1990: Mr Havel goes to Washington

Václav Havel, photo: Radan Boček, Post Bellum

Thirty years ago on this day, February 21, then Czechoslovak president Václav Havel addressed a specially convened joint session of the United States Congress. Only a few months earlier, Havel was in prison. Paradoxically, he devoted much of his historic speech that day appealing to Washington to help – not Czechoslovakia but the Soviet Union. Doing so, he said, was the best hope to ensure newfound freedoms.

Václav Havel,  photo: Radan Boček,  Post Bellum

“Dear Mr. Speaker, dear Mr President, dear senators and members of the House, ladies and gentlemen: My advisers advised me to speak on this important occasion in Czech. I don't know why. [laughter] Perhaps they wanted you to enjoy the sweet sounds of my mother tongue…”

Václav Havel was the very first leader from the former Eastern Bloc to be welcomed to the White House and invited to address the U.S. Congress. He began his hour-long speech, interpreted by his press spokesman Michael Žantovský, by acknowledging his own extraordinary path to the presidency:

“When they last arrested me on October 27, I was living in a country ruled by the most conservative Communist government in Europe, and our society slumbered beneath the pall of a totalitarian system.

Václava Havel in the United States Congress,  photo: Czech Television
“Today, less than four months later, I’m speaking to you as the representative of a country that has set out of the road to democracy, that has complete freedom of speech, which is preparing for free elections, and want to establish a prosperous market economy and its own foreign policy.”

“It is all very extraordinary. ...”

The day before, Havel had met with President Bush, who in the White House rose garden publicly promised to immediately grant Czechoslovakia the freest access to the US market allowed by law.

But Havel had not asked for financial support. And in his speech to Congress – interrupted five times by standing ovations and dozens more times by rapturous applause – Havel, ever the philosopher, spoke not on behalf of his own country.

Czechoslovakia was returning to Europe, he said, and the best way for Washington to help was to assist the Soviet Union continue on that same path.

“I often hear the question: How can the United States of America help us today? My reply is as paradoxical as the whole of my life has been: You can help us most of all if you help the Soviet Union on its irreversible – but immensely complicated road to democracy.'”

The salvation of the world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, he said, and the cold war must be replaced by “an era in which all of us - large and small – former slaves and former masters – will be able to create what your great President Lincoln called the ‘family of man’.”

Following his address, Havel dutifully returned to the White House at the invitation of President Bush, to complete their talks on economic issues. While in Washington, he also visited the Voice of America, to meet its Czechoslovak staff, thank them in person for their work and convey how essential it remained.

But as for Havel and his “motley crew” of longhaired advisers – as Michael Žantovský, later his biographer, would recall – they could hardly wait to set out for the bright lights of New York, not least to explore the city’s East Village. And take in some rock 'n' roll.