Abstract

This review essay provides a critical assessment of a book published in 2012 by Igor Lukes, On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague. Lukes's aim in the book is to explain why the United States failed to prevent Czechoslovakia from being absorbed into the Soviet bloc after the Second World War. Although the book is highly readable and contains useful information, it is professionally unbalanced. Lukes's generally acceptable conclusions are undermined by numerous factual and methodological mistakes. These flaws stem from Lukes's frequently insufficient historical critique of his sources, his neglect of other important documentation, and his tendency to ignore much of the relevant historical literature.

Igor Lukes, On the Edge of the Cold War: American Diplomats and Spies in Postwar Prague. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. xii + 279 pp. $34.95.

Igor Lukes, a chaired professor of international relations and history at Boston University, emigrated to the United States in the late 1960s after the Soviet-led invasion of his native Czechoslovakia. He has written widely about 20th-century Czechoslovak history. His latest book shows how the United States “lost” Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of the Second World War. Although the U.S. State Department and intelligence services (the wartime Office of Strategic Services and later the Central Intelligence Group and Central Intelligence Agency) saw Czechoslovakia as the keystone in the balance of power in Europe or as a “test case” of whether the Western powers would be able to coexist with Iosif Stalin's Soviet Union, the United States failed to prevent Czechoslovakia from being absorbed into the Soviet bloc. Lukes's main goal is to explain why this failure occurred. He exposes the ineptitude and amateurism of U.S. military, diplomatic, and intelligence officials, focusing on the pivotal role played by U.S. Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt. Lukes draws on documents from U.S. and Czech archives, the testimonies of diplomats and officials who served in the U.S. embassy in Prague from 1945 to 1948, unpublished manuscripts and diaries, and various newspaper reports. The result is a highly readable yet professionally unbalanced book that offers several fairly convincing conclusions but is marred by numerous factual and methodological mistakes. These flaws stem from Lukes's frequently insufficient historical critique of his sources, his neglect of other important documentation, and his tendency to ignore much of the relevant historical literature.

Some of the key arguments presented by Lukes are cogent. Not everything was lost in Czechoslovakia by the unfortunate U.S. failure to liberate Prague in May 1945. U.S. diplomats (and spies) in Czechoslovakia largely wasted an opportunity to weaken the Communists after May 1945 and to present U.S.-style democracy as a plausible alternative to the “peoples’ democracy” in Czechoslovakia that evolved into a Stalinist dictatorship under Soviet domination. Some of their insensitive and ill-conceived actions only strengthened the anti-Western bias of the bulk of the Czech populace. In particular, the policy of economic pressure, adopted by the U.S. government in the summer and fall of 1946 in reaction to the growing anti-U.S. propaganda in large segments of the Czechoslovak press as well as on the international scene, was entirely misconceived and counterproductive, seeming to vindicate the Communist propaganda about the perfidious West and the vital need for a pro-Soviet orientation of Czechoslovak foreign as well as economic policy. Ambassador Steinhardt deserves a great deal of criticism, partly for his groundless optimism about the prospects of Czechoslovak democracy, which led Washington to ignore clear signs of the Communist rise to power, and partly for the enormous distraction he allowed himself from his mission by various personal and business affairs and activities. Steinhardt's propensity to act in the interests of the Guggenheimer & Untermyer law firm in which he was a partner—a firm that defended the interests of several U.S. companies whose property had been nationalized by the Czechoslovak state in 1945—increasingly clashed with the paramount U.S. interest in the country, namely to solidify Czechoslovak democracy.

Yet, there are three crucial problems with Lukes's account. First, none of this is really new. As early as 1978, Walter Ullmann wrote a very good book on exactly this topic, and in 2004 Justine Faure added another.1 Lukes pays just one obligatory reference to these two books and then ignores them entirely. This is disappointing especially in the case of Ullmann's The United States in Prague, 1945–1948, which is in many respects a more reliable account of events than Lukes's book. Lukes also fails to mention other relevant texts about “his” topic, whether published in English, Czech, or Slovak, as well as texts on related issues he deals with (e.g., the liberation of Prague and its international dimension).2

Second, nowhere in the book does Lukes present a positive alternative; namely, what (if anything) U.S. officials would have had to do to reverse Czechoslovakia's drift to Communism. The hints he provides are either inconclusive or unconvincing. Steinhardt's hosting of congressional committees and U.S. dignitaries in 1945, such as generals George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower, was not so much a distraction from diplomacy and politics (p. 90) as a crucial form of public diplomacy aimed at the Czechoslovak population. From a newspaper article of May 1947 claiming that “the Czechs” would have liked to conclude an agreement with the United States to countervail the alliance treaty with Moscow from 1943, Lukes concludes that this proposal was in fact President Edvard Beneš's wish, which the embassy failed to report (p. 167). However, by then such a project was out of the question because of Czechoslovakia's voluntary dependence on the Soviet Union—and that is why Beneš never mentioned it when talking to U.S. diplomats and why it was never reported to Washington.

Third and perhaps most important, the book is written à la these. Leveling justifiable criticism against any historical actor should not lead one to distort historical reality or to omit important facts. It is not true that Steinhardt was so shocked by the results of the parliamentary elections of 26 May 1946 (in which the Communists triumphed) that a “full week passed before he wrote to Washington” (p. 135). Lukes refers only to Steinhardt's report of 3 June, but in fact the ambassador had reported on the election results already on 27 May, and two days later he sent to the State Department a longer analysis plus two additional telegrams dealing with other aspects of the elections.3 Had Lukes studied Ullmann's excellent book or the relevant volume of the U.S. State Department's Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series, he could have avoided this blunder.4

Lukes is justified in arguing that U.S. “‘coolness’ toward Czechoslovakia—advocated by Steinhardt to accelerate [the Czechoslovak government’s] willingness to compensate American owners of nationalized properties—played into the hands of the radical CPS [Communist] elements who wished to isolate the country from the West” (p. 167). However, this “coolness” was directed mostly at U.S. financial assistance, and even in that respect it was less strict than Lukes claims. The credit amounting to $50 million from surpluses of the U.S. Army, which Steinhardt repeatedly hoped to postpone throughout the first half of 1946, was eventually granted, regardless of the election results—a fact Lukes fails to mention.5 Although this loan, as well as negotiations for another of the same amount from the Export-Import Bank, was stopped after the ostentatiously pro-Soviet and anti-American behavior of the Czechoslovak delegation at the Paris Peace Conference, U.S. assistance did not end. Assistance from the United States continued to flow in huge quantities via the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration until the spring of 1947.6 This does not fit into Lukes's interpretation, so he makes no mention of it.

Lukes also largely ignores the efforts and activities in support of Czechoslovakia that Steinhardt conducted during his stays in the United States in early 1947 and at the turn of 1947–1948, including several lectures about Czechoslovakia given at prestigious forums (including the Council on Foreign Relations) and high-level consultations at the State Department and other governmental bodies.7 Instead, Lukes merely counts how many months in 1947–1948 Steinhardt spent away from the Prague chancery. In one of his previously published articles Lukes admitted in an endnote that “there are letters indicating that in January 1948 Steinhardt had a gall-stones operation” in New York.8 Indeed, voluminous documentation in Steinhardt's papers at the U.S. Library of Congress reveals the medical complications that forced the ambassador to postpone his return to Prague. However, Lukes in his book fails to mention these extenuating circumstances.

This staunchly anti-Steinhardt bias reaches its apogee on page 182, where Lukes quotes a memorandum for President Harry S. Truman from 7 November 1947. Having found this document at the Truman Presidential Library, Lukes claims that its “author,” Secretary of State George C. Marshall, predicted that Moscow “will probably have to clamp down on Czechoslovakia, for a relatively free Czechoslovakia could become a threatening salient in Moscow's political position.” After offering this “revelation” of “Marshall's analysis,” Lukes puts forth “an indictment of Steinhardt that the secretary of state, a man who had spent no time in Prague, should have come up with a more accurate assessment of the crisis” than the embassy in Prague with all its confidential sources. The trouble is that the real author of this November 1947 memorandum was not Marshall but George F. Kennan, the head of the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, who had spent a year in Prague after the 1938 Munich conference. The document has been quoted many times in relevant literature, and Lukes could have found it in FRUS. He uses the basic edition only once, at the very end of his book (p. 229).9 Moreover, should Kennan's detached and fatalistic analysis really be applauded if it was not followed by any initiative or U.S. intervention? Far more than Kennan and Marshall, who “providently” consigned Czechoslovakia to its fate, Steinhardt should be given credit for all his efforts on behalf of the country.

