Primary Sources

Prague Embassy cable, Brutal Suppression of Czech Students' Demonstration

Description

This official cable sets forth the reaction of the U.S. Embassy in Czechoslovakia to the events of November 17, 1989. Prague university students obtained official permission to commemorate this anniversary of the 1939 Nazi assault on Czech students, but they were forbidden to enter Wenceslas Square, the traditional site of anti-state protest. On that chilly evening, when peaceful demonstrators began moving towards the Square they found themselves surrounded by police units, which eventually broke up the crowds violently. In response, outraged student leaders and actors called for a nationwide protest strike. The aftermath of the November 17 demonstration completely surprised American officials. Despite the rapid acceleration of events elsewhere, Czechoslovakia had not yet experienced a jolt powerful enough to seriously shake the grip on power of the conservative Jakes government. The reaction to the crackdown forced U.S. officials to reconsider how long the regime could survive. According to the cable, possible future consequences included: divisions in leadership, popular outrage against the beating of young people, and the Soviet reaction. This last point was particularly relevant because of the recent humiliating visit to Moscow by Central Committee member Jan Fojtik, whom Gorbachev had snubbed to show his displeasure with Czechoslovakia's slow pace of change.

Source

Prague Embassy to U.S. Secretary of State, "Brutal Suppression of Czech Students' Demonstration," 18 November 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).

Primary Source—Excerpt

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3. SUMMARY. AN OFFICIALLY SANCTIONED STUDENT COMMEMORATION THE EVENING OF NOVEMBER 17 DEVELOPED INTO CZECHOSLOVAKIA'S LARGEST ANTI-REGIME DEMONSTRATION IN 20 YEARS. SEVERAL TENS OF THOUSANDS (POSSIBLY 50,000) STUDENTS MARCHED THROUGH CENTRAL PRAGUE CALLING FOR FREEDOM, AN END TO COMMUNIST RULE AND THE OUSTER OF THE PRESENT COMMUNIST LEADERSHIP. THE PEACEFUL PROCESSION WAS HALTED BY POLICE BEFORE IT REACHED ITS GOAL, WENCESLAS SQUARE. IT WAS THEN BRUTALLY DISPERSED BY TRUNCHEON-WIELDING RIOT POLICE. WESTERN JOURNALISTS WERE PARTICULARLY TARGETED BY THE POLICE FOR ROUGH TREATMENT. ONE CHICAGO TRIBUNE REPORTER REQUIRED SERIOUS MEDICAL ATTENTION FOR HEAD WOUNDS. NUMEROUS OTHERS WERE ROUGHED UP OR HAD THEIR CAMERAS SMASHED. NO OFFICIAL STATISTICS HAVE BEEN RELEASED ON THE NUMBER OF INJURED OR DETAINED, THOUGH WE UNDERSTAND PRAGUE SPRING ERA LEADER ALEXANDER DUBCEK WAS AMONG THEM AND THERE IS AN UNCONFIRMED REPORT THAT AT LEAST ONE STUDENT DIED AS A RESULT OF POLICE BEATINGS. THE EMBASSY HAS ALREADY PROTESTED VERBALLY TO THE MFA ON THE POLICE TREATMENT OF AMERICAN JOURNALISTS AND RECOMMENDS IN PARA 19 THAT AMBASSADOR HOUSTECKY IN WASHINGTON BE CALLED IN TO RECEIVE A PROTEST AND THAT THE IMPENDING VISIT OF CPCZ PRESIDIUM MEMBER FOJTIK BE CANCELLED AS INAPPROPRIATE AT THIS TIME.

4. SCARED AND ISOLATED, THE JAKES LEADERSHIP HAS DECIDED TO RESPOND TO THIS FIRST MAJOR MANIFESTATION OF STUDENT OPPOSITION WITH BRUTE FORCE. THIS BLOODY-MINDEDNESS MAY WELL PRODUCE THE SORT OF DIVISIONS SO FAR LARGELY MUTED IN THE CPCZ LEADERSHIP AND WILL UNDERCUT WHAT LITTLE POPULAR LEGITIMACY THE REGIME HAS HAD AS WELL AS ITS LONGEVITY.

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14. THIS IS THE FIRST MASS SPECIFICALLY STUDENT DEMONSTRATION SINCE 1969 AND REPRESENTS A WATERSHED EVENT FOR THE JAKES REGIME. IT CHANGES OUR FRAME OF REFERENCE ON THIS REGIME'S LONGEVITY. THE BRUTAL POLICE TREATMENT OF YOUTH WILL HAVE BROAD REPERCUSSIONS AMONG THE GENERAL POPULATION AS IT DID LAST JANUARY AT THE MUCH SMALLER-SCALE PALACH DEMONSTRATIONS. IT SHOULD REMOVE WHAT TRACE OF LEGITIMACY THE REGIME RETAINS AS FAR AS THE GENERAL PUBLIC IS CONCERNED. JAKES WILL NOT BE ABLE TO PRETEND, AS CPCZ IDEOLOGY SECRETARY FOJTIK TRIED TO DO AFTER RETURNING FROM TALKS IN MOSCOW ON FRIDAY (JUST AS THE POLICE WERE KNOCKING HEADS), THAT CZECHOSLOVAKIA IS SERIOUS ABOUT SPEEDING UP THE PACE OF POLITICAL REFORM.

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17. HOW QUICKLY THE JAKES REGIME PASSES FROM THE SCENE, HOWEVER, MAY DEPEND NOW ON MORE THAN LEADERSHIP DIVISIONS AND POPULAR PRESSURE. AN IMPORTANT FACTOR, AND ONE THAT COULD BE DECISIVE, IS THE SOVIET REACTION TO LOCAL DEVELOPMENTS...."

18. THERE IS A FINAL BIT OF CRUEL IRONY TO LAST NIGHT'S EVENTS. STARTED OFFICIALLY TO COMMEMORATE A HEROIC STUDENT ACT OF PROTEST AGAINST THE BRUTALITY OF CZECHOSLOVAKIA'S NAZI OCCUPIERS, THEY ENDED YESTERDAY IN BRUTALITY AND APPARENTLY AT LEAST ONE STUDENT'S DEATH AT THE HANDS OF THE CZECHOSLOVAK AUTHORITIES.

How to Cite this Source

Prague Embassy, "Prague Embassy cable, Brutal Suppression of Czech Students' Demonstration," Making the History of 1989, Item #491, http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/491 (accessed July 31 2014, 3:23 am).

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