What If... Prague Spring had led to World War III?
, 1956. In the wake of the 1956 revolution János Kádár uses a lighter hand than he did in our time line. He doesn't execute the reformers, but instead expels them from the party and gives them long prison terms. The Soviets, distracted by rising tensions along the border with China accept this compromise. Kádár is forced by popular pressure to continue reforms and in 1959 announces that Hungary is no longer an active member of the Warsaw Pact (similar to what France did with NATO in 1966.) In Romania, Nicolae Ceaușescu takes power as scheduled. What a lot of people don't know about him is that for the first decade of his rule he was a reformer, pushing for more openness and market freedom, and withdrawing Romania from active participation in the Warsaw Pact in 1967.
Alexander Dubček takes power in Czechoslovakia on 5 January 1968 and begins his reforms. The Soviets, afraid of losing yet another buffer state, make it clear that no deviance from the Party line (as defined by Brezhnev) would be tolerated. Ceaușescu and dissident elements of the Hungarian government assure Dubček that he will have military support should it come to that. Quiet back-channel communication is made with NATO through Austria.
On 22 July, 1968 the government of János Kádár is purged in what is remember as "The Bloody Session" of the Hungarian Socialist Workers' Party Congress. Reformers, led by the recently freed Imre Nagy seize power. Nagy, 72 years old and frail from years of abuse in prison, electrifies the Party Congress with a thunderous speech condemning the Soviet Union's domination of Eastern Europe. The scene replayed around the world was Nagy shouting "Socialism? Yes! But socialism of our own choosing, of our own free will, and socialism with the support and consent of the people, not imposed by a power no better than the Nazis!"
Brezhnev was not amused.
10 August, 1968. Hungary, Romania, and Czechoslovakia withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and sign a mutual defense treaty, creating the Central European Alliance. Two days later the Soviet Union and the remaining Warsaw Pact members invade. They soon find that the CEA was more than ready for them. Arms had been distributed, villages fortified, bridges wired for demolition, and nationalistic fever ran high. The attacks bogged down, with massive partisan activity raising havoc on supply lines and command groups. In the midst of this, the United States announced it would begin flying humanitarian supplies to Prague and Budapest, even offering Soviet officers the opportunity to inspect the cargoes. On 21 August, two USAF C-141 Starlifters were shot down by an East German missile battery. In response, West German F-4 Wild Weasels destroyed the missile site. The next day the CEA formally declared war on the USSR and the Warsaw Pact nations, and appealed to NATO and the UN for assistance. Fearing that he was losing the initiative, Brezhnev order the invasion of Western Europe.
World War III had started.
The big question of course is who goes nuclear first? I'll leave this to the commenters.
But a sideshow that could prove really interesting is Vietnam. Remember, we didn't invade the North or blockade Hai Phong because we didn't want to escalate a potential conflict with the Soviets. Well, now we're at war with them. Since we had 536,000 troops in Vietnam in 1968, I can easily see General Abrams being told "the gloves are off, begin unrestricted warfare against North Vietnam. End this." You could also see Kim Il-Sung (who in 1968 was as close to the Soviets as he ever was) using the "distraction" of a general war in Europe to launch a Second War of Unification against the South.
The wild card here is the dedication of the non-Russian WP forces. We know now that morale and training was pretty awful in these forces. In an actual war, how many Polish and East German battalions would just dissolve? Mutiny would be a real threat, especially in East German formations ordered to attack West German formations. The US Army would have a distinct advantage in that many of its officers and NCOs would have recent combat experience in Vietnam, and be better equipped to lead their troops through the first vital days of the war.
The home front is going to be interesting. In March, President Johnson announced he would not seek re-election. This was as much about his failing health as his low popularity. '68 was also the height of the anti-war movement. How would America react to sudden war with the Soviet Union? How many hippies would suddenly turn up at recruiting stations, or at least admit that this time we were attacked? What happens in the 1968 Presidential election? Nixon was campaigning on a platform of ending US involvement in Vietnam.
Interesting alternate, I think. Comments?