by Walter R. Roberts
In 1960, the United States Information Agency (USIA) where I was then responsible for American information and cultural programs in Central and Eastern Europe assigned me as Public Affairs Officer to the American Embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. Although I was not a foreign service officer, the USIA director George V.Allen, who had previously served as American ambassador to Yugoslavia, made that decision.
Allen had been ambassador in Belgrade from 1949 to 1953 at a crucial time in Yugoslavia’s history. On June 28, 1948 Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform (C0Mmunist INFORMation bureau), the umbrella organization of all communist parties led by the communist party of the Soviet Union. The explanation for the expulsion was the sharp criticism that Tito, the leader of the communist party of Yugoslavia, had voiced of Josef Stalin for what Tito called lack of support for the Greek communists in their rebellion against the Greek government. In my opinion, Tito was expelled from the Cominform because he had attempted to influence the Bulgarian and particularly the Greek communist parties thereby reducing the role of Stalin in the Balkans.
This split between communist Yugoslavia and the other communist countries of Eastern Europe was a highly significant political event which the United States government seized upon by appointing George Allen, one of its most able diplomats, to be ambassador in Belgrade
I arrived in Yugoslavia at a time when America’s relations with Yugoslavia were far better than its relations with other communist countries of Eastern Europe. But it was a communist country ruled by the iron hand of its leader, Josip Broz Tito, a dedicated communist.
Tito was born in 1892 in Croatia, which was then an integral part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. When the first World War broke out in 1914, he was the youngest sergeant in the Austrian army, serving first on the Serbian and later on the Russian front where he was wounded and taken prisoner. He was soon released from a prisoner of war camp, became a communist and participated in the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. He married a Russian girl with whom he had a son. In 1920, he returned to Croatia which was then part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (renamed Yugoslavia in 1929), became a party official of the illegal communist party, was in and out of jails for illegal activities and worked as a mechanic not only in Yugoslavia but also in Austria and the Soviet Union. In 1939, he became general secretary of the Yugoslav communist party. (His wife and son had returned to the Soviet Union and the marriage ended in divorce).
Tito was in Zagreb in April 1941 when the German army occupied Yugoslavia. He organized the communist party to resist the German occupation, called his followers who came from all parts of Yugoslavia “Partisans”, and competed with another resistance movement that was confined to Serbia and was led by Colonel Draza Mihailovic, promoted early in the war by the Yugoslav government in exile to General. In 1943, Tito assumed the highest military title of Marshal.
The postwar aims of the two movements were totally differentMihailovic wanted the restoration of the status quo ante, while Tito fought for a communist state. In the end, Yugoslavia emerged from the Second World War as a communist country led by Tito. (There are many stories how Josip Broz assumed the name Titohe himself said that it had literary significance in his home town in Croatia).
Internally, Yugoslavia remained a communist country after its expulsion from the Cominform, while externally the country moved away from the Soviet bloc toward non-alignment. Along with Nehru’s India, Sukarno’s Indonesia, Nasser’s Egypt. Nkruhma’s Ghana, Tito was instrumental in founding the “Nonaligned Movement” in 1961.
The communist and totalitarian nature of the Yugoslav government manifested itself when a government law (the “Press Law”) was promulgated in 1960. It restricted the contact of embassy personnel to Yugoslav government officials. Embassy programs intended to reach the Yugoslav public could be continued but only if pursued by non-diplomatic personnel. The intent was clear: these activities should be supervised by Yugoslavs. This was, of course, not acceptable to the United States and many other nations with diplomatic missions in Belgrade. Long discussions of American embassy personnel with Yugoslav officials finally resulted in what we called the “Balkan solution”. The United States Information Service (USIS) was nominally to be headed by the wife of the New York Times correspondent in Belgrade. She had no duties, was paid a small sum for doing nothing but to lend her name as director of USIS in Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav government did not like this arrangement but could not object. When Paul Underwood left Belgrade and another New York Times correspondent, David Binder, arrived, we did not continue this sham practice. It appeared to us then that the Press Law had lost its importance to the Yugoslav regime and was no longer enforced.
