Assignment to Prague
It so happened that early in 1967, Norman Freed was completing his stint as Canadian party representative on the editorial board of the World Marxist Review in Prague, Czechoslovakia. When I heard about it, I immediately asked if I could replace him. I had no idea what it would be like; I just wanted to get away from the Tribune. I told the Party leadership that I had served faithfully on that job for nine years and thought I deserved a break, and they agreed, so in August of 1967 my wife and I left for Czechoslovakia.
Now, I should tell you that although I didn't know the Czech language, I managed better than most because it is a Slavic language. Knowing Ukrainian well, Russian fairly well and a bit of Polish, helped. We quickly got acclimatized, because Gladys and I soon made some very good friends.
One of them was John Gibbons, the representative of the British Communist Party, who had been there from the very start of the magazine. In fact, his status there went much further back than that. He had gone to the Soviet Union, along with his wife and two children, as a correspondent of the Daily Worker in 1939, just before the war broke out. So he spent the entire war period there; his wife and kids were sent beyond the Urals while he stayed in Moscow. When the war was over, however, instead of going back home to London, he was asked to be his Party's representative on another publication.
As you may recall, after the war Stalin abolished the Communist International and replaced it with the Communist Information Bureau, or the Cominform, as it became known. The Cominform launched a newspaper called For Lasting Peace and People's Democracy, which was published in Belgrade. So John went there. The Canadian party's representative then was Annie Buller. When Stalin denounced and broke ties with Tito, however, the publication was given 24 hours' notice to move to Bucharest, and John went there.
A few years later, Moscow decided to change the publication from a newspaper to a magazine called Problems of Peace and Socialism. Its editorial offices were in Prague, but its various editions were printed in different countries. The English edition was called World Marxist Review and was printed in Canada. So this time John Gibbons went to Prague. In other words, he spent most of his adult life as a journalist in four Communist countries. He was there when Alf Dewhurst and Norman Freed each represented the Canadian party on the editorial board, and he warmly welcomed me. He was a marvelous person, a very knowledgeable and compassionate human being. We became very close friends.
The other person was Molly Perlman, who worked on the magazine as a translator from Russian into English. She was truly a veteran of the Communist movement. She came to Moscow in 1918 as a young girl with her mother from South Africa. She worked for the Comintern as a translator and secretary through the 1920s and 1930s, then for the Party's Central Committee through the entire Stalin period. She was very knowledgeable, very wise, and "street smart" in the political sense. Gladys and I became very close friends with her. She too was very helpful and told us a great deal about what had been and was going on in the Soviet Union.
We also made friends with the Wheelers — George and Eleanor Wheeler from the United States — who had been living in Prague since the end of the war. George had been in the U.S. Army and, as an economist (a professor of economics), was sent into Germany to help rebuild it after the war. How he got to Prague is an interesting story.
While in Germany, he was serving under General Lucius Clay, who was deputy director of the War Rehabilitation and Reconstruction department. They both got along very well. One day Clay called George into his office and said: "I got orders from Washington that I should get rid of you because you're a‘Communist. But you're doing a good job, so to hell with them!" A few months later he called him in and said,
"They're still pressing me. But I say screw them." The third time, almost a year later, he finally said: "George, my job is on the line. I guess I have to let you go."
So George left the Army. However, instead of returning to his home in Washington state, he decided to go to Prague and help the new Czechoslovakia. He joined the Academy of Sciences there and wrote a couple of books. He never learned to speak Czech, but his wife, Eleanor, did. His family grew up there, and he stayed in Prague until 1969, even though because of his opposition to the invasion he was persona non grata.
Through the Wheelers we got to know several other left-wing Americans who were there as journalists and professors.
Reform movement is born
Through this circle of friends, which quickly expanded, I was able to find out very quickly what was going on. And what was going on, as early as August, the month I arrived, was that a reform movement was developing. It started mainly with the journalists, writers and artists. They were, of course, denounced in the Party press as "bourgeois elements" and "enemies of socialism." But through the fall months this movement quickly broadened out to include other members of society, including workers and rank-and-file members of the Communist Party. By November, it included the majority of the Party leadership.
Meanwhile, the Moscow press was denouncing many of the things that were being written and said in Czechoslovakia. And the Soviet Party was becoming very alarmed at what was happening, especially since it was all being endorsed by the leaders of the Czechoslovak Party. So much so that by December — actually on December 25th — Leonid Brezhnev flew in from Moscow to attend a special plenary meeting of the Party's central committee. They met behind closed doors, and it was subsequently reported that heated discussions had taken place, but after the meeting Brezhnev publicly announced that everything was fine, that the Soviet Party had full confidence in the Czechoslovak Party leadership, because it had things under control. They had to put on that kind of front, of course, but as subsequent events proved, they were really very alarmed at what was happening.
