On April 24, Marshal Jakubovsky, chief of the Warsaw Pact, visited Czechoslovakia. He asked the Czechoslovak representatives to bring forward the tactical manoeuvres of the Warsaw Pact, scheduled for October, to June. The Czechoslovak side did not like this idea because a military exercise would cause unnecessary upheaval in the population. When Jakubovsky was rigidly insistent, Dubček told him directly that his request was unacceptable. At length, Jakubovsky proposed a “small workout” to which Prague agreed. The Czechoslovak leadership, however, was not astonished on June 20 to see a “small staff” in Czechoslovakia of almost thirty thousand soldiers with appropriate combat techniques, whose exercise in Šumava became a demonstration of military force against the reforms. At the same time, Polish-Soviet exercises took place in Poland with the participation of 80,000 soldiers and 2,600 tanks. The goal was to practise an attacking manoeuvre towards the Czechoslovak border. Simultaneously, 60,000 soldiers from the USSR and the GDR with 1,800 tanks trained in the southern regions of the GDR. In both cases, the training troops remained in the border areas and did not return to their bases. Under the pressure of public opinion and after interventions by Czechoslovak officials, the troops of the Warsaw Pact finally pulled out.
On May 4, at the invitation of Brezhnev a Czechoslovak delegation of Dubček, Černík, Smrkovský and Biľak went to Moscow. Brezhnev, together with Kosygin, Podgorny, Katushev and Rusakov, reiterated the Dresden criticism, but this time significantly more in terms of an ultimatum. The Soviet High Representative noted that the Communist Party was losing control of the media and the Czechoslovak economic reform could lead to the revival of capitalism.
Dubček protested at this. “The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia is not only not losing support in society but it’s strong as never before in its history. With regard to the media, censorship has been abolished and yet the press mostly supports the policy of the Communist party … We are solving the political problems, but they can only be managed if we improve the economic situation,” said Dubček. “The Prime Minister will explain this in more detail,” and he handed over to Černík.
“Comrades, there is a huge amount of financial resource accumulated among our populations which is necessary to invest or spend. Since private business is not yet possible, we need to boost consumption. We need to improve market supply. Our deliberations – to buy consumer goods from the West will lead to an increase in confidence of the citizens of our country.”
“Do you need a gold ruble loan for that?” Brezhnev asked menacingly.
“Leonid Ilyich, comrades, we do need the loan,” Dubček stressed.
“Fundamentally, we have no problem lending it to you, but we can’t lend to you in a situation where you don’t address basic political issues. The supply of consumer goods is a secondary issue,” Brezhnev puffed at his cigarette. “Don’t you see comrades, what’s happening to you? What positions have your anti-socialist powers got you into? How many NATO officers and various staff at your checkpoints are coming through as tourists? Do you want to know how many beds in the hotels in Karlový Vary were ordered by a West German revanchist organization for their trip to Czechoslovakia?”
“Excuse me, Leonid Ilyich, but this is the first time I’ve heard this. It’s possible that there was some information buzz among your people in Prague. We would have known that,” protested Dubček.
“And the flow of people at your borders? People are walking across your borders with West Germany and Austria as if on a Sunday afternoon stroll! Do you know how many are agents and saboteurs?” Kosygin said coldly. “And if you don’t get a loan from us?” he asked abruptly changing the theme of the discussion.
“If we don’t get it, we’ll be forced to turn to financial institutions in the West,” Dubček said quietly.
“But that would mean selling out the capitalists! Be aware of the political implications. It would be a gift to counter-revolution!” Kosygin exploded.
“Forty-five to five million dollars is insignificant in comparison with the volume of our cooperation with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries,” Černik objected. “We, unlike you, have no gold reserves to draw on. But if you give us a hard currency loan, we won’t need it from the West.”
The negotiations ended without result. On the second day after breakfast before the delegation flew back to Czechoslovakia, Brezhnev praised Biľak in a private interview confidentially murmuring to him: “Dubček is a hopeless case!”
