313. Memorandum From Marshall Brement of the National Security Council Staff to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs (Brzezinski)1


  • Soviet Options in Poland: An Alternate Scenario

As you know, most analysts at CIA think the Soviets will move into Poland, perhaps as early as this weekend. This conclusion is largely based on the fact that the Soviets have gone so far militarily to prepare for an invasion that it is unlikely for them to pull back at this stage. The timing would be triggered by a desire to head off demonstrations commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Gdansk strikes of 1970. (S)

As you know, I take a different view. The difficulties which would face the Soviets if they actually invaded Poland (international reaction, compounding Soviet economic weaknesses, possibility of armed Polish resistance, downgrading of Warsaw Pact forces, inability to predict the ultimate consequences, etc.) are fairly obvious and are not worth repeating here. Because of such difficulties, I do not think the Soviets will move in Poland until they are completely convinced that the Polish leadership has little if any chance of handling the situation in a reasonably satisfactory manner. (S)

But no matter how pessimistically Polish events are viewed from Moscow, the Kremlin must see at least a one in five chance that Kania, or perhaps a successor, will ultimately be able to work out some kind of modus vivendi which would make it possible for Brezhnev to avoid ordering an armed invasion. As long as such a possibility exists, in my view, the Soviets lose little if anything by holding off an invasion. They could, after all, undertake such action a month from now, two months from now, or five months from now. There is nothing to stop them. (S)

What Has Happened in Poland?

My own reconstruction of Soviet/Polish events is roughly as follows:

—The Soviets must have begun preparing for possible intervention in Poland as early as last August when things, from their point of [Page 919] view, were getting out of control. We saw signs of such planning in September and October.2

—Soviet concerns were somewhat alleviated by Kania’s first trip to Moscow October 30.

—However, the Soviets were undoubtedly dismayed by subsequent developments, which they may well have regarded as proving the unreliability of the Kania leadership.

—The last straw was the release from prison of Narozniak and Sapiello3 on November 27, an act which was simply not acceptable to the Soviets.

—On that date (probably at the usual Thursday afternoon Politburo meeting) the Soviets probably made a firm decision to intervene in Poland, unless they could get credible assurances from the Poles that this sort of “capitulationist” behavior would not happen again.

—Beginning November 28, Soviet, Czech and East German forces proceeded with a military buildup aimed at being ready to invade Poland by December 8.

—The Moscow Summit meeting was Kania’s last chance. At the summit he gave the Soviets assurances that his government would crack down on any future unauthorized strikes or counter-revolutionary activities. According to the Romanians, the only Warsaw Pact leader to argue forcefully for immediate intervention in Poland was Honecker.4 That sounds credible to me. Subsequent events would indicate that the Poles (and the Romanians) left Moscow thinking that the Soviets were willing to give them more time to solve their problems.

—Although far from sanguine that the Polish problem had been resolved by the meeting, the Soviet leadership probably opted to take a wait-and-see attitude. The Moscow Summit was over on December 5,5 i.e., three days before D-Day.

—Only three days away from achieving full readiness, the Soviets decided to go ahead with their pre-planned scenario for the following reasons:

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(a) It gave them the option of moving against the Poles immediately if Kania’s words in Moscow were contradicted by his sub-sequent behavior in Warsaw, as was the case after the October 30 “consultations.”

(b) It provided a useful dress rehearsal for an ultimate invasion. (The Soviets went through a similar exercise in Czechoslovakia in 1968.)

(c) By pushing ahead with their preparations to invade, Moscow forced both this Administration and Richard Allen, representing the next, to state explicitly and publicly that a Soviet invasion of Poland would not trigger a military response from the West. (This was, of course, a logical supposition for them to make, but a supposition is far different from an explicit assertion by the United States that they had nothing to fear from us militarily in the event that they decided to invade Poland.)

(d) Most Poles, especially the leaders of Solidarnosc, have been much too overconfident that the Soviets would not invade. Only by inducing genuine alarm could the Soviets exert a decisive effect within Poland. By carrying out these invasion preparations they alarmed us and our alarm brought home the seriousness of the situation to many Poles. The Soviets thus achieved a very important political objective—i.e., to ensure that all segments of Polish society understand that the limits of Soviet tolerance have been reached.6 (S)

What is Next?

My guess would be that the Soviets will not invade next weekend. They will rather keep up their current state of readiness for another several weeks or longer. They will maintain such readiness to invade until they are satisfied that all Poles—the Party, the Church, the workers—understand that the Polish government is literally operating under the gun and that the Soviets will not hesitate to invade Poland if, by Moscow’s definition, “anarchy” and “counter-revolutionary activity” are allowed to continue out of control.7 (S)

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Staff Material, Office, Outside the System File, Box 60, Chron: 12/7–9/80. Secret. Sent for information. Copies were sent to Odom, Thomson, Welch, and Blackwill. Brzezinski wrote in the upper right-hand corner: “I tend to agree, but speaking up is useful because →” The arrow presumably directs the reader to his comment on the last page (see footnote 6 below).
  2. Industrial unrest and changes in the Polish United Workers’ Party leadership contributed to instability in Poland beginning in mid-1980. For more on the changing political situation, see Kessing’s Contemporary Archive, 1981, pp. 30717–30724.
  3. Reference is to Jan Narozniak, a union volunteer, and Piotr Sapiello, a government employee, who were arrested on allegations of stealing a government plan on regulating dissidents.
  4. Erich Honecker, Chairman of the German Democratic Republic’s State Council.
  5. Reference is to the Warsaw Pact summit meeting, held in Moscow, December 4–5.
  6. Brzezinski underlined he phrase, “all segments of Polish” and drew arrow in the margin, which connects this sentence with Brzezinski’s marginalia found below: “1) in part, that is also our goal—and speaking up helps; 2) in any case, we deprived them of the element of surprise; 3) we heightened international pressures on the Sovs.”
  7. Brzezinski wrote in his memoirs, “The Polish crisis was the final major test of American-Soviet relations during the Carter Presidency. The President handled it well, firmly and calmly, and there is no doubt that he had digested fully the lessons of the U.S. underreaction to the Czechoslovak crisis of 1968. During the critical days of December, Carter did not need to be convinced of the historical importance of deterring a Soviet move, and in this effort he was quite prepared to exercise the full weight of American influence and to take a public position designed to convince the Soviet Union that the reaction of the United States, and the world more generally, would be even more severe than it was in the period after the invasion of Afghanistan.” (Power and Principle, p. 468)