By January, the general secretary of the Czechoslovak party, Antonin Novotny, was compelled to resign — that was how rapidly and how far the reform movement was progressing. By March, the Party's Action Program was advanced, a marvelous document that guaranteed all citizens the right of free speech and assembly, the right to travel abroad, a free press, and numerous other democratic rights. The leaders of the Soviet Union and the so-called people's democracies —men like East Germany's Ulbricht and Poland's Gomulka — were horrified by this development. It would have been so infectious.
Learning Czech — fast
There was another thing that prompted me to learn Czech fast. In Czechoslovakia there were several newspapers besides the Communist Party's Rude próvo: a Catholic paper, a Social-Democratic paper, the Peasant Party paper, a trade-union paper, and one or two others. While they carried different articles, they were required to publish the press releases of the Czech news agency, CTK, which made for somewhat bland reading. But during the reform movement, especially after January, every paper started writing whatever it wanted to. And people were buying three, four, five papers to get the different points of view. It was a sort of novelty. I was doing the same. I got myself a Czech dictionary and began laboriously translating the contents of each of the papers to find out what was happening.
I also attended the many big meetings that were being held almost every other day in huge arenas, some as big as Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. At first the audiences were made up largely of young people, especially students, but eventually were attended by everyone. At these meetings, Party leaders like Alexander Dubcek, Joseph Smrkovsky, Oldrich Cernik and Frantisek Kriegel, and writers like Ota Sik and Ludvik Vaculik spoke to enthusiastic audiences. Dub6ek is, of course, well known for his part in those events. Smrkovsky, was a highly respected old-timer who led the underground resistance movement against the Nazis in Prague, a real hero. Kriegel was a Czech Jew, a surgeon and a veteran of the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. These leaders were very popular and had a great following. They gave inspiring speeches about their plans to build "socialism with a human face." I tried to have as many of those speeches translated for me as possible by the people who accompanied me.
In March, I wrote an article to the Canadian Tribune, my first major report back to Canada on the reform movement, which I titled "Spring Comes to Czechoslovakia," and which, I explained in the opening paragraph, was "not only the meteorological spring, but a political spring." That article, I was told later, caused quite a sensation here in Canada. Tom Morris was the editor and Phyllis Clarke his assistant. After they decided to publish it, the Party leaders — Buck and the others — said it was heresy, that it was playing into the hands of the anti-Soviet elements.
My stay in Czechoslovakia was an inspiring and enlightening experience. It changed my life in many ways. First, living in a Communist country, I was able to see its pros and cons. More important, I met and worked with representatives from Communist parties in many other countries, from whom I learned a great deal. But I learned most, perhaps, from individual Russians and Czechs, both those who worked on the magazine and others.
Barriers to progress
Early in our stay there, actually the first week, we met a young chap, Michael Lash, a former Canadian. His father and mother were immigrants from Slovakia who had spent many years in Canada. When, after the war, they decided to go back to the new Communist Slovakia, he went with them. A recent graduate from the University of Toronto, he eventually became a professor of nuclear physics at Charles University in Prague.
One of the first things I asked him when we met was, "Michael, what is really the matter with things here? Why isn't there more economic progress?" His answer was, "John, more than anything else it's the bureaucracy. Let me give you an example. An ordinary worker in a chemical plant, let us say, has an idea for improving production. First he has to clear the idea with his immediate supervisor; he can't bypass him and go right to the top. If his immediate superior is an ignorant jerk and doesn't think much of the idea, he won't move it up higher. If, after a lot of time-consuming hassle, he does, the same kind of delay takes place on the next rung up the latter, and the next. But let's say that finally, after perhaps months of delay, it does get to the very top, to the plant management. That's not the end of it. It then has to go to the Party committee, whose members likely know nothing about the chemical plant's production problems and either sit on it and delay it further or stymie it for some silly reason. So it can take as long as a year or two to get through, if it gets through at all. Often the worker who came up with the idea just says, to hell with it. There are so many such barriers, so much red tape, it's like in the army or worse."
That opened my eyes somewhat. Later I learned that the problems in the Soviet Union were even worse. I learned this especially from the Soviet men and women who worked on the magazine with me, and also during my own trips to the Soviet Union.
Visits with the Whytes
Over the years, prior to and during my stay in Prague, I made several visits to the Soviet Union. During three of them I visited Bert Whyte and his wife, Monica, twice when Bert was a Canadian Tribune correspondent and once when he was free-lancing. They were both disparaging of the regime, but went along because they were both living comfortably and didn't particularly want to come back to Canada. Bert liked his duty-free scotch and cigars and never bothered to learn Russian, because Monica spoke Russian very well. But they told me many things that opened my eyes to the flaws in the regime.
