147. Editorial Note
On December 18, 1970, the Washington Special Actions Group (WSAG) met in the White House Situation Room to discuss developments in Poland, including the impact of recent events on West Germany’s relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. The immediate crisis began on December 13, when the Polish Government announced price increases for food, fuel, and clothing in an effort to curb demand. The next day, fighting broke out in Gdansk as shipyard workers demanded that the government rescind the increases; rioting soon spread to several other Polish cities, confronting the regime with serious internal unrest. The situation was still uncertain on December 18 as the WSAG considered the implications of the crisis. According to minutes of the meeting, the participants discussed the impact of these events on Germany and Berlin as follows:
“Dr. Kissinger: What conclusions can we draw about the reaction in East Germany and the Soviet Union? Can we get an assessment? We don’t have to have it right now.
“Mr. Hillenbrand: We have a tentative assessment. Even if the disturbances do not rise to a higher level than at present, we believe the cause of economic reform in Poland will be set back. The Polish disorders will also give the Hungarians pause in carrying out their far-reaching economic reform program, to which there is considerable domestic opposition. In the USSR the group that takes a passive attitude toward Ostpolitik may be led to reassess their position. One theory about the Polish price hikes is that they were implemented at this time because the Polish Government was feeling more confident as a result of having settled its border with Germany. If the objective of Ostpolitik was greater Soviet permissiveness toward German intercourse with Eastern Europe, then the troubles in Poland may constitute a setback for Ostpolitik.[Page 436]
“Dr. Kissinger: If I may be the devil’s advocate, couldn’t the riots be viewed as being not the fault of Ostpolitik but of the conclusions the East Europeans drew from Ostpolitik? That is, it is all right to go full speed ahead on Ostpolitik, but it is not correct to conclude that it is possible to raise prices just because a major international settlement has been arranged.
“Mr. Hillenbrand: Possibly, although my judgment is that in the short run we will find the Soviets and the Poles taking a more conservative approach.
“Dr. Kissinger: Then you estimate that if the riots subside, the domestic consequences in Poland will be a more conservative economic policy and that internationally the Poles will adopt a more cautious approach toward increased dealings with the West.
“Mr. Irwin: These are possibilities, not predictions.
“Mr. Baker: There will probably be a greater impact on the Soviet attitude toward Ostpolitik than on the Polish. Poland will still be looking for the benefits that Ostpolitik could bring. As Marty [Hillenbrand] has said, if the Soviets see that the situation is volatile in Poland, they may take another look at Ostpolitik.
“Dr. Kissinger: The old approach to Ostpolitik, which the Germans tried in 1965, was to deal directly with the East European countries. When that didn’t work, they decided that the way was to go through Moscow. Now the Soviets may conclude that even that route is too dangerous. The Germans represent a magnet for the East Europeans. The conclusion the Soviets might draw is that rapport with Bonn is just not the right policy. If one carried this line of speculation one step further, it might be said that the Soviets will decide that it is better to seek détente with the US.
“I believe that one of the foreign policy problems the Soviets have had in recent years is choosing between geopolitical and ideological considerations. They want to be sure that they are free to meet the Chinese threat; yet, if they get too close to us, they open the way for the Chinese to contest their leadership in the communist world. Ostpolitik seemed to offer the Soviets a way out by pacifying Europe. Now they may draw the conclusion that these benefits from Ostpolitik are only superficial. Am I speculating too wildly?
“Mr. Karamessines: The Polish disorders could be the greatest thing that ever came down the pike for Ulbricht.
“Dr. Kissinger: (to Sonnenfeldt) What do you think?
“Mr. Sonnenfeldt: The Russians may be more cautious about German access to Eastern Europe, but they will still have a major problem. They want Western economic and technical assistance, and they know they can only get what they need from Germany. It is not going [Page 437] to be available from us, and the French and British can’t offer enough. The only way for the Soviets to avoid economic reforms is to get the margin of support that Germany can provide.
“Dr. Kissinger: When Ambassador Pauls was in yesterday crying about Acheson, he said the Germans were not going to give credits to the Soviets. (to Hillenbrand) Do you believe that?
