Publications: Czechoslovakia: Guinea Pig of the Cold War?

By Dr. Josef A. Mestenhauser

My focus in some recent articles was on the year 1948 from a Czech perspective. I was an active participant in  events at that time and have found it hard to explain our inept leadership and apathetic public, both of which allowed the communists to take over the country so quickly and easily.

What about the U.S.’s perspectives? The short answer is that the U.S. was also asleep, and its representatives were often absent from Czechoslovakia, attending ski races or vacationing in Italy. Policymakers were ignorant of history and culture, did not understand communism, and were poorly informed about the impact of Nazi occupation on the people’s psyche. This is the view of one of the most respected historians at BostonCollege, Dr. Igor Lukes, who recently published a well-researched book titled On the Edge of the Cold War. Read it, because it examines major problems in U.S. international relations and considers their implications for current attitudes of Czechs and Slovaks regarding the United States. 

After Stalin took control, one after the other, of the Baltic States, Poland, Rumania, Bulgaria, Hungary, and East Germany, Western governments finally began to question Stalin’s sincerity in promising to respect the independence and sovereignty of neighboring states, including Czechoslovakia. Our country was the last between East and West, still independent and reasonably free. Charles Bohlen, distinguished diplomat and scholar of the Soviet Union, coined a policy that figuratively placed Czechoslovakia as one of the chess pieces on the “chessboard of history” that must be watched to see if Stalin would keep his promise of non-interference. Stated differently, Czechoslovaks were guinea pigs in the world scheme of politics. Bohlen’s policy assumed that the U.S. would do everything in its power to preserve Czechoslovakia’s independence and remain free of influence from the U.S.S.R. The primary person who was supposed to do the watching was U.S. Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, who was, unfortunately, asleep on the job. He did not arrive in Prague until the end of July 1945, and spent most of his time on his personal comforts and micromanaging the renovation of the U.S. Embassy building. Lukes argues that Steinhardt spent a disproportionate amount of time with his mistress and on personal business affairs with his law firm in New York. During the period between his arrival in 1945 and February 1948, he was absent 200 days, especially during the critical period of late 1947 and beginning of 1948. Lukes is also critical of the U.S. intelligence gathered at that time as inept and unprofessional, conducted so openly that communist intelligence agencies knew exactly what the U.S. was doing and who was doing it. Although the ambassador was expected to prevent infiltration from the Soviet and Czechoslovak intelligence agencies, he failed to do so. The communists had infiltrated the American embassy so completely that they had a detailed plan of the 100 rooms of the SchönbornPalace and knew who occupied what room. While the intelligence agencies in Czechoslovakia were equally inept and unprofessional, they succeeded in infiltrating U.S. intelligence through intimidation, break-ins, arrests, and wiretaps. Some of the most confidential dispatches even reached communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald before the person to whom they were addressed.

The U.S. underestimated the subservience of the Czech and Slovak communists to the U.S.S.R.  General Heliodor Píka, who was the Czechoslovak Military Attaché in Moscow during the war, already reported in 1941 that Soviet military contacts told him the war would not end with the defeat of Germany, but would continue as the capitalist war transformed into a socialist war. Czechoslovakia would then be part of the Soviet Union. The concept of socialist wars was articulated by the last Communist Party Congress, but western powers chose to ignore it just as they had ignored Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The western powers also underestimated the role of the farmers, whom the communists bought with lands that formerly belonged to Sudeten Germans, because they believed that farmers would vote for the conservative parties as they had before the war. Although there were people and agencies that strongly doubted the intentions of the U.S.S.R. (e.g., State Department’s Intelligence Research Department, John Foster Dulles, and some journalists) others, including President Roosevelt, Secretaries of State, Generals, the U.S. Ambassador, and some in the media, believed that it was possible to have a cooperative relationship with Stalin, and that the situation in Czechoslovakia was hopeful after the 1948 May elections took place.

Such optimism was not shared in the U.K. and France. The French informed the Czechoslovak Minister Prokop Drtina as late as January 20 that the communists planned to stage a coup, probably in the middle of February.

The biggest mistake was that U.S .intelligence failed to infiltrate the Czechoslovak secret services, while depending on personal contacts with important officials and the daily press. Thus nobody knew that the communists had detailed plans for a coup that included neutralizing any opposition from non-communist establishments, including Sokol, students, and the parliament.

What can we learn from these findings? I believe that our American culture has prevented us from seeing things as the communists saw them. Culture is a screen that programs what we know about others. One of our culture-bound mindsets is a tendency to wait for things to happen before reacting. Our legal system and our experimental mentality reinforces this trait, Ambassador Bohlen’s policy about Czechoslovakia being a test case of Stalin’s behavior is based on this mindset. Another cultural explanatory factor is our individualism. U.S. intelligence depended primarily on information from important leaders. There is a third explanation of what caused us to ignore communist ideology and view things in terms of national interests. Many in the intelligence establishments simply projected our theories that like people, states act so as to maximize their interests. This explanation views the Soviet adventures in Central Europe as serving their national interest to secure their borders. The “pursuance of interests” is also based on another U.S. cultural value, namely pragmatism. Related to this is the assumption that relationships between countries are based on a quid pro quo. This became an issue when Czechoslovakia requested a loan from the U.S. that it needed urgently to advance economic development, but the loan was refused until war-time monetary claims were paid. We failed to recognize that our refusal delighted the communists, who wanted Czechoslovakia cut off from the West. There was still another culturally-determined variable in the U.S. policies that I call “time orientation, which assumes that the future is an extension of the present and the present an extension of the past. An example is a dispatch from a U.S. intelligence officer that started with Cech, Charles IV, Jan Hus, Commenius, and of course, Masaryk, to explain that strong democratic traditions would not allow the communists to gain power. Additionally,  the traditional U.S. ” idea of progress” can be seen in most of Steinhardt’s dispatches, which optimistically declared that Czechoslovakia was making progress toward democracy, that opinion polls indicating support for communists was declining, that President Beneš was a guardian of democracy, and that the people would not tolerate a communist dictatorship.

Ironically, after the communists took over, Steinhardt himself claimed that the coup was inevitable because Czechs felt betrayed in 1943 when Beneš signed a treaty with Moscow, while Washington and London were non-committal to signing a similar treaty, that the Yalta agreement consigned the country to the Soviet sphere of influence, and that Eisenhower refused to liberate Prague from the Nazis. Steinhardt concluded, “Hindsight now indicates that further attention by us to the political aspect of the war might have given us control of Central Europe at nominal cost.”

Communist propaganda took full advantage of intelligence they gathered during from 1945 – 1948 and  manipulated public opinion to the viewpoint that the West was indifferent to their fate, that their country was sold out twice (in Munich and Yalta), and that they could not trust the Western powers. Many of these views even played a part during the recent presidential elections.

The moral of this story is that we American Czechs and Slovaks have more responsibilities than we might assume, to help establish and maintain relationships with people in our homelands, and in educating the American public at large that small countries matter, and that we need to know more about it.