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October 18, 1968 - Image 5

Resource type:
The Michigan Daily, 1968-10-18

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Czechoslovakia 1968 was producing hopes
and yearning far beyond its borders when it
was crushed this August by Russian imperial-
ism. As the one satellite country where west-
ern art had fairly extensive contact with a
communist people, Czechoslovakia was rapidly
turning into a focus of friendly international
To Western Europe in the wake of the Paris
riots, Czechoslovakia held out a hope that
socialism could work without repression in an
industrialized society. To Eastern Europe it
gave rise to long suppressed hopes that a meas-
ure of freedom was, in fact possible under
Russian rule. And' in Czechoslovakia people
responded, worked and played as if born anew.
The Communist party under Alexander
Dubcek was running with the people. Dubcek's
attempts to give the Czechs a measure of per-
sonal freedom and to lessen Russian economic
domination produced a new hope and solidar-
ity in the country but gave rise to grave fears
for the sovereignty of Czechoslovakia.
Headlines in the western press in early
May made a Russian takeover sound probable.
My trip along the East German-Czechoslovak-
ian border made it look imminient. Russian
jets-patrolled the border all day, breaking the
sound barrier over Dresden (47 kilometers
from the border) every 15 minutes. The woods
in the hills of Saxony were full of bivuaced
Russian soldiers and the roads were packed
with troop carriers. The local population
travelled through the area only reluctantly.
The Russians were feared.
East Germans I spoke with were incredul-
ous that the Russians hadn't moved into
Prague by the middle of July. The opening of
Czechoslovakia to the West would poke a
serious hole in the Warsaw Pact military
and psychological protection {plans, opening
breaches to East Germany, Poland, Russia,
and Hungary. Moreover Walter Ulbricht,
Comnunist Party boss of East Germany re-
garded in the Communist world as more Rus-
sian than the Russians, was making ominous
noises in the direction of the Czechs. East
Germans who had vacations planned in Czech-
oslqvakia for mid-August openly doubted that
the border would be open.

ie s Sprin
And the Czechs? They were the only people
who remained unconcerned through the sum-
mer. No Czech thought the Russians would
come to take their country. As one Czech who
drove a Russian's copy of a jeep and seemed
to specialize in picking up hltcnhikers put it
a month before the invasion, "The Russians
are too smart to invade us. We are too united."
The Czechs proved not only united but effi-
cient at psychological warfare-but to little
Before the invasion, Czechoslovakia drew
thousands of tourists from east and west.
Prague teamed with French, Dutch, Swedes,
Italians, Poles, East and West Germans (it
was a favorite meeting place of long-separated
families), Hungarians, Romanians, and Yugo-
slays. People met in the taverns and parks of
Prague on an equal level a phenomona ex-
perienced nowhere else in the Warsaw Pact
countries. Czechoslovakia had actually re-
placed Hungary (famed for its beautiful and
accommodating women) as the favorite tourist
spot for Communists.
It would be foolish to think that either the
reforms or the influx of tourists made any
difference. Czechoslovakia had mammoth
social problems. What little industrial progress
had been made since World War II had been
absorbed by the Russians
The industrial valleys of the northwest, a
result of wartime German industrial expan-
sion, wear the grime and hate of long years of
toil. On cobblestone streets lined with partly
old houses, trams lose their electric guide wires
every few minutes. People wear old clothes,
the women are old, the men sullen and Slavic.
The children, however, are enthusiastic, and
play and dance and sing, calling to those who
pass to exchange sullen overworked glares for
smiles. Some sort of spiritual fire still glows.
The roads are packed: an army of motor-
cycles, small Czech Skodas packed with fami-
lies and vacation gear, long ugly Tatras re-
served for diplomats. Hitchhiking isn't fast,
but the cherry trees by the roadside are ripe
with fruit by early July, and nobody complains
if a few are eaten.
Prague is even older than the countryside.
By a fluke of history, war had not damaged it


