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The guns of August 1968

THE TANKS AND PLANES crossed the Czechoslovak border late on the night of Aug. 20. It was a massive show of force -- half a million troops from the Soviet Union and four of its satellites: Hungary, East Germany, Bulgaria, and Poland. They met virtually no resistance and by dawn every major city in the country was under occupation. Radio Prague announced the invasion early on the morning of the 21st. Almost at once, thousands of residents -- determined to protect the nation's most important source of information and moral support -- began converging outside the radio headquarters on Vinohradska Street. At 7:25, the on-air announcers told their listeners that a column of tanks was approaching the building. Moments later, blasts of machine-gun fire drowned out their voices. "We hear a terrible noise" were the last words broadcast before the Czechoslovak national anthem was played and Radio Prague went off the air.

The crushing of the "Prague Spring" 35 years ago this month was one of the most heartbreaking events of the Cold War. The extraordinary developments that preceded it had given rise to the hope that communism could be made decent -- that even after decades of totalitarian ruthlessness, state socialism was capable of transforming itself into something more tolerant. But what the Czechs and Slovaks called "socialism with a human face," Moscow regarded as a plague bacillus, and was determined to wipe out before it spread.

Hope had first stirred in January 1968, when the Czechoslovak Communist Party deposed Antonin Novotny, the aging Stalinist who for 15 years had wielded virtual one-man rule, and replaced him with Alexander Dubcek. No one expected Dubcek to rock any boats, but before long he was calling for the "widest possible democratization" of Czechoslovakia and the creation of "a free, modern, and profoundly humane society." In April, the party adopted a platform criticizing the regime's past abuses, endorsing freedom of speech and the press, and opening the door to the gradual introduction of multiparty elections.

This was heady stuff. In the Eastern European country that had been the most slavishly obedient to Moscow, the deep freeze of repression was suddenly thawing. Criticism of the government was being tolerated. Journalists working for the state-controlled media were becoming more daring. An intoxicating heady whiff of freedom was in the air. On May Day -- May 1, 1968 -- Czechoslovaks poured into the streets to celebrate.

And the reforms kept coming. Censorship was lifted. Travel restrictions were abolished. The secret police were curbed. Cultural activity -- music clubs, avant-garde plays, raucous discussion groups -- blossomed. The "Prague Spring" was underway.

And then, almost literally overnight, it was dead.

Dubcek and the other party leaders were seized and put on a Soviet plane. "The prisoners were flown to Poland," journalist Patrick Brogan later wrote, "where they were incarcerated for 60 hours without being allowed to wash, shave, or change. Then they were flown to Moscow."

They expected to be killed, but were driven instead to the Kremlin and taken to a large room to wait. "Then [Leonid] Brezhnev marched in, followed by the Soviet politburo. . . . The prisoners were browbeaten into signing a `Moscow protocol' approving the invasion. They were then sent back to Prague, where in due course they all lost their jobs, and were replaced by quislings."

The Soviet justification for the invasion came to be known as the Brezhnev Doctrine. It declared that Moscow would not permit any communist country to voluntarily leave "the world socialist system." The United States vigorously protested, and LBJ demanded that the Soviets withdraw their troops. But the US reaction was limited to words, and the troops remained. The Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia would last another 23 years.

Thirty-five years on, it is clear that Moscow and its hard-line allies diagnosed the Prague Spring correctly. Dubcek's reforms were indeed a threat to their power. Unchecked, they would topple communist rule not only in Czechoslovakia, but across Eastern Europe. Brezhnev understood what Dubcek did not -- that "socialism with a human face" -- a government both democratic and communist -- was a contradiction in terms. If the Dubcek government had insisted on Communist Party supremacy, it would soon have lost its human face. And if its democratizing humaneness had continued, the communists would soon have been swept from office.

Which is just what happened two decades later, when another communist leader -- Mikhail Gorbachev -- pursued the same chimera. He called it "perestroika" and "glasnost," not "socialism with a human face," but the effect was no less transformative.

Each new taste of freedom and openness only intensified the hunger for more. This time, with no tanks to abort the experiment, Gorbachev learned what Dubcek never realized: Communism and freedom cannot coexist.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. Join Jacoby today for a live online chat at 10 a.m. on www.boston.com.

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