Robert J. Kerner and the US Conception of Czechoslovak Independence

  • George J. Svoboda
Part of the Studies in Russia and East Europe book series (SREE)


During the last years of World War I, US policy regarding the transformations. Until the middle of 1917 the official attitude of the US government toward the political aims of the Slavs of the Habsburg Monarchy seemed to be generally sympathetic, thus vaguely implying support of their demands.1 At the end of 1917, however, President Wilson made public for the first time his wish that the future of the Slavic nations in Central Europe be tied to the continued existence of Austria-Hungary.2 This political twist, by which Wilson attempted to lure Emperor Karl out of German ‘vassalage’, was reversed again during the spring and summer of 1918, as the US expressed its support for the political movements of the Slavs in Austria-Hungary, began to favour the claims to independence of the Czechs, Slovaks and Yugoslavs, and decided to dismember the Habsburg Monarchy after the end of the war.3 Although this new trend was clearly a result of the changing situation in the military and diplomatic spheres, the incentives for the new policy as well as its full context, rationale, and timing have remained unclear. 4 There are several reasons for this. First, the variety of ways of dismantling the Monarchy and the ambiguity of the term ‘independence’ not only allowed the US to maintain a flexible diplomacy but also to obscure its real intentions. Moreover, the new policy was formulated slowly and was accompanied by a number of vague or even contradictory official statements which reflected divergent tactical considerations as well as the personal views of various politicians. To add to the confusion, President Wilson during this period remained faithful to his reputation as a statesman who occasionally conducted foreign policy without offering explanations to the public or even consulting with the Secretary of State.5


