Humility and “rock star” appeal – how Václav Havel won over the US

Source: Radio Prague International / / By Ian Willoughby /

Václav Havel’s relationship to the United States is the focus of the recently issued book Havel v Americe (Havel in America) by historian Rosamund Johnston and journalist Lenka Kabrhelová. Mainly based on Q&A-style interviews, it contains insights and anecdotes from Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, both presidents Bush and a host of others and is the first publication to concentrate on the subject. When I met the authors, I first asked Johnston about the genesis of Havel v Americe.

Johnston: “With this oral history project we spoke to 10 people about their connections to Havel, and some really interesting things came up.

Lenka Kabrhelova, Rosamund Johnston, photo: Ian Willoughby

“But it was just about sharing that information with people in this country, who wouldn’t necessarily know about it, because it was in English, for example, and it was archived in American university libraries.

“So it was just about presenting this information here.”

Lenka, you interviewed several of these people. How did you get access to the likes of Bill Clinton?

Kabrhelová: “Huge thanks belong to Pavla Niklová from the Václav Havel Library Foundation in New York, because she made extreme efforts to reach the people.

“Some of it was also pulled together by my journalistic contacts as well. We kind of joined forces, all of us.

“And as Rosie said regarding the intention to publish the book here, I published several of the interviews on Czech Radio, in Czech, but they were not in full length, because they were oral histories which took an hour and a half, sometimes more, sometimes a little bit less. It depended.

“Bill Clinton didn’t have three hours for us [laughs], but still he was pretty generous with his time.

“It was a really nice idea, I think, to reach the Czech audience and to present to them the whole length of the oral histories, which are accessible in English.”



In February 1990 Havel famously visited the US for the first time as president and made an address to the joint houses of Congress. What was his main message in that speech? And what impact did it have on how he was perceived in the States?

Kabrhelová: “A massive impact. And you can still see that through our oral history.

“It’s one of the main lines that goes through all of the interviews.

“People generally mention it as an extremely interesting moment and a real selfless moment, of a person who comes from this small country which has suffered and then he’s approaching and addressing Congress, this mighty body in the US – and he’s not asking for anything for Czechoslovakia, he’s asking them to deal with Russia and to help Russia, and he says, If you help Russia, then you can help us as well.

Though Havel seemed shy and was a little bit distant, he still attracted people and they were naturally drawn to him.

For many, like Bill Clinton, like Madeleine Albright and others, that was an ultimate sign of a) Havel’s philosophies and b) the nature of his policies, and of the fact that he wasn’t just thinking about the small, insular Czechoslovakia – he was thinking in broad terms about global politics.”

Johnston: “Also, from the American side, this and Havel’s other visits to the States are these interesting moments in American history of bipartisan cooperation.

“A lot of this book talks about America today and, I suppose, the divides in America today.

“Time and again, interviewees from all sides of the political spectrum said that he was really a figure who united Americans – Republicans with Democrats.

“That joint session was a moment where he got applause from everyone. And he was speaking across party lines.”

On that famous trip to the States there was some kind of event for Havel at the St. John the Divine Cathedral. I’ve seen photos from it and the guests included the likes of Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford and Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon. Obviously it was a hot ticket. Why was there such celebrity interest in Havel?

Johnston: “I don’t know the answer to that, but I would point to a moment in Madeleine Albright’s interview, where she talks about at one point bringing Robert Redford to Prague and they and Havel went around Prague together.

“She said it was really interesting to see him out of his more traditional post-revolution guise as president and as a man of the stage again.

“She reminds us, as a few of the interviewees do, that he started in the theatre. He had an affinity with actors and he really spoke to them in a different way.

“She talks about his ease and his happiness in those surroundings.”

Kabrhelová: “I think it’s interesting, and it comes across from the interviews, that he really had some sort of a rock star quality to him.

“People wanted to be around him.

“Bill Luers talks about it. Bill Clinton talks about it. That even though he seemed shy and was a little bit distant – and he wasn’t this classic person who you would think of as this brilliant, outgoing person – he still attracted people and they were naturally drawn to him.