Three days later Brezhnev called a secret meeting of the leaders of the Soviet Union, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria and the GDR. The participants were told that Moscow was already losing patience. The Communist leaders from the four countries of the Warsaw Pact nodded earnestly. The most aggressive, Ulbricht, sensed what Moscow meant and urged Brezhnev: “Leonid Ilyich, if the spark from Prague skips to Berlin, Warsaw or Moscow, socialism will be seriously threatened. That’s why I strongly ask you to stop Dubček! At any cost!”
Mr. DUBČEK, WE LOVE YOU!
While Dubček was a hopeless case for Moscow, his popularity in Czechoslovakia and the world grew in unprecedented ways. In his honour rolls were baked, masses were said for him, the people voluntarily donated money, jewelry and gold for the success of the republic. The Communist Party had changed so much that people spoke increasingly of a “Dubček party”. The actress, Iva Janžurová and singer, Marta Kubišová, were waiting for Dubček in front of the entrance to the Central Committee building so that they could publicly acknowledge his lustre. Marta Kubišová gave him a talisman for luck. “Thank you very much, Mr. Dubček, and we love you very much,” Janžurová applauded the upbeat Dubček and embraced him.
The Czechoslovak film “Closely Observed Trains” won an Oscar. The dramatist and dissident, Václav Havel, was among half a million Czechoslovak citizens who enjoyed freedom for the first time in capitalist foreign parts. He visited the USA. The vast majority of citizens returned home; the borders were open.
During the May Day celebration in 1968, citizens witnessed scenes they had never experienced before. For the first time, parades were not obligatory and yet thousands of people came. The tone of the parades was the same – clear support for Dubček’s leadership. Even Mother Nature has blessed the occasion. It was a wonderful day and a kind of national happening took place in Czechoslovakia. In Bratislava, students held their own portraits over their heads instead of conventional portraits of political figures. They summoned up an excellent atmosphere full of laughter and humour.
Dubček stood on the lowest step of the podium in Prague. The people walking below the podium gave him flowers. His fame was also acknowledged by representatives from the Committed Non-Party Club and the Association of Former Political Prisoners. American and Israeli flags even appeared in the parade. Over people’s heads, instead of the usual slogans, Long Live the Communist Party and The Plan Will Be Fulfilled there were fewer routine slogans and more thoughts, Make Love Not War, Democracy At Any Price, Let Israel Exist, I
..Hippies Soul Club held their placards over their heads. Hundreds of people wanted to shake Dubček’s hand and so he had to have police protection. He took the microphone and apologized that too many people wanted to talk to him than he could manage. People understood and smiled. The ambassadors of the Warsaw Five countries were shocked by the incredible popularity of the Czechoslovak leader. The official guests of the First of May Parade began to be disturbed. The Bulgarian ambassador was angry with the podium when he saw a banner where Macedonia, claimed by Bulgaria, belonged to Yugoslavia. That evening, students gathered in front of the Polish embassy in Prague to protest police attacks against their Polish colleagues.
Dubček waved at the enthusiastic people and was obviously moved when a whole group of Prague citizens called out slogans in Slovak. Not until 1968 had the unity of Czechs and Slovaks been so strong as it was then. People enjoyed a new, long-forgotten freedom, travelled, discussed, asserted and agreed without compulsion, spontaneously, from the heart. Anna Dubček stood on the side of the podium and although unknown to the public when the group of Prague people discovered that she was Dubček’s wife, she was inundated with a flood of flowers. She couldn’t hold back tears of emotion. She loved Prague. It seemed that this time they had settled in the capital for longer. Even though she knew that the post of the First Secretary of the Communist Party was not the securest place, she believed that her husband would remain in place until the Prague Spring, as they had in the meantime named this new era in Czechoslovakia, had become irreversible.
