Ryszard Kukliński was born in Warsaw on 13 June 1930. He was fortunate to die peacefully of natural causes in America, his second homeland, on 11 February 2004, rather than the basement of a prison such as the Rakowiecka in Warsaw or the Lubyanka in Moscow, where he would have been denied even a show trial. His life and activity between 1971-1981 represent the single most important intelligence operation of the entire Cold War (encompassing the years 1945-1991, from Yalta to the breakup of the Soviet Union). Thanks to the politico-military consequences of his activities, he was the most important US intelligence agent of the 20th century.
The first Polish Army Officer in NATO
Colonel Kukliński risked his own life and that of his family with the difficult decisions he made during his career. He displayed civil as well as military courage. He made his way to Moscow, the nerve centre of Poland’s enemy and occupier, and transmitted to contacts in the United States the Soviet Union’s plans for military aggression towards NATO countries and Western Europe. In fact, what he relayed were the communist Evil Empire’s plans to unleash a Third World War. By passing those documents to the United States, Colonel Kukliński played a key role in helping America to win the Cold War. This has been corroborated not only by American political, military, and intelligence chiefs but also by Soviet leadership. For the Poles, a Third World War would have been a catastrophe. Regardless of its outcome, Poland would have been left a nuclear wasteland.
On 9 February 1982, William Casey, Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, wrote in a report to President Ronald Reagan:
“In the last forty years, no one has done more damage to communism than that Pole. He risked his life and the safety of his family to protect Poland from the Soviets during the Cold War by spying for the United States. For nine years, in the face of extraordinary personal danger, Colonel Kukliński continued to pass on documentation of critical importance regarding Soviet military forces, as well as the plans made by the rest of the Warsaw Pact. In doing so, he greatly contributed to the upholding of the world’s peace, especially when crisis struck.”
In 1991, Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski called Kukliński: “the first Polish officer in NATO.”
Colonel Kukliński, the Chief of the Strategic-Defence Planning Department of the Polish General Staff, was also the secretary of the Polish delegation at Warsaw Pact meetings, and the liaison officer between Red Army central command and the Polish Army (known as the ‘People’s Army’ during the time of the Polish People’s Republic). He broke his military oath of loyalty to the Red Army and the Warsaw Pact. This oath, which the communist authorities forced thousands of young soldiers to take, was in complete contradiction to the Polish patriotic tradition. In particular, it undermined and conflicted with the most well-known oath in Polish military history: Tadeusz Kościuszko’s Oath of 24 March 1794, in which he vowed to fight for the freedom of the Polish Commonwealth against the invasion from Moscow.
Kukliński was a man of exceptional humility. The sensitive and top-secret nature of his work prevented him from revealing the enormous significance of his intelligence missions. Later, he escaped to the United States to take cover from the KGB, which hoped to exact revenge upon him and his family. Two months later, both of his sons, Bogdan and Waldemar, died in mysterious circumstances. Only in May 1998 did Kukliński return to Poland to deliver a lecture at the Royal Castle in Warsaw –entitled Anti-Yalta – in which he finally revealed some details about his activities during the Cold War:
“The Red Army was the most powerful, the largest, and most inhumane war machine known to mankind. I knew the objectives of the Soviet military leadership. I knew some of those men personally. The Soviet generals and officers I interacted with were true professionals in the art of war. There were many for whom the prospect of an armed invasion of NATO countries was very intriguing. I realized quickly that their aggressive, and even genocidal ideas, could only be effectively opposed by the United States, and even so, only within the NATO alliance. Through the efforts of the United States, the world was able to escape the nuclear holocaust that Moscow had sketched out in its strategic planning. Possessing the knowledge of what a potential war would bring was extremely frightening. For years, I would affix mushroom symbols on the large military planning maps: blue mushrooms where NATO bombs would fall and red ones where ours would. I could not help but think about what those little mushroom stickers meant. It took some imagination to develop a full picture! I saw the war in all its brutal, catastrophic detail. I saw in Poland an avalanche of steel flowing west, a strategic first step as Soviet troops pushed towards the Atlantic. All my worst fears were confirmed. And if that wasn’t enough, Europe was exclaiming that it was better to be red than dead. I had to do something! Everything that I did – I was thinking about Poland. Even if my contribution was small, I would stand on the right side of history. And even if, in a broader perspective, my actions did not amount to anything great, I would give my all. That was my entire life’s work. I had the great honour to serve in this war on the side of the US, on the side of NATO, on the Polish side against the Soviet Evil Empire.
