The Road to Hell: Part III

The fallacy of liberation played a major part in inciting conflicts during the Cold War but realism's hindsight makes it hard to appreciate the initial idealism that accompanied these conflicts.

Czechoslovakians listen to a transistor radio for news of the Russian invasion, August 29, 1968. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images) Hulton-Deutsch Collection /

In the decades following the Second World War western politicians and political theorists overwhelmingly chose to view struggles for independence in Asia, Africa and Latin America as symptoms of a wider contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. By attributing nationalist uprisings to some overarching communist conspiracy, Western leaders managed to shore up domestic support for military interventions but, in the process, they also tricked themselves into believing that their opponents lacked genuine popular support. Looking back at the devastation caused by these ‘proxy wars’ in Korea and Indochina it’s easy to forget that Western governments justified their involvement with claims of liberation.

At the same time, nationalist and communist revolutionaries also tended to treat any sort of political strife as an invitation to incite revolution. The string of failed coups and insurrections in Central America and Southeast Asia during the latter half of the 20th century testifies to the ferocity of government suppression but they also highlight the difficulty of winning and maintaining popular support through acts of political violence.

Undeclared Wars of Recolonisation (1945)

In the final days of the Second World War a whole host of nationalist and anti-colonial independence movements began to expose the hypocrisy of the western foreign policy establishment. Well before the Japanese government had even formally surrendered European governments were already scrambling to reassert control over their former colonies in Asia.

Dutch, British, Portuguese and French authorities all assumed they could simply pick up where they left off. Instead they found themselves facing assertive independence movements tempered by years spent under a brutal Japanese occupation and bolstered by sympathetic Chinese and Soviet regimes. In 1945, during the brief window of opportunity between the Japanese surrender and the reconsolidation of French rule, Vietnamese statesman Ho Chi Minh launched his August Revolution with a quote by Thomas Jefferson.

“All men are created equal. The Creator has given us certain inalienable rights: the right to Life, the right to be Free, and the right to achieve Happiness…These immortal words are taken from the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a larger sense, this means that: all the peoples of the world are equal; all the people have the right to live, to be happy, to be free. Turning to the Declaration of the French Revolution in 1791, it also states Men are born, must be free, and have equal rights. These are undeniable truths”

To fill the immediate power vacuum, British authorities turned to the recently surrendered Japanese troops who remained stranded in garrison cities across Southeast Asia. Entire Japanese divisions were hastily re-armed and reinstated to police former colonies and rebuild colonial infrastructure. In an article for the Journal of Contemporary History titled ‘Side-stepping Geneva’, historian Stephen Connor described the extent to which Allied authorities relied on Japanese forces to suppress Southeast Asian independence movements and reestablish colonial rule.

“During the four months to January 1946 ‘loyal’ Japanese troops helped the British to depose, on behalf of the French, the first popular government of Vietnam; they impeded nationalist aspirations in Indonesia, allowing the British, on behalf of the Dutch, to build up a military presence; they maintained and policed the Burma–Siam railway; and they kept a semblance of order amongst Communist-inspired chaos in large areas of Malaya”

European efforts to recolonise South East Asia were obviously difficult to justify on grounds of national liberation, so most European powers claimed that they were simply deploying troops to ‘restore order’ and protect their former subjects from marauding bandits and communist rebels. Others skirted the moral dilemma by avoiding official declarations of war entirely. Instead of making a public case for their reoccupation of Indonesia, the Dutch government referred to their undeclared war as a ‘politionele acties’ (police action). This legal fiction proved unconvincing in Australia where thousands of dockworkers protested the war by refusing to load Dutch ships carrying arms and supplies to the conflict. 

Nevertheless the U.S. adopted the same terminology to describe their invasion of Korea in 1950 which relied on the token involvement of 22 different United Nations member states to lend legitimacy to the first of many U.S.-led anti-communist crusades. During the same period, Australian troops were also deployed to assist British forces in Malaya in a war that was downgraded to an ‘emergency’ so that British plantation and mine owners could continue to make claims on their insurance policies. Over the following years, skirmishes in Borneo between Commonwealth and Indonesian forces over where to place the Malayan-Indonesia border saw a three-year war reduced to the status of ‘confrontation’ (Konfrontasi in Indonesian). 

