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Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, former president of Poland
105th Landon Lecture
March 11, 1996

 

Let me express my gratitude for the invitation to Kansas State University. For the hospitality received and the warmth of your reception.

I feel honored to stand today within the walls of so merited a university. My satisfaction is all the greater when I remember that Kansas State University has hosted so many eminent politicians, men of learning and journalists. Clearly, today's meeting is far from usual. Some of you perhaps look at me like some exotic or rather archaic animal. That is wholly natural. After all, it would have been impossible only a short time ago even to imagine the rate and the depth of the transformations which developed in recent years in Eastern and East Central parts of Europe. But they did happen. Those few years are a whole epoch when measured by the crucial impact they exerted.

Naturally, I shall focus my remarks on Poland's problems since I accept that self-examination should always have a personal starting point -- in this case, the Polish people. Above all, an assessment of our own shortcomings and errors must be made, though I have no intention to restrict myself to a narrow Polono-centric viewpoint.

Poland is not situated in a territorial vacuum on some uninhabited island. Indeed, the opposite is true. It lies in the most geostrategically sensitive part of Europe. In those recent years, Europe and the world were divided into two opposing political and military blocks. That meant that all internal conflicts inevitably led to external repercussions, reflecting on the climate of relations and the pattern of international forces.

Such was the scourge of those days. Which was why I found myself, to use a descriptive phrase, between the 'anvil' of internal conflicts and the 'hammer' of external danger.

Politicians, historians and men-in-the-street differ in their evaluation of the erstwhile situation. These differences are bound to exist for many decades to come. Perhaps even longer. Such is the fate of all controversial historical events. That is one side of the coin. The other, to which I attach particular importance, is the result of opinion polls held inside Poland. For years, now, they have displayed a decisive superiority of those who accept that the introduction of martial law was justified, over those who express a different view.

I must admit I spent much time deliberating how to construct this lecture addressed to the eminent persons present in this hall. Should I focus on the historical aspect? Or perhaps on the political? Or should I present my personal, reflective thinking? But everything is, obviously, important so I have to touch on each such aspect. But I am, simultaneously, counting on being allowed to expand on them when replying to the questions which you may wish to ask. That apart, I wish to focus my greatest attention on presenting my own stance on what I observed, felt and decided in that complex year of 1981.

The introduction of martial law was the most dramatic decision I had ever taken. And life had treated me harshly. I experienced my country's tragedy in 1939. My deportation to the Siberian taiga. Finally, the long front-line road I travelled as a young officer of reconnaissance units from Central Russia to Central Germany, from the Oka River to the Elbe.

I had to face up to many a dangers, often looking death in the face. Later, in the decades which ensued, I often had to resolve complex dilemmas. But that dilemma of 1981 was of a quite different dimension and of the very greatest specific weight since I bore the responsibility for the fate of the nation and country.

The civilized world, through literature, theatre and film is well acquainted with the perplexities which Hamlet had to face. But the perplexities of politicians are much less known and spectacular though carrying an enormous dramatic charge. I spent the weeks prior to taking the decision on martial law as in some horrible nightmare. I entertained thoughts of suicide. So what held me back? The sense of responsibility for my family, friends and country; the awareness that suicide would be a form of desertion unworthy of an old soldier.

You might well ask -- why was another way out of the situation not found? Who carries the blame for that?. My reply is -- everyone and no one. "Everyone" since all parties: the authorities and "Solidarnosc" committed errors, though each evaluates them to differing extents. "No one" -- since such is the outcome of assessing the realities of the internal situation and erstwhile international conditions. Karl Marx, an author who is, admittedly unfashionable today, wrote in his "Louis Bonaparte's Eighteenth Brumaire," "People create their history by themselves but do not create it freely, nor in circumstances they themselves have chosen, but in those in which they directly find themselves, which were given them and inherited by them." End of quotation. So, what were the circumstances in which the history of 1981 was created? It was very much something of a political, social and economic earthquake for which we were quite unprepared. Government and "Solidarnosc" were miles apart. The high temperature of the conflict raised an emotional barrier between us and darkened what could have been a rational picture.

The most important thing is to hit the bull's-eye at the historically most appropriate moment. Which is why all opportunist dilatory foot-dragging is intolerable. But any historical false starts and voluntaristic acceleration are also dangerous. Grain and fruit and also society must have time to ripen, especially the home politicus. How much time it took and how much blood was shed for Ortega's agreement with Chamorro, De Klerk's with Mandela, Arafat's with Rabin, to come to fruition. Time was also required for Jaruzelski's agreement with Walesa to mature.

