- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2012


By Igor Lukes
Oxford University Press, $34.95, 279 pages

Czechoslovakia was born in 1918 out of the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. The First Czechoslovak Republic - prosperous, democratic and tolerant - lasted just two decades. In 1938, British and French political leaders tried to appease German dictator Adolf Hitler and handed over a portion of Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich. This act of “betrayal at Munich,” where the peace conference took place, turned out to be a misguided and futile attempt to avoid war.

A few months later, in March 1939, Hitler occupied Prague and dismantled the country. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. The West did not respond with force. On Sept. 1, 1939, Hitler’s armies attacked Poland. This time, the British and the French decided to draw the line and declarewar on Germany. World War II would last six years and end with the unconditional surrender of the Nazis and the military defeat of Imperial Japan. It took help from both the United States and the Soviet Union to accomplish victory in Europe. And it came at an enormous price of blood and treasure.

A free and democratic Czechoslovakia had a second chance. Or so it seemed. But it was not to be.

In his meticulously researched book “On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague,” historian Igor Lukes describes how a small group of Soviet-backed communists were able to seize power in Czechoslovakia in 1948.

Mr. Lukes notes that Czechoslovakia’s postwar destiny was shaped by the fact that the United States permitted the Red Army to take Prague in May 1945. That decision was not born out of military necessity because Gen. George S. Patton’s 3rd Army was within striking distance of the Czech capital and easily could have marched ahead of the Russians. Many saw it as a gesture to encourage Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to permit a free and democratic Czechoslovakia.

Both the U.S. and Soviet military occupations ended in December 1945 with an agreement of mutual troop withdrawal.

But the Soviets, through their communist allies, had other ideas. They seized important ministries such as the police and the army, making a coup possible.

“The greatest share of responsibility for the loss of Czechoslovakia’s democratic identity rests with the Czechs,” Mr. Lukes concludes. “The nation tolerated and accepted in its midst the aggressive minority that had embraced Communism.”

Mr. Lukes writes that an ailing Czechoslovak President Edward Benes, who spent the war in London; Foreign Minister Jan Masaryk; and other politicians bear a large share of this responsibility as well. Masaryk died under mysterious circumstances during the communist takeover and likely was murdered by the communists.

“They had underestimated the viciousness of their totalitarian opponents, treating them as legitimate partners in a shared patriotic enterprise,” he writes. “They never tried to educate the public about the dangers of Soviet Communism.”

It also can be argued that sharing in this debacle, although to a lesser degree, was U.S. Ambassador Laurence A. Steinhardt, whose initial optimistic reports from postwar Prague caused Washington to disregard the gathering dangers in Czechoslovakia. The United States also lacked a credible intelligence apparatus in Prague that could have assessed the political situation more adequately.

In the end, the 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia marked a turning point in U.S. policy against Soviet designs to expand in Europe. It also gave birth to the Cold War.

On March 17, 1948, President Truman declared that he intended to take military, economic and political measures to stand up against Stalin.

Truman urged Congress to fund the Marshall Plan, aimed at helping war-torn Europe, and asked for rebuilding the U.S. military. A year later, NATO was born under the leadership of the United States. America also established the CIA and funded Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty to combat Soviet propaganda and provide free information to the Iron Curtain.

“Having retreated from Prague, the West would retreat no further,” Mr. Lukes writes.

Czechoslovakia would remain a communist dictatorship for four decades.

In 1968, two decades after the communist takeover, Soviet-led troops invaded the country to stop the Prague Spring of liberalization by the country’s reform-minded leaders, who sought “socialism with a human face.”

As an Ohio State University graduate fellow, I was in Prague on the second anniversary of the invasion. We drove from Vienna to Prague on a mainly abandoned highway and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of tank exercises. We made it safely to the city. The atmosphere was subdued but openly hostile to the communist regime.

Communism collapsed in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989. A few years later, Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Czech President Vaclav Havel invited the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty to set up its headquarters in Prague.

Havel, a former dissident harassed and imprisoned by the communists, knew the value of free information and Western ties.

I arrived in the city as one of RFE/RL’s first journalists in the English-language Central News department in the spring of 1995. In all, I would work for five years in the Czech capital.

Frank T. Csongos spent 35 years as a reporter, editor and bureau chief at United Press International and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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