• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Up Against the Wall in Prague

First came the dream: a society that could be both communist and free—where men could speak and write without fear of punishment, where rewards would be based on merit rather than loyalty, where socialism meant experimentation instead of numbing conformity. That was all they wanted—the Czechs and the Slovaks who last January overturned the Novotny dictatorship. They had no intention of reinstating capitalism, of leaving the Warsaw Pact, of conspiring with “revanchists,” or even threatening the communist party’s political monopoly. Their goal was to humanize a system that had become economically inefficient and bureaucratized—to see whether a Marxist society could be run by consent rather than by intimidation. That was the dream.

Then came the reality: Soviet tanks rumbling across the frontiers, joined by token contingents from East Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. They said they were saving socialism and combatting counter-revolution, which is what they said in Budapest a dozen years ago. What they meant was that they were stopping a gangrenous infection before it spread to the restless states of the Soviet empire and even to Russia itself—the infection of reform and democratization.

Twilight fell once again over Prague, as it did in 1938 when Britain and France told Hitler he could have the Sudetenland, as it did in 1948 when the communists seized total control of a coalition government and transformed a democratic society into a bureaucratic police state. The world stands by today, as it stood by then, as democracy in Czechslovakia, for the third time in a single generation, has become a victim of great power politics.

The sin of the Czech and Slovak reformers—of the writers, journalists, and intellectuals who eagerly joined them, of the millions of quite ordinary people who became actively involved in the remarkable struggle taking place—was that they thought they might be able to build their own form of socialism according to their “national specific features and conditions,” as the Bratislava declaration solemnly affirmed only three weeks before Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. They thought that a Marxist society need not be a prison, that people should be allowed to express unorthodox opinions without losing their jobs or disappearing, that communists do not have a total monopoly on the truth, and that the Soviet road to socialism is not the only one—nor even the one best suited to a nation which knew prosperity and democracy long before it experienced Marxism-Leninism.

They were wrong, and today they are paying the price. Or at least they were wrong in thinking they could get away with it in the shadow of Soviet power, sandwiched between “comradely neighbors” hostile to their experiment in democratization, in their strategically vulnerable position as a corridor linking West Germany to the Soviet Union. The Kremlin was no more willing to tolerate what it believes to be threatening political and social experimentation in Eastern Europe than is the United States in the Caribbean. Where the great powers have staked out their sphere of influence, freedom of maneuver is possible only on the sufferance of the authorities in the seat of empire.

IN A SENSE the handwriting was on the wall all along, but nobody wanted to read it. It was hard to believe that there could be another Budapest. Too much had happened in the world during the past twelve years—the two rival power blocs were gradually loosening at the seams, Moscow and Washington had learned to live together in uneasy symbiosis, and the cold war had degenerated into an institutionalized balance of power. The Czechs and the Slovaks had posed no direct threat to the security of the Soviet state. Not even if they pulled out of the Warsaw Pact—which they had not the slightest intention of doing. The alliance with Russia, confirmed by the Anglo-French betrayal at Munich and cemented by the liberation from the Nazis by the Russians in 1945, is a fact of life. It is, as Alexander Dubcek said before the invasion of his country, “the alpha and omega of our foreign policy.”

An independent communist government in Czechoslovakia today, or even a neutralist non-communist government, is no more a physical threat to the Soviet Union than was a socialist Guatemala to the United States in 1954, a communist Cuba in 1961, or a neutralist Dominican Republic in 1965. But weak states in the shadow of powerful ones enjoy a marginal independence. In principle the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia was not a great deal different from the landing at the Bay of Pigs, although the force employed was considerably greater and the methods more brutal. Politically they were equally disastrous for the invaders, both of whom apparently convinced themselves that what they were doing would somehow win the support of those they were invading.*

The great powers have shown little tolerance for diversity within what they arrogate to themselves as their sphere of influence, and each respects the right of the other to stamp out whatever heresy it finds inacceptable. The Russians would not have tried to save Castro even had the Bay of Pigs turned into a fullscale American invasion, and the United States has made it clear that it has no intention of intervening in Eastern Europe. The current Russo-American detente, as Dean Rusk and others have stated on numerous occasions, rests upon a mutual respect for the lines of demarcation drawn after the Second World War. The Russians do not encroach on what is generally regarded to be US territory—the Caribbean, Latin America, Japan, Western Europe—and the US does not poach on their sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. Within these recognized spheres, there has been general stability. Trouble has occurred basically in the peripheral areas where both sides are jockeying for advantage: the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

It is argued that the US has behaved with far more tolerance to challenges from within its system of alliances: for example, we have not invaded France although she has virtually withdrawn from NATO. But the parallel is not a convincing one since it ignores geography. Czechoslovakia lies on the invasion route into Russia; France is separated from the United States by an ocean. The parallel with France is Albania, which has persistently defied Moscow, but is geographically so remote and militarily irrelevant (as well as inaccessible to the direct application of Soviet power) that its heresy can be tolerated. The parallel with Czechoslovakia is the Dominican Republic, where the United States launched an invasion to prevent a change of government, and justified it by saying it was on the invitation of certain Dominican leaders, and that unspecified agents of a foreign power threatened to take over the country. Morally the difference was minimal, even though the conditions and the methods cannot be equated.

