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The Velvet Revolution Declassified

Inaugural Volume of the New Václav Havel Library

New book publishes State Department cables from Prague 1989

Documents Obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by
The National Security Archive

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 141

Posted November 17, 2004

For more information contact Thomas Blanton: 202/994-7000

"I am delighted that the library that bears my name has as its first publication a collection of dispatches sent from Prague to the State Department in 1989 … I very much look forward to reading these dispatches and am certain that in doing so the actual course of events will come to mind and I'll be able to compare my own memories of the events with how they are described in these reports." - Václav Havel

Washington, D.C., November 17, 2004 - Fifteen years ago today, a modest, officially sanctioned student demonstration in Prague spontaneously grew into a major outburst of popular revulsion toward the ruling Communist regime. At that point the largest protest in 20 years, the demonstrations helped to spark the Velvet Revolution that brought down communism in Czechoslovakia and put dissident playwright Václav Havel in the Presidential Palace.

The November 17, 1989 march commemorated a student leader, Jan Opletal, who was killed by Nazi occupiers 50 years before, but quickly took on a starkly anti-regime character with calls of "Jakeš into the wastebasket," referring to the communist party general secretary, and demands for free elections. The authorities used blunt force to disperse the students, injuring scores of people including several foreign journalists. Hundreds were arrested.

The result was more demonstrations over the next three days that completely exposed the bankruptcy of the regime. Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution soon joined the historic chain of events begun with Poland's roundtable talks and elections, Hungary's reintroduction of a multi-party system, and just a week before the Prague protests, the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Now a new joint English-Czech edition volume has been published in Prague which tells the extraordinary tale of the revolution. The volume is entitled Prague-Washington-Prague: Reports from the United States Embassy in Czechoslovakia, November-December 1989. What sets this volume apart from other accounts is that it is a compilation of recently declassified U.S. State Department cable traffic from the period. Released in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the non-governmental National Security Archive, the cables not only provide quite accurate reporting of the unfolding events but offer insights into U.S. thinking at the time, including how the first demonstrations on this date in 1989 completely surprised American officials and forced them to dramatically revise their estimates on the survivability of the Communist regime in Prague.

Of particular note, this new volume is the first publication of the Václav Havel Library, which is still in the process of being formed. (Its website, currently being developed, offers further information about the book.)

The book's editor, Vilém Precan, is a long-time partner of the National Security Archive who has been instrumental in bringing new documentation to light and organizing international conferences on the hidden history of Czechoslovakia and the Cold War. As indicated by Radio Prague, the international service of Czech Radio, Dr. Precan "worked untiringly with the National Security Archive … to have the documents released."

From the book's Introduction: "It is unusual for documents related to diplomacy to be published so soon after their having been written … That the set of documents published in this volume got into the hands of independent historians so soon after their having originated is thanks to an American nongovernmental institution with a name that will probably mean little to the layman and might even be confusing. That institution is the National Security Archive. It was established to gather and publish documents that have been declassified on the basis of the U.S. Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) .... The [Archive] has been more than successful in achieving this aim."

From Vilém Precan's Acknowledgements: "This volume is the result of the work of many people, whom I as Editor now wish to thank. First and foremost I express my gratitude to my friends and colleagues at the National Security Archive in Washington D.C.: Tom Blanton, Catherine Nielsen, Svetlana Savranskaya, and Sue Bechtel, owing to whose efforts the telegrams were made available to independent researchers and were passed on to Prague, and who were of great assistance to me while I was working in Washington. "

Note about the book cover: Václav Bartuska, the director of the Havel Library, made the following comment: The photograph "is from the meeting where the transition of power from commies to Civic Forum was discussed … The back of the man you see at the bottom of the picture belongs to … guess whom … I liked this idea of having Václav Havel there right at the centre of all things, yet not visible at first. I think this had been his place for a long time."

Why was the revolution non-violent? One of the many subplots of the new compilation is the fact that, despite the authorities' initial use of force to break up the November demonstrations, the Velvet Revolution and similar events in other East European states (with the notable exception of Romania) were allowed to take place without Moscow resorting to bloody repression to keep its clients in power. An earlier National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book from 1999 also explores this topic in some detail, drawing on declassified records from a range of Russian and East European archives.

The spontaneous eruption of student protests in Prague instantly recalled to the minds of U.S. embassy staff (as indicated in cables included in this briefing book) earlier demonstrations in Eastern Europe, such as in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia on the first anniversary of the Soviet invasion of 1968. In that context, readers should note that some of the materials in the new Havel Library volume are also to become part of an acclaimed book series published by Central European University Press under the rubric, The National Security Archive Cold War Reader Series. This series comprises volumes of once-secret documentation from the former Soviet bloc and the West on each of the major upheavals in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. The series will feature a special emphasis on the revolutions of 1989 with separate volumes on Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Titles already in print or at the publishers include:

The Prague Spring 1968, edited by Járomír Navrátil et al (1998)
"I am happy that the cooperation between the National Security Archive in Washington and the Czech foundation, Prague Spring 1968, has resulted in this voluminous collection of documents." - Václav Havel

Uprising in East Germany, 1953, edited by Christian Ostermann (2001)
"This excellent collection of documents pulls together what's been learned about [the uprising] since the Cold War … It is an indispensable new source for the study of Cold War history." - John Lewis Gaddis

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956, edited by Csaba Békés, Malcolm Byrne and János Rainer (2002)
"There is no publication, in any language, that would even approach the thoroughness, reliability, and novelty of this monumental work." - István Deák

A Cardboard Castle? An Inside History of the Warsaw Pact, 1955-1991, edited by Vojtech Mastny and Malcolm Byrne (Forthcoming, 2005)


Documents
Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Document No. 1: Confidential Cable #08082 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Brutal Suppression of Czech Students' Demonstration," November 18, 1989, 14:18Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 2: Unclassified Cable #08087 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Embassy Protest of Attack on American Journalists during November 17-19 Demonstrations in Prague," November 20, 1989, 12:20Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 3: Confidential Cable #08097 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Demonstrations Continue Over Weekend in Prague," November 20, 1989, 12:42Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 4: Unclassified Cable #08106 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Czechoslovak Press Coverage of Demonstration Aftermath Shows Contradictory Lines," November 20, 1989, 16:48Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 5: Limited Official Use Cable from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Czechoslovak Independents Establish New Organization and List Agenda of Demands," November 20, 1989, 16:52Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 6: Confidential Cable #08109 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "American Woman's Account of November 17 Demonstration and the Death of a Czech Student," November 20, 1989, 16:54Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 7: Confidential Cable #08110 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Popular and Soviet Pressure for Reform Converge on the Jakes Leadership," November 20, 1989, 16:57Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 8: Confidential Cable #08144 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Demonstrations in Prague and Other Czechoslovak Cities November 20," November 21, 1989, 15:20Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 9: Confidential Cable #08153 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Student Strike Situation Report," November 21, 1989, 18:59Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

Document No. 10: Confidential Cable #08155 from U.S. Embassy Prague to the Department, "Morning Demonstration at Wenceslas Square: Overheard Conversations," November 21, 1989, 19:01Z
Source: Freedom of Information Act

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