish Quislings grew anxious, Jaruzelski declared martial law; Solidarity’s leaders (Michnik among them) were arrested, and nighttime curfews and a ban on assemblies were introduced and enforced by tanks and armed vehicles.
What was not reported at the time, however, was that thanks to a Polish liaison to the Soviet military, Col. Rsyzard Kuklinski, the CIA and Reagan administration were well aware that Jaruzelski was planning to crack down on the dissident movement. Indeed, according to Prof. Patrick Vaughan of Jagiellonian University, Kuklinski, who subsequently defected to the United States, had smuggled out the details of a top-secret meeting on the forthcoming crackdown between Jaruzelski and his military chiefs held on September 15, 1981.
What was the Reagan administration’s response? Contrary to what one might expect in light of 30 years of neoconservative mythologizing, Reagan’s response was marked by an abundance of caution. As Jaruzelski, who assumed Reagan was aware of his plans due to Kuklinski’s defection, noted years later “we took the lack of reaction as a positive signal … do something but don’t upset the stability of Europe.” The Reagan administration responded with little more than some sharp rhetoric from Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and the suspension of roughly $100 million in economic assistance.
We know how the story ended. By the force of its moral prestige, rather than through the force of arms, the leaders of Solidarity were able to achieve a breakthrough several years later as the Jaruzelski regime—shaken by the example of Gorbachev’s reforms and a wave of labor strikes in August 1988—entered into talks with the opposition. The agreement that resulted from the “Round Table” talks of early 1989 was, according to the historian Jerzy Jedlicki, “a masterpiece of political ethics.” Solidarity was legalized and elections resulting in the ousting of the Communist regime followed in short order.
I believe a recounting of these events is relevant for a couple reasons. First, the nonviolent character of the Solidarity movement throws the character of the Euro-Maidan into stark relief. Solidarity—because it adhered to the principals of nonviolence—occupies a far higher moral plane than that of the Maidan riots which came to be possessed by an almost pornographic violence.
Solidarity’s leaders—perhaps due to be beneficent influence of the Catholic Church—seemed to take to heart St. Paul’s injunction against “doing evil so that good may come.” The so-called heroes of the Euro-Maidan—judging by all evidence—seemed to evince no such compunction.
And finally, the Reagan administration wisely limited its response for fear of provoking a wider conflagration with the world’s other leading nuclear power. U.S. policy towards Eastern Europe in the 1980s points to the wisdom of American engagement that is both cautious and cognizant of the national interests of all concerned. If only we had such a policy in 2014.
James Carden served as an advisor to the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission at the State Department from 2011-2012.