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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

March 1997

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Cold War Diplomatic Negotiations
A Personal Recollection

by J. Edgar Williams

I n early 1953, I finished

my year as a Fulbright scholar in New Zealand and headed home. I teamed up with three other Americans who also had been studying there under other auspices. We decided to take the scenic route back to the United States rather than return the way we had come -- across the Pacific. The travel chosen was to take a ship across the Tasman Sea to Sydney, Australia; go by bus through Canberra down to Melbourne; then take another ship bound for England.

So we did. As an aside, I remark here that on the four-day trip across the Tasman, I had a brief shipboard romance with a pretty miss from Sydney whose last name was, so help me, Kidney. You can imagine the variety of witticisms I had to endure from my friends, mostly beginning with "There was a young lady from Sydney . . . ."

The ship from Melbourne was the Moreton Bay, an all-tourist class ship. (For World War II history buffs, I note that she was the sister ship of the armed merchantman,Jervis Bay, of Pacific fame.) The passenger list represented a sociological phenomenon of the time. Three-fourths of those taking passage were young women from New Zealand and Australia who were going "home" to Britain for a year or two, where they would work and earn enough money -- mostly as nurses, secretaries, and school teachers -- to tour Europe. They would then go "out" again to their real homes, get married, and settle down. That was a great voyage for the few young men on board!

The ship called at Fremantle, the port of Perth in Western Australia before crossing the Indian Ocean to what was then a very peaceful Ceylon. After an interesting two-day stay there, we continued the trip, calling at Aden, also very peaceful then, and stopped at Port Said on our way through the Suez Canal. This was less than a year after the ouster of King Farouk, but the real troubles had not yet started.

We decided at that point to disembark at Malta and travel mostly by land across Europe to England, where we would take a transatlantic ship to New York. After several pleasant days in Malta, we went across to Sicily and up the Italian Peninsula by train. We found ourselves in Rome on Easter Sunday 1953, and went to the Vatican to be blessed by Pope Pius XII.

While in Rome, we called at the American Embassy because we planned to go through Vienna, which was inside the Soviet- occupied zone of Austria, and had heard that we needed a special pass to transit that area. The Embassy gave us "gray cards" (Occupation Forces Travel Permits) which an Embassy representative said would get us through the Soviet Zone.

So we traveled northward, stopping at Florence, Pisa, Bologna, Milan, and Venice. Our train crossed the border into Austria at Tarvisio, headed for Vienna. We thought that at some point we would come to a barrier where the Soviet Zone began, the train would stop, Russians would examine our documents, the Iron Curtain would be lifted, and the train would proceed.

It didn't quite happen like that.


We proceeded without incident through Klagenfurt; after a couple of hours the train came to a halt at a little place called Semmering. We didn't see any barrier. What we did see was a lot of Soviet soldiers. We had arrived, it turned out, some miles inside the Soviet Zone. Soldiers got on the train and began examining passengers' documents.

We knew we were OK. But the soldiers, upon looking at our passports and gray cards, began talking animatedly among themselves. One of them went away, came back shortly, and motioned us with his rifle to get off the train. We were, by then, a bit nervous.

We got off. There was some more incomprehensible conversation, and we were given to understand at rifle point that we had to get back on the train to offload our baggage. This made us even more nervous. None of us spoke a word of Russian and I was the only one of the four who spoke any German, thanks to a year of study at the University of North Carolina. I somehow communicated that I wanted to speak to the officer in charge.

The soldiers thereupon took me into the former stationmaster's office, where I found a Russian officer seated under portraits of Lenin and Stalin. He, it appeared, spoke about as much German as I; we nonetheless managed to understand each other. He told me that my friends and I were illegally in the Soviet Zone.

I pointed out that we had our gray cards.

He said that those cards permitted us, as Americans, to travel from the American Zone through the Soviet Zone, but pointed out that we had entered from the British Zone, which was illegal with our documentation. He said he was going to have to query his headquarters about what to do with us.

As a former U. S. Army officer (and a Reservist still), I had learned to identify Soviet insignia. I could tell he was a captain who had fought on the Western Front in World War II. I started talking to him about the war and the wonderful cooperation between the American and Soviet forces to defeat the Nazis.

He responded enthusiastically that he had been there when our forces met on the Elbe in 1945.

I grabbed onto this and responded that I had been there, too. This was false, but I had heard enough about it from friends to be able to fake it for a while. I asked him if he recalled our soldierly get togethers at which we traded American beer for Russian vodka. I volunteered that we Americans couldn't hope to compete with Russians in the ability to drink, admitting that the Russians were still on their feet and singing while we were falling-down drunk.


T he Russian officer really liked

that one, and commenced doing some reminiscing of his own, which I smilingly agreed with. We got pretty friendly. After about a half hour of this, he came back to Earth and said he still didn't know what he was going to do with us, but it was going to complicate his life.

I asked if we couldn't just go back the way we had come and avoid all the complications that we old army men knew headquarters would cause.

The Russian thought about that for a minute and nodded his head. He told me there would be a train going back into the British Zone in about half an hour, and we should be on it.

My friends had been getting more and more nervous, but were greatly relieved when I brought them the news. The train came. We boarded and returned from behind the Iron Curtain. We spent all that night on little local trains working our way up to Linz in the American Zone. The next day we transited the Soviet Zone to Vienna without any problems. The stay in Vienna was worth it; during four nights there, we saw three operas. From Austria we made our way across Europe, partly on the old Orient Express, to England, and thence on the Queen Mary to New York.

Some Austrians on our train out of Semmering, to whom we told our story, informed us we were really lucky. This encounter took place in early April 1953. Stalin had died only about a month previously. The Austrians told us that if it had taken place while he was alive, we would probably have been taken away and treated as spies.

Much later, I related the experience to a KGB agent in Montevideo who was trying to recruit me. He agreed that we had indeed been lucky, but said he admired my "cleverness" in "making a fool of that simple army man." Considering the source, I wonder if I should have felt complimented.


Ed Williams, a retired Foreign Service officer and member of the Editorial Advisory Board of American Diplomacy, had an article of commentary in the inaugural issue of this journal. ~ Ed.

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