The Ambassador in Czechoslovakia (Steinhardt) to the Secretary of State

No. 309

Sir: 1. I have the honor to supplement the Embassy’s coverage of the Czechoslovak Government crisis of February 1948 by certain descriptive and analytical comments.

2. A crisis such as developed in February 1948 was probably inherent in the situation ever since the consummation of the Czechoslovak-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Military Alliance of December 12, 1943. An understanding of the causes of this alliance requires a brief look into the historical and psychological background of the Czechoslovak nation.

3. The Czechs are a “little” people. Situated in the geographical center of Europe, they have for centuries been the focusing point for economic and political tensions resulting in countless wars and in successive waves of emigration. The high point in their history occurred in 1346–1378 which was due to the triple coincidence of the strong and constructive personality of King Charles IV (who also became Holy Roman Emperor), the discovery of large silver deposits, and the temporary absence of other strong political forces in Europe. Such a situation did not occur again until 1918 when another power vacuum in Europe and the strong personality of Thomas G. Masaryk caused the emergence of Czechoslovakia as a State. A wave of emigration followed the destructive Hussite wars of 1415–1436. Another wave followed the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1620 which began a 300-year domination by the Hapsburgs. Emigration to America occurred toward the end of the 19th century. Finally World War II eliminated first the Jewish business elements and then the 2,500,000 Sudeten Germans who were the industrial backbone of the country.

4. These waves of emigration repeatedly drained off the cream of the population, leaving a residue of small farmers and artisans who [Page 748] have never seemed able to exercise firmness, courage and noble traits in time of crisis but rather have chosen to bow to political storms which have raged about the country. These people have preferred to survive without undue struggle rather than to fight for their freedom. Under the 300 years of Hapsburg domination which ended in 1918 the Czechs developed an ingrained genius for subtle opposition to the existing regime. They are much more adept when in opposition than when they themselves are in control and faced with the problems of construction and positive rule of which they have in modern times had only twenty years of experience.

5. In the chronic state of being a “little people”, the Czechs have always needed strong allies for survival. The devious mental characteristics just described have caused them to attempt to play off their neighbors against each other, to indulge in double-talk (for example the statements of Jan Masaryk during the past two years), and to place bets on both sides. This method was successful in World War II when they escaped destruction, gained in industrial strength and emerged on the winning side. However, their alliance with Russia combined with the present aggressive Soviet political policy in Europe has prevented the Czechs for the present from “having it both ways” as the recent crisis demonstrated. Their occasional ability to play off one side against another has given them a bargaining position and an unwarranted sense of importance. At present as a people they are correspondingly deflated.

6. The Czechs have had bad experiences with their allies. The French and British deserted them at Munich in 1938. Our great mistake in waging a purely military war while the Soviet Union was waging a combined military and political struggle obviously contributed to our loss of influence in Central and Eastern Europe. The Czechs are firmly of the opinion that we “wrote them off” or, in other words, “consigned them to the Soviet sphere of influence” in 1943. While there may have been no formal exchanges on this subject, our later actions indicated the correctness of this belief in the eyes of the Czechs. President Beneš received a polite but non-committal reception in Washington early in 1943. The Tehran Conference followed in November. What Stalin may have told Beneš in December about spheres of influence and “All-Slav Brotherhood” may easily be imagined. In any event, there was no alternative than for the Czechs to sign with the Soviets. Our attitude at Yalta and at Potsdam on boundaries and reparations and especially the halting of our army in May 1945, thus permitting Soviet forces to liberate Praha confirmed our stand in the minds of the Czechs. Hindsight now indicates that further attention by us to the political aspects [Page 749] of the war might have given us control of Central Europe at a nominal cost.

7. The Soviet-Czechoslovak alliance of December 12, 1943, doubtless prevented temporarily a post-war situation in Czechoslovakia such as developed in Poland. It offered Czechoslovakia tangible benefits only so long as the Soviet Union chose to abstain from an aggressive European policy. Since the Soviets in fact continued to be aggressive, it was only a matter of time before a crisis would be precipitated in Czechoslovakia. Whether such a crisis would come in February, May, August or the next year was partly a matter of opportunity but was fundamentally a Moscow decision. Nearly all Czechoslovak authorities Relieved no crisis was imminent in February since it was to the advantage of the Soviet Union to keep the situation calm in Czechoslovakia in order to continue the flow of materials to the Soviet Union. This fact, according to Dr. Hubert Ripka, Minister of Foreign Trade, lifter his return from Moscow in December 1947, was fully understood by Soviet Economic Commissar Mikoyan1 and other high Soviet officials. The benefit of hindsight indicates that the Czechoslovak non-Communist Cabinet members did not realize the extent to which the country would be utilized as a pawn in the Soviet over-all plan for Europe. It is evident that a decision was reached in Moscow that political considerations outweighed the possible economic disadvantages to the Soviet Union of a comparatively early “putsch” in Czechoslovakia. Furthermore, the resignations of twelve non-Communist Ministers created a vacuum and the Communists moved in. Although the Communists did not precipitate the crisis (although they doubtless planned to do so), they took full advantage of it just as they did at Bogotá.2

8. It is now clear that the decision of the twelve Ministers, representing the National Socialists, Catholics and Slovak Democrats, to resign was taken with the direct encouragement and consent of President Beneš. During the five days these resignations were pending and not accepted, there are definite records that the President was approached at least four times by either the Ministers or their representatives with a view to strengthening him in withholding his consent to accepting the resignations. While the techniques employed have now proven incorrect, it seems clear that the debacle which followed may largely be attributable to weakness on the part of the President which is hardly excusable on the grounds of his sub-normal physical health.