In May in Velehrad, the nationwide constituent assembly of Catholic organizations held a conference of Conciliar Renewal with the participation of 2500 priests and laity in which a rebirth began in the Catholic Church. The Assembly was also attended by secretly ordained bishops who even served mass with legally ordained bishops broadcast directly by Czechoslovak Television. As well as the Catholic Church, representatives of Protestant churches and the banned Greek-Catholic Church were increasingly allowed a voice.
From the period May to July about one hundred prisoners were released.
The commemorative celebration on the occasion of the 49th anniversary of the death of General Milan Rastislav Štefánik in Bradlo was transformed into mass support of Alexander Dubcek’s political direction. The participants of the ceremony openly demanded a return to the values of Masaryk’s democratic Czechoslovak Republic. KAN was formed – the Club for Non-Party Activists and Club 231. Number 231 was the number of the1948 law, under which political prisoners were arrested and imprisoned. Under this law, players of the 1950 ice hockey team were also convicted. In just a few weeks, the club’s membership base rose to fifty thousand former political prisoners. A Slovak organization for human rights protection was established with a similar focus to K 231. A commission, led by Gustav Husák, worked diligently on the preparation of a federal arrangement for the republic.
In May, selected enterprises began an experiment with free Saturdays, which was applied to the whole country to September. Industrial production increased. In the summer of 1968, the Communist Party reached a peak of popularity with young, educated people entering it, but the reformers were in a difficult situation. From below they were pressed by a mass of citizens enchanted by restored liberty. From above a post-Stalinist clique in Moscow was in a panic that Czechoslovakia would abandon the Warsaw Pact and initiate the final breakdown of the socialist bloc. Moscow was determined not to lose Czechoslovakia at any cost.
Moscow could not have done better
It was a warm August afternoon, 5 p.m. Washington time. The President of the USA Lyndon Johnson was drinking his favourite Cutty Sark scotch whiskey and watching the West Conference basketball game between his team, the newcomers San Diego Rockets, and the favourites, the Los Angeles Lakers. The game was especially dramatic, with the boys from San Diego slightly ahead at half-time, and so the President was in a good mood. He was a little irritated that the Soviet Ambassador had arranged to come by at exactly this time, but the obligations of state had to take precedence over the personal interests of a Texas basketball fan.
The Secretary showed Dobrynin into the Oval Office, with which he had already become familiar in his six years as Soviet Union Ambassador to the USA. Smiling widely, the President came forward to greet him. Then the President’s advisors exchanged greetings with the Ambassador. In San Diego the second half has already begun, and Dobrynin noticed as Johnson, against all protocol, stole nervous glances at the television screen. He was aware of the President’s weakness for basketball and for cigarettes, but all the same it seemed to him that the President was smoking too much.
“Sorry I’m a little nervous, but our guys have a chance to win against the Lakers. It looks like the Lakers are going to win the West Conference this year, but we’re making it a little harder for them. Still, work is work,” the President concluded as, with a sigh, he switched off the set. “I don’t need to introduce you to my advisers– Walt Rostow, head of the National Security Council, and my personal assistant Jack Valetti.”
Dobrynin was unaware that the possible Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia had not even been discussed at the working lunch the President had shared with his security and foreign policy advisors that day. The Americans placed little importance on this eventuality; their foreign policy was centered on the situation in Vietnam and the Middle East. They had also spent some time on preparations for the upcoming talks with the Soviets on SALT strategic arms reductions.
When the Soviet ambassador arrived in the President’s office it was eleven p.m. Central European time, Aug. 20, 1968. He was acting in strict conformity with the instructions and timeline set by Moscow for informing the President of their Czechoslovakia “action”. It was meant to coincide precisely with the entry of the first Soviet tank into Prague. Their plans also counted on the enthusiastic welcome of the Czechoslovak population and, hopefully, the speedy formation of a workers and farmers government under Alois Indra.
After observing the usual diplomatic niceties and conveying hearty greetings from the highest Soviet representatives, Dobrynin presented the President a diplomatic note.
