Prague Embassy cable, November 21 Morning Demonstration At Wenceslas Square: Overheard Conversations
Just a week before the Velvet Revolution began, it was smarter to look for public opinion in a family kitchen rather than on a city sidewalk. People still monitored what they said outside their homes. By November 21, the squares in Prague were becoming open forums. This embassy report described the "word on the streets" overheard by an American official's spouse that day on Wenceslas Square. One of the topics discussed (out loud) was the proposed general strike on November 27. The amount of public support for the strike remained unknown until the very last minute. The conversation recounted indicated some reasons why. The regime controlled workplace unrest through heavy punishments for potential strikers and it was unclear to the speakers whether November 27 would prove any different. Their debate featured arguments for and against participation. In response to one speaker's claim that strikers faced serious consequences, others asserted that if enough people participated, it would be impossible to penalize them all. Another speaker expressed disgust with the blatant corruption in a government claiming to represent working-class interests. The argument for strength in numbers proved correct: between one-half and three-fourths of the adult population supported the November 27 strike, dealing a major blow to the government's position. Public discussions such as these reflect the growing openness within Czechoslovakia in these last days of communist rule as well as the decreasing fear of the populace of the regime's authority.
Prague Embassy to U.S. Secretary of State, "November 21 Morning Demonstration at Wenceslas Square: Overheard Conversations," 21 November 1989, Cold War International History Project, Documents and Papers, CWIHP (accessed May 14, 2008).
3. AS EMBASSY SPOUSE STOPPED BY WENCESLAS SQUARE THIS MORNING AROUND 10:30, THERE WERE ABOUT 300 PEOPLE AROUND THE STATUE OF BOHEMIA'S PATRON SAINT, MOST OF WHOM WERE VERY YOUNG -- 15-20 YEARS OLD.... ABOUT TWO BLOCKS DOWN THE SQUARE EMBASSY SPOUSE STOPPED TO LISTEN TO A KNOT OF PEOPLE WHO WERE STANDING IN THE CENTER OF THE SQUARE. THESE WERE OLDER PEOPLE, 40-80 YEARS OLD....
4. HERE ARE SOME OF THE COMMENTS OVERHEARD:
-- "WE ALL HAVE TO GET OUT ON THE STREETS."
--"EVERYONE HAS TO PARTICIPATE IN THE GENERAL STRIKE NEXT WEEK. THAT WILL SHOW THEM ."
- - WOMAN: "I HEARD THAT ANYONE WHO PARTICIPATES WILL LOSE HIS JOB."
-- DEAD SILENCE.
-- "THEY CAN'T FIRE ALL OF US."
-- WOMAN: "THEY SAY ANYONE WHO PARTICIPATES WILL LOSE HIS JOB. NO JOB, NO MONEY, NO NOTHING, THE USUAL THING."
-- WHEN (NAME FORGOTTEN) WENT INTO THE GOVERNMENT, HE GOT 10,000 A YEAR. NOW THEY GET 2.5 MILLION. THEY BUILD THEMSELVES PALACES. THEY HAVE ALL THE (WORD NOT UNDERSTOOD, BUT IT GOT A BIG LAUGH) AND WE HAVE NOTHING. MY PENSION IS 1000 PER MONTH. I'M SUPPOSED TO LIVE ON THAT. WHY ISN'T JAKES ON PENSION?"
-- "THE MAIN THING IS, THERE HAS TO BE A GOOD TURNOUT FOR THE STRIKE."
-- "YES, ESPECIALLY TRANSPORTATION WORKERS."
-- ''RIGHT. 'THEY' ALWAYS USED THE STRIKE AS A WEAPON BEFORE 1948. IF WE ALL STOP WORK, IF THE MINES STOP, THEY HAVE TO LISTEN AND THE OLD MEN WILL HAVE TO GET OUT.'
-- "WHAT IF WE STRIKE AND NOTHING HAPPENS?"
-- "WE STRIKE AGAIN. WE KEEP ON STRIKING AGAIN AND AGAIN.”
--“THEY ARE GOING TO TAKE PICTURES. THEY SAY THE STUDENTS WHO ARE MARCHING WILL BE IDENTIFIED.”
-- "IF THEY ARE WORRIED, LET THEM GO TO A DIFFERENT CITY AND MARCH THERE."
... A FINAL NOTE. ON THE METRO THIS MORNING THIS EMBASSY SPOUSE'S HOUSEKEEPER SAW A YOUNG STUDENT WEARING ONE OF OUR. U.S.-CZECHOSLOVAK FLAG PINS. SOMEONE ON THE SUBWAY OFFERED HIM 500 KCS. FOR IT (USD 50). THE OFFER WAS REFUSED.