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Poland During the Cold War

by Dick Virden

Between 1978 and 1990, one of Poland’s native sons became the first non-Italian Roman Catholic Pope in more than 400 years and another led a political movement that overthrew an entrenched communist power. Both men won Nobel Peace Prizes for helping make Poland’s revolution non-violent as well as triumphant.

Few countries could match the drama and history Poland jammed into this brief span. I was privileged to witness some of these events during two tours with the U.S. embassy in Warsaw. The observations that follow are based on my experience during these sharply contrasting eras. My sincere thanks to Stu Kennedy of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, whose perceptive questions for an oral history interview caused me to relive those momentous times.

Behind the Iron Curtain

My wife, Linda, and I arrived in Warsaw with our three-year-old son Andrew in August, 1977. It was our first time behind the Iron Curtain, as Eastern Europe was described in those days. I was assigned as the embassy’s Information Officer/ Press Attaché.

To Poland’s government and party leaders — though not most citizens — ours was a hostile embassy. The party was right in believing we were on the other side; we did indeed strive to nurture hope that communism would wither and better days follow. So we were watched, our phone conversations monitored. Once Linda picked up our phone at home and heard one of her previous conversations played back. A slight glitch in the recording system!

The Polish journalists I knew included many brave souls who risked all to write for clandestine publications run off in basements on primitive mimeograph presses. Even party journalists would sometimes tell us things they knew but could not put on the air. They would talk about who was up, who was down, and internal debate about, say, whether to raise food prices and what sort of popular reaction might be expected (angry riots, usually). Church-state relations were another hot, not-for-publication, topic. Washington had a strong appetitive for all such tidbits, so we were forever writing memoranda of conversations.

To whittle away at the party’s monopoly on information, we gave away bootleg copies of Newsweek . We couldn’t send them through the mail – they’d be stolen or confiscated – but slipped them directly to our friends. Since access to information was tightly controlled, uncensored news was a highly sought commodity; golden, as Gov. Rod Blagojevich might put it. We also distributed USIA magazines, including Polish editions of Dialogue and America Illustrated (Ameryka, in Polish).

Broadcasting was a prime lever of state power. As elsewhere in the region, government controlled domestic radio and television, the true opiate of the people. Only Radio Free Europe or BBC short wave radio from outside the country provided an alternative, for those who dared listen. But what Poles heard from their official mouthpieces was flatly contradicted by the misery they encountered in their daily lives. Poland’s credibility gap was every bit as severe as ours during the Vietnam War era.

Poles knew the risks of their system, so we were guided by their sense of when and where to meet. Someone would say, “We need to talk. Let’s go for a walk in the park,” and we’d do that; otherwise, any public place we’d be able to meet would be monitored. At the usual suspect restaurants, we could count on recording devices at any table we’d be assigned.

We also traded information with the few Western journalists based in Warsaw, comparing notes on the dynamics within the party and the dissident activities by groups like KOR, the Polish acronym for the committee to protect workers. We were all trying to get a handle on where events were heading (no one really knew).

Economic misery and the god that failed

A critical underlying factor throughout was economic distress. Theory aside, the economy was stuck in mud. Central planning did not deliver what people wanted, when they needed it. Stores were either empty or had shoddy merchandise few would buy. Restaurants rarely had what menus listed; you soon learned to simply ask, “What do you have today?” It usually wasn’t much.

Socialist ideals may have once been appealing, but what they translated into on the ground was dismal, a down-at-the-heels joke of an economy. There was a saying then, probably not unique to Poland, that “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” Workers were paid in near worthless zlotys and were bitter about the “valuta,” or hard currency stores, where only the party faithful could shop. Women habitually carried “perhaps bags,” just in case something of interest would suddenly be on offer on the streets. Whatever that might be, harried housewives would go for it, whether they needed that particular item or not; maybe they could trade it for something they could use.

Periodically, a government desperately short of money would raise meat prices, adding to what seemed to Poles like already astronomical costs. Decisions to raise the price for meat (and other commodities) frequently prompted Poles to hit the streets in protest; conditions were already rough, and a tone-deaf government seemed interested only in making them harsher.