Kukliński was formally an agent of the US intelligence services, and therefore was sentenced to death by court martial as a CIA spy. In fact, he should be considered a Polish spy. He acted on behalf of Poland, for the Polish nation, and in the interests of Polish sovereignty and independence. Every action that he took against Polish dependence on the Kremlin was an action of Polish patriotism. That was the essence of Kukliński’s activities as a spy. In a historical sense, his was a Polish mission. When Marshal Piłsudski was accused of cooperation with the Austrian intelligence services, he replied, “I’d rather be called a spy than a scoundrel.”
In December 1970, after the slaughter of defenceless civilians by Polish military units in Gdańsk, Gdynia, Szczecin, and Elbląg, Kukliński decided enough was enough and began to cooperate with the United States. His first step in this cooperation was drafting a 500-page strategic and analytic study, ‘The role of the Polish People’s Army in the next war and the exclusion of the Polish People’s Army from that war.’ The secret memorandum was handed to the Americans during his first meeting with them in 1972.
The key moment of the first meeting came between 9 PM and midnight on 18 August 1972, in the Hague, the Netherlands. Three American intelligence officers from the US Army met with Kukliński. As an alibi, Kukliński made use of a long-planned study trip for a group of Polish officers on a yacht called Logia, on a cruise through the North Sea and the Baltic. Kukliński introduced himself, giving his name and his position within the Polish military. Then, he gave the Americans a ‘Declaration of Intent’:
“We Poles belong to the Soviet block now, but this was not our choice. It was settled between you and the Russians. In the case of war, a defensive war against your aggression, we would be with the Russians and other countries of the Warsaw Pact. However, this is a highly improbable, if not impossible, scenario for future military conflict in Europe. We do not want to participate in any aggressive war against NATO, against the West. Do you think there exists a chance for cooperation between the Polish Army and the American forces based in Europe to prevent war, or—in case war breaks out—help in any activities supporting the Polish national interest? This would mean the withdrawal of the Polish forces from the Soviet offensive against NATO and Poland’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.”
These few sentences—his ‘Declaration’—began the most important intelligence mission of the entire Cold War. But with his ‘Declaration of Intent’, Kukliński meant a great deal more than expressed on the surface. This was a critical political act between Poland and the United States. To be sure, it was secret, but nonetheless a statement of great historical significance. Though a single Polish officer produced the document, he began the statement, “We Poles.” Today, that document is locked away for safekeeping in Washington DC. With this statement, Kukliński gave initial embryonic life to the idea of Poland’s ultimate integration into the NATO alliance in 1999. Kukliński recalled the traditions of Kościuszko and Pułaski, in discussing the cooperation of the Polish Army with the United States. In this way, even in 1972, he renewed the transatlantic bonds between the two countries that began with the struggle for American Independence. Simultaneously, he provided the groundwork for the alliance between the USA and Poland within NATO. Kukliński could not have predicted that, at the end of his century, he would come to be known as the “first Polish officer in NATO.”
World War Three
When Kukliński decided to start cooperating with the United States, the Soviet Union (then ruled by Leonid Brezhnev) was at the height of its military power. Communism sought to rule the world, and at that point this seemed a more real and dangerous prospect than at any time since 1917. Communist Bolshevik ideas had the backing of the Kremlin’s nuclear weapons and the threat of nuclear blackmail. At the start of the 1970s, it appeared that time was on the side of Soviet Russia, as pacifist, anti-American, and pro-Soviet tendencies were growing in Western Europe. That such a high-level Polish officer had stepped forward was a surprise to the American intelligence community. The Polish colonel had volunteered—he had not been recruited by the CIA, or any other American agency. “I recruited the United States, not the other way around, to fight for Polish freedom from Soviet Russia,” he would later write.
