The Endurance of Lane Kirkland

The motivation of supporters or the opponenents of the sanctions regime is always divided. But in the light of today’s conflict about Russian visas, it’s worth remembering how effective they can be.

Polish public opinion has been divided on the proposition to issue visas to Russians. Up till now the opinions of the two main political groupings has been united. Polish politicians reacted with one voice in support of wide-ranging and increasing sanctions against Russia after six months earlier, it had started its destructive invasion of Ukraine.

However the visa question precipitated a change. The deepest divisions have been seen within the European Union itself. The appeal of the Ukrainian president to stop the issuing of Schengen visas has been met most warmly by Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Visas have been issued to citizens of the Russian Federation only on humanitarian grounds, to obtain medical treatment for example. The Czech Republic, current president of the EU, wishes to introduce the matter at EU summit meetings and in its daily business. Finland, relying on its domestic law does not wish a total ban but will only issue visas for a symbolic monthly quota of one hundred. The Berlin government is decidedly against this solution.

The majority of Polish politicians in general are for introducing sanctions. Divisions can be seen mostly in the opposition Civic Platform (PO). PO members such as Andrzej Halicki, whose post as deputy leader of the Civic Freedom Justice and Internal Affairs Commission in the European Parliament is significant, as too is Bartłomiej Sienkiewicz, a former interior minister Others, including Radosław Sikorski a former foreign minister and Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz,a former mayoress of Warsaw are against.

I want to travel

Apart from the personalities involved, the reasons are more important when questions of sanctions are discussed. The supporters stress the sanctions’ humanitarian nature. This is not about using any force or violence but merely moderate in nature. There is also the question of their effectiveness. The opponents equally stress that they affect the innocent too. This is a universal question that tackles the border between repression and innocence, and one which is raised on occasions when it comes to carpet bombing and the export of semi-conductors. There is the risk of harming “ordinary people”.

Hanna Gronkiewicz-Waltz says that “Russians can get to know what democracy actually is thanks to travel”. But from the widely seen antics of Daria Peskova, the wife of the Kremlin spokesman during her Greek holidays, she has shown us that in the home of democracy maybe it is easier to learn Zorba’s dance.
Jastrzębie-Zdrój 2-3 September 1980. Miners' strike from the Coal Mine The July Manifesto. On the right, a figure of St. Barbara. Photo PAP / Bogdan Różyc
I wonder about this long-lasting conflict in the context of Lane Kirkland, an important but oft-forgotten hero of Polish freedom.

     He was a trade union boss and leader of the gigantic AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organisations) central office from 1979 to 1985. He supported “Solidarity” from its inception. He had supported the movement even beforehand as when an independent labour movement was established on the Polish coast. He first supported Polish workers during the conference of August 21 1980. A day later, he confirmed his organisation’s support through one of its affiliates, the International Longshoremen’s Association. In this he propped up any boycott of Polish ships awaiting unloading on the US East coast or in the Gulf of Mexico.

Why this provocation?

These were the first steps, ones that were followed by others, a hundred times more significant. As soon as the strike in the Gdańsk Shipyard finished, Lane Kirkland committed to the support of a newly set up union and initiated the supply of funds. Three days later he was to discuss these issues with the US authorities. Kirkland’s biographer, Arch Puddington, wrote that Edmund Muskie, the then Secretary of State immediately summoned the union boss for a meeting at which he voiced his dissatisfaction with the “provocations”. Muskie thought that the support of the American labour organisation central office could justify a Kremlin intervention in Poland.

This position was maintained until 1987 at least. It was a source of friction between Kirkland and the Washington establishment. The independent Polish public opinion of the time, despairingly thirsting for Western support and convinced, somewhat accurately, that the US was the strongest player in the dismantling of communism, realised that support for Solidarity was limited. To the authorities, it was stability that understandably mattered. A transparent opponent is better than chaos. This choice was the one that bothered Washington regarding communist Poland and the Solidarity union, during the honeymoon period in 1980-81 as in the years of later martial law.

