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

6700/Depto 4042.


  • The Deputy Secretary’s Meetings With Vasil Bilak and General Secretary Milos Jakes, October 14.
Confidential—Entire text.
Summary. Deputy Secretary Whitehead met with General Secretary Jakes October 14. They reviewed the state of U.S.- Czechoslovak relations. Jakes discussed recent personnel changes in Prague, saying that Western press interpretation that the changes signaled a return to conservatism and an end to reform are wrong. Efforts to decentralize authority and responsibility would continue. In fact, Jakes hoped now that younger people are in charge that reform might be able to go a bit faster. Jakes reviewed the history of his country since 1939 and used the analysis to draw conclusions [Page 1393] for the present state of affairs. He also discussed religious questions, describing church-state relations, leaving the impression that he is considering a change in governmental treatment of the church. The meeting concluded with a discussion of economic reform, with Jakes describing some of the obstacles and opportunities to freeing up the Czechoslovak economy. Throughout, Jakes repeated his desire for a better relationship with the U.S. End summary.
The Deputy Secretary’s meeting at Central Committee headquarters with KSC Secretary and Presidium member Vasil Bilak lasted from 3:15 to 3:30 p.m., and was largely confined to pleasantries. The Deputy Secretary was accompanied by the Ambassador, NSC Senior Director Nelson Ledsky, EUR DAS Tom Simons, Embassy DCM Ted Russell (notetaker) and special assistant T.J. Rose. Bilak was accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Vacek, CC International Department Deputy Chief Radoslav Klein, an interpreter and some CC notetakers.
The Deputy Secretary said that both capitalism and communism have changed and each has moved some way towards the other over the years, but people still use the old terminology.
Bilak responded that major theoretical works have been written about post industrial society. What is necessary is to combine the good management techniques of capitalism with the social justice of socialism.
The Deputy Secretary responded that he was glad to see there is a theoretical underpinning for his observation about the changes taking place in capitalism and communism.
At 3:35 p.m. the following joined General Secretary Jakes in his office: the Deputy Secretary, the Ambassador, Ledsky and Simons (notetaker); and Bilak, Klein, the interpreter and a Central Committee notetaker.
Greeting the Deputy Secretary, Jakes noted that his visit to Czechoslovakia would be all too short. Whitehead said that he would be touring outside the city the next day.
Jakes said he welcomed the Deputy Secretary to Czechoslovakia again. He was convinced that such meetings were conducive to better mutual understanding. Our two countries were so close together; they had so many connections; they shared the danger of war, the environment and the need for food. There were many points where their views came together or were identical. Of course they did not agree on everything, but that was how people are.
Whitehead said that he had discovered that if one talks one finds things to agree on and to develop further. We had done that with Czechoslovakia for the past two or three years quite effectively. We find as we talk that disagreements are not so great or so sharp as we had thought.
Jakes said that was a good finding. The Czechoslovak side also believed that on most issues we could reach understanding. We needed to get to know each other, in mutual respect. Czechoslovakia had no global ambitions; its people wished to live in peace and do their work. It was certainly interested in seeing global problems resolved, especially in Soviet-U.S. relations following the talks between the President Reagan and General Secretary Gorbachev, which it had warmly welcomed, and would like to see continue. It wished to see hotbeds of tension disappear. It wanted the development of cultural and economic relations. It had no reason to close the door. It of course proceeded on the basis of reality: Czechoslovakia was a member of the Warsaw Treaty organization, the U.S. was the leading country of NATO. But this did not prevent us from seeking friendship.
Jakes continued that Czechoslovakia had had both good and bad experiences. Recently they had marked the 50th anniversary of the signature of the Munich agreement. This had left Czechoslovakia virtually alone, a prey to Hitler. Later everyone else recognized the danger, but then it was too late for Czechoslovakia. This was the actual reason for the basic switch in their orientation. The people had faced the situation, and understood that their existence and the existence of the nation itself were at stake.
This did not mean isolation from the West, however, Jakes continued. Czechoslovakia was part of European culture. For some time Prague had been the center of European culture. They did not refuse anything that was good in the world. But they stood at a crossroads. It was not a question of whether to have or not have socialism, but of the form needed to proceed forward, to cope with advances in science and technology, to enhance the active involvement of the people in the process. The enthusiastic period of post-war times was past. It had exhausted itself. Reason and rationality were not at work. Czechoslovakia wanted to help build a European and even a world home. America had always had a place in that. What was needed for steps to increase the activization of the people so as to proceed still further, they were engaged in perestroika or economic reform. They were promoting the dissemination of public information. They wanted more socialist democracy, the activation of the political system—which had gotten sleepy—hence activation of the National Front, to permit expression of a plurality of views. Of course they would see to it that the principles they had decided on were followed, and the socialist basis preserved.
