A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission, and the Price He Paid to Save His Country, by Benjamin Weiser (PublicAffairs, 400 pp., $27.50)
The subject of this remarkable book, Col. Ryszard Kuklinski, died in a Tampa military hospital on February 10. His had been one of the most dangerous — and successful — intelligence careers of the Cold War. Recipient of the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal, he was the West’s most important source in the Warsaw Pact between the time of Oleg Penkovsky’s reports during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the end of the Cold War. Although only a colonel, Kuklinski was more valuable than several generals put together: He was director of the operational-planning directorate of the Polish general staff and liaised between Warsaw and Moscow. Over nine years, he delivered 40,265 pages of documents, including plans of Soviet exercises of the invasion of Western Europe, the location of Soviet wartime command bunkers, plans for the imposition of martial law in Poland, and the details of numerous weapons. He gave successive U.S. administrations a direct insight into the planning of Warsaw Pact militaries and became the standard by which other intelligence from behind the Iron Curtain was judged. Kuklinski avoided detection. He was exfiltrated from Poland, with his family, only after being compromised by a leak from the U.S. government.
Sentenced to death by the Communist regime, Kuklinski lived to see a free Poland quash all charges against him, and to return to his native land in triumph in 1998. He was hosted to lunch by the prime minister and showered with the honorary citizenships of several Polish cities, all during the very week that the U.S. Senate voted to allow Poland into NATO. Given the fate of most defectors from the Soviet bloc — some of them still face criminal sentences in their native lands — this is a story of heroism and accomplishment with a remarkably happy end. Yet it is not an entirely happy story and Kuklinski did not die a satisfied man. Acceptance of his deeds came late, grudgingly, and still divides public opinion in Poland, testifying to the resilience of the Communist canon of Poland’s recent history.
His diminutive figure casts in sharp relief all the dilemmas that are spared the lucky citizens of free countries that have never been occupied. If your country has been taken over by a regime that is an agent of a foreign power, is it legitimate to use treachery to topple that regime? Is a country run by a repulsive ideology still your country — right or wrong — or do you owe loyalty to the nation rather than to the alienated state? Does patriotism have to be rooted in higher values or does tribal solidarity trump all? Finally, can one man be so sure of his moral compass and the consequences of his actions as to take it upon himself to judge that a normally distasteful act will serve the greater good? Kuklinski provokes all these questions in Poland and depending how you answer them you fall into the post-Communist or post-Solidarity camps. Tell me about Kuklinski, they say, and I will tell you who you are.
The great value of Benjamin Weiser’s thorough book is that, for the first time, we can follow Kuklinski’s story not just from reminiscences many years after the events, but from contemporary documents. Weiser obtained access to virtually the entire CIA file on the Kuklinski operation, and we can therefore be confident that little of substance will be added in future accounts.
What comes shining through in Weiser’s story is not just Kuklinski’s idealistic motivation but the kind of selfless patriotism that is usually felt by men from nations that have just faced the abyss of extermination. A witness to Warsaw’s wartime martyrdom — his father had been murdered by the Nazis — Kuklinski was in many ways a typical Pole of his generation. He tried to lead a normal life after the war, accommodating himself to the new Communist Poland by joining the army and the Party. He contacted the Americans only in the early 1970s, partly out of disgust at the invasion of Czechoslovakia and partly because he was alarmed at what Soviet invasion plans against Western Europe would mean for Poland. Because the Warsaw Pact enjoyed superiority over the West in conventional arms, NATO planned to respond to an attack with nuclear weapons — but because an attack against the USSR would provoke a full-blown strategic nuclear retaliation, NATO planned to nuke the Second Strategic Echelon of Soviet forces as they streamed West: across Poland. Kuklinski told me on one occasion that Soviet maps even showed areas — tails broadening east with the prevailing wind — that would be contaminated after hundreds of warheads struck. Was it treasonous for a Polish officer to try to preempt such a scenario, or was it treasonous to go along with it? One can’t help agreeing with the 30 Communist generals who wrote — in a public letter protesting Kuklinski’s exoneration — that “if he is a hero, then we are traitors.”
Kuklinski did not see himself as a spy at all, but rather as an officer making contact with the U.S. army in furtherance of a potential conspiracy that could upset Soviet invasion plans. The CIA’s involvement was kept a secret from him for a while and he only reluctantly agreed to act alone by passing information. In case of war, his contribution could have been decisive: By supplying the U.S. with details about the wartime command bunker he made it possible to stop the Soviets by liquidating the Soviet leadership instead of liquidating Poland. As Zbigniew Brzezinski — one of the few U.S. officials who had access to raw Kuklinski data — told Marshal Kulikov, the former Warsaw Pact supreme commander, many years later, the entire Soviet command, including Kulikov, would have been dead within three hours of a Soviet attack on NATO.
While increasing the odds of a Western victory, Kuklinski also helped preserve the peace. The insight he gave Western decision makers, often almost in real time, prevented the kind of miscalculation that could have sparked an uncontrollable escalation. In the fall of 1980, for example, Brezhnev was planning to crush Solidarity with a full-scale invasion of Poland. Kuklinski’s information on the plans helped President Carter make pointed, well-timed warnings to the Soviets, which arguably prevented the invasion and what would have been a major East–West confrontation.
Kuklinski was hurt by the early lack of recognition from his countrymen for what he did, particularly from Solidarity veterans. President Lech Walesa, whom Kuklinski worshipped, failed to lift a finger in his defense. Adam Michnik, the left-wing dissident, befriended General Jaruzelski, the martial-law dictator, instead of Kuklinski. But the mood is shifting. As Poland takes its place among Western allies and the effects of Communist brainwashing wane, Kuklinski is seen less and less as a foreign spy and more and more as “Poland’s first officer in NATO.” Now that he does not have to appease Communist-era generals, Walesa has relented and calls Kuklinski a hero. He will be buried in Poland with military honors. Kuklinski joins Claus von Stauffenberg in the pantheon of tragic heroes who betrayed their state to try to save their country. Benjamin Weiser’s book — lucid, authoritative, and unputdownable — is a must-read for scholars of the Cold War, and for all of us who lived in the shadows of totalitarianism and enjoy the fruits of the ultimate triumph of liberty.
–Mr. Sikorski is executive director of the New Atlantic Initiative at the American Enterprise Institute.