The bitter economic reality clashed with the party narrative about a workers’ paradise; ordinary citizens could clearly see that the truth of everyday life for themselves. No wonder gallows humor proliferated. Some 30 years into socialism, as it was called, people no longer took their government seriously.

Few True Believers

At the time of the Bolshevik revolution, before the god failed, there were certainly Poles who bought into Marxist-Leninist theology. But by now the stark contrast between utopian theory and actual practice was perfectly obvious to everybody. People still joined the party, but only because that was how to advance in any profession other than the clergy.

And it wasn’t only careers. To get a half decent place to live, join the party. To get your kid into a good school, carry a party card. For your family to get a week’s vacation at the beach or in the mountains, sign up for the PUWP (Polish United Workers Party). If you wanted any of the goodies that life had to offer, for yourself or your family, you needed to play ball. Everybody had to make tough choices. Outsiders who have never faced such moral dilemmas should be slow to pass judgment on people forced to make such painful calls.

We rarely had abstract discussions about the virtues of communism as a political/economic ideal. The best defenders of the regime could do was shift the subject to American shortcomings — Vietnam, civil rights — or argue that at least socialism guaranteed everyone a job and health care. That the jobs paid little and the care provided was shoddy and unreliable — except in hospitals reserved for the elite — was simply brushed aside.


There was an official censor’s blackbook in those days. One topic on the forbidden list was the 1940 Katyn Massacre. Poles all knew that Russians murdered those 20,000 Polish officers and the official version blaming Germans was a monstrous libel. II wasn’t until 2007 that Andrzej Wajda, perhaps the greatest of Polish film makers — and that’s saying a great deal — made his movie, “Katyn.” It’s a powerful film, which he calls the culmination of his life’s work. He also says he could not have made the film earlier, under the previous regime.

Jimmy Carter Comes Calling

The President dropped by for the last three days of 1977. This was the infamous incident where the State Department interpreter — a Ukrainian, not a native speaker of Polish — had the President lusting after Poland in his heart. You had to feel a little sympathy for the guy; it was near midnight when he stood in front of Air Force One on a cold, snowy tarmac, struggling to hear and decipher Carter’s southern twang.

So he got some stuff wrong. Even those of us with only limited command of Polish could note basic mistakes. Those flubs became the story that first night; little else was discussed in the international press center. Though a ton of planning goes into these visits, stuff happens anyway; in this case, a Washington desk jockey routinely picked a name off a list. The Polish government, giving the function a higher priority, brought back its ambassador to the UN to interpret for Prime Minister Edward Gierek during this visit. Maybe the communists did not do everything wrong!

There was more to the visit than language flaps, of course. President Carter held a full-scale press conference, reportedly the first by an American president in a communist country. We dickered with a platoon of Polish authorities to set up the event, which drew an overflow crowd of Polish, American and third-country journalists. We tried mightily to get some dissident journalists admitted, but in the end they were blocked by Polish security. The White House then wrote answers to three questions submitted in writing, and I hand delivered them early the next morning. It wasn’t as much as we or the underground media wanted, but the political gesture was welcome nonetheless.

In arranging the press conference, we also undertook to get the Polish Press Agency (PAP) a quick copy of the White House transcript if PAP would distribute the President’s words verbatim on its wire. The deal held, another small chip in the party’s effort to control the narrative.

Political Opposition and the Catholic Church

Earlier that fall I attended the opening of the academic year at the Catholic University in Lublin (KUL), then the only private university east of the Oder. It had a long, proud tradition (including a library whose core collection had been spirited out of a Catholic seminary in St. Petersburg at the time of the Russian revolution).

Ours and other Western embassies attended KUL events to show the flag. In their ceremonies, KUL administrators traditionally acknowledged, one by one, each diplomatic representative. The minister of religious affairs, a Communist Party official, would quietly cool his heels, fuming perhaps, as we stood to demonstrate support for principles like freedom of speech, inquiry and religion. It was delicious political theater.

