38. Memorandum of Conversation1
- Czech Affairs, Czech Relations with USSR, Czech Foreign Relations, UN Financing Issue
- Milos Vejvoda, Deputy Chief of Czechoslovak Mission to the UN John A. Baker, US Mission to the UN
- Helmut Sonnenfeldt, INR/RSB
In a wide-ranging talk over lunch, Vejvoda made the following points.[Page 148]
The Czechs were hopeful that the changes in Moscow would not affect them adversely,2 though Vejvoda would not speculate beyond the next Soviet party congress which he anticipated some time next summer or fall. In answer to a question he said that Khrushchev’s visit to the CSR last August3 had come as a surprise to the Czechs. His purpose had been to give recognition to the Slovak uprising at the end of World War II (thus correcting earlier Soviet attitudes), and to encourage improvement in Czech-Slovak relations while giving strong support to Novotny’s position. Novotny’s position has been further strengthened by his decision to express himself favorably about Khrushchev following the latter’s fall. This was seen in Czechoslovakia as a sign of independence. Vejvoda indicated that Novotny’s failure to go to Moscow for the October Revolution anniversary was another gesture in this direction, noting that while it was true there was a presidential election in Prague on November 12, Novotny had no particular worry about winning it.
Vejvoda was on the whole optimistic about the policies of the new Soviet leaders so far as his own country’s interests were concerned, noting that Brezhnev was well known and liked in Prague. (Vejvoda confirmed, incidentally, that Mrs. Brezhnev and Mrs. Khrushchev were at Karlovy Vary at the time of Khrushchev’s ouster.) He did not think the recent promotion of Shelepin, former head of the KGB, to be a full Presidium member was worrisome. He thought Shelepin had been put in to moderate the police. Vejvoda qualified his general optimism by some remarks about the possibility of Sino-Soviet accommodation, which he felt sure would occur if the US attempted to “isolate” the USSR. (This was evidently a reference to US policy on the UN financing issue.)4 Undertones of worry about a possible change in Soviet policy also appeared in a bantering reply to a question regarding Soviet intentions to ratify Charter amendments for the enlargement of UN Councils. Vejvoda said he thought the Soviets would do so unless Chou En-lai had persuaded them otherwise. He said Yugoslavia and Albania, for opposite reasons, were most worried about the implications of Khrushchev’s fall.
- In a discussion of Czech cultural developments, Vejvoda stressed the flourishing experimental theater in Prague. Asked how the Party felt about this, he stated that Party Secretary Koucky, who implements but does not make policy in this field, tried to steer a middle course between the beatniks and the dogmatists. He said the Prague theater was a great attraction for West German tourists whom the Czechs welcome [Page 149] for currency reasons along with the Austrians who visit Brno and Bratislava on one day trips. (Vejvoda denied that many West Germans came to Czechoslovakia to meet East German relatives, indicating that GDR nationals were not in any case particularly welcome nor easily able to leave East Germany.) Asked whether there would be a return flow of Czech visitors to the FRG and Austria, Vejvoda expressed doubt not, he said, because the Czechs feared defections but because of their hard currency problem. This led him to remark that defection was a tough personal problem for the individuals involved but that for his part he wished that such individuals would think not only about their own desires but also about the fact that every defection caused the dogmatists at home to clamp down on those who stay behind. The evolution toward greater intellectual scope and freedom gets set back through such incidents.
- Referring to CEMA, Vejvoda did not think it was going anywhere very fast. He said that Czechoslovakia was the only country that had really shown an interest in bloc integration efforts, along with the Soviets, and that even Poland was dubious. He indicated the Czechs were disenchanted with their forward role and would look increasingly for trade relations with the West. He saw little future in economic relations with the southeast European communist countries. In connection with economic matters, he said that the Czechs had suffered severely from the Sino-Soviet split because they had lost one of their best markets, including that for their inferior products, like second-rate shoes, which no-one but the Chinese would take. He said the Chinese had been good trading partners, delivering needed raw materials and even hard currency punctually. Vejvoda observed that the Czech man in the street was quite resentful of economic assistance to African countries, which were poor credit risks. But Cuba was popular both for romantic reasons and because it supplied tropical fruit which were a luxury in a small landlocked country like his own. Vejvoda did not deny that there had been problems over economic relations with Cuba but stressed that at the time of the 1962 missile crisis there had been a lot of sympathy for Castro because he seemed to have suffered the same fate as the Czechs did in 1938. Vejvoda said he had always suspected that the whole missile episode had been pre-arranged by the US and the USSR—a notion on which he was strongly challenged.
On German issues, Vejvoda said that Berlin was Khrushchev’s greatest failure. He had thought he had the power to get a free city but instead got himself into a military confrontation. The Czechs were especially bitter over this (despite their general approval of Khrushchev) because it had obliged them to undertake a major mobilization, including industrial, in 1961 in order to put the totally unready Czech army into some semblance of fighting shape. Vejvoda attributed Czech economic [Page 150] problems in great part to the dislocations produced by this mobilization (plus the simultaneous disappearance of the Chinese market). He thought that the Wall, however regrettable for the people of Berlin, had stabilized the German situation and enabled Khrushchev to terminate his Berlin gambit. He thought too that the East German regime had managed to improve the lot of the people following the Wall, though he did not contradict a comment that of all the Communist parties in Eastern Europe the SED had attracted the most odious individuals to its ranks.
