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What You May Not Know About Your Father, The Spy


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“Your father was working for the CIA,” said Bogdan, husband of my second cousin, a provocative person, especially after several bottles of local Slovenian wine. 

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Nine of us were finishing a pleasant dinner in Ribić, a seafood restaurant on the Adriatic coast near Trieste in 2010. We were reminiscing about the years our American and Slovenian families had known each other, a relationship that began in 1951, when I was brought to Yugoslavia as a ten-month-old.  My parents were in London for a year on a Fulbright grant when my father decided to visit the Slovenia mountain village his parents left in 1911.

Bogdan’s claim stopped the conversation.  “Preposterous, out-of-the-question,” I laughed.

The accusation, unthinkable at the time, stayed with me. I knew the surface details of my father’s life—birthplace, college, Marine Corps, Harvard-educated New School professor—but he was secretive about his private life, and when I was a boy the whole of his work life seemed remote and mysterious.  I went off to college, started a career, had my own children, and there was never a good occasion to ask about his early life. My parents divorced in 1969 and his remarriage helped close the window onto his past with my mother. My parent’s lives in their twenties were a sort of pre-history, but with time I discovered new things about them. The secret affairs they kept from me—and from each other.

I remained curious about the Yugoslav trip, but the closest I got were grainy photographs taken during the three-week visit—my parents among smiling relatives in a country recovering from war.

Several years after Bogdan’s allegation, I looked into his claim. 

***

My parents—both passed away—never said much about the trip except to recount pleasant stories of being embraced by distant relatives who’d been partisans in the war. There were old photographs of me in the arms of a kindly Slovenian aunt who cared for my brother and me while my parents disappeared for several weeks. 

I turned to my father’s memoir, published the year he died. I had skimmed it, but my resentment about the divorce made it difficult for me to read without getting angry at how little he said about the family and how much about himself. He devoted one chapter to the 1951 trip.

The trip was financed by the Voice of America through an old college friend who worked as a propaganda analyst, and wanted a study on Yugoslav reactions to BBC, Radio Moscow, and VOA broadcasts. The VOA was based in New York, but funded and managed from Washington by the State Department. Official support for the trip was rejected by the State Department. George V. Allen, the American ambassador in Belgrade, was concerned that formal sponsorship, if it came to light, would affect fragile relations between the countries. Tito and Stalin had split in 1948, and the US was secretly looking for ways to pull Yugoslavia further from Soviet influence. Frank Wisner, head of the CIA’s covert arm, was secretly negotiating with the UDBA, Yugoslavia’s ministry of state security, to sell military equipment to help Tito resist a Soviet attack.

“I cavalierly agreed to do this study on my own time and at my own risk,” my father wrote. “It did not occur to me that this might be regarded as a form of spying, or that I was an accomplice in Cold War propaganda operations. I was interested in the $500.”

I was startled to read how he thought he’d been engaged in a ‘form of spying.’ I requested a copy of his 115-page VOA report from the archives at The New School where he’d taught sociology for more than 40 years.

My parents’ trip went forward without official State Department clearance, but he was fortunate to get the assistance of the British Foreign Office. They lived at 10 Highgate West Hill in London on the first floor of an old mansion that have been converted to apartments. Peter Carey, their neighbor, befriended my parents, sharing his coal ration during the extremely cold winter of 1950-1951. 

Carey, I discovered, was a British military intelligence officer in WWII in Yugoslavia who spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian. He fought in the Balkans 1943-1945, living with partisans, harrying Germans, and interfering with their communications right up to D-Day. When the war ended Carey was temporarily assigned to the British embassy in Belgrade, and then he chose to return to Oxford where he completed a degree in classics. When Carey befriended my father, he was in the British Foreign Office, head of the Yugoslav desk.

Carey readily made himself helpful on the study. He translated Serbo-Croatian transcripts of VOA programs to help my father formulate questions, and he organized personal letters of introduction to high-placed Yugoslavs and British embassy staff. As my father recounts, letters were sent to Zinka Milanov, the world-renowned Croatian opera singer; Lawrence Durrell, the writer, then British Attaché in Belgrade, and a distinguished linguist at the University of Zagreb who was Tito’s English teacher.    

