The Spy Who Saved The World- The Tragedy of Colonel Kuklinski

In a chapel at Arlington Cemetery a memorial took place few years ago.  It was attended by government officials, many current and former CIA agents, a military honour guard, along with a military band.  That in itself was not unusual.  Arlington has seen many such memorials, what was unusual was the ashes of a man honoured in such way.   They were draped not in an American flag, but a Polish white and red banner with a crowned white eagle in its centre.  The officer’s cap on top of the flag was that of a Colonel of the Polish Army.  But they were there because he was a true American hero.  And that fact can not be disputed.  He received the highest CIA award, one of only 8 recipients, the first foreigner.  Many say that he helped save us from WWIII, the information he passed on helped the US win the Cold War, in fact, he saved the world from nuclear annihilation.

His name was Ryszard (Richard) Kuklinski.  He was a Colonel in the Polish People’s Army.  He was the head of the Office of Strategic Planning in the Polish General Staff.  He was a great Polish patriot.  And he was a CIA spy.  Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national Security Adviser to President Carter called him “the first Polish officer in NATO.”  To many Poles, me included, he is a national hero.  Tomany others, sadly, he is a traitor.  It is a paradox and the Colonel’s tragedy that he is an undisputed hero to all Americans while many of his own countrymen see him as a traitor.

The Real Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Letter That Started It All

Its a story that could well have come from a fictional spy thriller.  In 1972 the American Embassy in Bonn received a strange letter written in bad English.  Its author claimed he was an officer in an Army of a Communist “Kantry” (sic! country), and he was seeking a meeting with an officer (Lt. Col. or Col.) of the US Army (not the CIA).  The letter gave dates and times of meetings in a couple of different Western cities.  Colonel Kuklinski was actually on a official spy mission.  He was not a spy himself, but he proposed and sailing trip through Western ports during which he and his companions (most of whom were other officers) would gather information on those facilities.  He signed the letter “PV,” he later explained it stood for Polish Viking.

He was met by a CIA agent, who did not identify himself as such.  During the meeting he explained that he wanted to provide the US Army with information about Warsaw Pact plans and capabilities.  At no time during the meeting did he ask for money or any other reward.  Further meetings were planned, a system of drops was developed, and Ryszard Kuklinski became an American agent.  Soon, the CIA was deluged with detailed information about the Polish and Warsaw Pact armed forces.  According to one veteran CIA analyst, Kuklinski did not fill in the picture, he gave American THE picture.  In all he passed on over 40,000 documents in his 9 years as a spy.  In November of 1981 he and his family, wife and two sons, were smuggled out of Poland after the Polish counterintelligence received information of a spy working in high in the Polish General Staff.  He personally was not suspected.

For 9 years Kuklinski was a tragically lonely man.  No one, not even his wife, knew he was passing on information to the Americans.  I did not say working for the Americans on purpose.  Because he never really did.  He never signed an agreement, unlike most spies.  He did not take any money for his work.  His motivation was not to help America, but to help Poland with America’s assistance.  He was not approached.  It was Kuklinski himself who came to the Americans.  He asked for nothing but equipment (some was specifically invented for him, like the precursor to the Blackberry, a mobile text sending device).  When he was smuggled out of Poland he had to leave almost everything behind.  Yet he took with him a drawing of a ship titled Tempest, he gave the drawing to his handler as a sign of gratitude and friendship.  That was Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski.

A Spy is Born

Ryszard Kuklinski was born in 1930 in Warsaw.  He came from a patriotic working class family of socialist traditions.  When Ryszard was ten his father, a member of the Polish resistance in German occupied Poland, was arrested by the Gestapo.  He later died in a concentration camp.  Ryszard barely a teenager joined the Warsaw Uprising.  After the Nazis were thrown out he went back to school and joined the army.  He quickly rose through the ranks and became a trusted officer in the Polish General Staff.  The opinions of Kuklinski by his colleagues, superiors and Soviet general was very positive.  He was part of the Polish UN Mission to Vietnam during the war there.  He was one of the main planners of the Polish part in the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia.  In December of 1970 he, along with the rest of the country, witnessed the Pomorze crackdown during which 40 workers were killed and several hundred wounded by the Polish Army.  The last two events, he said, motivated him to do what he did.  In the words of his best friend, upon learning of the Army’s actions in the December 70 crackdown, he burst into his apartment, lit a cigarette, and said ‘I can’t believe those motherfuckers did that!”  he was visibly upset and disappointed in the role of the Army which he loved.  He lost the last hopes that the Polish Army was not just a tool of the Soviets.  The work he did in the General Staff further convinced him that the Soviets intended to use Poland as nothing but a tool in the possible WWIII during which the country he loved would be annihilated.  He was a direct witness of the signing over of Polish military command to the Soviets in case of a war with the West.  The Polish generals would become simple messengers.