“Thank you for the information, Excellency,” President Johnson responded politely after having scanned the message. He had been informed by the Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet USSR, Nikolai Podgorny that the troops of the Warsaw Pact, in the night of August 20-21, 1968, had undertaken a military action for the defence of socialism in Czechoslovakia.
The President offered the Ambassador a cigarette, which he accepted politely. “Jack, I hope you have noted down everything Mr. Ambassador has told us,” he continued, turning to Valetti. The assistant nodded, his hands shaking slightly.
The President stood a moment in thought, then looked over at Rostow and once again at the floor. Dobrynin, frowning, awaited a sharp reaction from Johnson; he had been authorized by the Centre to use the Soviet Union’s unofficial standpoint, a counter-argument attacking the USA’s involvement in Vietnam, in defence against the President’s criticism. But still he had been instructed to be circumspect, forbearance before provocation, unless the President really went too far.
Johnson thoughtfully nibbled at some crackers, while Dobrynin spent his time following the sideward movements of the President’s extra-large ears.
“Is there any danger of an attack against Romania?” he asked finally.
“The events in Czechoslovakia should not be allowed to block the arms reductions negotiations. This is a priority of our foreign policy, and I believe the world will understand…” He nodded his head decisively. “Tomorrow morning I’ll discuss your information with Dean Rusk and my advisors. We’ll give you our answer then.” He drank down his whiskey, and Jack poured him another. He noticed that Dobrynin’s glass too was empty, and poured the Ambassador a second drink.
The President lit another cigarette, exhaled, and smiled. “Tomorrow morning I intend to announce in public my plan to visit the Soviet Union. I’ve invited a few friends to breakfast so I could share the good news with them. I would be glad, Excellency, if I could have your government’s standpoint on my visit before announcing it publicly. I believe that this visit is extremely important for both our countries. Let’s drink to the firming of relations between our two large and powerful countries.” Dobrynin’s eyes nearly fell out of their sockets. He simply didn’t understand. A whole range of the best Soviet-American relations specialists back in Moscow had worked hard on the catalogue of arguments he was holding in his pocket. They wouldn’t be necessary. The President drank a second glass in his honour. Dobrynin did not miss the surprise on the faces of Rostow and Valetti., felt their disappointment in the President’s reaction. He was looking forward to the congratulatory cipher from his “superiors” for his strong defence of the “action”. And for doing nothing!
“Of course sir, I shall do all I can to ensure that my country’s response to your proposal is on your desk tomorrow at nine. Even now I can say almost with certainty that the reaction will be positive,” he reassured the President. Then the President started to tell some amusing anecdotes from Texas. Dobrynin drank down his whiskey, and this time the President himself refilled his glass. Johnson clearly didn’t intend to let anything spoil his good mood. Even though he was aware that the Soviet invasion would threaten the arms control treaty, he was just about ready to hug Dobrynin, whose diplomatic thinking had led him to the same conclusion. He was one of the stalwarts of Soviet diplomacy, a disciplined Foreign Service soldier who would never state his own opinion, even if he had one. And now his old enemies in the Kremlin had played right into his hand, he thought as he looked on Johnson’s satisfaction. He smiled as he thought back to hearing the politburo’s definitive decision to go ahead with the invasion, and a kind of down-to-earth good sense had prompted him to consider resigning. Now he could look forward to the congratulations he would receive when he sent off his dramatic message and described how he had defended the Czechoslovakia “action”.
“I remember fondly my meeting with your honourable Premier Kosygin in Glassboro not long ago. Please send him my heartfelt greetings…” Johnson continued. Rostow, looking more and more downhearted, was struggling not to interrupt his President. When he was seeing the Soviet Ambassador to the door Johnson repeated his request for a speedy response from Moscow, and again said how much he was looking forward to his visit. As soon as his visitor was out of the office, Johnson immediately switched the television back on. The basketball was just coming to an end, and the Lakers had the game sewn up. Nonetheless he was smiling as he poured drinks for both his advisors. “As of tomorrow, the invasion of Czechoslovakia will replace Vietnam on the front pages of the world’s newspapers! Gentlemen, to your health!”
