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Poland’s Geopolitical Turn: Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki Visits Washington, March 1990

Mazowiecki’s March 1990 visit to Washington, DC, and Poland’s geopolitical turn toward the United States are the subject of a new set of documents on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive.

George and Barbara Bush and Mazowiecki
President George H. W. Bush and Mrs. Barbara Bush escort Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki of Poland at a State Dinner at the White House, March 21, 1990.

The year 1989 was a watershed for political, social, and economic life in Poland. From February to April, representatives of the communist authorities and of the Solidarity opposition conducted negotiations and ultimately reached a decision to hold partially free parliamentary elections. This plebiscite proved a success for the political opposition led by Lech Wałęsa, the legendary chairperson of Solidarity. “Lech’s team” – as the opposition candidates were referred to – won 35-percent of seats in the Sejm (the lower house of parliament) and nearly 100-percent of seats in the Senate (the upper house). Representatives of the communist party and its allies were guaranteed 65-percent of seats in the Sejm, but even this level of representation failed to give them firm control over future political developments. The communists found it difficult to push their presidential candidate through parliament, who was the head of the Polish United Workers’ Party, General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

Jaruzelski, who enjoyed Mikhail Gorbachev's support, could not make up his mind whether to take office. He analyzed the situation, counted the votes, and sought allies. At this critical moment in the summer of 1989, the President of the United States visited Poland.

Of course, George Bush knew that Jaruzelski was the leader who in 1981 imposed martial law in Poland and arrested hundreds of opposition activists. Although the US President certainly sympathized with the Solidarity movement, in July 1989 Bush’s top priority was to preserve stability in the region. He supported evolution rather than revolution in Poland’s domestic politics. In a book co-authored with Brent Scowcroft, the President later recalled that:

“Jaruzelski opened his heart and asked me what role I thought he should now play. He told me of his reluctance to run for president and his desire to avoid a political tug-of-war that Poland did not need. He did not think Solidarity would provide enough support for his election, and he worried about the humiliation of being defeated. I told him his refusal to run might inadvertently lead to serious instability and I urged him to reconsider. It was ironic: Here was an American president trying to persuade a senior Communist leader to run for office. But I felt that Jaruzelski's experience was the best hope for a smooth transition in Poland.”

According to the president’s memory, Wałęsa himself also tried to persuade Bush to tread lightly: “We should slow down political evolution so that economic reform can catch up.” He warned that if the Polish experiment failed, then there would be a "Tiananmen in the middle of Europe.”

Jaruzelski, after receiving blessings from both Gorbachev and Bush, became the President of Poland. This was, however, the last political victory for the communists, who were no longer able to form a government and choose the prime minister. This post was taken by a close advisor to Lech Wałęsa, Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

The new prime minister sent reassuring signals to the Kremlin, but at the same time tried to build new relations with the United States.

Poland’s geopolitical turn toward the United States can be explained by several factors.  First, Solidarity was a pro-Western movement, with the US supporting the opposition politically and financially for years, including via clandestine operations conducted by the CIA. Second, the events of 1989 and Gorbachev's policies opened enabled a paradigm shift in Poland’s foreign policy. Mazowiecki saw an opportunity to open Poland to the world, particularly to Western Europe and the US. Third, the Mazowiecki government was planning extensive economic reforms for Poland, and expected that the White House would initiate a new Marshall Plan for Eastern Europe. Lech Wałęsa personally asked Bush for support to the astronomical tune of ten billion dollars, as well as for political backing during Poland's negotiations with foreign creditors.

It was within this environment that Mazowiecki first visited Washington in March 1990. During his visit, Mazowiecki held talks with President George Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Labor Secretary Elizabeth Dole, and CIA Director William Webster. Mazowiecki also held a number of meetings with the US Congress, at the International Monetary Fund, and with representatives of the banking and business communities. Finally, he received the Freedom Award granted from the American Jewish Congress.

Mazowiecki’s March 1990 visit to Washington, DC, and Poland’s geopolitical turn toward the United States are the subject of a new set of documents on the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive. The new documents include the Polish versions of Mazowiecki’s conversations with Bush, Quayle, and other senior American leaders, and serve as a complement to the limited set of American materials already declassified and published. These files were collected from the private archives of Ryszard Wojtkowski's, who served as the Chief of Staff for several different Polish prime ministers from 1985 until 1991. As Chief of Staff, Wojtkowski apparently played a purely technical role in managing relations with the United States, but at the same time he sat in on many discussions, including those at the highest level, taking notes for Prime Minister Mazowiecki.

The visit to the US was an important moment for Mazowiecki’s foreign policy, despite the fact that, in the short term, the trip did not appear to be a stunning success. The talks at the White House made it clear to the Polish authorities that there would be no endless stream of dollars from the West. However, as the Polish administration noted, the visit marked the conclusion of the normalization of bilateral relations, which began earlier with Bush’s visit to Warsaw. According to internal Polish assessments, solid foundations were laid by Mazowiecki’s visit on which broader agreements could be built over time.