Passing the Baton in Indochina

First Indochina War (1946 – 1954)

The man tasked with reconquering Indochina on behalf of France was the same man who had led the charge to liberate Paris. General Philippe Leclerc arrived in Saigon in October 1945 as head of the French Far East Expeditionary Corps. Under Leclerc’s command this understrength and poorly equipped force managed to break the blockade that the Viet Minh had placed around Saigon and fight their way through the Mekong delta and up into the highlands. 

It took very little time for Leclerc to recognise what the majority of French politicians in Paris refused to acknowledge – that the Viet Minh would never accept the reimposition of colonial rule. Nevertheless, he considered his command of the Expeditionary Corps a patriotic duty and, in public, he attempted to project enthusiasm for what de Gaulle referred to as the ‘last phase of liberation’. In private he was more pessimistic. In a letter to his sister written shortly after his arrival in Saigon, Leclerc provided an unvarnished assessment of the situation.

“Here we are in the shit right up to our necks. Revolts and wars everywhere; against the English, the Dutch and, sadly, also against us. Waiting patiently like Sister Anne for my ships and soldiers, I get all the knocks from all the different factions, promising me on the Gospel to repay a hundredfold whatever I do. The situation worsens every day and has continued to do so for a month now. Still one goes on. I hope that our compatriots will not be murdered in the meantime.”

By early 1946 Leclerc had received enough reinforcements to occupy Vietnamese cities north of the 16th parallel. On the 26th of February 1946 the French Navy assembled its largest amphibious fleet since Gallipoli and sailed it directly into the port city of Haiphong. A month later French forces drove into the northern capital of Hanoi and succeeded in taking control of the city. Despite the success of the reconquest, Leclerc found himself at odds with the High Commissioner appointed to govern French Indochina and he was relieved of his command. Upon returning to Paris Leclerc warned French officials that “anti-communism will be a useless tool unless the problem of nationalism is resolved” and he urged his replacement to “negotiate at any cost”.

General Jacques-Philippe LeClerc meets with General Võ Nguyên Giáp to negotiate the status of French Indochina. Giáp would go on to become the military leader of the communist forces during the First Indochina War.

Instead the French occupation force continued to dictate terms to the Vietnamese nationalists despite their relatively small occupation force. In November 1946 a standoff between French customs officials and Vietnamese troops at Haiphong resulted in the killing of several French sailors. In response, French troops, supported by three gun boats belonging to the French Navy, carried out a punitive bombardment of the city which claimed the lives of roughly 6,000 Vietnamese civilians. This massacre represented the opening salvo of what would become the 1st Indochina War.

In October 1947 French forces mounted an offensive aimed at capturing the Viet Minh leadership but dense jungle, waterlogged rice paddies and millions of acres of swamp and scrubland slowed progress at every turn and made pursuit almost impossible. As the counter-insurgency campaign dragged on, war weariness and a growing public scepticism toward the nation’s colonial project forced the French government to rely heavily on its ‘Foreign Legion’ to reassert control over its African and Asian colonies. 

During this period the French Foreign Legion was dominated by German veterans of the Wehrmacht – many of whom had enlisted to escape the dire economic conditions of post-war Germany. Of the 70,000 troops initially deployed to Indochina roughly 20,000 to 30,000 were of German origin. Ho Chi Minh’s communist forces fought an eight year war of attrition against these Franco/German mercenaries before the Viet Minh managed to isolate some 15,000 French troops at Dien Bien Phu. Following a bloody seven-week siege the French garrison surrendered in May 1954 but French officials continued to insist that the battle had been lost on the home front. In the aftermath, French General Georges Catroux told a commission of inquiry that: 

“The fall of Dien Bien Phu… only assumed the aspect of a definitive defeat of our forces by reason of its profound psychological effects on French public opinion, which [was] tired of a war that was unpopular and seemingly without end…”

Well before the French defeat, the U.S. government had begun bankrolling anti-communist forces in many parts of Southeast Asia and by 1954 the U.S. was paying well over half the cost of France’s war in Vietnam and, when the French withdrew, the U.S. stepped in to replace them – first with a small contingent of ‘military advisors’ and then with a growing army to prop up the military dictatorship governing South Vietnam. To shore up public support for this new police action the U.S. relied on the rhetoric of ‘containment’ – arguing that neighbouring countries would fall like dominos if Ho Chi Minh and his communist allies were allowed to assume control of South Vietnam. This theory was loudly proclaimed by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration despite analysis by the CIA which concluded that a North Vietnamese victory was unlikely to result in the overthrow of neighbouring countries. 

