Back to the Future: The United Auto Workers Take On the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
If you didn’t live in the automotive mecca of Detroit during the 1950s and ‘60s, then you might not have heard of the legendary director of the United Automobile Workers, that champion of progressive labor, Walter P. Reuther. The U.S. Department of Labor included Reuther in their gilded Hall of Honor, describing him as a “fiery visionary” and an “unceasing fighter for civil rights.” High laud, indeed. But assuming you are familiar with the UAW’s rich history and the name of its illustrious president who vaulted the organization to international power and renown, you may still wonder two things: 1) what sort of connection Reuther could possibly have had with Czechoslovakia, much less with the Soviet Union, and 2) why he would send an impassioned statement concerning the Soviet incursion into Czechoslovakia directly to President Lyndon B. Johnson on August 23, 1968. Well, in the spirit of horseless carriages, let’s hop into a gently-used DMC DeLorean and find out — if history is not even past, then heading Back to the Future seems fitting after all.
Prague. August 20, 1968. A perfect place to begin though it’s hardly the beginning. We’re 15 years out from Josef Stalin’s death, 12 years older since Khrushchev’s Stalin-denouncing “Secret Speech,” six years (and many decades aged) from the Cuban Missile Crisis, and five years past President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. The Cold War still governs life, but America is engaged in Vietnam, and LBJ really doesn’t have time to deal with the Soviet bear. Mere months ago, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia experienced dramatic administrative change spurred by economic decline, ousting one leader in favor of Alexander Dubcek, who introduced reforms and terminated government censorship — Leonid Brezhnev has been calculating a response to this dangerous capitulation of communist order. The USSR premier decides to implement his plans, understanding that though the United States will certainly scold if the Soviet takes military intervention in the affairs of Czechoslovakia, she will apply no armed retaliation to back her sharp, democracy-wagging tongue.
Thus, to halt the spread of anti-Communist sentiment in a country that poses great influence on the Eastern Bloc, which could lead to a wave of destabilizing uprising and revolution (simultaneously Russia’s Achilles Heel and abiding strength), Brezhnev rolls out an aggressive but well-planned act by amassing troops along the border of Czechoslovakia under the guise of military exercises. From within our relatively safe vehicle, we watch as Soviet mechanized forces aided by limited troops of the Warsaw Pact — including Hungary, Poland, East Germany, and Bulgaria — seize control of the Czechoslovak capital of Prague and other major cities. In the iconic words of Doc Brown: “Great Scott!”
Now, leaving Prague in its state of military confusion, we head to the United States, to the office of the president of the United Automobile Workers, and peek in on our hero. Ah, there he is. Mr. Walter P. Reuther. Seated at his desk, fuming, wrestling with his demons and his sheer rage over the Stalin-gratifying actions of the Brezhnev administration. Reuther rails to no one in particular, his normally well-aligned power tie askew to a troubling angle. The question he wishes to address is what the United States, what the world at large, is going to do about this crushing of liberty, of the fundamental rights of Czechoslovak workers. He tries his best to get folks on his side, making many calls to his political friends and colleagues. By this time, August 1968, Reuther has lived far more than the average American. He might not have time-traveled, but he has certainly globe-trotted. He writes from a place of worldly perspective, having spent part of his life in the Soviet Union during the 1930s — arguably one of the worst decades in 20th century Russian history — where he worked in an automobile factory for two years. There, he developed well-tempered rage over the injustice of Stalinist labor practices (fortunate thing, then, that he’d never been to the Gulag camps just emerging in that period).
Two days after the Czechoslovak invasion, as the State Department receives a flood of telegrams from around the world, from embassies expressing their (expected) outrage, Reuther decides to put forth his own boundless feelings into a crafted statement. He writes with an intensely-bowed head and brows corrugated at that definitive “I’m about important things and important things take work” angle. Finding plenty of fuel for his pen, Reuther writes in the heat of passion on behalf of the Czechoslovak workers and in support of Dubcek’s reforms and liberalization.
“Painfully-won progress toward improved East-West relations and toward world disarmament is grievously jeopardized by this immoral Soviet action.” He ardently urges the United Nations Security Council to “invite Premier Dubcek and his associates … to answer false Soviet claims” that the intervention was at the request of “responsible” Czechoslovak leaders. Furthermore, he calls upon the Soviet government to “release Premier Dubcek,” upon the U.S. government to take diplomatic action, and upon all trade unions throughout the world to rally in support of Czechoslovak workers.
As we return home and let the DeLorean steam out after a hard trip through time, we reflect on the completed statement which did make it to the White House and around the world. It’s unclear if this articulate epistle impressed upon President Johnson as much as it should have, but the letter has certainly survived decades and come to represent a small piece of Reuther’s social justice legacy. Sadly, Czechoslovakia remained in the Warsaw Pact. Although the internal struggle was very real and admirable, the U.S. and her allies undoubtedly disappointed Reuther with their inaction. Even more tragic, Reuther and his wife died in a plane crash less than two years later in May 1970. However, his remarkable legacy remains firmly imprinted in the UAW, proof that his life and passion were not in vain — and that his efforts to advocate for the plight of workers worldwide endure.
Letter from Walter Reuther to LBJ, 8/23/68 (Source: LBJ Presidential Archives, Austin, Texas)
To read more about Mr. Reuther, see Walter Reuther: The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit (University of Illinois Press, 1997) by Nelson Lichtenstein.