57. Telegram From the Embassy in Czechoslovakia to the Department of State1

1667. Subject: After the fall.

For first time in history, a Communist regime has purged top leader by bringing popular pressure to bear on him. The occasion warrants reflection on what this means for Czechoslovakia and for US interests.
While Novotny’s fall was necessary to progressive coalition’s objectives as well as symbolically important, it by no means solves coalition’s problems. As coalition attempts cope with selection new President, weeding out remaining Novotnyites, and working out and trying implement action program, it faces two principal sources of friction:
Members of the coalition—e.g., Kolders and Cerniks—who are getting or may get cold feet about unbridled democratization and who might join forces with those conservatives who manage to save their positions;
Possibility that democratization will run out of control, leading to dangerous demands (e.g., for neutrality or takeover by non-Communists) by significant organizations, embarrassing mass demonstrations, or violence.
To take latter difficulty first, one obvious factor is that Czechs are not Poles or Hungarians. Neither history nor popular attitudes thus far in crisis suggest that Czechs as a nation will lose their heads. Small minority may stridently urge extreme ideas, but majority would probably remain passive, and if coalition (it may still be too early to call it a regime) is able to continue to give vocal minority chance to blow off steam seems unlikely that trouble would arise on that score. Students have been significant plus on progressive side and may become even more politically active, but their restraint thus far (especially in Prague) has been noteworthy and it seems unlikely they would deliberately endanger regime they felt was working in right direction. Slovaks are historically less averse to taking risks but will probably be occupied with discussions of federalism at least in immediate future.
More immediate prospect of resistance is from proponents of caution and conservatism working within framework of victorious coalition. Cernik has suggested that adoption of action program should bring discussion to an end; if new [garble] tries to do so it will alienate its [Page 189] more progressive supporters and possibly open way for new political crisis. In any case coalition will be highly vulnerable to dissension in its ranks when it begins dealing with specific issues. For example there are signs that trade unions may come to life and if so they will certainly cast critical eye on some aspects of economic reform; probable desire of economic reformers to sit firmly on trade unions in such case could put them at odds with political reformers who may welcome trade unions as independent force. Czech-Slovak problems are obviously another fertile field for manipulations to break up the coalition.
Obvious question mark is Moscow’s attitude. Embassy Moscow is in better position to judge but as of today following Dubcek’s return from Dresden2 certain Czechs are giving some colleagues, especially the British, the impression they have turned the corner with the Soviets insofar as concerns present reliability and intent. Still in question is the effect of compounded events in Czechoslovakia and Poland, enlivened by memories of 1956, and probably plied by hysterical East Germans. The Soviets of course have powerful economic (to say nothing of military) levers at their fingertips, but will they attempt to use them in a drastic way? Or, more to the point, will Czechoslovakia give cause to use them? It can be hoped that lessons were learned on all sides from 1956, and it can be expected that Prague will do its utmost to avoid any high risk foreign policy moves. What cannot be predicted is ultimate scope of domestic democratization and Soviet reaction thereto.
The reawakening of political life which we are witnessing will not easily be stopped. In fact, leaders of coalition apparently do not expect that genie of open public discussion which they let loose to bring Novotny down will now meekly return to its bottle; they seem prepared to live with their genie and to use it as instrument for working out solutions to overwhelming problems which face their country. We still remain skeptical that genuine democracy can successfully be restored in Czechoslovakia behind Communist facade. But without yielding to apocalyptic prophecy, it is obvious that consequences of even partial success would reach far beyond the borders of this small country.
Trend here is obviously in US interest and Embassy believes we should ponder what can be done to encourage it. Embassy will offer suggestions in later tel.3
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 CZECH. Confidential. Repeated to Belgrade, Bonn, Bucharest, Budapest, London, Moscow, Paris, Sofia, Vienna, Warsaw, Munich, and Berlin.
  2. He was attending a March 23 meeting of Communist Party leaders.
  3. The Embassy forwarded its suggestions regarding a U.S. low profile in response to changes in Czechoslovakia in telegram 1693 from Prague, March 29. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 15 CZECH)