A succession of American diplomats and officials sent to Vietnam in the early 50s all reached roughly the same conclusion – reporting that the South Vietnamese government lacked legitimacy and the U.S. should avoid getting involved in a domestic dispute that was almost certain to escalate into a civil war. Nevertheless U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s administration remained committed to the policy of containment. When CBS correspondent David Schoenbrun reminded Kennedy of the enormous losses that France had sustained in Indochina, Kennedy insisted that American intentions would make a decisive difference to the outcome.

“Well, Mr. Schoenbrun, that was the French. They were fighting for a colony, for an ignoble cause. We’re fighting for freedom, to free them from the Communists, from China, for their independence”

The first combat troops sent to Vietnam in 1965 were members of the U.S. Marine Corps. An orientation film produced for the benefit of the soon-to-be-deployed Marines echoed Kennedy’s statement – spelling out the impossible task they faced “The Chinese, the French, the Japanese have been here as conquerors”, the narrator told them “You have to convince them we are here as friends”. 

For the first few years public support for the war remained high in the U.S. but even as the war escalated, and the ‘Viet Cong’ insurgency took shape, at least some American arrivals still believed that they would be recognised as the brave defenders of South Vietnamese sovereignty. In an interview recorded fifteen years after the U.S. withdrawal, one veteran, William Ehrhart, recalled his confusion and dismay at the frosty reception he received from locals when he arrived in Da Nang.

“I literally expected to be welcomed with open arms by the people of Vietnam. I had in my head the black and white newsreels that I’d seen on the Walter Cronkite 20th Century show of the American troops rolling through villages in France and being showered with wine and flowers and kisses. [But] as we were driving…the 20 miles to where my battalion was located I really was disappointed that there weren’t people standing along the road waving to me [and] offering me flowers and things. I really expected to be greeted with open arms as a liberator and it was as though I was invisible. It was as though I didn’t exist”

Wishful Thinking at the Bay of Pigs

Operation Zapata (1961)

When the U.S. government attempted to overthrow Fidel’s Castro’s revolutionary government in 1961 an assumption of popular support was baked into their military strategy. The ill-fated ‘Bay of Pigs’ invasion was orchestrated by the CIA and carried out by a paramilitary brigade made up of some 1500 disgruntled Cuban exiles. However the planners vastly underestimated Castro’s popularity – expecting that the seizure of a beachhead on the island would, by itself, trigger mass uprisings against Castro’s government. Author Jim Rasenberger outlined the extent of this wishful thinking in his account of the failed coup The Brilliant Disaster.

“CIA intelligence coming out of Cuba continued to suggest that most Cubans supported Castro, the opposition having either been crushed or, in many cases, having fled to Florida. Nonetheless, the U.S. Navy was waiting offshore not only with tanks and jeeps but also with thirty thousand rifles to distribute to presumed hordes of anti-Castro Cubans who might suddenly come out of the woodwork and flock to the side of the brigade, either in spirit or in some sort of armed rebellion, or even—here’s where the plan became very vague—by somehow penetrating Castro’s bottlenecked forces and joining the brigade on the beaches at the Bay of Pigs.”

Instead, the invasion force ran into resistance from local militia before they’d even waded ashore. Dozens of members of the brigade were killed in the initial firefight and none of the supply ships assigned to support the landing managed to make it to the beach. Two were sunk by Castro’s air force – after which the remaining ships turned and fled to international waters. By the second day of the operation, the invaders were cut off and surrounded by some 20,000 Cuban soldiers. When the brigade finally surrendered they were paraded in front of the international press – further boosting Castro’s popularity. 

The Bay of Pigs invasion was so poorly orchestrated that it became the test case for new theories in social science. In 1972 American research psychologist Irving Janis coined the phrase ‘groupthink’ to describe the tendency for like-minded individuals to reach consensus without properly interrogating their ideas. In the case of Kennedy’s senior advisors, Janis argued that the pressure to conform stifled any real critique of the invasion plan and led Kennedy’s advisors to discard information that contradicted their initial assumptions.

