The Prague Spring 1968: A National Security Archive Documents Reader

By JaromÍr NavrÁtil | Go to book overview
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DOCUMENT No. 90: Cable Traffic between the CPSU Politburo and
Ambassador Stepan Chervonenko Amending the Text and Delivery Time
of the "Letter of Warning," August 17–18,1968

Source: APRF, Prot. No. 38.

This exchange of top-secret cables between the CPSU Politburo and the Soviet Ambassador in
Czechoslovakia Stepan Chervonenko affected both the content and timing of delivery of the Politburo's
final "letter of warning "to the CPCz Presidium. The small number of changes in the text of the document,
including a full sentence added by the Politburo itself at the last minute, however, did not significantly
alter the original draft. Of the three revisions proposed by Chervonenko, the most substantive is his
recommendation that a sentence in the Politburo's draft"The counterrevolutionary forces "in Czecho-
slovakia" are busy gathering signatures for the liquidation of the communist party"be deleted because
there is no evidence to substantiate it.

The change in the delivery time of the letter was far more important than the changes in content. Until
these cables and a ciphered telegram stored at the Russian Foreign Ministry were declassified in the early
1990s, it was not known precisely when Chervonenko gave Dubček the letter. Even Dubček himself later
cited two different dates—August 18 and late on the 19thon which he received the letter. These cables
and the document from the Foreign Ministry (which briefly recounts Chervonenko's final pre-invasion
meeting with Dubček) confirm that Chervonenko was originally supposed to transmit the letter to Dubček
on the morning of the 18th (see Document No. 88); but, with the Politburo's approval, he did not actually
deliver it until the evening of the 19th, just 24 hours before the invasion began.

Chervonenko sought a delay on the grounds that "no one from the "CPCz" leadership would be in the
CPCz CC building" on a Sundaya specious argument since Chervonenko could easily have visited
Dubček on Sunday morning either at home or at his office to pass on the letter. (That in fact is precisely
what Chervonenko did the following evening.) The Soviet ambassador's chief motive in seeking the delay
was simply (as he put it) to "avoid sparking off premature actions by the rightist forces. "After consulting
with Bil'ak and Indra, Chervonenko concluded that it would be best to allow as little time as possible for
the CPCz leadership to consider the document. That way, there would be even less chance that Dubček
would raise the matter at all in the Presidium until after the start of the invasion.

The document was very similar to the flurry of messages Dubček had been receiving from Soviet leaders
over the previous two weeks; therefore he initially attached no special significance to the Politburo's latest
admonitions. Even so, Dubček decided to bring the letter with him to the CPCz Presidium meeting on
August 20, so that he and his colleagues could give the Soviet Politburo a collective response. During the
meeting, when reports arrived that Soviet and East European troops had entered Czechoslovakia, he
removed the document from his briefcase and read it to the other Presidium members.

Later, the leaders of the reinstated hard-line regime in Czechoslovakia, especially Gustáv Husák and
Vasil Bil'ak, would accuse Dubček of having deliberately concealed the "letter of warning" from the other
members of the CPCz Presidium on the night of August 20, allegedly because he feared,the document
would be used in a vote of no-confidence against him. This new documentation, however, clarifies that
Dubček's "omission "was engineered by the Soviet Union itself. Although Dubček neglected to inform his
colleagues about the letter until after word of the invasion came in, that was exactly the outcome that
Soviet leadersthrough Chervonenko's connivanceshad sought.

(See also Documents Nos. 89 and 93.)

-388-

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