until the summer. Buildings in Prague date to
the early 15th century. The streets are narrow
and the buildings crowd darkly up to the
walks. In Prague the wealth of the Bohemian
kings built great palaces and halls. The Char-
les Bridge, lined with statues dominates the
river Ulatava and connects the old section
of Prague with the "new"-built before the
United States existed.
A beautiful Old European city Prague has,
until recently, refrained from the expansion
and modernization characteristic of so many
Central European cities. But now the main
shopping district is in chaos; the streets have
been torn up, and pedestrians routed through
alleys to accommodate a new subway system.
The Czechs had started their first under-
ground transport network long before the Rus-
sians announced that one of the benefits of
"normalization" could be a new subway
The atmosphere on the Prague streets is
different than in the rest of the satellite coun-
tries. The Peoples' Police, who in many Com-
munist capitals outnumber the pedestrians,
are missing in Prague. Unlike Budapest, Ber-
lin, and Dresden, Prague is filled with a bustl-
ing populace engaging in all kinds of busi-
ness. The hurried pace seems more like the
West than the East.
The U Flecku, Europe's oldest beer hall, is
packed with tourists, soldiers, and native
Czechs. Trays of dark beer pass down the long
wooden tables as Czechs explain the wall
writings to Westerners, Communist tourists
apologize to their hosts for any seeming un-
friendliness on their nation's part, and soldiers
sing the traditional ballads to the accompain-
ment of a brass band.
After hearing a French Canadian describe
the Paris uprising, one, East German student
from Leipzig said wistfully: "That will not
happen in Germany for a long time. Ulbricht
is too strong. But when he dies . . ." Mean-
while a Czech was explaining the different
positions of the presidential candidates: Cisare
and Svoboda.
A new openness characterized the whole
country-not just Prague. An old farmer near
Teplice admitted that "things aren't as good

as they were in the Republic, but then this
Dubcek is tloing a lot and has to contend with
the Russians." Czechoslovakia was turning to-
ward the West in its spare time.
The artistic climate of Prague reflected
this trend. Movies from all over the West could
be seen in Prague's theatres (four shows a
day). Movies had long been a national obses-
sion in Czechoslovakia and the government
has been gradually relaxing restrictions.
Rock music also made an invasion. The
Olympia Club in Prague was known through-
out the satellite countries as one place where
really good Western dance music could be
heard. In East Germany the state regulates
the dress, number of electrical instruments,
and songs of a band. (Normally only one-third
of a group's songs could be pop music from
the West.) In Russia Bill Haley and "Rock
Around the Clock" has just gained popularity.
But Prague has had unregulated, long-haired
groups for some time.
Long-haired kids play Beatles songs and
display sidewalk paintings in Prague's Powder
Tower Square. Mod dress and flower power
have made their advent and appear to be
accepted by all. Unlike their socialist counter-
parts the long-haired Czech kids report en-
countering no difficulties in the job or at
school because of their style.
Bohemia, the name of the area before
Czechoslovakia was created at the Versailles


Sfirst word a Michigan family receives
that a son has died in the Vietnam War is
delivered at its front door by a military officer,
usually a uniformed sargeant. Practical jokers
who phone false death notifications have
forced the armed services to deliver their
messages in person.
Mrs. Ronald S-, 22, was washing Sunday
morning breakfast dishes in her parents' home
in Warren, a growing lunchbox suburb of
Detroit, when an Army master sargeant ap-
peared in her open front door.
"He's dead," Mrs. S- sobbed. The master
sergeant only nodded.
Mrs. S- had been married eleven months.
Only two weeks had she spent with her late
The master sergeant, like all Marine, Army
or Navy officers who deliver death messages,
carried a telegram explaining the fatal cir-
cumstances. Sometimes the only information
is "killed in action," because many who die
in Vietnam are infantrymen who fall in chao-
tic combat.
A, letter from the dead soldier's command-
ing officer usually comes later. Unless the
commanding officer is killed in the same
SOMETIMES death is communicated in a
series of laconic wires. One family whose


