Soviet military vehicles arrived outside of the Central Committee building in Prague. Dubcek was on the telephone in his office trying to get more details about the invasion when a group of soldiers and plainclothesmen, led by a Soviet colonel, barged into the room. Without even the pretense of courtesy, the colonel walked up to Dubcek, yanked the receiver out of his hands, and pulled the telephone cord out of the wall. Announcing himself as a representative of a “revolutionary committee,” the colonel ordered, “Comrade Dubcek, you are to come with us straight away.” With that, Dubcek was led away under arrest.

Beginning on January 5, 1968, Communist leader Alexander Dubček led a reform movement in then-Czechoslovakia dubbed the Prague Spring, a member of the Soviet bloc and Warsaw Pact. Arguing for decentralization of Soviet authority, fewer restrictions on speech, media and travel, Dubček’s biggest and only lasting success was in his overseeing the decision to split the country into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Naturally, his reforms were unpopular with the Soviets and resulted in years of occupation from the Soviet Union.At 1:30 am on August 21, 1968, Czech authorities at Ruzyne Airport in the capital city of Prague waited to greet a special flight that was flying in directly from Moscow. The authorities were not alarmed. Perhaps it was a delegation coming to try to hammer out the growing differences between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.As soon as the plane taxied to the terminal, it became apparent immediately that it was no official delegation—diplomatic or otherwise. Instead, 100 plainclothes Russian soldiers armed with submachine guns clambered down the catwalk to the tarmac and stormed the airport terminal and control tower, overcoming the Czech security personnel without firing a shot. They were an advance unit of the Soviet 7th Guards Airborne Division. With the airport secured, the commandos signaled all clear for the rest of the Soviet airborne invasion force to proceed. It was the beginning of the end for Czechoslovakian democracy, which was being virtually strangled in its crib.

Czech authorities at Ruzyne Airport in the capital city of Prague waited to greet a special flight that was flying in directly from Moscow. The authorities were not alarmed. Perhaps it was a delegation coming to try to hammer out the growing differences between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

Around the world, 1968 had already been a year of turmoil. In the United States, the year was marked by the shocking assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy. A growing number of Americans were taking to the streets, protesting the ever-escalating war in Vietnam, clashing with police and National Guard units, and taking over administration buildings at colleges and universities. The antiwar, antiestablishment furor was catching on in Europe as well, with similar demonstrations in West Germany by activists protesting the continuing American military presence in their country. Throughout France, mass demonstrations and strikes by students and workers were paralyzing the French economy and pushing the de Gaulle government to the point of collapse.Communist leaders within the walls of the Kremlin were comforted by the thought that their own closed-off societies, isolated from the West by barbed wire, guns, and tanks, were immune to the sort of disorder and strife that was gripping the capitalist world. They hadn’t counted on Czechoslovakia.Czechoslovakia: The Warsaw Pact’s Stable Eastern Flank?Unlike in most of the other Eastern European countries that came under Soviet occupation after World War II, in Czechoslovakia the communists came to power in 1946 through electoral victories. But when in 1948 it became apparent that they were losing their popularity and thus were going to lose the next round of elections, the communist prime minister, Klement Gottwald, cracked down on all noncommunist factions in the government and used the militia and police to seize control of Prague. From then on, the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic solidified its communist ties and joined the ranks of the other Eastern and Central European vassal states in the Soviet Empire.The Czechoslovak Peoples Army (CSLA), numbering 250,000 men, was structured along the lines of the Soviet Army. Its officer corps was composed almost entirely of men trained by the Soviets who had served in the First Czechoslovak Army Corps on the Eastern Front during World War II. Those officers from the prewar Czechoslovakian Army who had gone to London during the war and had come back after 1945 to help reconstitute the country’s military were purged from the ranks. During the 1950s, when East Germany, Poland, and especially Hungary were wracked by uprisings, Czechoslovakia remained a stable, solid part of the Eastern Bloc. The Soviets were so confident of the stability and loyalty of the Czechs and Slovaks that they did not even keep a standing Red Army contingent in the country. In the event of a war with NATO across Germany, the Czechs were expected to hold up the Warsaw Pact’s southern flank.

On 25 August 1968, young Czechoslovak patriots demonstrate in Wenceslas Square, Prague, calling for democracy in their country.Would be tragically short-lived, as Soviet troops moved decisively to crush the pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia.

Realizing that they were going to have to work with the leaders who were already in place, the Russians flew Dubcek and the others to Moscow on August 24. There Dubcek was reunited with Svoboda, who had been flown to Moscow earlier. They met with Brezhnev and other members of the Politburo, and two days later, with little choice in the matter, they signed the Moscow Protocols, a document that the Soviets had already drawn up before the meeting began. It was a revocation of almost everything that had been put in place during the Prague Spring. It repealed the economic reforms, it banned opposition groups, and it reasserted state control over the media. Dubcek, Svoboda, and other Czech reformers tried to haggle some concessions from the Soviets, but in the end Brezhnev got everything he wanted.The Soviet leader subjected Dubeck to a final, humiliating lecture to drive home who were the true masters of in Eastern Europe. “The borders of your country are our borders as well,” said Brezhnev. “Because you did not listen to us, we feel threatened.” Brezhnev declared that in the name of those Soviets killed to liberate Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union was fully entitled to intervene militarily when it believed that the security of the socialist community was threatened. “It is immaterial,” Brezhnev asserted, “if anyone was actually threatening us or not. It is a matter of principle. And that is the way it will be, for eternity.” This prerogative that Brezhnev claimed for the Soviet Union in its East European satellites would become known as the Brezhnev Doctrine, holding that the USSR had the right to intervene in any communist country where it felt its interests were in jeopardy.Dubcek returned to Prague on August 27 a broken man. With his eyes welling up with tears and his voice quivering at times, he addressed the Czech people on the radio for the first time since the invasion, telling his fellow citizens to refrain from any further confrontations with the invaders. He also told his saddened listeners that the situation would force them to “take some temporary measures that limit democracy and freedom of opinion.” It was the best face that Dubcek could put on the situation, but everyone knew that it represented the end of the Prague Spring.

While his people struggled to resist Soviet tanks with their bare hands, Dubcek and other reformers were being shuttled from base to base while the leaders in Moscow tried to find hard-line replacements who could take the reins of power and restore order in a new government. But those few hard-liners on whom the Soviets could count did not have the clout and credibility to win over the members of the Central Committee or the Presidium, who stood in passive but solid defiance to the Soviet actions.

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