For a few fleeting months in 1968, Czechoslovaks living under communism were able to enjoy newfound freedoms in a period known as the “Prague Spring”. But in August of that year, the tanks of the Soviet Union and the allied nations of the Warsaw Pact quickly crushed the reforms.
Just like that, the Iron Curtain – which separated the Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern and Central Europe from the West during the Cold War – forced Czechoslovakia back under Soviet control. While the repression of reform attempts was severe, two decades later Czechoslovakia finally threw off Kremlin control after the Velvet Revolution.
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Dubcek attempts “socialism with a human face”
The era of reforms began under the new Czechoslovak leader Alexander Dubcek, who shook up the political establishment by implementing freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom to travel, as well as economic reforms. These liberalization efforts, which he described as “socialism with a human face”, won the popular support of its citizens.
Czechoslovakia was a member of the Warsaw Pact, a mutual defense group of nations led by the Soviet Union, and several other member states were alarmed by the reforms. The Soviet Union, East Germany, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria met that summer to decide how to react.
Dubcek made it clear that he was not seeking to withdraw his nation from the Warsaw Pact, but that was not enough for the Soviets.
“He misunderstood the deal with the Soviet Union – he thought if he remained loyal on foreign policy they could push the envelope at home,” says Simon Miles, a Cold War historian and professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. “Where in fact, because of the Soviet leadership’s own concerns about their position, what mattered most was what you did at home, and you had a bit more latitude in foreign policy.”
Warsaw Pact troops arrive and kill protesters
Several hundred thousand Soviet, Polish, Hungarian and Bulgarian troops invaded Czechoslovakia on August 20. Miles says that East Germany was pulled out of the invasion at the last minute, “because it is perceived in Moscow that in 1968 the image of the Germans invading Czechoslovakia is going to be bad”, making reference to the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany in 1939.
There was little armed resistance to the Warsaw Pact invasion, but protesters flooded the streets, some confronting tanks with flowers, removing road signs to confuse soldiers and shouting “Ivan, go home” .
Warsaw Pact troops shot over 100 protesters. The Soviet Union, which implausibly claimed that it had come at the invitation of the Czechoslovak government, stifled the reform experiment. The invading army arrested Dubcek and took him to Moscow. He returned to Prague on August 27, holding back tears as he addressed his nation.
“We hope you will trust us even though we may be forced to take temporary measures that limit democracy and freedom of opinion,” Dubcek said.
Quiet response from the West
The Soviet-led invasion drew condemnation not only from the United States and its Western allies, but also from other communist nations such as China, Yugoslavia, and Romania. But US President Lyndon Johnson has taken no meaningful action beyond canceling a summit meeting with Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev.
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This quiet response was motivated by several factors, including fear of provoking a nuclear war, the goal of securing Soviet aid for peace talks in Vietnam, and continued arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union. .
Referring to the arms talks with the Soviets, White House press secretary George Christian said: “I know of no change in the president’s very sincere desire to pursue contacts which could be fruitful in this area. particular.
“Underlying the reaction of the administration”, the New York Times reported, “was of the opinion that the East-West line of military confrontation and ideological influence across Europe had long been established, and that neither Washington nor Moscow could cross it without risking World War III”.
The 1968 invasion took place just six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which was still fresh in the minds of US officials. And the Johnson administration was crippled by the fact that Czechoslovakia, although technically an independent nation, was behind the Iron Curtain and within the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union.
The Vietnam War and the Election Divert Attention in the United States
On top of that, Johnson had his hands full with the Vietnam War, which he was desperately trying to calm before his term as president ended in a few months. LBJ had announced earlier in the year that he would not be running again.
The invasion took place amid a heated US presidential campaign, just days before the tumultuous Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Political analysts saw Soviet aggression as a boon to Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon, a longtime anti-Communist hawk.
But while Nixon condemned the invasion and said people who value freedom should demand a troop withdrawal, he called for no strong response from the United States. And key phrases in his statement echoed Johnson’s strikingly. For example, Johnson said the invasion “shocks the conscience of the world”, while Nixon called it an “outrage on the conscience of the world”.
There was a reason longtime national figures seemed to be reading the same songbook. The previous night, LBJ had called Nixon to inform him of the attack and to remind him that “politics stops at the water’s edge,” reads a transcript of the call. Nixon assured the President that “I won’t say a damn word that’s going to embarrass you, you can be sure of that.”
1989 The Velvet Revolution overthrows the regime
It was left to Ronald Reagan, who had lost the GOP nomination to Nixon, to call for a “trade and communications quarantine” of the Soviet Union, foreshadowing the confrontational approach he would take as as president.
In 1989 – two decades after Dubcek’s attempt to reform Communism from within – then Soviet Union Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev called the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia fake, saying in an article published in the soviet newspaper Pravdathat the USSR should not have interfered with the attempt to reform the nation.
In the late 1980s, anti-Soviet movements spread to its satellite countries, including the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia. In 1989, Dubcek gave his first public speech since being ousted from power, at a rally in Bratislava.
The communist leadership resigned a few days later and the following month the dissident and writer Václav Havel was elected president. Dubcek was elected Speaker of Parliament.