Thirty-five years ago, on Aug. 20, 1968, Anton Tazky -- a secretary of the Slovak Party Central Committee and a personal friend of Czechoslovakian Communist Party chief Alexander Dubcek -- was driving back to Bratislava from an outlying district. He noticed odd, bright lights in the distance, and as he drove closer, he realized he had been seeing the headlights of tanks and military trucks with soldiers in foreign uniforms at the wheels. A movie shoot, Tazky decided. He went to bed as his country was being invaded, courtesy of Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet Union.
It was the midpoint of a year unparalleled for wars, uprisings, revolutions and upheavals. And yet, with hindsight, it's clear that no single event of that eventful year had a greater effect -- or holds a stronger message for us today -- than the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union's last leader, recently said the 1968 invasion "had an effect on all domestic and foreign policy and the entire development of Soviet society, which entered a stage of profound stagnation."
It took only a day of world outrage for Brezhnev to realize he had made a terrible blunder, and he tried to backtrack. What he couldn't know was that it was the first crack in the post-World War II geopolitical structure; the Cold War, which was at the root of so much unrest in 1968, had begun to disintegrate.
Dubcek had come to power in Prague the first week of 1968 in a shakeup that ousted the most repressive government in the Soviet bloc. "We couldn't change the people," Dubcek said wryly, "so we changed the leaders."
Suddenly, Czechoslovakians were free to travel, their press was free to report on what it wanted in the way it wanted and their labor unions and agricultural associations were free to criticize government policy. What they had in mind was the creation of a Communist democracy, Marx's ideal made real. It came to be called the Prague Spring.
By summer, activists and hippies from Amsterdam to Berkeley packed the city to test Dubcek's experiment. It was difficult to find a hotel vacancy or even a table at one of Prague's few restaurants.
On Aug. 12, a New York Times reporter wrote: "For those under 30, Prague seems the right place to be this summer." But at 11 p.m. Central European time on Aug. 20, the earth rumbled and 4,600 tanks and 165,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers crossed the Czech border at 20 locations, rolling west from the Soviet Union, east from East Germany, south from Poland and north from Hungary into the undefended nation. Militarily, it was magnificent, except that no army fought back. It was the largest airlift ever carried out by the Soviet military outside its borders. In seven hours, 250 aircraft delivered an entire airborne division, including small armored vehicles, fuel and supplies.
Party chief Brezhnev and Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin had planned the invasion for more than a month, but they decided Czechoslovakia's fate just days before the invasion was launched. They believed that the Czechoslovakian Presidium, once its members saw the tanks coming, would oust Dubcek and his team and bring the country back into line. The official East German newspaper, Neues Deutschland, ran ahead of the news on the night of the invasion with a story about an uprising and a new revolutionary government that had asked for Soviet military support. But no new government was formed and there was no one asking for Soviet intervention.
When word of the invasion reached Dubcek, he was meeting with the Presidium. "I had no suspicion, not even the slightest hint that such a step could be taken against us," he said softly. Tears slid down his cheeks, recalled one Czech official who was there. "I have devoted my entire life to cooperation with the Soviet Union and they have done this to me. It is my personal tragedy."
Dubcek, whose father had been jailed in the U.S. as a World War I pacifist, ordered that there be no armed resistance. Still, young Czechoslovakians threw burning rags at the tanks, blocked them with their bodies and pleaded with confused Russian soldiers to lay down their arms and join the Czech experiment.
By the end of the first day, 23 Czechoslovakian civilians were dead, including one shot by Soviets while Dubcek watched from a window. The sight of unarmed students facing Soviet tanks had been filmed by Czech television, smuggled out and broadcast worldwide.
The invasion was widely condemned. There were even protests, quickly suppressed, in Moscow's Red Square. Of the 88 Communist parties in the world, only 10, including the five Warsaw Pact invaders, voiced approval. Brezhnev, who had thrown Dubcek and the rest of the Czech government into prison, quickly brought the officials to Moscow for negotiations.
When the Soviet Union finally came apart more than 20 years later, Western observers were shocked. They had already forgotten 1968. But at the time of the invasion even Time magazine predicted its fall: It was the end of heroic Russia. A country widely admired because it had dared to stand alone and build a socialist society, because it protected other socialist countries, because its citizens had been sacrificed by the millions to rid Europe of fascism had become, simply, a bully that crushed small countries.
A superpower that no longer stands for anything, that no one believes in anymore, that is seen only as a bully, will fall despite its military might. If the Bush administration ever wanted to reflect on history, it might think about this.
Mark Kurlansky's latest book, "1968: The Year that Rocked the World," will be published by Ballantine Books in January 2004.