U.S. Diplomatic Couriers: Behind the Iron Curtain
In the 1950s, Diplomatic Couriers traveled tens of thousands of miles per year, crossing borders both geographic and cultural. The United States and the USSR, once allied at the end of World War II, had become adversaries in what became known as the Cold War, as Soviet power crept further west across Europe. Events like the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in 1948–1949 caused U.S officials to grow increasingly wary of the possibility that Western European leaders might deal with their security concerns by negotiating with Stalin and the Soviet Union.
The Truman administration looked to military alliances and humanitarian assistance to bolster the security and prosperity of Western Europe and cement Euro-Atlantic ties. The North Atlantic Treaty signed in in 1949 brought the United States, Canada, and much of Western Europe into a collective security alliance. The Marshall Plan, proposed by Secretary of State George C. Marshall, directed $12 billion toward the rebuilding of Western Europe, regenerating industrialization and bringing extensive investment into the region.
The Soviet refusal either to participate in the Marshall Plan or to allow its satellite states in Eastern Europe to accept the economic assistance helped to reinforce the growing division between the East and the West in Europe. The U.S. Diplomatic Couriers felt this division acutely as they carried diplomatic pouches from behind the Iron Curtain in Western Germany to our missions in Budapest and Bucharest, and from Helsinki into the Soviet Union to support the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The couriers traveled in pairs to ensure their own safety and the security of the diplomatic pouches.
In the mid-1950s, Diplomatic Couriers often used the route of the famed Orient Express train to deliver classified messages and material to U.S. missions behind the Iron Curtain. Though stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, the couriers held an apartment in Vienna which they used as a base for the “Vienna Detail,” a 3-day journey by train to Budapest and Bucharest and back. On this journey, the U.S. couriers were not the only diplomats on board. Because of the difficulty traveling behind the Iron Curtain, couriers from across Europe shared the passenger and sleeping cars and often spent their off-duty hours together.
In this short documentary, the U.S. Diplomatic Couriers talk about the journey and their personal impressions of what it was like to travel further behind the Iron Curtain during this era.
Note: The original Orient Express was a train route from Paris to Vienna established in the late 1880s by Compagnie Internationale de Wagon-Lits, an international hotel and travel logistics company. The route was later extended across the continent from London to Istanbul, and several connecting routes were added including the Simplon Orient Express, which reached into Italy, and the Arlberg Orient Express, which ran from Switzerland to Greece.
During the early years of the Cold War, service continued behind the Iron Curtain; however, the trains that traveled these routes were not the famed luxury Wagon-Lits. Instead, both the trains’ rolling stock and on-board service were provided by national railways.
- Rebecca A. Ross, Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Department of State
NARRATOR: In 1918, the Diplomatic Courier Service was established to support the work of American diplomats by ensuring that classified messages and materials were delivered safely and securely to U.S. embassies and consulates around the world. Over the 100 year history of the Courier Service, this mission, critical to the national security of the United States, has not changed.
In the 1950s, before the onset of the Jet Age, this small group of couriers traveled tens of thousands of miles per year, often spending months on the road. Following World War II, as tensions between former allies grew into the Cold War and the Soviets consolidated power on their Western border, it became increasingly difficult to reach our posts behind what became known as the Iron Curtain. Because of a continued mutual respect for international conventions on diplomatic relations, even during these complicated times, diplomatic couriers were among the few still able to travel across these borders. Each week, they took the Orient Express from Vienna to reach Budapest and Bucharest.
MR. JAMES VERREOS: Oh, the Orient Express. That was, of course, a fabled train ride. We never got to ride it all the way to Constantinople or Istanbul, but we would pick it up in Vienna and ride it in from Vienna to Budapest to Bucharest. Then we would turn around and come back out.
Sometimes inside Europe, we’d take train travel because it was more effective and quicker than trying to take an airplane, especially when we were providing service to the Iron Curtain countries, which required two couriers to be on a trip for security reasons. We were carrying classified material.
Top secret wasn’t always something that was written. In those days before the technology we have today, we had to have code machines, equipment that was highly classified.
Outside of the Iron Curtain you traveled solo. For example, when delivering the pouches to Southeast Asia or Africa or South America, the courier went out on trips solo. However, trips to the Iron Curtain, we were always in pairs so that there was no possibility that the couriers would be unable to have control of their pouches.
