Digging into the past can yield unexpected treasures buried in the annals of history. A great reward for an author is to uncover those golden moments, unearthed when past presidential advisers talk about things they never dared to share while in office. One such example is the striking revelation that Ronald Reagan once privately contemplated sending troops into Poland—a possibility he discussed with his two most trusted advisers, Secretary of Defense Cap Weinberger and National Security Adviser Bill Clark.
In December 1980, Reagan brought up the idea to Weinberger after one of the pre-inauguration security meetings held at Blair House in the immediate weeks after the November election. Looking back 25 years later, Weinberger—who died last year—recalled the intensity of the situation: “There was very considerable worry that the Soviets, with two divisions … and the constant military exercises and threatening moves around the borders of Poland, might very well decide to wander in there without any fear of adverse results or reprisals.” Reagan wanted no signals to the Kremlin that such action would be acceptable. “The president was very firm about that,” said Weinberger.
The degree to which Soviet tanks almost crossed the border has been only recently revealed in declassified memos. Reagan considered meeting them inside Poland. Weinberger recalled: “I said, ‘You know, Mr. President, we don’t have the ability to project our power that far and we could not, without very substantial help, successfully come to the aid of the Poles if they were invaded.’ And he said to me, ‘Stop.’ He turned to me and said, ‘Yes, I know that Cap.’”
In the weeks and months after martial law was declared in Poland in December 1981, Reagan had similar discussions with Bill Clark. More than two decades after the fact, Clark recalled: “The Soviets and their proxies in Poland declared martial law and started in the summer moving troops up to the border, which looked like another situation as had occurred in Hungary in ’56 and Czechoslovakia in ‘68. The President said this just simply cannot happen, even if it means meeting force with force.”
Importantly, however, Clark qualified his remarks: “Anyone familiar with decision-making processes understands that you consider a full gamut of options. That was one that was considered. But I don’t want it to seem or sound more dramatic than it was.”
Indeed, considered is the operative word. Reagan readily rejected the military option—for all the right reasons. It was too dangerous—such a maneuver could have led to World War III. His prudence defied the contemporary caricature of Reagan as an unstable hawk and a puppet whose strings were tugged by manipulating advisers.
Instead, Reagan looked for non-military routes in Poland in the hopes of using the nation as (in his words) “the wedge” to crack the Communist Bloc throughout Eastern Europe. He sought non-militaristic means to “keep hope alive in Poland.” As he said in a 1982 speech, the Soviets rightly feared the “infectiousness” of freedom in Poland.
Rather than firing American weapons, Reagan launched an extraordinary covert campaign to aid Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement inside Poland. He resolved that if Solidarity could be saved and sustained, it could be that wedge. In that thinking, he was joined by a prominent Pole named Karol Wojtyla, also known as Pope John Paul II. The alliance that they forged was personal, and changed history.
Likewise, President Bush and his advisers must search added avenues to defeat the enemy. They must find and support Solidarity movements in the Middle East today, inside Iraq, Iran, and Syria—other potential “wedges” that require strategic policies beyond the military option.
As noted in the first of this four-part series, comparisons between Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush are often unfair because of the uniqueness and gravity of the current president’s challenge. Consider:
Reagan became president four decades into the Cold War, whereas Bush is the first post-9/11 president; thus, Bush is presiding over the start of a long War on Terror, not its finish. We should no more expect victory from Bush at this point in the war than we expected from Harry Truman in 1947. Bush seems to have reconciled himself to this essential reality.
Alas, then, perhaps the ultimate contrast in the two men could be the most bittersweet for Bush: Reagan was blessed to be able to enjoy the fruits of his labors in his lifetime, and before his mind was robbed of its memories by Alzheimer’s disease—he watched the Berlin Wall fall the year he left the presidency, and the USSR collapsed two years later. To the contrary, Bush has acknowledged that if he is vindicated in the Middle East, it will not happen while he is president. In fact, he does not expect the changes to take place until he leaves this earth. Bush himself wryly noted this in an October 2005 speech honoring—you guessed it—Ronald Reagan. The 43rd president seemed a bit envious.
For now, George W. Bush will need to be content with the strong possibility of leaving the presidency an unpopular president—like Harry Truman. Yet, he is committed to not exiting the presidency without trying to meet his goals in the War on Terror. Fulfilling that commitment means finding the ingenuity to tap multiple methods for undermining the enemy—including tactics beyond force in Iraq.