93. Summary Notes of the 590th Meeting of the National Security Council1

U.S., Europe and the Czechoslovakian Crisis

The President: The purpose of the meeting is to assess the impact of the Czechoslovakian crisis, to discuss how we can use the crisis to [Page 273] strengthen Western European defense and NATO, and to talk about our relations with the Russians and Eastern Europeans.

Secretary Rusk will summarize the issues and possible ways of dealing with them. Secretary Clifford will talk about the defense of Western Europe and the new disposition of Soviet troops in Central Europe.

Director Helms and Secretary Rusk will give us their views on the German reaction to the crisis. The press has already printed that the State Department was recommending additional reassurances to the Germans even before Secretary Rusk had made any recommendation to the President.

Secretary Fowler will speak on the financial problems.

If we speak out about a threatening situation and the situation does develop, we are accused of over-reacting. If we don’t speak out and a serious situation does develop, then we are accused of not having done what we should have done. This is what happened following an indirect mention of the Romanian situation in the speech of last Friday.2

More meetings of the NSC should be held in the next few weeks so that all of the members may be fully informed on current foreign problems.

All requests of political candidates for briefings are to be granted. Mr. Temple3 and Mr. Rostow are to clear Administration responses to requests for positions on foreign problems coming from candidates, advisors, task forces, etc.

Secretary Rusk: The gravity of the current situation cannot be overstated in view of the very high costs the Soviet government was willing to pay for intervening in Czechoslovakia.

The situation in Czechoslovakia has been developing since 1967. Dubcek gained power over conservative Communist Party members in January, 1968. Press censorship was lifted and other reforms were initiated. Dissension between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union rose rapidly. The summer maneuvers of the Warsaw Pact were used to build up military pressure against the Dubcek government in the hope that the liberals would slow down the reform campaign.

The day of the Soviet invasion, the President met with Ambassador Dobrynin at 8:15 p.m. and then with the NSC later that evening. Decisions were reached at the NSC meeting to take the Czech case to the United Nations immediately and on a response to the oral message Dobrynin delivered earlier.

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The response to Dobrynin’s message emphasized two points:

Jefferson’s quotation about governments based on the consent of the governed, and
Denial that there was any U.S. or NATO attempt to intervene in Czechoslovakia as alleged by Moscow.

Dobrynin had said that U.S. state interests were not affected by the Soviet action. In response he was told that U.S. interests are involved in Berlin where we are committed to prevent the city being overrun by the Russians.

Although the Soviet military effort went smoothly, the Russians badly miscalculated the political reaction in Czechoslovakia. All Czechs opposed the movement of Soviet troops into their country. Their performance and discipline were superb. The Russians were unable to organize a puppet government to take over and legitimatize their invasion. Opposition outside Czechoslovakia to the Soviet move was world-wide and very strong.

The President: Asked to interrupt the meeting to deal with a proposed press release on the admission of Czech refugees to the United States. The statement was read. (Copy attached at Tab A)4

Secretary Rusk: The United States must grant refuge to those Czechs who want to leave their country or who are now outside and do not wish to return. The number is not large. We have to open our doors because if we do not, the refugees might return to Czechoslovakia and oppose the existing government. This would not be in our interest.

Ambassador Thompson: We should not encourage Czechoslovakian refugees to come to the United States but only welcome them. If we appear to be urging them to come to the United States, the Soviet Union could use this policy to argue that we are, in fact, intervening in Czechoslovakian affairs.

Secretary Fowler: Are the borders of Czechoslovakia now open? Are we by this statement inviting another Berlin Wall?

The President: We can accept those who desire to come to the United States but not encourage them to come.

Director Marks: The draft statement would be read by the refugees as encouragement to come to the United States.

Ambassador Thompson: We should say no more than that the long-standing U.S. policy of offering asylum to political refugees remains unchanged. We should not appear to be accepting the entire burden because we want the Europeans to accept some of the refugees.

Secretary Fowler: The statement should say no more than that our asylum policy is unchanged.

