George Bush Sr. tolls a bell for Czechoslovakia

Photo: CTK

On November 17 1990, the first anniversary of the beginning of the Velvet Revolution, George Bush Sr. became the first American president to visit Czechoslovakia in the country’s 70-year history. This was a time of strong pro-American feeling here, and during their brief stay George and Barbara Bush were welcomed with genuine enthusiasm. Over a hundred thousand people gathered on Wenceslas Square to hear the president speak:

“Thank you, my Czech and Slovak friends. It is a tremendous honor to me to visit this proud and beautiful country, and to be able to join you on the first anniversary of the extraordinary Velvet Revolution. What a powerfully moving sight it is. There are no leaves on the trees and yet it is Prague Spring, there are no flowers in bloom and yet it is Prague Spring, the calendar says November 17 and yet it is Prague Spring!”

Prague,  November 17 1990: Václav Havel and George Bush with their wives on Wenceslas Square,  photo: CTK
“Your declaration of independence proclaims: ‘The forces of darkness have served the victory of light. The longed-for age of humanity is dawning.’ Today, the freedom-loving people of the world can bear witness that this age of humanity has now finally and truly dawned on this splendid nation.”

Bush’s visit had a strong political subtext. Three months earlier, Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and the visit to Prague was part of a wider tour of America’s allies, to rally support for a military intervention in the Gulf.

“Czechoslovakia was one of the first nations to condemn the outrage in the Persian Gulf, one of the first to measure the magnitude of the wrong committed in the name of territorial ambition. It is no coincidence that appeasement’s lonely victim half a century ago, should be among the first to understand that there is right and there is wrong, that there is good and there is evil, and there are sacrifices worth making.”

During the visit several demonstrations were held in protest against the US administration’s preparations for war with Iraq, but they were on a far smaller scale than at the time of the second Gulf War, thirteen years later.

“In 1776, when our Declaration of Independence was first read in public, a bell tolled to proclaim the defiant thrill of that moment...”

The president ended his speech with a bit of theatre, when he donated a copy of the Liberty Bell to the people of Czechoslovakia, to help the country, as he put it, “to proclaim its new liberty.”

“And so now I am proud to ring this bell three times: once for your courage; once for your freedom, and once for your children. [Rings bell]. And may God bless Czechoslovakia! Thank you all very much.”

President Bush’s glitzy style was in contrast with the visit to Prague a few months earlier by his iconoclastic compatriot Frank Zappa – whom we featured in last week’s From the Archives. We can only speculate as to what Mr Zappa made of President Bush’s Prague trip.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on September 17, 2009.

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