"Forty-nine percent of the Polish population (perceives) him as a hero, 25 percent as a traitor, and 26 percent answered that it is difficult to say." - Miraslava Grabowska, Warsaw University Institute of Sociology
Ryszard Kuklinski was born June 13, 1930, in Warsaw, Poland. He joined the Polish Army when he was 17, and worked his way up the ranks, eventually becoming a liaison officer between Poland and officials of the Warsaw Pact. He participated in the repression of student demonstrations in Poland in 1968, and in the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Red Army in 1970. Kuklinski became disillusioned with the communist cause soon afterward, and decided to do what he thought was best for Poland.
Kuklinski arranged a contact within NATO, and over the next decade, Kuklinski conveyed over 35000 top secret Warsaw Pact documents directly to NATO and the CIA. Everything from troop movements in the Eastern Bloc, to the location of important Warsaw Pact installations, and dossiers of important military figures were sent NATO by Kuklinski. Occasionally, this information would keep NATO from misinterpreting occurrences within the Bloc, and keeping the Cold War from turning hot.
In 1980, General Wojciech Jaruzelski was placed at the head of the Polish government. One of his first priorities was to repress the Solidarity movement in the shipyards in Gdansk. Kuklinski and other army leaders created a plan to decree martial law in Poland, and drive the Solidarity movement underground. While Kuklinski sent these plans to NATO, they did not warn the Solidarity workers of the impending crackdown. About a month before martial law was decreed, NATO whisked Kuklinski out of the country, for fear he would be exposed.
Once aware of the truth behind Ryszard Kuklinski, the Polish government was outraged, Quickly, the government seized Kuklinski's possessions remaining in Poland, including his home outside of Warsaw and his yacht, and issued a warrant for his arrest. In 1984, Kuklinski was tried, in absentia, for treason and desertion, and was sentenced to death.
The United States government welcomed Kuklinski with open arms, giving him an assumed name and settling him and his family in Florida. However, the effects of his actions in Poland might have followed him across the Atlantic. Both of his sons died mysteriously; one in a boating accident, and another in a car accident. There are rumors that his sons were killed by agents of the KGB, in retaliation for his defiance.
Most of America would not have heard of Ryszard Kuklinski was it not for the political scheming of Jerzy Urban, a member of the regime under General Jaruzelski. In an attempt to embarrass Ronald Reagan, Urban leaked to the Washington Post that the man who had engineered the repression of Solidarity in 1981 was actually a CIA agent, and could have easily warned the protestors that the crackdown was coming. The Post ran this story on their front page the next day. A few days afterwards, Urban said in a press conference that the United States had "lied to its own people and to its friends in Poland." While the damage from this incident was minimal from a political standpoint, the trust between the Polish people and the United States decreased, as well as the Polish perception of Kuklinski.
Now that Kuklinski was revealed to the world, he could now afford to tell his own side of the story. In 1987, he was interviewed by Kultura, a Polish magazine published out of Paris. The magazine was banned by the communist government in Poland, but was still widely read by its residents. In the article, Kuklinski stated that he did what he thought was in the best interest of Poland, and did all that he could for its people. He also revealed that the planning for martial law had begun much earlier than either the Polish or Soviet governments were admitting, and that he did pass on the information to NATO as it came to his attention.
After the Fall
Even after the fall of communism and the election of Lech Walesa, the Polish government still treated Kuklinski as a traitor. Even after Kuklinski had taken his case directly to the Polish people, in an interview with the magazine Tygodnik Solidarnosc. It wasn't until Poland's application for NATO membership in 1997 that Kuklinski was pardoned, and his death sentence revoked. He returned to Poland for a visit in 1998, and was welcomed warmly.
Throughout the twenty years since his defection, the Polish public has been divided over what Kuklinski's actions meant for the nation of Poland. There are some, on the right of the political spectrum, that claim Kuklinski as a Polish hero, worthy of praise for his actions against the communists. Others claim that his espionage hurt the country, regardless of his intentions. Some say that, with the war plans he gave to NATO, Poland would have been in grave danger in the event of another World War. Still others say that, regardless of the administration, he still revealed the military secrets of Poland to those who wished to hurt the country. They say pardoning a spy sends the wrong message.
There were rumors that he would soon return to Poland to stay, and perhaps rejuvenate his political career in now-democratic Poland. However, he decided to stay in America and raise his grandson. Kuklinski suffered a stroke on February 5, 2004 in his home in Tampa, Florida. He died in a military hospital five days later.