Colonel Kukliński, as Chief of the Strategic-Defence Planning Division of the General Staff of the Polish Army, had more operational knowledge than any other officer or general in the Polish military. Even if there may have been others who had as much information, no one had a more complete understanding of the devastation that would befall Poland in the event of a third World War. As the PRL was an integral partner of the Soviet Union, and the Polish People’s Army was an integral part of the Warsaw Pact defence structure, the most important military decisions affecting the Polish people were made in Moscow. The consequences of an armed conflict in Europe, which the Kremlin wanted to pursue in the name of spreading communism, must have been clear. The defence doctrine of the Polish People’s Army, and indeed of the entire Warsaw Pact, was included in a capacious document intended for a very exclusive group of a dozen-or-so generals. It stated clearly: “The operational doctrine of the Polish armed forces is subordinate to the general doctrine of the forces of socialism. Without undermining the importance of defence, we prioritize offensive actions. Polish missions – as part of Warsaw Pact Armed Forces operations – should anticipate offensive missions along the northern coast, at a range of 500 to 800km, in a 200 to 250km belt moving at a rate of 60 to 80km per day.” This meant that the Polish Army was to fight beyond the Polish borders and, indeed, push all the way to the Atlantic. At the same time, a second wave of Warsaw Pact forces was to enter Poland within the first three days: in other words, 3 million Red Army soldiers and 38,000 tanks and armoured vehicles would descend upon Poland. The document went on to predict that, within six to eight hours of invasion, the Polish Army would perish as cannon fodder in direct combat.
Reagan – Gorbachev – Kukliński
Soviet military planners predicted 50 percent losses in a nuclear ‘first-strike’ on Warsaw Pact countries. Of course, this would include Poles. In 1986, President Reagan met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, presenting to the world the beginning of a new period of warmer relations between the USA and the Soviet Union.
Yet from the outset, Gorbachev was not in the mood to make concessions. A certain little-known incident changed his mind. At one point in the negotiations, the US Defence Secretary, famous Pentagon Chief Casper Weinberger, handed some documents to President Reagan. The president passed the documents to Gorbachev, who in turn handed them to the Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Armed Forces, Sergey Akhromeyev, who glanced at the papers and went pale. In his hands, he was holding detailed plans and blueprints for the most important Soviet bunkers to be used in the event of a nuclear war. World War Three! The Americans had been targeting those locations for years! Marshal Akhromeyev explained the significance of these documents to Gorbachev, who although a civilian, understood at once. This was an unmitigated disaster for the Soviets. And so began the US-Soviet negotiations.
From that moment, the Russians were in retreat. None of the participants in these high-level discussions had any idea how these ultra-valuable documents had entered the hands of President Reagan. It was Kukliński who, in the late 70s, had obtained the documents on the Soviet bunker system and passed them to the United States. Kukliński cooperated with American intelligence agencies from July 1972 to November 1981. During the Brezhnev era, Soviet Russia reached the apogee of her military and political power, threatening the world with nuclear war. The Americans gave the Colonel several aliases, the last being ‘Jack Strong’. He was the most important CIA agent in American history.
If the General Staff was the Polish Army’s brain, then the Strategic-Defence Planning Department was the brain of the General Staff. It was headed by Kukliński, a trusted officer of Generals Jaruzelski and Kiszczak, as well as Soviet Marshals Ustinov, Kulikov, and Akhromeyev. Kukliński was a liaison officer between the commanders of the Polish and Soviet armies as well as being the secretary of the Polish delegation at Warsaw Pact meetings. Among the Soviet generals in Moscow, Kukliński was regarded as the youngest and most talented of military minds.
How did Colonel Kukliński slip into the good graces of the Soviet generals and earn their trust? At the end of August and beginning of September 1973, during major Warsaw Pact military manoeuvres, Dmitry Ustinov—the all-powerful Soviet Defence Minister and Brezhnev’s right-hand man—was in his headquarters near Magdeburg in East Germany. Over a large field map, an attack on Western Europe was being simulated, employing, among other things, more than 40 tactical nuclear missiles. They were aimed at targets ranging from the East-West German border to Portugal. Simultaneously, the Polish Army was expected to overrun Denmark, Holland and Germany.