Among those there this time was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, an adjunct professor in addition to his duties as the cardinal of Krakow. A year later he would become Pope John Paul II. This was bombshell news, of course. That night in October, 1978, I was watching the primetime news broadcast on state television — there was little choice, the state had the only two channels — when the announcer intoned, “And in Rome today Karol Wojtyla of Krakow was selected as the next Roman Catholic pope.” Pregnant stop, then on to something like, “And now, here’s the latest tractor production news from Ursus.”

The anchor lacked guidance; no one had told him what to make of the news, what it might mean for the party and the country. The Polish people didn’t have any doubts though; in Krakow they poured into the streets and squares, and church bells — included one that had rung only once before in a century, at the end of the second world war — pealed all that night.

When John Paul II came home the following June, more than 15 million people — nearly half the population — came out to see him during his six-day pilgrimage. Poles were clearly giddy that one of their own had been selected to lead the Church of Rome. But it was more than simple national pride, too. Ordinary citizens saw that they had company in preferring the moral and political values the new pontiff represented. (State television tried to downplay the turnout by making it look like the crowds were small and the attendees mostly old people; we countered that by circulating videos of U.S. television specials about the trip).

That 1979 homecoming was the beginning of the end for the regime and communism in Poland. The Polish Catholic church, after all, was the focus of opposition – and not only symbolically. Church leaders hosted flying universities in church basements, put out uncensored publications, and found countless other ways to keep faith and nationalism alive.

Poles had not chosen this political and economic system; it had been imposed on them by the Soviet Union after World War II and never did attain legitimacy. The main means to express opposition to it was through the church. Church activity was not only religious but also very political during this period. So when a Pole become head of the Roman Catholic Church, and then came home in triumph, people felt they were not alone; it was the first thing they could rejoice about together in decades.

The pope’s election and return home revived Poland’s spirit. He was young and vigorous and confident, energizing crowds and Poland’s political life. “Be not afraid, “John Paul II told them, and Poles listened. They saw that a lot of others felt as they did and began to believe that change might possible after all.

It was the very next year that Solidarity — the trade union and political movement — burst on the scene and soon attracted some 13 million members. One thing built on the other. You could definitely sense the revived spirits and feel that change was in the air.

The Occupying Power

On the first day of his 1979 visit, the Pope said mass in the main square in Warsaw (once called Adolf Hitler Square). An estimated million people were there to celebrate with him. I felt very privileged to be one of them.

In his first Warsaw homily, John Paul II alluded to the Russian Army sitting on its hands when the Poles rose up against the Nazi occupiers in August of 1944. About 200,000 Poles died in the two months of that uprising while the Red Army remained idle in camps right across the Vistula River. Still, when he went to Auschwitz-Birkenau two days later, John Paul noted that many Russians were among the victims who died there, and he spoke movingly of the need to bind up the wounds of war. Then he walked alone over to the ruins of the crematoria and knelt in silent prayer. Again, I felt very privileged to witness this profound moment.

The Soviets had a very large embassy in the center of Warsaw, and their ambassador was a strong presence in the country’s political life. They also had about 25,000 troops, based in outlying parts of the country. The Soviet Union actively sought to sell its version of events, both historic and current, but indirectly, through its Polish puppets.

Few Poles bought it. There was never any love lost in what was always a stormy history between Poles and Russians; the Russians were not popular and they knew it. Poland had been invaded by Russia, by Polish count, something like 20 times. Poles knew that record; they had to study Russian in school but declined to use the language. Even as the party controlled the media, the muttering you heard in the street was not favorable to the Russians. What were Polish jokes in the United States were Russian jokes here.

The Church and political opposition

The Catholic clergy were often open in their hostility to the regime and worked smartly and courageously at it. They did forward leaning stuff, like hold meetings of dissident activists in church basements, for example, or host clandestine university classes. Some of the most talented individuals in the country joined the priesthood; their motives were spiritual but also patriotic, a determination to serve their country as well as their faith.

