It seems that the moment Shirley Temple Black sets foot on Czechoslovak soil, things start to happen.
In 1968, she was here when Warsaw Pact tanks rolled into the country and troops fired on civilians. In 1989, she was named U.S. ambassador just before the November revolution. In 1992, she listened as the nation discussed ways to cut itself in half.
It’s no wonder, then, that the child-superstar-turned-diplomat described her three-year mission here as ‘the job of my life.’ As she prepared to return to the U.S., Czechoslovakia’s official American-in-residence looked back on a period of immense change for the Czech and Slovak people.
‘I think there’s a wonderful future for this country,’ she said. ‘Or maybe wonderful futures for two countries.’
She confessed that she is troubled by talks of a Czech and Slovak split, just as she would feel about two friends filing for a divorce. But she stopped short of predicting disaster in the republics and said that the U.S. is ready to work with whatever state or states the people accept, as long as changes are accomplished by legal and constitutional means.
‘The elections have made it quite clear that there will probably be a division between the Slovaks and the Czechs. I feel very sad about it,’ she said. ‘We hope that whatever evolves from this, the process will be done in a constitutional manner with particular emphasis on human rights for minorities and for all of the people.’
She expects a split to slow the country’s ability to enter the European Community and other international organizations. But she has not been telling leaders here what they should do to please the United States. Temple Black said that the U.S. Embassy is almost exclusively working with issues of trade, economics, and commerce.
In terms of her own work, she said the 1989 revolution meant a shift from focusing on human rights to dealing with economic questions. She said that her work at the embassy has been dominated by business issues, including setting up a chamber of commerce among US businesses, opening a commercial office, bringing scholars and economic experts into the country and seeing 70 to 100 visitors from U.S. companies every week.
When the ambassador was asked whether American investment has been slow to materialize in this country, it was apparent that the question has been put to her many times. ‘When I got here, [American capital represented] less than two percent of the [total foreign] investment. There were five US companies here. Now there are some 300 companies in the country, the investment is approximately 1.5 billion dollars, and we’re second to Germany. So I’m very proud of the progress we’ve made.’
While she is, in general, pleased with the American presence in Czechoslovakia, there have been moments when Temple Black was far from proud of her compatriots. She described watching in horror during the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion-when she was in Prague to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research-as soldiers shot and killed a woman in front of the Intercontinental Hotel. Moments later, an American tourist came in with a ‘souvenir’
piece of shrapnel and talked about how he couldn’t wait to show the folks at home.
As for her own experiences, Temple Black seemed to be completely at ease with her famous childhood and said she had no particular desire to hide it. She said that her childhood fame has always been more of an asset than a liability in the diplomatic service. When she arrived here, she found that even the Iron Curtain hadn’t stopped her legend from spreading.
‘When I first met [former President Gustáv] Husák, he said, ‘There are two reasons I wanted to have you come here and present your credentials right away. One: I want you to be able to go to the celebration of the Slovak National Uprising, and two: I wanted to see how you had turned out.’ He told me that he and his wife loved my old films. And I said to myself, ‘whatever works.’ ‘
When the ambassador compares the Czechoslovakia of today with the place she was assigned to in 1989, she is filled with emotion.
‘It was an oppression you could see and feel. What I noticed on all of my walks when I first got here…was posture. The posture of the people was as though they were being crushed. You could physically see the problems. And you could see that they were not supposed to talk to foreigners; they didn’t even talk to one another. You would ride on the Metro and it would be silent. It was spooky. It was strange. Even the children were silent.’
After the 1989 revolution, she said, people she had assumed to be silent types were suddenly writing long letters and engaging in long discussions with her about their lives and their country.
When the issue of the country’s screening law came up, Temple Black demonstrated her skill as a well-seasoned diplomat. While not directly criticizing the policy of the government, she compared the law with the practices of the notorious American Communist-hunter Joseph McCarthy and went on to attack McCarthy and the atmosphere of fear he brought to America in the 1950s.
Temple Black said that she’s not at all disappointed in the amount of U.S. involvement in central Europe. As an example of her mission’s success, she said the number of Fulbright scholars working in this country has dramatically increased and major educational exchanges are now taking place between the two countries. She described herself as a diplomat who likes to work with teams, but knows she is the one to take the heat if things go wrong. She apologized for knowing very little about the style of her successor Adrian A. S. Basora.
From here she returns to her home in California to put her house in order and help President George Bush with his re-election campaign. She also plans to work on a follow-up to her first book, Child Star, that would trace her life as a diplomat.
‘It really is time to step back and try to get in perspective everything that’s happened. To me it’s all merging,’ she said.