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9. As to the extent of Soviet interference and intimidation, it is now clear that President Beneš was greatly frightened by the Soviet specter. There are continued reports that pressure brought upon the President by Gottwald and the Trade Union representatives and their adherents who marched on the castle caused the President to fear internal strife and the consequent necessity by Soviet troops in surrounding countries to come in to “restore order”. There was no evidence of any Soviet troop concentrations on the borders of Czechoslovakia. It also appears that the extent of the Soviet threats was probably less than on similar recent occasions in Finland and in Iran, both of which countries successfully resisted such threats whereas the Czechs succumbed to them. While the conduct of the Czechs in this respect is not condoned, it can be partly explained by their historical background outlined above. Furthermore, during the crisis, there was a terrific amount of dashing around by the various Ministers and high Government officials, to watch what each of them was doing, to attempt to keep them firm in their previous pledges, to prevent minor members of the non-Communist parties from succumbing to Communist blandishments. In short, there was a great deal of distrust, lack of unity, loose talk and physical movement, all of which caused indecision and lack of positive action on the part of the moderate forces. Of this, the Communists took full advantage.

10. There was no direct evidence of Soviet interference. Even the activities of Soviet Ambassador Zorin, who arrived in Prague by airplane February 19, cannot be placed under the heading of direct interference. Those of his conversations of which the Embassy has creditable reports: were opened by a discussion of the grain situation. In one case, he is known to have avoided the discussion of politics at least until he left the office of the Cabinet Minister on whom he was calling. In some cases, he discussed politics with the office personnel who were Communists. Zorin is not a forceful, door-slamming type and his activities are not comparable to those of Vishinsky in Bucharest during the crisis there.3 The only indications of definite preparation which may have had Soviet aid are that the Communists’ “Action Committees” sprang into the picture with great suddenness on the morning of February 23 and that in a special demonstration about the same date Trade Union militia appeared on the public squares with new rifles. It had long been known that the Trade Union groups had possessed caches of arms in various factories which dated back to [Page 751] the 1945 Revolution, most of the arms having originated from underground sources during the war period. However, the presence of brand new rifles with shiny unvarnished butts took most people by surprise. The Action Committees were obviously well organized by the Communists. In essence this is a well known Czech institution which has existed since the war, national committees which exercise much local influence having existed ever since May 1945 originating also from the war-time underground movement. The Action Committees were simply a new name for an old phenomenon to which the Czechs are well accustomed but they may well have been directly encouraged by Soviet support.

11. As to the death of Foreign Minister Masaryk on the night of March 9–10, 1948, the actual circumstances are still surrounded by mystery. It is possible that definite evidence may be obtained to determine whether it was in fact suicide or murder. The suicide theory is the only one which the Government could officially announce and the fact that the official announcement was not made until at least six hours after his death indicates that higher Czech officialdom was caught by surprise. This would indicate that in case it was murder, the deed was perpetrated by non-Czech persons. As reported by the Embassy, there are several circumstances which would tend to support the murder theory but the Embassy is still inclined to give credence to the suicide theory in the absence of further facts. More than three-fourths of the Czech population believes in the murder theory which of course is embarrassing to the Communists. Certain unpublished statements which come from the President’s immediate entourage and recently reported by the Embassy, to the effect that opened razor blades and knotted pajama cords were found in Masaryk’s bedroom, give credence to the theory of premeditated suicide. The sources have suppressed this information because they desire the public for the present to keep on thinking that it was murder. Masaryk’s death of course created a wide-spread feeling of sorrow among the population. The Communist elements heavily played up the deprecatory messages which Masaryk had received from his friends in the West as one of the causes of his suicide. Regardless of whether it was suicide or murder, his death retrieved his reputation which had rapidly dwindled during the February crisis. Furthermore, from a political viewpoint, it made very little difference whether it was suicide or murder since the net result was to indicate that his continuance in office was inconsistent with his basic philosophy and with that of his distinguished father. He realized too late that he could not look in two directions at the same time.

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12. The Communists were aggressive and bold, and were sufficiently organized to take advantage of the situation. The non-Communists had no adhesion as a group, did not recognize the issue as one of Communism against non-Communism and continued to place their individual party loyalties and personal ambitions ahead of their opposition to Communism. This, combined with weak leadership at the top, particularly on the part of the President, caused the debacle. From the American viewpoint, it seems despicable that, with the exception of a few students, not a single person from the President of the Republic down to the humblest citizen even uttered a public word in defense of their political liberties. Several Czechs, friendly to the Embassy, have since stated privately that since their people were not willing to fight for their freedom, they do not deserve to have it. Many people who hold such beliefs have subsequently fled from the country and are now attempting to form a resistance movement in exile. This also fits into the historical pattern and reduces to zero any possibility of effective resistance at present to Communism within Czechoslovakia itself. Such resistance is out of the question since Czechoslovakia is now completely a police state.

