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The spy who saved Poland

Review of A Secret Life: The Polish Officer, His Covert Mission and the Price He Paid to Save His Country, by Benjamin Weiser (Public Affairs), 383 pages, $27.50.

RYSZARD Kuklinski died on Feb. 11, 2004, age 73. Most Americans would not recognize his name – they should.

Kuklinski, a colonel in the Polish Communist Army, provided valuable information to the CIA about Soviet and Warsaw Pact military plans and weapons systems. He risked his life not for the CIA, but for Poland. The information he provided helped the United States, not only to protect itself and the Western allies, but also to prevent the Soviets from starting a war in which Poland, as the battleground, would be destroyed.

The book’s author, Benjamin Weiser, has been a journalist for both the Washington Post and the New York Times. His profession explains the strengths of this book, but also its weaknesses. Weiser paints an engaging and interesting picture of the brave Kuklinski, but offers little of the background that would explain why a Pole would sacrifice so much for the United States.

There is a tremendous amount of detail on the inner life of the spy. But the reader only learns why Kuklinski spied for the CIA on page 334.

When he spoke before a Polish audience in 1998 – by then he was a visitor to his native country – he explained to the assembled that “as a Pole and a soldier” he had fought for his homeland “that was enslaved and subordinated to the imperial aims of the Soviet Union.” The explanation of his motives included a brief historical portrait of how the Soviet Union joined with Hitler to divide Poland in 1939. He spoke of the mass deportations of the Polish population and the betrayal of the Warsaw uprising.

The Polish audience who listened to the former spy, knew exactly what he was talking about. Unfortunately, most readers will have no idea what this all means.

But readers ought to know the sordid history of Nazi-Soviet relations and murderous take-over of Poland following the end of World War II, in order to understand Kuklinski’s courage in his battle to help rid his homeland of the Soviet occupation. His story shows that the communist effort to wipe out the Polish intellectual and military leadership failed.

Kuklinksi warned the CIA of the Polish puppet government’s plans to declare martial law and wipe out Solidarity – the free Polish trade union that was born in Gdansk in 1980. The Soviets could not tolerate the challenge that the Solidarity movement posed to their control over Poland. Solidarity threatened the authority of the Polish Communist Party and therefore Soviet control over the country.

In September 1980, the Soviets ordered the Polish communists to re-establish the party’s “influence and authority.” When this was unsuccessful, martial law was imposed late in 1981. Documents from the Polish and Soviet archives show how communist leaders feared that Solidarity and its demands for freedom were spilling over into the other Soviet bloc countries and even into the Soviet Union.

Weiser tells us little about this or about the fact that the Pope John Paul II, a Pole, and President Ronald Reagan understood this and organized the show of support for Solidarity’s underground fight against the communist regime. It was that fight that helped set in motion the freedom struggle among the communist-dominated Eastern bloc countries that resulted in the fall of the Berlin Wall and two years later, in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union itself.

The reader will not learn these things from this book, but instead will read a very interesting story of a brave man and the methods used by the CIA – dead drops, messages written in invisible ink, miniature cameras and secret transmitters – to bring his information to Western policy makers.

IWP Adjunct Professor Herbert Romerstein, formerly a staff member of the House Intelligence Committee and an official of the United States Information Agency, is the co-author with the late Eric Breindel of “The Venona Secrets, Exposing Soviet Espionage and America’s Traitors.”