We had frequent contact with the clergy and Catholic intellectuals. Once Linda and I were invited to dinner at a rural parish rectory, where we heard reports about food — grain, potatoes, meat — being shipped directly from the Polish countryside to Russia, even though the Poles themselves were hurting (though it must be said we ate well this particular evening).

Among the Catholic publications in Krakow was a respected weekly whose editors constantly pushed the envelope but still survived. “Tygodnik Powszechny,” or general weekly, had started under Nazi occupation. When I returned to Poland in the 90s, I persuaded our then ambassador, Nicholas Rey, to host a dinner honoring Jerzy Turowicz for his 50 years editing that newspaper. Most of the legendary leaders of Solidarity turned up for a festive evening that helped the United States identify itself with Turowicz, his newspaper and the Polish revolution. Ambassador Rey told me years later that night was one of the greatest moments of his life, that he felt like he was dining with the Founding Fathers.

Other factors

Polish-Americans made sure Poland was always on Washington’s radar screen, a role they took very seriously and played well. Even under the communists in the 70s, we gave Poland hundreds of millions of dollars in credit to buy American grain. Poland desperately needed help to feed its people, and American farmers benefited as well. And in the 80s, when Solidarity was forced underground, the American trade unions, again with Polonia’s prodding, smuggled in money, printing equipment and other supplies.

The human rights emphasis of the Carter Administration, and the 1975 Helsinki Accords, also may have helped prevent authorities from cracking down on dissident activity as hard as they had earlier. In the 50s, people were jailed, many were tortured and some died. Efforts to stifle the opposition were less brutal now. I remember a story about a guy who got in trouble for upsetting his factory manger, who said to him, “All right, you’re getting suspended, three days without pay. Just go home and you’re lucky, because in the old days, we would have shot you.” When the man got home he told his wife, “You know, it’s getting worse than I thought. Now they’re rationing bullets!”

An Impossible Dream?

Poles themselves were living under a hated system they hadn’t chosen and didn’t want. The Russians had adopted their system themselves, through revolution, and that made a fundamental difference in the psychology of the two places.

Still, few thought then that the powerful and oppressive system could be thrown off. The party apparatus and ruling elite seemed all powerful. That the dissidents and protesters would eventually prevail seemed like a pipedream. The outside world saw it that way as well. After all, earlier protests — Berlin in 1953, Hungary and Poland in ’56, Prague in ’68, Poland in ‘70-’71 and ’76 — had all come to naught.

So when Solidarity burst on the scene, many felt that this was just another bold but futile effort. And yet, Poles kept standing up to be counted, fighting through setbacks and against the odds. In the end, hope would triumph over experience.

We left Warsaw early in the summer of 1980 for a new assignment in Thailand. When Solidarity was born just a couple months later, we were sorry not to be there. It had been hard to leave Poland; we were very much taken with the Polish people, their faith, their gallows humor, their love of country and their valiant struggle against repeated adversity. Linda cried all the way to Frankfurt on the flight out.

Back to the future

It was a new world we came back to in Warsaw in 1994. The Cold War was finished, as was communism, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. Poland itself, a country that had been once been carved up by Prussia, Austria and Russia, was back on the map and governed by leaders of its own choosing. Lech Walesa, an unknown, unemployed electrician in 1980, was now a Nobel laureate and Poland’s president.

What had been a grim, tense, oppressed country was now brimming with life. Restaurants had what menus listed — and wonderful food at that. Cultural life blossomed. There were concerts of all variety, including a proliferation of rich Polish offerings. First-run Hollywood movies were on offer, and big name American entertainers, like Michael Jackson and Tanya Tucker, came to town. So did the San Francisco Symphony (without U.S. government help, though we piggybacked on their stay to throw a reception introducing orchestra members to Polish cultural and social leaders.)

A Free Press

Amazingly, within a year of our arrival, President Walesa, the iconic symbol of the revolution, lost his bid for reelection to a young onetime apparatchik, Aleksander Kwasniewski. Back in the day, few would have believed that a communist, or ex communist, could win in a free election, yet Kwasniewski did. It was a bit like the British voting out Winston Churchill in 1945. In this case, the explanation was in part impatience with the pace of economic improvement — sound familiar? — and in part Walesa’s poor performance (his campaign pitch was little more than commie bashing).

