Speech at the Polish Embassy in Washington on Dec. 13, 2006, to mark the 25th anniversary of martial law.
By John Darnton
I hope you'll permit me some personal recollections as a reporter who covered the imposition of martial law on December 13, 1981. I'm sometimes asked how in the world we got out copy, since Poland was so totally cut off from the outside world. It's a good question.
Like everyone else, I had no idea martial law was coming. I had written a story earlier in the day. Solidarity had convened a meeting in Gdansk and for once I missed it. I sent a legman and got a report of what happened and wrote a story. Then about 10 P.M., I got an update and wrote a new lead. But when I went to file it shortly after 11 P.M., my telex was dead. I picked up the phone and that line was dead too. Such occurrences weren't all that uncommon - my first thought was that it had been disconnected because we hadn't paid the bill. Then I realized: it's 11 o'clock; even the Polish telecom doesn't work at this hour. I drove to the building on Piekna Street where the wire services had their offices. I thought I would file from there. But when I arrived, I discovered that everything was in chaos. Phones and telexes weren't working. People were rushing up and down the halls. Rumors flew through the air - tanks were approaching Warsaw. Russian troops were on the move. We heard it all. No one knew what was happening. There was one link for us to contact the outside world: Reuters had just installed a computer system and the authorities hadn't yet learned how to sever the connection.
A group of us went to the Warsaw Solidarity office a few blocks away. It was snowing heavily, so much so that it was hard to walk. We found ZOMO police carrying files out of the office. A figure hiding in a doorway told me that the special police forces had arrived shortly before and taken several Solidarity activists into custody. At this point I had enough to file, so I went back and after a debate with the Reuters correspondent insisted upon using his line to contact the Times. I wrote the little I had - that communications had been cut, that some arrests had been made. At this point I had my suspicions that a major crackdown was underway but no hard information on what was actually going on. Throughout the night I and others continue to make forays outside through the ever-mounting snow. We saw APCs and roadblocks manned by Polish troops warming themselves over fires in barrels. All that made for another new lead. Gradually the story was coming together and then, when General Jaruzelski came on the air to address the nation at 6 A.M., the final piece fell into place. Martial law. It seemed to be the end of Solidarity. I filed. And then the Reuters line promptly went dead.
So here we were, at the center of the biggest story in the world, and we couldn't get it out. What to do? For weeks before, months actually, I had worried about just such a situation and had been pestering the American Ambassador, Francis Meehan, to be allowed to use the embassy's secret communications line in the event of an emergency. He had been noncommittal. I drove to his house at 4 A.M. and learned that he was out of the country. But luckily, on the morning of martial law, I encountered an American embassy official who gave me permission. So I was able to file that day, a long story. But the next day I ran into a catch. When I went to file it turned out that other reporters had asked for the same privilege. After some deliberation it was decided that the embassy would send a single story out each day. We would all be free to contribute to it and it would go to all of our papers. That was good for Poland - because it would get the news out - but it wasn't good for us. Our papers were competitors.
We had no choice but to go along. There were about half a dozen of us American correspondents there. We convened everyday at 3 P.M. in a back room at the embassy and worked on a communal story. It was an odd experience, this idea of rivals who normally hold back from one another pooling information and sharing tips. We called the daily report "the camel" (a horse designed by a committee) and it was not a pretty thing. We had no idea, of course, whether it was being used or even if it had been received, since our papers had no way of contacting us and we couldn't speak to them. It was like dropping a rock into a bottomless well.
The next challenge was to send out exclusive stories and evade censorship. By now the whole of Poland was shut tight. Meetings of more than three people were not permitted (except at church). Gasoline was strictly rationed. Phones were out. All newspapers were closed. A 9 P.M. curfew was imposed. Roadblocks were everywhere and people traveling on trains were apt to have their documents checked. As far as foreign correspondents went, the "old rules," dating back to the bad days of the cold war, were in effect. I found my Volvo suddenly acquiring a lot of flat tires, usually happening about ten minutes before the curfew, so that I would have to sneak home, dodging patrols on the deserted streets. (The tire repair store found sharpened screws embedded in the tires).
Since there was little hard information, much of what we wanted to get out were features on the mood of the country and the prospects for Solidarity to continue underground. There were also intermittent reports of miners striking underground in the south of the country. We fell back upon the time-honored system of using "pigeons" - people - to carry out our dispatches. They were foreigners who had been stranded inside Poland. I approached them in the lobby of the Hotel Victoria or at the airport. They were readily identifiable by their western clothes and luggage. In each case I would ask if the person would carry out a story and, when he or she reached a destination in the west, any destination, to call a number that I wrote on the top of the first page. The number was that of the foreign desk of the Times. One of my first stories I gave to a secretary taking the Chopin Express through Czechoslovakia to Vienna. Another went with a Swede taking a ferry across the Baltic. A third was stuck deep inside a hollow box of Marlboro cigarettes to go through customs at the airport. A fourth went out with an American hippie, who nonchalantly stuffed it into the bottom of his boot. A fifth went aboard the emergency medevac flight of the British ambassador, who had suffered a heart attack. For each story I typed two duplicates using carbon paper to increase the chances that at least one would get through. I then hit upon a system for the foreign desk to inform me of their arrival: I named each story at the top after a woman, starting at the beginning of the alphabet: Abigail, Betsy, Cleo, and so on. Then the desk could send me a telegram - the only communication still standing - saying such things as "Abigail says hello… Betsy is leaving New York…." Then I could relax.
Meanwhile, we were given some disquieting news about the camel. It turned out that some American newspaper, having figured out what was going on, threatened to sue the government under the Freedom of Information Act in order to gain access to it. As a result, rather than risk the public embarrassment of allowing the secret communications system to be used by journalists, the State Department decided to give the camel to anyone who wanted it. It turned out that our little group was feeling not just our own papers but potentially all the newspapers and radio and TV stations in the U.S. Again, this was good for Poland - not so good for us.
By this time, several weeks into martial law, I hit upon a foolproof scheme. A German photographer for Time magazine, agreed to a collegial arrangement. The authorities insisted that all photographs be developed inside the country and submitted to censorship. But Time had just switched to color photos and since Poland lacked the chemicals to develop it, the authorities allowed the photographer to ship his film out undeveloped (and presumably made sure that he was followed everywhere). Each time he was about to make a shipment, he'd call me up. I'd trot over to the Victoria Hotel where he was staying, spread the story page by page on the floor of the bathroom (turning on the tap to foil the bug in the room) and he'd photograph it, page by page, along with the Times number at the top. Time's lab, once they had it, would call the New York Times. It worked like a charm.
Gradually, of course, things settled down. Other news came along. The story of Poland under martial law faded a bit, down to the bottom of Page One, then inside the paper. Samizdat was increasing in Poland and there were signs that the Solidarity members who went underground were stirring. That bred hope. But who knew that the resistance of people rising up against the heavily armed state would erupt again in less than a decade? And eventually help to bring down communism throughout Europe and the Soviet Union? For me the whole episode was a heartening experience and a testament to two things - the bravery of the Polish people who refused to submit and the bravery of the pigeons who helped their story reach the outside world. For the amazing part was that of all the many people I asked to serve as couriers, none refused. Not a single one.