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


  • Deterrent action with regard to Czechoslovakia


The possibility of Russian military intervention in Czechoslovakia is a matter of basic concern to the United States. Ambassador Thompson and others think the risk is increasing. Such an event could well torpedo the NPT and set back the trend towards détente in Europe. Its effect on our relations with the Soviet Union would probably reduce the chance for a peaceful settlement in the Middle East and Viet-Nam, although it is conceivable that the Russians would make concessions in those two areas in return for our neutrality with regard to Czechoslovakia. On net, Soviet armed intervention in Czechoslovakia would probably change the political atmosphere fundamentally in ways that could harm our [Page 207] interests. If the Czech government and people resist and call on the UN and NATO for help, we could be put in an extraordinarily dangerous dilemma. It would be difficult to explain why the UN Charter protects Korea against aggression, but not Czechoslovakia. Czechoslovakia is surely in the Soviet sphere of influence. But that fact hardly justifies murder in broad daylight. And if fighting broke out in Eastern Europe, the evolution of events could get completely out of hand. We should not forget that Russian soldiers fought with the Hungarian revolutionaries in 1956.

On the other hand, if the Soviets hesitate and withdraw, allowing the process of liberalization to proceed in Eastern Europe, the political atmosphere should improve fundamentally, in ways most favorable to us. Poland would almost surely follow the Czech example. Ulbricht would be isolated. New possibilities for a settlement in Europe would be opened. We could hope for a toning down of Soviet imperialism in the Middle East and elsewhere. The Soviet leaders responsible for the failure of Soviet policy in Eastern Europe might well be thrown out, as Khrushchev was, to be replaced by leaders who would at least be weaker for a time than the present group.

Since we have an immense national interest in a Russian decision not to intervene, and would face unforeseeable risks if they do, I believe that we should seriously consider the British suggestion of doing everything possible at this point to deter the Russians from such a step. The contrary argument is that any expression of interest on our part would convince the Russians that we are behind Czech policy, and would harden their decision to wipe out a dangerous heresy with their tanks. I think much depends on what we say and who says it. I have always felt that Dulles’ public statement in 19562 (that we would under no circumstances move in Eastern Europe) was a profound mistake. At a minimum, uncertainty on that point would have been preferable. We must not make any threats in this situation, or take positions that would confirm Russian suspicions. But we might still be able to affect the decision by carefully planned, and entirely conciliatory secret messages.

Furthermore, we have made great exertions to revitalize NATO and re-launch it as a body for serious political consultations. We should not ignore NATO with regard to a major event affecting European security. I believe the British suggestion in that regard should be followed up, not only at the level of the Permanent Representatives, but through a meeting of higher officials in Brussels, to be followed, if intervention occurs, by the establishment of an action group representing a number of interested governments in Washington. (You will recall that the NATO Resolution [Page 208] of December 19673 contemplated political working groups of less than all the NATO members to concert policy on problems outside the NATO defense area, strictly defined.)


In view of the shortness of time, I recommend that we follow up Bob McCloskey’s denial of C.I.A. activity in Czechoslovakia4 with an aide-mémoire protesting the Soviet press charges that we are fomenting counter-revolution in Czechoslovakia. When the note is delivered, several additional points could be made orally. The British, and, if possible the French, the Italians, the Belgians and the Dutch could be encouraged to weigh in as well. And we should have a NATO meeting at the ministerial or near ministerial level within a week.

Our aim at this point is deterrence. We should also be examining contingency plans, on an urgent basis.

