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Zelenskyy's plea to Congress recalls Churchill and others who fought for democracy

The succession of national leaders who have addressed Congress stretches back to the 1870s, but this week Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joined a far more exclusive list: Foreign leaders whose visits to Washington made a real difference to U.S. foreign policy.

There have been more than 120 addresses to joint meetings of Congress by foreign leaders and heads of state over this last century and a half, according to congressional records. Most have been largely ceremonial, elaborate "meet and greet" events for the sake of international courtesy and public relations.

But a handful have been in another historical weight class. One can still be stirred by Winston Churchill, the embattled prime minister of Great Britain, welding with his words the Anglo-American alliance that overcame Adolph Hitler in the early 1940s.

Churchill spoke three times to Congress, the first just three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor propelled the U.S. into World War II. Churchill's message was grim. There would be little good news for at least 18 months, he said, but victory would be won.

Speaking of the "wicked men" he blamed for the aggression of the Axis powers, he might have been speaking of invaders in any age. He said they all "know they will be called to terrible account if they cannot beat down by force of arms the peoples they have assailed."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video at the Capitol on March 16, 2022, to plead for support for his besieged country.
J. Scott Applewhite/Pool / AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video at the Capitol on March 16, 2022, to plead for support for his besieged country.

All other addresses to Congress by foreign leaders have paled in comparison to Churchill's, until Zelenskyy's this week. The weary but determined Ukrainian leader appeared on a screen, but he dominated the auditorium that held the members of the House and Senate.

He loomed over them, looking solemn in a drab-green military-style T-shirt, sharing a video of the human carnage in his country. Several members of Congress could be seen openly weeping.

Then Zelenskyy came back on camera intoning his appeal, now in English, imploring but defiant in the face of overwhelming odds.

He did not ask for pity but for the life of his nation, much as Churchill had done.

"We are asking for a reply to this terror from the whole world," he said. "Is this a lot to ask for?"

Little wonder the ranking Republican on the House Affairs Committee, Michael McFaul of Texas, told Fox News that Zelenskyy was "the Churchill of our times."

The Churchillian standard

Churchill returned to speak to Congress again in 1943, noting the tide had turned in the war much as he had predicted. (He would also speak to Congress 1952, after the voters of Great Britain had summoned him back from retirement.) In between he also visited other parts of the U.S., including Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. It was there delivered his "Iron Curtain" speech in 1946, coining the phrase that would characterize the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe for the next four decades.

Also appearing before Congress in 1943 was Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the highly political and charismatic wife of the Chinese general who was the leader of that nation's embattled wartime government. Madam Chiang brought a message of defiance on behalf of her people, who had been fighting Japan for most of a decade, but also offered a sunrise message of hope for the postwar world:

"We in China, like you, want a better world, not for ourselves alone, but for all mankind, and we must have it," Madam Chiang said. No other Chinese leader or political figure spoke to Congress in the 20th century.

In the postwar years, American foreign policy would also be influenced by France's Charles de Gaulle, the head of the wartime "free French" forces that survived the German occupation of their country and returned to Paris in triumph in 1944.

De Gaulle became the first postwar head of state in France and was in and out of that office for the next quarter century, driving many a hard bargain along the way. Although he never addressed Congress, he did make an official state visit to Washington in 1945, pressing President Truman and members of Congress to support French claims to colonial holdings seized by Germany and Japan – including those in Southeast Asia, which included Vietnam.

Israel well-represented

In those same highly volatile years after World War II, the U.S. became supportive of the Zionist movement that was gathering Jews from around the world to Palestine to reclaim their ancestral land from biblical times. In 1948, the U.S. backed the United Nations' plan to partition Palestine, creating a Jewish state of Israel on land previously held primarily by Arab Muslims. War followed, with the surrounding Arab countries (Egypt, Syria, Jordan) attacking their newly created neighbor.

The U.S. backed Israel at that time and again in major confrontations with Arab armies in 1956, 1967 and 1973. Each time, the Arab countries had military and political backing from Russia. That made overt military support for Israel by the U.S. a potential flashpoint between the superpowers.

In 1973, President Nixon was willing to risk a nuclear faceoff with Russia at that time as he dramatically escalated U.S. support for Israel.

The close relationship between the U.S. and Israel has since been reiterated by a succession of remarkably different prime ministers of Israel, several of whom made their case directly to a joint meeting of Congress. The most recent was Binyamin Netanyahu, who did so in March of 2015 as well as in 2011 and 1996 – hailed loudly all three times by Republican majorities. (The third time he was invited to speak not by the U.S. president at the time, Barack Obama, but by the Speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner.

Before Netanyahu, Congress had heard from predecessor prime ministers Shimon Peres (1995), Yitzhak Rabin (1994 and 1976), Ehud Olmert (2006), and Chaim Herzog (1987) Rabin's second visit was remarkable in that it was a joint appearance with Jordan's King Hussein the First, with whom he had recently concluded a peace agreement.

Hearing from favorites

Also speaking to an approving reception was Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who came in 1975. He would sign his historic peace agreement with Israel's Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1978, and subsequently suffer assassination in his own country in 1981.

There have been foreign leaders who did not come with dramatic requests but were great favorites in the Congress. One was Nelson Mandela, the legendary South African leader who overcame decades in prison to overthrow apartheid and establish majority rule in his country. Mandela addressed Congress in 1990 as a leader of the African National Congress after leaving decades of imprisonment. He spoke again in 1994 as president of South Africa.

Another popular foreign figure was Queen Elizabeth II, who charmed the assembled members in her one appearance in 1991. She was warmly received, as was the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in 1985.

Quite a different element of British history was celebrated in 1964 when Congress heard from Eamon de Valera, the president of Ireland, who had once been imprisoned by the British government for his role in the 1916 Easter Rising on behalf of Irish independence.

The post-Soviet trio: Havel, Walesa and Yeltsin

Congress was also able to bask in some reflected glory when visited by some of the heroes of the new era in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the Soviet Union was breaking up. Lech Walesa, chairman of the Polish Solidarity union movement, addressed a joint meeting in November 1989. Vaclav Havel, president of Czechoslovakia did so four months later. The first democratically elected leader of Russia, Boris Yeltsin, came calling in June 1992 and told Congress his country had "made its choice in favor of liberty and democracy."

Full of optimism, Yeltsin said: "Reason begins to triumph over madness."

Zelenskyy's appearance belongs in this tradition, declaring the independence of Eastern Europe from its neighbor to the east. For a time, in the 1990s, there had been a sense that even Russia itself was emerging from the mindset of the Soviet era as well. Yeltsin's speech yearned in that direction.

One could see all three of these leaders throwing off the weight of tyrannies that had burdened the 20th century, be they imperialist or fascist or communist. That is the legacy now carried on by Zelenskyy in his refusal to bow to Moscow.

Will Zelenskyy get what he wants from his appearance before Congress?

No, in the sense of the no-fly-zone he wants, which U.S. policymakers see as too long a step into full-scale war with nuclear Russia. But yes, in the sense that setting the bar that high helps him secure more aid in other forms — such as the $1 billion in aid now being rushed to his country from the U.S. and another $13.6 billion that was marked for Ukraine in the latest omnibus appropriations bill.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.