The cover of Time magazine's first issue of 1982 was emblazoned with an image of Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity, the Polish workers' movement that for sixteen months had challenged Communist rule and brought the flame of freedom flickering to life in a country that had been under the Soviet heel since the end of World War II. Walesa had been selected Time's Man of the Year. This honor was bestowed on an individual who, weeks earlier, had been arrested as part of a government crackdown that threatened the very existence of Solidarity. The soldiers had come in the early morning hours of 13 December 1981 to Walesa' apartment in the Baltic seaport of Gdansk. Walesa was whisked away by plane and ensconced in a government house on the outskirts of Warsaw. That same night, thousands more were arrested. Troops and armored units moved into the streets of towns and cities across Poland. As Poles awoke to a new day, they found General Wojciech Jaruzelski, head of the government, announcing on radio and television that a state of martial law existed throughout the country. Jaruzelski claimed that with "a broken heart" he had been forced to take such repressive measures because of the actions of extremists within Solidarity. Ever since the formation of the workers' federation took place in Gdansk shipyards in August 1980, the world had watched in amazement and apprehension, wondering if the movement could successfully challenge Communist hegemony -- and wondering, too, if a crackdown would come. Now the world had its answer. And without Walesa, Solidarity seemed in danger of disintegration.
Walesa (pronounced Vah-wen-sah) was, at first blush, an unlikely hero. Short and paunchy, he was the son of a carpenter, born in a clay hut in the village of Popow. In 1967 he got a job as an electrician at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. He witnessed first-hand the killing of demonstrators by police during the 1970 food riots, and in 1976 lost his job because he was a union agitator. Modestly educated, the chain-smoking Walesa nonetheless demonstrated a special knack for inspiring his fellow Poles with energetic, off-the-cuff speeches, and when a government decree spurred protests at the Lenin Shipyard in August 1980, he was chosen to head a strike committee charged with negotiating the workers' demands. He soon found himself representing a half million strikers across the land. His committee made extraordinary demands, chief among them being the right to form free unions. Few outside observers could even conceive of the government agreeing to such a thing. Free unions in a Communist country? Surely the army would be sent in to wrest control of the shipyards and coal mines and factories held by the strikers. Instead, the government conceded -- and Solidarity was born.
From the start, Walesa insisted that Solidarity should be a labor movement, not a political one. But younger activists in the rank-and-file agitated for a far more radical challenge to the Communists than Walesa thought wise. He knew that the government had struck a bargain only because the nationwide strike had threatened to wreck Poland's floundering economy. He knew, as well, that the Soviets were pressuring the Polish government to take a harder line. TASS, the official Soviet news agency, warned that Polish unions were seeking to "destroy Socialism." In March 1981, a Kremlin communique urged Polish Communist Party Secretary Stanislaw Kania and Premier Jaruzelski to "reverse the course of events and liquidate the perils looming over the socialist gains of the nation." Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made it clear that the USSR might resort to military intervention. The Polish government hoped that by conceding to another set of Solidarity demands, including a five-day work week, they could appease the workers. Walesa agreed to a 90-day moratorium on strikes, realizing that in a sense he and Kania were in the same boat -- caught between the looming menace of the Soviet army conducting "maneuvers" on the Polish border in the spring of 1981, and the Solidarity radicals who seemed determined to press the issue to the breaking point. Divided into 38 semiautonomous chapters, the labor federation had become increasingly resistant to centralized management, however, and Walesa had to criss-cross Poland trying to defuse a string of wildcat strikes.
The Kremlin watched with growing alarm as nearly one million Poles quit the Communist Party. At the same time, the remaining Party members defied a Central Committee request that they forsake all ties with Solidarity. Inspired by the workers' movement, reformers within the Polish Communist Party began a crusade called ODNOWA (Renewal), designed to democratize the apparatus and challenging centralized party control. At the Ninth Congress of the Polish Communist Party in July 1981, nearly two thousand delegates voted to oust the hardliners on the Central Committee. But there were still plenty of hardliners in the Kremlin, and they worried that the "Polish Disease" would spread throughout the Eastern Bloc.
As 1981 progressed, Poles experienced more and more freedom. Solidarity's weekly newspaper soon enjoyed a circulation of 500,000, far more than the Party weekly Polityka. Dozens of other independent newspapers sprang up, some highly critical of the Communists. The Catholic Church was allowed to radio broadcast Mass from Warsaw's Church of the Holy Cross. Thousands of Poles used a liberalized passport law to leave the Eastern Bloc and never return. Party-line schoolbooks that distorted the nation's history were replaced by more accurate texts.
Walesa increasingly came under fire from Solidarity's radical elements for his moderate views and willingness to compromise with the government. When Kania resigned in October 1981 and was replaced by General Jaruzelski, Walesa was hopeful that the compromising would continue. While Moscow had confidence in Jaruzelski, the Polish people took comfort in the knowledge that the general had always before refused to use the 210,000-man army against strikers. One of Jaruzelski's first acts was to meet with Walesa and Archbishop Josef Glemp, the Polish Primate, in an effort to join the Church, the Party and Solidarity in a cooperative pact to further economic recovery. The meeting failed to produce any real results, and the rift between the labor federation and the government widened, even as Poland's economy worsened. When radicals met in Gdansk on December 12 to call for a national referendum that challenged Communist control of the government and even questioned Poland's alliance with the USSR, Jaruzelski had to act. Walesa and 5,000 others were arrested, Solidarity was declared illegal, and martial law was imposed. A bitter Walesa told radical leaders: "Now you've got what you you've been looking for." It seemed Poland's flirtation with freedom was over.
But Solidarity refused to die. It operated underground for seven years, sustained in part by what one analyst described as "covert financial, intelligence, and logistical [American] support . . . that ensured the survival of an opposition movement in the heart of the Soviet Empire." This aid included funds to publish and distribute underground literature. Advanced communications equipment was provided, and on 12 April 1980 the inaugural broadcast of Solidarity Radio was heard by the citizens of Warsaw. With such support, Solidarity activists formed the Provisional Coordinating Committee (TKK) to coordinate resistance activities. Symbolic strikes and protests continued to erupt throughout Poland. The CIA established intelligence conduits with the TKK. There were setbacks, as activists were arrested and underground cells were smashed by the authorities, but Solidarity survived.
In 1989, Jaruzelski invited the union to take part in upcoming elections, as part of a new Soviet policy of perestroika (restructuring). To everyone's surprise, Solidarity-supported candidates took 99 of the 100 seats in the new Senate. On 24 August 1989, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the editor of Solidarity's weekly journal, was elected prime minister, and in December 1990 Walesa became president of Poland. For the next five years, this electrician-turned-national leader presided over the gradual conversion of Poland's managed economy into a free-market system.