I would like you treat this personification in symbolic terms since neither Walesa nor Jaruzelski acted alone but in specific political formations, in concrete psychological, social and economic conditions.

"Solidarnosc" clearly enjoys historical merits. But it was a movement of many millions and also a conglomerate of diverse orientations, from right-wing nationalist to extreme left-wing populist. It boasted moderate, realistic members but there were also extreme currents. And it was those which gained an increasingly strong and predominant position. This movement was cemented and bonded by the struggle with the system. When the system collapsed, "Solidarnosc" disintegrated into numerous mutally combatant political groupings. That was, I have to state, one of the reasons for the election successes registered by left-wing forces in recent years.

The authorities of the Polish People's Republic, pro-socialist forces in the widest meaning of the terms, were also no homogenous organism. It included reformatory, democratic circles, of which Jerzy Wiatr -- member of Parliament and minister of national education who is present here today -- was a leading representative.

But active and influential, dogmatic, conservative circles also existed. Even worse, some of these cooperated in various ways with our neighbors and even exhorted them to intervene in Poland. This, in effect, was tantamount to treason. One must regret that it was difficult give sufficient proof of this in those days. You must remember that we were within the block of states where real socialism was the prevailing feature. Such was the outcome of the post-war division of Europe. A sick division. Even so, I accepted our place in the Warsaw Pact as the optimal solution for Poland, particularly as regards the inviolability of our frontiers.

One can always change one's views. I also have fundamentally changed mine, not only in theory but in practice. It may sound immodest but I must say that as the initiator of the "round table" and, next, as president of the Republic of Poland, I effectively contributed to the dismantling of the old system. I am not trying to claim that I differed from what I really was during the period of real socialism. Such is an elementary requirement of political credibility.

I am saying this to avoid any suspicion that I want to defend, at no matter what price, the decisions I took. Martial law was an evil which resulted in various human vexations and sufferings which I very much regret. But even so, they were a lesser evil than the multidimensional catastrophe which faced us as a very real danger.

Jacek Kuron, a leading representative of the erstwhile opposition, once said: "Solidarnosc is like a train which travels around the country outside the timetable. So a major crash is inevitable, sooner or later." I would like, at this point, to use a metaphor of my own construction. A train is travelling fast in a fog. The rails are unstable and increasingly shaky. The train could jump the track. The train driver suddenly puts on the brakes. The passengers are thrown around in shock. A number are bruised and injured. But they have all survived! The track is repaired. The fog lifts. The train continues on its way, to reach its safe destination, the "round table."

How did that track become so unstable. It was a devilish coincidence of causes, facts and circumstances. The situation in Poland was becoming increasingly dangerous. All the erstwhile dangers accumulated and intensified in the closing weeks of 1981. Anarchy and chaos prevailed. The structures of the state were paralyzed. "Solidarnosc" rejected our offer to reach accord. A general strike was imminent. Huge demonstrations were planned for the 17th December in Warsaw and several other cities. Emotions were explosive and spiralling. "The petrol had been spilled." All that was needed was an innocent incident, not to suggest provocation, for those demonstrations to explode into something similar to what happened in Budapest in 1956.

The economy had become the scene of political infighting. Industrial production plummeted. The shops were empty. We were staring hunger, cold and blackout in the face. Events were developing at a furious pace, like some huge foaming river in spate.

The situation had got completely out of control, the government, the "Solidarnosc" leadership and the Church's authority proving futile. The extreme forces within "Solidarnosc" had imposed a radical course of events, while conservative groupings within the organs of government were unable to compromise. A coup d'etat, even, was possible. They were counting, not without grounds, on assistance from the Soviet Union and other countries of this block.

It is not difficult, with hindsight, to speculate theoretically and "to discover miraculous solutions." But the realities and practice of those days were enormously complex. No ideal way out existed; there could only be a greater or lesser evil. In politics, one speaks of a disaster of historical dimensions; of defeat of strategical dimensions; of a setback of tactical dimensions. The latter are part and parcel of each and every government, but should they not be too numerous and not become a negative process, they may be painful but not serious in final outcome.