He now had the motive, what he needed was means.  He was a passionate, and a very knowledgeable sailor.  He build his first kayak.  He then owned a small sailboat.  But when he saw that the Polish Militia (police) had raised an old sunken small yacht, he exchanged that sailboat for it.  For three years he restored it to pristine condition.  That yacht later gave him the means.  As mentioned he proposed the sailing trip during which he contacted the Americans.  It became an annual trip till the Soviets requested that it stop a few years later, for fear that it might become an opportunity for the Western powers to recruit the sailors as agents.

Kuklinski hands documents to Soviet Marshall Kulikov

I wont try to tell the story of his life and work as a spy, that has been done extensively and far better than I could ever hope to attempt.  I will provide several links later where you can read about him if you wish.  The importance of his contribution is undisputed.  40,000 vital documents full of information about the Warsaw Pact, its plans, capabilities, and perhaps most importantly, the mood and intentions of the Warsaw Pact high command.  He regularly met with the highest ranking Polish, Soviet, and other Warsaw Pact commanders.  He gauged their mood and intentions as well as future plans.  All this he passed on to the Americans.  But that is not the main point of my story, despite its somewhat misleading title, I do not want to talk about his importance to the Cold War, and its conclusion, but about his legacy in Poland itself.

Konrad Wallenrod

(link above)

Though unlike Mickiewicz’s “Wallenrod” Kuklinski did not commit suicide, his story is not any less tragic.  For years he was in exile.  He was sentenced to death, in absentia, by the Polish Communists in 1984 for the high crimes of treason and desertion.  His rights as a citizen of Poland were revoked and his property ceased by the state.  Two years later the communists launched a propaganda campaign to discredit Colonel Kuklinski.  And the Polish Goebbels, Jerzy Urban (spokesman for the Commie govt in the 80’s), I am sorry to say, succeeded somewhat.  In the late 90’s, after he was finally exonerated, a poll was conducted in Poland.  34 % saw him as a traitor, 29 % as a hero, with the rest undecided.  And that is a very sad state of affairs.  What is sadder still is that quite a few of the members of the Polish anti-Communist movement Solidarity also see him as a traitor or at least have reservations about him.  Is it any wonder then that it took President Clinton, former National Security Adviser Brzezinski and the prospect of joining NATO to finally do right by Kuklinski in 1997?  For 8 years after communism fell he was still persona non grata in Poland.  The only thing done was to change his sentence in 1990 from death to 25 years in prison.  Lech Walesa, the leader of Solidarity, when he was president, refused to pardon him and still does not see him as a heroic figure.  His poor ass excuse was that no one can work for a foreign government and be considered a hero because that would set a precedent for future cases or even past convictions of spies.  However the exoneration and return of full citizenship and military rank clearly spoke of “conditions of higher necessity.” These “conditions” were Poland’s de facto lack of sovereignty.

And even that sent Kuklinski’s critics into a frenzy.  The said critics came not only from the Red camp of former Communist officers and officials, but also from some Solidarity circles, aforementioned Walesa included, as well as the influential Adam Michnik, a leftist intellectual (now the editor of Poland’s biggest daily paper Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Newspaper)), who was imprisoned for his anti-communist activities several times, though his opposition to Kuklinski seemed mostly to be politically motivated in relation to modern Polish politics.  Others simply just could not stomach anyone working for a foreign government at anytime under any circumstances.

So there we have it.  An officer does more to bring down the Commies than almost any individual, and opinion in Poland is divided.  Of course it is.  Poland would not be Poland if we did not argue amongst ourselves all the time over everything.  Unlike Poles who only lived in Poland I don’t have a problem with Kuklinski working for the CIA as much as some would.  I am a Pole and an American.  I love both countries almost equally.  I have lived here (the US) most of my life, close to 30 years.  So its natural that I love this country, plus I am not one who lives in the past.  But as a Pole I love Poland.  I am also a historian by education and love.  I appreciate Polish history more than most.  And as much as I do not live in the past and have accepted my new homeland as my own and love it as any properly patriotic American would, I can not forget my own roots.  Especially considering the times I have lived in and my parents and grandparents have lived in.  I do not take Polish independence for granted as perhaps many young people do these days.  But its great that they do, it means Poland is free and not under immediate threat.     