MR. KENNETH COOPER: I think I’ve got the history right. The reason we’d make paired trips behind the Curtain goes back to immediate post-war. An American courier fell off the train, and he was killed, and his pouch disappeared for a while. And there was some, I think, a little suspicion that this was not an accident. Henceforth, the Americans decided it would be a paired trip, and I think the British did the same.
MR. DONOVAN KLINE: You have to have somebody with the pouches at all times. We’d get out and walk up and down the aisle in the Wagon-Lits, but that was as far as we ventured. On the same sleeping cars, there were other couriers from other nations—Italian, French, Russians. When they were outside of Russia, they traveled paired, just like we did behind the Iron Curtain.
That’s one of the things about the Russians. They wanted the same treatment in the West that we were given behind the Iron Curtain, which was decent for the most part.
MR. PHILIP OLIVARES: Well, your job was to take care of those pouches. I don’t think we ever felt that somebody was threatening or was going to try to steal them, but we always have to assume that.
In fact, I remember Jim Vandivier and I got off the train with our pouches. There was quite a load. We pulled over one of these baggage cars that was already half loaded, the porters said, and there were Russian pouches on that. There were two Russian couriers. So here were the four of us. He’s got the pouches, watching our own bags. There was only one baggage car. We tried to get a separate one, but they said no, and that was it. I thought how ironic—the four of us in this situation.
We were stationed in Vienna. There were two of us then. Monday we would go into Budapest and spend the night, and then the next day on to Bucharest.
MR. COOPER: Vienna itself was a lot of fun, and so was Budapest. Except for the brief hiatus in Bucharest, which was dull as dishwater, the rest of it was fun.
MR. ERNEST HOHMAN: We used the Arlberg Orient Express, which came out of Paris but we picked it up in Vienna. It’s just a delightful city. It showed the grandeur that it had as part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, even though it was somewhat damaged from the rubble after the war.
[MUSIC - JOHANN STRAUSS - “THE BLUE DANUBE”]
The Austrians—one of the first things they thought was important to rebuild was the Opera House. And now to see the change, the transformation, the rebuilding that was going on there. Loved going to the opera.
Of course, the Danube is not blue. It’s only in the eyes of a poet and a composer.
MR. KLINE: I attended my first and only opera, sung in German, which I did not understand, and as a result never went to another opera in my life. [LAUGHS]
We did a lot of eating and a lot of sightseeing. All of us did, because it was a fantastic city.
I repeated that Vienna detail several times thereafter in later years. It was always enjoyable for me because we got out of the air for a while. It was restful. On those trains, all we did was sleep, eat, and play chess or pinochle or something like that.
MR. VINCENT CELLA: The courier would come down from Frankfurt every week or twice a week to give us the stuff to take in. Then we’d go shopping to get our food to take on the train, made sure we had enough wine or scotch and reading material, cards, et cetera. And we’d leave at night from the West Bahnhof in Vienna and made one stop, I guess it’s called the North Bahnhof. And then into the border, which on the Austrian side is Nickelsdorf. And it would stay there for some long time. So, even though Vienna is not that far from Budapest, it was an overnight trip.
MR. VERREOS: The train, the Orient Express, would set up a single sleeper car for the diplomatic couriers. That would be the British, Queen’s Messenger, King’s Messenger, the Italians, whoever—any courier from any nation that was making a trip would be on that train.
MR. HOHMAN: The other people in the sleeping compartments, they were all diplomatic couriers from various countries. There were Italians and the British and the French also, because the air travel was not possible, particularly during the winter months there.
We usually dressed rather casually at that point. And the Italians would dress in their silk pajamas or a silk robe and so on.
The English, which were the Queen’s Messengers, they were great storytellers, raconteurs, and had fantastic tales to tell.
MR. COOPER: The Queen’s Messenger was usually a very senior officer, an army officer or a military officer or sometimes civil servant. They traveled in pairs also, but their junior courier was usually a retired policeman, so there was a very distinct difference in rank. So when the Queen’s Messenger had his dinner, the number two courier would lay out a white tablecloth in this compartment and proceed to serve him his meal. We got a kick out of that.
