When Alexander Dubček became Czechoslovakia’s leader, in January 1968, many reformers in his country were hopeful that he would loosen the stifling social and economic constraints enforced in the Eastern Bloc. Ignoring pressure from Moscow, Dubček did indeed implement a program he termed “Socialism with a human face,” which led to greater freedom of expression and association among Czech citizens. After eight months of what became known as the “Prague Spring,” the Soviet Union had had enough of this satellite country questioning the Kremlin’s authority, and on August 21, Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into the city.
In the August 29, 1968, issue of the Voice, the editors published a letter under the heading “Czechmate,” which read in full, “This is not just a tragic moment of Czechoslovakia and its people, but also for the United States. The Soviet Union has just ‘elected’ Nixon President of this country.”
The letter’s author was implying that this display of brutality by the Soviets would strengthen the hand of Richard Nixon, an old-line anti-Communist and fear-mongering demagogue, who had recently been nominated as the Republican Party’s candidate. A Jules Feiffer cartoon at the bottom of the page revealed another dilemma for American citizens: Like the Soviets, the United States was also embroiled in a foreign conflict, one that many saw as even more savage and aggressive — the war in Vietnam.
The following week the Voice published an eyewitness account of the Soviet invasion. It was from David McReynolds, who often wrote for the Voice’s “Press of Freedom” department, which welcomed opinionated manuscripts on any subject. The 38-year-old activist had been in Europe for two conferences addressing war resistance and international disarmament. Afterward, he went to Prague for a four-day vacation.
Then the tanks rolled in.
In his report to Voice readers, he says up front, “It is because I know that every ‘Cold Warrior’ welcomes the events in Prague that I must note simply that bad as the invasion was it does not compare to the United States actions in Vietnam where a million or more have died. Prague and Saigon are linked symbols of the contempt great powers have for the right of smaller nations to self-determination.” Later he notes, “Tanks are ugly things. They were filled with young Russians, men who had been told they were going on maneuvers and found out they were invaders of a socialist country. They were frightened.” One assumes McReynolds got this information from Czechs who talked to the Russians. (In fact, he reports that, rather than throw rocks, Czech crowds surrounded the Russian vehicles, “arguing, pleading, explaining.” He adds, “I learned that on Wednesday night all the bars had closed to prevent anyone from getting drunk and charging at tanks.”)
He treks to a drugstore to get film for his camera and photographs an invading tank; that picture joins another on the Voice’s front page of an armored vehicle on the streets of Chicago at the Democratic National Convention. (That story will appear here tomorrow.) McReynolds observes a young man using his bicycle to block traffic as a protest. Horns honk to instigate a general strike. “At that moment, with the kid in the street and the horns blaring, a Soviet troop carrier came shooting down the street. The kid held his ground, perhaps paralyzed with fear or courage, but it would have made no difference to the troop carrier, which wasn’t even slowing down.” The boy is pulled from harm, but McReynolds’ sensitive account reminds today’s readers of another frustrated citizen facing down the fearsome power of the state, when that forever-unknown protester stopped a column of Chinese tanks in Tiananmen Square, in 1989.
McReynolds died last Friday, exactly half-a-century to the day after arriving in Prague for his fateful “vacation.” As the New York Times noted in his obituary, this lifelong progressive ticked off many boxes on the side of the angels: “Mr. McReynolds was best known for his demonstrations against the draft during the Vietnam War, his advocacy of pacifism and denuclearization, and his two bids for president in 1980 and 2000 as an openly gay man running on the Socialist Party USA ticket.” Add to all that, “Village Voice correspondent.”