Recalling Zbigniew Brzezinski 1928 -2017


In 2018 I discussed Justin Vaisse’s biography, Zbigniew Brzezinski: America’s Grand Strategist, in The Polish Review. Vaisse, Director of Policy Planning at the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, had authored the third such work. American historian Patrick Vaughan had published the first in 2010, in Polish.  The other, a set of essays edited by Dr Charles Gati, an old Brzezinski friend, came out in 2012. 

Brzezinski’s life story was indeed remarkable. The son of a member of Poland’s foreign service, he accompanied his parents to Canada on the eve of World War II.  Growing up during the War, he could not help but be deeply affected by all he learned about the conflict and its impact on Poland.  After excelling in college in Canada he was admitted into the graduate program in Russian Area Studies at Harvard University in 1949. At age 30 he became a citizen of the United States.

At Harvard Brzezinski specialized in the brand new field of Soviet politics and foreign policy. His decision was of great consequence: with the eruption of the Cold War, Americans and American government leaders were on the look out for experts with insights about the global aims of Soviet communist Russia. 

As early as 1956 Brzezinski gained national recognition as co-author, with senior Harvard scholar Carl J. Friedrich, of an impressive publication titled Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy. From there he went on to build up an impressive record of publications that won the attention of both scholars and U.S. government officials. 

From the early 1960s on, Brzezinski was spending time in Washington, D.C. advising U.S. government leaders on the Soviet affairs. The highpoint of his service in Washington came between 1977 and 1981 when he was appointed National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, the former Governor of Georgia he had mentored on foreign policy.    

While Carter lost his bid for re-election in 1980, Brzezinski continued to play a highly visible role as a “public intellectual” sharing his views on many international issues with government leaders and the attentive public. He did this in his books, in a continuing stream of newspaper and magazine articles, in countless TV interviews, and at high level conferences on foreign affairs.  In doing so he remained a national presence for the rest of his long life.  

At the same time Brzezinski remained very interested in post war Poland.  He wrote about Poland in discussing the Cold War, advised President Johnson on Poland and Eastern Europe, influenced President Carter on Poland’s behalf, worked for the Solidarity cause, and pushed for post communist-ruled Poland’s entry in NATO. 

Over the years he worked with other dedicated Americans of Polish origin on matters pertaining to Poland –  Jan Jezioranski-Nowak from Radio Free Europe, Presidents Charles Rozmarek and Aloysius Mazewski of the Polish American Congress, and scholars Adam Ulam, Richard Pipes, Kamil Dziewanowski, and Piotr Wandycz.   

Brzezinski’s fertile mind led him to make several significant contributions to American thinking about Russia and Eastern Europe.  The first came with Totalitarian Dictatorship and Autocracy (1956). A second was his book, The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict (1960).  

In that first book, Brzezinski wrote about the idea and practice of totalitarian regimes in a particularly insightful way. Here he went beyond his co-author’s static – and often criticized – cataloging of the “key” features shared by the Soviet Russian and Nazi German regimes. It was his insight that made the work relevant to better understanding the character of other, later, totalitarian states, like China and Iran. 

Brzezinski saw that what made the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany “totalitarian” was their leaders’ fanatical effort to create a radical ‘new order’ after they demolished the vital, pluralistic societies in the countries they had taken over. But, he argues, by ruthlessly achieving their “totalitarian breakthrough,” they also did lasting damage to the peoples they ruled. Brzezinski was very much on target with Soviet Russia. Decades later, when MikhailGorbachev’s radical effort to save the declining Soviet state fell apart, a failure he predicted in his book,The Grand Failure (1988), it was followed by a series of corrupt kleptocracies.    

In The Soviet Bloc: Unity and Conflict (1960), Brzezinski not only fathered a distinct academic field of university level East European studies. His appreciation of the importance of nationality and culture led him to recognize their power in undermining Soviet domination – not only over its East European satellites but within the USSR itself. His insight would be the basis for perhaps his greatest contribution as a U.S. foreign policy advisor – his strategy of “peaceful engagement.” 

Rejecting both the failed 1950s idea of “liberating” Eastern Europe from Soviet hegemony and the 1960s acceptance of the permanence of Soviet domination, Brzezinski proposed a third alternative to President Johnson – that powerful cultural differences persisted between the Soviet Union and its satellites. These differences presented the U.S. with an opportunity to “build bridges” and “peacefully engage” with the freedom seeking peoples of the region – right under the very noses of their rulers. 

The cracks in Soviet imperial control in Eastern Europe that he had foreseen surfaced in the years after – in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in independence-minded Yugoslavia and Romania, and most of all in Poland – in a series of popular rebellions in 1968, 1970, 1976, 1980. And in the miraculous year of 1989, the Solidarity movement not only brought down Polish communist party rule by winning a genuine election, it was the catalyst for the collapse of the regimes in Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, Romania and Czechoslovakia. When the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 even Brzezinski’s sharpest critics – who for decades had dismissed him as a “’hawkish’ anti-communist cold warrior” blinded against Russia by his Polish origin, had to admit he had been right.  By 1991 the Soviet Union too had crumbled – as its restive ethnic republics, starting with the Baltic states, Georgia, and Ukraine, fell like dominos away from Moscow’s control.  

Brzezinski’s “Polishness” did indeed give him a special appreciation of Poland’s aspirations for freedom, something that ran parallel to his own patriotic feelings for the United States as a naturalized American. It led him to persuade President Carter to give his full support to the cause of Polish Solidarity when it was born in August 1980 and to oppose the Soviet threat to intervene militarily to suppress the troublesome union that December.  

Carter’s effort came just weeks after his demoralizing re-election defeat. Another person in his place leader might have left the looming Polish crisis to his successor. But Carter, urged on by Brzezinski, resolutely opposed a Soviet intervention against Solidarity. As a result, Europe avoided the consequences of what might have been a bloody disaster in Poland. 

Brzezinski’s concern for Poland continued in the 1980s, when Poland suffered through martial law, and again after 1993, when he pressed the Clinton Administration to admit the newly democratic Polish, Hungarian, Czech and Slovak republics into the NATO alliance. 

Like Henry Kissinger, his fellow foreign born academic turned government advisor, he continued to seek to influence leaders in both parties on foreign policy long after his “Washington years” were over. But unlike Kissinger, who tended to tailor his views to his clients’ preferences, Brzezinski was always steadfast in analysing the issues. 

On the Soviet system, for example, he continued to recognize its threat to the free world. Here his views were closer to those of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush than the neo-isolationists in the Democratic party, the party he had identified with from the 1950s. Brzezinski faced sharp criticism for being “politically incorrect” too, e.g., when he defended the right of scholars to publish their analyses of ‘hot button’ issues involving Israel, and for rejecting President George W. Bush’s rationale for invading Iraq in 2004.    

On how he would have viewed President Donald Trump, especially given Trump’s comments on Russia, NATO and EU, China, Iran and the Middle East – one can only guess. But one might have expected plenty of comments on his policies. 

All three biographies of Zbigniew Brzezinski recognize his remarkable contributions to the mission and conduct of U.S. foreign policy and the defense of our country’s national security. They show what a person of great intelligence and conviction can achieve in the public sphere.  His impact on Poland ought to be remembered as well. 

Donald E. Pienkos

Professor Emeritus (Political Science)

University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

My review of Justin Vaisse’s biography is in The Polish Review, vol. 64, no. 4 (Winter 2019), 112-116. 

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