The book contains numerous other mistakes as well as methodological flaws, of which I will mention just a few. Lukes attributes the Czechoslovak-Soviet treaty of 1943 to a Soviet “offer” (p. 24), although there is no doubt that the initiative came from Beneš himself.10 The Czechoslovak president did not break down at the airport when he was leaving Britain on 11 March 1945, and the farewell ceremony was not attended by Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, contrary to Lukes's vivid depiction (pp. 36–37). Although Lukes refers to articles in The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times, these newspapers contained only very brief reports about President Beneš's departure and his expressions of thanks to “high British officials” for the hospitality shown to him.11 After some effort, I discovered that Lukes based his account not only on his own imagination, but also on the generally unreliable memoirs of Prokop Drtina, the president's assistant. The problem is that Drtina had departed a few days earlier with the governmental delegation. In his memoirs, written some 30 years later, he acknowledges that he did not remember who had informed him about what had happened at the airport.12 Drtina's story is indeed uncorroborated by any other sources, including diaries of eyewitnesses.13

The first postwar Czechoslovak prime minister, Zdeněk Fierlinger, is consistently referred to as “Zdenko” (pp. 39, 120, 180, index). Lukes is on dubious ground in arguing that in mid-1946 France would not have been interested in an alliance treaty with Czechoslovakia (p. 136). After all, negotiations for such a treaty were already under way at that time.14 Lukes repeatedly demonstrates his limited knowledge of British foreign policy and relevant British documentation. His generalized claim that Britain was “unable or unwilling to assume a role as an advocate of democracy in postwar Prague” (p. 10) is hardly acceptable in view of the numerous initiatives the British launched in 1945–1948, including British Ambassador Philip Nichols's plan (approved by the Foreign Office) to solidify British-Czechoslovak relations and democracy in Czechoslovakia, as well as various efforts to strengthen mutual cultural and economic ties, British criticism of the U.S. policy of economic pressure, and the mission of Ernest Bevin's personal secretary, Pierson Dixon, who was sent to Prague as a new ambassador in early 1948 with Bevin's personal message for President Beneš containing the key question of “what we can do to assist in any way we can to maintain the freedom of his people.”15 Lukes has done valuable work in interviewing many former diplomats and intelligence officers who served in Prague after the war, but I am skeptical when reading long narrations based entirely on recollections recorded 55 or 60 years later.

The book does, of course, have numerous virtues. Lukes rightly sets his criticism of U.S. policy into a proper context when he points out that the greatest “share of responsibility for the loss of Czechoslovakia's democratic identity rests with the Czechs,” who were blinded by an irrational fear of Germany and who tolerated in their midst the aggressive Communist minority (p. 15). Lukes is also the first author to cover the intriguing topic of U.S. intelligence activities in Prague using primarily the reports of the Czechoslovak secret services that infiltrated the U.S. intelligence network through confidants and even looted the premises of the U.S. Military Mission.

Lukes writes well and has a good story to recount, and it is therefore all the more regrettable that his book is marred by so many methodological and factual errors.

Notes

1. 

Walter Ullmann, The United States in Prague, 1945–1948 (Boulder, CO: East European Quarterly, 1978); and Justine Faure, L’ami américain: La Tchécoslovaquie, enjeu de la diplomatie américaine, 1943–1968 (Paris: Tallandier, 2004).

2. 

Examples of additional texts on Lukes's core subject include Geir Lundestad, The American Non-policy towards Eastern Europe: 1943–1947 (Tromsø, Norway: Universitetsforlaget, 1978), pp. 149–182; Petr Mareš, “Čekání na Godota: Americká politika a volby v Československu v květnu 1946,” in Soudobé dějiny, Vol. 4, No. 1 (1997), pp. 7–25; and Slavomír Michálek, Nádeje a vytriezvenia (Československo-americké hospodárske vzťahy v rokoch 1945–1951) (Bratislava: Veda, 1995). For texts on related issues, see, for example, Jaroslav Hrbek et al., Draze zaplacená svoboda: Osvobození Československa 1944–1945, 2 vols. (Prague: Paseka, 2009); Radomír V. Luža, “The Liberation of Prague: An American Blunder? A Note,” in Kosmas—Journal of Czechoslovak and Central European Studies, No. 1 (1984), pp. 41–57; Stanislav Kokoška, Praha v květnu 1945 (Prague: Nakladatelství Lidové noviny 2005); and Vilém Prečan, “Osvobozování Československa americkou armádou,” in V kradeném čase: Výběr ze studií, článků a úvah z let 1973–1993 (Brno: Doplněk, 1994), pp. 60–72.

3. 

Ambassador Laurence Steinhardt, U.S. Embassy, Prague, to Secretary of State, No. 893, 27 May 1946, in U.S. National Archives and Record Administration (NARA), 860F.00/5–2746; and Steinhardt to Secretary of State, Nos. 936, 926, and 914, 29 May 1946, in NARA, 860F.00/5–2946.

