No. 672

249.1111–Oatis, William/5–451: Telegram

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


693. Pending Czech statement on Oatis case most plausible explanation (Deptel 565, May 21) is that arrest is part of continuing campaign discredit West in eyes Czechoslovak people, specifically by supporting Commie assertions, proclaimed daily, that Western Powers, US in particular, engaging anti-state activities and espionage. Within that general framework, Dept will recognize Czech Govt undoubtedly irritated activities correspondents over considerable period. Proper reporting from Commie viewpoint wld be acceptance official handouts and unquestioning transmission thereof abroad, whereas Western correspondents have resisted propaganda, sought facts and reported rumors including some latter confirmed and some not. To put stop to such reprehensible and “unobjective” conduct, govt may well have decided make example Oatis and simultaneously intimidate his colleagues.

Then there has been report (unverified) that Oatis recently arrested Czech employees had some undisclosed connection subversive elements and AP office used by such elements (Embtel 669, Apr 272); that alone wld be regarded very seriously by police and wld be sufficient explain arrest Oatis.

Foregoing does not exclude possibility Oatis may face role Clementis trial, or that arrest may be step toward elimination all [Page 1355] Western correspondents from Czechoslovakia, or even that arrest may be deliberate move toward rupture diplomatic relations.

With ref Dept observation Kremlin presently undesirous satellite break with US, little evidence here to back that estimate. Czechoslovak conduct uniformly truculent and provocative, for example recently toward Yugo and France, almost as if daring Western Powers to put up (break relations) or shut up (remain here on Czecho’s terms). To tough, unscrupulous individuals now running Czechoslovakia as Moscow satrapy, indignation US public and govt over Oatis case impressive only to extent they believe it foreshadows US action which if taken wld be painful to them or their interest.

Chances obtaining Oatis release prior trial thus seem small (as indicated Embtel 680, Apr 303) and the more so since whatever may be purpose behind arrest, that purpose not likely be achieved by Czecho without public proceedings perhaps including spectacular accusations, confessions and other accessories “Commie justice”. Nevertheless, any public indication by your govt at this time that it has prejudged case not in Oatis interest because might force Czecho demonstrate guilt.

Notwithstanding foregoing, because US inactivity might be misinterpreted by Czecho as indifference, I now believe it worthwhile seek opportunity make fol points—Dept’s attention being called to fact that thus far there has been no local publicity Oatis arrest and hence no freezing Czecho position; shld Praha publicity occur as may at any time, position correspondingly more difficult and prospect pretrial release reduced even further:

Seriousness with which US public and govt view case, seeking thereby impress govt inevitability US action if case not settled.
Unconvincing character of FonOff complaint against Oatis, as contained Czecho Apr 25 note.4 For example, accusation Oatis gathered and disseminated secret info ignores fact AP operation to and from Praha openly recorded and at all times available Czecho Govt. Similarly charge spreading malicious info thru illegal news material overlooks fact AP serves directly no publication in Czecho; AP news is distributed by official agency Ceteka. Furthermore Oatis lived and worked center Praha always in open and in view Czech auths at all times. Nothing remotely clandestine about his operations, much less “hostile Czech state.”
Foreign correspondent is quasi-official figure occupying public position, as witness official accreditation by Info Min Czecho Govt. Hence correspondent entitled special consideration and treatment. If receiving govt dissatisfied, remedy is withdrawal accreditation or expulsion, as Czecho Govt itself well knows since it has hitherto [Page 1356] followed that procedure in numerous cases arising during past year. Furthermore, although there were delays 1950 over maintenance Oatis accreditation, that accreditation renewed Jan 1951 and renewed again (until June 30) only one week before his arrest.

Oral statement wld conclude with declaration therefore US Govt confidently expects Czecho will forthwith release Oatis and permit him leave country.

Whether foregoing approach produces Oatis release seems highly doubtful, as already indicated. Nevertheless on balance I favor making attempt and unless otherwise instructed will on May 7 request FonOff appointment.

Deptel 565, May 2 recd so badly garbled last half not available until this morning. Further comment follows.5

  1. Supra.
  2. Telegram 669 reported that during the 4 weeks prior to Oatis’ arrest, three Czechoslovak citizens on the Associated Press staff in Praha had been arrested and a fourth had disappeared the same day as Oatis. The Embassy had learned that the Czechoslovak police may have discovered past or current connections between such Czechoslovak employees and subversive groups within Czechoslovakia and that the Associated Press office may have been used as a meeting place, perhaps without the knowledge of Oatis. (249.1122–Oatis, William/4–2751)
  3. Not printed. (249.1122–Oatis, William/4–3051)
  4. See Document 670.
  5. In telegram 696 from Praha, May 5, Ambassador Briggs commented further on possible measures to be taken in the Oatis case, suggesting that a call on President Gottwald would serve better as a last resort rather than as an initial gambit. He offered the view that American efforts to obtain the release of Oatis would have the best prospect for success after Oatis’ trial, provided such a trial was not indefinitely postponed. After analyzing in some detail the efficacy of the various measures which might be used to persuade Czechoslovak authorities to release Oatis, Briggs concluded with the following summary comment:

    “… conditions here limit practical steps our govt can take. Important therefore we not dissipate energies by faulty timing or premature move, and equally that we avoid over-estimating effect of measures we can take.

    “My associates in Emb and I deeply sympathize Oatis and his family. We share their and AP’s concern his welfare. I personally favor toughest policy that makes sense in terms helping Oatis and simultaneously avoids reckless invitation rupture relations which prove anything but helpful to Oatis.” (249.1111–Oatis, William/5–551)

    Telegram 573 to Praha, May 7, drafted by Vedeler and approved by Bonbright, expressed recognition of the difficulty in determining the type and timing of retaliatory measures in the Oatis case, concurred in the line of representations proposed here by Briggs, but expressed determination to undertake measures should Briggs’ representations have no positive results. (249.1111–Oatis, William/5–451)