I first met Tito at a small dinner party at a governmental lodge near Zagreb. Ambassador George Allen, then director of USIA, was designated by President Eisenhower to be the official US representative at the 1960 Zagreb Fair. That annual autumn event was a high priority for the Yugoslav government and was always attended by Tito. When Tito learned that George Allen would come to Zagreb he invited him to dinner. Allen inquired whether he could bring me along and received an affirmative response.
Allen was highly regarded in Yugoslavia. During his tenure as ambassador in Belgrade, bilateral relations improved markedly and close communications with Tito developed. Allen became well known throughout the country. I recall that, on a later Allen trip to Belgrade, we took him to dinner at a well-known restaurant, and the local band, recognizing Allen, played “God Bless America”.
The dinner party that Tito gave for Allen was a small one. Allen and I were the only Americans. Vice-President Edvard Kardelj and the head of the communist party of Croatia, Vladimir Bakaric, were there as well as a couple of other functionaries. The discussion was on current events but also about good wines that were offered at dinner (a Croatian Cabernet and a Slovenian Riesling).
Tito impressed me as a gracious host and an informed conversationalist. Witty at times, he seemed to enjoy recalling past events. He was elegantly dressed; his suit appeared tailored on London’s Savile Row.,
I saw Tito next when George Kennan presented his credentials as American ambassador to Yugoslavia on May 6, 1961. After the official ceremony, Tito and Kennan sat down on a couch and Kennan began the conversation speaking Russian in which he was completely fluent. Tito was similarly fluent in Russian, having spent many years in Russia and having been married to a Russian woman. Kennan”s motivation was clear: . He hoped to dispense with interpreters. For Tito, language was very politicalno Russian, he told Kennan. So the conversation continued with Tito speaking Serbo-Croatian and Kennan English, and interpreters were required. (I experienced a similar situation on a later occasion when Tito visited the Belgrade Fair where the capsule in which John Glenn had orbited the earth was displayed. At one point the interpreter had difficultiesso I switched to German knowing that Tito had worked as a mechanic in Austria several times. His German, while fluent, was that of an auto mechanic. Tito stopped and we reverted to the interpreter helping us along. I have often wondered why he did not wish to speak German. My best guess: He knew that his German was not the German spoken by diplomats).
Within months after Kennan presented his credentials, a major crisis in American-Yugoslav relations arose. The first Non-Aligned Conference was slated for September 1, 1961 in Belgrade with Tito as its host. In the latter part of August, Kennan received a telegram from Secretary of State Dean Rusk asking him to inform the Yugoslav authorities that the US Government expected that there would be no passages in Tito’s speech at the conference which could possibly be interpreted as anti-American. Kennan carried out his instructions and was assured that Tito’s speech would not in any way be objectionable to the United States. I went personally to the Press Center to pick up an advance copy of Tito’s speech. There was nothing whatsoever contentious therein..
However, when Tito actually delivered his speech, he inserted a couple of sentences which aroused Kennan’s ire. Kennan wrote in his ”Memoirs”: ”At the Belgrade Conference he made things very difficult indeed for me by inserting into his major speech, at the last moment and after a hasty conference with the Soviet ambassador, a statement, obviously not originally contemplated, to the effect that he ‘understood’ the reason why the Russians had just violated (as they hadunilaterally and without warning) the nuclear test ban agreement.”
Kennan was not in a forgiving mood. For months he avoided meeting Tito, even leaving town when such a meeting seemed unavoidable.
It was John Glenn’s circumnavigation of the earth on February 20, 1962 that once again brought the two men together. Shortly after the event, USIA sent a film describing the American space program and Glenn’s exploit to all diplomatic missions overseas urging them to show the film at the highest governmental levels. We invited Tito at a date and time of his convenience. Tito’s office responded asking that we show the film in the cinema of the White Palace, the President’s residence (which had previously been King Peter’s official domicile). We accepted and I suggested that Ambassador Kennan lead our group. Kennan hesitated at first but soon warmed to the idea. Accompanied also by information officers Gerard (Gerry) Gert and Ray Benson, we went to the White Palace where Tito cordially greeted all of us and immediately involved Kennan in a lively discussion. When the film showing was over, it seemed that the ice was broken and Kennan and Tito were on good terms again. And, indeed, the cordial relationship continued until Kennan left Belgrade to return to Princeton in July 1963. The good relations between the two men lasted until Tito’s death with Tito visiting Princeton while on a state visit to the United States in 1971.
