by Milton Iossi
The country of my first posting no longer exists. Yugoslavia, “Land of the South Slavs” in Serbo-Croatian, began in 1929 as a successor nation to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and continued under three different forms of government until, having lost much of its territory, the remnants finally became Serbia and Montenegro in February of 2003. This history could, of course, have been foretold by any one looking at a checkered map of the ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups in that part of the Balkans that had been parts of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires before World War I. The remaining loose alliance of Serbia and Montenegro also appears headed for the divorce courts shortly. Kosovo is still technically a part of Serbia, but is administered by NATO and the UN to keep the tenuous peace. Yugoslavia is, needless to say, not likely to reappear as a unified concept in our times.
In the summer of 1962, however, Yugoslavia was an important nation on the front line between the Soviet bloc and the Free World, as well as a leading member of the non-aligned nations. Tito was a Communist dictator, but he was “our” Communist, having been expelled from the Comintern by Stalin for his apostasies. Belgrade was thus an important capital in the Cold War and President Kennedy had appointed George F. Kennan, (see my “George F. Kennan: A Personal Appreciation” in the American Diplomacy archives), the architect of our containment policy, to be his ambassador to this westward-looking nation. Yugoslavia was even experimenting with economic decentralization, a departure from pure communist theory. The U.S. materially supported Tito in his defiance of Stalin, of course, and USIS had large and important facilities in Yugoslavia in those years to win the hearts and minds of the Yugoslavs.
Although I had passed the written and oral exams for the Foreign Service some years before, I came to my first post as USIS Executive Officer in Belgrade as a lateral entrant at a higher grade as explained in a previous entry in these pages. (See, “From Soldier to Diplomat” in the American Diplomacy archives under Foreign Service Life.) I had a first-floor, corner office in the Chancery at Kneza Milosa 50 in Belgrade and an apartment in the adjoining embassy complex a few steps away. The Counselor for Public Affairs, Walter Roberts, had the other first-floor corner office with the Deputy PAO in between us. We also had a fairly large USIS building in the center of the city, with library, press and cultural offices, etc.; a Branch Post at Zagreb in Croatia; a Library in Novi Sad in the Vojvodina (the agricultural heart of Yugoslavia); reading room collections in Ljubljana, Slovenia and Skopje, Macedonia; and a large audiovisual, book program, and printing facility elsewhere in Belgrade.
One of the first things I noticed around the city was what appeared to be piles of brown lumps of mud on the sidewalks everywhere. Someone explained that that was “coal” and I was thus introduced to brown coal, or lignite, which polluted East European cities with its incomplete combustion and left a pervasive smog that even hardened Los Angelinos would have been horrified at breathing in cold weather. My embassy apartment was, of course, in the “soup” of smoke that covered the center of Belgrade for days on end. This misery was mercifully ended when my colleague, Larry Eagleburger (later our first career officer to be Secretary of State), had a change in family status and I, having two children with me at post, inherited his house in the so-called Diplomatic Colony on a hill away from the center of the city. My neighbor and friend, Bill Beauchamp, the Administrative Counselor, and I would carpool from home in the morning sunshine, spend the day in the fumes of the center city, and come home to sunshine again in the evening on our hill in Dedinje.
Early in my tour we received word that the Inter-Parliamentary Union would be meeting in Belgrade along with a list of US delegates. At lunch one day, the Admin Counselor offered me first choice of who I would want to serve as escort officer. He suggested Senator Ted Kennedy, who was probably the best known at that time. I had heard good things about Congressman Gerald Ford as a possible VP candidate, however, and, being from the Midwest myself, asked for the Fords. (Kennedy stayed holed-up on the Dalmatian Coast and never made it to Belgrade.) The Fords turned out to be charming, modest, and gracious guests and I was delighted with my choice. At the airport, he apologized for wearing his Hushpuppy shoes (made in his Michigan district) for the arrival ceremony and I had to tell him I had almost worn my own favorites to the airport. When they first came to my apartment for dinner, he took off his jacket and announced that it was “Jerry and Betty.” The Fords asked for martinis before dinner and I remember her asking for them “on the rocks.” This was new to me at the time, but Betty said that was all the rage in Washington now. I often thought about that incident later when she became a crusader for curing alcohol abuse and founded the Betty Ford Clinic.
