Saturday, January 10, 2015

Walter Roberts: Postwar Austria -- "It Was Not Easy for Some of the Austrians to Talk to People Like Me."

Following the war, Walter seized an unexpected opportunity to move from the VOA's Austrian Service to the State Department's EUR Bureau.  Returning as a U.S. official to his birthplace in order to launch a public diplomacy program was an invigorating yet bittersweet experience.

…As early as the Paris Conference of 1947, I think, it was decided by the four Powers – now France was included – to achieve an Austrian treaty.  And each of the four powers appointed a deputy for Austria.  Most of these meetings took place in London.  They led nowhere because of the famous “nyet” of our Russian colleagues.  In 1948, the foreign ministers met at the General Assembly session of the United Nations in New York, and the Americans and the British and the French asked -- I think it was Vyshinsky at the time – “What about an Austrian treaty?”   And he said, well, we have to have this, this, this and this.  Which were enormous burdens on Austria.  Austria had oil wells in the eastern part, which the Russians exploited.   

But it was decided that the Austrian deputies of the four Powers meet at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in September of 1949, and Foy Kohler sent me, because I served on the Austrian desk, to be the VOA correspondent at these Austrian treaty talks. 
Samuel Reber
There was the deputy for Austria, a high-ranking Foreign Service officer with the name of Samuel Reber, who one day said:  “Why don’t we have a cup of coffee?”   And he and I had a cup of coffee, and he said to me:  “What’s your future, Walter?”   I said, ‘Well, doing my job at the Voice of America.”  He said, “I have a feeling you can do more than that.  I would like you to meet a friend of mine who is Deputy Assistant Secretary for European Affairs with the name of Llewellyn Thompson.  I’d like to arrange a meeting.  Is that alright with you?”  I said:  “Well, wonderful, thank you.”  So the meeting was arranged, I went to Washington from New York.  Tommy Thompson couldn’t have been nicer.  In the middle of the conversation, he goes to his desk, pulls out a chart, and that was the organizational chart of the Department of State.  He puts it in front of me and says:  “Which job would you like to have?”  And I said, “Mr. Secretary, all I want is to work on the Austrian desk.”   He said:  “Well, let’s see whether this can be arranged.”  Three months later, Martin Herz, who was very well known in the Department, got an assignment as political officer in Paris.  The job came open, and I was asked whether I would come to Washington.  Indeed, it was an internal transfer, because people who worked in the Voice of America were State Department employees since 1945.  So for me it was basically a transfer from New York to Washington, and I came to the Austrian desk in the spring of 1950.

Wiener Kurier, 1945
What happened was that the four Powers had decided to change their arrangements in Austria, as they did in Germany in ‘49.  The principal officer of each country was a high commissioner.  After 1950, it was an American general, in charge of American troops in Austria; he was the high commissioner.  There was an American legation, not an embassy, which had certain functions, limited.  But it was decided to put these two together, and put them under civilian control.  And I was asked to establish a USIS program, the way we had it in France or in Spain.  Public affairs officer, information officer, cultural officer etcetera and so forth.  I was absolutely amazed at the size of the program.  The Army was in charge.  For them, information and cultural and press programs were minor expenditures.  I remember when I became deputy area director for Europe when USIA was created in 1953, the program in Austria still at that time was $7 million a year.  I always loved to say we spent one dollar on every Austrian.   Whereas the program in France was $280,000.  That was the ordinary State Department/USIS program.  They were not large.  Germany and /Austria had extremely large programs.  I think the table of organization that I left when I came back to Washington was 50 or so people.  

Now, we ran a newspaper in Vienna, the Wiener Kurier.    We ran a three radio station network, Red-White-Red.  Surely, there was more money because of these factors.  But it was a great program, and I must say, in fairness, the Army people that ran the program from ’45 to ’50 did a very adequate job. 

Red-White-Red poster, 1954
Those two media I just mentioned, Red-White-Red -- we had a very strong radio station in Vienna which of course covered the Soviet zone and the Soviet sector of Vienna.  And we had a newspaper, which, while often in difficulty in the Soviet zone, was distributed.  So our main purpose was to quiet and perhaps nullify the influence of the Soviet information media upon the Austrians.  But we had a feeling we were winning this war, handily.  Austrians did not like the Russians, oh no. 

…I will tell you that when I try to explain to my American friends or others the atmosphere in Vienna – I went back the first time in 1947, then again in ‘48 and ‘49 and then on this assignment in 1950 – was extremely well presented in “The Third Man.”  This was not a propaganda film.  This is what Vienna looked like, how the Viennese behaved, it is a remarkably good job, “The Third Man.”  The Austrians themselves were very much aware of the background and the role that they played as German citizens.  There were Austrians who reached the upper level of the Nazi party.  Some of the commanders of the concentration camps were Austrians.  It was not easy for some of the Austrians to talk to people like me.  They felt full of guilt, yet also wanted to explain.  There are different emotions. 
Vienna Street Scene from Carol Reed's "The Third Man"
I think I can say – and I think my friends will confirm this – that I went about it as objectively as one can.  I tell you very frankly my wife would not.   I, for instance, would never have accepted, although it was offered me, a job as public affairs officer in Vienna, particularly in those early days, because I don’t think my wife could have been objective.

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