288. Memorandum From Steve Larrabee of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Strikes in Poland: A warning sign?

The situation in Poland remains unclear, but the reports of strikes in Ursus and Trzecz are disturbing. Even more disturbing is a report that Kania made a speech in Gdansk in which he said the Central Committee was no longer in control and that there would be shortages of bread and other staples in the future. (S)

The potential for unrest in Poland has always been fairly high, but it is accentuated now by the fact that the Soviets are particularly vulnerable. They are constrained by several factors:

Afghanistan: the Soviets are currently tied down in Afghanistan and would be reluctant to commit troops elsewhere, especially in Eastern Europe.

the Olympics: the Soviets will want to avoid taking military action just prior to or during the Olympics. This would absolutely kill the games and (hopefully) lead to massive withdrawals by many countries, especially in Europe.

Madrid and CDE: any military action would make a mockery of Soviet calls for a Conference on Detente and Disarmament in Europe and probably lead to the postponement of the Madrid Conference. (C)

In short, the Soviets’ hands are tied to a great extent, and in the face of any unrest in Poland, they will try to avoid military action if at all possible (at least until after the Olympics).

This gives Gierek as well as the leaders of the opposition a certain freedom of action which they may seek to exploit. In particular, the leaders of the opposition may feel that the Soviet Union is unlikely to take military action for the reasons outlined above and that now is the time to press the government for change and reform. Faced with such pressure from below, Gierek in turn may come to feel that he has to do something to keep the lid on or risk serious unrest which could lead to his overthrow or Soviet intervention.

At the same time, wishing to avoid military intervention, the Soviet leaders may be willing to give Gierek a freer hand to deal with the [Page 848] situation and may be willing to tolerate greater changes in order to keep the situation from becoming more explosive. (C)

Any unrest is likely to be spontaneous and it is difficult to predict what the workers will do. But if real unrest does break out and begins to spread, it is likely that KOR and other dissident groups will try to forge alliances with the workers, and try to use the situation to press for reforms. As in 1956, Wyszynski is likely to play an important role as a broker. In return, however, he too would be likely to try to exact concessions from the regime. (C)

The above scenario may be overly alarmist, and the regime may well prove capable of containing any widespread public reaction to the price increases. But discontent in Poland today is so widespread and the regime’s capacity for ineptitude so great that one cannot be too sure. Moreover, Poland’s history of spontaneous unrest and political upheaval does not give one cause to be sanguine. It has been precisely such actions which have triggered widespread unrest and political change in the past—in 1956, in 1970 and in 1976. (C)

In sum, the strikes may prove to be isolated incidents but the potential for political upheaval—and even change—is there, and it would not take much to set off a chain reaction, which could have significant political repercussions. We should therefore watch the situation closely in the coming weeks. (C)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 65, Poland: 7–8/80. Secret. Sent for information and outside the system. A stamped notation on the memorandum indicates that Brzezinski saw it.