by Robert Baker
Vienna was snowed in when I first visited there in 1972. Twenty years later I was back in Vienna to relax and to direct the Regional Program Office’ excellent staff. Then Moscow melted and the Office had huge amounts of new work to help set up new embassies in former communist countries and to produce translations in languages for the Baltics, the Balkans, Central and Eastern Europe.
But back in 1974, the brown Mercedes airport taxi dropped me off at my hotel just in time for Saturday supper on my first visit to Vienna. The flight from London was easy.
A windy, chilly few blocks away from my hotel, I stepped into a green-fronted, old-fashioned café. Immediately, the room disappeared behind my fogged glasses. Pocketing them, I saw twenty wooden tables, a few booths next to the windows and a glass case with beautiful pastries. It was smoky and warm. I ate a delicious sauerkraut, pureed potatoes and ham dinner. Bread and a pat of butter (each pat came billed separately). Strong coffee with a slow cigarette washed off the tiredness of all day travel from London.
Refreshed, I stepped out into the dark to see something of the city. The gusting wind now blew whirling blankets of fat, white snowflakes. While I had been eating supper, snow had already gilded church towers and made white dashes on the window sills of looming apartment houses. It rounded up the tops of parked cars and barren tree limbs in the park across Ringstrasse. Flakes swirled in wide, falling circles around the lamps swinging on wires over the middle of the street. I pulled up my collar, trapping a couple icy flakes on my neck, pulled down my cap, tucked my glasses into a pocket and walked for an hour past the ghostly but immensely solid buildings. Almost no traffic plowed through the foot deep snow except the white-capped trams that glided swiftly in dead silence. Vienna was very beautiful in the snowstorm, a grand first visit.
Back in my hotel room, I noticed my shoes were sodden. I was first chilly, then sneezing and that night, shaking, with my first Viennese flu. Really sick next morning, I dressed, went down and asked the bellman for a delicatessen nearby. He said there was none. Turns out, Vienna does not have American delis at all. I told him I badly needed a bowl of hot chicken soup and asked where I could find it.
He directed me to a Jewish club not too far away. It was up a bare wooden stairway. At the top was a dingy room about thirty feet square. Old guys in yarmulkes grumbled over chessboards and coffee at a dozen little tables. Food came out of a window in a wooden wall where you ordered from the fat woman behind the counter. She was grumpy that I wanted chicken noodle soup. All they had was flanken and potato pancakes. I took it. It was good and filling, not the same as chicken soup, but the flanken hit the flu right in the head. However, back in my room, an hour later, I was shaking again. I called for a doctor who showed up that afternoon with some pills, told me to stay in bed and left. I was wretched, alone and thinking I would be unable to work tomorrow, Monday.
I shook for about an hour, then sure I would miss work next day, called John Jacobs, the Director of the Regional Program Office (RPO) in Vienna. He had asked me to come to Vienna. I had never met him but had worked with him via cable. He ran the Office that supplied all our Embassies in Communist Europe with speakers, exhibits, printed materials and other support. I had been sending him several American “acts” from the U.K. for a year. He wanted me to tell all our cultural officers from Communist countries what I could supply them. They were gathered for an annual briefing/consultation in Vienna. That was partly a way to get them out of their gray communist world into Vienna, but also had some real programming usefulness.
I called John to say I was pretty sick and might not make it to the meeting on Monday. He drove over at once to my hotel, and bundled me into his car for the half hour drive to his house. His wife was Russian and had been a nurse. She gave me a cup of hot tea with lemon and honey and put me into a white, fresh, featherbed. The kindness helped as much as the medicine. In fact, I was able to attend the meetings beginning at noon next day.
As I gave my pitch to the twenty American cultural guys from Eastern Europe, I noticed how gray, pasty and subdued they looked, and wondered if they looked just like the people they worked among under communism. I listened as they reported on American orchestras and ballet troupes visiting their countries. It took complex work on their part to arrange that. They had none of my British freedom to barge into political parties, universities, museums, theatres, etc. with my American cultural and political programs of speakers, shows and seminars. Communist governments hemmed them in tightly.
I had more freedom than that, even in Africa, where I worked under the Marxist regime in Mali. I had managed to work around official restrictions on pro-American events, but these guys had much stricter controls to face. There was also lots of communist inertia about getting anything at all done. A standing joke in Eastern Europe was, “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work.” In 1990, I became Director of RPO in Vienna. I learned how exasperating work could be in then collapsed and but formerly tightly controlled countries.
I stayed behind a couple days at John’s house to work out details on American exhibits, speakers, films and video shows to send from London on tours for our Embassies in Eastern Europe.
I also met his Viennese staff, toured the city and loved its music, museums, cafes, coffee houses, trams, 1,200 “palaces” left from the Austro-Hungarian Empire days, beautiful gardens, wineries, even the beautiful brown Danube. I never saw it blue.
Back in London, at the end of my four year tour of duty, I was about to be transferred to Cambodia whose capital was being mortared by rebels. To stay in London, I sent back a detailed proposal to set up a new London office to do all the work I was already doing, sending speakers, exhibits, films, videos, etc. around the world to our Embassies. I described in detail the officer who would best fit the new job, me. The Agency bought my proposal. Then the Agency named someone else to head the new office and still wanted to send me to Cambodia. Instead, I got myself transferred to Bonn and then Berlin. Other assignments followed but I always remembered Vienna.
I never forgot John’s beautiful office, the excellent coffee in china cups on a silver tray served by his cute secretary, his experienced, hard- working staff, his grand government supplied home, his official driver and car, and how he sat smoking a pipe, and giving orders with his feet up on his desk. His staff did outstanding work under his direction.
