Polish Perspectives on the Rapacki Plan for the Denuclearization of Central Europe
On October 2, 1957, Adam Rapacki proposed the denuclearization of Central Europe. A new collection on DigitalArchive.org documents the height of international discussions concerning the Rapacki Plan in 1958-1959.
On October 2, 1957, speaking before the United Nations General Assembly, Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rapacki proposed the denuclearization of Central Europe. Specifically, Rapacki stated that if East Germany and West Germany denuclearized, so too would Poland. In a coordinated move, Czechoslovakia pledged its willingness to join the endeavor. Taken together, the proposal to denuclearize these four Central European states became known as the “Rapacki Plan.”
For Poland, the Rapacki Plan offered enormous benefits. It would remove US tactical nuclear weapons stationed in West Germany and ensure that West Germany did not receive intermediate range nuclear weapons under potential North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) sharing agreements. The Rapacki Plan would also allow Poland to carve out more independence for itself from Soviet domination and obtain Western recognition of the contentious Oder-Neisse line on Poland’s boundary with East Germany. As an added benefit, the scheme would bestow international prestige upon Poland and its diplomats.
For the West, the Rapacki Plan posed insurmountable dangers. A prohibition on nuclear weapons in West Germany would undermine NATO’s defensive strategy and upset the balance of power in favor of Soviet conventional superiority in Europe. It might even induce a complete withdrawal of US armed forces from the continent. Moreover, the Rapacki Plan could solidify the status quo of a divided Germany and lead to West German neutralization.
Overall, the West believed that the Rapacki Plan could destroy NATO and imperil the foundations of Western security. Western states officially rejected the Rapacki Plan by mid-1958.
Our understanding of Poland’s strategy and struggle to advance the Rapacki Plan is enhanced by top-secret documents published in Polskie dokumenty dyplomatyczne, a series produced by the Polish Institute of International Affairs. These documents, published in 2011 and graciously provided to the author by editor Piotr Długołęcki, have now been translated into English for the first time by Jerzy Giebułtowski. The materials posted to the Wilson Center’s Digital Archive cover 1958 and 1959, the climax of the Rapacki Plan in diplomatic circles and the public imagination worldwide.
One strength of the collection is the insight that it provides into Western consideration of the Rapacki Plan. In one file dated January 10, 1958, a Polish official analyzes French Prime Minister Félix Gaillard’s public criticisms of the Rapacki Plan, concluding that Gaillard’s remarks were intended to gain much-needed economic aid from the Eisenhower Administration.
A dispatch from the Polish ambassador in Paris on January 12, 1958, details the varied support for the Rapacki Plan amongst French socialist politicians. Later, on January 23, the ambassador, Stanislaw Gajewski, described a conversation with the then leading opposition figure, General Charles de Gaulle. De Gaulle reportedly found the Rapacki Plan to be “extremely important” because, unlike many Western officials, he liked that it could lead to neutralization in Central Europe. As de Gaulle saw it, neutralization with something like the Rapacki Plan “could be of paramount importance for a proper solution to the German question, without which there can be no peace in the world.”
In assessing Canada’s “keen interest” in the Rapacki Plan, Polish officials observed Ottawa’s desire to serve as a mediator between East and West and the Conservative Party’s hopes of using the proposal for electoral gains in an upcoming election.
Poland also gleaned intelligence about the only two Western nuclear powers in the late 1950s, Great Britain and the United States. In a cable dated May 6, 1958, a Polish diplomat in London described Britain’s desire to engage the Rapacki Plan with counterproposals, which helped to convince Warsaw that its proposal might still have life as Western rejections rolled in.
Meanwhile, dispatches from Washington and other Foreign Ministry materials describe divisions within the Eisenhower Administration over the Rapacki Plan. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles adamantly opposed the Rapacki Plan, in part because he believed that the United States should avoid arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union in early 1958, given US inferiority in missile technology.
On the other hand, Eisenhower advisors Harold Stassen, Sherman Adams, and General Alfred Gruenther liked the plan and saw it as a way to spark much-needed negotiations with the Soviet Union. They also believed that the neutralization of Central Europe with the Rapacki Plan would “undermine Soviet influence in Europe.” Such observations of Western thinking challenge the argument made by some scholars that the West easily dismissed the Polish proposal.
