The 1968 Prague Spring: Democratic Revolution Behind the Iron Curtain?

The United States spent the late 1940s and 1950s trying to prevent the spread of communism. In 1968, Czechoslovakia showed signs of a pro-democratic revolution. How would the Soviets react?

Aug 24, 2023By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
1968 prague spring revolution
A color photograph of Soviet troops arriving in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 to end the Prague Spring era, via Rare Historical Photos


After World War II, the Soviet Union set up communist governments in the nations of eastern Europe. These satellite countries stretched from East Germany to the border of the Soviet Union and constituted a barrier between a potentially re-armed West Germany and the USSR. Upset at Soviet violations of agreements to return its troops home after World War II, the United States and its Western allies vowed to prevent any future spread of communism. The fall of China to communism in 1949 and the eruption of the Korean War in 1950 intensified the West’s resolve to contain communism. In early 1968, however, the reverse happened: a wave of anti-communist fervor swept Czechoslovakia in what became known as the Prague Spring.


Setting the Stage: World War II in the USSR

A photograph of the devastation of Stalingrad in the Soviet Union during World War II, via the National World War II Museum in New Orleans


World War II was especially devastating to the Soviet Union, which was invaded by the European members of the Axis Powers (primarily Germany, but also Italy, Hungary, Bulgaria, and others) on June 22, 1941. From June 22 until early December, the Germans pushed to the outskirts of Moscow, inflicting defeat after humiliating defeat on the Soviets’ Red Army. Although the Red Army stopped the Nazis at the gates of Moscow, the following summer saw a similarly devastating German offensive in the south. The Germans reached and occupied the majority of the southern city of Stalingrad.


The Red Army liberated Stalingrad in early 1943 after months of brutal urban warfare, and after the summer 1943 Battle of Kursk was on the offensive for the remainder of the war. Two years after the victory at Stalingrad, the Soviets were entering Germany itself from the east. Days after the Red Army seized Berlin, Germany surrendered unconditionally on May 8, 1945. While putting forth the majority of the effort the defeat Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union suffered terribly: up to 24,000,000 combined military and civilian deaths–the most of any nation during the war. After the Great War, as it was known in the USSR, the Soviets vowed to never again be caught by a surprise offensive from the West, as had happened under Napoleon, Germany during World War I, and Germany again during World War II.


Setting the Stage: The Cold War in Europe

East German workers building the Berlin Wall in 1961, creating one of the most iconic images of the Cold War, via the University of Southern California


The Soviets reneged on wartime agreements to return their troops to behind their own borders, and instead installed communist governments in eastern and central Europe in all the land they had wrested from the Nazis. These Soviet satellites had been destined for sovereignty after World War II and were now dominated by Moscow. In 1946, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill gave a famous speech where he declared that an Iron Curtain had fallen across Europe to divide the pro-democratic West and the authoritarian communist East. The most intense portion of the Iron Curtain fell between West and East Germany, which had been divided after World War II.

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Behind the Iron Curtain lay the former German capital of Berlin, which was now deep in East Germany. As with Germany itself, Berlin had similarly been divided between the Western Allies (United States, Britain, and France) and the Soviet Union. West Berlin, as a result, was a beacon of democracy within the Soviet zone. In 1948, the Soviets attempted to starve West Berlin into submission by blockading the city. The Americans and British heroically responded with the Berlin Airlift, resupplying the city by air and avoiding war with the Russians. The first Cold War crisis eased in Europe but re-emerged in 1961 when the Soviets built the Berlin Wall between West and East Berlin in retaliation for an American attempt to invade Cuba (the Bay of Pigs invasion).


Setting the Stage: Policy of Containment

An image illustrating the policy of containment during the Cold War and stopping the spread of communism to new territories, via C3Teachers


Following the Soviet aggression in East Germany in 1948, the United States watched in concern as communism enjoyed a string of geopolitical victories: the Chinese Civil War was won by the communists in 1949 (creating the nation known as Red China), the Soviets developed their first atomic bomb in 1949, and communist North Korea invaded capitalist South Korea in 1950. The US rushed to defend South Korea, forming the vast majority of a United Nations defense force. Communism was seen as an insidious force, crossing borders at will to topple democratic governments.


As a result, the United States pursued a policy of containment, meaning it would resist the expansion of communism into new territories. The Korean War (1950-53) was seen as proof that communists would even use military force to take neighboring territories. Created during the tenure of US President Harry S. Truman (1945-53), the Truman Doctrine allowed America to send political, military, and economic assistance to nations under the threat of communist expansion. In the early 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was famously – or infamously – used to topple communist regimes in countries of interest to the United States.


1963-68: Detente & Relaxed Tensions

A photograph of a conference of Soviet and American leaders in 1967 during the era of detente between the two superpowers, via the National Security Archive


The late 1940s and early 1950s saw soaring tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. After an initial easing of tensions during the Khrushchev Thaw of the mid-to-late 1950s, the iciness of the Cold War returned in the early 1960s. Tensions peaked in the autumn of 1962 with the Cuban Missile Crisis, after which Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev was replaced by the more conservative–and stability-focused–Leonid Brezhnev. Under Brezhnev, the United States and the Soviet Union enjoyed an easing of geopolitical tensions known as detente.


Both superpowers wanted to avoid a nuclear exchange like what almost occurred during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This easing of tensions may have emboldened the pro-democratic reformers in Czechoslovakia, a Soviet satellite country in central Europe. Between 1963 and 1967, a liberalization movement had been brewing among intellectuals in Czechoslovakia. The Writers’ Congress of 1967 saw open denunciation of censorship and oppressive policies for the first time, sparking a public desire for reforms. Against the background of detente, would the Soviet Union react harshly to democratic winds blowing in its distant satellite?


Early 1968: Czechoslovak Reforms Announced

Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev (center) opposed the pro-democratic reforms announced in Czechoslovakia in early 1968, via Cambridge University


On January 5, 1968, a compromise candidate named Alexander Dubcek became the leader of the communist party of Czechoslovakia, meaning the nation’s de facto leader. While hardliners (conservatives) had assumed that Dubcek would remain loyal to existing pro-Soviet policies, the new leader turned out to be much more liberal. In April, he began a series of pro-democratic reforms that increased freedom of the press, promoted the production of consumer goods instead of heavy industry, and limited the power of the secret police. The liberalizations were part of a 10-year plan to transition Czechoslovakia from a Soviet-modeled authoritarian communist state to a socialist democracy.


The reforms alarmed many conservatives, and a public tug-of-war commenced between liberals who wanted more pro-democratic reforms and conservatives who wanted to ensure the stability of the socialist state. Although the Czech economy had been slowing since the early 1960s, there were fears that radical reforms could jeopardize its stability. Dubcek tried to work with both sides and argued that his reforms represented “socialism with a human face.” However, the struggle between opposing sides grew increasingly hostile as a free media revealed previously-unspoken levels of corruption and repression.


Prague Spring Reactions & Negotiations

A map showing Czechoslovakia as a member of the Warsaw Pact (red), which opposed the NATO alliance (green) during the Cold War, via the Council on Foreign Relations


Ironically, the United States was facing a somewhat similar situation to the Soviet Union in 1968: public protests against state repression. Summer 1968 is often seen as the peak of the counterculture and protest movements in the US, with many young people protesting against the ongoing Vietnam War and draft, racism, sexism, and oppression of capitalism. Similar protest movements were going on across the West, including in France. While the Western media eagerly championed the pro-democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia, and the US government politically supported the movement, there was little chance of providing physical assistance in the event of Moscow reacting harshly.


The Soviet Union tried to negotiate with Dubcek at first, with the new Slovak leader declaring that he was committed to working with both the Warsaw Pact military alliance and the Comecon economic framework of the USSR and its allies. However, the Soviets drew a hard line on August 3, declaring in the Bratislava Declaration that it would not allow a multi-party system that could replace the Communist Party. Reacting militarily against a reform movement in a Soviet satellite had precedent, as the Soviets had invaded Hungary in November 1956 to crush a similar movement after Hungary’s leader, Imre Nagy, announced the nation’s withdrawal from the Warsaw Pact.