Back in London, just three of us, my assistant, my secretary and I worked like fiends all day and into the evening seven days a week. We wrote all the telegrams, travel orders, requisitions, etc. needed for travel inside the U.K. and abroad for our “acts.” We laid on the receptions, publicity, reports. We found our speakers, films, videos, exhibits, performers, poets, and audiences. The three of us, I see in my records, organized 110 events in 1971.
I wanted one day to sit with my feet up on John Jacobs’ desk, sipping my coffee and calmly issuing orders. I must add that almost all my work in all my posts was self-generated. Still, I remembered Vienna and hoped it would be my last post before I retired.
In 1991, at 56, I finagled to get Vienna, my last post before retirement. However, I had no sooner put my feet up on my desk, sipped my pretty secretary’s excellent coffee and begun to edit a magazine story, before Moscow’s Evil Empire shockingly collapsed.
The Soviet Union, which had beaten Hitler’s 120 divisions in WW II, and in the Cold War had ruthlessly crushed mass uprisings in Poland, Hungary, and East Germany suddenly went soft. Nobody expected it, least of all the Kremlin itself, and certainly not any Western intelligence service. I attended an intelligence assessment gathering in Washington not long after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Representatives of our major intelligence allies were there to discover why they had not foreseen the collapse. Brits, Germans, French, Israelis and others confessed their failure. Nobody knew what caused their failure, though faulty analysis of known information was the obvious culprit. That is often the problem in intelligence work.
In addition, no Western agency had a broad network of Russian sources inside the Soviet Union. Lacking that, political reporting was done mostly by Embassies with their narrow windows into Soviet life, deliberately kept limited by the Soviet government. The CIA and others concentrated on military, technical, and top political opinions because those were very important. Lacking human Russian spies, we could do somewhat via technical means. Those avoided the limits strictly enforced by the Soviet government. By contrast, the Soviets had long-term top- level spies in the U.S., the U.K., France, Germany, etc. Despite that, Moscow often misinterpreted their gathered intelligence.
In Vienna, The Regional Program Office was an independent organization, that reported direct to USIA in Washington. It included a printing house with four big four color presses, a 30- strong total of experts in translation, editing, design, exhibits, photography, printing, administrative, library and computer work. Our work was entirely to help U.S. Embassies in Communist Europe.
The collapse of Communism marked by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall meant two big things in my view. Hurrah, for the Evil Empire’s millions of oppressed people, and second, alack for me. After thirty years working against Communism, I wanted an easy last assignment for my personal part of the battle. I had suffered from workaholism my whole career and wanted to retire without intense work pressure.
Twenty years earlier, I had seen the RPO Director, John Jacobs, sitting at the same desk I coveted. His staff published some excellent magazines, and produced exhibits and other support for eight Central European and Russian posts. He did excellent work and still had time to enjoy Vienna. Now I was Director of the Regional Program Office.
Its flagship magazine, the monthly, America Illustrated, was directed mainly at the Soviet Union, but also appeared in Polish. It was excellent. It even won American publishing prizes. USIA in Washington, selected the best articles from American magazines and bought the rights. RPO translated and printed them in Russian and Polish. It was one of the premier ways the U.S. had to get past Soviet censorship. Under our bilateral accord, Moscow limited distribution of America Illustrated to 50,000 Russian copies. However, copies passed from hand to hand, so an estimated 50 people read each copy, until it fell apart. Moscow was allowed to circulate 50,000 copies of Soviet Life, its propaganda magazine, in the U.S. in exchange. It sold so badly that American agencies sometimes bought copies from newsstands to keep the circulation up so the Russians would not reduce the number of copies permitted to America Illustrated.
RPO also typeset a quarterly intellectual magazine, Dialogue, in Russian, Polish, Romanian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Czechoslovakian, and Hungarian and printed four versions. RPO translated six versions and two were translated at post. Dialogue was a major piece of work for RPO and of significant influence among elites in the countries where it circulated.
RPO also made handsome photo exhibits for American Embassy public libraries in Communist countries. Our shop printed up to wall size color prints, about 8×12 feet. The mostly smaller photo exhibits hung in the American Embassy public library windows. We published the occasional art catalogue for Ambassadors whose official residences held outstanding American art, e.g., for Spaso House, the residence in Moscow. We also did routine printing (letterhead, envelopes, invitations, etc.) and computer work for all our posts. We e-mailed the daily official USIA Wireless File of U.S. news and views, and canned official feature stories, every morning to all posts. We made exhibits for many posts to mark special events.
All that worked beautifully until 1991. I had expected to sip my excellent coffee, give directions, do some editing, officiate at staff retirements and work just 40 hour weeks until I retired in four years. Perfect! I had always worked very long hours and deserved an easy job at the end of my career.
However, Moscow’s reformist Communist General Secretary, Mikhail Gorbachev, appeared on the Soviet scene. He perestroiked the USSR to collapse while trying to rescue its creaky administration and discredited politics.
Hard-line Kremlin men seized him at his dacha in the Crimea one weekend just a month after my first sip of that great coffee in Vienna. They muffed it. When I read that the coup had failed and Gorbachev went free, my heart sank for me, though it rose for the millions suffering under Communism.
I believed that the hard line Communists’ failure to overthrow Gorbachev meant the end of the USSR Empire and freedom for the Evil Empire’s people and its suppressed nationalities.
I knew that would mean also, inevitably, new countries arising from the ruins of Moscow’s empire. Quite soon, new American Embassies I felt would be established in the new countries. The USSR did soon break up into 17 countries. The new governments welcomed American information efforts. So did new non-communist governments in the Baltics and the Balkans.
For RPO, I believed that meant we needed to translate, and to print many new languages from our little shop. Printing in local languages would demonstrate U.S. political respect for the new non- communist governments and their peoples. That work was almost completed within a year, not bad for an American bureaucracy.