Prague's Spring: Michael Simmons Draws on Many Years Experience of Living in, and Reporting from, Central Europe to Look Back at the Upheavals in Czechoslovakia of 1968

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Seven years on from the Soviet-led invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia, the poker-faced authorities in Prague still felt the need to justify the trauma that had shaken their country. 'With Soviet help,' said a guidebook published in 1975, 'Czechoslovak society was saved from civil war ... There is no future for an independent and socialist Czechoslovakia outside of alliance with the Soviet Union.' Did US policy-makers at the time go along with that view?

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Dean Rusk, then Secretary of State, declared some years after the event that developments within the Warsaw Pact area were 'never an issue of war and peace between us and the Soviet Union--however ignoble this sounds'.

The Soviet leadership in the early summer of 1968--some Stalin appointees, others covertly nursing potentially reformist ideas--was divided by what was happening in Prague. The tune in Czechoslovakia was being called by the relatively inexperienced Slovak Alexander Dubcek, who was capable of obduracy in policy-making but could be susceptible when it came to ostensibly reasonable deviations from the Party line. This clearly happened with proposals discussed by some intellectuals during the so-called Prague Spring; their political viability was another matter.

That Spring was all about reform--a word which did not then have much currency in Moscow--and it is not surprising that the unimaginative and inadequate Leonid Brezhnev, general secretary of the Soviet Communist party, and the dour Soviet premier Alexei Kosygin felt that the Kremlin's policy-makers were losing the plot. They were aware that Dubcek could be an unsettling and possibly contagious influence.

When the Soviet Union's own reformist Mikhail Gorbachev went walkabout in Prague in 1987, the people of that city cheered. Some even wore 'I love Gorby' badges. The hapless Czechoslovak hardliner Gustav Husak, still clinging on as Party leader, seemed out of his depth as he followed behind. When a senior member of Gorbachev's entourage was asked what was the difference between the new Soviet prescription of perestroika and glasnost and what Dubcek had been offering in 1968, he had a succinct answer: 'Nineteen years'.

Vaclav Havel, who was to become his country's first post-Communist president in December 1989, told me two years earlier that it was a 'paradox' that the Soviet Union under Gorbachev was trying to do what Czechoslovakia had done twenty years before. But when Havel himself, as leader of the Velvet Revolution, sought to bring the forlorn Dubcek into his team, there was some perplexity in Prague. There was a feeling that he belonged to that 'other country', the past.

In that summer of 1968 there were other 'world problems' and preoccupations, just as there had been in 1956 when Khrushchev ordered an invasion of Hungary. Then the West had been preoccupied with Suez; now there was a war in Vietnam, Willy Brandt was about to become West Germany's 'new broom' Chancellor and the White House was about to prepare for Richard Nixon to visit China. Young people in many Western capitals were in the throes of their own social revolutions.

The Czechoslovak invasion unsettled the Warsaw Pact as well as NATO. It was dealt a blow by the refusal of Romania to participate in the invasion, as well as by condemnation from Yugoslavia and China. Bucharest had been seeking closer relations with Dubcek's Prague even as other Pact leaders were plotting his downfall.

The fallout from the invasion of Prague on the one hand, and the arrival in power of Willy Brandt and his Ostpolitik on the other, was fundamentally to change the course of East-West relations and to bring forward a debate on the feasibility of detente and 'peaceful co-existence'. The intervention in Prague also led to a corrosive apathy and damaging falls in Communist party memberships in Western Europe. Then, when a year after the invasion the multi-lateral Strategic Arms Limitation Talks were initiated and Western proposals for Mutual and Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) began to be treated with growing respect by a beleaguered Soviet leadership, allegiance to Moscow from non-Soviet Communists was again inevitably weakened. …