Strategical defeat does not have always to be related to a specific decision, act or fact. I would situate the inability to reach national concord before the 13th December 1981 among such defeats. Finally, a historical disaster occurs when its national effects are of enormous specific weight and are, primarily, irrevocable while being soaked in a river of spilled blood. Should you ask whether we in Poland successfully passed our historical exam, I again have to reply both yes and no. "No" because -- as I have already mentioned -- we proved unable, incapable of finding accord. "Yes" because we passed through those turbulent times without greater casualties, without burning the bridges towards future positive solutions.

Indeed, the opposite is true. We were gradually creating the bridgeheads for the reforms which lay ahead. We were in the group of their forerunners. The outcome was that when Gorbachev appeared we had become something of a perestroika laboratory and, in the late 1980s, the motive force and pattern for transformations throughout the whole region.

To recapitulate one could say that we were all losers when we found ourselves unable to reach accord and avoid martial law. Though it was no catastrophe, it was a transient, lesser evil. But in the longer time dimension we were all winners. The nation, Poland and peace in Europe had won.

You have the right to ask whether the role and responsibility of government and "Solidarnosc" can be situated on one plane. After all, government was defending a state of limited sovereignty, of a stunted democracy, of poor economic effectiveness. "Solidarnosc" fought against that state and, in consequence, was reaching for the reins of government.

My reply is that 1980 and 1981 were a period of enormous ferment. All, from the far left to the far right, government and opposition, accepted that changes were imperative. The drama lay in the government footdragging and offering too little, while "Solidarnosc" was moving too fast and demanding too much. And all that was happening in a concrete historical moment. It was in 1980 and 1981 that East-West relations deteriorated yet again. Poland became something of a testing ground for that process.

I am a military professional. In my office as government prime minister and minister of defense, a large map hung on the wall. I often used to study it intently. The divisions in Europe and the world were clearly visible. "A" had been declared in Yalta and Potsdam. The Brezhnev doctrine was a "B" of fatal consequences. I knew many Soviet marshals and generals. Some were my friends. They also could read maps. I knew, full well that there was a limit beyond which the Polish "schism" and the "Polish heretic road" could not and would not be tolerated.

Let it not be thought that I am looking for some simple self-justification. I never claimed that the Soviet Union was quivering with the desire for military intervention in Poland. This for them, too, was a black scenario. But to lose Poland as an exceptionally important, indeed crucial, link within the block was even darker. I would, at this moment point to a place in Alexander Haig's book "Caveat, Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy" where he says that Poland, to the Soviet Union was a casus belli, an issue for which it was ready to go to war.

The Poles cannot alone become the masters of their own fate, he suggested, as long as the USSR holds superior power and opposes it. There was never any doubt that the universal movement in Poland would be strangled by the USSR. The only question was when and with what degree of brutality would that happen, claimed Aleander Haig.

In turn, Zbigniew Brzeinski, in his book "Game Plan," wrote that for the Soviets, to rule Poland was the key to control East Europe. Poland's geostrategical importance, he remarked, exceeds the fact that it lies on the way to Germany. Moscow needed to exert rule of Poland, also because that made it easier to control Czechoslovakia and Hungary and isolated non-Russian minorities in the Soviet Union from western influence. A Poland with greater autonomy would undermine control of Lithuania and Ukraine.

The 37 million strong Poland was the largest East European country under Soviet rule, its armed forces being the Warsaw Pact's largest non-Soviet army. That position, wrote Brzezinski, cost Moscow a lot but would cost it even more were it to relinquish it. So much Zbigniew Brzezinski's thinking. It is significant that book was published in 1987, when the international situation was incomparably better than in 1981.

I was fully aware of the situation. I was subject to a continuous wave of grievances, accusations and threats in which not only the Soviet voice was audible. It was amplified by non-stop barracking, particularly from the GDR (East Germany) and Czechoslovakia. I shall never forget the dramatic meeting I had with Marshal Dymitr Ustinov, Soviet defense minister, during the wide-flung "West 81" maneuvers held in September 1981 near Poland's eastern and northern frontier. Warsaw Pact army concentrations and movements around our borders had been going on for a considerable time, continuing even after martial law had been introduced. This took place against a background of political and economic pressure. I could highlight the message, approved on the 21st November 1981 by the Soviet Communist Party political bureau which Leonid Brezhnev sent me, very similar in tone to the notorious letters addressed to Aleksander Dubczek in 1968. A no less threatening situation was caused by what was, in effect, an ultimatum announcing a drastic cut in the supplies of gas, crude oil and many other vitally important materials, as of the 1st January 1982.

