Prague Spring - a period of political liberalization and mass protest in Czechoslovakia prompts Soviet troops to occupy the country, who were met with widespread civilian resistance and defiance
Under Soviet rule, Czechs struggled to reconcile their personal identity with a strict Community regime, and the heavy hand of Communism had also strangled their economy. In the midst of an economic downturn in 1965, Czechoslovakia's Soviet-backed General Secretary, Antonín Novotný, sought to restructure the country's economy using a more liberal model. This inspired a country-wide call to reform other policies as well.
Under Novotný, a new generation of Czechoslovakians arose who opposed the Soviet system. They found a leader in Alexander Dubček, a rising star in the Communist Party and a member of both central committees on the country's Czech and Slovak federations. Dubček began to rally support from fellow reformists against Novotný until the latter finally resigned in January 1968 with Dubček quickly named in his place. After he took office, Dubček launched a reform program called "Czechoslovakia’s Road to Socialism" in an attempt to not only slowly democratize Czechoslovakian politics but to also revitalize the country's stagnant economy.
The press now enjoyed more freedoms as did civilians while state controls were relaxed and individual rights expanded. Dubček described his platform as "socialism with a human face" as the Prague Spring swept across the country. While Dubček was careful to reassure Czechoslovakia's loyalty to the Soviet bloc, the rapidity and depth of the reforms were too much Moscow to tolerate.
In July 1968, after a meeting between the Soviet Union and other satellite states, a letter was sent to Czechoslovakia that warned against the country's continued reforms. Dubček refused to bend. "We will keep following the direction that we started pursuing in January of this year," Dubček responded in a televised address.
The Soviet Union responded by launching a military invasion into the country on Aug. 28, 1968, with tanks reaching the streets of Prague the same night. More than 2,000 tanks and between 250,000 to 600,000 troops from the U.S.S.R., Hungary, Bulgaria, East Germany, and Poland invaded Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring.
Soon, the streets of Prague, which had enjoyed at least seven months of liberalization under Dubček's reforms were riddled with unrest. Dubček urged civilians to cooperate with Warsaw Pact forces in a broadcast over Prague's public radio.
But the people of Prague did not heed his warning. Unarmed protesters threw their bodies into the paths of the tanks anyway in an attempt to blockade the streets from the Soviet invasion. A 1990 declassified report of the Prague Spring revealed that 82 people were killed during the occupation while 300 others were seriously injured. Many of the Prague Spring victims were shot, according to the report.
Dubček remained defiant that the Prague Spring would survive Soviet oppression and declared, "They may crush the flowers, but they cannot stop the Spring." However, Dubček and other party leaders deemed complicit in the reforms were forcibly sent to Moscow. After being interrogated by Soviet Union government heads, Dubček was released and allowed to return to Czechoslovakia. Upon his return to Prague, Dubček gave an emotional address to the public. He could not continue his speech without breaking into tears and then he went silent. Just as the Soviet curtain had broken his country's spirit, so too had Dubček been broken.
By April 1969, following the immolation of Jan Palach and increasing civil unrest, Dubček was ousted as head of the Communist Party. He was replaced by Moscow-backed Gustav Husak, whose reign was to be far more strict. Under Husak, Czechoslovakia underwent a "normalization" period during which mass purges of supporters of the Prague Spring were implemented and traveling was restricted.
Tet Offensive - the deadliest year of the war saw bitter fighting and many casualties on both sides, especially during North Vietnam's audacious Tet Offensive, which saw especially brutal street fighting in Saigon and Hue
For years the American brass had dreamed of finding a way to draw Viet Cong guerrillas and the North Vietnamese regulars into big head-on fights, where overwhelming U.S. firepower could decimate their ranks and force the Communists into peace talks on U.S. terms.
The generals got what they wanted in late January 1968. As Vietnamese north and south began to celebrate their lunar New Year, or Tet, tens of thousands of Viet Cong guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars launched their biggest offensive of the war, striking military and civilian targets — the capital Saigon, 36 provincial capitals, 64 district headquarters — from the Mekong Delta in the south to the Demilitarized Zone in the north.
The Tet Offensive transformed the Vietnam War – and America itself. By nearly every military metric, Tet and a series of “mini-Tets” that followed were huge defeats for the Communists. They failed to hold any of their major objectives. They failed to trigger a popular uprising against U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government.