The space program was of particular interest to the Yugoslav hierarchy. We had the feeling that the Yugoslavs loved the idea that John Glenn was able to accomplish a task that Yuri Gagarin had achieved a year earlier on April 4, 1961. When the actual capsule in which Glenn had orbited the earth arrived in Belgrade for exhibition at the Belgrade Fair, it was driven on a truck bed through the streets of Belgrade. We could not have asked for better public diplomacy coverage.
Tito came to the Belgrade Fair for a relatively extended visit. I found him well versed in the space program expressing satisfaction that the United States was able to repeat the Soviet exploit of a year earlier. Looking closely at the capsule, I remember him saying that he would have to lose many kilos to squeeze into it. In this connection, I told Tito this joke: “After Gargrin’s exploit, he was received by Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev who asked him: Comrade Gargarin, when you were up there near heaven, did you feel that God exists? Gargarin replied: Yes. Brezhnev sighed and said: I was afraid of that. A few months later, Gargarin visited the Pope. During their conversation, the Pope asked Gargarin: When you were up there near heaven, did you feel close to God? Gargarin replied: No. The Pope sighed and said: I was afraid of that.
I was told that Tito repeated this story to his associates.
In October 1962, the United States was confronted by a major foreign policy problem: the Cuban Missile Crisis. President Kennedy was to give a speech on October 22 announcing that the United States would enact a naval blockade around Cuba. All American diplomatic missions were informed during the day that the speech would take place at seven pm Washington time. The American missions were asked to present a copy of the speech to the highest level of government at the time of delivery of the speech. That presented major problems for us in Belgrade. Seven pm in Washington meant one am in Belgrade. Moreover, the announcement of the forthcoming speech did not reach us until about three pm our time. Working hours in Belgrade were seven am to two pm. With Kennan out of town, Eric Kocher, the charge, was unable to reach anybody in the Yugoslav government.
All officers were asked whether by any chance they had private phone numbers of Yugoslav officials. None had. Yugoslav officials would not give foreign embassy officials their private telephone numbers. This was just not done in a communist society. However, I suddenly remembered that my wife had the phone number of the wife of the Minister of Information. So I called my wife asking her to call Mrs.Osolnik and ask her to tell someone in the foreign office to call Eric Kocher. Literally, within minutes, a breathless chief of protocol called Kocher who explained that he needed to see Tito at 1am tomorrow. The protocol chief told Kocher the time had to be changed. After a number of further phone calls the appointment was set for 11:30pm.
I remember Eric Kocher sitting in his car in front of the embassy waiting for the speechstill encryptedto come over the teletype machines. It never did fully but by that time the news had leaked that President Kennedy was to announce a blockade of Cuba. Eric Kocher left for the White Palace at 11:20, saw Tito who appreciated President Kennedy’s courtesy. It was a short and pleasant meeting with Kocher back at the embassy well before midnight.
In October 1963, at the invitation of President Kennedy, Tito went on a state visit to the United States. He was very pleased with the arrangements and the bilateral talks, particularly those with President Kennedy. Apparently, a telephone call from the President at the conclusion of the visit- received by Tito while he was in his ocean liner cabin in New York awaiting the eastbound transit across the Atlantic (Tito did not enjoy air travel) - made a deep impression on Tito. Tito had stayed at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City before his trip home, where loud and insulting anti-Tito demonstrations could be heard all day. Kennedy called Tito to apologize for these occurrences.
After Tito’s return home he assembled his cabinet and gave a highly positive description of his trip, particularly the personality of the President. He asked his associates whether there was anything he could do to please Kennedy. Yes, the foreign minister interjected: we could agree to a Fulbright agreement.
Ever since my arrival in Belgrade three years earlier, Harold Engle, our cultural officer, and I pursued negotiations with the purpose of reaching consensus on an American-Yugoslav Fulbright agreement without success. Suddenly, the doors were open and an agreement was reached and signed in the presence of Senator J. William Fulbright who had traveled to Belgrade for the occasion.
