US diplomacy and the Czechoslovak communist coup d'etat of 1948: a story of naïveté and shock

Joseph Staline et Klement Gottwald, photo: ČT24

Seventy years ago the new Czechoslovak government was fully in the hands of the Communists. After the Stalinist coup d'etat in February 1948, a wave of arrests started and all democratic opposition was suppressed. Unclassified documents of the US Department of State show the degree of naïveté with which the American diplomats and intelligence officers in Prague faced their communist opponents and the subsequent shocking realization that there was nothing they could do.

Joseph Stalinn and Klement Gottwald | Photo: Czech Television
Right after the end of WWII, everything seemed fine between the United States and Czechoslovakia. True, the Prague communist-led government nationalized most companies and was not willing to compensate American investors and owners. True, there were occasional attacks on the “decadent Western imperialists“ in the leftist press. But the country was generally free. Definitely more so than say Poland or Hungary, not to mention the Balkan states. For the US Department of State, Czechoslovakia seemed to be an interesting diplomatic laboratory, explains professor Igor Lukeš of the Boston University, author of On the Edge of the Cold War – American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague:

„If the Czechs manage in post-WWII Europe to coexist with Stalin, we will know that it can be done. But if even Czechoslovakia, this still democratic country that is very close to Stalin’s Soviet Union, and has done everything it can to indicate so, if even such a country were to be driven ultimately into the camp of Stalin’s colonies, than we will know that peaceful coexistence is not possible.“

That was the US Department of State thinking when ambassador Laurence Steinhardt took up his post in Prague. He was a successful New York lawyer and diplomat with first-hand experience from Stalin's Moscow where he served as ambassador at the start of WWII. Yet he and his team in Prague failed to understand the gravity of the communist threat. Igor Lukeš attributes that to their inability to gather valuable and trustworthy intelligence.

Laurence Steinhardt,  photo: Public Domain
„The United States was a newcomer when it came to intelligence gathering. Countries like Russia had a very long tradition in this field and so did other European powers like Britain. The United States by contrast had, until then, been a completely open country. So for the Americans to start gathering intelligence against the Soviet or Soviet-style adversary like the Czechs was initially a very, very difficult challenge. The only experience with intelligence gathering that the Americans had had was durong WWII. And war time intelligence and peace time intelligence are two completely separate style of activities.“

It is no wonder then, that Ambassador Steinhardt was not even in Prague when the storm started gathering at the beginning of 1948. He was on one of his prolonged leaves in America where he mostly took care of his own law firm. It was his deputy (or chargé d'affaires) John Bruins who warned Washington that something was up. The unclassified diplomatic dispatches from Prague offer a unique revelation of what the Americans knew or rather did not know and what they feared might come.

Prague, January 28, 1948—10 a. m.

… As indicated in recent telegrams from Embassy, Communist drive has begun for 51 percent majority in Czechoslovakia election campaign culminating early in May. Full propaganda advantage being taken of the liberation of most of Czechoslovakia by Soviet Army and also of much-needed grain deliveries which are now arriving from East. On the other hand, there is a great deal of goodwill among Czech people toward Western countries including the US. I believe 80 percent of Czech people favor Western-style democracy over Communism but expediency and timidity render most of them inarticulate.

When Washington started paying full attention, the artificial government crisis that eventually led to the Communist takeover was already in full swing. There was a massive disinformation campaign, key ministries, mass media, and factories were controlled by armed pro-communist agents, opponents started disappearing. George Marshall, the US Secretary of State himself was obviously deeply alarmed as he sent the following message to the US Embassy in Paris.

Washington, February 24, 1948—7 p. m.

… we are concerned by the probable repercussions in Western European countries of a successful Communist coup in Czechoslovakia without challenge or consequences. We feel that there is a real possibility that such a development in Czechoslovakia would stimulate and encourage Communist action in Western European countries, particularly in Italy.

But the next day everything was over. The Communist Prime Minister Klement Gottwald announced that President Edvard Beneš who did so much to appease Stalin had accepted all the Communist Party’s demands. The US ambassador to London, Lewis Douglas, met the British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. He sent this telegram to George Marshall a few hours after Gottwald´s victorious speech in Prague.

London, February 25, 1948—8 p. m. – after meeting Ernest Bevin, the Foreign Secretary

… He expressed great concern over the developments in Czechoslovakia and informed me that he had been giving serious consideration during the course of the last two days to the steps, if any, which Her Majesty´s Government might take in collaboration with the US. He had come to the tentative conclusion that we were impotent in the matter and that the mere filing of a protest against or otherwise challenging the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia, would, unless we could take positive steps, merely reveal our weakness in the situation which he regretted very much indeed.

Laurence Steinhardt arrived in Prague when the communist takeover was a fait accompli and could only sum up what had happened.

Prague, February 26, 1948—4 p. m.

… the Communists as a result of long and careful preparations, dating back to acceptance of the Marshall Plan in July 1947, by intimidation and demonstration of armed force have succeeded in seizing the government and eliminating all opposition. They are now endeavouring to cover up a ruthless seizure of power by inclusion in the new Cabinet of Left-Wing Socialist Democrats, stooges and quislings from the non-Communist parties, all of whom will do their bidding. … In short, they have employed identical methods to achieve a successful putsch which was first employed by the Nazis and subsequently by the Communists in other satellite states.

In Czechoslovakia, democratic non-communist politicians, military officers, and business people started disappearing. Abroad, if they were lucky and acted quickly, into prisons if they hesitated. Especially tragic was the fate of Jan Masaryk – minister of foreign affairs, son of the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš G. Masaryk and in a way a symbolic figure of free Czechoslovakia. Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt witnessed Masaryk’s demise close-up.

Prague, February 27, 1948—10 p. m.

… Masaryk had tears in his eyes while seeking to justify his own continuance in a government of which he frankly admitted the Communists had seized control. He said he had already "saved" about 250 people and intimated that his decision to remain in the government, as he put it "temporarily" had been prompted by the faint hope that he would be able to soften the impact of Communist ruthlessness for a short time and perhaps aid others in leaving the country.

And then a few days later, on March 10, 1948, Jan Masaryk was found dead, in his pyjamas under the bathroom window of his flat, in the courtyard of the Foreign Ministry. Laurence Steinhardt could not but speculate.

Prague, March 10, 1948—6 p. m.

… It is difficult to escape the conclusion that Masaryk's suicide this morning may have been connected with the talk he may have had yesterday with Beneš. It seems probable that Masaryk had hoped until yesterday that Beneš had evolved a plan or course of action which would permit Masaryk to retain his self-respect. Having regard to reports from reliable sources that Beneš yesterday was determined to resign, it possible that Masaryk then saw no other alternative than to take his own life.

The swiftness with which Czechoslovakia fell under the heavy boot of Stalinism might have surprised Americans. But with the benefit of hindsight, the fate of Czechoslovakia was probably sealed nearly a year earlier, when the country rejected participation in the Marshall Plan on direct orders from Stalin. Be it as it may, the events in Prague seventy years ago truly opened the eyes of the West and especially the United States. In 1948 they finally knew for sure, who they were dealing with. And even though it might be small consolation for the generations of Czechs and Slovaks who spent most of their productive lives in the dreary reality of communism, there is also an interesting paradox worth underlining and remembering: the victory of the Communists in Czechoslovakia led directly to the founding of NATO. The organization that provoked the Soviet Union and its satellites into such a military and armament frenzy that in turn helped to crush their weak economies and led to the fall of Communism itself.