Thirty years ago, a massive Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia stunned the world and threatened the fragile détente between the West and the Soviet Union. In the West, and especially in the United States, most pundits, specialists, and policymakers had agreed that the Soviets would not dare risk the universal condemnation that would accompany such a drastic course. Most believed the Soviets would not put at risk the economic, trade, and other benefits that détente conferred.
European security policy, based on the “Ostpolitik” of then Chancellor Willi Brandt, was threatened by the Soviet move, as was the U.S.-Soviet relationship established at the Glassboro summit between President Lyndon Johnson and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin.
By early January 1968, liberalizing forces within Czechoslovakia had gathered sufficient political momentum to oust the old-style hard-liner Antonin Novotny, in place since the early 1950s, as first secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party. His replacement, Alexander Dubcek, promised radical reforms and “socialism with a human face.”
Instantly, Dubcek became the intense object of Western attention and support, inciting rage in the Kremlin and among its key allies in Eastern Europe, especially communist leaders Walter Ulbricht in East Germany and Wladyslaw Gomulka in Poland. Soviet troops had been stationed in those countries since the end of World War II, but Czechoslovak leaders had successfully resisted Soviet marshal van Yakubovskii’s demand to insert Soviet troops there.
The election of Dubcek set in motion a series of bilateral and multilateral conferences of Communist Party and government leaders throughout the spring and summer—in Dresden, Moscow, Warsaw, Vienna, Tisou, and Bratislava. The meetings produced intense criticism of Dubcek and his colleagues, fanned rumors that the CIA was deeply involved, and culminated in demands by Ulbricht and Gomulka, among others, for the immediate suppression, by armed force if necessary, of the “counterrevolution” in Czechoslovakia. Several pro-Soviet Slovak leaders sent a shrill message to Leonid Brezhnev claiming that “the very existence of socialism in our country is in danger.”
These events were unfolding as the 1968 presidential campaign began to take shape. Then on Richard Nixon’s campaign staff as his foreign policy coordinator, I held the contrary opinion that the Soviets would invade Czechoslovakia regardless of the “costs,” which amounted to very little when compared with the dangers posed to communist rule by a possible contagion of liberalism in the Soviet bloc.
On July 18, I wrote in a memo to Nixon: “It looks like the Soviets and Czechs are on a collision course, with impact days away. The Soviets cannot afford to lose Czechoslovakia, and already their options are narrowed—they have too much on the line now.” Two days later, I prepared another memorandum, a rough draft of a statement Nixon could make if an invasion took place, and on July 28 sent yet another memo, advising that if Moscow moved against Prague, there would be a major upheaval in the Communist Parties outside the communist bloc: “What little unity is left will crumble—the western parties will be shaken and perhaps eliminated entirely from the political picture.” This was especially true of the French and Italian Communist Parties, both major domestic political forces and both firmly supporting the liberalizing moves of Dubcek. The memo suggested that, “either way, the Soviets are damned and détente with the West becomes unrealistic. It looks as though U.S.-USSR relations will be going into a deep freeze.”
Working at campaign headquarters late in the evening of August 20, at 11 p.m. I received a call that the Soviet invasion was under way. I immediately called to awaken Nixon at his Fifth Avenue apartment (the 1968 Republican campaign was run from New York City); he had just returned from a four-state campaign swing. Groggy and gruff, he asked why I had called at that late hour; when I gave him the news, he exclaimed, “Those bastards.” I gave him the details.
I came to believe that Johnson had constructed an elaborate strategy for using Nixon to discipline Humphrey.
Minutes later, Rose Mary Woods, Nixon’s personal secretary, called and asked me to go immediately to Nixon’s apartment to join aides Pat Buchanan, Ray Price, and Robert Ellsworth. Collecting my earlier memos and the draft statement, I was the first to arrive. For an hour and a half we discussed the situation; Nixon talked with Pennsylvania governor Bill Scranton and decided to hold on a call to New York governor Nelson Rockefeller, saying he wanted to check on “how tough certain people are on the crisis.” He asked whether we ought to seek a briefing from Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin, and Buchanan and I counseled against such a move.
At that point, Lyndon Johnson called Nixon, keeping him on the phone for nearly twenty minutes. President Johnson personalized the situation, relating it to Vietnam, saying that he had two sons-in-law in Vietnam and “was not about to make any great concessions on Vietnam” or anything else. Oddly, Johnson dwelt on a recent standing ovation he had received at a major speech to the VFW, which mystified Nixon; the issue of the moment was Czechoslovakia, not Vietnam. Johnson asked Nixon to “be careful” in what he said, expressing “dismay,” and then complimented Nixon on “the stand you took in Miami,” referring to the Vietnam plank agreed on at the Republican National Convention.
Analyzing Johnson’s motives for the call, it appeared to me that Johnson was desperately trying to keep Nixon from launching an all-out attack against the administration’s feeble response to the invasion. Humphrey’s position was also a consideration; Nixon was particularly anxious not to allow Humphrey to appear “as a knight on a white horse” by moving to a hard-line position.
We believed—correctly—that the Soviets preferred the election of Humphrey over Nixon; Humphrey desperately needed to move “left” of Johnson on Vietnam but could not find a way to escape Johnson’s iron grasp on that issue.
In the end, Mr. Nixon issued a statement of “mild outrage” and, taking a cue from the Johnson initiative, decided to capitalize on the tension between Humphrey and Johnson over Vietnam.
This was not the only Nixon-Johnson secret contact during that campaign season, and 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. In the final days of the campaign, Johnson pulled all the stops to elect Humphrey, but the Paris peace talks came too late to prevent a narrow Nixon victory.
I never found out if Vice President Humphrey knew of the back-channel contacts between Johnson and Nixon. In the year before his death, I asked Nixon if he thought Humphrey ever learned of them, and he responded: “Politics puts people in strange positions.”
I remain convinced today that these backdoor contacts played an important role in shaping the outcome of the 1968 contest.