In recent months, both Russia and China have been making threatening military moves directed against the countries of Ukraine and Taiwan. Many in the West argue the United States must be prepared to offer military assistance to both – and possibly fight for Taiwan – as anything less would be tantamount to a 1938 “Munich” appeasement. The far more applicable historical analogy, however, would be 1956 Hungary and 1968 Czechoslovakia – when Washington wisely opted against military intervention, successfully preserving American national security and ultimately, peace in Europe.
It is no exaggeration, however, to suggest that both Moscow and Beijing have been stepping up military action and rhetoric directed against the erstwhile thorn-in-the-side of each nation: Ukraine, for Russia, and Taiwan, for China.
Since October, China has sent a record number of military planes patrolling the skies around Taiwan and President Xi has issued increasingly dire warnings of “red lines” to Taipei and Washington that could portend a Chinese attack. Likewise, Russia has not explained why it has suddenly built up nearly 100,000 armored and mechanized troops near its border with Ukraine while President Putin issues “redline” warnings of his own.
Many in Washington’s foreign policy establishment argue that the United States has an obligation to defend Taiwan from China and argue for the threat of U.S. military intervention on Ukraine’s behalf against Russia. Anything less will be appeasement to both China and Russia, many argue.
Implicit in such arguments is the belief that, like Hitler did after Europe handed him Czechoslovakia in 1938 via the Munich Agreement, Xi and Putin will move to conquer other lands if the West doesn’t go to war with each should they attack Ukraine or Taiwan. Its an easy, emotional argument for Americans to understand, as there is broad understanding about how 1938 Munich fueled Hitler’s thirst for territorial conquest beyond 1938. Yet the better historical analogy to use – and the ones far more applicable given the conditions at play today – is America’s experience with 1956 Hungary and 1968 Czechoslovakia.
In the early years of the Cold War, relations between the United States and the Soviet Union were bad and getting progressively worse. In 1948 the USSR began its blockade of West Berlin, ratcheting up military tensions. The next year Moscow crossed the threshold to becoming a nuclear power, sparking fears of nuclear Armageddon throughout the U.S. and West. There was also the genuine concern that the Soviets were successfully spreading communist ideology, even into some parts of the West. Fear of the communist government in Moscow, therefore, was widespread and real in the U.S.
At the same time, the client states of the USSR began to realize the promises that communism would bring about a “workers paradise” were empty while the loss of freedoms were real. One of the first Soviet satellite countries that sought to reclaim some of their freedoms was Hungary. In October 1956, thousands of Hungarian students protested against Moscow and demanded the removal of Soviet troops from its soil, economic reforms, and free elections.
U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower – America’s most decorated and accomplished general during World War II – applauded the student’s desires for freedom and encouraged them to continue resisting. After 12 days of massive protests in which thousands of Hungarian soldiers stood down to allow the protests – some even giving their weapons to the revolutionaries – Soviet tanks rolled in on November 4, 1956 to utterly crush the uprising and occupy the capital of Budapest, killing thousands. Eisenhower came under enormous pressure to militarily respond to the attack.
Eisenhower was deeply moved by the suffering of the Hungarians and wanted to help them free themselves from Soviet domination. But looking at the situation realistically, Eisenhower later admitted in his memoirs that unless “the major nations of Europe would, without delay, ally themselves spontaneously with us (an unimaginable prospect), we could do nothing,” he wrote. “Sending United States troops alone into Hungary through hostile or neutral territory would have involved us in general war.”
Eisenhower knew that would have meant nuclear war with Russia which could have resulted in entire American cities disappearing beneath mushroom clouds. However much his heart was with Hungarians seeking freedom, a cold, sober recognition of geographic and military realities required him to refuse to use American military power in their support.
The Red Army’s crushing response to suppress Hungarian protesters in 1956 had a chilling effect on the rest of Russia’s satellite states, and for a time none dared reprise Budapest’s uprising. But the quest for freedom can’t be suppressed forever, and about a decade later, the people in another Soviet republic, this time Czechoslovakia, became so disillusioned with the communist system that they risked Moscow’s ire by attempting to inject freedom into their system.
In January 1968, Alexander Dubcek became the leader of Czechoslovakia. One of the first tasks he undertook once in office was to reform their political and economic system into something called “Socialism with a Human Face,” which sought to subtly introduce democratic elements into the governing system – without using the word democracy, which they knew would upset the Kremlin. Dubcek began increasing freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and increased trade with the United States, which spawned a movement called the “Prague Spring.”
U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson had been working with Moscow for months trying to forge a nuclear arms reduction treaty and was sharply focused on improving relations with Russia to lower the risk to America of a nuclear war. While Johnson did support the advancement of economic opportunity for the U.S. with Czechoslovakia, he paid little attention to the growing unrest in Prague and the growing concern in Moscow.
Russia began massing troops near the Czech border, but Dubcek did not believe the Warsaw Pact troops would actually invade. But, on August 20, 1968, the Kremlin had reached its limit, and – fearing any move towards freedom of a Soviet satellite country could cause other client states to withdraw from the USSR – invaded with an army of 200,000 troops and 5,000 tanks, crushing the reform movement.
Dubcek was removed from office the following year. In response to the invasion, Johnson said that the United States was, “consulting urgently with others to consider what steps should be undertaken in the United Nations.” Beyond insisting “upon the Charter rights of Czechoslovakia and its people,” however, Johnson did not consider using military means to redress Prague’s suppression by Moscow. The president’s primary focus remained focused on safeguarding American national security objectives.
