The CIA and Czechoslovakia
During the Cold War, Prague was at the focus of interest of many intelligence agents. Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, there are now thousands of formerly top-secret documents publicly available in the CIA’s electronic reading room that provide a veritable trove of fascinating historical information on what the Americans knew about Czechoslovakia.
It is so easy! All you need to do is search for the CIA electronic reading room, type Czechoslovakia into the “Search Query” field, and within seconds, you can access thousands of documents. Some of them show the sheer depth and breadth of information the CIA was collecting. For example, I found quite a detailed description and list of heavy equipment in the steel and machinery factory in my own small hometown of Žďár and Sázavou from 1953. But many of the documents are much more analytical in nature and found their way to the work desk of the presidents of the United States. The President’s Daily Brief from December 30,1967 includes a detailed description of the power struggle in the leadership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. So, the then president of the United States Lyndon Johnson read this description of the situation in Czechoslovakia:
“After 20 years in power, the Czech Communists have little to show for their efforts but economic stagnation and growing dissatisfaction among important segments of the population, The country is a good candidate for the world's worst case of what Communism can mean to a people who had developed a fairly modern economy and were relatively satisfied with their lot before the Communist takeover. Now the chickens are coming home to roost.
“The party itself is sharply divided between liberals and conservatives, and the result is confusion and a lack of cohesion at the top. The liberals are urging further decentralization of the state apparatus, including greater autonomy for individual factories and farms. Many also favor some relaxation in the regime's tight political controls. The conservatives, on the other hand, fear these changes would bring dilution of the party's political power and a weakening of its ties with Moscow.”
Historian Oldřich Tůma from the Czech Academy of Sciences confirms that Western intelligence services followed developments in Czechoslovakia with great interest, especially when the ruling Communist Party tried to introduce “socialism with a human face” in the late 1960s:
“Of course, Western governments and their intelligence services followed the developments in Czechoslovakia since late 1967. In the case of the United States, it was motivated by the war in Vietnam, because Czechoslovakia was a very significant supplier of arms and other military materiel for the Viet Cong. When American government officials discussed the Prague Spring developments in 1968, they never failed to mention that, after the Soviet Union and China, Czechoslovakia was the third largest arms exporter to Vietnam supplying around ten percent of all the military equipment. So, the idea of America helping the Czechoslovak reforms was out of question.”
In other words: yes, the CIA was interested in what was going on in Czechoslovakia, but only as part of a much larger picture dominated by the power struggle with the Soviet Union of which the war in Vietnam was the most important factor. This does not mean, however, that American intelligence analysts did not follow the situation in Czechoslovakia very closely. They correctly predicted that the Soviets would not tolerate the relative liberalization processes in Prague for long. The CIA warned that military invasion was probable when there were massive Warsaw Pact maneuvers in the country with the participation of the Red Army. This is an extract from 12 July 1968:
“The announcement that Soviet forces will begin withdrawing from Czechoslovakia on 13 July could be a cover for the redeployment of Soviet troops from training areas and assembly points to crucial locations in preparation for a conservative coup, probably within the following 24 hours, that’s on Sunday. It may be of interest that the USSR traditionally has chosen the early hours of the morning for moves of this type: the counterattack in Hungary on 4 November 1956, the closure of the sector borders Berlin on 13 August 1961, the Soviet-planned North Korean attack on South Korea on 25 June 1950. This is not to suggest that the element of surprise alone would dictate the timing, since the requirement to complete all preparations is more essential.”
When the invasion came the following month, it was no real surprise. Historian Oldřich Tůma explains that even though the Americans formally protested, they dealt almost exclusively with the Soviets, the Czechs and Slovaks might have been victims of an illegal invasion, but that did not mean that they would be seriously consulted by the US government:
“Between the 19th and 25th of August, 1968, the Soviet ambassador to Washington Anatoly Dobrynin met the American Secretary of State Dean Rusk several times and he spoke at least once to President Lyndon Johnson. The Czechoslovak ambassador Karel Duda was given just one fifteen–minute meeting with the head of the Central European Department during which he was just able to deny that the Soviet–led invasion was invited by the Czechoslovak government. I think it shows that the events in Czechoslovakia were important, but Czechoslovakia itself was not important. It is good to remember that.”
In the following months, CIA continued to monitor the situation in Czechoslovakia and again rightly predicted the coming demise of the reformers within the Czechoslovak Communist Party. Like in this outlook from the end of November 1968:
“Dubček and the liberals are susceptible to a gradual erosion of the popular mandate that is the source of their power. Having admitted that the assumptions underlying this mandate-such as guarantees of freedom of speech assembly and the press–are "unrealistic " they have been reduced to quibbling about nonessentials and now will find it difficult to save the reforms–such as guarantees of individual liberties–they consider necessary for survival.”
CIA also provided the White House with quite detailed profiles of potentially important communist players in Prague. For example, Lubomír Štrougal who was on his way up in the party deserved this detailed description in the president’s daily brief:
“Lubomír Štrougal, elevated over the weekend to four top party posts, is not a fanatical Stalinist, but he is a heavy–handed conservative. A personal friend of former party boss Novotný, Štrougal nevertheless turned on him last winter and helped remove Novotný from power. He was paid off with-a deputy premiership, a position he still holds.”
The CIA then goes into some detail about Štrougal’s background and political abilities and connections to the Soviets:
“The son of a cement worker from Bohemia, Štrougal holds a law degree. He seldom travels and he has been outside the Communist bloc only once, on a trip to Finland.
And the intelligence brief for the president of the United States included a prediction of the future role that Štrougal could play:
”If the Soviets keep heavy pressure on the Czechoslovak regime, Štrougal is in a good position to challenge Dubček for the party leadership, perhaps as early as the next party congress in 1969. He is clearly the type of Communist about whom Moscow would feel confident. In the meantime, he presumably will continue to enjoy Soviet support and be in a position to bring other conservatives into positions of power and influence.”
Štrougal later ended up as the longest–serving prime minister in the history of Czechoslovakia. The most powerful post of the general secretary of the Communist Party was won by Gustáv Husák, who later also became president.
Of course, the CIA reported on other communist countries, too. But Czechoslovakia, as the most industrialized communist country after East Germany, with a relatively strong army, continued to get special attention. The materials concerning Czechoslovakia were declassified in the past few years and they are not exactly spy novel material. Nevertheless, they are publicly available and you do not have to be a history buff, to enjoy reading the documents that the CIA produced about the country when it was on the other side of the Iron Curtain.