Tito was the last head of state who saw John Kennedy alive. Three weeks after Tito’s return from the United States, the American President was assassinated. His death made a deep impression on Tito and indeed on the Yugoslav people. Tito let it be known that he wanted to come to the American embassy to express his condolenceshe had never visited an embassy before. More than that: Tito wanted to discuss Kennedy’s death with the ambassador. Kennan had departed a few months earlier and the new ambassador had not yet arrived. Eric Kocher was the charge.
A date and time for Tito’s visit were arranged. His secret service personnel came to ascertain where Tito would be while at the embassy. Eric Kocher’s office was on the second floor. An antiquated elevator was used to get to the second floor. The security detail immediately objected to Tito riding in that old elevator. A quick decision was made that Kocher would receive Tito in my office which was situated on the ground floor. The visit lasted an hour. Tito was quite emotional about Kennedy’s death and told us of his successful visit to the United State a month earlier and the deep respect he had for Kennedy.
I saw Tito next when our new ambassador C. Burke Elbrick presented his credentials to Tito on March 7, 1964. The atmosphere was cordial and Tito and Elbrick seemed to like each other. We all were together again at the Zagreb Fair in September 1964.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson was looking for new ways to bring the Vietnam war to an end. Governor Averell Harriman thought that perhaps Tito’s intervention with Ho Chi Minh might lead to talks. Harriman who then had the title of Ambassador at Large decided to speak with Tito. When Tito became aware of the purpose of Harriman’s forthcoming visit he was not pleased. He did not want to be involved in the Vietnam war. He was convinced that the United States was wrong in pursuing the war.
The meeting took place on July 31,1965 at Tito’s summer residence Brioni with Tito opening the meeting accusing the United States favoring the wrong people, such as Chiang Kai-Shek and Syngman Rhee, whereupon Harriman interposed by adding Marshall Tito, immediately coloring Tito’s face crimson. The substantive talks ended inconclusively with Tito saying that he would contact Nasser of Egypt as to whether he might wish to speak with the Vietnamese. Suddenly, Tito pointed at Harriman and asked him how old he was. Seventyfour was the reply. Tito got up and left the room returning a few minutes later with a dusty wine bottle from the year 1891. The bottle was opened and wine was enjoyed by everyone. Harriman and Tito established a friendship and saw each other several times before Tito’s death in 1980. Harriman’s wife, Pamela Churchill (Winston’s daughter in law) told me in 1992 that she and Averell visited Tito in 1979 at which time Tito predicted that after his death, Yugoslavia would fall apart. As indeed it did.
I saw Tito last in Washington in 1971 while he was on a state visit to the U.S.during Richard Nixon’ s presidency. We exchanged pleasantries, reminisced about previous events and wished each other the best of health.
Tito visited the United States once more, in 1978, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency.That visit occurred five years after my book “Tito. Mihailovic and the Allies. 1941-1945” was published which, I understand, had aroused Tito’s ire because it revealed that during World War II Tito’s Partisans had had a secret meeting in 1943 with representatives of the German High Command. Throughout the years, Tito and his associates had accused General Mihailovic of having “negotiated” with the Germans and indeed had executed Mihailovic in 1946 as a traitor. Every effort was made to conceal the Partisan-German meeting and my revelation led to my book being banned in Yugoslavia and my name stricken from the Yugoslav embassy’s guest list.
As I was writing this article, I was informed that a Belgrade printing press has published my book in the Serbian languageforty years after its original edition was banned in Yugoslavia.
Tito died in May 1980 at the age of 88. His funeral was the largest state funeral in history .The press reported that it was attended by 4 Kings, 6 Princes, 31 Presidents (Jimmy Carter did not attendhe sent his mother), 22 Prime Ministers and 47 Foreign Ministers from 128 countries around the world.
Jovanka Broz, his wife, a Serb from Croatia, a Partisan during World War II whom he married in 1945 and his steady companion at all important international and national events, Yugoslavia’s “First Lady”, died on October 20, 2013 at the age of 88 in Belgrade, friendless and penniless.
Sic transit gloria.
I shall always be grateful to George Allen for having selected me to serve in Belgrade and for having introduced me to one of the most fascinating personalities of the 20th century.