MR. OLIVARES: The primary car for us was the old Wagon-Lits Cook. They handled all the sleeping cars. The first class car was practically all couriers. There was a dining car next to it, but the food was awful. We had to cook our own food, so we all carried a little alcohol stove we’d set up in a sleeping compartment and we’d cook on that.
MR. VERREOS: The ride in would leave early in the evening, and we would have dinner while we were on the train. We had developed an international society of couriers, and we’d set it up in advance so that the couriers from this country would bring in an entree, the couriers of the other country would bring in the salad, who would bring in the dessert, who would bring in the wine, and what have you. And we would just merely leave notes so that next week’s couriers—we didn’t know who they’d be, but you’d get into Vienna and say, hey, it’s this week, I would say, well, if Ken and I were on a trip, we got the note at the embassy we were supposed to provide the wine. We knew there’d be x number of couriers on board, and we’d bring that much on.
Coming out was totally different. The train left Bucharest near midnight, so everybody was sacked in, and it was dawn by the time you arrived in Vienna.
MR. CELLA: We slept in one compartment on that portion of that trip. Then it would cross into Hungary, and that town was called Hegyeshalom. After they stopped there for a long time, we’d go into Budapest, and we’d arrive there in the morning.
MR. KLINE: We’d get off the train and have a full 24 hour period in Budapest where we could shop, look around. And the parliament building there was magnificent, especially from across the river where you could see it so plainly.
MR. HOHMAN: It was an interesting city. It was still showing war damage. The bridge across the Danube River was destroyed. It was laying there in the river itself. But, you see, it had a glamor to it yet, and it was trying to restore that. And it was and exciting and interesting city with a bit of the schmaltz that you had in Vienna, Austria too, with evening dinners that were excellent and violin music to go with it.
MR. COOPER: We’d have a layover sometimes, a day or so in Budapest, which was fun. It was still a lively city, and it was before the revolution.
MR. OLIVARES: Budapest itself—I loved the city. A lot of people consider it the Paris of Eastern Europe. It still had some damage, though, from World War II, actually. And then after the revolution, of course, it really got torn apart.
In spite of communism and all the restrictions they imposed on their society, they were a really fun loving people. I remember going to a nightclub and seeing the people dancing and having a ball, and I thought, this can’t be. Everywhere else is usually so drab, like Moscow itself. To see those people enjoying themselves and having fun, they were a fun people.
MR. VERREOS: Hungary was the nicest place in the Iron Curtain for couriers. Even though you were always under surveillance by the local KGB—they were called AVOs in Hungary—they were less intrusive than they were in Moscow.
MR. CELLA: We spent the whole day and the night at the Hotel Duna, which was really a nice hotel right on the Danube. They had a nice restaurant, a little nice bar, and there was a guy there that we used to refer to as AVO Joe, and he would always befriend the couriers. And we were sure that he were being paid by the AVO just to keep an eye on the couriers, but we all sort of liked the guy. He was helpful, a funny old guy.
And you enjoyed walking around Budapest, even though it was still pretty well shot because of the revolution. In fact, they did more damage, I think, during that time than they did during the war. What I always understood was that the Russian troops didn’t want to fight against the Hungarians, and the AVO were tougher on the Hungarian citizens than the Russian soldiers.
The revolution started right in front of the Hotel Duna, and the two couriers were stuck in there for about a week. They were Woody Vest and Phil Olivares.
MR. OLIVARES: We got off the station. We went to the Duna Hotel. The Duna is the word for the Danube, of course. It was right on the river. It was quite a hotel. It’s an old fashioned hotel with the high ceilings and all that. We liked the place. And I remember Woody Vest and I, we went to see the opera. They were doing “Eugene Onegin.”
We came back from the theater, and then we got into the elevator, and we heard some noise and such about. We thought something’s going on around town. I think we heard a shot or two, if I’m not mistaken. But I remember—and in the elevator was the New York Times correspondent and his wife.
And we said, well, we asked him, I said, “You know what’s going on?” He said, “Oh, it seems to be a minor thing,” and all that. Well, [CHUCKLES] we went up to our rooms. The next morning, we got a call from the Legation saying “Stay put. You’re not going anyplace. Everything is closing down. We’re in the beginning of an insurrection.” And that’s when it started. And the shooting starts. And we just stayed put a couple of days. There was British couriers in there as well.