Vejvoda said the Czechs had not been worried by the contemplated Khrushchev visit to the FRG, noting in this connection the Czechs’ own interest in good relations with Bonn. He pointed out that even in the days when Czech propaganda heaped abuse on Adenauer, they had always indicated their interest in trade and normal relations.
- Referring to the current visit here of a Czech writers’ group (whose itinerary, he said, the Czech travel organization had badly bungled), Vejvoda mentioned that some of the Jewish members of the group had sought to make contact with Jewish writers here. He said anti-semitism was minimal in Czechoslovakia, though at one time, after the war, anti-German feeling had also been directed at German-speaking Jews. He pointed out that Defense Minister Lomsky was Jewish and expressed his belief that there was no discrimination against Jews so far as professional and official jobs were concerned. He thought US “propaganda” exaggerated anti-semitism in the USSR, though he admitted that it did exist there historically. He did not think that Czech Jews had ever attempted to urge the Soviets to curb anti-semitism.
- In mentioning Lomsky, Vejvoda got to talking about former Defense Minister Svoboda who is now apparently the head of the military academy. Svoboda was put to work as an accountant in a cooperative after being purged in 1948. Some time later, Vejvoda thought in 1952, a Soviet delegation came to Prague and some of its members who had known Svoboda in the USSR during the war asked about him rather insistently. Eventually the Czech authorities agreed to produce him and sent an official to Svoboda’s apartment to locate him. He had Mrs. Svoboda pull out one of Svoboda’s general’s uniforms and went off to the cooperative where he told Svoboda to put on the uniform and go to meet his Soviet friends, but instructed him not to mention his low estate. Svoboda performed as instructed and thereafter was gradually rehabilitated.
- Vejvoda several times urged the US to conduct an active policy of contacts with the east, especially through trade and cultural exchange. He said US policy could greatly affect the further development of Sino-Soviet relations. He felt that most US officials had the correct attitude toward Eastern Europe but that some still seemed to feel that the East European countries could be split off from the USSR and their communist [Page 151] regimes removed. This he said was unrealistic and the expression of views along these lines hampered the development of relations. His attention was called to President Johnson’s references to bridge-building and to the abiding US interest in seeing greater independence and liberty come to the peoples of Eastern Europe. The US considered the satellite status inflicted upon the East Europeans after the war repugnant but had always recognized the legitimate interest of the Soviets and East Europeans in friendly relations with each other. Vejvoda said that Czech-Soviet friendship was traditional—even Benes had been accused of being a Communist because of his desire for good relations with Moscow—and that there would always be close relations.
- Vejvoda thought that most of the foreign ministers from the Bloc, including Gromyko, would be coming to the General Assembly. David, however, had a prior commitment in Paris which would delay his arrival here.5 Vejvoda said that David’s talks in Paris would go beyond economic matters and observed that Czechoslovakia held recent French cultural accomplishments in high regard and was desirous of deepening relations in this field.
- On Article 19, Vejvoda deplored the current impasse and expressed the view that the Soviets would not pay up under pressure. Reminded that the US position was not motivated by the desire to bring pressure on the Soviet Union but by our view of the role of the UN, Vejvoda acknowledged that the Soviets had missed opportunities to avoid the present situation. He stressed that the Soviets wished to preserve Security Council prerogatives in the peacekeeping field and not to weaken them by accepting the system of Assembly assessments for peacekeeping. He thought that the only hope now was to act on Soviet suggestions for a working group to consider future peacekeeping moral-ities while postponing a showdown. He was again reminded that US proposals in this field had been on the table since March and that Soviet responses had been utterly uncompromising. It was suggested to him that the new Soviet leadership could quite plausibly have backed off from Khrushchev’s untenable position when it came to power. He indicated that the French were urging the Soviets to stand firm while the developing countries were giving contradictory advice. Some expressed the view that the Soviets could not give in under pressure while others were concerned that the US and Soviets would get together to curb the role of the Assembly. Vejvoda implied that the Czechs here had tried to explain the firmness of the US position, including the domestic reasons [Page 152] for it, to the Soviets and to the Foreign Ministry in Prague. He hinted that his delegation had even raised with Prague the possibility that Czechoslovakia pay its arrears, but had been overruled. Prague had replied that “for the time being” it would support the USSR.
- Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL CZECH. Confidential. Drafted by Sonnenfeldt.↩
- Reference is to the ouster on October 15 of Nikita Khrushchev as Chairman of the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union and First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party by a group led by Leonid Brezhnev.↩
- August 27–September 5.↩
- The Soviet Union insisted on its right to contribute only to U.N. activities of which it approved. The United States insisted that it pay its full assessed contribution.↩
- David arrived in New York on November 27.↩