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Lane Kirkland did not just find himself at odds with the members of the Reagan or Bush teams, but perhaps more with leaders of western European trade union central offices. The German Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund observed the events in Poland and as its official communique noted them, with “alarm and attention”. The British TUC, (Trades Union Congress) responded in more guarded terms and its officials after the events of August, concentrated on strengthening their connections with the communist façade organisation Central Council of Trade Unions. Paradoxically the French communistic CGT union together with the AFL-CIO behaved in a more determined fashion.

Bulgarian trail, Stockholm trail

Kirkland was different. He accumulated USD160,000 up to January 1981. In April after receiving Washington’s report from his personal representative, Bayard Rustin, he decided to increase his support manyfold. Puddington wrote that Rustin characterised Solidarity as a “ generally national movement that takes advantage of its unionised character” an opinion shared by today’s political analysts.

The communist authorities in Poland meanwhile had recognised him as Solidarity’s greatest ally in the West and ostentatiously denied him an entry visa when he was invited to the national congress of Solidarity delegates in August 1981. Kirkland refused to give in . His speech instead was given by George Higgins who entered Poland on a tourist visa. Wiktor Kulerski a Solidarity activist said that “ since they have refused him a visa, he certainly means us well”. The speech, given in the Olivia sports hall could have inspired “those delegates of the working peoples of Eastern Europe”.

The scale and universality of Kirkland’s engagement has been shown by the discovery of archive documents. A few years ago, historian Professor Andrzej Friszke published documents found in the Investigation bureau of the Interior Ministry, the originals having been sent by the Bulgarian interior ministry. They describe the discreet meetings between Kirkland’s right hand man, Tom Kahn, and Karol Modzelewski, a high-ranking member of Solidarity. During the course of the meeting, the methods of giving material and political support were discussed and their use by the AFL-CIO. The American central office declared its readiness to be engaged to the tune of a million and a half dollars.

Soldarity, though Modzelewski asked for printing equipment above all. Typewriters and the wherewithal to equip large factories with radio broadcast kit. Then the first, ultra-secretive channel of communication was stablished ,coordinated by Jakub Święcicki, a 1970s émigré, in Stockholm. He was active in the Workers Defence Committee and in 1980 in the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions.

By yacht and truck

After the introduction of martial law the active engagement rose, with acts of support and lines of communication. Part of this support went through the coordination bureau of Solidarity based in Brussels. Part went through the structures established by activist including Mirosław Chojecki and part through the Berlin network of Edward Klimczak. In Washington the coordination and organisation of these channels were done by Irena Lasota and Eric Chenoweth.

Kirkland naturally was a few levels higher. Romantic and picaresque stories about the delivery of stuff by diplomatic bag, Swedish business men sailing their yachts close to the Polish coast and truck drivers who got the keys to secret caches weren’t his doing exactly , but they were in his spirit if not only in Kirkland’s knowledge.
Lane Kirkland (left) was honored by Bill Clinton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Photo Wally McNamee / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images
Kirkland received many gestures of thanks after the fall of communism. In 1994, the then president Bill Clinton awarded him the highest civilian order-the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In Poland, almost two decades after his memorable press conference on August 21 1980, he was, in August 1999 posthumously awarded the Order of the White Eagle by Polish president Aleksander Kwiaśniewski.

On August 31 this year he is to be decorated with the Medal of the Nation’s Gratitude from the European Centre of Solidarity based in Gdańsk. The Lane Kirkland scholarship has been active in Poland for over twenty years, funded by the Polish-American Freedom Foundation. This Polish “Fulbright” has included around a thousand scholars from Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the post-Soviet Central Asia-from Armenia to Uzbekistan.

Do we tighten or loosen the screws?

