On this day in 1968, countless thousands of Czechs in Prague and New York City turn out in protest of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia the previous night. In New York, protesters swarmed the UN demanding condemnation; in and around Prague, the scene was far deadlier, with over 70 Czechs and Slovaks killed and over 700 wounded.
The Warsaw Pact incursion was the final Soviet response to the Prague Spring, a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the USSR after World War 2. It began in January 1968, when reformist Alexander Dubček was elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ). Pursuing “socialism with a human face,” Dubček sought to grant additional rights to the citizens of Czechoslovakia in an act of partial decentralization of the economy and democratization. The freedoms granted included a loosening of restrictions on the media, speech and travel.
The reforms, especially the decentralization of administrative authority, were not well received by the Soviets, who, after failed negotiations, sent half a million Warsaw Pact troops and tanks to occupy the country. The New York Times cited reports of 650,000 men equipped with the most modern and sophisticated weapons in the Soviet arsenal, and a large wave of emigration swept the nation.
Spirited non-violent resistance was mounted throughout the country, involving attempted fraternization, painting over and turning street signs (on one occasion an entire invasion force from Poland was routed back out of the country after a day’s wandering), defiance of various curfews, and other disobedience. While the Soviet military had predicted it would take four days to subdue the country, the resistance held out for eight months and was only ameliorated by diplomatic stratagems. Back in New York on August 22, the USSR vetoed a Security Council condemnation of their invasion.
There followed sporadic acts of violence and several suicides by self-immolation, such as that of Jan Palach, but there was no military resistance. Czechoslovakia remained Soviet-controlled until 1989, when the Velvet Revolution ended pro-Soviet rule peacefully. Artistically, the Prague Spring inspired music and literature such as the work of Václav Havel, Karel Husa, Karel Kryl and Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.