At 6 in the morning on December 13, 1981, Poland’s prime minister Wojciech Jaruzelski appeared on Polish television and described in sonorous tones a looming Apocalypse. ‘Our homeland is at the edge of an abyss,’ he said. ‘State structures are ceasing to function. Each day delivers new blows to the waning economy… There are more and more examples of terror, threats, mob trials and direct coercion. Crimes, robberies, and break-ins are spreading like a wave through the country.’

Jaruzelski then took a step directly into that abyss. He declared martial law. Soldiers went door-to-door arresting members and suspected sympathisers of the populist labour movement Solidarity, including its leader, Lech Walesa. Public assemblies were forbidden, personal communications censored, identity cards issued, and a curfew was imposed. As Seth Jones writes in his new book A Covert Action: Reagan, the CIA, and the Cold War Struggle in Poland, ‘Poland was now sealed off from the outside world’. For the next eight years, Poles ‘lived in darkness’.

As Jones points out, Jaruzelski’s decision put the Soviet Union in Poland on a ‘collision course’ with the West and constituted ‘by far the most significant crisis’ of the fledgling administration of US President Ronald Reagan, who immediately saw it as ‘the first fraying of the Iron Curtain’. Reagan was briefed on the crackdown by Vice President George H. W. Bush, Secretary of State Alexander Haig, and most of all his formidable CIA Director Bill Casey, but it’s obvious that his thinking was clear on the subject long before he hastened from Camp David to hear the details about what was happening in Poland in 1981.

Reagan acted quickly to authorise a CIA program, the dorkishly named QRHELPFUL, designed to establish a covert network whose job was to help the new and direly imperiled Solidarity movement in a wide variety of ways: printing and distributing pamphlets, generating radio programs, and pouring money into propping up the resistance movement that had grown stronger and stronger in recent years. Unlike parallel CIA efforts in places like Afghanistan, QRHELPFUL’s mandate was strictly non-violent: no weapons shipments, no combat experts, no bomb-throwing. The goal was to help unsettle the ground and loosen the Soviet grip on the Polish state.

Jones, author of In the Graveyard of Empires and Hunting in the Shadows, wryly points out that QRHELPFUL was ‘cost-effective’: its total bill came to less than $20 million, and he stresses that the program’s success was largely home-grown: ‘What made QRHELPFUL particularly effective was that it aided a grassroots organisation that was already legitimate among Poles.’

That legitimacy was located in large part in the person of Solidarity leader Lech Walesa, one of the quartet of leading characters in A Covert Action. Walesa, a Catholic with a ‘bombastic, in-your-face style’,  would go on to win both the Polish presidency and the Nobel Peace Prize. In his country’s hour of need, he was its indispensable man, doggedly perseverant in keeping Solidarity focused and popular on the international stage. For all its money and tactics, QRHELPFUL could easily have wandered into a quagmire if its aims hadn’t aligned with a natural leader.

Those CIA tactics originated in Walesa’s fellow Catholic, CIA Director Bill Casey, another of the book’s central characters. A natural spymaster in the mold of George Smiley, Casey was ‘energetic, thorough, and ambitious’, a voracious reader whose habitual mumbling could infuriate his colleagues but whose clarity of purpose perfectly matched that of President Reagan.

That clarity of purpose was shared by an unexpected and powerful ally of the Polish cause: In 1978 Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, archbishop of Krakow, born in the Polish town of Wadowice, became Pope John Paul II, and the following year his visit to Poland galvanised the country and helped to coalesce the nascent resistance movement, bringing about the beginnings of an alliance between Polish workers, the intelligentsia, and the Catholic Church.

Oddly, the most memorable character of A Covert Action is its least sympathetic: Polish prime minister Wojciech Jaruzelski, a ‘cold-blooded realist’ who ‘did not support Moscow out of loyalty or affection, but out of survival’. As Jones shrewdly points out, Jaruzelski and Walesa were dramatic opposites: ‘Where Walesa could be volcanic, Jaruzelski was calm. Where Walesa was charismatic, Jaruzelski was drab. Jaruzelski carefully controlled his emotions and appeared unnaturally relaxed. He was neither a populist nor a demagogue, but lived modestly and rarely travelled abroad.’

Jaruzelski was a classic compromised bureaucratic optimist. He professed to believe that his efforts and his love of his homeland were best employed in aiding its oppressors. Working within the system in an attempt to improve it, he derided the United States as riven by ‘colonial wars, racism, mafia, and economic disparities’. After the victory of Solidarity and its QRHELPFUL backers, he spent the rest of his life burnishing his reputation, but few English-language studies have painted as nuanced a portrait of the man as the one found in these pages. (Jones draws on one such earlier superb work, Tina Rosenberg’s 1995 The Haunted Land, for his chapter on Jaruzelski).

The climax of the story played out on the world stage: in 1988, as Mikhail Gorbachev was touting glasnost and perestroika to the West and withdrawing Russian troops from Afghanistan, the Polish government held ‘Round Table’ talks with the leaders of Solidarity, leading to the beginnings of free elections in 1989 and the lurching, acceleration towards Polish freedom in the shadow of a rapidly disintegrating Soviet Union.

Although Jones is occasionally given to melodrama (‘Anxiety blanketed Warsaw like a thick fog’, and so forth), it’s a natural temptation, given the speed and epic nature of the events that unfolded in the wake of Solidarity’s victory. Ronald Reagan had once acidly described the ‘domino theory’ that had been the lynchpin to Soviet success in dominating Eastern Europe: it ‘very simply describes what happens to our allies if we back down and let one ally be taken over by the communists because we don’t want to be bothered’. What Reagan saw clearly taking place in Poland, Jones writes, was ‘an unambiguous reversal of the domino theory,’ a situation in which communism was suddenly frittering apart all around the world. And that certainty was shared by Reagan’s successor in office, the first President Bush, who saw the story through to its conclusion as one of the most striking vindications of what Jones often refers to as Reagan’s ‘black-and-white’ perception of the USSR’s demise.

Jones tells the story of the Polish theatre of that demise with insight and an effective tone of empathy. This book is buttressed by more copious later documentation than was available for Peter Schweizer’s excellent 1994 book Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, and it’s shaded and textured by its author’s awareness of a darkly revanchist Russia in the 21st century. A Covert Action is a tale of victory for peace, for freedom, and for the CIA — a trifecta rare enough to make for required reading.

Steve Donoghue is has written for the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and the American Conservative. He reviews regularly for the Vineyard Gazette, the National, and the Christian Science Monitor.