60. Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Rostow) to Secretary of State Rusk1


  • Soviet threats to Czechoslovakia

I have thought further about our conversation yesterday.2

I conclude that it would be a serious mistake not to give the Soviets a private signal of concern about troop movements near Czechoslovakia.3

In retrospect, our failure to deter the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia in 1948 was one of the most serious mistakes of our foreign policy since the war. Firm diplomatic action then—a period of our nuclear monopoly—could well have prevented the Cold War. Similarly, our public statement in 1956 that we would not intervene gave the Soviets a full license.4 Obviously, the situation has profoundly changed.
What is at stake now is the process of movement towards détente—the policy of the President’s speech of October 7, 1966;5 the NATO resolution of last December accepting the Harmel Exercise Report;6 the German Eastern policy; and the possibility of real improvement in the political climate in Europe, leading to mutual and balanced force reductions. Progress in this direction would be set back if the Soviets intervened in Czechoslovakia. I simply do not agree that Soviet efforts in Eastern Europe would fail to stamp out liberal trends. They have long since proved their capacity to keep the animals tame by police methods, and their willingness to do so.
The Russians must be hesitating. The moment to give them a deterrent signal is therefore now. It will be too late once they cross the border.

we should use the occasion to the maximum to fortify our European and NATO relations, accelerating the processes which have been started during the last year.

I therefore recommend:

that the President and you see Dobrynin together, preferably today
to ask the Soviets what these reports mean;
to express the hope that they do not portend any change in the policy of movement towards détente. We could say that we have no intention of interfering in the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia, and hope that the Soviets will continue to pursue the same policy; that the present process of improving the political climate step by step is the only possible path to true détente in Europe, including the possibility of reaching an accommodation on the German question; that the use of force in Europe would set in motion processes we cannot now foresee, but which perhaps neither of us could control;
that we use our new machinery of political consultation in Europe to consult intensively with our NATO allies about all aspects of these events;
that we consider setting up a high-level special group of NATO allies—of those who wish to do so—here in Washington, to remain in continuous touch with us on the implication of these events, and to develop together proposals of policy for dealing with them;
that the NATO military side examine these problems intensively, and be prepared to go on an alert or to make other appropriate demonstrations which might be warranted;
that the President consider the advisability of sending messages to Wilson, Kiesinger and De Gaulle asking for their views on the significance of these events and offering to review together, perhaps at the Ministerial level, the policies which should be pursued as the situation evolves. Effective consultation with our principal NATO allies over a matter so vital to the future of Europe would seem crucial if there is to be any future growth of the Alliance.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL CZECH–USSR. Secret; Exdis. Copies were sent to Bohlen and Leddy. In a May 11 note attached to the source text, Under Secretary Katzenbach commented: “I disagree strongly with both the analysis and the recommendations. So do the other senior officials of the Government with whom I have talked generally on this subject.” Rusk wrote on Katzenbach’s note: “So do I. DR”
  2. No record of this conversation has been found.
  3. Soviet forces stationed in Poland had carried out troop maneuvers near the border with Czechoslovakia at the beginning of May.
  4. Apparently a reference to President Eisenhower’s October 31, 1956, national address on the Hungarian and Suez crises. For text, see American Foreign Policy: Current Documents, 1956, pp. 453–455 and 648–650.
  5. For text, see Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Lyndon B. Johnson, 1966, Book II, pp. 1125–1130. The President expressed his desire to improve relations with the countries of Eastern Europe.
  6. For text of the communiqué and the Harmel report on the future of NATO, see Department of State Bulletin, January 8, 1968, pp. 49–52.