30 Years Ago: Havel’s Historic Speech to the U.S. Congress

One of Havel’s first major speeches abroad was made in Washington, to a joint session of the United States Congress, on February 22, 1990. It received seventeen standing ovations.

Address to US Congress, February 22, 1990

I have been president for only two months, and I haven’t attended any school for presidents. My only school was life itself. Therefore, I don’t wish to burden you any longer with my political thoughts, but instead will move on to an area that is more familiar to me. . . .

“As long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal. One may approach democracy as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but which can never fully be attained. In this sense you, too, are merely approaching democracy. You have thousands of problems of all kinds, as other countries do. But you have one great advantage: you have been approaching democracy for more than two hundred years, and your journey toward that horizon has never been disrupted by a totalitarian system. Czechs and Slovaks, despite humanistic traditions that go back to the first millennium, approached democracy for a mere twenty years, between the two world wars, and now for a mere three and a half months, since the 17th of November of last year.

The advantage you have over us is obvious at once.

The communist type of totalitarian system has left both our nations – Czechs and Slovaks – as it has all the nations of the Soviet Union and the other countries the Soviet Union subjugated it its time – a legacy of countless dead, an infinite spectrum of human suffering, profound economic decline, and above all, enormous human humiliation. It has brought us horrors that, fortunately, you have never known.

At the same time––unintentionally, of course––it has given us something positive, a special capacity to look, from time to time, somewhat further than those who have not undergone this bitter experience. Someone who cannot move and live a normal life because he is pinned under a boulder has more time to think about his hopes than someone who is not trapped in this way. . . .

“We… can offer you something of our experience and the knowledge that comes from it. . . .

“The special experience I am talking about has given me one great certainty: Consciousness preceded Being, and not the other way around, as the Marxists claim.

“For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human modesty, and in human responsibility.

“Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will emerge for the better in the sphere of our Being as humans, and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed, whether it be ecological, social, demographic, or a general breakdown of civilization, will be unavoidable. If we are no longer threatened by world war or by the danger that the absurd mountain of accumulated nuclear weapons might blow up the world, this does not mean that we have won. We are in fact far from definite victory. . . .

“We are still under the sway of the destructive and thoroughly vain belief that man is the pinnacle of creation and not just a part of it, and that therefore everything is permitted to him. . . . We are still destroying the planet that was entrusted to us. We still close our eyes to the growing social, ethnic, and cultural conflicts in the world. . . .

“In other words, we still don’t know how to put morality ahead of politics, science, and economics. We are still incapable of understanding that the only genuine core of all our actions – if they are to be moral – is responsibility. Responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success. Responsibility to the order of Being, where all our actions are indelibly recorded and where, and only where, they will be properly judged.”

 

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