“And maybe added to that, the fact he was from an oppressed country and he was – and that’s only my assumption, I don’t know – within the idea of American idealism, that good eventually beats the bad guys, he was the embodiment of the good guy.”

Doesn’t Petr Pithart say in the foreword something along the lines of that his story was a fairytale that appealed to Americans, that he had gone from being a prisoner to the throne?

It’s a lovely kind of American fairytale, but also a lot of Americans maybe wish they could be him and knew they couldn’t.

Johnston: “Yes, it’s a lovely kind of American fairytale, but also a lot of Americans maybe wish they could be him and knew they couldn’t.

“Because it does take these dissident qualities, this really standing up for what you believe in, in an environment that is very difficult, to be persecuted for what you believe in.

“So he talks about how many people wrote for the New York Review of Books and kind of wished that they could be this sort of philosopher president.

Havel v Americe
Photo: Ian Willoughby

“But in American conditions that’s just not possible.”

In the book you have interviews with people like the two Presidents Bush, Clinton of course, Madeline Albright, many others. What are the adjectives that they keep offering to describe Havel in the book?

Johnston: “‘Humble’. Humble, I think, is the number one adjective that people use.

“But also the fact that he was able combine strength with being humble is something that a lot of the interviewees kind of puzzle over and return to.

“Also ‘relevant’, I suppose, would be another adjective that they would use.

“They kept on suggesting that they continued to read Havel’s political writings to understand what’s going on in the United States today.”

Of all the interviewees, which for you offers the most interesting insights into Havel and the US?

Kabrhelová: “That’s a tough one, because I think those are maybe two different sets of issues [Havel himself, and Havel and the US], but then both of them are combined in Bill Luers’s interview in a really interesting way.

“Bill Luers really knew Vaclav Havel already in the ‘80s. He was an ambassador to Czechoslovakia in 1983 to 1987, I think, and he knew Havel from the very beginning.

“He was inviting him to the residence and he was talking to him, and he really has an interesting view.

“We were a little bit afraid that it would turn into a hagiography, with Havel only being talked about in superlatives.

“But Bill Luers can be critical and he, in a very philosophical way, has a real polemic with Havel’s ideas and thoughts and philosophical ideas, which I think are very interesting and ‘relevant’, to use the word [laughs], today. And even if you think about the US in today’s light.”

Johnston: “For me, two interviews immediately spring to mind.

“The first is one I really enjoyed working on, after Lenka had recorded it, with Timothy Snyder, who probably knew Havel the least well. So it’s not a great reflection on what Havel was like in the ‘70s and ‘80s, because he just doesn’t know.

Humble’, I think, is the number one adjective that people use. Also ‘relevant’.

“And he doesn’t even really want to speak about that which he doesn’t know.

“But he also, like Luers, was sometimes tremendously critical of Havel’s decisions in office, while at the same time stressing the relevance of Havel’s political thought and Havel’s political writing for politics in the US and Central Europe today.

“And then, of course I’m biased, I loved speaking to Paul Wilson, who is another individual who had known Havel.

“He had known him since the ‘60s and could talk about living here and being involved in what were not yet codified as dissident circles, but circles that would go on to be codified as dissident circles, in the ‘70s and so on.

“He also, as Havel’s translator, could speak very interestingly about the difficulty of translating and transmitting Havel’s ideas to a North American audience, and of course the changing status of Havel when he became president and much better known.”

Was there anything that surprised you or that you learned about Havel in the process of putting together this book?

Kabrhelová: “In a way it was more the human touch, or human dimension, which is surprising, because you talk to politicians and you would expect them to be very rigid and very philosophical or very theoretical, and that’s not at all the case – you can tell that Havel really impacted them as a person.

“They name human qualities.

“That is one interesting angle, for me, of all of these conversations, that you see that big international relations and big historic relations and shifts are eventually the results of human interactions.

“And you can tell from the book that this was the case.”