4. 

Ullmann, The United States in Prague, 1945–1948, pp. 53–54; and the relevant documents in U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, Vol. VI, pp. 199–200 (henceforth cited as FRUS, with appropriate year and volume number).

5. 

Lukes states quite confusingly that the initial application for U.S. loans “was approved, then suspended” and then that “loans were restored” in May 1946, but in July Steinhardt argued that “once the Czechs had the money in their pockets they would become even less cooperative.” Lukes goes on to report that in August, Prague complained about “the terms offered by Washington” (p. 127). Lukes is mixing up two different loans here, both in the amount of $50 million. The surplus war material credit was opened for Czechoslovakia soon after the elections, whereas the Export-Import Bank reconstruction loan was never granted. See Foreign Liquidation Commissioner (McCabe) to the Czechoslovak Ambassador (Hurban), 28 May 1946, in FRUS, 1946, Vol. VI, pp. 200–203.

6. 

The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration provided Czechoslovakia with aid equivalent to $335 million, of which $273 million was the value of delivered goods. With this amount, Czechoslovakia ranked fifth, after China, Poland, Italy, and Yugoslavia. The United States covered 75 percent of the total cost. See Karel Sommer, UNRRA a Československo (Opava, Czech Republic: Slezský ústav AV ČR, 1993), pp. 97, 101.

7. 

John C. Campbell's record of Laurence A. Steinhardt's lecture, 17 February 1947, in Seeley G. Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University, Council on Foreign Relations Collection, Box 442.

8. 

Igor Lukes, “The 1948 Coup d’État in Prague through the Eyes of the American Embassy,” Diplomacy and Statecraft, Vol. 22, No. 3 (Summer 2011), p. 441 n. 39.

9. 

“Résumé of World Situation,” Policy Planning Staff Report, 6 November 1947, in FRUS, 1947, Vol. I, pp. 770–777. Marshall presented the gist of Kennan's report at Truman's cabinet meeting on 7 November 1947.

10. 

H. Ripka's records of his talks with V. A. Valkov, 14 and 29 December 1942, in Jan Němeček et al., eds., Československo-sovětské vztahy v diplomatických jednáních 1939–1945: Dokumenty, 2 vols. (Prague: Státní ústřední archiv v Praze, 1998–1999), Vol. 1, pp. 418–419, 423–424; and V. Korneichuk's analysis for Soviet Foreign Commissar Vyacheslav Molotov, 5 September 1943, in Arkhiv Vneshnei Politiki Rossiiskoi Federatsii, Fond 012, Opis’ 5, Papka 34, Delo 403, Listy 111–112.

11. 

“Czech Leader Returns Home, Ends 6 Yr. Exile,” The Chicago Daily Tribune, 12 March 1945, p. 5; and “Exile of Benes Ends,” The New York Times, 12 March 1945, p. 3.

12. 

Prokop Drtina, Československo můj osud, Vol. 2, Bk. 1, Emigrací k vítězství (Prague: Melantrich, 1992), pp. 11–12.

13. 

See, for example, Eduard Táborský's diary, entry for 11 March 1945, in Hoover Institution Archives, Stanford University, Eduard Táborský Papers, Box 1. The Times of London identified the participants in the ceremony: “Among those who bade the President farewell was Lord Clarendon, representing the King and Queen; Mr. Philip Nichols, the British Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, representing the British Government; and Mr. Gusev, the Russian Ambassador.” See “Dr. Benesh's Departure,” The Times (London), 12 March 1945, p. 4.

14. 

On the inconclusive negotiations about a French-Czechoslovak treaty of alliance in 1946–1947, see Pavol Petruf, ed., Politické vzťahy medzi Francúzskom a Československom a Francúzskom a Slovenskom (1939–1948) (Bratislava: Matica slovenská, 2003), pp. 305–520.

15. 

Bevin memorandum to Dixon, 18 January 1948, in The National Archives of the United Kingdom, FO 800/450. For further details, see Vít Smetana, “Old Wine in New Bottles? British Policy towards Czechoslovakia, 1938–39 and 1947–48,” in Mark Cornwall and R. J. W. Evans, eds., Czechoslovakia in a Nationalist and Fascist Europe, 1918–1948 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 143–167; and Jan Kuklík and Jan Němeček, Osvobozené Československo očima britské diplomacie (Zprávy britské ambasády z Prahy v roce 1945) (Prague: Karolinum, 2010).