Zbig Brzezinski died the other night, after an eventful and productive 89 years.
Brzezinski was the hawkish national security advisor to President Jimmy Carter, a hard-line Cold Warrior whose ideology – and crew cut – cast him as an outlier in a liberal 1970s post-Watergate administration that made human rights a centerpiece of its foreign policy.
Outside of that four-year stint as a “senior White House official” (he knew how to work the press), Brzezinski spent his career as an academic, and I had the opportunity to study under the great man. It was an experience.
His seminar was the most popular of the semester, with far more demand than desks. Admission was determined in part by the persuasiveness of one’s memorandum pitching their genius to the teacher. Structured as a National Security Council meeting, twelve lucky students sat round a table presenting and debating issues, Brzezinski presiding as POTUS.
True to his reputation, Brzezinski was a domineering, imperious presence, supremely confident in the wisdom of his own opinion, merciless to those who came unprepared to argue their case, and he loved dishing about world leaders he’d charmed and bureaucratic rivals he bested.
In short, the ideal professor.
The son of Polish aristocrats, Brzezinski’s world view was shaped by an antipathy to the Soviet aggression that had sent his diplomat-father into exile and effectively imprisoned and impoverished that proud country for two generations.
The Poland connection made Brzezinski a particular source of interest and concern for the Kremlin, and it inspired KGB theorizing that Zbig’s handiwork led to the dramatic – and ultimately, for them, devastating – selection of a little known churchman from Krakow as Pope John Paul II.
When the College of Cardinals elevated their brother priest Karol Wojtyla to the papal seat, he was unfamiliar to most of the world but well on the radar of Soviet Intelligence. Wojtyla had tangled with the communists in his homeland, and he retained close ties to the free-trade movement that became known as Solidarity. He was no friend and certainly not someone they wanted leading an institution as powerful as the global Church.
Poland was a strategic linchpin of the Eastern Bloc, and Russians knew that any destabilization there posed an existential threat to their tenuous regime.
So when Pope John Paul I died unexpectedly in the fall of 1977, the potential political implications of Wojtyla replacing him were viewed with such concern by the Soviets that some suspected a shrewdly orchestrated plot by their opponents in the West, directed by Brzezinski’s hand.
While researching the history of US-Vatican relations, I had the opportunity to ask Dr. Brzezinski about his alleged role in picking the pope. “I do know that there was some sort of analysis by them to the effect that I instigated the election,” he recounted, “that I did it by mobilizing [the Polish-American Archbishop of Philadelphia] Cardinal Krol, that he acting under instructions from me then got the American and German Cardinals together and then that phalanx set in motion the process of electing the pope.”
Brzezinski drily noted that later, he and the Pope himself laughed about the alleged election-fixing.
Whether Brzezinski worked the Vatican vote or not, the Russians were right to fear Wojtyla; he knew communism to be a miserable, corrupt and unsustainable system and his spiritual – and political – leadership would indeed help bring down the Iron Curtain.
For their part, the Russians play a long game of chess, and Zbig would surely have been unsurprised they’ve apparently lost no ardor for the idea that elections can be rigged.