President Lyndon B. Johnson and National Security Advisor Walt Rostow learn from Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, August 20th, 1968. Photo Credit: Corbis Historical via Getty Images.

By David Kurlander

President Trump has been nearly silent in recent weeks about the mass protests against Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko. In Europe, however, leaders are scrambling to figure out how to support the mass movement against the long-time Putin ally, who in early August won a widely disputed re-election bid against popular opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš captured the panic of European heads-of-state, who fear that Russia will intervene militarily to back Lukashenko if necessary, in a Tweet last month: “September 1968 must not happen in Belarus.” Babiš’ reference to the end of the Prague Spring—when Soviet tanks quashed a moment of liberalization in then-Czechoslovakia—evokes another painful election year and another moment of reckoning with the Russians. Back then, President Lyndon Johnson was blindsided by Soviet aggression and unable to support the democratic fervor blossoming in Europe…

By the Summer of 1968, Lyndon Johnson had only a few presidential goals left intact. Several months earlier, he had shockingly announced that he would not seek re-election due to the disastrous developments in Vietnam. He was also reeling from the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy and the civil unrest left in their wake. And although he had managed to push through the landmark Fair Housing Act, many of his beloved Great Society programs were under the gun.

Johnson saw his greatest hopes for a positive long-term legacy in a series of promising nuclear weapons reforms he had undertaken with the Soviets. The previous summer, Johnson had hosted Russian premier Alexei Kosygin at Glassboro State College outside of Philadelphia. The first face-to-face between the two leaders, held at the height of the remarkably tense Six Day War in the Middle East, had been an unexpected success. The two powers followed up with several promising agreements, including the start of air travel between Moscow and New York and the bones of a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. And Johnson was just beginning—he hoped to have seismic arms limitation treaties in place by the time he left office. Clark Clifford, Johnson’s Secretary of Defense, wrote in his memoir, “Arms control held the same importance to Lyndon Johnson in international affairs as civil rights did in the domestic arena. A promising new dawn in the Cold War, not that dreadful war in Southeast Asia, would be his foreign policy legacy.”

Developments in Prague had complicated the rapprochement. Early in the year, a passionate reformer, Alexander Dubcek, gained control of the Central Committee of the Czech Communist Party, replacing longtime Stalinist leader Alexander Novotny. In April, Dubcek and his ally, the new president Ludvik Svoboda, unveiled an ambitious ten-year plan to begin trade with the U.S. and to limit the power of the secret police to arrest dissidents and censor art. The roll-back of censorship led immediately to an outpouring of self-expression in the streets of Prague and the release of a remarkable backlog of literature, film, and visual art. The Kremlin initially tried to negotiate with the turn toward free speech, but was clearly threatened. 

The U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Jacob Beam, was on high alert for rumblings of a Soviet invasion. Johnson had made clear the stakes, writing in his The Vantage Point, “If anything drastic happened in Czechoslovakia, I knew it would derail, at least for a time, any chance to start strategic weapons talks.” On the night of August 20th, however, the arrival of Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to the White House still came as a shock. Johnson was preparing for a public announcement the next day of further weapons talks with the Soviets, which would have meant his first trip to Moscow.

Dobrynin sat with Johnson and his National Security Advisor, Walt Rostow. Dobrynin said that the Czech government had asked the Soviets to invade—a clear falsehood—and that 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops were headed to Prague. Johnson announced the news to his cabinet shortly thereafter. Beyond speaking out against the invasion, there wasn’t much that Johnson could do. His vice president and the presumptive Democratic nominee, Hubert Humphrey, was deflated. As Clifford recalled, “His depression was almost physical…All he could say was that this would help Nixon, who was already twenty points ahead in the Gallup poll.” Only days later, Humphrey’s August would get even more sour with the infighting at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago… 

The frustration crossed the political aisle. Later that same night, Richard Nixon’s foreign policy aide (and future Reagan National Security Advisor) Richard V. Allen got news of the invasion. He woke the Republican presidential nominee, who allegedly grumbled “Those bastards.” At 11:30PM, Johnson himself called Nixon for a bizarre 20-minute ramble. The President railed against the hippies, who he in part blamed for the collapse of his administration: “What are these goddamn pink sympathizers going to say about these goddamn troops that are crossing the borders? Have they got a plank on that?” Johnson also pivoted to Southeast Asia, flattering Nixon by suggesting they had a similar view of the conflict.

In a 1999 Washington Times essay, Allen argued that Johnson’s chattiness with Nixon in the aftermath of the invasion was a desperate move to stem further foreign policy criticism. “I came to believe that Johnson had constructed an elaborate strategy for using Nixon to discipline Humphrey, keeping Humphrey in line on the issue that mattered most to the troubled president—Vietnam.” By threatening his heir apparent with his friendship with Nixon—and keeping Nixon from speaking out too strongly against Democratic policies—the beleaguered President perhaps believed he could avoid even more disappointment.   

Nixon beat Humphrey and the Soviets installed a hardliner in Prague who would rule until the collapse of the Soviet Union. And Nixon ultimately got credit for the softening of U.S.-Soviet relations that Johnson had so coveted. “It was a shattering moment, not only for Lyndon Johnson and his dreams, but for the nation and the world,” Clifford said of the invasion. “History was taking a turn in the wrong direction that day, and there was nothing that anyone could do about it.” Now, as Russia likely contemplates a similar quashing of dissent in Belarus, the vagaries of domestic U.S. politics—and the complicated foreign policy dreams of President Trump—again muddy the waters…

To hear more about the situation in Belarus, listen to this week’s episode of CAFE’s United Security with Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein. For more on Johnson’s crushed dreams of rapprochement with the Soviets, check out Mitchell Lerner’s excellent article, “‘Trying to Find the Guy Who Invited Them’: Lyndon Johnson, Bridge Building, and the End of the Prague Spring.”

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