NATO braced for European war with Soviets after 1968 invasion

Newly-declassified documents released by Britain's Public Record Office on Thursday contained some fascinating revelations. According to a letter dated March 19, 1969, Britain and the United States were seriously discussing plans for a military conflict with the Soviet Union, in the wake of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia. And as Rob Cameron reports, London and Washington believed the NATO alliance could have collapsed if Soviet influence had been allowed to extend further into Europe. His report begins with a Czechoslovak Radio announcement from August 21st, 1968, and the grave news that Warsaw Pact troops had crossed Czechoslovakia's borders.

U.S. Representative Hale Boggs, breaking the news to stunned colleagues in the House of Representatives just hours after Warsaw Pact troops began the occupation of Czechoslovakia. The 1968 invasion, sent to crush the Prague Spring reforms under Alexander Dubcek, sent shockwaves around the world. But what many didn't know was that Washington and London were seriously worried that the NATO alliance itself, formed in 1949 to link the U.S. to Western Europe, was in jeopardy.

According to the letter, the State Department had grave concerns for neighbouring Austria following the invasion. If Moscow chose to move further, and NATO did nothing about it, Germany, reasoned London and Washington, could withdraw from the Alliance. This, they believed, would be the end of NATO. The letter makes no bones about the necessary response should Warsaw Pact tanks roll on into Austria.

"Common to nearly all the alternatives is the assumption that the United States would respond to a Soviet invasion by moving troops into Austria, with or without Austrian consent, and with or without allies... If the West did not retaliate there would be a serious reaction in Germany. If, as seems possible, the Germans withdrew from NATO, this would result in the break up of the Alliance."

Washington and London were also worried about Italy, should Moscow decide to extend further into Yugoslavia and Albania. That threat never materialised. The Warsaw Pact, possibly after seeing a leaked copy of the letter declassified on Thursday, chose to stay put in Czechoslovakia.