I did not fully appreciate the panic of hardliners among the leaders of the Soviet Bloc concerning the Prague Spring. It was clear that the Czechoslovak reform movement posed a severe threat to the Soviet-type orthodoxy of some of the Soviet Bloc regimes. Nevertheless, along with many other observers, I thought it obvious that the reform program launched from within the Communist Party was the only way to keep a deeply-flawed regime afloat. What we now know about the endemic flaws of Soviet-type regimes makes even more obvious that the reforms of the Prague Spring were unavoidable. Yet when a similar reform program emerged in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, it actually did contribute to the collapse of the Soviet state. To be sure, there was no danger of instability, regime collapse, or Czechoslovakia’s leaving the Warsaw Pact. Yet, the panic of some Soviet Bloc leaders was not based on mere illusion. The ideas of the Prague Spring were contagious for one simple reason. They made sense, not only for Czechoslovakia, but for the entire Soviet Bloc including the Soviet Union. The political system established by Stalin had reached a dead end in Czechoslovakia by 1968. Unconstrained, the ideas of the Prague Spring would have caught on and spread.
The Soviet leadership faced a dilemma. On the one hand, it is not sufficiently appreciated how deeply the Soviets understood how necessary were the kinds of the reforms underway in Czechoslovakia. Similar reforms were in progress throughout the Soviet Bloc, including the Soviet Union itself, albeits more slowly. The Prague Spring was no threat to the regime in Hungary, where such reforms were well advanced. They did not even pose a serious threat to the Soviet regime, where the population remained passive and control was tighter. In Poland and the GDR, however, the Communist regimes were near the end of the rope. For them the Czechoslovak reform movement was dangerously contagious.