The trip started in June 1951. My father wrote: “Readied for the expedition with wife, two babies, and a bicycle, we boarded a train at Waterloo Station headed for Paris for a connection on the Simplon Orient Express to take us to Ljubljana. Even in third class, the accommodations were comfortable until we reached the Yugoslav border at Trieste where we were required to change from French to Yugoslav cars. The Yugoslav train was more like a cattle car outfitted with wooden benches.”

They entered Yugoslavian checkpoint just beyond Trieste, becoming among the first Americans to enter Slovenia by this route since the end of the war. They were interrogated by border guards. Two years earlier, Yugoslavia downed two US Air Force C-47s over Trieste, killing one crew, claiming the American planes had illegally entered Yugoslav air space.  But people on the train were cordial to the Americans. My father wrote that old Slovenian peasant women insisted on caring for my brother and me, and my parents were offered bread, wine, and slivovica, the local plum wine. Old and young alike wanted to engage the returning Slovenian in sign-language and broken-English conversations.     

My mother was aware of the dangers. Before leaving London, she wrote to a college friend: “Cross your fingers that war doesn’t start while we’re there.”

***

Cold War tensions were at a peak in 1951. The year before, North Korean troops streamed across the 38th Parallel, initiating the Korean War. There was fear in Washington and London that the Soviets would invade Yugoslavia to forcefully reclaim it. The CIA’s National Intelligence Estimate 29, written for Truman in March 1951, concluded there was a “serious possibility the Soviet Union or its satellites, Rumania or Hungary, would invade Yugoslavia.” The British Chiefs of Staff made a similar assessment.  Yugoslavia had a long land border with his hostile Communist neighbors and there was concern that Danubian plains north of Belgrade were vulnerable to armored attack.

American intelligence in Yugoslavia was a one-man operation in 1950. The CIA opened its station in Belgrade in 1948 and the first Chief of Station was a junior officer who operated under cover as an interpreter for Ambassador Allen. His principle qualification was that he knew Serbo-Croatian. He operated a translation service with the British embassy, sending Washington whatever intelligence he gleaned from English translations of Tito’s notoriously long speeches and whatever casual intelligence he picked up in bars and restaurants. His job, he explained, was “to go and just soak up Yugoslavia.”  But he was one man. The joint translation service with the British assured that whatever went to Washington also went to Peter Carey, head of the Foreign Office Yugoslav desk.

The CIA upgraded its station in January 1951, bringing in Louis Charles Beck, who had been an FBI agent undercover as a US Army captain liaison to Soviet military leadership in Moscow during WWII.  He joined the CIA upon its creation in 1948 and came to Belgrade with knowledge of Russian and familiarity with Soviet military thinking.  His directive was to “do everything they could to move Tito away from Stalin.” 

My parents arrived in Ljubljana at a risky time and they knew the dangers. Yugoslavia’s formidable secret police, the UDBA, had rounded up more than 100,000 Yugoslavs with Soviet sympathies and thousands had died in prison.

My father’s host in Ljubljana was Marjan Sadar, a cousin, and a textile factory manager. My grandparents had generously supported their Yugoslav relatives during the war and my father was embraced with great warmth and affection. He was introduced to uncles, aunts, and cousins, some of whom were look-alikes. Same nose, same blue eyes, same chin. He visited Kropa, the small mountain village his parents had left in 1911, and he was given access to many people who shared stories fighting Germans, and their views of Tito and Stalin. 

Sadar secured the use of a state-owned car (one of only a few cars in all of Slovenia), with a driver provided by the Slovenian Communist Party Chief, husband of another cousin. My older brother and I were left in the care of my father’s aunt, Lojzka, and her daughter, while my parents traveled to Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, and through the countryside. Of course, as a ten-month old, I have no memory of that time. It was only while researching the 1951 trip that I learned Lojzka survived Dachau and her unmarried daughter lived with the stigma of a wartime relationship with a Nazi officer.

