Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia: The West was not tweaking the tail of the Russian Bear

While it was probably unrealistic to expect that the West will do something against the invasion of Czechoslovakia beyond rhetorical condemnation, is it possible to say if there was any concrete lesson the West later took from the occupation that had an effect on Western policies towards the USSR? Read few comments.

Mark Kramer, Program Director, Project on Cold War Studies, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University

When Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin came to the White House on the evening of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, President Johnson spoke with him jovially and seemed to have no concern about the invasion.  Johnson mainly wanted to ensure that a joint U.S.-Soviet announcement the next day about arms control talks would move ahead.  In subsequent days, the Johnson administration realized the seriousness of the crushing of the Prague Spring and broke off talks with Moscow that had been planned, but overall the administration’s seeming lack of concern on the crucial first day of the invasion was abysmal.

Memories of that fiasco were very much on Zbigniew Brzezinski’s mind in December 1980, when a Soviet invasion of Poland appeared imminent.  Brzezinski knew the United States could not prevent an invasion if leaders in Moscow were intent on pursuing one, but he wanted to ensure that Soviet policymakers would know they would pay very  high political and economic costs for such a move.  At Brzezinski’s urging, President Carter called Brezhnev on the Hot Line and warned him against military action.  That call alone was not enough to deter a Soviet invasion, but at least at the margins it complicated the USSR’s decision-making calculus.  Brzezinski explicitly cited the 1968 example in urging Carter to take a strong stand.

Günter Josef Bischof, University Research & Marshall Plan Professor of History, Director, CenterAustria, University of New Orleans

You raise an interesting question that I cannot answer because no one has studied what lessons the Nixon, Ford, Reagan administrations might have drawn from the Prague Spring.

However, it can be answered in a different fashion, namely, how did the US respond to interventions in the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War?

Eisenhower decided during the Hungarian crisis in 1956 not to intervene. Why? Because he decided already in 1953 in a National Security Council document and meeting not to “liberate the captive peoples” from Soviet domination. “Captive peoples” was the language of the Republican hardliners around JF Dulles, his Secretary of State. President Eisenhower also was afraid afraid that direct intervention in the Soviet sphere of influence could unleash a larger conflict and eventually lead to nuclear war. he did not want that to happen (wisely). Also in late Oct. 1956/early Nov. 1956, Eisenhower was in the middle of the 1956 re-election campaign + the West was already involved in a conflict with the Soviet Bloc over Suez at the same time (Ike whistled the British and French back from their Near Eastern intervention so as not to escalate this crisis).

The situation in 1968 was not unlike 1956: President Johnson was fighting  a destructive war in Vietnam (where most American forces were tied down); in August 1968 the country was also going through a tight election campaign (with a very controversial convention of the  Democratic Party in Chicago around the time of the Warsaw Pact Invasion). So President Johnson was in no mood to intervene in the Czechoslovak crisis, since an intervention easily could have escalated. People in the Johnson administration frequently mentioned the Hungarian crisis of 1956 in the White House deliberations. Czech and Slovak organizations in the US pressured the President to intervene, but he ignored their please like Ike ignored Hungarian pleas in 1956.

So 1956 was the model for 1968 like 1968 would be the historical case study applied in 1981 and 1989 in the Polish crisis. Reagan did not intervene in Poland in 1980/81, in spite of the imposition of Martial law. Reagan supported Solidarnosz in Poland, while killing unions on the US! But he did not want to intervene in the Soviet Bloc (see above) because he feared escalation at a time of very bad US – Soviet relations.

In July 1989, President Bush travelled to Poland and Hungary to encourage the “round table” reform processes in both countries but he did not venture beyond that in encouraging the Poles and Hungarians to shake off Soviet rule. It would take the cross-over of the East Germans on the Austrian- Hungarian border (not far from Bratislava) to bring the iron curtain down finally — events that also led to the “velvet revolution” in Czechoslovakia

So one would have to say that American statesmanship was very pragmatic during the Cold War in approaching crises within the Soviet Bloc,”not tweaking the tail of the Russian Bear” during such crises, so as not to escalate Cold War tensions to the point of unleashing nuclear war.