Coverage of that 1995 campaign, as of other political events now, was wide open. The Polish media world of the 90s was free now, a sharp contrast with before. Suddenly everyone had a platform. Many former dissidents who’d been underground or in jail were now thriving; they had the country’s leading newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, whose founder and editor was Adam Michnik, one of the intellectual leaders of the revolution.

Radio and television were not yet as freewheeling. It took more money, time and pressure to break through the state monopoly. Independent broadcasting wasn’t yet off the ground. Some private parties were working hard on that, but there were legal, political, and commercial barriers to overcome. The United States told Polish leaders that broadcasting competition was one of the democratic reforms required for membership in NATO. We also brought over our FCC chairman to offer some counsel on regulatory issues, and we facilitated contacts with potential American partners. Major European media companies got involved as well. It took a while, but the broadcasting door was gradually pried open to stay.

President Clinton Visits

This tour featured bookend visits by President Clinton. Like all presidential stops, both had their stories. For the June, 1994, visit the White House requested 900 hotel rooms! That’s what it took to accommodate the presidential travel party as well as the White House press corps (who reimbursed the government for their rooms). Presidential visits are huge logistics undertakings, as well as the ultimate policy and public diplomacy weapon. All the world’s a stage….

On this 1994 stop, Clinton assured members of the Polish Parliament that membership in NATO was a matter of when, not if. It was a critical message. Lech Walesa was still president then and was loudly demanding immediate membership; he saw the Partnership for Peace as a stalling action, a way of fobbing Poland off. No, Clinton said, the Partnership for Peace was a genuine transitional vehicle that would help Poland realize its ambitions.

Before the President returned three years later, we carried out an all-out public diplomacy campaign on behalf of NATO enlargement. In Poland, unlike in Western Europe, where the emphasis was on the virtues of enlarging NATO — Poles needed no convincing on that — we stressed to Poles that the United States could be counted on to deliver if they made the required political, military and economic reforms. They did and so did we.

So when President Clinton landed in Warsaw in July of 1997, he had NATO’s invitation to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary in hand. The decision fulfilled a U.S. promise and an historic Polish quest. The state dinner was in the same room of the Belvedere Palace where the Warsaw Pact had been signed four decades earlier and where the 1989 “roundtable talks” that ended the communist era were held. The political symbolism was crystal clear.

Poland’s entry into NATO meant the country was fenced off, out of bounds, no longer fair game. In effect, it said to Russians, “Okay, forget about it, Poland is now free and going to stay that way, so deal with it.” Poland and Russia have in fact developed productive relations. Russians have even officially acknowledged that they, not the Nazis, were responsible for Katyn. Correcting that record has helped make possible honest dialogue on others sore points as well.

Academic exchanges blossom.

One of my roles as Public Affairs Counselor this time around was to serve as chairman of the bilateral Fulbright Commission, something I’d done in Romania and Portugal as well. We had substantial academic and other exchange programs with Poland even during the communist era. The Party pressured us then to send “reliable people,” while we wanted respected scholars with open minds. These differing perspectives made for constant tension.

At one point in 1996, Ambassador Rey encountered the Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Warsaw’s mayor talking with visiting NATO Secretary General Javier Solana. Knowing that all three Poles had benefited from Fulbright scholarships, the ambassador said to Solana, “By chance are you, too, an ex-Fulbrighter?” Solano responded, “By chance, no. I worked like hell for that scholarship!”

The fundamental political changes in Poland in the 90s cleared the way for expanded exchanges in both directions, and many American universities were quite interested. Those who moved quickly, likely DePaul (which started programs with both KUL and Krakow’s Jagiellonian), did well. The University of Minnesota was another successful example; its Carlson School of Management started an MBA program with Warsaw’s respected economic institute.

The Polish language was a bit of a barrier, of course. English had not been widely spoken in Poland, but now young Poles saw English as a passport to better things, including study, travel and jobs abroad. English began to be taught in schools instead of Russian (a lot of Russian language teachers had to be re-programmed).

