December 21, 2017

1970. Uprising in Poland Rattles Leadership

Gomułka Resigns Amid Protests
Shipyard workers face off with police in Szczecin, Poland on December 17, 1970 (source)
Bill Downs

ABC Washington

December 21, 1970

Back in 1955, when the Russians marshaled the six Communist satellite nations on their European border to form a buffer zone against the Capitalist West, the fact that the Kremlin leaders chose Warsaw as the site of the signing of this political and military alliance was not by chance.

The so-called Warsaw Pact was, and is, more than a multilateral organization of socialist states to match the US-sponsored North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In fact, the tip-off is in the official title of the Communist agreement, reading: "Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance."

Translated from the original Marx, it means strictly Soviet-style friendship, mutual assistance made only in Moscow, and Leninist mutuality of cooperation, which is what the Kremlin wants it to be at any point in time.

The Hungarians found this out during the Budapest uprisings in 1956. Czechoslovakia tasted Moscow's brand of mutual assistance and friendship in 1968.

It was a week ago today that reports began leaking through the Iron Curtain of rioting, looting, and shooting in the Polish cities of Gdańsk (formerly named Danzig) and the Prussian city of Stettin, now called Szczecin.

US and NATO intelligence reportedly made only routine checks on these incidents, apparently believing that the First Secretary of Poland's Communist Party, Władysław Gomułka, had the country firmly in hand, particularly since the Warsaw government and West Germany had agreed on a historic border settlement aimed at defusing an ancient time bomb in Eastern Europe.

But apparently Gomułka and everyone else—including the Russians—overestimated his Warsaw regime. A surprise order by the twelve-man Polish politburo, which brazenly raised the official price of staple foods such as potatoes, flour, and fats, turned out to be the ukase that broke Gomułka's back.

As the food and protest riots spread to other cities there were reports of Russian troop movements from the twenty-division garrison the Soviets maintain in East Germany—also of Red Army units along Poland's border with White and Baltic Russia and the Ukraine.

Yesterday Gomułka resigned. He has been replaced by one of his old enemies in Warsaw's politburo, Edward Gierek, a former coal miner who got his party training not in the USSR, but in France and Belgium.

Although the purge of Gomułka and four of his government ministers seems to have quieted the hungry and unhappy Poles, the crisis may not yet have passed. And no one here in Washington dares predict what might happen if the Russians felt forced to invoke the Warsaw Pact's mutual assistance and friendship provisions with Soviet tanks on the Poles, as they did with the Czechs and the Hungarians.

The new Polish Communist leader Gierek is regarded with suspicion and apprehension in some sections of the West. Two years ago, when Gierek was fighting his way up the politburo ladder, he resorted to an ancient device to explain away the nation's shortcomings. The fault, he said, lay with Poland's Zionists—the Jews.

This is Bill Downs in Washington with "The Shape of One Man's Opinion," a service of ABC News.