Indeed, just over a year later, in April 1991, Poland concluded an agreement with the Paris Club. This resulted in a 50-percent write-off of foreign debt, with future repayments furthermore spreat out over a number of years. Several months later, Poland and the US signed a debt relief agreement (by 70-percent). These concessions resulted from the fact that, from the moment when Mazowiecki became prime minister, Poland consistently pursued wide-ranging economic reforms which were rather painful for Polish society.

The visit to the U.S. was also important for Poland-Israel relations. During a meeting with the American Jewish Congress, Prime Minister Mazowiecki spoke about the historical ties between the two nations and shared his regret for instances of anti-Semitism in Poland after World War II and in 1968. He also stated that Poland would take part in the transit of Jewish citizens of the Soviet Union to Israel. This declaration, which was met with a standing ovation, was important because finding an air route for the emigrants had proved difficult: Hungary withdrew from the operation, and the other participating countries were unwilling to increase their involvement, likely due to threats levied by terrorist organizations (which announced that they would be attacking countries that helped Israel).

Mazowiecki’s decision to support the immigration of Soviet Jews to Israel elicited a rather enthusiastic response of the White House: "We greatly appreciate your government's forthcoming response to facilitating Soviet Jewish emigration to Israel. We hope other governments will follow your government's example and assist Israel in this humanitarian endeavor,” the Polish Prime Minister was told. In an operation codenamed most (“Bridge”), Mazowiecki’s cabinet created an air channel used by roughly 40,000 emigrants leaving the Soviet Union for Israel.

The “Bridge” operation not only opened up a new chapter in relations between Poland and Israel, but also with the United States. This cooperation, especially between the security services, was sealed when Polish intelligence officers evacuated several US intelligence personnel from Iraq who were stuck there on the eve of the Gulf War. This was an important element of the geopolitical turn that Warsaw made, as it freed itself from the Kremlin's influence.

In 1990, the only point of disagreement – as can be seen in the record of Mazowiecki’s talks with Bush – was the matter of German reunification and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from German territory. The Polish Prime Minister’s main concern was that reunification might entail demands to revise the borders drawn up after World War II. In February 1990, just before his Washington visit, Mazowiecki said publicly that until the final settlement of the border issue, Soviet troops should remain in Poland. He also expected that troops would remain in the bases of the former GDR. 

At exactly the same time, Bush met Kohl to discuss the participation of reunited Germany in NATO and the presence of US troops in the region. Bush did not mince his words: “The Soviets are not in a position to dictate Germany's relationship with NATO. What worries me is talk that Germany must not stay in NATO. To hell with that. We prevailed and they didn't. We can't let the Soviets clutch victory from the jaws of defeat.” He announced at the same time that he would be trying to pacify the Polish prime minister: “I'm concerned when I hear the Polish Prime Minister talk about keeping Soviet troops in Eastern Europe. I'm not enthralled when I hear Poland might want the Soviets to stay because of the issue of the Polish-German border. I don't like that, and I don't want to accept that.”

Despite these conflicting positions, Bush remained optimistic about Poland and felt that Mazowiecki had made a favorable impression: “I like the man. I think he is serious and honest – a man of real integrity. There is no question that he is a Polish patriot in the best sense of the term,” he explained to Kohl.

Connected Documents

Minutes of a Conversation of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki with US President George Bush, March 21, 1990


Over two days of meetings, Bush and Mazowiecki discuss German reunification, the future of relations with the Soviet Union/Russia, and NATO.

Working Record of the Conversation between the Prime Minister, Tadeusz Mazowiecki and the US Secretary of Defense D. Cheney, March 21, 1990

Mazowiecki and Cheney discuss Poland’s military, Soviet troop withdraw, and the future of NATO.

Working Record of a Conversation of Prime Minster Tadeusz Mazowiecki with Vice President of the United States D. Quayle, March 22, 1990

Mazowiecki, Quayle, and Dabrowski discuss Poland’s economy, inflation, and the IMF.

Working Record of a Conversation of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki with Secretary of Labor of the United States, Elizabeth Dole, March 22, 1990

Dole and Mazowiecki discuss Poland’s economy, US economic aid, and US-backed development projects.

Working Record of a Conversation of Prime Minister Mazowiecki with Secretary of the Treasury of the United States N. Brady, March 21, 1990

Mazowiecki and Brady discuss Poland’s debt and potential solutions, and Poland's transition from a communist economy to a capitalist economy.

Working Record of a Conversation of Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki with Deputy Secretary of State L. Eagleburger, March 21, 1990

At a working lunch, Mazowiecki and Deputy Secretary of State L. Eagleburger discuss the dangers of Balkanization. Additionally, they discuss the difficulties of European unification in the current political climate. 

This publication was supported by the Polish National Science Center grant “Coalition government in Poland in 1989–2001” (UMO-2019/35/B/HS3/02406), led by Prof. Antoni Dudek.

About the Author

Tomasz Kozłowski

Institute of Political Studies of Polish Academy of Sciences and Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance

Tomasz Kozłowski is a historian and earned a Ph.D. in political science. He currently works at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences and at the Historical Research Office of the Institute of National Remembrance. He specializes in the history of “Solidarity” and the political transformation of 1989. He recently published a book about the Polish Communist secret police, titled "Koniec imperium MSW. Transformacja organów bezpieczeństwa państwa 1989–1990" (Warsaw, 2019).

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