After returning to the Soviet embassy Dobrynin immediately wrote a cipher in which he reported on his reception with the President and recommended a positive reception to his idea of a visit. He got the response within the hour. He called his secretary and asked him to arrange a call to the Secretary of State, Dean Rusk. While waiting for the connection he poured himself a celebratory glass of pure Moskovskaya vodka – Moscow had never dreamed that President Johnson’s reaction would be so palatable. His only source of irritation was the fact that his secretary still hadn’t connected him with Rusk’s office, and a few moments later he understood why. The secretary arrived in person to inform him: “Comrade Ambassador, you are to report immediately to the office of the Secretary of State. We have just been handed a note signed by Secretary Rusk himself.” Dobrynin understood that the professionals in the ministry had taken a different reaction from the President. After all, Johnson was a simple farmer from Texas, and in America foreign policy was traditionally the domain of Congress. He only hoped that they had not pushed Rusk to support their strong line, and for safety’s sake he brought along with him the unofficial standpoint he had not needed with Johnson.
It was late that night when Dean Rusk received the Ambassador in his office. He announced to Dobrynin that he had just returned from the White House with the authorization to inform him of the position of the government of the United States. In a measured voice Rusk read out a declaration which stated that the United States was unaware of any invitation by the official representatives of Czechoslovakia to the troops of the Warsaw Pact. At its conclusion he recommended to the Ambassador that both parties should consider the matter carefully before publicly announcing a visit by the USA President to the USSR. It was clear to Dobrynin that the visit would be postponed.
A few days later Lyndon Baines Johnson met with the Chiefs of Staff of the American military. They resolved that in no case would force be used against the USSR. In addition, Johnson decreed that there would be no public condemnation of the invasion. Half-jokingly the President concluded: “Let’s hope that Moscow appreciates that we here in the United States are not aggressors.”
“Es lebe Dubček! Vive Dubček”
The plans of the invaders began to go awry from the first hours of occupation. The Soviets quickly came to the conclusion that Biľak’s claims that citizens would welcome them with bouquets were not going to happen. Quite the opposite. In Czechoslovak towns and villages there was an unprecedented wave of resistance to the occupiers. At the President’s call for peace, people responded with understanding. Mottoes in people’s exhibition halls were transformed where posters challenged the invaders with “Ivan go home, Natasha is waiting”, “Lenin wake up, Brezhnev is crazy”, “Kosygin – son of a bitch”, “Dubček – Svoboda, that is Our Freedom”,”We are with you, be with us! “, ” Go away!” and many others. Never before had so many tricolors appeared on Czech and Slovak clothes. People stripped away the names of the towns and streets and the names of enterprises, which made it considerably more difficult for the invaders to find their way. Flags were pulled down to half-mast.The Soviet soldiers had brought transistor radios for the people. Students ironicallly put coal briquettes, shaped like the radios, to their ear, which infuriated them. People debated with the soldiers and put to them a single, insistent question: “WHY?” The invaders occupied the building of Czechoslovak Radio in Prague on Vinohrady, where there were also bloody armed clashes. Radio workers broadcast from various locations – factories, garages – moving as they operated the transmitters, so by the time Soviet soldiers found the original locations they were in another place. The Czechoslovak army liberated dozens of its transmitters. Radio became a key tool for broadcasting information. It named collaborators. It warned of betrayers and provocateurs.