Showing impressive resilience, some professors, just like the politicians, magically reinvented themselves. It was as if their previous incarnations never happened. Natural ability helped them succeed, perhaps, but then so did the advantages — travel, languages, influential contacts — regime insiders had enjoyed.

There were almost no non-government organizations under communism, but tens of thousands of them popped up almost overnight. We helped foster some of them with a USAID small grants program. A small group of us met periodically with the ambassador and decided on the spot which applications merited our modest support; the streamlined process worked more effectively than many of our more structured aid efforts.

Because money was short for Fulbright as for most everything else, we decided to do a fund raiser. A local film distribution company allowed us to stage the Polish premiere of a U.S. film, “Evita.” The manager of the Marriott Hotel, a member of our Fulbright Board, agreed to host a gala dinner, while Fulbright Executive Director Andrzej Dakowski — a dear friend — and I cajoled business leaders into springing for a night out. The Fulbright program drew a lot of favorable attention, people had a good time, and we netted $50,000 for the Fulbright endowment.

A couple of years later, after I’d left Warsaw, President Kwasniewski awarded me Poland’s Knight’s Cross for helping promote U.S.-Polish understanding through my work with the Fulbright program. It’s one of my most cherished honors.

Shortsighted U.S. budget cuts
One sad fact of life at this time was budget cutbacks. The United States started drawing down around the world, now that the Cold War had ended, and resources dried up. Ambassador Rey reluctantly decided he had to close our consulate in Poznan, our only outpost in the western part of the country, and with that our USIS branch post there.

That was hard indeed. Our USIS post in Poznan had a truly rich, storied history and was continuing to do great work. To make the best of the decision to close, we donated the library resources that we had there to the city’s best university, to create an American reading room. We also arranged for our senior Polish employee to be kept on as a multi-purpose consular agent, a position she holds to this day. Shutting Poznan meant that the Krakow consulate was our only remaining diplomatic establishment outside the embassy itself.

Though we salvaged what we could in Poznan, it was a low moment, part of a broader phenomenon of American retraction. The argument was that with the end of the Cold War we no longer needed to be present in such provincial areas. I thought then and think now that such thinking was pennywise and pound foolish. Closing that USIS post saved at most a couple hundred thousand dollars a year, at great cost in hurt feelings and lost contacts. Soon we may be trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again; a part of our anti-missile defense system may be based in that region of Poland, and we’ll need civilians on the ground to deal with base-related issues.

The theory that we no longer required “Cold War tools,” such as public diplomacy, led to USIA being folded into the State Department a few years later. It was as if the end of the Cold War — and history — meant America no longer needed to explain and seek public support for its foreign policies. Really? Hollywood captured this myopia in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” in which America coughs up billions to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan but is unwilling to spare even chump change for schools and roads for our Afghan allies. We now know how that movie turned out.

As for Poland, when we left this time, in the summer of 1997, we felt good about the country’s direction. Poland was leading the region in its transition to a market economy and democracy. Territorial disputes were pretty much a thing of the past. Security was assured by joining NATO, and the European Union membership on the horizon would aid economic progress. Poland was a “normal” country now; its problems were those of other democracies and paled in comparison with the challenges already met. A new, far better era had begun.

Dick Virden
Dick Virden

Dick Virden retired from the Department of State in 2004 after more than 38 years in the Foreign Service, the final two as the deputy ambassador in Brasilia. He had a previous tour in Brazil as well as postings in Portugal, Romania, Poland (twice), Thailand (twice) and Vietnam.
A graduate of the National War College, Virden also served on the faculty of that senior service college for two years and as a diplomat-in-residence at Georgetown University, where he created and taught a course on the evolution of public diplomacy.
A native of Minnesota, Virden now lives in the Minneapolis suburbs and serves as a volunteer diplomat-in-residence at his alma mater, St. John’s University, and its sister college, St. Benedict’s. He has also co-taught a course on foreign policy at the Hubert Humphrey Institute of the University of Minnesota.

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