The debate started well before the imposition of martial law by General Jaruzelski. It was characterised differently. American analysts judged that the Polish economic situation was parlous and they were ready to support materially or financially but thought of only one thing: criterion being the attitude of the authorities to independent trade unions.

Echoes of this can be seen in the documents of Bulgarian intelligence. One of the topics of discussion between Kahn and Modzelewski in January 1981 was that of the expectations of Solidarity with respect to the financial support being readied by the US Congress for Poland. What should be the position of the AFL-CIO, Kirkland’s representative asked? Modzelewski had the answer “The US government could help the Polish government if the Gdańsk agreements were honoured.” The Bulgarian agent observed that “if the government used repressive methods or halted the realisation of the terms” then the US government would withdraw their aid.

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The agent went on “Tom Kahn assured the representative of Solidarity that the AFL-CIO would adopt the position advised by Modzelewski and asked the Polish representative to clarify if Solidarity was ready to receive ‘conditional assistance’” The circumstances that were to verify the position came along unfortunately eleven months later.

Kirkland found out about the imposition of martial law during a visit to the offices of the OECD. There and during an earlier visit to London to which he had travelled on December 14 to meet with labour figures, the first friction with the advocates of the ‘realistic approach” were seen. It was on December 15 that he met with Ronald Reagan and his closest advisors, including Alexander Haigh the Secretary of State and chief of staff James Baker.

The meeting provided the first criticism of Washington’s reaction to martial law and to propose a radical sanctions programme. He thought that the dire economic bankruptcy of communist Poland would dramatically complicate the situation of the regime on the international stage. The Jaruzelski regime had no chance in meeting repayments of its debts and could only appeal to restructure.

Nicaragua or Poland?

As it happened, such drastic sanctions were not imposed. Alexander Haigh as a well as James Nance of the National Security Council opposed the sharpening of the programme. Kirkland remained sharply critical of the Washington attitude realising that the Reagan team was “fixated” on the fight with communism in Central America from Nicaragua to Grenada, and saw Poland and central Europe as the “second front”. The AFL-CIO was diametrically opposed and said as much. He started in Chicago in 1982 during which he criticised the administration in Wahington and western European governments for allowing credits to those who “imprisoned Lech Wałęsa, exiled Andrei Sakharov and detained hundreds in psychiatric hospitals, thousands in prisons and whole nations under subjugation.”

Rhetoric has its own rules, but Kirkland said the same during his meetings with government officials, in the central office of the union in interviews and in press columns. He wished to oppose the wide coalition of enthusiasts for the normalisation of relations with communist Poland. After the lifting of martial law in 1983, many of these were not lacking in the Department of Trade nor among the “doves” in the Democratic party as well as among the Republicans, and in the Polish diaspora in large part.

“Withhold credit for the eastern bloc” he appealed in 1982 “Withhold credit for those who keep Wałęsa in jail!” He called for sanctions to be applied, and this was indeed realistic, to those Europeans keen to strengthen relations with Warsaw or Moscow. He argued about the agreement of the US to let Polish trawlers fish in its coastal waters, the renegotiation of eleven million in debt repayments, the landing rights for LOT Polish Airlines in the US, the embargo on the export of technology. He would persist till August 1988 when the AFL-CIO succeeded in blocking the Generalized [sic] System of Preferences clause for communist Poland.

The circumstance surrounding the reality of martial law in Poland and the invasion of Ukraine in 2022 differ. Different too was the contemporary support for “ordinary Poles” under Jaruzelski’s regime from today’s support of “ordinary Russians’” support for the Kremlin. If we start to mix the arguments concerning today’s debate about sanctions against Russia, it is worthwhile remembering about the endurance of Lane Kirkland.

—Bohdan Miś

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

—Translated by Jan Darasz
Main photo: The year 1989, Solidarity comes out of the underground. Lane Kirkland (center right) and Lech Wałęsa (center left) have reasons to be happy. Photo Dirck Halstead / Getty Images
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