In the face of rising anti-Soviet protests in Czechoslovakia, Soviet troops (backed by troops from other Warsaw Pact nations) intervene to crush the protest and restore order. The brutal Soviet action shocked the West and dealt a devastating blow to U.S.-Soviet relations.
The troubles in Czechoslovakia began when Alexander Dubcek took over as secretary general of the nation’s Communist Party in January 1968. It was immediately apparent that Dubcek wanted a major overhaul of Czechoslovakia’s political and economic system—he called his particular ideology “Socialism with a human face.” He called for greater political freedom, including more participation by noncommunist parties. Dubcek also pressed for economic policies that would ensure less state control and more reliance on free market economics. Finally, he insisted on greater freedom from Soviet domination, although he reiterated his nation’s allegiance to the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet bloc’s counterpart to NATO.
Dubcek’s policies shocked the Soviets and leaders in other Eastern European nations. Throughout early and mid-1968, negotiations took place between Dubcek and representatives from Russia and other Soviet bloc nations in an attempt to have the Czechoslovakian leader soften his reforms. Dubcek refused, and tensions with the Soviet Union steadily increased. Meanwhile, the sudden atmosphere of freedom that Dubcek was encouraging took root, and Czech citizens embraced and celebrated the new tolerance for free exchange of ideas and open discussion in what came to be known as the “Prague Spring.” On the night of August 20, 1968, more than 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops crossed into Czechoslovakia and headed for the capital city of Prague. In just over a day, the entire country was occupied; within a week nearly three-quarters of a million foreign troops were in Czechoslovakia. Anti-Soviet riots broke out in Prague, but these were viciously crushed and thousands of Czechs fled the country.
The Soviet action in August 1968 shocked the West. Not since 1956, when Soviet troops intervened in Hungary, had the Russian government resorted to such force to bring one of its communist allies into line with its own policies. The Czech invasion was particularly damaging to U.S.-Soviet relations. In June 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson met with Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin to begin discussions related to a number of issues, including arms control. It was agreed that Johnson would visit the Soviet Union in October 1968 to continue the talks. The Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia caused Johnson to cancel his visit abruptly.