“Mr. Hillenbrand: On the basis of recent talks I have had with various German bankers and industrialists, I would say that the Russians have illusions about the quantity of money that might be available from either private or governmental sources in Germany. Pauls’ statement is probably correct. People like Egon Bahr are economic illiterates. The money won’t be produced by the Chancellor’s office but by the industrialists and bankers, who are much more bearish about the possibilities.
“Mr. Sonnenfeldt: They also belong to a different party.
“Dr. Kissinger: If neither the government nor the private bankers give the money, then the last incentive for Ostpolitik is removed.
“Mr. Sonnenfeldt: The Soviets may well draw the conclusion that they cannot derive the dividends from Ostpolitik that they had expected. The Soviets face the problem of deciding what to do to promote economic growth. If credits are unavailable, the pressures for economic reform will possibly be increased. There are three ways they can make the economy move. They can squeeze the people, that constitutes a return to Stalinism. They can try to get subsidies from the West. Or they can make reforms, but this is repugnant to the present leadership.
“Dr. Kissinger: (to Irwin) What are your views?
“Mr. Irwin: I tend to think that anything like what is happening in Poland tends to make the Soviets more cautious. However, if they recognize that the recent events are not the result of Ostpolitik but are due to the internal situation in Poland, they might conclude that Ostpolitik is still helpful to them.”
Although he accepted this assessment, Kissinger wondered “if the Soviets did connect the troubles in Poland with German policy, what would happen.” Hillenbrand replied: “I think the linkage is more complex. The Soviets might conclude that if the political systems in the Eastern European countries are so volatile that a price increase threatens their stability, how much more dangerous might it be if these countries are exposed to German influence.” Kissinger thought Hillenbrand offered a “good thesis.”
After discussion of other aspects of the crisis, the participants briefly considered contingency plans for East Germany and Berlin. Hillenbrand doubted that access to Berlin would be affected by events in Poland. In the event of such action, however, Hillenbrand commented: “With the stockpiles and an airlift, we can go for six months. We could [Page 438] live through any short period of interrupted access without real dislocations in the city.” As for the plan entitled “Western Attitude in the Event of an Uprising in East Germany or East Berlin,” Hillenbrand explained: “The plan basically calls for doing nothing except to exert every effort to welcome refugees. There is to be no action on East German territory.” At the conclusion of the meeting, Kissinger suggested that the WSAG reconvene on Monday, December 21. Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Kissinger Papers, Box CL 309, National Security Council, 1969–77, Washington Special Actions Group, July 1969–Nov. 1971) The minutes of the December 18 WSAG meeting are in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXIX, Document 144.
The crisis had already subsided by December 20, when Edward Gierek replaced Wladyslaw Gomulka as de facto leader of the Polish Government; Gierek quickly announced a price freeze in addition to wage increases. In a December 20 memorandum to the President, Kissinger offered “preliminary comments on the events in Poland,” including the following analysis of West Germany’s relations with Poland and the Soviet Union:
“The change of leaders may lead to a slow down in the pace [of] normalization between Poland and West Germany. Gomulka had been heavily identified with the rapprochement with Bonn and the recent treaty. If only because of the tense internal situation, the new regime is not likely to make new moves in foreign policy. Gierek in his speech mentioned normalization with Bonn but perfunctorily. Moreover, the East German leadership will probably be able to claim that Gomulka’s foreign policy contributed to instability in Poland. Ulbricht immediately congratulated Gierek, suggesting he is satisfied with Gomulka’s removal.
“As for Soviet foreign policy, the Soviet leaders may also be inclined to believe that Ostpolitik has an unsettling effect on Eastern Europe. For example, they may believe that the treaty with Germany led Gomulka to conclude he could press unpopular price increases on the population. Thus, Moscow may also want a pause in its relations with Bonn. One casualty of Polish events could be the Berlin negotiations, where the Soviets may not wish to press the East Germans for concession—thus compounding instability in Central Europe.
“At the same time, with this détente with Bonn at least temporarily slowed down, the Soviet leaders, if they choose to maintain some prospect of détente, may be inclined to show some improvement in their relations with us.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 698, Country Files, Europe, Poland, Vol. I)
The memorandum is in Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, volume XXIX, Document 145. For Kissinger’s memoir account, see White House Years, pages 797–798.