only son eventually died of "wounds" received
five telegrams. In the first, the son was
injured, but "not seriously." A day and another
wire later, the wounds were "extremely ser-
ious." In three more cables his condition
worsened. He died in a Saigon hospital, a
computer programmer as a soldier, a demoli-
tions expert as a soldier.
The last telegram any of the services sends
is the longest. It lists benefits the government
provides for the family of a dead soldier. One
benefit is shipment by jet of the body to
America at the recently accelerated rate of
one week. Another benefit is $500 for burial.
Early each morning before businessmen
reach their desks, wire service teleprinters
peck out the list of the dead:
"The United States Department of Defense
has announced these men have been killed in
action in Vietnam . "
At hundreds of newsdesks in America, city
editors circle in their heavy black copy pencils
the names of hometown dead. Reporters are
assigned short pieces on the soldiers. They
cannot do such stories by telephone; that
would be too callous. Instead them must call
the bereaved and arrange to interview them
at home.
Although reporters expect grieving parents
would be unwilling to see them during morn-
ing, most parents are quite willing to talk to

Letter Bli
reporters. Many parents explain they don't
know their sons' friends, and they hope news-
papers accounts will inform friends of the
F OR A reporter to go to the home removes
luridness of his task and in addition
the family can give the reporter a picture
which can be reproduced and mailed back.
So I would drive to the home, park the car,
and walk slowly to the door, using my steno
book as reporter's identification. Ofter the
father was in the entranceway, staring
through me.
So it was when I went to the home of Mr.
and Mrs. Johnson in Royal Oak, Mich., cover-
ing the death of their son, John Jr.
As usual, father was at the doorstep. I
shook his hand and touched the damp palm
of-his wife. Who motioned me to a large chair
in a corner of the living room. Her husband's
chair. The one he occupied to read his news-
paper and watch the television .. .
The house was small and neat. Like all
houses on the block and like most in the
neighborhood, it was built after World War II
and would sell for $15,000. The living room
chairs were arranged for conversation, with
the television intruding. A dining room with
a large wooden table aj oined.
"Did you son want to go," I asked. "Was
he married?"
"HIS LETTERS home spoke of the necessity
of the U.S. effort in Asia. 'Remember that
freedom is a right not a privilege, and it is a
right not always come by easily.'
He wrote his father he thought peace talks
were for the people back home. The father, a
World War II veteran who did not get over-
seas, disliked the Vietnam war.
"With all the infantrymen we have over
there, we haven't won," he said. "It's not like
World War II. We can't clean out the enemy
with man-power.
"We're in a box in Vietnam," he observed,
"and we can't get out."
Opinions on the War between son and fam-
ily are often sharply divided and understand-
ably contradictory. Letters home supported the
war. Some, however said nothing at all about
Asia. One dead soldier's two-page letter talked
exclusively about the weather and hopes that
everyone was well. Families were not informed
-,.> 4 ^ wro . .D ~h nit-

daughters discussed their deceased {son and
brother, Jerry, quietly and at length.
A sargeant and a platoon leader, Jones died
under mortar fire during his second 13-month
tour of duty. Five friends with whom he went
through basic training in 1963 died during the
first tour.
AFTER GATHERING the necessary informa-
tion, I asked a question that had been
pulling on my developing conscience for some
Did they resent that I, a year younger than,
the dead son was a civilian and safe from the
war? "No" Mrs. Jones said. "Why would we?"'
'God gives and God takes away. It was his
choice," Mrs. Jones said.
God chooses more men in poorer cities. The
prosperous city of Troy, that gets the popula-
tion overflow from rich Bloomfield Hills, low-
ered the city flag to half mast until one Troy
man's funeral. The man was the second from
Troy's 36,000 to die in the war.
Flags do not fly at half mast in Warren,
where the average family income is about half
that of a Troy family. 'If we did, the flag would
be down almost all the time," a city official
Late in the summer, my suburban daily
collected the obituary figures and published
the tallies from local communities on the edi-
torial page. The short story chided citizens not
to look on the figures as "some kind of con-
The blue collar suburb of Hazel Park lead
with 12 deaths since 1966.
The dead men were not college students.
For the most part they were enlistees who had
seen little chance of missing the draft call.
Many left high school early and went to work.
Or they entered the service "To get it over
Their jobs were the necessary tasks that
college students step over searching for hap-
piness and fame.
They were clerks, tile setters, factory
workers, and part-time students.
THE DRAFT BOARD asks if a young man is a
full-time student so a son of the lower mid-
dle class attending Macomb Community Col-
lege at night furthers his education doing jun-
gle training in Panama or in the Philippines.
He goes to Asia for graduate studies.