Were it not for the declaration of martial law, the substantiation of that announcement in mid-winter would have signified not only economic but also biological catastrophe. No grand issues and dilemmas may be studied without their historical backgrounds in separation from the realities of a given moment. A historian seated in the tranquility of archives and libraries can allow his thoughts to wander in various directions. Basing on continually supplemented sources, he knows today what took place in the past. But a politician active at that time knew only what was happening at a given moment. And he also had to take into account that which could take place. A historian enjoys the comfort of delivering evaluations which have no practical effects. A politician has to bear the weight of decisions whose effects are often enormous. And those decisions have to be taken. A controversial decision is better than no decision or waiving it, since it permits a situation to be brought under control while allowing it to be reined in with the possibility of correction.

The absence of a decision could result in an impetuous, dangerous development of a situation which has got out of any control. There is no ideal solution in such circumstances. The only thing is to find the optimal solution, "a lesser evil."

With the 14 years of hindsight which we enjoy today, I can say that I am still firmly convinced that the introduction of martial law was the optimal, indeed salutary decision. The final outcome is the over-riding factor, the fundamental transformations of 1989 and 1990 being its most evident illustration. Without the "purgatory" of martial laws, those tranformations would be unrealistic today. I beg you not to treat what I have said as some expression of megalomania. The imminent explosion, confrontation within Poland and the inevitable internationalization of events would have pushed positive historical processes into the indefinite future. They could have commenced in the mid-1980s only in conditions of peace and international detente. Destabilization in Poland and around Poland would have erected barriers to those processes and, in the final accounts frustrated them.

The Polish people have always admired and displayed warm sentiment for the United States of America, that large and magnificent country. I still bear in my memory that moment on the 4th, May 1945 when I reached the Elbe River in the ranks of the Polish army. American troops had appeared at much the same time on its opposite bank. We greeted one another with very great warmth. Many years have passed since then. The "iron curtain" set us apart but distinct from other nations of this block we succeeded in creating and widening various gaps in that curtain. Cooperation and various forms of contacts continued to exist. The early 1980s saw tensions developing between our two countries. Many are the issues which remain unsatisfactorily explained, which politologists and historians will continue to debate for many a long year.

I must admit that I did react painfully and even nervously to a number of American opinions, decisions and activities. I sensed that U.S. politicians were presenting the erstwhile Polish authorities as out-and-out devils and whitewashing erstwhile "Solidarnosc." This was a reflection of what medieval theologists used to say that "even should Satan speak the truth, he must be lying."

I also got the expression that I was being treated on a par with Pol Pot, Khadafi and Noriega, taken together. Then there were the restrictions, the sanctions imposed on the Polish economy. I really do feel that they were unjustified. They harmed not so much the government as the Polish people, above all. It was they who suffered the vital, material consequences. More, these restrictions harmed the reform process and pushed us even deeper into the embrace of the USSR, making the economy dependent on Poland's socialist partners. That was when the bitter saying was coined that President Reagan should be awarded a medal for what he did for COMECON.

You must not read what I have said as some expression of grievance or rancor. Today I see the mechanisms of the grand historical confrontation between East and West in a much wider and deeper aspect. The Polish issue was only one link in this whole front of events. Peter Schweitzer, the American journalist, had some interesting and very competent things to say on this matter in his recently published book "Victory." The USA has pursued and continues to pursue a global policy the major purpose of which was to put the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact on the defensive, to undermine and disintegrate it. The long-term goal is such transformations as would eliminate the bi-polar structure of the world and disseminate the basic standards of democracy, the market economy and human rights. It has to a large extent been the West, above all its principal force -- the USA -- which has led to this coming about. But one should never forget the historical part played by perestroika, Gorbachev and those democratic currents which made their way to the East, above all to Poland.

I would like to say how positive, interesting and inspiring were the meetings and talks I held with Vice President and, later, President George Bush in 1987 and 1989 and also with many other American politicians, businessmen and journalists. May I be allowed to say that today's meeting with you is, thereby, of great value to me as a continuation of that kind of experience. Once more, permit me to thank you most warmly for creating such a possibility.