My father conducted forty-two interviews, each several hours long, in homes, airport waiting rooms, cafes, farms, and offices—secretly typing up notes at night on a portable Smith Corona. The subject of radio propaganda was of intrinsic interest to Yugoslavs at the time. Yugoslavia was being bombarded with messages from the VOA, BBC, and Radio Moscow and there was little trust in the official news presented by state-controlled Yugoslav radio stations.

He talked with factory workers, party leaders, the old bourgeoisie, famers, plant managers, students, and relatives.  His interviews touched on radio listening preferences, but much of his questioning touched on highly sensitive political topics. The 115-page report addressed the consequences of Tito’s break with the USSR, opinions toward America, and gripes about Tito. Taken as a whole, the report is a snapshot assessment of popular opinions toward Cold War adversaries—the United States and the Soviet Union.   

He kept his work secret. He wrote: “When doing my interviews, I was unable to take notes for the obvious reason that the study did not officially exist. Keeping a record of the interviews was a problem…I had to remember as much of an interview as possible until I could record it. I kept a visual image of an interview’s setting and memorized key words and phrases in order to reconstruct the account. I recorded my notes whenever I could, usually late night in the privacy of my bedroom. Once recorded, I hid the notes in my baggage.” He thought of himself as an amateur spy, he wrote. And he had a good cover. “No one bothered to probe into the personal affairs of a father traveling with a wife and two children.”

One Slovenia relative wrote to me. “Your parents with chauffeur and interpreter came to Rijeka and left your brother with us (you were in Radovljica alone) and they went down the Dalmatian coast to Split.  The story is, your mother was partying with some students and spent a night in the police station. It would be interesting to see what the UDBA archives say about your parents. I am sure they were followed very closely.” 

Now, as I think about my parents, both twenty-nine years old at the time, conducting their research and feeling the danger, I do wonder: what were they thinking, leaving their two infant sons in the care of women who were almost strangers, aware the UDBA might be following them. Records of the UDBA, like those of the Stasi, have been made available to the public, and I asked the Slovenia Ministry of Culture to examine its microfiche and papers records for any mention of my parents. I received a reply that all archives were searched and no records were found, followed by a final comment: “The absence of UDBA records indeed seems to be a little surprising in relation to the nature of his work.”

The final 115-page typed report has cross-outs and one page is mysteriously stamped CONFIDENTIAL. The page caught my attention. I had found a copy of the report in my father’s papers in The New School’s archives. The report makes political assessments that would have been of great interest to American intelligence officials who lacked direct knowledge of Yugoslav public opinion.  One chapter describes how trusted, word-of-mouth reporting through informal channels occurs along train lines and boats that travel up and down the coast. Another chapter addresses the resentments of the disaffected bourgeoisie, factory workers, and farm laborers toward the Communist Party. The report goes beyond radio listening preferences; it provides a road map for influencing Yugoslav public opinion.   

He submitted the final report shortly after returning to the US. He wrote: “To my surprise, within a week I had a call summoning me to Washington for an interview and debriefing with a State Department functionary on the Yugoslav desk.” 

My older brother, who interviewed our father at the end of his life, said, “He did go to Washington DC to brief the State Department. That always struck me as an indication that his spying was considered important enough to merit a high-level cross-examination.”

Was my father working for the CIA? Or even MI6? In spite of my father’s claim that he was an ‘amateur spy,’ I am reasonably certain he used the phrase figuratively. The report went to the State Department in Washington and probably also to Carey in London. Given the cozy relationship between the State Department and the CIA in 1951, I suspect the report found its way to the CIA. 

I didn’t fully answer the question that I set out to explore, but in the process of looking into Bogdan’s claim I discovered things about my father—his first encounters with relatives with whom he maintained a life-long friendship, curiosity about his roots, the appeal of adventure in a dangerous place, and his willingness to put his family at risk. I thought I knew my father when he was alive. He’s been dead more than a decade, but not a year goes by that I don’t discover something about him that makes me realize that I hardly knew him at all.

*

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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