One of those advisors, Arthur Schlesinger, later admitted that the Kennedy’s administration had ignored surveys conducted in Cuba the previous year which showed broad support for Castro’s revolution. Neither did Kennedy’s advisors consult experts in the CIA and State Department who might have provided a more realistic assessment of Cuban public sentiment. As Schlesinger wrote in his account of the Kennedy administration:

“The same men…both planned the operation and judged its chances of success…the ‘need-to-know’ standard – i.e. that no one should be told about a project unless it becomes operationally necessary – thus had the idiotic effect of excluding much of the expertise of government at a time when every alerted newspaper man knew something was afoot.”

Eventually the members of the brigade were ransomed back to the U.S. government in return for $53,000,000 worth of food and medicine. Despite the embarrassment caused by the failed invasion the returnees were given a hero’s welcome by John and Jackie Kennedy at an official ceremony held at the Orange Bowl Stadium in Miami. But the failed invasion had immediate and far-reaching consequences. Within eighteen months Castro had forged a military alliance with the Soviet Union that placed 5,000 Soviet troops and a battery of medium-range nuclear missiles barely a hundred miles from the U.S. coast. The belated discovery of these forces led to a U.S. naval blockade and a tense military standoff that became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Somehow the same cohort of advisors that had so badly mismanaged the coup attempt on Castro managed to negotiate a Soviet withdrawal from the island while narrowly averting a nuclear war. 

John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy greet surviving members of Brigade 2506 at the Miami Orange Bowl following their release in 1962.

Like Talking to Statues

The Ñancahuazú Guerrilla (1966)

In the post-colonial turmoil of the Cold War, delusions of liberation were not confined to imperial powers. They also afflicted revolutionaries like Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara – who had helped train Castro’s army. Having travelled extensively in his youth, Guevara had witnessed the deplorable living conditions endured by the working classes and peasantry in Latin America. After the overthrow of Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba, Guevara promoted socialist revolutions in Africa and South America even as he rejected the notion that armed missionaries could impose radical political changes on societies they didn’t belong to. “I am not a liberator” he once claimed “liberators do not exist. The people liberate themselves”.

Nevertheless in 1966 Guevara led a small group of Cuban militants into Bolivia in an attempt to overthrow the right-wing Bolivian government. To make up for the dramatic asymmetry between his forces and those of the Bolivian state, Guevara counted on the support of rural miners and peasants who were overwhelmingly poor and politically disenfranchised. 

However many of the assumptions that Guevara took from Cuba’s revolution did not map neatly onto Bolivian society. Although it had the highest unemployment rate of any country in the region, Bolivia had undergone its own revolutionary reform period in 1952 and steps had been taken to redistribute land and improve the plight of the poor. Unlike the former Cuban dictator, Bolivia’s president, René Barrientos, had won a (somewhat dubious) national election in 1966 and could count on a certain degree of popular support. Neither could Bolivia’s national army simply be written off as the militant wing of the ruling class. The army was made up of conscripts who served for one year at a time and, despite their lack of professionalism, they were perceived as a ‘people’s army’ – meaning that Guevara would have to convince any local allies to take up arms against their own brothers and sons.

Guevara launched his revolutionary campaign in the remote river valley of Ñancahuazú in the country’s southeast but his initial attempts to build popular support quickly went awry. A property in the valley which had been purchased in advance to serve as a base of operations was not nearly as isolated as Guevara had hoped, and the sudden appearance of armed men immediately aroused local suspicions. To make matters worse, the dialect Guevara had asked his guerillas to learn turned out to be different from the one spoken in the region and his insistent and combative approach to recruitment failed to win over the local Bolivian peasantry.

Despite these setbacks Guevara’s band carried out a number of successful attacks on military and government targets in the first few months but they failed to rally Bolivians to their cause. Eventually, the Bolivian military (with the support of the United States) was able to track down and cut off supplies to Guevara’s forces who soon found themselves isolated in the mountains and suffering from illness and malnutrition. After several weeks spent living off the land while evading Bolivian troops, Guevara and his remaining men were captured and executed following a tip-off from a local farmer. Guevara’s last few diary entries revealed his growing suspicion towards those whose sympathies he had counted on when he set out. “Talking to these peasants is like talking to statues” he wrote “ They do not give us any help. Worse yet, they are turning into informers.”

Bolivian soldiers pose with the body of Che Guevara in a stable in the town of Vallegrande.

