The Cold War Hero Who Averted World War III

(photo: Register Files)

Soviet communism was a very bloody business. While the number of Jews killed by the Nazis – six million – is generally viewed as the height of atrocities, the Soviet Gulags, forced labor camps where people were worked to death, were in fact much, much worse in terms of numbers. The rough numbers of those who died in the Gulags is estimated to be around twenty million, although as Anne Applebaum in her book “Gulag: A History” explained, this number does not touch those who died because relatives were sent to camps. Millions of the very young and the very old died from starvation or disease because there was no one left to care for them.

Life under communism was ruthless, both in and outside of the Gulags. The only difference, as Applebaum makes clear, was one of degree. She writes:

While writing this book, I described to a Polish friend the system of tufta—cheating on required work norms—that Soviet prisoners had developed. … He howled with laughter: “You think prisoners invented that? The whole Soviet bloc practiced tufta.” In Stalin’s Soviet Union, the difference between life inside and life outside the barbed wire was not fundamental, but rather a question of degree. Perhaps for that reason, the Gulag has often been described as the quintessential expression of the Soviet system. Even in prison-camp slang, the world outside the barbed-wire was not referred to as “freedom,” but as the bolshaya zona, the “big prison zone,” larger and less deadly than the “small zone” of the camp, but no more human—and certainly no more humane.

Such was the world that Poles lived in. They understood that, at any time, they too could be approached by the government, never to been seen again. The Soviet’s, in their thirst for world domination, directed their ruthlessness not just at their own people, but at the whole world. Thankfully, there was one Polish Officer who stood in their way: Colonel Ryszard Kukliński.

Ryszard Kukliński’s life reads like that of so many Poles of his generation: he lost his father to a Nazi concentration camp in World War II. Barely a teenager, he joined the Warsaw Uprising. After the war, he joined the army and rose through the ranks until he was made an officer in the Polish General Staff in Warsaw.

As a colonel, Kukliński was tasked with preparing for a hot war with the West. He became distrustful of the Soviet government, however, because it had badly abused its power against both Czechs and Poles in labor disputes, killing thousands.

Kukliński boldly decided to reach out to the United States when he learned of the Soviet scheme to set off World War III, with Poland as the “sacrificial lamb,” – the country against which the west would likely use their nuclear weapons.  

On a “sight-seeing” trip in Germany, Kukliński sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy initiating contact, suggesting that he meet with a military attaché. Instead, the U.S. sent CIA operatives in military uniforms. Eventually, Kukliński would learn that he was dealing with the CIA. Over nine years the colonel sent more than 35,000 pages of classified documents to the CIA. Unlike many spies, he didn’t get any compensation for his efforts, he was motivated only by his a desire for peace and a free Poland.

Among the thousands of pages Kukliński photographed (many with a camera ironically given to him by Soviet party official) was the intelligence that the Soviets were planning to use Poland as the official theatre for 3 million soldiers, 1 million tanks, and 3200 military trains full of weaponry aimed at Western Europe. The goal was to provoke a nuclear response from the overwhelmed West. Kukliński saw that, by giving this data to the West, they would have a better chance at preparing for such a massive invasion while also dodging the Soviet provocation to use nukes.

One website dedicated to Kukliński also makes it clear that his “treason” against the Soviets twice saved Poland from an all-out Soviet invasion directed at squashing the Solidarity movement. Like the Soviets had done in Czechoslovakia in 1968, killing 20,000 people, Solidarity would have been crushed “through extensive arrests, quick trials and death sentences for the movement's leaders.”

On December 7, 1981, Kukliński learned that he was being investigated as a possible spy. The CIA exfiltrated him, his wife and two sons from Poland to the U.S. just before the martial law was imposed. After his escape, a Soviet court convicted Kukliński in absentia of treason and sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted in 1997, only after the fall of communism and extensive efforts by Poles, President William Clinton, and Former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. He returned to Poland for a visit in 1998.

CIA Director William Casey wrote in a letter to President Ronald Reagan that: "In the last forty years, no one has done more damage to communism than that Pole." The CIA awarded him the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, its highest award. He is one of only eight to receive it and the only foreigner.

Despite moving to the U.S. and changing identities and addresses several times, Kukliński’s family remained in danger of reprisal. In 1994, his son Bogdan and a friend, both experienced sailors, mysteriously disappeared from a capsized sailboat 70 miles from the Florida coast in clear weather. No SOS was issued from the boat and diving suits remained unused. Their bodies were never found. Six months later, Kukliński's other son, Waldemar, was run over on a U.S. university campus by a truck with no license plates. The driver fled the scene of the crime. No fingerprints were found inside the vehicle. Although Kukliński did not pin his sons’ mysterious deaths on the KGB, he never denied that it was a possibility.

Kukliński died on February 11, 2004, in Tampa, Florida, a few days after suffering a stroke. He was 73. Upon his death, CIA director George Tenet called him '”a true hero of the cold war to whom we all owe an everlasting debt of gratitude.”

Colonel Kukliński is buried in Warsaw, along with the remains of his son Waldemar, in the row of honor at the Powązki Military Cemetery.

His story, told deftly in the book “A Secret Life” by Benjamin Weiser, reads like a spy novel. In Poland, the film Jack Strong – one of his CIA codenames – was released in 2014.

Although many have questioned his patriotism, Colonel Kukliński said during his 1998 visit to Poland:

I cannot tell you how effective or even how helpful the [secret] mission in which I – as a Pole and a solider – had the honor and privilege to take part, was. I profoundly believe, however, that it was in the deepest interests of a homeland that was enslaved and subordinated to the imperial aims of the Soviet Union, and that it took the road leading Poland to freedom, and never against.