76. Telegram From the Embassy in the Soviet Union to the Department of State1

4910. Subj: Czechoslovakia-Soviet relations: the long range view.

In view of the paucity of hard information, it is impossible to judge what actually happened at Cierna,2 although it would appear that both sides have made concessions. There follows an attempt to examine some of the more fundamental factors involved in the crisis which, while it claims no new insights, will, I hope, be useful in assessing the outcome when more information becomes available.
Power: So far as the Soviet leaders are concerned, undoubtedly one, if not their most important, concern is the preservation of their own power. No one gets to the top in this system without an unhealthy interest in power, and they can excuse their pursuit of it by rationalizing that they and they alone can preserve the gains and advance the aims of Communism. Ever since Lenin, Communism has meant not only the exercise of power by a small group but also the exclusive right to decide who should hold it. With the very rare exceptions, such as Khrushchev’s appeal to the Central Committee, this has been confined to the small group now called the Politburo.
The introduction of democratic processes in Czechoslovakia, even if confined to the party, would threaten to undermine the whole system. When freedom of the press and other forms of expression are added to this, it is clear that, unless reversed, what the Czechs will end up with is not what the Soviets mean by the term Marxism-Leninism. In other words, a fundamental change is in process. It is difficult to see how such a development could fail to have serious repercussions on the other bloc countries, including eventually the Soviet Union, or how the Soviet leaders can fail to consider it a serious threat to their hold on power.
Security: The strategic location of Czechoslovakia must certainly cause the Soviet military as well as political leaders concern over the possible loss of this salient in the center of their East European bunker zone. Although in an atomic age such considerations of geography have diminished significance, they can still be important for psychological reasons. For example, in a future Berlin crisis the unavailability of Czech [Page 230] territory would make Soviet threats less credible. Moreover if, as seems likely, the situation should develop where Soviets could not count upon Czech military forces, this would make Czechoslovakia a negative liability as Soviet forces would have to be earmarked to control it.
Another aspect of security is the loss of classified information that could leak out through a Czechoslovakia friendly to the West, and the operations there of foreign agents which the Soviet press has emphasized from the beginning of the crisis. Also of importance is the possibility of Czechoslovakia providing an escape route for East Germans, Poles and Hungarians desiring to reach the West. Regardless of Czech Government policy, I can’t imagine soldiers in a relatively free Czechoslovakia shooting refugees fleeing across the Czech-German border. Even if soldiers could be brought to shoot escapees, I should think an underground railroad a likely possibility. It is possibly this aspect and the possibility of pressure on the Czech regime, other than a defense of the frontier, that the Soviets would have in mind in any demand to station Soviet troops on the Czech frontier with Western Germany.
Ideology: A great source of strength of Communism has always been its flat assertion that there is only one truth and that Communism provides all the answers. The appeal of this doctrine has already been badly shaken by the Yugoslav and Chinese heresies. For Czechoslovakia to add another would be to substitute a confusing maze of cloverleafs for the one clear and straight road to Communism. As their claim to be the true interpreters of the doctrine is the basis of the Soviet leadership’s claim to power, any further doubt cast on the orthodox view of Communism is bound to be of great concern to the Soviet leaders.
The bloc: The Soviets have already shown the importance they attach to the scheduled November meeting of Communist Parties and their attempt to reassert their leadership over the Communist bloc as well as over Communist Parties in the free world. Their ability to do this was highly doubtful before their brutal pressure on the Czechs. Now it would appear to be out the window. If to Yugoslav independence and Romanian estrangement of foreign affairs is added a successful Czech revolt against Soviet dictation of the internal order, there could be little doubt that a further loosening of bloc ties would follow. On the other hand if the Soviets, by using whatever means are necessary, are able to restore an orthodox regime in Czechoslovakia, they could at least for a time hope to consolidate their hold over a smaller portion of the bloc. The eventual price they would have to pay for this would, however, doubtless be great, including their relations with non-ruling Communist Parties.
The past: An important factor in the Soviet attitude is their desire to avoid opening the skeletons in the closet to public view and to precipitate a showdown on the issue of Stalinism which they have with such [Page 231] effort and strain managed to avoid. Although the Czechs while under existing pressures may exercise sufficient voluntary restraint to defer this issue, it would seem inescapable if a free press continues to exist in Czechoslovakia. With the involvement of a number of current Soviet leaders in Stalin’s crimes, Czech remarks touching on this issue are fighting words.
The future: While I will not in this message attempt to analyze the many cons to Soviet attempts to restore an orthodox order in Czechoslovakia, the foregoing considerations indicate, it seems to me, that for the Soviets to accept the proposed changes in that country would mean the beginning of the ultimate disintegration of the Soviet bloc. Inevitably Czechoslovakia would gradually be forced or be drawn to the other side of the Iron Curtain, especially if the Czechs are to solve their economic problems without massive economic aid from the Soviet Union. Thus the best the Soviets could hope for unless present trends are arrested would be a Czechoslovakia paying only lip service to the Warsaw Pact. Should the Poles or East Germans catch the infection, the entire Soviet position in Europe would be jeopardized. Furthermore, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is a primary consideration of the leadership, this infection would spread to the USSR and aggravate the problems of the present order. There are already numerous signs of the disaffection of intellectuals and youth, a widespread dissatisfaction with the role of the Communist Party in this country, as well as a rising feeling of nationalism in the various Soviet republics.
Conclusion: In view of the foregoing, it is my view that the Soviets will go to great lengths to push the Czechs back to something close to the pre-January situation. A factor difficult to judge in all this is the capability of the Soviet leadership to unite in support of a bold and risky policy. Their tendency has been to postpone, compromise or muddle through. Another is the ability of the Czech leadership to remain united and correctly judge how much they can get away with. I must confess that in the short run I am pessimistic that the two sides can find and maintain the right combination which will reconcile their conflicting needs and objectives. In the longer view, it seems to me that however the current crisis is dealt with the Soviets will be unable, even by temporizing, to maintain a system that is out of step with the times.
For the near future the levers in Soviet hands are not insignificant. They can continue the war of nerves with military threats and political pressure. They can play on Czechoslovak differences and exploit those elements in Czech society opposed to current trends. In view of heavy dependence of Czechoslovakia on the bloc, and particularly the Soviet Union, for raw material as well as markets, they can bring strong economic pressure. Although the effect of their recent tactics has been both to consolidate Dubcek’s position and to limit his freedom of action, [Page 232] they could change their tactics and attempt to bring him down by exploiting the difficulties his regime will doubtless face in the next months. In the short term before the Czech Party Congress, the Soviets will likely seek to utilize these levers as fully as possible to try to avoid a situation where their options are reduced to either direct military action or tacit acceptance of the new Czechoslovakia with the consequences that will flow therefrom.
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL CZECH–USSR. Secret. Repeated to Prague, Warsaw, Sofia, Budapest, Bucharest, Belgrade, Bonn, London, Paris, USUN, and USNATO.
  2. The Presidiums of the Soviet and Czech Communist Parties meet at Cierna, Czechoslovakia, July 25–August 1. For text of the communiqué issued on August 2, see Remington, Winter in Prague, p. 255.