Misplaced Expectations

The Tet Offensive (1968)

In the ongoing war in Vietnam, American military planners weren’t the only ones to underestimate their opponents and overestimate the degree of local support they could expect. Over time, North Vietnamese strategists also came to believe that a decisive victory was within their grasp. In January 1967, on the eve of the festival for Vietnam’s Lunar New Year, tens of thousands of North Vietnamese troops – a mixture of regular soldiers and local guerrillas – launched coordinated attacks on almost every provincial capital and city in South Vietnam. Commando units stormed checkpoints leading into major urban centres and joined guerrilla units that had infiltrated the city days earlier. At the same time, regular units of the North Vietnamese Army laid siege to U.S. military bases like Phu Bai and Khe Sanh.

Portrait of NLF commander Le Duan, taken in 1951 when he headed the Central Office of South Vietnam.

Although North Vietnam had dedicated more than eighty thousand troops to the operation, these forces were scattered across more than a hundred cities and towns. Weapons caches had been prepared weeks earlier but most units lacked the ammunition and heavy weapons they would need to withstand the inevitable counter attacks. Neither could the guerrilla forces count on immediate reinforcements or resupply. So if the intent was never to take and hold these cities and towns, then what did North Vietnamese planners hope to achieve?

The architect of the Tet Offensive was Lê Duẩn – the Hanoi Politburo’s first secretary and the eventual successor to Ho Chi Minh. Duẩn believed that the South Vietnamese army – the ARVN – was barely worthy of the name and that the vast majority of those living in South Vietnam were just waiting for the opportunity to overthrow the puppet dictatorship of Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. In meetings with the Communist leadership in late 1967, Duẩn argued that a widespread offensive, targeting major urban centres in South Vietnam, would decisively break the ongoing military stalemate and force the U.S. to come to the negotiating table. Rather than seizing territory, the success of the Tet Offensive hinged on the expectation that the initial attacks would trigger a mass uprising that would overwhelm South Vietnam’s military and police forces. 

In hindsight this assumption appears terribly optimistic, but planners in Hanoi had convinced themselves that the time was ripe. Over the previous years the suppression of Buddhism by the South Vietnamese government had provoked widespread civil unrest and, in the months leading up to Tet, large anti-war demonstrations had taken place in Saigon. These protests had received extensive coverage by a press corps which were becoming increasingly critical of Thiệu’s government. In a letter sent to the headquarters of the National Liberation Front (commonly known as the ‘Viet Cong’), Duẩn revealed the extent of his optimism.

“The enemy forces are stretched over the battlefields and encircled by our people’s armed and political forces. The strategic position of the US-puppets is being upset; their troops’ morale is sagging; their internal contradictions are increasing. US imperialism had to cope with very great political, military and financial difficulties not only in the South but even in the USA. In the world US imperialism is isolated and the US position is also weakening”

To achieve surprise at the outset of the offensive, the NLF relied on a vast network of informers and local collaborators to smuggle weapons, establish safe houses, transport combatants and collect intelligence. Yet despite this intimacy with the land and its people, Duẩn and the other North Vietnamese planners still wildly overestimated the level of local support they would receive. Delusions of liberation seem to have undermined any effort to realistically assess the operation’s chances of provoking a general uprising. 

In Saigon, as in many other major cities, the initial attacks came as a complete surprise to both U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. As pitched battles raged on the outskirts of the capital, NLF commandos struck key targets inside the city – including the Presidential Palace, the U.S. Embassy and the ARVN’s Naval and Artillery Headquarters. For their attack on Saigon’s National Radio Station the commandos brought a series of audio tapes that were intended to be broadcast across the country to encourage sympathisers to join the unfolding coup. However the troops guarding the station disabled the transmitter before the message could be sent and ARVN reinforcements soon fought off the attackers. Over the following twelve hours, the various NLF units were steadily pushed out of their objectives and killed or captured by South Vietnamese troops.

It took several days for Allied forces to win back full control of their cities and towns but the military outcome was never really in doubt. Apart from the assault on the Marine base at Khe Sanh, North Vietnamese forces were outnumbered and outgunned in every instance and their losses reflected their deficits. It’s estimated that more than half of the troops assigned to the offensive were killed or captured in the first phase of the operation. Two other, equally disastrous, ‘mini Tet’ offensives followed over the following months. The NLF never recovered from this bloodletting and, from 1968 onwards, the war was waged in a much more conventional manner between uniformed combatants in the border regions of South Vietnam. An internal report produced by communist officials admitted that the failure of the Tet Offensive had been comprehensive.   

“We failed to seize a number of primary objectives. We also failed to hold the occupied areas. In the political field we failed to motivate the people to stage uprisings.”

