by Patrícia Iliašová
Since 1918 until today, many presidents of Czechoslovakia (and subsequently Czech Republic) travelled to the United States or received the American presidents in Prague. This article brings an overview of the most significant visits and bonds established between the presidents of these two countries over the one hundred years of the existence of Czech-American relations.
When in 1918 Masaryk arrived at President Wilson Railway Station in Prague, he had accomplished the most important diplomatic mission of his life; the separation of Czechoslovakia from Austro-Hungarian Empire and the subsequent establishment of autonomous Czechoslovakia as such. To be able to do that, he had to meet and persuade the President of United States Woodrow Wilson of the necessity and right of Czechs and Slovaks to seek independence jointly. He succeeded thanks to his determination, extraordinary diplomatic skills and support from “soldiers, collaborators and sympathizers” among which were Milan Rastislav Štefánik and Edvard Beneš (René Wellek).
Altogether, Masaryk and Wilson met four times before the President of United States agreed to support Masaryk’s cause. Despite that most of their meetings took place before Masaryk was officially elected the first president of Czechoslovakia, his mission in Washington has been a premise to the creation of relations between Czechoslovakia (and later the Czech Republic) and the United States of America (Wellek). Thus, it can be considered the first official presidential visit to ever have taken place between the two countries. In the subsequent years, Masaryk remained a constant presence and a recurring theme of the following Czech-American presidential visits.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
The turbulence of Europe’s political atmosphere in the years following 1918 did not allow for many friendly visits to be exchanged. Yet the uncertain situation in Czechoslovakia, caused by the German occupation, required a mission like Masaryk’s to be repeated by President Beneš. After the Munich Agreement was signed in 1938, Edvard Beneš resigned on his position as a president, went to exile and dedicated the following years to get United States and Britain to “denounce Munich.” In 1939 Edvard Beneš met with the American President F. D. Roosevelt who encouraged his mission and assured him that he still “regarded him as the president of Czechoslovakia.” Three years later, Americans officially gave his government-in-exile “full recognition” (Peter Neville).
In 1943 the presidents met again – this time officially – in the White House, where Beneš was invited as an “alleged expert on Russia,” in order to discuss the post-war problems and help determine the future of his country. Allegedly, during Beneš’s visit Roosevelt asked the Czechoslovak President whether Stalin and Hitler could not be defeated at once. However, Beneš assured him of the willingness of Soviet Union to cooperate and “democratize itself.” He imagined that Czechoslovakia would be a “bridge between the Soviet Union and Western democracies,” but he was soon to find out that it would not be so.
George H. W. Bush
Since then, no further visits to the US were made by presidents of Czechoslovakia or vice versa until after the fall of the Iron Curtain, due to which the Czech-American relations suffered and remained weakened for the following forty-two years. Yet the bond, established by Masaryk in 1918, resonated and shortly after the Velvet Revolution, in February 1990, Václav Havel visited Washington, D. C., where he gave a speech in front of the Congress and thus “inaugurated the new era.” In his speech, Havel expressed the gratitude to the US for their involvement in the fight for liberation of the Europe and reminisced about the cooperation and support of the United States during the formation of Czechoslovakia.
The same year, George H. W. Bush visited Prague and attended the celebrations of the first anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. On this occasion, he gave the people of Czechoslovakia a copy of Liberty Bell, which he rang three times while giving a speech on Wenceslas Square. He was the first president of United States to visit Czechoslovakia in the country’s entire history and remains the only one to have ever done so.
After the separation of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel made several visits to United States where he managed to commence a close relationship with Bill Clinton, which even now stands out among other presidential friendships. Naturally, the visits exchanged between these two presidents differed and were less formal than the official visits usually are. An example is a performance given by Lou Reed after the state dinner in the White House which Clinton arranged at Havel’s request. Similarly, during Clinton’s visit to Czech Republic in 1994, Havel took him to Reduta Jazz Club where the American President played saxophone with the band on stage (a video of the performance is available here). Clinton’s visit then continued in a similar manner with Havel taking him (and his team) to a Czech pub for a beer.