Lessons that Washington Should Apply to the Current Situations with Ukraine and Taiwan
There are a number of lessons today’s leaders in Washington be prepared to apply in the event either Russia or China moves against Ukraine or Taiwan. There will be the temptation to “show strength” and use or threaten the use of military power against the offending nation. Doing so, however, would almost certainly harm American interests, potentially catastrophically so. There are, fortunately, meaningful actions the U.S. can take, even in the event of Russian or Chinese aggression, that contains the damage and can ultimately strengthen American national security.
It is instructive to examine what happened with both Hungary and Czechoslovakia in the medium and long term following their invasions. Within a few years, both nations returned to a sort of status quo ante. That was not the preferred outcome of many in each country, but it did return to a degree of normalcy for the population. By the early 1990s, however, both states were free of their great power overlords and became fully independent states.
Had the United States or our Western allies gone to war against the USSR to fight for the independence of one or both states, the destruction and bloodshed to the domestic populations of both states would have been profoundly higher – and its possible that after entering a fight against the Soviet Union, we may have lost the war, failing to wrest either country free. Worse, there was a distinct possibility that the conflagration could have escalated into a nuclear exchange, causing catastrophic destruction, even potentially against U.S. cities.
The situation with Ukraine and Taiwan today pose remarkably similar challenges for both the United States and the countries themselves. Both nations are currently threatened by a neighboring major power. Both Taiwan and Ukraine appeal to the United States for support. Both Beijing and Moscow feel threatened by the continued independence of Taiwan and Ukraine, fearing they may ally with the West against them. Both major powers have expressly declared or previously proven they are willing to use force to guarantee their security – and most crucially: both Russia and China have nuclear weapons that could be used against the United States if things spiraled out of control.
There is another similarity at play today that supports America’s decision to avoid any military conflicts over either Taiwan or Ukraine. In both 1956 and 1968, the USSR achieved its stated aim of guaranteeing its security and took no further action. Many feared the Russians would try to seize other lands. But for reasons described below, Moscow’s aspirations to win more territory wasn’t the deciding factor.
What mattered is that they were constrained from doing so by the existing balance of power. Trying to grab more land beyond those two actions included a high probability of failure, which prevented the Kremlin from making any additional moves. Those same constraints would today preclude Beijing and Moscow from making any further attempts to seize territory beyond either Taiwan or Ukraine.
It is likely that even if Moscow moved against Ukraine, it would only be the Russian-friendly provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. But even if Putin successfully took all of Ukraine, he would then find himself facing the frontiers of four, Article 5 wielding NATO members (Romania, Slovakia, Hungary, and Poland), backed by the nuclear arsenals of France, the UK, and the U.S. Putin may be power-hungry, but he is not irrational and there is virtually no chance he would attempt to move one inch beyond Ukraine, knowing that he would be risking the very existence if he did.
In a similar manner, China has been overtly seeking to unify with Taiwan since 1949 and has never been shy about declaring they might use force to seize it. They have made no such threats against any other sovereign territory. But as with Russia, the United States doesn’t need to take Beijing’s word for anything: geography and military realities make any attempts at territorial conquest by China to be essentially impossible.
It has taken the better part of four decades for China to be on the cusp of being able to successfully cross the 100 miles of water in the Straits to attack Taiwan, a country that has a mutual defense treaty with no other land. Meanwhile, the PLA would have to cross between 350 and 2,500 miles of open ocean to make a move against any of America’s territories or treaty allies of South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, and Guam. The U.S. nuclear umbrella is securely covering them all.
Beijing and Moscow would today both face the same calculations the USSR did with Czechoslovakia and Hungary: go one inch beyond Taiwan or Ukraine and they risk of running into a strong military alliance of nations and the destruction of their conventional forces – and in a worst-case scenario – losing cities in a nuclear exchange. Both Russia and China want to preserve their border security; neither wants to risk losing it all.
Basing Policies on Cold, Hard Reality Washington’s Best Hope to Assure American National Security
Without question, democratic lands the world over want to see both Taiwan and Ukraine remain free and secure, and would strongly oppose either being oppressed by force. But the United States must also make hard decisions based on a cold, tough, realistic assessment of ground-truth reality. Emotions can’t dominate our foreign policy choices, especially when the security, freedom, and economic prosperity of our own people hang in the balance.
The wisest choice Washington could make would be to refuse to be drawn into a no-win fight with either Russia or China. Today, Moscow and Beijing possess regional military advantages over the U.S. and our allies that would likely prove decisive in a fight over Ukraine and Taiwan. Once either Russia or China takes its target, however, their military advantages evaporate overnight and they would then be at a marked disadvantage to the United States and our allies.
Both the Russian and Chinese armed forces would suffer battle losses in any fight to take neighboring territory. But were Russia and China to one day succeed in taking Taiwan and Ukraine, They would then face not just the weak military capacity of a single non-allied country, but a major, nuclear-armed alliance of the most modern and rich countries on earth (NATO in Europe, and our alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia in the Indo-Pacific).
In short, if the U.S. chooses not to engage in a fight it couldn’t win – as Eisenhower and Johnson did in 1956 and 1968 – we would again be positioned as the dominant power, effectively deterring both Russia and China from any further aggression. If, on the other hand, we foolishly choose to engage in a war with China or Russia, we will almost certainly suffer egregious losses and our standing in the world would likely be severely diminished.
A cold, unemotional, and rational assessment by Washington of the factors at play in a potential Russia/Ukraine or China/Taiwan attack scenario would confirm that the best course of action would be to avoid war and strengthen our alliances. Any decisions to fight an unnecessary fight could seriously jeopardize our standing in the world – or result in a catastrophic nuclear strike on American soil.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1