“Our war of independence”: President Zelensky’s Speech to Congress and the Memory of the American Revolutionary War

On December 21, 2022, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, addressed a joint session of the US Congress. The speech represented the culmination of his brief but important visit to Washington, DC, to secure the armaments and missile-defense systems needed to protect the people of Ukraine from Russian missile and drone attacks and to demonstrate US support for Ukraine to the world.

The day recalled a key moment from the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s address to Congress in December 1941, but historical memories of an earlier struggle—the American Revolution—also surfaced in Zelensky’s speech. With well-chosen references to and evocations of the memory of the American Revolutionary War, President Zelensky connected the American and Ukrainian struggles for independence. Despite vastly different historical contexts for these conflicts, Zelensky practiced skillful diplomacy in drawing these connections. At a time when support for Ukraine among some Americans, especially Republicans, is declining, Zelensky used history to emphasize the common values and experiences between the two countries. He sought to elicit sympathy from Americans in hopes that they could identify with, and therefore support, the Ukrainian military effort.

President’s Zelensky’s words and actions have captured the world’s attention since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022. The actor-turned-politician-turned-wartime president has used social media from TikTok to Twitter in the service of democracy. His famous “We are all here protecting our independence” TikTok, taken in the streets of Kyiv with his key advisers just days after the Russian invasion began, communicated a message of courage amid imminent danger, as Russian forces were gathering outside the capital. Since then, his leadership has inspired many people in Ukraine and around the world.

Geared specifically to an American audience, Zelensky’s address to Congress tapped into these themes of freedom and perseverance that are at the core of the American national character. “Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios,” Zelensky pronounced, “Ukraine didn’t fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking.” Like George Washington, Zelensky rallied his country to withstand the military might of, arguably, one of the world’s strongest militaries. Despite Ukraine’s improbability of success, Zelensky’s leadership maintained the country’s unity. He vowed to the US Congress that “We, Ukrainians, will also go through our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success.”

President Zelensky further drew military parallels to the American Revolutionary War, comparing the city of Bakhmut, in the Donbas, eastern Ukraine, to Saratoga. He traveled to Washington, DC, the day after his defiant trip to the front lines of combat at Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been fighting for months at a great cost to human life. “Just like the Battle of Saratoga,” Zelensky said, “the fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom.”

The Battle of Saratoga, a turning point in the Revolutionary War, took place in upstate New York in fall of 1777. It represented a major victory for the Continental Army. The British forces under Major General John Burgoyne surrendered to the Americans. The American victory not only forced the British to rethink their strategy and shift their forces southward, but also showed European powers like the French, Spanish, and Dutch that Americans might have the ability to win the war. The news of the victory at Saratoga helped American diplomats in Paris, including Benjamin Franklin, to persuade the French to sign a Treaty of Alliance the following year. French assistance—in the form of arms, funds, and loans worth over thirteen billion dollars in today’s currency—was essential to American independence.[1]

American success on the battlefield thus secured foreign funds and allies, just as Ukrainian determination and success in repelling the Russian invaders have led to increased funding from abroad, which Zelensky categorized as an “investment in… global security and democracy.” The Ukrainian President must play to an international audience to draw support for the Ukrainian cause. So too did Americans in the late eighteenth century need to appeal to “the powers of the earth,” as the Declaration of Independence phrased it. Fighting the British Empire was expensive. Lacking the powers of taxation, the Continental Congress was unable to raise the revenue necessary to fund the Continental Army adequately. Congress sent diplomatic representatives abroad to secure not only funding but recognition from European powers. They wrote the Declaration of Independence to gain international support. Allies and funding, therefore, made American independence possible.[2] Likewise, President Zelensky seeks recognition of Ukrainian sovereignty from abroad. Meeting with the US President and speaking before Congress, as US representatives applauded enthusiastically, gave him multiple standing ovations, and shouted “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine), he gained that recognition for his country in addition to military assistance.

Such displays of support are vital to Ukrainian war efforts, but Ukrainians face a grim winter ahead. Russian attacks on key infrastructure, such as the country’s power grid, have done significant damage. As Zelensky told Congress, “Millions won’t have neither heating nor running water,” while civilians face the continued terror of bombardment or possible invasion. But, “we do not complain,” Zelensky said, projecting confidence in the future: “Ukrainians will survive the winter. They’ll celebrate Christmas… even if there is no electricity.” Their only “wish” will be “victory.”  

Although Zelensky compared Ukraine’s survival through winter to the American troops who endured freezing temperatures in the Ardennes Forest during the Second World War’s Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January1945), his references to suffering and sacrifice through winter also evoked, perhaps unintentionally, memories of the harsh winters American soldiers faced during their War for Independence.

After the British invaded New York in summer of 1776, the Continental Army led by Washington retreated across New York and New Jersey in humiliation. Their numbers reduced considerably, they encamped outside of Philadelphia for the winter. “These are the times that try men’s souls,” Thomas Paine wrote in this moment. Washington feared the American war effort might fall apart. He recognized that even a small victory would boost the morale of his troops, so he seized the opportunity to attack the Hessian garrison at Trenton, New Jersey. He and the Continental Army crossed the Delaware River on Christmas evening 1776, persevering through a winter storm. They defeated the Hessians and gained a victory that helped to sustain the Continental forces through the winter.[3]

In the American memory of the Revolutionary War, nothing symbolizes sacrifice so much as Valley Forge during the harsh winter of 1777-78. Popular memory valorizes the “shoeless soldiers” of Valley Forge who faced hardships of cold and hunger that winter. Though historian Wayne Bodle cautions against exaggerating the deprivations of the soldiers, the Continental Army faced serious problems with supplies and logistics. Ordinary soldiers, however, demonstrated resilience and resourcefulness amid the struggle.[4] By all accounts, Ukrainian soldiers, as well as citizens, demonstrate the same resourcefulness and resolve. Their morale is not low, but it will be tested through the winter.

Although it is too early to tell how President Zelensky will be remembered in history, the Ukrainian leader already demonstrates the same awareness of acting on the world stage and acting forcefully for posterity that Washington and other leaders of America’s revolutionary generation displayed. “This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren,” he told Congress. Zelensky’s address to Congress employed subtle references to the American Revolution that connected the present Ukrainian fight to defend their sovereignty to the American war for independence two centuries earlier.  These historical connections highlight for Ukrainians, Americans, and the rest of the world the value of independence and democracy in an era when those principles are under sustained attack in many parts of the world. Defending them will require leadership, popular support, long-term commitment, and financial resources. No one nation can defend these principles alone, as Zelensky noted in his speech: “the world is too interconnected and interdependent to allow someone to stay aside and at the same time to feel safe when such a battle continues.”

Featured Image: Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky visits with US President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden in the Oval Office. Image from @zelenskiy_official on Instagram.

[1] Dean Snow, 1777: Tipping Point at Saratoga (Oxford, 2016); Stacy Schiff, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America (New York, 2005); 30.

[2] Eliga H. Gould, Among the Powers of the Earth: The American Revolution and the Making of a New World Empire (Cambridge, MA, 201); David Armitage, The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, MA, 2008).

[3] David Hackett Fischer, Washington’s Crossing (Oxford, 2004).

[4] Wayne Bodle, The Valley Forge Winter: Civilians and Soldiers in War (State College, PA, 2002).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Built with WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: