Where the Rubber Meets the Road: PD As It Is Practiced Abroad

In part to examine the history of the American liberation of Western and Southern Bohemia and in part as a convenient cover for American military attaches’ travel to border areas and other districts of military interest, in the late 1970s the Defense Attaché’s Office at the American Embassy in Prague began a series of automobile trips each May to towns and villages in Western Bohemia liberated by U.S. forces. A similar series of journeys was organized in November annually to visit crash sites and monuments to fallen U.S. airmen in Slovakia. Initially only Defense Department personnel made these journeys, but in the early 1980s other personnel from the Embassy, including the U.S. Ambassador joined the motorcade to Bohemia in May each year. The visits to the sites where markers once stood and to the small towns and villages was very low key and attracted little notice, except for the ubiquitous STB (Statny Tanjy Bezpechnosti or State Secret Security) detail which shadowed the Americans. Where a monument still remained, a small wreath “from the American people” was placed on the marker.

In 1983, as the newly arrived Public Affairs Officer (PAO), I joined the motor trips in May and November, which by now included a few key Embassy officers. I realized the potential that these events might have for the U.S. to remind the people of Czechoslovakia of America’s role in their liberation from the Nazis and also to demonstrate the interest and concern on the part of the U.S. for the oppressed people of this communist state. Thus, beginning in 1984, the Embassy’s May and November “wreath-layings”—as they came to be called—took on a higher profile and a different character. Embassy employees and their families were encouraged to join the motorcades, which grew much larger with up to two dozen vehicles moving through the back roads and byways of Bohemia. Dates and times of the “wreath-laying” ceremonies were announced through the Czechoslovak Service of the Voice of America (VOA)—the most widely listened-to foreign radio station in Czechoslovakia. The Czech and Slovak services of Radio Free Europe (RFE) also publicized the events. The Press and Cultural Service of the U.S. Embassy (as the U.S. Information Service was called in Eastern Europe and the USSR) was able to obtain thousands of Czechoslovak–American crossed-flag lapel pins from a U.S.–Canadian émigré organization the Czechoslovak National Congress, as well as Voice of America bumper stickers, lapel pins, ballpoint pens, and other “souvenirs” for distribution to well-wishers along the route.

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