We accompanied them to many social and cultural events and for restaurant meals during that week and found them to be excellent company. Gentleman that he is, he couldn’t help noticing that Yugoslav women often didn’t shave their legs at that time and finally asked me about it one night at a restaurant. I confirmed that shaving wasn’t a universal practice in Eastern Europe and that even television advertising for shoes often displayed some very hairy feminine legs. Despite all the personal political attacks on him later, I found this Yale Law graduate to have a very inquiring mind. He also asked many serious questions and served as an excellent representative of the US Congress. Needless to say, I was delighted when the fortunes of politics later put this essentially honest and decent man in the Oval Office at a time of historic political upheaval. A personally dedicated picture of our 38th president occupies a proud place on my study wall.
Returning from a visit to our post in Zagreb by air one evening, a colleague and I arrived late at a party in the Embassy complex to find the other guests distressed and in painful silence around a shortwave radio. When we asked what had happened, they told us that President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas and appeared to be dead. The party sort of disintegrated after that and we all were left to our own thoughts. In the morning, I went out to a stationery shop and bought some blank books to place in the Embassy and USIS building lobbies for mourners to sign. We set up tables with a picture of the President surrounded by black crepe. The Slavic peoples are very openly emotional and this tragedy affected them greatly. There were throngs of mourners all over the country and candles were burned even on sidewalks in front of our facilities for this popular young President of the US.
One of the earliest callers at our condolences book in the Chancery lobby was Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito, himself. The staff alerted us and we went out to receive him. After signing the book (he had already lowered the flag on his own residence to half-staff), he lingered to talk of his recent visit to the White House and the Kennedy children. We invited him into the PAO’s office, which was the largest on the first floor (unclassified area) and he accepted, clearly touched by what had happened in faraway Dallas. The Ambassador was out of the country and we called the Charge d’Affaires, Bob Cleveland, down from upstairs to greet him. Clearly we needed to offer him some hospitality and I slipped into my own office and got a bottle of Scotch I had secreted away in my credenza and some small glasses on a tray. Yugoslavs customarily drank endless rounds of powerful slivovitz (140 proof plum brandy), followed by small glasses of juice, then small cups of strong Turkish coffee during office calls or negotiations and one needed a hardy constitution to keep up with them. I asked my secretary to get some coffee from the Embassy snack bar and took the drinks in. The President accepted one Scotch and then another before the coffee finally arrived. In the meantime, he continued to talk about his visit to the Kennedy White House and we had a fairly wide-ranging conversation. He probably stayed a total of 45-minutes to an hour, but he was clearly quite comfortable with us.
Tito was an elegant dresser and a very charismatic figure, compared to the dowdy Communists of the USSR. He often wore a military cape over his splendid Marshall’s uniform. When Nikita Khrushchev came to Belgrade on a state visit, for example, he came down from the plane in an ill-fitting, rumpled suit and wide tie, to be received by Tito in an immaculate Saville Row suit and sun glasses standing by his Rolls Royce. Yugoslavs held Russians in amused contempt, in fact, and enjoyed endless jokes about their country cousins from the East.
Despite Tito’s ability to hold these Yugoslav states together by force and will power, it was clear to all of us serving there in those times that when he left the scene the bitterness remaining among these peoples would doom Yugoslavia as a federal republic. We used to joke that Tito was the only “Yugoslav” (being half Croatian and half Slovene) and that everyone else was a Serb, Croat, Slovene, Macedonian, Bosnian, or whatever. In fact, Yugoslavia did manage to hold together for eight or nine years after Tito died in 1980 to the surprise of most of us. The breakups have been violent, of course, and have sown, unfortunately, new seeds of hatred for the future among the South Slav peoples.