Foreign Policy Political Movement East Central Territorial Development Peace Offer 
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  1. 1.
    See for instance the very well-known address of President Wilson to the Senate, ‘Peace without Victory’, of 22 January 1917. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson (Princeton, NJ), vol. 40 (1982), pp. 533–539. In his Flag Day Address delivered on 14 June 1917, Wilson further elaborated some of his former ideas. By referring to the significance of Pan-Germanism and to the demands of Czechs, Magyars, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Turks and Armenians, he stated: ‘These peoples did not wish to be united. They ardently desired to direct their own affairs, would be satisfied only by undisputed independence. They could be kept quiet only by the presence or the constant threat of armed men. They would live under a common power only by sheer compulsion and await the day of revolution.’ Ibid., vol. 42 (1983), pp. 498–504.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See Wilson’s ‘Annual Message on the State of the Union’ of 4 December 1917. The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 45 (1984), pp. 194––202. Wilson’s Fourteen Points Programme of 8 January 1918 was, of course, in tune with the notion of the continued existence of Austria-Hungary. (Point X: ‘The Peoples of Austria-Hungary ... should be accorded the freest opportunity of autonomous development.’) Ibid., pp. 534––9. Wilson’s policy of opposing the dismemberment of the Habsburg Monarchy was in fact being pursued through private diplomacy as early as in February 1917. See for example Mamatey, The United States and East Central Europe, pp. 56ff.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    The proclamation by Robert Lansing of29 May 1918, expressing ‘earnest sympathy’ for the ‘nationalistic aspirations of the Czecho-Slovaks and Jugo-Slavs for freedom’ (Lansing to Page, 29 May 1918, Papers relating to the Foreign Policy of the United States 1918, Suppl. 1, The World War, V.I., p. 809), and the interest of the US government in the Congress of Oppressed Races may be considered the turning point in US policy towards Bohemia and Slovakia. See for example J. Prokeš, Československá vlastivěda, 1, Doplněk 1, Dějiny 1 (Prague, 1933), p. 880; Mamatey, The United States and East Central Europe, p. 264. The new trend was shown also on 26 June 1918 when Lansing proclaimed ‘the position of the United States government to be that all branches of the Slav race should be completely freed from German and Austrian rule’. (Papers relating to the foreign policy of the United States 1918, Suppl. 1, The World War, V, 1., p. 816.) On 26 June 1918 Wilson wrote to Lansing: ‘I agree with you that we can no longer respect or regard the integrity of the artificial Austrian Empire.’ (The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 48 (1985), p. 435.)Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    In Czechoslovakia, the role of President Wilson in the founding of the Czechoslovak Republic has almost always been discussed as a political issue rather than as a historical topic. Before World War II Masaryk and his political allies, as well as his adversaries, tried to defend their political goals and support their aspirations by emphasising selected aspects of the American policy regarding the establishment of Czechoslovakia. In his war memoirs, Masaryk deftly stressed the decisive significance of Wilson’s policy for Czechoslovak independence, while depicting his own transactions with Wilson only in modest terms (T. G. Masaryk, The Making of a State: Memoirs and Observations, 1914–1918 (New York, 1927), pp. 297–312). However, Masaryk did not object when members of his coterie asserted that it was he who had convinced Wilson to break up the Habsburg Monarchy. The popular view was expressed by a metaphor which showed Wilson’s hand, guided by Masaryk’s, signing the death sentence of Austria-Hungary. (Prokeš, Československá Vlastivěda, p. 884.) Opponents of Masaryk argued that the birth of Czechoslovakia was the outcome of anti-Habsburg struggle in Bohemia or of the Czech military actions in Russia, rather than the result of ,European or US diplomacy. The polemics in which assorted arguments were brought up involved Wilson, for the most part, only indirectly. (See, for instance, J. Stříbrný, Ze zákulisí bojů o 28, říjen 1918 (Prague, 1935), and his TGM a 28. říjen (Prague, 1938).) Masaryk addressed the issues in several articles. Most of them were published under assumed names; their authorship therefore became the subject of another controversy which was never resolved. (1. Herben, ‘Co Masaryk nepsal’, Lidové noviny 16 January 1938; J. Werstadt, Skryrý Masaryk: o nepodepsané úvahy presidenta Osvoboditele, doslov k jedné kampani (Prague, 1938); Stříbrny, TGM a 28. říjen.) The public discussion about the authorship of the articles lasted until President Masaryk’s death in 1937 when it was ‘temporarily’ terminated on the request of his son Jan (see ibid., p. 75), After 1948 the Czechoslovak authorities presented Wilson’s government as basically hostile to the idea of a politically independent Czechoslovakia. See J. S. Hájek, Wilsonovská legenda v dějinách ČSR (Prague 1953); J. Pachta, Pravda o Masarykovi (Prague, 1953). S. Raková, Politika Spojených států ve střední Evropě po první světové válce (Prague, 1983).Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    L. E. Gelfand, The Inquiry: American Preparation for Peace, 1917–1919 (New Haven, Conn., 1963), pp. 28–31.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    E. Mezes ‘Preparations for Peace’, in E. M. House and Charles Seymour, What Really Happened at Paris (New York, 1921); pp. 1–14. C. Seymour, Letters from Paris Peace Conference [Introduction] (New Haven, Conn., 1965); I. Floto, Colonel House in Paris (Copenhagen, 1973), pp. 61ff. J. G. Williams, Colonel House and Sir Edward Grey (Lanham, MD: 1984).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Gelfand, The Inquiry, pp. 134–53. R. Steel, Walter Lippmann and the American Century (New York, 1980), pp. 129–38.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    The Archives of the Inquiry are kept in the National Archives in Washington. (See Gelfand, The Inquiry, p. 183.)Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Gelfand, The Inquiry, pp. 56–8.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    See Kerner’s curriculum vitae. Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley, CA, The Papers of Robert Joseph Kerner, C-B 1057, (hereafter cited as Bancroft, Lib., C-B 1057); Index to publications [s.d.].Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    See Kerner’s own Brief Biography, (ibid.; ‘Prof. Kerner Biographical, 1956–1957’). Also W. S. Vucinich, ‘Professor Robert J. Kerner, California Monthly, vol. 61, no. 3 (Nov. 1950), 12, 37.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Bancroft Lib., C-B 1057: ‘Reports re Czechoslovakia’ [s.d.]. ForKerner’s early concept of a solution of the Czech question, see his article ‘American Interests and Bohemian Question’, The Bohemia Review, vol. 1, no. 11–12 (Dec. 1917), 7–11.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    See for instance letters by Pergler to Kerner of 29 June 1918, 29 Sept. 1918 (Bancroft Lib., C-:B 1057: ‘Czechoslovak National Council’). Kerner knew not only ‘Česká otázka’ but also articles written for the New Europe and La Nation Tchéque. (See ‘Territorial Development of the Bohemian State’, Bancroft Lib., C-B 1057 (Cart. 15) and ‘Czechoslovakia - 20 years of Independence’, ibid.)Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    ‘Memorandum on Solutions of the Austro-Hungarian Question’ (21 Jan 1918) (Bancroft Lib., C-B 1057 (cart. 13)); ‘The Czecho-Slovaks and the War, especially in the Relation to the Policy of the Western Allies and the United States. Brief Memorandum [to Lippmann]’, ibid. (Cart 13); ‘Concrete Suggestions for American Diplomacy in the present Austro-Hungarian crisis’, ibid. (Cart 15). Before 21 January 1918, Kerner submitted ‘Memorandum on Racial Participation in the Government of Austria-Hungary’, ibid. (Cart 9), and ‘Memorandum on Structure of Government of Austria-Hungary’, ibid.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    ‘Memorandum on Solutions of the Austro-Hungarian Question’. (The manuscript is not paginated.)Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    See Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States: The World War, 1917, Suppl. 1, Washington, 1931, p. 8.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    ‘The Czecho-Slovaks and the War. .. ’Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, vol. 40 (1982), pp. 533–9 and 42 (1983), pp. 498–504.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    Kerner did not know about the ‘Epiphany Declaration’ of the Czech deputies to the Reichsrat (6 Jan 1918).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    ‘Memorandum on Solution of the Austro-Hungarian Question’. Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    ‘Concrete Suggestions for American Diplomacy in the Present Austro Hungarian Crisis’.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    On 28 February Kerner submitted ‘A Brief Sketch of the Political Movements of the Czecho-Slovaks Tending Toward the Federalisation or Dismemberment of Austria-Hungary’, Bancroft Lib., C-B 1057 (Cart. 11); on 22 April he finished ‘Minorities in Austria-Hungary: A Survey of the Historical Evaluation of the Problem of Minorities in the Habsburg Monarchy’, ibid. The memorandum ‘The Official Return of the Austrian Parliamentary Election of 1911 (Lower House)’ was submitted on 25 June, ibid. (Cart. 9).Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    The US Embassy, Rome to the State Dept., Washington, 3 May 1918. (A copy in ‘Bohemia Notes’, ibid. (Cart. 11).Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Steel, Walter Lippmann, p. 136.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    ‘Czecho-Slovak Organisations. Who’s Who’, 1 July 1918, Bancroft Lib., C-B 1057 (Cart 15).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    ‘The Territorial Development of the Bohemian (Czecho-Slovak) State: Maps and Explanatory Text,’ 18 July 1918, ibid. (Cart. 9). The sketch does not include the region of Glatz (Kladsko) in Bohemia but the district of Teschin (Těšínsko) is marked as Bohemian territory. Kerner explicitly stated that ‘boundaries in Hungary follow map by Professor T. G. Masaryk’, apparently that of 1915 (see Perman, The Shaping of the Czechoslovak State, p. 20).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    For the development ~f Masaryk’s political programme during World War I seeK. Stloukal, Československý stat v předstávrich T. G. Masaryka za války (Prague, 1930); Masaryk’s introduction toR. W. Seton-Watson, Evropa v přerodu (Prague, 1920); J. Werstadt, Od ‘České otázky’ k ‘Nové evropě’: linie politickéno vývoje Masarykova (Prague, 1920). Masaryk had already begun to stress the republican form of the propounded state of the Czechs and Slovaks in 1917. Kerner’s concept, however, left the form of new ‘successive’ states in Central Europe, Czechoslovakia included, open.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Interestingly, on 26 June 1918 Wilson, in response to Lansing’s memorandum of 24 June, clearly states that ‘we can no longer respect the integrity of the artificial Austrian Empire’ (quoted from Mamatey, The United States and East Central Europe, p. 269). Notes of conversations between Sir William Wiseman and President Wilson indicate that Wilson had already changed his policy towards Austria-Hungary in May 1918 and decided to support the Czechs, Poles, and Yugoslavs in their struggle against the Viennese government. (See A. Wilbert, The Road to Safety: A Study in Anglo-American Relations (London, 1952).) In June and still in e~rly September Wilson, however, refused to issue any public definite declaration regarding an independent Czecho-Slovak state because other nationalities would demand the same. (For the analysis see Perman, The Shaping of the Czechoslovak State, pp. 41, 43.)Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Masaryk, The Making of a State, p. 236.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    See ‘Reports written by Prof. Kerner in Europe’, Bancroft Lib., C-B 1057 (Cart 13); ‘Germans in Czechoslovakia’, ibid. (Cart 42).Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Many details about Kerner’s activities in the Inquiry are presented by Gelfand (The Inquiry). The author, however, did not know about most of Kerner’s memoranda pertaining to Bohemia and Slovakia, and described his attitudes erroneously on pp. 202, 204, but correctly on p. 203 (‘Seymour, like Kerner, recognised the need for new Slavic states in Central and Eastern Europe’).Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    In 1968 Kerner’s participation in the Czech political struggles during World War I was mentioned by J. B. Kozák, T. G. Masaryk a vznik Washingtonské deklarace v říjnu 1918 (Prague, 1968), p. 12.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    Albert Putney, the chief of the Near East Division of the State Department, wrote his very well-known memorandum defending the political aims of the Slavs in Austria-Hungary in May 1918. (See C. Pergler, America in the Struggle for Czechoslovak Independence, pp. 78ff.) (In May 1917 Putney recommended support of the political movement for an independent Bohemia but ‘did not propose the inclusion in it of the Slovaks of northern Hungary’. See Mamatey, The United States and East Central Europe, pp. 92, 93.) Lansing was still, in August 1918, opposing the granting of ‘full recognition to the Czecho-Slovaks as a sovereign nation’. (See Mamatey, p. 302.)Google Scholar
  34. 34.
    After being released from governmental services, Kerner taught history at several universities. For a short time he was also employed by the Charles University in Prague. In 1941 Kerner joined the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley as a Professor of European History and Director of the Institute of Slavic Studies. Czech history and Czechoslovak politics, together with Russian history and modem European diplomatic history, occupied the main place in Kerner’s academic interests. From among the 200 or so works that Kerner published from 1909, the very well-known monograph on Joseph II’s reign in Bohemia represents perhaps one of his greatest scholarly achievements (Bohemia in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1932)). During his tenure, the University of California at Berkeley became an important centre for Czechoslovak studies and it retained this reputation until Kerner’s death in 1956.Google Scholar

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© School of Slavonic and East European Studies 1990

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  • George J. Svoboda

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