Jakes said he believed that, despite the shortcomings, most people supported the regime. Of course they criticize faults, but they were not calling for its removal or a return to the old ways of private ownership. As in every society, there were some who disagreed on principle. [Page 1395] We are concerned about them, Jakes said, but they cannot threaten the fundamental course. They can slow it down, but they cannot succeed; They will merely be taking time that we could use to pursue our principled course. We intend to follow consistently the path of reform, both democratization and economic reform.
What the country needed most, Jakes went on, was greater integration into the world economy. For a country of its size, Czechoslovakia had been too autarkic. They were creating opportunities for more opening to the West. New legislation would provide for participation of foreign capital without a limit on the percentage. Of course this had to be mutual advantage. No one puts money into a dead end.
Whitehead commented that that was something we could agree on. He asked Jakes to describe principal features of economic reform, and how the economy would look some years hence.
Jakes responded that the basis of the reform was a switch from administrative direction of the economy, by administrative instruments, to economic instruments. Bilak interjected that this was as in the Soviet Union, and Jakes agreed. He continued that they were making efforts to decentralize both authority and responsibility. The enterprise would be independent, connected with the state only by taxes, by payments to the state budget, and possibly by state orders.
One thing they were doing that could not happen under capitalism, Jakes went on, was to provide for election of managers and workforce representatives. Whitehead commented that this was indeed democratic. Jakes continued that they did not know what the elections would bring. Perhaps after some years they would regret them. But in the context of social ownership, when the collectivity of an enterprise governed, they needed to be given a part in the management. Previously responsibility had been borne by the state.
In this connection, Jakes continued, there was a serious obstacle: the equalization of rewards. Because everyone had the same stomach and housing needs, it had been thought they should get the same rewards. This had taken deep roots in the minds of the people. But it was now an impediment. Rewards needed to be according to contribution. Those who contributed little should get little. Of course basic needs would be guaranteed.
Returning to elections, Jakes said that there had been objections at lower levels to having two candidates. People had wanted only one, the man already in place. They had had to order that elections have at least two candidates. They had conducted such elections in 80 enterprises, and four managers had been voted out. New elections are needed in those enterprises. The trouble was that no one wanted to run as the second candidate; they were afraid people would laugh at them.
Earlier, everything had been easy, Jakes said. They had only to propose someone for him to be appointed. With regard to the election of deputies they had discussed names with the National Front, and the only question was whether the candidate would receive 95 or 99 percent of the vote. It had been an easy life. People voted only for or against. Even then some people lost elections, since it was a country where people knew each other, and there could be misunderstandings among neighbors that expressed themselves at the polls. But this had never happened in elections to parliament. They were now planning parliament elections in three years, and wanted multiple candidates for all of them, so that they could let the people decide who they liked.
There were changes even in party elections, Jakes said. Previously communists had taken it as a point of pride to reject the secret ballot. But now they were going to adopt it. All the proposals for changes in the government that they had made had just been put to secret ballot, and they had been adopted by majorities of 90 to 95 percent.
They were also shortening the term of party office, Jakes continued. Henceforth, regional party secretaries could serve only two terms, which meant ten years. There had been a certain stagnation of cadres, especially in the sphere of personnel. Incumbents were preventing people who were perhaps better than they were from getting opportunities. They were now being challenged by the demands of the new times. They had learned the lessons, and were trying to adapt to the demands of today.
It was true that there had been illegal acts committed in the 1950’s, Jakes continued, but this had been rectified. Bilan said Husak was an example. Jakes said Husak was the best example: he had spent ten years in jail, and later become President. With regard to those who had been executed, one could only regret.
Turning to 1968, Jakes said the consequences for the existence for the people were described in the world as more extensive than they were in fact. A number of people who disagreed with what had happened left the country. A number of people had been struck from the party rolls or expelled, and many more of the former than of the latter. But only those who had actually engaged in political activity had been affected professionally. It was ridiculous to claim that a professor was working as a night janitor. Those who had been doctors before were doctors now. Of the half million people affected, 37,000 had had to change their line of work, and they had been in the main party workers, teachers of Marxism-Leninsim in universities and colleges, people engaged in politics who had not stood the political test. It was true they had had to leave.
Jakes then turned to religious questions. It had to be said that the people here, especially in Bohemia and Moravia, had never had [Page 1397] strong religious feelings. The first republic had been founded on the motto “away from Vienna, away from Rome.” There was no separation of church and state in Czechoslovakia. The state paid priests, it maintained churches and chapels. These were open. No one was prevented from attending services. They were discussing the question of religious education of the children with the parents. They were telling parents to make their own decisions, although they advised parents that it might perhaps be bad to teach children in two ways.
(Bilak said he had other duties, and left at 4:10 p.m.).
Jakes continued that there was a problem with vacant bishoprics. What the authorities wanted was that the person whom the Vatican selected should have good relations with them, that he not be a person opposing socialist development in the country, that he be loyal to the country, that he understand his duty to attend to religious affairs, not political or state affairs. It seemed to them that the Vatican did not want to reach agreement. Without the Vatican we cannot have bishops, Jakes said, but they cannot have bishops without our approval. This arrangement has been the same since 1922, and had been established by the bourgeois republic. Believers had no problem; only those who wanted to make trouble had a problem. They had recently agreed on three bishops. They wanted to reach agreement on the rest.
However, Jakes went on, striving to create a situation like that in Poland in relations with the church would be to misunderstand Czechoslovak reality. They had had Jan Hus, and this had affected the history of the nation. Rome and the Vatican had always served the ruling circles. For three hundred years they had been ruled by the Habsburgs. The people looked at the church as a force that had contributed to their domination by others.
Jakes turned to the problems with democratization. There were various groups, he said. Every person in Czechoslovakia could express his views, in his trade union or in his national committee. All he had to do was stand up and express them. The people in these groups do not do that. They prefer to write to the Western media, and tell the people their views in this way. The only views that were forbidden in Czechoslovakia were views promoting war or fascism. Of course these people should take account of the fact that if the majority is against their proposals, they would have no effect. That was the basis for democracy. The authorities were not against people expressing views. But they were against organizations of anti-socialist opposition, especially now, when they were addressing such complex problems. It slowed them down.
Jakes said there had been a great deal of talk in the West about the recent personnel changes. Some were labeled liberal, others were [Page 1398] labeled conservative. This labeling did not correspond to the true state of affairs. The Prime Minister left by his own decision, Jakes said; we did not force him out. Two weeks ago Friday, Jakes went on, the Prime Minister had come to him after a meeting and said he was resigning. Jakes had asked him what the devil was going on. He said he would be sending a letter noting that he had held office for 19 years, that he was 64. His government had been criticized because prestavba was not going fast enough, and he was going to resign. Jakes told him to think it over over the weekend. He had said no, he was sending a letter, and sure enough Jakes had received the letter Monday morning.2
The Deputy Secretary interjected that President Husak had told him the same thing; Strougal had come to see him too, and told him he was tired. Jakes said his doctors had advised him to take three months rest. Once the change had taken place in the government, however, they needed to give the new man a chance to select his associates. They could not dictate such and such people to him. Their intention was to try and appoint younger people. Those that were there had been there almost 20 years. The purpose of the changes was not to slow down perestroika, but to implement what they had been talking about. It was always easier to talk than to do. This was also true in the party. They needed to create a new generation, and not just old men like him. Of course they needed to keep some of the old, but they needed to combine them with the vigor of the young to get effective action.
Whitehead commented that government is not just talking but also doing. Jakes replied that government is government. Whitehead thanked Jakes for his interesting comments. He had been glad to hear his report on the changes, since there was speculation in the West that a decision had been made to slow down reform. He was glad to see that this was not the case. Jakes said that just the contrary was the case.
Whitehead said that he wished to comment on Jakes’ remarks on the place of the church in the Czechoslovak society. We had a different system in the U.S. We had separation of church and state. The government did not interfere with the churches in any way. The Roman Catholic Church appointed its bishops, and they were not approved by the government. The Church raised its own money, and paid its own clergy. He could tell Jakes that the system worked quite well. The Church ran its own affairs, and the government could not interfere with the church. But perhaps even more important, the church could not interfere with the government. It was something that Jakes might wish to think about.
Jakes said the Czechoslovak side was in fact analyzing the present state of affairs. Perhaps the present arrangement had exhausted [Page 1399] its usefulness. But he did not want to predict the outcome. Historical experience had influenced even the bourgeois republic. The legislation dated from 1922. The memory of oppression existed in the people’s subconscious. But he did not say that the present state of affairs needed to last forever.
Jakes said that he had one additional fact to offer. Nationalization after World War II had also affected the Church. Forest and monastery land had been nationalized, so that the Church had lost its property. The state had compensated the Church by taking over its financial affairs.
He also wished to note that except for the Roman Catholic Church, the seventeen other recognized churches did not want changes, and were in fact afraid of them. Concluding, Jakes said he recognized that the Soviet Union and other countries as well had separation of church and state. A global reassessment was needed. But that did not mean that it would be completed tomorrow.
With regard to economic reform, the Deputy Secretary asked Jakes if there were any place in it for private ownership.
Jakes replied that there was when it came to small enterprise. This could refer to family business, or to a second job after the main job was performed. It affected services, or small scale production, both in industry and agriculture. It affected restaurants, for example.
But there was a psychological barrier, Jakes went on. People were used to living comfortably, without risk. The authorities had created opportunities, but they were having trouble attracting people to them. In agriculture, for instance, Ambassador Niemczyk could confirm that people were basically happy, they had everything they needed, and wanted their free Saturdays and Sundays. Thus, few were interested in private enterprise so far. That was their problem.
Whitehead asked if Jakes meant that Czechoslovak people had lost their initiative. Jakes replied that they had not exactly lost their initiative but feared risk, and given very high employment, for instance three family members, they did not see the advantage of engaging in private enterprise. We wish to give the example of his sister; her husband was a gate keeper. They used to have a cow and two pigs, which had helped them buy a car. They had then sold the animals. They now have nothing left, but on the other hand they don’t have to get up early in the morning and work late at night.
He had been in Hungary, Jakes went on, working in agriculture. He had studied approaches to business and entrepreneurship. He had been in a village where they had raised 15,000 chickens and also pigs. He had talked to one wife who had formerly worked in a bank, but had given that up to take care of the animals, and her husband worked in a cooperative. When I told her that we in Czechoslovakia also raised [Page 1400] horses, she asked which kind. He had told her that they had raised iron horses since they were turning their work sheds into garages. She said that when she had earned enough for a cow, she had quit the banking business.
Jakes concluded on this point that entrepreneurial spirit in Czechoslovakia had been weakened, and that it was necessary to change this. Whitehead said he was confident the situation would change, as horizons broadened, though it would take time. We had learned how important it is to set no limit on what people can do with their lives. Jakes replied that in Czechoslovakia these opportunities were within the socialist enterprise. Whitehead asked if that meant some could earn more than others in that context. Jakes replied that it did.
Whitehead thanked Jakes for the meeting. He said it was a pleasure to visit and to hear what was happening in Czechoslovakia. The U.S. sought every opportunity to continue to improve its relationship with Jakes’ country. We had different systems, but no animosity resulted from that.
Whitehead continued that we had established certain areas of cooperation, and would like to do more together. We would like to increase trade. Jakes said that they would like that very much. Whitehead said we would like to see more investment, not just for the capital involved but also for the management skills it brought. Jakes said they would be glad to know the U.S. system, not just through schooling, but by sending people. They sent scientists and academics already, but they wanted to send people in the sphere of economic management. Whitehead said that he would like to see a system where Czechoslovak managers could spend a year in our factories. Jakes said they were in favor of that. Whitehead said that we could even trade managers. Jakes said they would welcome that too.
Jakes concluded that he was convinced this meeting would be conducive to developing the relationship between the two countries still farther, to the benefit of both. Whitehead said that the U.S. and Czechoslovakia had a history lasting many years. We should be better friends. Jakes said we should build on the good things and eliminate those that were not so good. The Deputy Secretary concluded that he had a vivid memory of listening to the radio while in high school, as it reported German troops marching into Czechoslovakia in 1939. It had been sad to hear of liberty snuffed out. We felt the ties between us.
The meeting ended at 4:40 p.m.
  1. Source: Department of State, Records from Ambassador Thomas W. Simons, Jr., Lot 03 D 256, Chron October 1988. Confidential; Immediate; Exdis. Sent for information to Eastern European posts.
  2. Prime Minister Strougal resigned on October 10.