Johnson. “Yes, I think you just said it really nicely. One of the hypotheses that we went into the project with was that foreign policy is actually about personal contact.

“I’m a historian and very often when you access foreign policy decisions as a historian, it’s documents in an archive that are sort of old and dusty, etcetera.

“We were interested in seeing how those documents come to be made and we did find as we supposed, and it might sound dreadful, that they start with barbeques in Connecticut at Miloš Forman’s house or that they start with dinner parties in Georgetown with Hillary and Bill Clinton in 1991.

“That perhaps reinforces an idea that politics is an elite club of a small group of people.

“But also decision-making is based on friendships and the cultivation of those friendships and conversations.”

There was one thing that I took away from the book more than anything else, which was that Henry Kissinger – who said that he met Havel for the first time through Miloš Forman – says that when he initially spoke to Havel, he was not in favour of joining NATO, he was against any kind of military alliance. Then, he says, a year later, Havel had changed his mind completely. Did you find any corroborating evidence for this? Is this true, do you know?

You see that big international relations and big historic relations and shifts are the results of human interactions.

Johnston: “In fact it seems the book would actually put into doubt Kissinger’s statement.

“There are some inconsistencies in this book, as there are going to be when you are dealing with people’s memories of what took place about 30 years ago.

“Kissinger does suggest, more or less, that he’s responsible for changing Havel’s mind on joining NATO.

“But Bill Luers said exactly the opposite, and even Bill Clinton would tell the opposite story, in the book.

“I think that’s a really good reminder that these are important historical sources, but this shouldn’t be read as how it really happened and as the truth.

“This is what people have to say about Havel now, 30 years on, and maybe how they reappraise their own role in the reorientation of Czechoslovakia to the West.”

The book’s been out for a while here. Obviously it’s targeted at Czech readers. What kind of response have you got, or what kind of things are people telling you that they’ve got from the book?

Kabrhelová: “Actually I’m really humbled, to use the word again, by the overall positive reception of the book.

“People seem to appreciate that there’s a different look at Havel, which is from abroad, which especially in these times, when you see small Central European countries getting more and more insular, I got the reaction that it’s refreshing and that it actually is a reminder of why it’s worth being more worldly and outgoing, and how important good personal relationships are and why cultivated personal relationships are important.”

Johnston: “I suppose I’m delighted that people are suggesting that they’re learning new things, or that there are more details still to be learned about how Havel was received in America.

“Because, as Lenka said, a lot of these individuals have already been frequently on Czech Radio or Czech Television talking about their relationship to Havel, but these oral histories maybe go into more depth and go into the minutiae, but important minutiae, of the fame he enjoyed there and the relationship he enjoyed there.”

I know both of you have spent a lot of time in the States in recent years. What’s your perception of how Havel is seen there today?

Johnston: “I would say that everyone we speak to really is of one generation. Timothy Snyder would be one of the youngest.

“I think that Havel continues to be a very important symbol and a very important character and a very important thinker for people who… Timothy Snyder describes himself as a member of the last Cold War generation.

“So people who were born and raised during the Cold War, I think, look to him still as someone who can shed light on current American political dysfunction, what to do in a situation in which you may feel powerless.

“I don’t know if he appeals to a younger generation, though in his introduction Petr Pithart would suggest that he managed to captivate young Americans too.”

Kabrhelová: “I was actually just thinking about it. It really depends who you ask.

“When you ask the older generation, or the generation that still remembers the Cold War, yes, definitely, Havel is a relevant person.

Kissinger does suggest, more or less, that he’s responsible for changing Havel’s mind on joining NATO.

“And as Rosie said, Timothy Snyder used his thoughts in writing his newer books. So that’s one thing.

“Another thing is the young generation, though I think it would be unfair to expect the young generation to know about Havel, because they grew up in a completely different set of events and geopolitical events.

“But I think with Donald Trump and with polarization and with everything that we talk about in the US, Havel indeed, as Pithart reminds us in his introduction, still would and could be a relevant person, if only people came across him.”