There was some shooting. I think I walked out to see what was going on at one point. I walked a few feet, and I heard bullets whizzing by my ear, and I said, I better get back into the hotel. And then I realized it was really bad. And they even brought in a Russian soldier who had been hit by a sniper. One of the Hungarian insurgents was up on the roof.
The Legation wanted to evacuate most of the personnel. In fact, most of legations—the British, as well. They put us in Embassy cars with dependents, and we drove out of Budapest with the flag flying on the fenders like Ambassadors’ cars. But I remember the people applauding and clapping when they saw Americans and British flags. All around them were Russians.
I remember, even in the hotel, the men behind the desk, the reception desk, kept saying, “Where are you Americans? Why don’t you help us?” They said, “Your Voice of America tells us to rise up, do something about it, and now we need your help.”
RADIO COMMENTATOR: [SPEAKING HUNGARIAN]
RADIO COMMENTATOR: [SPEAKING HUNGARIAN]
MR. OLIVARES: I felt so embarrassed by all of this, in a sense. Why aren’t we helping these people? And I felt a little guilty that we were like rats leaving this ship. There were applauding but we’re not really doing anything for them. We should be doing something for them, and we should have our tanks in here. But I know that’s not something for me to decide on.
And I always felt a little guilty about that going out. We’re going out to safety, and these people got to be here and live with the Russians on top of them.
MR. CELLA: The longest part was when you got on the train the next morning to Bucharest because that was overnight from the morning to the next morning. After going all through the Ploiesti oil fields. Oh, you see them burning the gas off the top. It was really something. Yeah, that was pretty close to the end of the trip because they were up still in the mountains. Not long after that, you came down into Bucharest. You’d get in in the morning, and leave late at night. So you’d spend the whole day in Bucharest.
For most of the time I was there, we stayed with the Military Attache, no matter who he was.
MR. KLINE: We would arrive in Bucharest early in the morning, six o’clock or so, something like that, and we would go to the Military Attache’s residence. He provided us with breakfast. They couldn’t get fruits and vegetables and stuff like that. We would carry oranges into them and give them oranges or bananas.
The diplomatic colony there, the Western diplomatic colony, had a six hole golf course at a club that they had where they had a bar. And you could play six holes. And I did. I played six holes of golf there more than once. A place for the Western community to relax without anybody around spying on them. And I’m sure there was plenty of that behind the Iron Curtain at all times.
I don’t know whether I was followed. I wasn’t looking for it. But we were briefed beforehand: “Don’t fraternize. Don’t get caught with any women behind the Iron Curtain, period.”
MR. CELLA: Well, we went out a lot of times to that diplomatic golf course, especially in the good weather. We would bring cigarettes and razorblades and instant coffee to pay for our golf lessons. And there was a little lake there where you could go out in a little boat to help spend the day because it wasn’t that long and we left again that night. We had to check in and get the pouches and leave to go back.
MR. COOPER: I found Bucharest a very uninteresting city. Now they were really behind the Curtain there. I can’t recall having any interaction at all. For their sake and our sake, it was better not to. That was my impression. Perhaps if I were to go back today, I’d be dead wrong.
MR. HOHMAN: Bucharest—yeah. We had time there too, and it’s a poorer country. It was a dictatorship for quite a while under Ceausescu. As we well know, the people were really dominated with the secret police, although the communist elite led a very gracious and a very luxurious lifestyle. I found it rather a poor city, by contrast even with Budapest which still had a glory aspect to it.
MR. CELLA: Going back it was a little different. We would get some food in Bucharest, buy bread and buy this and buy that at these little outlet stores. You know, you had to stand in line to buy some stuff. It was depressing, in a way—for the people, I mean.
As we came back on that trip, we would leave in the night from Bucharest, get in the next night into Budapest. The train would stop in Budapest for quite a long time. You could see that red star in the foggy night mist. Not until the next morning we’d end up back in Vienna.
MR. OLIVARES: We’d enjoy those trips. I think we all did. I still think it’s a more civilized way to travel, by train. Train stations were fascinating in those days. They had all the excitement that airports took on. I remember in Europe, the railway stations themselves—they were big, cavernous affairs, mostly wrought iron and such. There was an aura about them all that fascinated me. I felt so proud to be part of all of that.