conference, had a long history of domination
by Germany and Austria-Hungary. Throughout
these long years of subservience the court did
not suffer. The riches and splendor of Prague's
public buildings attests to that. But there was
no national leader to embody the desire of
the people for complete Czechoslovakian in-
dependence, the way King Vaclav, now called
Saint Wenceslas, and later King Wenceslas I,
have for centuries.
Saint Wenceslas who ruled in the tenth
century was the first great proselytizer of
Christianity and introduced the first element
of continuing Bohemian solidarity. King Wen-
ceslas I, a 13th century monarch, successfully
consolidated the country against the incur-
sions of nearby empires.
The two men hold a place in the hearts
of Czechoslocakians as rules who held to the
glory of Behemian independence. Not until
Edvard Benes, president for part of the first
and all of the third republic, did' a leader
arise who gained the respect of the country.
He was forced to resign first by the Nazi's in
1938 and then the Communists ten years later,
but his devotion to the idea of an independent
Czechoslovakian republic has placed him on
the same level as the ancient Kings.
The Czechs remember the pride and per-
sonal freedoms attendent on the republic and
felt Dubcek was working in a strongly estab-
lished Czech tradition of independence, from
foreign powers. In Czech eyes he was rapidly
approaching the status of Benes and Masaryk,
the last non-communist government minister,
who "committeed suicide" during the Com-
munist takeover in 1948.
Tht Czechs didn't need to be rallied to
the cause the morning of the invasion. Anti-
Russian feeling had been building for years.
During the summer when Poles, East Ger-
mans and Hungarians were warmly received
in Prague, despite their governments' denun-
ciations of Czech reforms, the Russians were
given the cold shoulder. Prague's cabarets
rocked with laughed and music to the na-
tional songs of socialism until la Russian would
start to sing. Then all was quiet.
Street signs, very often the barometer of
social change, told the story east of the iron
curtain: "USSR go home!" and "End Soviet
imperialism". What the U.S. represents to
nationalist in Latin American and Asia Russia
is to Eastern Europe.
The signs post-dating the invasion tell a
deeper story reaching back to World War II
and beyond.
The conduct of the Rusian peasant during
war has never been overly civilized, and during
'World War II the Russian soldier made an in-
delible impression upon the conquered satel-
lites. Killing people for wrist watches and rap-
ings are the two most noted antics. Thus the
sign put up the morning of the invasion in
Bratislava "Hide your wife and watch: the,
Russians are coming." Other favorite taunts
included hints at infidelity of girl friends at
home and the blunt question: "What are you
doing in my country?"
It is the liberalization process that probably
gave the Czechs the courage to be so open
in their contempt. Revulsion with the Soviet
occupiers is standard in Eastern Europe but
nowhere is it practiced by so much of the
Though things are beginning to settle down
in Prague and return to the "normalcy" that
the Rusians so desire, things Went too far this
summer. The Czechs have tasted the best of
both worlds both culturally and politically.
They have found that it is possible to work
toward equitable solutions of long standing
problems under socialism,.
The lesson was not lost on Eastern Europe
where, though the spectre of Russian power
still looms uppermost, it is the conviction that
freedom from Soviet domination can be won.
Nor is it lost on Western Europe which learned
that socialism need not mean repression. The
Czechoslovakian reforms helped the radicals

gain a new respect in their home countries.
Repression is in order for this part of
Czechoslovakia's historical cycle but as one
Czech intellect put it: "Their guns and tanks
have silenced us now until they cannot stop
the march of history. After the night, the
dawn will come again."

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