Walking in socks on the map of Europe
Suddenly, it became obvious something was not right on the large strategic map of Europe; the general staff and planners had botched something. Marshal Ustinov, standing on the surface of the huge map, littered with arrows and flags, raised his voice to gain the attention of the other marshals and generals. But no one understood what he was so concerned about. And then, quite unexpectedly, onto the map walked a little man in his socks. Carefully adjusting a couple of flags, he returned to his place, holding his shoes in his hands. The bearlike Ustinov walked up to him, embraced him, and clapping him on the shoulders, exclaimed, “Attaboy!” This was in front of the entire senior military staff of the Warsaw Pact. From that moment on, Kukliński was beyond suspicion and beyond reproach as a trusted officer of Marshal Ustinov himself. Soon thereafter, he was sent to the elite Voroshilov Soviet Academy of Armed Forces in Moscow. At that time in 1973, he had already been collaborating with the Americans for two years.
During his ten years of cooperation with the United States, Kukliński procured a variety of types of intelligence. His information served as a sort of barometer for NATO and the US. What he was providing were, in effect, weather forecasts. He acted as a kind of early warning system for the possibility of an unexpected Soviet invasion. Kukliński said so himself:
“Soviet troops were constantly training for that kind of an unexpected attack. They would consider, for example: ‘The international situation has intensified.’ And then further orders would follow about what should be done. Such plans existed. And if there was a plan, its implementation could not be ruled out. After all, there had been a Fall Weiss Plan, which led to a war in 1939 with Poland; there had been a plan for Barbarossa, leading to the German invasion of the USSR; there had been a plan for Martial Law, which was implemented on 13 December 1981. Anything was possible. I cannot say that I gave the Americans the complete Soviet war plan, but I handed them key pieces of it. This included information on the strategic build-up of Warsaw Pact armed forces in preparation for war and the mobilization plan for the Soviet second-wave, stationed just beyond the eastern Polish border. I also knew the plans for the first-wave of Soviet forces, stationed in East Germany, how they were to be used and in what direction they would move.”
The information provided by Kukliński was critical to American defence analyses. It was used to neutralize [the threat] of Soviet arms and help the Pentagon make decisions on weapons worth investing in. One day in 1981, the CIA notified Kukliński: “We have to obtain information on the armour of the T-72 tank. Billions of dollars of war expenditure depend on this information.” Thanks to the information subsequently provided by the Polish officer, America saved more than 5 billion dollars, which would otherwise have been spent superfluously.
Both American and NATO politicians considered the possibility of Soviet aggression beginning in 1945. However, they were principally concerned with the possibility of conventional warfare, without the use of nuclear weapons in Western Europe. During the Brezhnev era, the threat of Soviet aggression was very real. Given the political and military tensions, an unexpected attack was always possible. The Russians continued to blackmail the West. Huge manoeuvres and mass troop movements served to emphasize the constant threat. Kukliński provided information on what the Russians planned to do… and not to do. NATO leadership could thus be certain that a large military manoeuvre would not rapidly transform into an invasion of West Germany, Austria, and Denmark, by Ustinov, Ogarkov, and Kulikov. Warsaw Pact forces could have—by means of a surprise attack—gained a significant advantage over NATO forces. Kukliński’s activities were therefore invaluable to the American intelligence services. A living person—a Polish officer—could verify on the ground the data being picked up by American reconnaissance satellites.
From death sentence to Avenue of honour
The sentence handed down to the Colonel was unprecedented, and one of the most shameful episodes in Polish judicial history. This was a court in Warsaw, and not Moscow, made up of Poles, and not Russians, condemning a Pole to death, not for transmitting Polish state secrets, but those of a foreign power that was an enemy to Poland. Furthermore, those top-secret Soviet strategic documents, obtained in Moscow by Kukliński, were—of course—in Russian and not in Polish! Despite this, or maybe precisely for this reason, the judges—in their uniforms of the Polish People’s Army—condemned a Pole to death. Kukliński’s sentence has become central to debates about the extent to which the PRL was independent, and the extent to which the Polish People’s Republic was part of the Soviet Empire, and the extent to which the Polish People’s Army was subordinate to orders from Moscow.
