Late on the night of the military invasion of a small Eastern European country, the U.S. president phoned a leading political rival to give him the news and suggest how he should comment. You might “say this concerns you, that it dismays you,” he said, but that “you’re not trying to second-guess” the president.
The response: “I won’t say a d--- word that’s going to embarrass you, you can be sure of that.”
The president was Lyndon B. Johnson, and Soviet Union tanks had just rolled into Czechoslovakia on Aug. 20, 1968. Johnson’s call was to Richard M. Nixon, the Republican nominee for president, on the eve of the Democratic convention in Chicago, where Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey was the leading candidate for the presidential nomination.
It was crisis politics in a different time. Nixon blasted the invasion as an “outrage” but made no personal criticism of LBJ, in contrast to former president Donald Trump’s comments about Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Speaking at a meeting of conservatives in Orlando on Saturday night, Trump charged that Russian President Vladimir Putin had played President Biden “like a drum” and called the attack “an outrage and an atrocity that should never have been allowed to occur.” Trump has come under fire for also praising Putin’s actions as “genius” and “smart.”
Unlike democratic Ukraine, Czechoslovakia was a communist satellite in 1968 when the country’s new Communist Party leader, Alexander Dubcek, began promoting “socialism with a human face” and democratic reforms. After the Prague Spring of rallies supporting more freedom, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev decided to crack down. On Aug. 20, more than 250,000 troops, led by the Soviet Union with three allies, attacked.
The invasion surprised Johnson, who had been negotiating with the Soviets on a nuclear arms treaty. At about 8 p.m. on Aug. 20, the Soviet ambassador delivered a letter to the president saying the attack was imminent. Johnson called an emergency meeting of his National Security Council at 10:15 p.m. Afterward, he phoned Nixon to keep him informed as a potential future president.
Nixon had already been alerted by his foreign policy adviser Richard V. Allen, who had been working late at campaign headquarters in New York City when he got word of the invasion. Allen immediately called Nixon at his Fifth Avenue apartment, where Nixon had gone to bed early after a campaign trip. “Around 9 o’clock I woke him up” with news about the Soviet invasion, Allen said in a 2002 oral history interview at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “He said, ‘The b-------. Get over here.’”
Allen rushed over to Nixon’s apartment for a meeting with the Republican nominee and other campaign officials to work on a response. At 11:22 p.m., Johnson phoned. “The voltage was suddenly increased to 1,000 volts from 240,” Allen said. “President Johnson asked him not to condemn too strongly the Johnson administration.”
The recorded conversation was later released as one of the secret Johnson White House tapes that the LBJ Presidential Library began making public in 1993. LBJ was already facing fierce criticism of his Vietnam War policies from liberals in his own party, while hard-liner Nixon was more supportive of the war effort. Johnson sought to help frame Nixon’s response to the Soviet invasion.
“I think, though, that it’s all right for you to say that this concerns you, that it dismays you, and you are always concerned with aggression,” Johnson told Nixon, referring to him as “Dick.” “And you don’t want anybody to get the idea that there are half a dozen presidents that are calling the signals here on foreign policy.”
Nixon agreed: “You have no objection. If I’m asked tomorrow … I say that I’m greatly dismayed about it, and the president has informed me … ” Johnson cut in, “I’d think it’d be quite proper.”
Nixon, who according to Allen was anxious not to allow Humphrey to appear “as a knight on a white horse,” expressed concern about his likely election opponent. “Let me ask you this: Can you keep — just talking very candidly — can you keep … your vice president and others to keep them firm on this thing?” he asked. Before hanging up, Nixon added, “And the main thing, Mr. President, don’t — I mean, just speaking of the country, don’t let your vice president get off on this.”
The call ended close to 11:40 p.m. “So we then revised the statement again, softened it, still bore the classic earmarks of a Nixon statement, and we put it out,” said Allen, who became a top foreign policy official in the Nixon and Reagan administrations.
The next day, Johnson issued a recorded statement at the White House condemning the invasion: “The tragic news from Czechoslovakia shocks the conscience of the world. … We are consulting urgently with others to consider what steps should be undertaken in the United Nations.”
Nixon released a statement the same day denouncing the invasion as “an outrage against the conscience of the world.” He added, “The voices of all who value freedom ought now to demand the removal of those troops.” Nixon aides noted that he had spoken to Johnson.
Meanwhile, Humphrey had gotten word of the invasion at the National Security Council meeting. “His depression was almost physical,” then-Defense Secretary Clark Clifford wrote in his memoir, “Counsel to the President.” “All he could say was that this would help Nixon, who was already twenty points ahead in the Gallup poll.”
Humphrey gained in the short term in the run-up to the Democratic convention, as antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy, a U.S. senator from Minnesota, initially downplayed the invasion. McCarthy criticized Johnson’s emergency security meeting as “out of proportion” for something that wasn’t a major world crisis on the order of, say, “an invasion of France.” Rowland Evans and Robert Novak criticized McCarthy’s “Lack of Compassion” in the headline of their nationally syndicated column.
As Chicago police bashed antiwar protesters’ heads in the streets during the Democratic convention the next week, Humphrey won the nomination. In his acceptance speech, he took a hard-line approach on the invasion, saying, “Last week we witnessed once again in Czechoslovakia the desperate attempt of tyranny to crush out the forces of liberalism by force and brutal power, to hold back change.”
The issue of Vietnam overshadowed Czechoslovakia in the campaign. Humphrey tried to win over voters by switching from support of the Vietnam War to calling for a cease-fire, but Nixon won. Johnson took no long-term actions against the Soviet invasion, which crushed the Czech uprising.
The Prague protests were an early crack in the Iron Curtain before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in late 1991 under Mikhail Gorbachev. In late 1989, Czechoslovakia ousted its Communist leaders after the Velvet Revolution of nationwide protests led by such dissidents as playwright Vaclav Havel. In January 1993, the country split into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, which elected Havel as its first president.
As a young resistor in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Havel had delivered radio addresses denouncing the Soviet invasion, before the radio station was shut down. In one speech, he declared, “Our cause must triumph … and in doing so, perhaps we will teach an important historical lesson to all those who, anywhere and at any time, might try to spit on the freedom of the others the way our occupiers are trying to spit on ours.”