The system of great power reciprocity has never worked better than during the crisis over Czechoslovakia. It has been reported, on generally good authority, that the Russians launched their invasion only after confirming that the gentlemen’s agreement with the United States on spheres of influence was still valid. Reluctantly Washington replied that it was. In a sense the United States was powerless to do anything about the decision to intervene, once the Russians decided that a compliant regime in Prague was crucial to their interests. But it is also true that very little effort was made to dissuade the Russians, to warn them of the dangers such an invasion would pose to the detente, or to reinforce the arguments of Kremlin doves. Once the intervention came, President Johnson waited a full twelve hours before condemning it. The fact is that Washington, preoccupied with Vietnam and committed to the policy of super-power diplomacy, had no serious interest in rocking the boat over the regrettable but peripheral fate of Czechoslovakia. As Dean Rusk said at his first staff meeting after the invasion, Czechoslovakia did not deserve that much sympathy because she was a major supplier of arms to North Vietnam. The Russians were holding up their part of the unofficial bargain in Latin America; the United States could do no less in Eastern Europe.

THE QUESTION, of course, remains: why did the Russians do it? The official reason was the much-proclaimed threat of counter-revolution, that the reformers were, according to Pravda, “preparing the ground for reorienting the Czechoslovak economy on the West,” that “reactionary, anti-socialist forces which relied on world imperialism for support were rearing their heads in the country,” and that, most dangerously of all, events were “turning the Czechoslovak communist party into an amorphous, ineffectual organization.” Behind these charges lay the more serious unofficial reasons: that the Czechs and the Slovaks had failed to carry out fully the accords reached with Moscow at Cierna, and ratified in the presence of its allies at Bratislava.

While the Cierna accords have never been made public, the Russians allege that Dubcek, as head of the Czechoslovakian communist party, agreed to reimpose press censorship, prevent the formation of political parties outside the communist-controlled National Front, strengthen the army and the militia, halt any purge of conservative communists, and cease all press polemics with the Soviet Union and its allies. In addition the Russians demanded the removal of two leading liberals: Cestmir Cisar, secretary of the central committee, and Frantisek Kriegel, a member of the party presidium. When Dubcek failed, in Moscow’s view, to carry out this agreement, the balance was tipped in favor of those who demanded military intervention to save the situation. What these hard-liners particularly feared was that the Dubcek-led reformers would purge the central committee of Moscow-oriented conservatives at the special party congress scheduled for September 9. Once the central committee was cleared of those opposed to the new reforms, there could be no hope of turning back the clock in Prague without a full-scale military occupation. By beating Dubcek to the draw, the Russians thought they could, with a minimum show of force, restore the situation to what it had been during the Novotny regime. Like Kennedy at the Bay of Pigs, they seem even to have convinced themselves that the majority of Czechs and Slovaks actually wanted to overthrow their government in favor of one more amenable to Moscow’s wishes.

The Russians were clearly contemplating military intervention for several months, and the long refusal to pull their troops out of Czechoslovakia following Warsaw Pact maneuvers was designed to intimidate the reformers. At Cierna they thought they could separate the liberals from the conservatives and impose a harsh settlement. When this split failed to materialize, however, they agreed to a compromise that accepted the basic principles of the reform movement. A few days later their allies were brought in at Bratislava to ratify the accords, and there were strong objections from Gomulka, Ulbricht, and Zhivkov of Bulgaria. But the agreement was signed, and when the Czechoslovak leaders returned to Prague, they believed that the danger of invasion had been surmounted. To placate the Soviets, Dubcek discouraged popular demonstrations during the brief state visits of Tito and Ceausescu, and told the press to tone down its criticisms of the hard-line regimes in Warsaw, East Berlin, and Moscow. The tide turned on August 12 at Karlovy Vary, where Ulbricht demanded that Dubcek live up to the Bratislava agreements, while the Czechoslovak leaders argued for the principle of noninterference in the internal affairs of communist states. From that moment on the conservatives in the Czechoslovak party presidium and central committee dug in their heels, and the hawks in the Kremlin became convinced that they could not tame Prague without a military intervention.

  1. *

    The cover story issued by the Russians, that they were responding to a plea for help by Czechoslovak leaders, resembles the story issued by the CIA at the Bay of Pigs. In The Invisible Government, Wise and Ross recount the following episode:

    It was midnight in Manhattan, Sunday, April 16, when the telephone rang in the fashionable East Side apartment of Lem Jones. Sleepily, Jones answered, then came alert with a jolt. It was the Central Intelligence Agency calling from Washington.

    This is it,” Jones’ Agency contact told him. The invasion had begun. The CIA man dictated the first communique, to be issued to the world by Jones in the name of the Cuban Revolutionary Council. Jones took it down in longhand on a pad.

    Before dawn,” the CIA man dictated slowly, “Cuban patriots in the cities and in the hills began the battle to liberate our homeland from the despotic rule of Fidel Castro and rid Cuba of international Communism’s cruel oppression….”

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print