By taking advantage of the Tet celebrations – and the traditional ceasefire that accompanied them – the North Vietnamese attacks outraged many Vietnamese and fed a groundswell of support for the Thiệu’s government. Before 1968, proposals to increase conscription in South Vietnam had been met with fierce opposition but, in the wake of the Tet Offensive, Thiệu’s government pushed through a wide range of measures to further militarise South Vietnamese society. Journalists, political opponents and religious leaders – even dissident Buddhists – rallied behind the government’s plans. Tet also boosted the flagging morale of the ARVN and their desertion rates dropped substantially over the following months. Additionally, some 20,000 North Vietnamese troops took the opportunity to defect over the following year – further undermining the NLFs efforts to refill their depleted ranks.

Nevertheless the NLF’s failed offensive had a profound effect on public opinion in the United States. The chaotic images recorded by press cameramen and photographers (including the brutal execution of NLF guerrilla Nguyễn Văn Lém by a South Vietnamese officer) gave the impression that the U.S. and its allies had lost control of the country. News networks replayed desperate scenes of soldiers and civilians sheltering from gunfire in ruined streets – including dramatic footage of U.S. troops struggling to recapture their own embassy from NLF guerrillas.

Renowned journalist Walter Cronkite was one of the first public figures to acknowledge the growing pessimism among U.S. officials and the wider public. After being evacuated from the ruins of Huế city in a helicopter carrying the remains of a dozen U.S. Marines, Cronkite told his America audience:

“[I]t seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate . . . [I]t is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.”

Looking back on the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and the subsequent collapse of the South Vietnamese government in 1975, many military historians seized on Tet as an example of how a ‘superior’ army can win the battles but still lose the war. The lesson that the U.S. military took from Tet was that the support of the media and, by extension, positive public opinion mattered more than body counts or tallies of territory lost or won. But, when viewed from the perspective of the North Vietnamese, the Tet Offensive tells us another, altogether more familiar, story – one about the power and the peril of wishful thinking. As historian Greggory Daddis summarised in a recent article for War on the Rocks:

“It seems more useful to consider this chapter of the war as a strategic tutorial on flawed assumptions among American and North Vietnamese leaders and commanders. At its core, the 1968 Tet offensive, from all sides, remains a profound case study on misplaced expectations about how war unfolds and what it promises.”

Stamping out ‘Socialism with a Human Face’

Operation Danube (1968)

While the U.S. waged war under the auspices of ‘containment theory’ the Soviet Union justified military coups on its member states under the ‘Brezhnev doctrine’ which proclaimed that a threat to communist rule in one state of the Soviet bloc was a threat to them all.

In 1968, Slovak politician Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. Dubček had been educated and trained in Russia and was regarded by Brezhnev’s administration as a safe pair of hands but Dubček proved to be a much more radical reformer than anyone expected. Soon after taking up office Dubček published a manifesto which called for sweeping changes to the political structure of Czechoslovakia. Under the slogan of ’socialism with a human face’ Dubček promised to loosen restrictions on travel, grant protections to free speech and limit the powers of the security services. In his ‘blueprint for freedom’ Dubček advocated for a ten-year transition to democratic elections, saying:

“Socialism cannot mean only liberation of the working people from the domination of exploiting class relations, but must make more provisions for a fuller life of the personality than any bourgeois democracy.”

Pressure soon mounted on Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev to bring Czechoslovakia back into line but when negotiations stalled in March 1968, Brezhnev approved a plan to remove Dubček by force. Military exercises in southern Poland were used as a pretext to mobilise more than 250,000 troops while a backchannel appeal for ‘fraternal help’ from reactionaries in the Czech government was used to justify intervention. Rather than relying solely on the Red Army, as they had in Hungary in 1956, the Soviet Politburo assembled a coalition of Warsaw-Pact forces to give a veneer of legitimacy to their intervention. 

On the eve of the invasion, political officers within the Soviet invasion force told their troops that the instigators of the ‘Prague uprising’ were holding their countrymen hostage and that Warsaw-Pact forces would be welcomed as liberators. On the 20th of August, 1968 Soviet Special Forces seized Prague’s airport while tanks and armoured vehicles rolled across the Czech border. Dubček ordered the Czech armed forces to stand down, but protestors took to the streets to vent their outrage. 