Kukliński worked in conditions of extreme danger for ten years. He left Poland at the last possible moment, as he was close to being discovered by Soviet counterintelligence. The date of his escape was 7 November 1981, the anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and only a few weeks before the declaration of Martial Law. The Americans instructed Kukliński to attend a celebratory banquet at the Soviet Embassy. After the feast, he did not return to his home in the New Town of Warsaw, but instead to a secret location from where he was taken to the airport. With a Polish passport under a different name, he flew to London. His wife Hanka and their two sons were driven over the German border at Świecko in an American embassy car. President Reagan had personally given his consent to this operation, in which dozens of US intelligence officers were engaged. Kukliński departed at the point when the KGB and Polish military counterintelligence knew that one of the six colonels and generals in the Polish General Staff was an agent. Years later, General Kiszczak admitted that the individual who had raised the least suspicion was Ryszard Kukliński.
Colonel Kukliński was court-martialled in absentia and sentenced to death, dishonour, confiscation of property, and deprivation of public rights.
Despite its secret sentence, this terrible kangaroo court was unable to demonstrate any material motives for the officer’s activity. In 1997, Colonel Kukliński was rehabilitated and acquitted by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Poland, eight years after the fall of the PRL. While in the US, at least two attempts were made to abduct him to Moscow, and there was one attempt to assassinate him. In 1994, in the space of a few months, both his sons Bogdan and Waldemar died under mysterious circumstances.
The People’s Republic of Poland was neither a free nor a sovereign state. Those who ruled did so in the imperial interests of the Kremlin. They, and their totalitarian-communist political system, were both imposed on the Poles by the Soviet Union. Between 1944 and 1993, Red army troops were continuously stationed in Poland. These were occupying forces. The Warsaw Pact, was ‘Warsaw’ in name only. In fact, it was the Moscow Pact. Its leaders were all Soviet without exception. Poland was not only politically dependent, but also economically exploited for more than half a century by its neighbour. Communist propaganda in the People’s Republic of Poland informed the citizenry, that its neighbour to the east was a liberator, ally, and friend. In reality, it was an enemy and an occupier. Its truth was only about power. This is what Kukliński understood. It was the fight of one lone Pole against the entirety of an Evil Empire. A righteous fight, carried out by means of deception, but in defence of the freedom of the motherland.
Zbigniew Hebert wrote: “The argument that Colonel Kukliński was a traitor, in accordance with the laws in force in the Polish People’s Republic, is formally correct, but completely absurd, because by this logic, we would also have to remove the names Pułaski, Traugutta, and Piłsudski from school textbooks. Kukliński fought a lonely fight for many years, with the spectre of death threatening him at every moment. Here is what really matters: the right to independence, the right to exist, and, finally, the right to national dignity. He became a symbol of fighting for what is great in our society against foreign aggression. Heroes are always alone. They aren’t supported by paid sycophants, propagandists, or proponents of the baton and the camp of solitude.”
Ryszard Kukliński was simultaneously a colonel of the Polish and US Armies, harkening back to a precedent set by Pułaski and Kościuszko. Fittingly, Kukliński’s funeral was held at Arlington National Cemetery, where Presidents, American heroes, and distinguished soldiers are buried, close to the tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Generals, American admirals, and CIA chiefs attended the ceremony. A chaplain of the marines led the ceremony, and the marines also gave an honorary 21-gun salute. The military band played ‘Poland Is Not Yet Lost, the national anthem of Poland, as well as the ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’.
Those who passed down the death sentence on Kukliński could not have imagined the day the decision would come full-circle. It happened on the 19 June 2004 when President of Warsaw Lech Kaczyński interned the ashes of the American and Polish hero – in the Avenue of Honour – at Warsaw’s famous Powązki Cemetery. Kukliński’s grave is the first grave encountered on the Avenue of Honour upon entering the cemetery.