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1968

 

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.

SOURCE: ATI.com

Further Reading

Wikipedia

The Guardian - Prague Spring before the Tanks In

The Atlantic - In Photos: When the Soviet Union Ended the Prague Spring

Washington Post - ‘It was lethal’: How the Prague Spring was Crushed by a Soviet-led Invasion

New Yorker - The Day the Soviets Arrived to Crush the Prague Spring

NPR - Prague 1968: Reforming A Soviet Communist Regime

 

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…”

SOURCE: Stripes.com

Further Reading

Wikipedia

Washington Post - The Tet Offensive: Memories Still Haunt Vietnam War Photographer Don McCullin

NPR - Recalling the Fear and Surprise of the Tet Offensive

Stars & Stripes  - My Lai: ‘A Stain on the Army'

 

 

Martin Luther King assassinated - wthe civil rights leader is murdered while standing on his hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee, sparking an outpouring of grief and even riots across America

In the last years of his life, King faced mounting criticism from young African-American activists who favored a more confrontational approach to seeking change. These young radicals stuck closer to the ideals of the black nationalist leader Malcolm X (himself assassinated in 1965), who had condemned King’s advocacy of nonviolence as “criminal” in the face of the continuing repression suffered by African Americans.

As a result of this opposition, King sought to widen his appeal beyond his own race, speaking out publicly against the Vietnam War and working to form a coalition of poor Americans—black and white alike—to address such issues as poverty and unemployment.

In the spring of 1968, while preparing for a planned march to Washington to lobby Congress on behalf of the poor, King and other SCLC members were called to Memphis, Tennessee, to support a sanitation workers’ strike. On the night of April 3, King gave a speech at the Mason Temple Church in Memphis.

In his speech, King seemed to foreshadow his own untimely passing, or at least to strike a particularly reflective note, ending with these now-historic words: “I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Just after 6 p.m. the following day, King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel, where he and his associates were staying, when a sniper’s bullet struck him in the neck. He was rushed to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later, at the age of 39.

Shock and distress over the news of King’s death sparked rioting in more than 100 cities around the country, including burning and looting. Amid a wave of national mourning, President Lyndon B. Johnson urged Americans to “reject the blind violence” that had killed King, whom he called the “apostle of nonviolence.”

 

He also called on Congress to speedily pass the civil rights legislation then entering the House of Representatives for debate, calling it a fitting legacy to King and his life’s work. On April 11, Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, a major piece of civil rights legislation.

Though blacks and whites alike mourned King’s passing, the killing in some ways served to widen the rift between black and white Americans, as many blacks saw King’s assassination as a rejection of their vigorous pursuit of equality through the nonviolent resistance he had championed. His murder, like the killing of Malcolm X in 1965, radicalized many moderate African-American activists, fueling the growth of the Black Power movement and the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

SOURCE: History.com

Further Reading

Wikipedia

Los Angeles Times - How MLK’s Death Affected a Nation

BuzzFeed - America After MLK's Assassination

The Atlantic - Remembering Martin Luther King Jr 

 

Black Power Salute at the Olympics - During their medal ceremony African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos each raised a black-gloved fist during the playing of the US national anthem

 

The Black Power salute photo, one of the most influential protest images of all time, was captured 50 years ago when U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos stepped onto the world stage during the Summer Olympics in Mexico City.

 

It was Oct. 16, 1968. Smith had just won gold and Carlos had taken bronze in a blazing 200-meter dash. Australian sprinter Peter Norman, who had won silver, stood to their right.

 

When "The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, Smith lowered his head and raised his right fist. Carlos raised his left.

The photograph would freeze that moment of silent protest. The picture would slingshot around the world, capturing all the angst and anger of 1968. The photo would become an iconic image of the Black Power movement.   Their message could not have been clearer: Before we salute America, America must treat blacks as equal. “

 

“It was a cry for freedom,” Smith later said. "We knew that what we were going to do was far greater than any athletic feat,” Carlos added. The protest had been something the athletes planned carefully. Everything captured in the photo held a special significance. Smith and Carlos had walked slowly to the stand as if in mourning, their hands clasped behind their backs — each holding a running shoe. They walked across the grass of the stadium in black stocking feet. They had taken off their shoes specifically to protest poverty in the United States.

To protest lynchings of black people, they wore a scarf and beads. “I looked at my feet in my high socks and thought about all the black poverty I’d seen from Harlem to East Texas,” Carlos said.  “I fingered my beads and thought about the pictures I’d seen of the ‘strange fruit’ swinging from the poplar trees of the South.”

They bowed respectfully as the Olympic official placed their medals around their necks. But when the anthem began to play, they lowered their heads to protest the hypocrisy of a country that proclaimed to uphold freedom and human rights around the world but neglected to protect the rights of black Americans. Carlos unzipped his Olympic jacket, in defiance of Olympic etiquette, but in support of “all the working-class people — black and white — in Harlem who had to struggle and work with their hands all day.”

Carlos had deliberately covered up the “USA” on his uniform with a black T-shirt to “reflect the shame I felt that my country was traveling at a snail’s pace toward something that should be obvious to all people of good will. Then the anthem started, and we raised our fists into the air.”

When Smith thrust his fist in the air, the crowd fell silent. Carlos and Smith recalled later that they knew by openly defying Olympic rules, there would be repercussions. "The stadium became eerily quiet,” Carlos wrote. “For a few seconds, you honestly could have heard a frog piss on cotton. There’s something awful about hearing fifty thousand people go silent, like being in the eye of a hurricane.”

As the national anthem played, the crowd began to boo them. Then some people in the crowd began to scream the national anthem. The punishment for defying Olympic rules was swift. Smith and Carlos were ordered to leave the Olympic stadium.

But the image of Smith and Carlos raising fists would become seared in history as an incendiary act of protest by athletes.

SOURCE: WashingtonPost.com

Further Reading

Wikipedia

Al Jazeera - The Smith-Carlos Black Power Salute: Once Vilified, Now Praised

History.com - How the Black Power Protest at the 1968 Olympics Killed Careers