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Ambassador Cleveland: We should try for a uniform allied policy toward refugees.

Mr. Leddy: The humanitarian aspect is overriding. Let all refugees come who so wish. The refugees cannot resist in Czechoslovakia. The Soviets would like to have liberals, intellectuals, etc. leave Czechoslovakia.

The Vice President: Agreed with Secretary Rusk. We have to say something. We should reiterate our long-standing policy. Inevitably, many people will compare what we do for Czech refugees with what we did for Hungarian refugees.

Secretary Clifford: What did we do following the Hungarian crisis?

(Several recalled that thousands of Hungarian refugees came to the United States. Private organizations raised substantial sums to make possible the resettlement of Hungarians in the U.S.)

Director Helms: The statement as read was acceptable.

The President: Read a revised statement, commenting that he thought the State Department coordinated such statements. He suggested that the draft be further worked on taking into account all views expressed, and sent back for approval.

Secretary Rusk: Last week there were disturbing indicators and press reports that the Russians might invade Romania, states other than Czechoslovakia, possibly even Yugoslavia.

Read the evidence we had Friday, August 30. (Copy attached at Tab B)5

Ambassador Dobrynin Friday evening asked for an appointment for Saturday morning without mentioning the nature of his business. It was possible that his Saturday call would be to inform us of a Soviet move into Romania.

The President in his Friday speech referred to the rumors and issued a warning against another invasion.

Dobrynin was asked to call Friday night to deliver his message rather than wait until the next day. The message dealt with the Czechoslovak situation. During this call, Dobrynin was asked about reports that the Russians were going to invade Romania. He was told that such a move would have incalculable consequences. Dobrynin said he was without instructions but, as he had said previously, he personally doubted the Russians would move into Romania.6

Saturday evening Dobrynin dropped by to say that Moscow had informed him that reports of an invasion of Romania were without foundation. This was interpreted to be reassurance that there would be [Page 276] no intervention in Romania. When asked, Dobrynin said his comments applied to Berlin as well, although he went on to mention many Berlin developments which the Soviets consider unsatisfactory.7

Intelligence available Saturday evening indicated that the Russians were not going to move into Romania. The answer from the Soviet Union to our question about Romania came promptly after the President’s Friday speech in San Antonio.8 Moscow had decided to hold down further troop movements for the present. However, no one can be sure that the Soviets won’t hit Berlin and Romania in the days ahead.

General Wheeler: 19 Soviet divisions could move into Romania with two or three days notice. This force could quickly overwhelm any Romanian opposition. There would be little intelligence warning. The movement of Soviet planes, however, we would be able to detect.

Secretary Rusk: The Romanians have not been whipping up false scares. We have been careful, in talking to the Russians, to make clear that our sources of intelligence are not Romanian. We informed the Romanians of what we had done. The Romanian Foreign Minister has been in New York. Ambassador Ball will report on his conversation with him.9

It is important that everyone know we have never had any understanding with the Soviet Union about respective spheres of influence as De Gaulle alleges. The current difficulty arises out of Soviet violation of the Yalta agreement, not out of that agreement itself which called for free elections in Eastern Europe.

There is a great difference between the Warsaw Pact and NATO with respect to internal affairs of members. NATO is operative only in the event of international aggression and grants no rights to a member to intervene in the affairs of another.

The Soviet Union is actively trying to put across the idea that its invasion of Czechoslovakia should not affect its bilateral relations with us.

We have a difficult problem of handling the American people as well as others throughout the world who would not approve if we act as if nothing had happened. We have cancelled numerous activities of a good-will nature such as a visit of the Minnesota band to the USSR and a second inaugural flight to the U.S. of a Soviet civilian airliner.

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On the other hand, Soviet action against Czechoslovakia has not eliminated many major world problems involving the USSR and the U.S. such as the Middle East, strategic missile control, and Vietnam.

We must not mislead the Soviet Union, the American people, or our allies.

The Soviet Union is trying to carry on business as usual with us. For example, they have told us they have ratified the Astronaut Treaty.

