The University of Iowa International Writing Program (IWP) was viewed with suspicion by Iron Curtain countries during the depths of the Cold War. The Eastern European writers who were allowed to participate could expect to be taken into custody immediately upon their return home, for debriefing to determine if their thinking had been polluted by contact with the decadent West.
Other writers were simply denied permission to depart for Iowa City. Among the writers from the Communist bloc who were prevented from attending, one stood out, although not immediately. The world is now mourning the Dec. 18 passing of Vaclav Havel, the widely honored first president of a democratic Czech Republic whose plans to attend the IWP were derailed 43 years ago.
The liberalizations of the “Prague Spring” came to an abrupt halt in August 1968 when Soviet tanks and Warsaw Pact troops rolled into Czechoslovakia. For Paul and Hualing Nieh Engle, co-founders of the IWP, the news instantly provoked concern about the Czech playwright, prominent in his homeland but virtually unknown in America, who was scheduled to arrive in Iowa City the following month.
“Vaclav Havel was invited to join the IWP in 1968,” Hualing says. “Paul and I visited New York in August, and we heard the news on the radio that the Russian tanks were entering Prague. We immediately cabled Havel, assuring him that we would cable the air tickets anywhere he and his family would be.
Havel, the gentle, humanitarian playwright, poet and essayist, had become a political prisoner, banned from the theater. And for the next quarter century, as an increasing outspoken dissident, he was in and out of prison — incarcerated for five years at one stretch after he participated in the Charter 77 manifesto and co-founded the Committee for the Defense of the Unjustly Persecuted — always under surveillance, and always regarded as a threat.
But after he became one of the most influential leaders in the nonviolent “Velvet Revolution” of 1989, and even though he had long declared himself uninterested in politics, Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic, an office he held for the next 13 transformative years.
It was in his role as Czech president that Havel finally came to Iowa, nearly three decades after the IWP invitation. On Oct. 21, 1995, with U.S. President Bill Clinton and Slovak President Michal Kovac, he helped to dedicate the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids. On hand to welcome him to Iowa was Slovak writer and biologist Gustav Murin, who was in residence at the IWP that fall.
Havel became one of the 20th century’s leading voices of conscience, honored by the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom among his many distinctions, and at the time of his death he was the chair of the Human Rights Foundation.
He left the office of president early in 2003, ending the dramatic political career he had never sought, and was finally able to return his priority to writing. And the IWP, where his struggles and triumphs were always watched with special interest, took note.
Poet Christopher Merrill, who became the director of the IWP in 2000, says, “After he left office and returned to full-time writing, I sent him a letter, through an IWP alum, to tell him that his spot was still open.”