The collection also reveals Poland’s struggle to advance the Rapacki Plan within the Eastern Bloc. One record of conversation from late January 1958 details Poland’s negative reaction to a secret Bulgarian proposal in January 1958 to form a denuclearized zone in the Balkans. As Rapacki informed a colleague, “the [Polish] reply is, obviously, negative. We consider their proposal premature. Their action now would be highly detrimental to our proposal and no less detrimental to their own.” A follow-up conversation shows that Poland advised Bulgaria to delay its initiative “at least by several weeks.”
Communications between Budapest and Warsaw show that Poland, supposedly with Soviet backing, dissuaded Hungary from trying to join the Rapacki Plan. A January 23 cable depicts a Polish effort to stop Czechoslovakia from “planning an extensive propaganda campaign” on behalf of the Rapacki Plan, which Warsaw thought “completely misses the point” since the West took the Polish initiative seriously.
Beyond NATO and the Warsaw Pact, this collection offers diverse geopolitical perspectives on the Rapacki Plan. Numerous documents detail the positions of neutral nations like India, Sweden, and Austria, while others analyze the positions of Western allies beyond Europe, such as Australia and Japan.
These materials reveal the varied response to the Rapacki Plan across the international community. Whereas the Japanese Ambassador to Warsaw showed interest in the Rapacki Plan, Australian officials proved more wary. Likewise, Austria engaged the Rapacki Plan with suggested modifications, whereas India’s position proved more difficult to discern and Sweden remained reticent towards the proposal.
Although much of the collection consists of reports from Polish embassies abroad, it does include files that show the Polish Foreign Ministry’s approach to the Rapacki Plan in early 1958. Deputy Foreign Minister Marian Naszkowski held a conference on the Rapacki Plan in mid-March with the chiefs of key Polish diplomatic missions. Naszkowski laid out the Polish strategy for promoting the Rapacki Plan, which included “Avoiding primitive propaganda methods,” reaching “more and more social democratic circles in the West,” and enhancing “Poland’s international prestige.” Although Poland faced an uphill battle, Naszkowski liked that the Rapacki Plan had “found supporters in different circles” throughout Europe and the United States.
Overall, this collection will prove valuable for historians of nuclear arms control, Polish foreign policy, and alliance politics during the Cold War. It provides first-hand insight into Poland’s greatest diplomatic initiative of the late 1950s, one which Warsaw hoped would fundamentally alter the dynamics of European security and carve out a larger role for Poland on the international stage. While the Rapacki Plan ultimately failed, it helped to inspire later efforts towards regional denuclearization in Europe and beyond.
 “Address by the Polish Foreign Minister (Rapacki) to the General Assembly [Extract], October 2, 1957,” Documents on Disarmament: 1945-1959, Volume II, US Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Department of State (Washington, DC: August 1960): 889.
 See, for example, Piotr Długołęcki, “An Unknown Context of the Rapacki Plan,” The Polish Quarterly of International Affairs, Vol. 20, No. 1 (2011): 60; Piotr Wandycz, “Adam Rapacki and the Search for European Security,” in Gordon A. Craig and Francis L. Loewenheim (eds.) The Diplomats, 1939 – 1979 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994): 289 – 317; Douglas E. Selvage, “Poland, the German Democratic Republic and the German question, 1955 – 1967” (PhD Diss., Yale University, 1998): 55 – 59.
 See, for example, James R. Ozinga, The Rapacki Plan: The 1957 Proposal to Denuclearize Central Europe and an Analysis of Its Rejection (Jefferson: McFarland & Co., 1989); James Stocker, “Accepting Regional Zero: Nuclear Weapon Free Zones, US Nonproliferation Policy and Global Security, 1957 – 1968,” Journal of Cold War Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Spring 2015): 41 – 47; Maria Pasztor, “France, Great Britain, and Polish Conceptions of Disarmament, 1957 – 1964” Acta Poloniae Historica, Vol. 90 (2004): 113 – 155.
 For further utilization of these materials, see, Piotr Długołęcki, “An Unknown Context.”
 For documents covering 1957, see, Polskie dokumenty dyplomatyczne 1957, red. Krzysztof Ruchniewicz, Tadeusz Szumowski, Piotr Długołęcki, Warszawa: Polski Instytut Spraw Międzynarodowych, 2006.
 See, for example, John Lewis Gaddis, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 137; Jozef Goldblat, “Nuclear Weapon Free Zones: A History and Assessment,” The Nonproliferation Review Vol. 4, No. 3 (Spring/Summer 1997): 18.
About the Author
History and Public Policy Program
The History and Public Policy Program uses history to improve understanding of important global dynamics, trends in international relations, and American foreign policy. Read more
Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more
Cold War International History Project
The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more