In a recent interview for Radio Prague, Clinton praised the versatility of Havel’s personality and implied the importance of Havel’s thoughts which he now finds “more relevant than ever.” In this interview, he also described how his friendship with Havel started thanks to Madeleine Albright, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations of the time, who invited both men for dinner at her house. At the dinner, Havel spoke of the need for expansion of NATO which he wanted Czech Republic to become part of and with this, Clinton was determined to help him.
When Václav Havel died in 2011, Clinton told media that he “remained close” to Havel and with his wife returned to Prague to honor his memory at the funeral. The friendship of these two men outlasted their presidency and continued until Havel’s death.
George W. Bush
The first time President George Bush officially visited Czech Republic was in 2002. His first visit concerned the NATO summit meeting and was not as official as the second, which was would happen only five years later. Nevertheless, two months prior to Bush’s first trip to Prague, he had already met with President Havel in the White House, who during his official visit attended a conference dedicated to Masaryk and subsequently the ceremonial unveiling of Masaryk’s monument in Washington.
Yet, Havel was not the only Czech president to be received in the White House during Bush’s presidency. Václav Klaus was invited in 2005 quite unexpectedly, only a day in advance to discuss, among other topics, the Czech political crisis of 2005. After the visit, Klaus described the meeting as “friendly” and said he was “looking forward to another,” which would happen two years later.
Bush’s second visit, which occurred in 2007, was an “unprecedented event” as it was the first time that the president and prime minister of Czech republic jointly welcomed the American president at Prague Castle. On this occasion, Bush delivered a speech on democracy and freedom, in which he listed both Masaryk and Havel as the advocates for democratic principles.
It was not long after Barack Obama assumed the office that he came to Prague and delivered speech in which he advocated for a nuclear-weapon-free world, spoke of the threat of climate change and suggested the need of unity and cooperation between the countries of the world in their fight for a better future. As a reference, he used Masaryk, Prague Spring, Velvet revolution and expressed hope that peaceful demonstrations, such as the ones of November 1989, may go a long way in helping in the fight against violence and nuclear weapons. Although his visit, conducted in April 2009, only lasted about 23 hours, he was also received by the president and prime minister in Prague Castle, attended the E.U – US summit and met with the former President Havel. A year later, Obama returned to Prague in order to sign Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia.
By contrast to Obama’s speech in 2009 in Prague, Václav Klaus, while on his working visit to United States in 2011, spoke critically of the concept of European Union and questioned global warming. During this visit, Klaus did not meet with Obama and although he made several visits to US during his presidency, he never met with the American president again in the White House.
The next Czech president was not luckier. Although a photograph of Zeman together with President Obama and his wife Michelle suggests that these two presidents met in person, no further visits to Czech Republic were made by Obama and Zeman was never in the White House during the course of his presidency. The mentioned picture was made during a United Nations General Assembly in New York, 2015.
Naturally, it is also because of the technological advancement and new, faster means of transportation that more international visits are made by presidents these days. Unlike Masaryk, who on his way from US to Czechoslovakia travelled by boat and train, presidents of the US and Czech Republic (and elsewhere in the world) now have private planes at their disposal, which makes it possible for them to make more cross-continental visits per term than ever.
Despite that, no official mutual visits have been made by the current presidents of the two countries. While Miloš Zeman is the only European president who publicly supported Donald Trump even before the US presidential election of 2016, other European leaders have surpassed him in their visits to the White House. However, according to Zeman’s spokesperson Jiří Ovčáček, an invitation to Zeman was extended by Trump shortly after he was elected the 45th president of the US and this invitation was reciprocated by President Zeman. Although the two men already met and posed for a photograph together in New York in September 2017, the dates of the expected official visits remain undetermined.
Wellek, René. Foreword. Spirit of T.G. Masaryk, 1850-1937: An Anthology. Edited by George J. Kovtun. Springer, 1990. pp. Vii-xvi.
Neville, Peter. Benes & Masaryk: Czechoslovakia. Haus P, 2011.