August 20-21, 1968: Soviets Invade

A photograph of a Soviet tank in front of the Czechoslovak Radio building during the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact forces in August 1968, via Radio Prague International


Ultimately, Brezhnev and the Soviet leadership agreed that the pro-democratic reforms in Czechoslovakia had gone too far and might encourage similar movements in other satellite states. On the night of August 20, 1968, Soviet forces struck along with limited numbers of troops from other Warsaw Pact nations. The invasion was a surprise, and the Soviets had been able to coordinate the international coalition under the guise of Warsaw Pact training exercises. Swiftly, Warsaw Pact forces–numbering around 250,000 soldiers and some 2,000 tanks–seized government buildings and communication hubs in major cities, effectively silencing the liberal government.


The death toll of the invasion and end of Prague Spring, known as Operation Danube, has been tallied as 137 citizens of Czechoslovakia, with more than 50 being shot on the first day of hostilities. Dubcek was arrested and flown to Moscow for questioning, and thousands of angry civilians emerged in the streets to confront the occupying forces. Many Warsaw Pact troops knew what was happening and struggled to control crowds. Although Soviet armor was unstoppable, a pitched street battle occurred to prevent the invaders from seizing Czechoslovak Radio headquarters.


Western Reaction to Operation Danube

The Los Angeles Times headline showing Western reactions to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia on August 20-21, 1968, via the Los Angeles Times


The world watched in horror but could not intervene without risking more bloodshed. Part of the Soviet calculation in the invasion was the United States’ preoccupation with its war in Vietnam. Brezhnev anticipated – correctly – that the US would not retaliate. Although the US condemned the invasion and appealed to the United Nations Security Council, there was little likelihood of US military involvement. However, President Lyndon Johnson did warn the Soviets against future aggression against eastern European states, such as Romania.


NATO took a harder line toward its defensive readiness after Operation Danube, as it had grown complacent since the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. For example, France had withdrawn its military obligation to the alliance in 1966. As a result of the Soviet crushing of the Prague Spring, the United States decided to keep its troops in West Germany to prevent Soviet aggression there. After the intra-NATO tensions that arose among the United States, Britain, and France after the Suez Crisis of 1956, the Prague Spring was a wake-up call that the USSR could and would use significant military power to protect its interests, meaning NATO needed to be united. The US also vowed to better support any future pro-democratic movements in Soviet satellites.


Brezhnev Doctrine Pushes Against Truman Doctrine

Soviet tanks on exercise in December 1980 in an attempt to intimidate the Solidarity movement in Poland, via the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland


The crushing of the Prague Spring heralded a new Soviet policy, known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. In November 1968, two months after Operation Danube, Brezhnev gave a speech where he insisted that the USSR and its allies would not allow the “socialist gains” of any allied nations to be jeopardized. This directly contrasted with the American policy of the Truman Doctrine, which promised aid to any nation trying to resist communism. Both superpowers had made it clear that their respective spheres of influence were not to be infringed by the other. For the remainder of the Cold War, each superpower would supply weapons to the foes of the other.


Soviet application of the Brezhnev Doctrine occurred in December 1979, when the USSR invaded Afghanistan to prop up a communist government. Since Afghanistan had a communist government, the Soviet Union would ensure that such a government would remain. The following December, the Soviets again put on a display of military force to threaten anti-communist reforms, this time in Poland. Although the US supplied arms to the anti-Soviet mujahideen “freedom fighters” in Afghanistan during the 1980s, no aid was offered to Poland. The Soviet display of military force did freeze pro-democratic reforms in Poland, though only temporarily.


Aftermath: Soviet Stability Restored for 20 Years

A 1987 map showing the military strength of NATO and Warsaw Pact nations, via the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)


The success at crushing the Prague Spring helped bolster the military reputation of the Soviet Union and limit other satellites’ attempts at pro-democratic reforms…at least for a while. Brezhnev’s decisiveness helped dissuade challenges to his regime and communism in general. However, the insistence on conservatism and stability ended up hurting the Soviet Union in the end. The Brezhnev Stagnation that set in by the 1970s was the result of refusing to implement economic and social reforms, leading to increasingly reduced economic growth throughout the USSR and its satellites.


Thus, the “success” at ending Prague Spring likely hastened the collapse of the Soviet Union by convincing leaders in Moscow that avoiding reforms was a viable option. By the late 1980s, the rigid central planning of the USSR’s socialist economy could no longer compete with the dynamic free-market economies of the West. The focus on stability, rather than adaptation, slowly doomed the Soviet system. Attempts to reform the Soviet economy beginning in 1985, known as perestroika, resulted in similar demands for political freedom, beginning the march toward the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.