The aide-mémoire could make these essential points:

We are deeply concerned by charges in the Soviet press that the United States has participated in any way in the internal affairs of Czechoslovakia, or had any part whatever in recent political events in that country. The fact that such charges have been made, and made publicly, can only heighten tension.
We can assure the Soviet government most categorically that we have done nothing in Czechoslovakia, and have played no part in these events. Our position on Czechoslovakia is a matter of record. It has been and remains our policy to respect in every way the independence and integrity of all states. We ask only that others exercise parallel restraint.
We hope and believe that rumors of Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia are equally unfounded. Such a step could set in train tendencies whose consequences it would be nearly impossible to predict. It would be irresponsible on our part if we did not bring to the attention of the Soviet government our conviction that such a course would imperil recent progress towards détente, and intensify the futile and burdensome arms race.
It is our conviction, on the contrary, that the present trend towards détente represents the profound national interests of the United States and, we hope and believe, those of the Soviet Union as well. It is in no one’s interest to reverse that trend. We believe that the path towards a secure and peaceful settlement in Europe is that represented by our proposals, and those of the other members of NATO, for a gradual and agreed reduction of tension and military risks in Europe and elsewhere.
We understand and respect the concerns of the Soviet Union for its security. In that connection, we call attention to the proposals for balanced and mutual force reductions made at the recent Reykjavik meeting of the NATO Ministerial Council.5 And we reaffirm our willingness to consider Soviet proposals to improve their own and Western European security, in terms both of conventional and nuclear arms, in ways that could impose lesser dangers and burdens on us both.

It might be preferable to make point E orally, rather than in a note or aide-mémoire. Stressing our force reduction proposals too much could strengthen the hand of those in the Soviet Union who oppose “bridge-building” and détente as imperialist tricks to subvert Eastern Europe. On the other hand, the first sentence of E should be put on the record, if we give the Soviets any piece of paper.

On balance, I recommend that E be kept in.


I recommend also that the Soviet invitation to Averell Harriman be taken up at once. He would be going, obviously, to discuss Viet-Nam. Such a visit could be interpreted as a signal that we don’t care what the Soviets do in Czechoslovakia, but will pursue détente through thick or thin. We should therefore make it clear to the Russians, privately, that we are sending Averell on the assumption that there will be no basic change in the political situation, or in the relationship among states. He would, of course, be instructed to follow up at the highest level on the implications of our aide-mémoire with respect to NPT, the arms race, and other issues that would inevitably be affected by a Soviet military move in Czechoslovakia.


I attach great importance to working with our NATO allies in this situation. If we are to succeed in building up NATO as an active collaborator on issues beyond the military defense of Europe, we must miss no opportunity to involve NATO, or the more active members, in responsible consultations with us. In retrospect, I think the NATO dimension has been the weakest element in our Middle East diplomacy.

I realize that NATO consultations on the situation in Eastern Europe will be a striking sign. But why should we hesitate to give strong signals, so long as we avoid threats we do not intend to carry out? The Soviets are having all kinds of meetings on the subject. The outcome of the struggle between the Soviets and the Czechs will affect political and security [Page 210] conditions in Europe for years to come. It would be ridiculous to hesitate about being seen to consult with our European allies on a subject that vitally and directly concerns their political environment, as well as ours.


We are preparing a scenario of preliminary political consultations about the line we are proposing here with our allies, with other interested countries, with neutrals, and with Roumania, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and perhaps Poland. We should also consider having some Senators of both parties make statesmanlike speeches on the subject at this stage.6

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL CZECH–USSR. Secret; Exdis. The source text bears no drafting information but is initialed by Rostow. A copy of this memorandum was sent to the White House. (Johnson Library, National Security File, Agency File, State Department, Vol. 14)
  2. Apparently a reference to Eisenhower’s October 31, 1956, statement; see footnote 4, Document 60.
  3. For text, see Department of State Bulletin, January 8, 1968, pp. 49–52.
  4. Not further identified.
  5. The North Atlantic Council met in Reykjavik June 24–25. For text of the statement on mutual and balanced force reductions, see Department of State Bulletin, July 15, 1968, p. 77. For documentation, see Foreign Relations, 1964–1968, vol. XIII, Document 312.
  6. In a July 20 informal memorandum, attached to the source text, Rostow commented: “My feeling is that the time for possible deterrence is very short—a matter of four or five days.”