However, many a Pole can not stomach someone working for a foreign nation, even America, against Poland, even a Poland that was a vassal of the evil Soviet Empire.  These people have some reason in their beliefs, even if I disagree with them.  Colonel Kuklinski put his faith in America, he saw them as an ally.  After Yalta and many other incidents, Poles have a right to be weary of “Allies” of any kind.  Many of course dismiss Colonel Kuklinski’s motivations and great patriotism and see him as only a foreign agent.  And forget that many a great national hero served in foreign army.  The best example being the First World War during which Poles served under the order of Russia, Germany and Austro-Hungary, many a time fighting against one another.  But while they were serving their foreign masters many did so with the hope that this would help Poland regain its independence.  And it did.  So I have to disagree with them and assume that they see the world in a very simplistic way.  Their attitude also helps legitimize those who served their Soviet masters like good trained dogs.  I also assume that many feel the need to justify the PRL (Polish People’s Republic, commie Poland) because of the need to justify themselves and what they did during those times.

Colonel Kuklinski's Army id photo

The most vocal group in need of validation and justification consists of course of former officers and officials in the PRL.  They are Kuklinski’s biggest critics.  And they attacked him from all angles.  His motivation was questioned.  He was accused of doing this for money.  There were insinuations that he was in fact recruited by CIA while in Vietnam.  The CIA was said to have threatened to expose some unspecified transgressions.  He apparently was a sleeper agent for years and only activated in 1972.  Then they tried to belittle the value of information he gave the CIA.  Of course that contradicted many of their own statements as well as of those made by the Soviets themselves.  Then came the best one.  The pity angle.  Jaruzelski, the former “general” and dictator of Poland in the 80’s stated that if Kuklinski is a hero and not a traitor what does that make him and the thousands of officers and soldiers who served during the PRL.  Well I know what that makes him and those like him.  A servant dog of a foreign state that made Poland into a vassal of the USSR.  He is also a criminal who ordered the deaths and imprisonment of countless thousands of Poland’s best and brightest citizens.  Nothing less but.  And there were many like him, eager careerist servants of a foreign power who oppressed their own people.  However there were also many others who served because of honest beliefs and patriotism.  Those we have to separate from the servant dogs, even high ranking officers could be honest and patriotic and not have blood on their hands.  According to them an oath, no matter to whom it was given, is sacred.  These are the same people who ironically called Hitler’s soldiers fanatics because they were faithful to that evil bastard.  If Jaruzelski and his henchmen are right then so was the Wehrmacht, so were Hitler’s generals.  But history has proven that being a servant of evil, a mindless drone, or an eager dog like Jaruzelski is wrong.  That “I was following orders” bullshit does not fly anymore.  I understand that they do it.  They did it well too, because they have a considerable part of the Polish population believing their propaganda.  And good propaganda it was, begun in 1986 and is continued to this day.  But it does not make them any less wrong, nor any less of servants to a foreign master and true traitors of Poland and its people.  The saddest part is that Jaruzelski and his clique have convinced most of Poles (up to 60%) that the Martial law they imposed and the oppression that followed was actually for their own good.

Dec. 13, 1981, we got this instead of morning cartoons, and tanks on the streets.

Yes, the majority of Poles are convinced that the imposing of martial law, the killing of protesters, arrests of thousands, and general oppression was a lesser of two evils.  Because their “saviours” have convinced them that they saved Poland from a Soviet, or a Warsaw Pact invasion that would lead to great bloodshed.  Well, I call bullshit.  The Soviets, evidence in declassified documents supports this, were not going to invade.  Not after Colonel Kuklinski told the CIA they planned to.  In 1980!  Over year before the matrial law was actually imposed.  The Commie bastards, while talking and making deals with the Solidarity, were making plans to squash them.  And the Soviets wanted to help.  However once President Carter saw what Kuklinski gave the CIA, with the urging from Brzezinski, he threatened the USSR that if they do invade there will be unforeseeable consequences.  The Red Army quickly changed its mind and came to the conclusion that Poland was not worth the trouble of a possible nuclear war if things went too far.  Besides, they had a better idea.  They told the Poles to attend to their mess themselves.  Jaruzelski for his part practically begged the Soviets for help.  Even after they told him to do it with only Polish forces he asked for assistance in case things did not go as well as planned.  He was told no again, the Poles were ordered to do it themselves.  He wanted to resign, to his credit, but after being told to man up and do their bidding, being the coward that he is, he obliged and one cold Sunday morning I saw his face instead of cartoons.