Western Europe reacted with shock following the Soviet invasion but it has not broken off trade relations with the USSR. Many European states have cancelled good-will projects.

NATO must consider the new Soviet deployments in Eastern Europe. There is a real need to reassure the Alliance.

The President: The members of the Council should know that when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, they took measures to insure that they would not be blocked. No further mention of this activity should be made but it is brought up for the benefit of those who are optimistic about the Russian willingness to improve relations and reach agreements. (This apparently was a reference to the Soviet missile alert on the day of the invasion.)

Secretary Rusk: The effect of the Soviet action on the policy of détente has been serious. NATO members must consult with each other and be seen consulting. High level NATO meetings will be necessary. As to the future of NATO, it may be necessary to extend now the life of the treaty beyond 1969. The problem is what can we do to reassure NATO members that the treaty will not disappear in 1969 which does not require Senate approval and does not commit the new President.

The President: We must not forget that a large number of Senators not long ago favored a substantial immediate reduction in the level of U.S. forces deployed in Europe. Some wanted to reduce this number to 50,000.

Secretary Rusk: The country will now have to debate again the amount of its resources which it is willing to commit to keeping peace in the world. There is some isolationism in the United States. As NATO was warned at its last meeting held in Iceland, fears of the Soviet leaders as they face a changing world create a dangerous attitude in Moscow.

Ambassador Thompson: The Soviet leaders decided to intervene in Czechoslovakia because they felt their power position in the USSR was threatened.

The Czech system was going democratic. For example, press censorship was abolished.
The other Warsaw Pact powers, especially East Germany and Poland, were worried as to the effect in their countries of the Czech liberal reforms.
The Czechs were printing, for the first time, suppressed accounts of the horrors of the Stalin regime. The Kremlin leaders were acutely embarrassed.
The Czechs were requesting financial backing from the USSR which came to a very large sum.
The Soviets concluded Dubcek couldn’t retain control of the Czech reform elements and that the result would cause serious difficulties for other European Communist states and even within the Soviet Union itself.

We do not know what triggered the Soviet action.

East German Chairman Ulbricht reported to the Soviets following his August visit to Prague. He may have expressed his deep concern over developments in Czechoslovakia and their harmful effect in East Germany.
Brezhnev may have realized that the majority of the Kremlin leaders was shifting and therefore changed his position to that of supporting an invasion.
Soviet military leaders may have pressured the Politburo on grounds of the security of the USSR.
The Kremlin may have decided that Dubcek either could not or would not carry out agreements reached earlier.

We do not know of any secret agreement reached in Moscow with Dubcek. Nor do we know whether Dubcek can carry out the terms of the agreement reached with the Russians.

It is very clear that the Russians totally misjudged the reaction of the Czech people to the invasion of their country by Warsaw Pact troops.

The Soviets are unlikely to invade Romania. There is no current threat to the Communist system in Romania. The situation is quite different from the threat to Soviet and Communist power which was rising in Czechoslovakia.

[Here follow 8 pages of discussion of the impact of the Czech invasion on NATO and the war in Vietnam. The portion of the memorandum dealing with NATO is printed in volume XIII, Document 324.]

  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, NSC Meetings File, Vol. 5. Secret; Sensitive; For the President Only. The source text bears no drafting information.
  2. August 30; see footnote 2, Document 91.
  3. Larry E. Temple, Special Counsel to the President.
  4. Not printed. The statement was not released.
  5. Not found with the source text.
  6. See Document 90.
  7. See Document 167.
  8. See footnote 2, Document 91.
  9. Telegram 6368 from USUN, September 3, reported that Ball had met briefly with Manescu the previous day and had found him “basically relaxed though not unconcerned” regarding Soviet intentions toward Romania. (Department of State, Central Files, POL 27–1 COMBLOC–CZECH) Ball and Manescu also met on August 27. In telegram 6344 from USUN, August 30, Ball reported that while Manescu was neither “agitated or concerned” about a Soviet invasion, he hoped that the United States would underline the cost of such a move to the Soviets. (Ibid.)