Similarly, newspaper vendors handed out editorial packs of extraordinary newspaper releases that people instantly seized hold of. Citizens did not stand obstacles or repeated calls for peace. Soviet tanks became more and more the target of amateur-made Molotov cocktails, paving blocks or just rocks thrown by hand. Nervous and stressed young Soviet troops reacted with irritation. There were shots in the air, as well as shots at human beings. In front of Comenius University in Bratislava, a Soviet soldier’s shot killed fifteen-year-old Danka Košanova. At the post office they shot Peter Legner and the captain of a ship, Ján Holík. During the week when Soviet tanks were on the streets, about thirty people died in Slovakia and about seventy citizens in the Czech lands. On August 22, the extraordinary XIV session of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia was held in Prague’s Vysočany, which confirmed Dubček in his leadership in various functions.On the other hand, potential representatives of the workers and the standing government were not elected to any position.
In defence of Czechoslovakia, practically all Communist and Labour parties, many official governmental and non-governmental representatives and international organizations stood against the intervention. At the request of the Danish government, an immediate meeting of the UN Security Council was convened to discuss the situation in Czechoslovakia. On the night of 21-22 August, the Security Council condemned the intervention, except for the votes of Hungary and the USSR, and described it as a gross violation of international law. Personalities such as Louis Aragon, Bertrand Russel, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others protested with vehemence against the invasion. In Europe’s capital cities, people organized protest meetings. The governments of Yugoslavia, Romania, Cuba, China and the governments of democratic countries also protested. The Soviet poet, Yevgeny Jevtušenko, sent Brezhnev a telegram in which he strongly protested the invasion. He wrote a poem: “Tanks go to Prague, tanks go to the truth”. On August 21, a 20-year-old Leningrad student, Boguslavsky, raised a banner over the statues of Klodt’s horses on the Anichkov Bridge with the message, “Brezhnev out of Czechoslovakia.” He was sentenced to five years in jail. On Red Square in Moscow a worker, Vladimir Dremľug, the poet, Vadim Delone, the physicist, Pavel Litvinov, the philologist, Larisa Bogorazov, the linguist, Konstantin Babicki, the historian, Viktor Fajnberg, the poet, Natalija Gorbanevska and a student,Tatiana Bajevová protested. They sat in the square and looked in silence at the building of the historical museum with the flag of the Brotherhood with Czechoslovakia and its banner. When a crowd influenced by the Soviet media, began to beat them, Fajnberg lost four teeth. Eventually, the militia vehicles rescued them from the riot and took them away. They were condemned to prison, forced labour or sent to an asylum.
On August 21, young people in the capital of the German Democratic Republic, chanted “Es lebe Dubcek “. (“Dubcek! Freedom!”) Two sons of Professor Haveman, who condemned the invasion and participation of the GDR army, were arrested. Bernd Eisenfeld handed out anti-occupation leaflets.
The world at this time had been shaken by the decolonization of African countries the six-day Israeli-Arab war, and the March massacre of over four-hundred civilians in the Vietnamese village of My Lai by American soldiers. Military aggression by the USA against Vietnam had pushed the United States into a moral blind alley. The USA was dismayed by a civilian revolt, and the Soviet invasion had brought it to an end. The invasion was a blow to the anti-war movement, consolidating American public opinion about the Communists aspiring to world domination, which provided renewed justification for the war in Vietnam.
The position of the strong Communist parties of Italy, France and other countries was greatly diminished. After the Soviet invasion, the label Communist became a worldwide badge of shame.
For more than a year, the West German government had fought an unprecedented student revolt led by the Berliner, Rudy Dutschke, a charismatic leader. However, the Soviet invasion offered more to chew on for the German media and for the Bonn government a quarrel with its Moscow counterparts.
In May 1968 students in Paris wrote to the faculty of medicine: “Vive Dubček – Let Dubček Live !” When President Pompidou sent tanks against French students in revolt led by Daniel Cohen Bendit, portraits of Che Guevarra and Dubček were carried overhead. The youth of Western European countries loved Dubček as did their peers in the countries of so-called real socialism. The powers-that-be in the East and the West were aware that if Dubček’s reforms were implemented, their positions would be jeopardized. The invasion favoured the mighty East and West blocs. The soldiers caused fear, and fear instilled obedience into citizens.