So do excuse me if I do not believe that the man who presided over the politically motivated, anti-Semitic “cleansing” of the Army, who eagerly ordered troops into Czechoslovakia, and who ordered the Polish troops to shoot protesting Polish workers in 1970, and who allegedly was also a confidential agent of the Polish SB (our version of the KGB), is a saviour of Poland.  And that only he prevented a great tragedy in 1981.  No one supports his bullshit claim.  The problem with Poles in this case is twofold.  They respect anyone in uniform too much.  Poles really do revere their soldiers.  They will make all kinds of excuses for them as long as they wear a Polish uniform.  And they are too forgiving.  Our very own Caucescu was allowed to be the first President of a free Poland and then allowed to retire with a full pension.  We actually are supposed to be thankful to him for the peaceful transition to democracy.  When they finally got around to trying the bastard he cited ill health, his trial is still ongoing.  Meanwhile last month he was invited, along with all the other former presidents of post communist Poland, by the current president for an advisory conference before the visit to Poland of Russian president Medvedev.  The excuse given was that he has great expertise concerning all things Russian.  Well of  course he should, a dog knows its master like no other, and he served his masters faithfully for many decades.  It still does not excuse president Komorowski.  Jaruzelski should be a pariah, not an elder statesman invited to presidential conferences.  Its pathetic and wrong!

But this kind of opposition to Kuklinski being proclaimed a national hero is understandable really, and expected.  He left them, he betrayed them and their masters.  What is not expected is that Walesa and some from the Solidarity oppose him and even call Kuklinski a traitor.  But here too we can see their intentions.  Walesa and the Solidarity see themselves as the only rightful, aside from maybe the Pope John Paul II, saviours of Poland.  And if Kuklinski is given the credit he deserves they fear that history will judge them differently.  Basic jealousy.  Understandable, even if wrong.  There is enough room for credit to all.  The fall of Communism in Poland and the end of the Cold War had many heroes and adding one very important one to the pantheon wont diminish the contributions and sacrifices of others.  Others still are bitter that neither Kuklinski nor the USA, while possessing the knowledge of the impending Martial Law warned them about it.  He was after all not in danger anymore.  What was the motivation?  Well I can’t speak for the Reagan administration.  But Kuklinski claimed that if the Solidarity was warned the plans might have been changed and it could have led to more bloodshed.  The Solidarity was under constant surveillance and was infiltrated by SB agents even at its highest echelons.  Any attempt of organized resistance would have been met with force.  The Poles who so revere their soldiers conveniently forget how willingly the army participated in the 1970 crackdown and during the Martial law itself.  Any proper resistance was impossible.  Perhaps some Solidarity members could have avoided arrest, but at what price?  Unfortunately, they do not ask themselves that question.

So there you have it.  Revered and reviled, accused of everything possible.  Such was the life and tragedy of Colonel Kuklinski.  And the tragedy extended to his family.  For years they lived in hiding, under assumed names.  They were forced to move frequently, they were not able to participate in Polish-American life openly.  They lived in fear.  Such was his reward for helping to stop a nuclear holocaust.  In 1994, within the space of 6 months he lost both of his sons.  One disappeared with a friend of the Florida Keys while diving, their boat was found several days later, their bodies never recovered.  The other was killed when hit by a car.  The driver fled, leaving no fingerprints in the car!!!!  There are unsubstantiated claims that this was revenge by the commies for what he did.  There is no evidence of that however.  But while I am not a believer in conspiracy theories, its very hard for me to believe there were just mere accidents, plus it would not be the first time the commies took revenge on someone.

Perhaps I exaggerated in the title.  No one man could stop WWIII, but he did more than most.  After he saw that the Soviet plans basically assumed that Poland, as a vital communication line, would be nuked back to the stone age in an event of a war with the West, he did everything possible to prevent that.  It must be remembered that this was the time of the Vietnam war.  The US Army was in crisis in the early 70’s.  Its eyes not properly focused on Europe and the Soviet threat.  The US needed to match the Soviets on the ground.  And they did, from the late 70’s onward the US begun an arms race that the Soviets could not hope to match.  It finally broke them.  The Soviets deny that those plans were for an offensive war.  However all of their equipment and doctrine suggests nothing else.  And one Soviet general smugly claimed that the French Western Atlantic coast was not very far from them.

In the end Colonel Kuklinski won.  He got his honour and rank back.  He was able to go back to Poland for a tour of sorts.  He was honoured by several Polish cities which gave him honourary citizenship.  His ashes, were returned to Poland and he was buried in the Powazki Cemetery (our Arlington) with full military honours.  But while he is a hero of the Cold War and a hero in America, his status still is debated in the country he did all this for.  But we should take heart in the fact that when asked if he would do it again, he said he would, and this time he would work even harder.  In order to save his country he had to betray it and the uniform he loved.  That is not an easy choice to make for anyone.  Especially a person of integrity and honour that the Colonel was. For that I thank you Colonel Kuklinski.  And to me at least you are a true national hero of Poland.

The links I promised for those who want more:

CIA Article on the Vilification of Col. Kuklinski

A very good book on his life in English

Somewhat Different View of Kuklinski

CIA Released Documents

An effort much better than mine

Advertisements