In an era when moral clarity in foreign policy seems increasingly difficult to come by, we have an opportunity this week to recognize the efforts of a man – and his nation – that stood clearly and defiantly for democracy and freedom.
Former Czech Republic President Václav Havel was a dissident who for decades challenged the totalitarian repression of the Czech people by the Soviet Union.
For criticizing the Communist regime and advocating for basic human rights, he faced constant harassment and spent years in prison.
After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, Havel became Czechoslovakia’s first post-Communist president. He continued to speak for human rights around the world until his death.
In his honor, Georgetown University is dedicating Václav Havel’s Place this week, a small memorial centered on the Czech national Linden tree surrounded by a circular table in the university's Alumni Square to foster – in Havel’s words – “[T]he free exchange of ideas among citizens about how they should live together and how they should be governed.”
The memorial was donated by the Embassy of the Czech Republic, in collaboration with American Friends of the Czech Republic and the Václav Havel Library.
When Havel traveled to the United States in 1990, Georgetown University was one of the first places he visited. He fully appreciated the power of student movements and the atmosphere of open inquiry nurtured by institutions of higher learning.
In an earlier, less-connected time, the United States chose the path of isolationism to remain apart from the world’s problems.
Today, even while we are engaged in every region of the globe, we see enemies behind every corner and perhaps fewer friends.
For as long as the Czech people have governed themselves, they have been friends of America.
During World War I, Czech patriot Tomáš Masaryk traveled throughout the United States and spoke before thousands in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago, urging Americans to support a Czechoslovak state.
During his U.S. tour, the future president of a free and democratic Czechoslovakia helped convince Woodrow Wilson to put the full support of the United States behind his people’s aspiration for independence.
Indeed, Masaryk modeled the new Czechoslovak constitution after the U.S. Constitution. In 1918, he said, “We accept the American principles as laid down by President Wilson: the principles of liberated mankind, of the actual equality of nations, and of governments deriving all their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
The last time I spoke with Václav Havel was two years ago, at an event in Prague to re-dedicate a monument to Woodrow Wilson that stood from 1928 until 1941, when the Nazis destroyed it and crushed the fledgling democracy, setting the stage for another half-century of foreign domination. American Friends of the Czech Republic donated a restored copy of the original to honor the last ties between the two nations.
Since its liberation from behind the Iron Curtain, the Czech Republic has reemerged as a staunch ally of the United States. Czech soldiers have followed their American counterparts into both Afghanistan and Iraq, just as their exiled forebears fought beside Allied soldiers in World War II.
Today, Prague is one of the most prosperous, beautiful capitals in the world, thanks to the Czech Republic’s embrace of free-market principles.
After all the hardship and suffering that the Czechs have endured, they have never forgotten the role the United States and its president played in securing their freedom.
The great Czech motto “Truth Prevails” inspired Václav Havel's 1989 campaign slogan “Truth and love must prevail over lies and hatred,” which is inscribed on the edge of the table at the center of Václav Havel’s Place. We are proud that this place will serve to promote open discussion and debate, with faith that truth will prevail in the end.
Fred Malek, former president of Marriott Hotels Marriott Hotels and Northwest Airlines, founder of Thayer lodging and former head of the finance committee at the republican governors association. He served as an adviser to Presidents Nixon, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush.