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June 2010

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Slovakia on the Road to Independence
Reviewed by Michael Hornblow

bookSlovakia on the Road to Independence by Paul Hacker, Pennsylvania State University Press, ISBN 978-0-27103623-6, 240 pages, $65

As reported in Bratislava 002 dated January 4, 1993 there was “the fanfare of fireworks, the roar of thousands of rockets, the uncorking of hundreds of thousands of bottles of champagne, Slovaks celebrated not only the coming of the New Year January 1, but also the millennial achievement of an independent state.” 

Paul Hacker, the author of that telegram and of this valuable memoir. had just become our first charge d’affaires to Slovakia.

The book contains a useful introduction by the late Senator Claiborne Pell, the only U.S. Senator who has served in the Foreign Service. The Consulate General in Bratislava was opened by Vice Consul  (Acting Consul General) Pell on March 1, 1949 and was closed on May 27,1950 due to Stalinist repression. 

More than 40 years later on October 3, 1990 Mr. Hacker arrived in Bratislava to reopen the consulate and the building was formally rededicated on May 27, 1991, with the participation of Senator Pell and Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, Shirley Temple Black. There was a bit of drama associated with the ceremony.  That evening the senator, the ambassador, Mr. Hacker and his staff were all invited to a reception at the Carlton Hotel sponsored by the Slovak League of America.  At that time our policy was still in favor of “preserving Czechoslovakia’s territorial integrity.”  Ambassador Black tried to persuade Pell to decline the invitation but he felt a kinship with its organizers and joked that he was probably the only “Slovak nationalist” in the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Hacker seemed perfectly prepared for his role as our eyes, ears and tongue in Bratislava. He spoke fluent Slovak and Czech and 11 other languages and had served as the Czechoslovak desk officer, and had monitored events in Prague as an intern for RFE in Munich in 1967 and 1969. Subsequently he visited the country numerous times for research and did his doctoral dissertation on Czechoslovakia for Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski and one other advisor at Columbia and was awarded his PhD in January 1976. While in Bratislava Mr. Hacker would joke to audiences that he was not just the U.S. Consul, but also a certified “doctor of Communism.”  

Although Mr. Hacker seemed well prepared for his formal duties, he was perhaps not prepared to be subservient to the iconic, formidable Ambassador Shirley Temple Black.  Mr. Hacker in a chapter dealing with their relationship states that she was possessed with her “own system of logic as well as a very strong personality.” Ambassador Black insisted that all reporting from Bratislava had to be vetted by the Embassy before it went to Washington.  In addition Ambassador Black, noting that she had sixty years of experience in public relations, demanded that she would have the sole responsibility of giving interviews and Mr. Hacker was instructed to keep a low profile.  Mr. Hacker may not have been comfortable with these restrictions, which were pretty common at Eastern European posts at the time. There were some misunderstandings and some turf and personality problems between the Ambassador and her representative in Bratislava and these tensions shadowed Mr. Hacker for the first two years of his tenure.

With the passage of time this sort of thing seems rather insignificant and silly when compared with the momentous events occurring in Czechoslovakia during that period.  Mr. Hacker carefully describes them all: the problems with the Hungarian minority, human rights, anti Semitism, the various political personalities, most notably Vladimir Meciar, the political process which lead to the “velvet divorce” and how U.S. policy which, in fact, had marginal relevance for the outcome, evolved.


 bluestarMichael Hornblow is an Associate Editor of American Diplomacy.

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