A Look Back … The Prague Spring & the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia
On the night of August 20-21, 1968, Czechoslovakia was invaded from the north, east and south by 20 Soviet and Warsaw Pact divisions totaling some 250,000 men.1 At the same time, the positions vacated by these units were backfilled by 10 Soviet divisions coming from positions in Hungary, Poland and East Germany. Once strategic points in Czechoslovakia were occupied, most of these forces redeployed into western Czechoslovakia, where they took up positions opposite West Germany and neutral Austria.
With this military operation, Moscow put an end to the “Prague Spring,” the brief flowering of political and economic democracy that began the previous January with the appointment of Alexander Dubcek to the post of First Secretary of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party. Initially backed by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Dubcek had replaced the Stalinist Antonin Novotny in December 1967.
Dubcek moved quickly to supplant the existing repressive regime with a much more pluralist one — “Communism with a Human Face.” Aware of the suspicion this was likely to evoke from Moscow and the rest of Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, Dubcek was careful to maintain Czechoslovakia’s position as a loyal ally of the Soviet Union and member of the Warsaw Pact, insisting only on Prague’s right to internal self-determination.
The Intelligence Community Watches
In Washington, the Intelligence Community watched these developments with a mixture of astonishment and growing unease. Previous liberalization efforts in Poland, East Germany and Hungary had been brutally repressed. But those had been rebellions against the Warsaw Pact and Soviet dominion in Eastern Europe, which the Czech leadership was taking great pains to avoid. Moreover, it had been apparent even to the Kremlin that Czechoslovakia was in need of some kind of economic reform. Czechoslovakia, which was once a small industrial powerhouse, was now, after 20 years of communist rule, a basket case.
The Prague Spring thus could be viewed as actually strengthening the communist regime and, by extension, the alliance itself.
The CIA was cautiously optimistic. “If the new leadership in Prague proceeds carefully and step-by-step, good progress can be made ... [I]n view of its political, economic and military importance to the USSR and the Soviet bloc, [Czechoslovakia] cannot start an anti-socialist or anti-Soviet policy. The USSR would not allow this ... [but] there [is] no anti-socialist or anti-Soviet movement involved in the new political evolution of [Czechoslovakia] … only a strong movement for democratization and liberalization of the system.” Consequently, Moscow “…did not consider Dubcek as someone willing to start an anti-Soviet line.”2
Over the spring and summer of 1968, however, Soviet patience with Prague wore thin and tensions rose. Even if Moscow was willing to tolerate a more liberal regime in Prague, Eastern European communist governments — many as Stalinist as Czechoslovakia’s had been — could not accept such a deviation from communist orthodoxy.
Preparations for military action quietly went ahead: a series of Warsaw Pact military exercises over June and July brought Soviet, East German, Polish and Hungarian troops into Czechoslovakia. They were in a position for a rapid takeover. They eventually departed Czech soil, but hovered just outside the borders of the country.
CIA’s optimism faded: Although Dubcek was reported to be in “an uneasy truce” with Moscow, time clearly was running out.3 Dubcek now was reported to be playing for time, hoping that he could implement enough reforms quickly to present the Kremlin leadership with a fait accompli.
Nevertheless, “At some stage in the game,” the Agency reported, “the Soviets will … become aware that their earlier hopes for a return to anything like the status quo ante in Czechoslovakia were without foundation. It is the Czech hope that this realization will have come too late and the Soviets’ reactions will be minimal.”4
It was now clear to CIA analysts that the Soviet POLITBURO viewed developments in Czechoslovakia with growing dissatisfaction.5 The only thing preventing the Soviet Union from intervening militarily was concern over the impact of yet another violent repression of an Eastern European bid for autonomy.6
On July 17, the Office of National Estimates warned the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI): “We know of no way of foretelling the precise event in Czechoslovakia which might trigger … extreme Soviet reaction, or of foreseeing the precise circumstances which might produce within the Soviet leadership an agreement to move with force.”7
Two Warsaw Pact summits at Bratislava and Cierna nad Tisou seemed to dampen tensions, but Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces remained encamped just outside the Czech border.
Soviet Invasion Renews the Cold War Chill
When, just over one month later, these forces invaded Czechoslovakia, events moved with dramatic swiftness. Within 12 hours, the brief flowering of Czechoslovakian independence was over.
The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia brought a renewed chill to the Cold War. Soviet control over Eastern Europe was reinforced. Détente was deferred and nascent arms control negotiations were cancelled.
Most affected were the people of Czechoslovakia, who saw an end to their hopes for a more open society.
There was no summer that year. The Prague Spring was followed by a Stalinist winter that lasted another 23 years.
The CIA has released numerous documents on the Prague Spring and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The following is but a small sampling of what is available online at CIA’s FOIA Reading Room, http://www.foia.cia.gov/.
- CIA Intelligence Information Cable, Political Events and Personnel Changes in Czechoslovakia, 27 March 1968; Doc No. 242352.
- CIA Intelligence Memorandum, The Soviet Decision to Invade in Czechoslovakia, 21 August 1968; Doc. No. 326291.
- ONE Memorandum for the Director, Subject: The Czechoslovak Crisis, 17 July 1968; Doc No. 242346.
- ONE Special Memorandum 12-68, Subject: Czechoslovakia: the Dubcek Pause, 13 June 1968; Doc. No. 95035.
The following three documents present an interesting perspective drawn up for the White House one month after the invasion.
- Letter, DCI Richard Helms to Walt W. Rostow, 20 September 1968; Doc. No. 126871.
- CIA Intelligence Memorandum, Military Costs of the Warsaw Pact Invasion of Czechoslovakia, 19 September 1968; Doc No. 126872.
- CIA Intelligence Memorandum, Costs to Czechoslovakia, and to the Warsaw Pact Powers, of Actions Taken Against the Czechoslovak Economy, 19 September 1968; Doc No. 126873.
By far the largest depository of declassified CIA documents is CREST (CIA Records Search Tool), a database residing in the library of the College Park, Maryland facility of the US National Archives (Archives II). CREST is searchable by title, data and text content. The hundreds of thousands of pages stored in CREST include
- finished intelligence analysis;
- Directorate of Operations reports on the role of intelligence in the post World War II period;
- material on the creation, organization and role of CIA within the US Government;
- a collection of foreign scientific articles, ground photographs and associated reference materials; and
- the CIA’s first release of motion picture film.
CREST is not accessible online, but is well worth a visit. The following documents were found in CREST:
- Memorandum for Deputy Director of Intelligence, SUBJECT: Indications of Soviet Intent to Invade Czechoslovakia, 22 August 1968; CIA-RDP79B00972A00010024004-1.
- Memorandum to Mr. Smith, Subject: DDCI Memo on Handling of Indications Traffic, 23 August 68; CIA-RDP79B00972A000100240003-2.