(More from my research for A Rebel Comes of Age)
1968: The Year that Rocked the World
by Mark Kurlansky (Vintage 2005)
1968 was a year for citizen uprisings around the world. Kurlansky comprehensively reviews 19 of them.* Student activists and workers on both sides of the Iron Curtain learned from and copied one another and supported each other’s liberation struggles.
The most eye-opening section discusses the importance of violence in attracting media attention. No one understand the importance of the media in movement building better than Mohandas Gandhi, who went to great lengths to obtain Indian, British, and American coverage of every protest he organized. He also spoke and wrote about the value of British violence in enticing the media to cover the Quit India movement.
According to Kurlansky, Martin Luther King also understood the role of police violence in drawing national media attention – which would be essential in pressuring Attorney General Bobby Kennedy to enforce federal civil rights laws. Kurlansky talks about a police chief in Albany, Georgia who thwarted King’s organizing efforts by studying his nonviolent tactics and countering them with nonviolent law enforcement. Because there was no police violence in Albany, it received no national media attention. .
After Albany, King and other civil rights leaders deliberately targeted towns with hothead police chiefs and angry, volatile mayors. In a 1965 incident, a King protester named Annie Lee Cooper punched the sheriff. and then dared him to hit her. The photo of Sheriff Clark clubbing a defenseless woman made the front page of every mainstream newspaper.
The 1968 Democratic Convention
At August 1968 Democratic Convention, yet again it was police violence by Mayor Daley’s goons that drew national media attention to what was essentially a harmless prank by Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Phil Ochs and other Yippies (Youth International Party). Featured events at the Yippies’ Festival of Light included snaking dancing, poetry, mantras, the Yippie Olympics, a Miss Yippie Contest and Pin the Rubber on the Pope.
The police riot magically transformed the Yippies non-violent prank into front page news. Ironically, however, they had to share the limelight with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. Violent Soviet repression of Dubcek’s freedom movement also made the front page..
It’s quite common for the ruling elite and corporate media to attribute the collapse of the Soviet Union to the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, which ultimately bankrupted their economy. Obama’s mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski still talks about ingeniously “luring” them into an unwinnable war by training and arming the Mujahideen freedom fighters.
Kurlansky believes the 1968 Soviet’s invasion of Czechoslovakia marks the beginning of the end of the Soviet empire. The student/intellectual protest movement that brought Alexander Dubcek to power in January 1968 became less public but didn’t disappear in the government crackdown that followed the August invasion .It also served to strengthen reform movements in other Soviet Bloc countries – especially Romania and Poland – where government leaders were under pressure to condemn the invasion. In Kurlansky’s view the appearance of Soviet tanks on Czech streets killed the dream of eastern block reformers that socialism could be made more democratic.
His description of the background and personality of Alexander Dubceck, the father of “Prague Spring” is especially illuminating. Dubcek was no wild-eyed radical seeking to overthrow communism. In every respect he was the ultimate communist bureaucrat: blindly loyal, dutiful, and deeply pro-Soviet. Dubcek and his subordinates, who considered the Soviets their friends and protectors, never dreamed they would invade.
In this respect, Czechoslovakia was unique among eastern bloc countries in voting in a communist government at the end of World War II (rather than having it forced on them).
Parallels Between Dubcek and Nixon
Dubcek, who was far more moderate than the students and intellectuals in the street, was actually somewhat dismayed at his sudden rise to power in January 1968. The student protest and Slovak nationalist movement had erupted simultaneously in late 1967, and Dubcek’s predecessor had been unable to quell the civil unrest.
Unlike many Communist Party officials, Dubcek who was deeply principled, viewed violent suppression of the protests as unthinkable. Aside from his refusal to invoke military force against the students, his situation parallels that of Richard Nixon’s in some ways. Nixon was also forced to enact a number of progressive initiatives (e.g. the Clean Air Act, and legislation creating of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Social Security Supplemental Income for the disabled) in response to a large and militant protest movement.
Dubcek had no real platform until April 1968, when he issued an Action Program with three planks: 1) commitment to Czechoslovakia’s socialist political/economic system, 2) ending secret police repression of personal and political beliefs, and 3) ending the monopoly of power by the Communist Party.
The immediate result was liberalization of foreign travel, increased access to foreign periodicals, and media exposes about Czech and Soviet corruption and Stalin’s notorious purges. Freedom of artistic expression also increased, as Czech students and everywhere wore blue jeans and long hair, listened to rock and jazz, displayed psychedelic posters and even held an international film festival.
Soviets Forced to Keep Dubcek in Power
Brezhnev, one of Stalin’s henchmen in several purges, put extreme pressure on Dubcek to crack down on these “excesses.” However even as Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia Dubcek, who was profoundly antiwar, explicitly ordered a robust, well-trained and armed Czech military not to fire on them. As in Tienanmen Square in China, the only opposition to the tanks was tens of thousands of unarmed civilians.
Kurlansky writes at length about an unsung hero named General Ludvik Svoboda, who the Soviets attempted to install in a puppet government after imprisoning Dubcek and three members of his cabinet. Though forced to agree to Soviet demands to gradually reinstate censorship and foreign travel restrictions, Ludvik released Dubcek and allowed him to remain in power until April 1969.
*Countries experiencing mass uprisings in 1968:
- West Germany
- East Germany
In A Rebel Comes of Age, seventeen-year-old Angela Jones and four other homeless teenagers occupy a vacant commercial building owned by Bank of America. The adventure turns deadly serious when the bank obtains a court order evicting them. Ange faces the most serious crisis of her life when the other residents decide to use firearms against the police SWAT team.
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