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Prague Spring as Seen from the Outside – The Utter Impotence of U.S. Policy

Newspapers that had long been the Party mouthpiece were allowed to criticism the government, labor unions were given more rights to speak for their members, people were allowed to speak more freely. The shackles of Soviet totalitarianism were loosened. But only briefly. The Prague Spring, that period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia beginning in January of 1968, came to a swift end when Soviet troops, aided by other members of the Warsaw Pact, invaded the country on August 20-21. Dubček’s reforms were abandoned as he was arrested and sent to Moscow and was removed from office in April 1969. In the end, Prague 1968, like East Berlin 1953 and Hungary 1956, became just another poignant reminder of what could have been.

George Jaegar was working as a Political Officer in Bonn, Germany on the fateful night of August 20-21 and received strict orders to make sure that the Soviets had no reason to think the U.S. would intervene militarily. Jaegar waited with disappointment as the Prague Spring was being extinguished, until he thought of a loophole in his instructions.  In this interview with Robert Daniels in July 2000, Jaegar recounts the unique way the Embassy communicated support for the spirit of the Prague Spring. Read more about the celebrations in Prague after the 1969 hockey match, the East Berlin demonstrations in 1953 or about how one consular officer helped Iraqi Kurds who had been abandoned by the U.S.

“It was the worst night I spent in the Foreign Service, because of our utter impotence”

JAEGAR:  The arrival of Dubcek as head of the Czech Communist party in early 1968 was seen from the outset as a critical event which, if successful, would substantiate [German chancellor Willy] Brandt’s argument that change in the Soviet orbit was possible. The $64,000 question was, of course, how much liberalization could be brought about before Moscow felt threatened and decided it had to react. The next question was whether a Soviet clampdown would be the end of rapprochement and Ostpolitik [Brandt’s policy to normalize relations between West Germany and the Eastern bloc], or only a temporary blip.

We therefore watched Dubcek’s high-wire act with intense interest as he introduced his “Socialism with a Human Face,” which permitted greater freedom of expression and less censorship, while he and his officials tried to reassure Moscow that they were still good Communists and had no intention of withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact – so as not to repeat the mistake, some argued, which had been made by Hungary in 1956.

The Czechs’ reaction, as you know, was electric. Dubcek quickly gained mass support and it became obvious that the pressures for greater freedom would be difficult to restrain and might well spread to other Soviet satellites. We now know that the Kremlin had some hesitations before it reached the decision to intervene on August 20, 1968, when the USSR and some of its other Warsaw Pact allies marched in, deposed Dubček and occupied the country – a clear act of aggression which Moscow subsequently tried to rationalize with the Brezhnev doctrine.

The crisis came at two or three in the morning on August [21] when, as the Embassy duty officer, I was called by our communications people and told that I had better get myself to the office quickly because the Russians were invading Czechoslovakia. I got there in record time and found a storm of top secret and flash telegrams from Washington and elsewhere.

Our instruction was that Embassy Bonn was to make sure that the American military commands understood that they were to stand down, that they were not to move troops, that everybody was to stay in their barracks, and that we were not even to go to a significant alert status. The point was not to give the Soviets any reason whatever to think that we would intervene, and so risk a broader conflict – a huge let-down for the Czechs, who had been heartened by the progress they had made and had probably been misled by the enthusiastic support Dubček had been getting in the Western press.

Well, it was very dispiriting work. I called the duty officers at all our major commands to pass these instructions along, the idea being to reinforce orders they had presumably already received through their own military channels. I was then able to open a telephone channel with our embassy in Prague, to ask if they needed help. As we were speaking, I could hear the Soviet machine guns rattling in the background, and the muffled noise of the street battle in Prague. Our colleagues thought that they were safe for the time being, but we kept the line open just to be sure.

Q: Must have been pretty hair-raising to be a witness to all this.

JAEGER: Yes. All in all, it was probably the worst night I spent in the Foreign Service, because of our utter impotence. Washington, quite predictably, had decided not to intervene; no major moves were to be made to reverse this Russian aggression; and, so, the Prague Spring, which had filled us all with such great hope, was obviously down the drain.[…]

[B]esides all the major stuff we were trying to cope with, one of the most immediate issues we had to resolve was when we should wake up Ambassador Lodge!

Lodge had left clear instructions that he was not to be disturbed at night unless there was a “major war.” Since we were clearly not yet at that point, I had several discussions during that night and early morning with our DCM [Deputy Chief of Mission], Russ Fessenden, as to when it was safe to wake up the Ambassador to tell him that there was an invasion going on next door. I think it was finally decided to do so at 6 a.m. and remember hearing that Lodge was none too pleased.

The Concert for Prague

After this long dramatic night, I was relieved from duty around mid-morning to get some rest, but couldn’t sleep. So I wandered aimlessly around Bonn for hours – it was a drizzly sort of a day – trying to sort out my thoughts and emotions. I was walking down a small street when I heard absolutely divine sounds coming from the windows of a Gymnasium [high school] I happened to be passing. It was a chamber music concert. I followed the sounds, went in and found the Novak Quartet, a famous group from Prague, in an afternoon concert I had in fact seen advertised, performing exquisitely on the school’s modest stage. I sat down and listened, enthralled. It was the cathartic experience I had needed.

And then I had an idea. Our instructions were to do absolutely nothing about the invasion, no speeches, rallies, protests or statements. Even so, I thought, nobody could blame us if we simply put on a concert!

So, in the intermission, I went backstage, introduced myself, and said to Novak and his three colleagues, “If I can arrange it, would you come and play at the American Embassy in a tribute to the Prague Spring and the Czech spirit of liberty and resistance? If so, we’ll invite all the key people in Germany!” Since this would be dangerous for them personally, they said they needed a little time to consider and would give me their answer after the concert. The answer was wholeheartedly, yes.

I took my project back to the Embassy, where Russ Fessenden, who was Chargé, gave it his immediate and unstinting support. So we went to work and three days later two hundred some dignitaries, representing the cream of the FRG’s [Federal Republic of Germany] political and cultural world, were assembled in a salon at the Residence. Besides Brandt, there were cabinet ministers, senior party leaders, parliamentarians, Presidents of some of the Laender [provinces], key journalists, Ambassadors, as well as distinguished academic and business leaders.

There was a moment of intense silence before the Novak Quartet began – not with Dvorak, as we had all expected, but with Hayden’s deeply moving “Kaiser Quartet”, the source of the German national anthem – perhaps to thank their German neighbors for their sympathy. They then played Mozart, some Beethoven, and finally did end with the ‘Moldau’, with tears streaming down their faces. It was a very, very moving event which helped get the message out to people across Germany that, in spite of our official silence and inaction, we did deeply care.

After the concert the Novak quartet came to my place for dinner, drank a lot of wine and listened to some of my classical records, which they thought incredible, because good records were still so scarce behind the Curtain. The issue they then had to face was what to do next.

By the time they left my place, two had decided to defect to the West, and two, including Novak himself, went back to Prague. Novak, at least, survived the experience, since I’ve occasionally seen his name on programs in subsequent years. They inscribed a group photo for me, which I still have, to mark the event.