Their underground network of civilian cadres and Viet Cong irregulars was nearly destroyed, weakening Communist control in many southern areas and forcing the North Vietnamese to assume a greater burden in the fighting. Nevertheless, Tet proved to be a decisive strategic victory for the Communists, paving the way for their final victory seven years later. Tet ripped away the façade of optimism carefully crafted by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration and destroyed Americans’ confidence in their government.
It destroyed Johnson’s presidency, opening the door for his successor, President Richard Nixon, who himself resigned years later in the Watergate scandal. Tet forced the U.S. political establishment to confront basic questions it had avoided throughout the country’s long descent into war – how long will it take to win in Vietnam, how much will it cost and is victory worth the price? Over time the answer became “no.”
During the Tet holiday, on 31 January, the Communists launched a massive attack striking Saigon, nearby Cholon, American bases at Phi Bai and Chu Lai in the north, the old imperial capital of Hue as well as other major towns and bases in the central and south of the country. More assaults followed the next day. In all about 84,000 Communists – southern Viet Cong guerrillas and well-equipped North Vietnamese regulars – joined the fight. Within hours, the whole country was aflame.
In Saigon, attackers seized the national broadcast center, where they intended to air a tape of North Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh calling for a popular uprising. But South Vietnamese workers cut the cable from the studio to the broadcast tower. Communist attackers held out for six hours until they ran out of ammunition, then blew up the station and themselves.
At the U.S. Embassy, a 19-member team blasted a hole in the compound wall and raced inside the four-acre grounds. Marine guards kept them out of the main building, but attackers held out on the grounds for hours until American reinforcements arrived.
All the attackers were killed or captured and five Americans died before the grounds were secured – but not before photos and video of the embassy fighting were transmitted to a stunned American public unprepared for scenes of chaos.
Elsewhere, small teams of guerrillas roamed the city looking for South Vietnamese military officers, police, government employees and their families – many of whom were shot on the spot.
On Feb. 1, the chief of the South Vietnamese National Police captured one of the team – a Viet Cong officer – in civilian clothes and shot him in front of an American news photographer and cameraman. Their graphic images captured the VC officer’s grimacing face at the very moment of death.
Years later, the photographer, Eddie Adams of The Associated Press, said he sympathized with the killing because the VC officer was part of an assassination squad. But the stunning photo, which won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography, elicited a different reaction in the United States, where it came to be known as “the picture that lost the war” because of its negative effect on American public opinion.
Some of the fiercest fighting raged in the densely packed, ramshackle Chinese suburb of Cholon, where the Communists established a command center at a racetrack. House-to-house fighting was so intense that the area was declared a free-fire zone until South Vietnamese Rangers defeated the last Communist holdouts March 7.
As U.S. and South Vietnamese forces contained the fighting in the Saigon area, the spotlight shifted to Hue, the former royal capital that had been under attack since Day 2 of the offensive.
Communist forces had overrun most of the city, defended by South Vietnamese troops, before MACV in Saigon grasped the severity of the situation. U.S. Marines from the 1st Marine Division and South Vietnamese soldiers were dispatched into the city while the U.S. 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division sealed off routes used by the Communists to reinforce and resupply their forces there.
Inside Hue, Marines fought house-to-house in the bloodiest urban combat faced by the Americans since the Battle of Seoul in the Korean War. The city was not recaptured until Feb. 25. Troops found mass graves of up to 2,800 South Vietnamese civilians – men, women and children – who had been massacred by the Communists.
With the recapture of Hue, the worst of the Tet Offensive was over, although serious fighting raged over much of the country through the spring and summer. In the north, the U.S. broke the siege of the Marines at Khe Sanh when three brigades of the 1st Cavalry Division reached the outpost April 8.
In the United States, however, the effects of Tet were roiling the American political establishment and the population at large. The American public, told for years that the war was on track, were unprepared for the intense media coverage, including TV scenes of Americans slaughtered in a distant, poorly understood war. The Wall Street Journal warned in a Feb. 23 editorial that “we think the American people should be getting ready to accept, if they haven’t already, the prospect the whole Vietnam effort may be doomed…”