13. At the present date (April 30, 1948) the country has experienced its first wave of arrests and ejection of “reactionaries” from their jobs. A period of comparative calm has ensued. This enables the Communists to consolidate their position. The elections now scheduled for the end of May no longer have important significance since voters only have a choice between the single Government list and a blank ballot. No party is giving the Communists any opposition and it seems probable that all non-Communist parties will either soon be dissolved or united with the Communists. Czechoslovakia has become a full-fledged puppet state. Rumors are in circulation that it may soon be integrated legally with the Soviet Union, a development which could quite possibly occur. At any rate, the next wave of arrests is likely to eliminate any remaining “reactionaries” and in the opinion of some, even certain of the milder Communists. The higher officials are taking extra precautions for their personal safety.

14. While there is a great deal of grumbling and persons friendly to the West state that as high as 80% of the population, including some Communists, are highly dissatisfied with what has happened, it is not in the Czechoslovak character to offer resistance or to take effective counter action. There are many people who believe that their only salvation will be in a war between the United States and the Soviet Union. They do not think of the disastrous physical results such a war might have in their country. They are in the shameful position of not having raised voice or hand against the Communist domination but at [Page 753] the same time they hope for the United States to come and save them. This mentality results partly from their experience during World War II when the country succeeded in sitting out the war with practically no physical destruction and survived in a better economic state than it previously enjoyed. Therefore, those who remain in the country look forward to another conflict in which they might enjoy similar benefits and at the end be able to make out a good case for being on the winning side, whichever that may be. While this estimate is highly deprecatory and possibly unjust to a few high-minded Czechs, it is intended to describe the general thinking of the country. In case of a future conflict, there will doubtless be a considerable reservoir of latent good will in Czechoslovakia toward the United States. This will express itself in some obstructionism on the part of the people against the Soviet occupiers. To put it the other way, no effective benefit to the anti-Soviet belligerents can be expected without the presence of ground forces within the country.

15. As to our policy toward the puppet Czechoslovak Government, it is obvious that we should render it no material or moral support whatever. To do so would be diametrically opposed to United States interests. The only justification for the continuance of diplomatic representation is for the maintenance of the existing small, mutually advantageous trade and for the convenience of Americans visiting Czechoslovakia. Our radio broadcasts to Czechoslovakia continue to have a limited usefulness which may yield distant rather than immediate returns. The Czechoslovak political exiles could for the present be utilized in this project and also as lecturers and for obtaining covert political intelligence. As a group they would probably fall to political bickering unless we took a direct hand in organizing them. Within a few weeks the possibilities for obtaining open political intelligence in Czechoslovakia will undoubtedly be greatly reduced, and consequently plans should be made for increased covert activities in this part of Europe.

16. The benefit of hindsight indicates that Certain measures could have been taken which might have delayed the Communist domination of Czechoslovakia. These are listed as of possible application in other countries where similar situations prevail.

An increase in our radio and other propaganda services including publication of the full story of why we permitted Soviet forces to liberate Berlin and Praha. The smallest and most impoverished countries spend large sums for this purpose whereas we greatly reduced ours in 1947.
Negotiation of treaties of commerce and cultural agreements. Small countries are flattered by such attentions.
Assistance in the form of much needed commodities on a sale (not gift) basis. The Soviet Union came to Czechoslovakia’s rescue after the 1947 drought by selling needed grain at a high price.
Direct internal interference for the purpose of organizing the existing anti-Communist forces effectively. The latter are usually more numerous. Since they normally lack organizing ability they are totally lost to us if we do not mobilize them. This is contrary to conventional diplomacy but we have an opponent who breaks the rules.

Only the first of the above measures would any longer be of utility in Czechoslovakia. These techniques have proven effective when used by the Soviets, while at the same time they try to turn to their own advantage what they regard as our soft idealism, our conventional “fair-play” methods and our attempts to “buy” good will. Greater use by us of Soviet methods might result in both positive and preventative benefits.

Respectfully yours,

Laurence A. Steinhardt
  1. Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan, Soviet Minister for Foreign Trade.
  2. Reference to the abortive revolution in Bogotá, Colombia in early April 1948; for documentation on the concern of the United States aver the events in Bogotá, see index entry, Colombia: Civil disturbances in volume ix .
  3. In late February 1945 the then Assistant People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs of the Soviet Union Andrey Yanuaryevich Vyshinsky took a direct hand in persuading King Michael of Romania to agree to the appointment of a Communist-dominated cabinet. For documentation on the efforts of the United States to help bring about the establishment of democracy in Romania, see Foreign Relations, 1945, vol. v, pp. 464 ff.