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News > 1968: Vaclav Havel in New York

1968: Vaclav Havel in New York

Martin Nekola 26 April, 2018

Czech President Vaclav Havel visited the USA many times. He was a close friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton, his speech to the U.S. Congress in February 1990 is now legendary, and Havel's bust decorates the Capitol today. The Big Apple enjoyed the seven-week presence of Havel in the Fall of 2006 when he was writing his last piece Leaving, giving lectures at Columbia University as residential fellow and presenting all his eighteen plays at a theatre festival, run by Untitled Theater Company #61 in Manhattan and Brooklyn.


Many years earlier, there had been another visit by Havel to New York City. It was in April and May of 1968; Czechoslovakia was in the middle of "Prague Spring," a liberalization process full of hopes, which were crushed by the invasion of Warsaw Pact armies soon after. However, thirty-two years old, playwright and journalist Havel used this short period of freedom to travel to Western Europe and to the USA for a couple of weeks. He took part in the premiere of his new play Memorandum in New York City on April 24, but also decided to interview more than three dozen prominent figures of the Czechoslovak exile after 1948. The interviews were meant to be published as a serial in Literary News as well as a book, enriched by Havel's comments and reflections. Before the trip, he had discussed the phenomenon of the emigration with Alexander Dubcek, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, who led the group of reformist Communists responsible for Prague Spring. Dubcek, himself, was very interested in the opinions of Czechs and Slovaks living in the West.


Vaclav Havel in Central Park. Archive of Helena Lukas.

Havel came to New York at the invitation of theatrical producer Joe Papp and Jiri Planner, a music expert and the editor of the Czechoslovak Desk of Radio Free Europe. Havel also stayed at the apartment of Jiri Voskovec, former Czechoslovak actor and co-founder (with Jan Werich) of the famous Prague Free Theatre (Osvobozene divadlo). In 1968, Voskovec was a respected Broadway star with rich experience in Hollywood movies. Havel personally met with a number of prominent émigrés in New York and Washington. He also was the guest of Ferdinand Peroutka at his cottage at Lost Lake (about 40 miles north from New York City) and recorded hours of his discussions with this probably best-known journalist of 1930's Czechoslovakia.


Havel and Jiri Voskovec. Archive of Helena Lukas.


Havel with Ferdinand Peroutka. Archive of Helena Lukas.

Havel wanted to find out whether these people, twenty years after their escape from Czechoslovakia, belonged to past times, retaining conservative world views, seeming like generals without armies, abandoned icons of the idealized Masaryk First Czechoslovak Republic, for which they were still in mourning. He hoped, rather, that they would be able to understand the latest international developments in 1968, the year of changes and revolutions.

He formulated two general questions for all respondents: "Would you come to Prague for a visit?" and "Under what circumstances would you return permanently?" He collected a wide range of answers, from short statements to philosophical elaborations and political analyses of many pages.

Havel recalled a few memories of these meetings and shared them with the author of this article when they met at the Vaclav Havel Library in Prague on February 5, 2010: "Contacts with the émigrés were considered something dangerous, even suicidal at that time. They were declared enemies of the state. So, I was probably the first person from Czechoslovakia who ever paid an official visit to these exile leaders. They were pretty surprised about that and some of them suspected me of being an StB agent. But in general they were very friendly and helpful, expressing deep interest in my work…"


Havel giving lecture at SVU New York. Archive of Helena Lukas.

Havel also gave a lecture for the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) in New York. He was asked by the audience if people at home weren't afraid of the Soviet reaction to the liberalization of the regime and if all the political, social and economic changes shouldn't be done rather more slowly, step by step. Havel was full of enthusiasm and believed that only radical reforms as soon as possible would have the desired effect. "If it stops now," he feared, "we might not get another chance for ten years." Unfortunately, he was mistaken in both his predictions. He returned to Czechoslovakia in early June. He hoped to travel overseas again soon since he received a fellowship at the University of Iowa. Due to what was called "international brotherly help" in August 1968, his passport was confiscated by the authorities as well as all the records and materials from the unique meetings with the émigrés. Therefore, only few rare pictures made by the photographer Jan Lukas document Havel's time in New York. He had to wait for his next trip to the USA for more than two decades; this time as a president of a democratic republic, which had finally thrown off the chains of totalitarianism.


Vaclav Havel in 1968.




Dr. Martin Nekola, Ph.D. received his doctorate in political science at the Charles University in Prague. His research is focused on non-democratic regimes, the era of Communism, and the East-European anti-communist exiles in the United States during the Cold War. He is the author of numerous articles and has published nine books, the most recent of which are Petr Zenkl: Politik a člověk (Petr Zenkl: Politician and Man), 2014, Krvavé století (Bloody Century), 2015, and České Chicago (Czech Chicago), 2017.

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