We operated a very extensive cultural program, in those days, with many prominent Americans passing through. I remember, for example, meeting the great dancer and choreographer Martha Graham and her companion Bebe de Rothschild on the tarmac at the airport and handing her a bouquet of flowers. In the transfer, the flowers were dropped and Martha, although almost seventy at the time, bent quickly from the waist and swept them up before I could move a muscle. (Incidentally, before her marriage, Betty Ford had been a dancer with Martha Graham’s troupe.) We were privileged to work with other noteworthy Americans such as Louis Armstrong, Arthur Rubenstein, Kirk Douglas, the world champion Boston Celtics, etc. Yugoslavia had an impressive cultural life of its own with the Zagreb Biennale, the Dubrovnik Festival, as well as active operas and orchestras. Belgrade had a fine small opera house and it was often possible to park your private car nearly in front before the performances, as traffic was very light in those days.
Many movies were being made there in the sixties, in part because they still had so many horses available for movie scenes. Hollywood stars such as Kirk Douglas, James Mason, Richard Widmark, Telly Savalas, and Anthony Quinn frequented our American Club bar and restaurant as a kind of home away from home. On the whole, they were friendly, quiet, and appreciative guests. Anthony Quinn, star of Zorba the Greek, Lawrence of Arabia, etc., was an avid art collector and frequently was found bidding against us for the works of popular local painters, such as the folk artist Obican from Dalmatia. He was also fond of our bar and the last time I remember seeing this fine actor and collector was clinging to a lamppost on the side street beside the Embassy compound early one morning. He will always be Zorba to me.
Yugoslav Communism was always something of a mysterious amalgam of east and west to me. While studying Serbo-Croatian, I tried reading the important speeches of Tito and other leaders and could make no sense of them. The words were strung together like music, but seemed to have no discernible message. The papers, of course, were all government-controlled. I took this puzzle finally to a prominent Yugoslav that I knew. He was surprised and told me that they didn’t have any meaning. He said, “Why are you wasting your time with this stuff. No self-respecting person here reads these newspapers.” That ended my attempts to glean meaning out of any official statements. Secret police surveillance was pervasive and our phones were all quite clumsily tapped. I remember picking up my phone and hearing my last conversation being replayed somewhere more than once. Visiting state enterprises, likewise, showed terrible inefficiencies and managers who seemed to have no real authority over their employees. Quality control, even among the wineries, seemed to be almost non-existent, although some of the wines were quite good, as were the hams and salamis purchased there for the use of our armed forces in Europe.
Being technically in Europe, we frequently left our Communist paradise for Western Europe by car for shopping and R & R in Italy, Austria, and Germany. Officially, Yugoslavia was crossed by a “superhighway,” called the Autoput, from east to west. The truth was, however, it was entirely two-lane and, although supposedly limited-access, was often littered with stalled trucks, unmarked and unlit, in the traffic lanes, and horse-drawn farm wagons, again often unlit at night. Truck drivers would even stop in the traffic lanes, turn off the lights, and relieve themselves beside the road. To take the long, straight stretches at high speeds was an invitation to injury and death and some of our friends and colleagues met with tragic misfortunes.
As a first post, Belgrade was a good choice in those exciting times (1962-1965) and I feel that I learned many things that have later stood me in good stead in the Third World as well as in Western European assignments. I have to admit that it pained me to see our bombing of these unfortunate peoples over the Bosnian and Kosovo problems in recent years, but we could see the potential breakup coming clearly forty years ago. I sincerely hope that the current enforced peace can prevail and that the South Slav peoples can find their way to freedom and prosperity in the future without hatred and violence dividing them any more than has already occurred.
Milton L. Iossi, a retired Foreign Service Officer, spent much of his later career in the Islamic world. He lives on the Carolina coast and is a very active Rotarian, notably chairing the Diplomatic Protocol Committee of Rotary International.