From Prague I wrote many articles and letters —articles to the Tribune and letters to my family. Events were moving swiftly. There was a lot of tension in the air. Recriminations in the Soviet press, rumors, negotiations between Czechoslovak and Soviet leaders. In June and July there were Soviet army manoeuvres near the Czechoslovak border, which the Soviet leaders said had nothing to do with the events in that country, but the Czechoslovak leaders knew otherwise. They did not expect any military action; they thought it was just pressure, but a few did think that it was an extreme possibility.
On a delegation to Romania
It was around July of that year that there was another interesting event in my life. Some months earlier, the Romanian Communist Party had invited the Canadian Party to send a delegation to visit their country. So the Party's central executive committee decided to send one that summer; a delegation of seven, headed by Tim Buck. When I learned about it from the Central Executive Committee minutes I received, I immediately wrote back to Toronto and asked: why was I not considered? After all, I was a member of the Executive Committee and, since I was in Prague, it wouldn't entail any extra costs, so they included me. It was an eye-opening experience.
The delegation toured most of Romania — nothing off the beaten path, of course — met various officials and had two meetings with President Nicolae Ceausescu. The latter were quite enlightening, because they revealed some of the differences among the world Communist leaders. At one point, when the question of the split between the Soviet and Chinese leaders came up, Ceausescu told the delegation that he thought that the Chinese were 25 percent to blame and the Russians 75 percent. On the situation in Czechoslovakia, he said he sided with the Czechoslovak leaders. All of which raised eyebrows in the delegation, especially with Buck.
A task in Budapest
Just about that time I had yet another interesting experience. The Communist parties were preparing to hold a world congress sometime that fall and were drafting a variety of documents for it. The meeting didn't take place, of course, because of what happened in Czechoslovakia. But I was asked to go to Budapest to help prepare the draft documents. Gladys went with me and traveled around Hungary while I was working.
After I finished working on those documents, Gladys and I took a holiday. We visited nearby Vienna, where we bumped into Stanley and Millie Ryerson. Stanley was there attending a world congress of historians. Then we spent two weeks on the renowned Lake Balaton in the heart of Hungary. One evening, while at a resort restaurant there, I was surprised to find sitting at the next table Karol Erdelj, the young fellow I had met in Sochi, the personal secretary to Kadar. After exchanging greetings, he called me aside and said: "We agree with what the Czechs are trying to do. We hope they win. We support them, but not like the rope that supports a hanging man. We have to be very tactful about it." But of course they didn't support them in the end.
A phone call from Kashtan
After I got back from Budapest, in the latter part of July I got a phone call from Bill Kashtan. He was calling from Bulgaria, where he and his wife had just completed a month-long vacation. He said he had been invited to come to Moscow and wondered whether, in light of what was happening in Czechoslovakia, it might not be useful to drop in on Prague. I replied that it would be most desirable, because it would give him a chance to learn first-hand about the situation there and find out from the Czechoslovak leaders themselves what their differences with the Soviet leaders were. I said also that I could alert the Prague party leaders about his visit. I was really expecting him to come. I even told the editor of the magazine and John Gibbons and others that he was coming. A few days later, however, I received another phone call from him, this time from Moscow. He said: "The Soviet comrades suggested that I should not go to Prague but come straight to Moscow." Then he added: "And they suggested that you come and meet me here in Moscow." When I asked, "When?" he said, "Right away. Get on a plane tomorrow."
Incidentally, the same thing happened with Henry Winston, at that time an Afro-American leader of the Communist Party of the United States. He was making a trip to Moscow at about the same time and stopped in Berlin on the way, but even though the Czechoslovak party leaders invited him to visit Prague, he did not do so; he went straight to Moscow, undoubtedly on the advice of the Moscow leaders.
An ominous comment
So I acquired a visa next day and flew to Moscow. There Kashtan and a Soviet Central Committee representative tried to convince me that what was happening in Czechoslovakia was a counter-revolution and I shouldn't support it. But I said, "Look, I've been there. I've seen what is going on. There's nothing counterrevolutionary about it. It's a genuine reform movement." So they didn't get anywhere with me. Next morning, Kashtan and his wife were taking a plane back to Canada, and I was asked to come to the airport. We got to the airport at 6:00 a.m. where, while we were having the usual VIP breakfast, the Soviet party official again tried, as tactfully as he could, to win me over to their side and again got nowhere.
After breakfast we all went out on the tarmac and saw the Kashtans off, at which point he turned to me and said, "We didn't want Bill to go to Prague, because we didn't know whether our tanks would be there at the time." This was in July, a month before the eventual invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 21st. The significance of the remark didn't really hit me until later, when the tanks really did come. I suppose that in my mind the idea of such an invasion was just unthinkable.
As for the actual invasion on August 21, there are so many things I could say about it, how the Soviet troops behaved, how the people reacted, and so on. I won't go into details about it now.
[ Continued ... ]
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