Josip Broz, better known by his nom de guerre Tito, was a tough warrior who had been a member of the Soviet Communist Party and the Soviet secret police years before he was able to break Yugoslavia away from Stalin’s grip. Although by the 1960s, relations with the United States had improved, Averell Harriman was tasked with the unenviable duty of discussing Vietnam with him. The conversation started off on a bad foot and seemed to get even worse when Tito suddenly left the room, apparently in a huff.
Walter Roberts was assigned to Embassy Belgrade in the 1960s; he was interviewed by Cliff Groce beginning in September 1990. Read our in-depth feature on Averell Harriman as well as about Ambassador Charles Elbrick’s four days as a hostage in Brazil.
“It was very clear that this wasn’t going to be a productive meeting”
ROBERTS: One little anecdote: In 1965, Harriman — Governor Averell Harriman — came on behalf of President Lyndon Johnson to Yugoslavia, to try to persuade Marshal Tito to play an intermediary role between the United States and North Vietnam. Despite the fact that U.S. relations with Marshal Tito had enormously improved, this was a highly dubious undertaking since Vietnam was the sore point in our relationship. Tito was deeply unhappy with our role in Vietnam — he said so all the time — and he was, I think, upset that Lyndon Johnson put him, as it were, on the spot, sending as high level a figure as Harriman to Yugoslavia. He knew very well — he had heard from his ambassador in Washington — that what Lyndon Johnson was after was an intermediary role.
The meeting took place on the island of Brioni, where Tito had his residence. Tito was clearly in a bad mood. He opened the meeting by telling Harriman that the trouble with America was that it always supported the wrong people. Harriman, adjusting his hearing aid, inquired what Tito meant by that. Tito replied by naming Chiang Kai-shek, Syngman Rhee.
Whereupon Harriman interrupted and said, “And Marshal Tito?!”
Tito got all red in the face. He hadn’t expected that answer from Harriman. But things soon calmed down. Tito, of course, didn’t give an inch. It was very clear that this wasn’t going to be a productive meeting.
Suddenly, out of the blue, Tito turned to Harriman and asked how old he was.
And Harriman said, “Seventy-three.”
“So am I,” Tito said, and got up and walked out.
Here we were, not knowing what had happened. We asked Tito’s chef de cabinet whether the meeting was over. He said he didn’t know, and suggested that we should wait a few moments.
A couple of minutes later, Tito came back with a dusty old bottle of wine. It came from a former Austrian part of Yugoslavia, from Marburg, which is now Maribor, and well-known wine country [now in Slovenia, at right]. The date was 1892.
Tito opened the bottle, and everyone was served. The interesting part is that while Tito and Harriman were of the same age in the summer of 1965, they were not born in the same year; Harriman was half a year older. He was born in November 1891 while Tito was born in May 1892. In any case, it was a 73-year-old bottle, which Tito offered to drink with Harriman.
Q: How did it taste?
ROBERTS: It was a very heavy wine. In some respects it tasted more like cognac.
The meeting ended on a good note. Everybody was a little bit high. There was the air attaché’s plane, a DC-3, that took us from Brioni, from the Pula airport, down to Dubrovnik, where Mrs. Elbrick, Mrs. Harriman, my wife and the air attaché’s wife were waiting in the Argentina Hotel.
Suddenly, [Ambassador] Elbrick, the perfect Foreign Service officer, turned to Harriman and suggested that a telegram be sent to President Johnson about the meeting. Harriman asked Elbrick to draft it and Elbrick in turn asked me. And this was the only time in my life when I drafted a telegram to the President of the United States. (Laughter)