Thomas Schwartz,* Professor of History and Political Science, Vanderbilt University

President Johnson, even though bogged down in Vietnam, actively pursued a policy of détente with the Soviet Union in Europe.  This was called “bridge-building” and it was particularly the brainchild of Francis Bator, a Hungarian-born, MIT-trained political-economist who served as Johnson’s National Security Council Deputy for Europe from 1965-1967.  The hope was to ease Cold War tensions in Europe by encouraging trade, cultural contacts, and increasing connections between East and West Europe.   To a certain extent this was also a response to French president Charles de Gaulle’s idea of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, or a Europe that broke free from its dependence on the United States.  The US didn’t like de Gaulle’s idea, but needed a policy to respond to it.

When the Prague Spring began, many US leaders saw it as a positive development from “bridge-building, and wanted to assure the Soviets the US would not intervene or interfere in Czechoslovakia to encourage it to detach itself from the Warsaw Pact, as Hungary had done in 1956.  In fact, that was the historical analogy that was in their mind.  They believed that the Soviets might allow liberalization if their security interests were not threatened.

In August 1968 the US and USSR were about to announce that President Johnson would be going to Moscow to begin the SALT negotiations.  When Dobrynin came to see LBJ and tell him of the invasion “at the request of the Czechoslovak government,” Johnson didn’t even respond and quickly changed the subject back to the summit, which he hoped would cap off his administration with a huge diplomatic success.  The tape of this conversation makes for very bizarre reading.

I think the mildness of the US reaction bothered some people in Washington, although as Bischof remarks, most US leaders accepted that Eastern Europe was in the “Soviet sphere,” and that acting there threatened the possibility of escalation and even nuclear war.

Let me add, though, that in late 1980, when it looked as if the Soviets might go into Poland to crush the Solidarity Labor movement, the outgoing Carter Administration sent some very tough warnings to the Russians.  Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Polish-born National Security Adviser, was one of those people who felt Johnson had been too mild and he wanted the Russians to know they would pay a price if they went into Poland.  I think that’s one of the reasons that the Polish military ultimately undertook the intervention in 1981, rather than getting the Soviets involved.

I suspect, though I can’t prove it, that one legacy of the Soviet intervention in 1968 came during the Reagan Administration, when his people sought to undermine the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” by trying to overthrow communist regimes in places like Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola.  We also know now that they were far more willing to undertake covert actions in Eastern Europe, particularly Poland, to weaken the Soviet bloc.  Bischof is correct that the US would not act directly there, but US leaders under Reagan and Bush were certainly willing to make communist rule there more difficult.

*This also partly a reaction on Professor Bischof comments

Michael Kraus, Professor of Political Science, Middlebury College

Western decision makers recognized early on the significance of the developments in 1968 Czechoslovakia. As early as March 1968, Western intelligence agencies, such as the CIA, argued that the Soviets and their allies feared the spread of demands for liberalization and democratization on the Czechoslovak model into their own countries and that a Soviet military intervention could not be ruled out. Thus the actual invasion of August 20-21 did not come as a surprise to the White House or to NATO. But there was little that the US or NATO could do without risking a nuclear war with Moscow. At the time, there was also concern that Moscow might move militarily against Romania, which had acted independently of the USSR in its foreign policy. That is why President Lyndon Johnson issued in early September a public warning to Moscow against intervening in Romania. Washington also delayed arms control talks with Moscow. The Brezhnev doctrine and Soviet interventions in Central Europe were seen in the West less as evidence of aggressive Soviet expansion and more as defense of established Soviet control and hegemony in the region. Paradoxically, the use of military force against a Warsaw Pact ally also testified to the weakness of Soviet rule.

Kieran Williams, Visiting Professor of Political Science, Drake University

I think the lesson the West learned from 1968 was that they should make some effort to deter similar interventions in the future. There is some evidence that the Carter administration in 1980 sent warnings that the Soviets should not use force to suppress Solidarity in Poland, and that may have contributed to Soviet reluctance (along with their problems in Afghanistan). However, the US did not anticipate or try to stop the Polish government from using martial law in 1981. So there was still very little the West could do.


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