Alongside other spontaneous acts of nonviolent resistance, the residents of Prague denied food and water to the invading troops, removed street signs (except for those pointing back to Moscow) and denounced the invasion through graffiti and radio broadcasts across the republic. The most violent clashes took place in the streets surrounding the Czechoslovak Radio headquarters where citizens erected barricades and attempted to hold off the Soviet tanks with Molotov cocktails and paving stones. At least fifteen protestors were killed in this last-ditch effort to maintain control of the national broadcaster. 

The United Nations, and the majority of the Western press, denounced the coup but offered no tangible support. U.S. Ambassador George Ball quipped that “the kind of fraternal assistance that the Soviet Union is according to Czechoslovakia is exactly the same kind that Cain gave to Abel”. Chinese dictator Mao Tse Tung also viewed the attack on one communist state by another as a dangerous precedent. At the Ninth National Congress of the Communist Party of China he delivered a blistering critique of the Soviet invasion – accusing Leonid Brezhnev of practising “socialism in words, imperialism in deeds.”

The sheer number of troops dedicated to suppressing the Prague Spring suggests that Brezhnev and other Soviet officials were under no illusions about the level of support they would receive from the local population. And yet, we can still see evidence of the strategic optimism that Blainey identified as the main risk factor for war. Kremlin officials predicted that it would take less than a week to subdue any unrest but, in the end, public resistance continued for another eight months – creating headaches for the occupiers and exposing the fallacy of Soviet liberation. Soviet troops remained ‘temporarily stationed’ in Czechoslovakia until 1987. 

The Soviet counter-coup in Czechoslovakia represents one of the more clear-cut examples of using humanitarian concerns as a fig leaf to conceal much more pragmatic political goals. Few observers at the time gave any credence to the request for ‘fraternal assistance’ and Soviet efforts to portray their invasion force as a collective ‘coalition of the willing’ did nothing to offset criticism of the coup. What’s telling is that the Soviet politburo of the late 1960s felt the need to justify – both domestically and internationally – their decision to suppress Dubček’s movement. 

Historian Kieran Williams noted that the invasion immediately discredited the Czech officials who had conspired to take charge of the country. At the same time, the arrest of Dubček and other reformers elevated them to the status of heroes in the eyes of the Czechoslovak people. In the long run Williams argues that:

“…the invasion … inflicted irreparable damage on the international communist movement, destroyed historic Russophilia among Czechs and Slovaks, and convinced many politicians, thinkers, and citizens throughout the bloc that the Soviet model could not be reformed, only overthrown.”


Wars of Decolonisation, 1945 – 1975
Stephen Connor (2010) – Side-stepping Geneva: Japanese Troops under British Control, 1945-7 

The Bay of Pigs Invasion, 1961
Jim Rasenberger (2012) – The Brilliant Disaster JFK, Castro, and America’s Doomed Invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs
Barbara Tuchman (2015) – The March of Folly From Troy to Vietnam
Irving Lester Janis (1972) – Victims of Groupthink: A Psychological Study of Foreign-policy Decisions and Fiascoes 

The 1st Indochina War (1946 – 1954)
Arthur J. Dommen (2001) – The Indochinese Experience of the French and the Americans: Nationalism and Communism in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam
William Mortimer Moore (2011) – Free France’s Lion: The Life of Philippe Leclerc, de Gaulle’s Greatest General 
Martin Windrow (2005) – The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam 

The 2nd Indochina War, (1955 – 1975)
Stanley Karnow (1994) – Vietnam: A History 
David Hoffman – Interview with Vietnam War veteran W. D. Ehrhart
Gregory Daddis (2018) – The Importance of the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive
Michael Hunt (2010) – A Vietnam War Reader: American and Vietnamese Perspectives 

Bolivian Insurgency, 1966-1967
Robert Vincent Daniels (1996) – Year of the Heroic Guerrilla: World Revolution and Counterrevolution in 1968 
Donald R. Selvage (1985) – Che Guevara In Bolivia

Prague Spring, 1968
Alexander Dubcek, Commentary By Paul Ello, (1968) – Dubcek’s Blueprint for Freedom: His Original Documents Leading to the Invasion of Czechoslovakia 
Kieran Williams (1997) – The Prague Spring and Its Aftermath Czechoslovak Politics, 1968-1970 
Les anglonautes (2020) – Photos of the Prague Spring

Richard Pendavingh

Photographer, designer and weekend historian. Editor of The Unravel. Writes about design, tech, history and anthropology.

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