Tom Dine: I thought moving RFE out of central Prague would be to submit to terrorism

Tom Dine, photo: Ian Willoughby

Tom Dine is the president of the American Friends of the Czech Republic. The Washington-based foreign policy expert doesn’t have Czech roots. But he does have close ties to Prague, having been president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty – which is based in the city – between 1997 and 2005. After a tree-planting ceremony by the Woodrow Wilson statue opposite the Main Train Station, which the American Friends helped restore, Dine shared some recollections of his years in the Czech capital.

Tom Dine,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“It was a glorious time to be here. Václav Havel was the president. There was eagerness and vigour to try to restart the institutions of a free country.

“And it happened – so it was exciting.

“My wife and I loved being here. We even had our dog, who we adored, with us and she loved meeting Czechs on the sidewalks [laughs].

“She was a Border Collie. Unfortunately she died here, at the age of 16 and a half, and she is buried in the Prague pet cemetery.

“So that is an emotional tie.”

Otherwise, what are your strongest memories of that period leaving here?

“Getting to understand the Czech personality, the Bohemian personality.

“It’s a little different. Yes, you’re Western, yes, you’re liberal, yes, you have values.

“But the way you do it is different from the Poles, Hungarians, British, French, Germans.

“And we – and I include my wife in this – just liked very much this refreshing Czech personality, the Czech persona.”

So you were the president of Radio Free Europe when 9/11 happened and the barriers went up just outside the station’s building off the top of Wenceslas Square?

“Yes. I still have vivid memories. It was a tragedy, obviously; so many people lost their lives.

“But then the Czech government and the American Embassy here in Prague came to me and said, You’ve got to move.

“President Havel had established us in the former Communist parliament building, and charged us one dollar a month [laughs], so obviously it was symbolic.

“President Havel established us in the former Communist parliament building, and charged us one dollar a month.”

“So I was under enormous pressure to move Radio Free Europe from the building – and I resisted, for better or for worse.

“Because I thought it would be submitting to terrorism, to people I didn’t even know, but I was certainly horrified by what they had done.

“But I did surreptitiously begin to look around Prague for another location. But it had to be big enough to build a secure building, to build a secure perimeter around the building.

“That took some time, but finally an area was located. We dealt with a French architectural firm.

“And just before I left to go back to the US the radios moved from the former parliament building.

“Václav Havel had said, It’s iconic that you are in this building. And then when we had to move I said, It’s also ironic! [laughs].”

Practically speaking, was it a suitable building for a modern media organisation?

“We totally revamped it. We re-modernised the building.

“But it was never perfect, because it was never built for this function.”

You’re here today representing the American Friends of the Czech Republic. Generally speaking, what are the activities of the group?

“First of all, the American Friends of the Czech Republic is a civil society, non-profit organisation.

“When I returned to Washington I was asked to join by those who had founded the American Friends of the Czech Republic, during the debate on NATO.

Former RFE building in Prague,  photo: Dominika Bernáthová
“In 1995 the American Friends of the Czech Republic was organised by a couple of people who are here today.

“So I joined. I am not of Czech heritage. I have strong ties to Eastern Europe, yes.

“In fact, I call myself an Eastern European mutt. I’m part Hungarian, part Lithuanian and part Polish.

“I came to be a student of Central and Eastern Europe, certainly the former Soviet Union.

“This part of the world makes a lot of sense to me. It is an important part of the world and most people don’t pay any attention.”

Typically who are the members of the American Friends of the Czech Republic?

“We are a group of accomplished Americans, in New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, Texas – even somebody in the state of Alabama.

“All of us have a connection to the Czech Republic. We’ve lived here, we’ve worked here or we’re of that heritage.

“We care deeply that the US, a large, powerful country, has a close and strong relationship with the Czech Republic, which is a small country but with a lot of backbone.”

I presume the 1990s was the kind of heyday of the American Friends of the Czech Republic, given that you had Václav Havel, who was such a pro-Western leader here?

“It was a heyday in terms of knowing who was the leadership, and how meaningful Havel was, frankly.

“I’m part Hungarian, part Lithuanian and part Polish. This part of the world makes a lot of sense to me.”

“After that no-one of his stature has been the head of the Czech Republic.

“Having said that, as the world changes, globalism, the aggression of the Russians in Ukraine, etc., the US-Czech relationship is critical, and therefore what we do is critical.

“I spend time on Capital Hill, talking to members of the Congress, in the House and in the Senate, about the importance of Prague to the grand, multi-faceted alliances called NATO and the EU.”

Didn’t your organisation help to lobby for the Czechs to join NATO?

“Yes, as I said, that was the origin of the organisation, to lobby.

“I remember that time. I was working in the Clinton administration, in Washington, and the Poles, the Polish-American community was in Washington lobbying for NATO entrance. The Hungarian-Americans were lobbying for NATO membership, ratification by the Senate.

“And nothing was being done by the Czechs. So we took the bull by the horn and became citizen lobbyists on behalf of the Czechs joining NATO.”

What other concrete successes has your group had? For example, now we’re sitting basically on the statue of Woodrow Wilson by the Main Train Station.

“In the early years, besides NATO ratification by the US Senate, we got involved in putting up a statue of Masaryk in a very busy section of Washington, DC.

RFE headquarters in Prague | Photo: Khalil Baalbaki,  Czech Radio
“The statue came from the National Museum here.

“It’s a very busy area and every day people drive past: Who’s that? Tomas Masaryk. OK.

“So that’s important.

“There was a small village in the state Texas that had a fertiliser factory that blew up and destroyed a lot of people, a lot of buildings, including a Sokol that was there.

“Seventy-five percent of this small town were Czech-Americans.

“So we joined with the town, the Czech government and other Sokols and contributed a good deal of money to the revitalisation of that town.

“Then this statue, the Wilson statue, was devised.

“We worked closely with architects, planners, the city of Prague and Prague 1 to rebuild this statue.

“In 1928 there was a statue here which the Nazis tore down in 1941 and melted down the metal and made it into bullets. So it had a dark past.

“We wanted to revitalise the statue and to bring the two partners of 1918–1919, Woodrow Wilson and Tomas Masaryk, together.

“We all have to keep our eye on the ball, in this case freedom and democracy, not only here but also in Washington.”

“So we are the builders of two statues, one in Washington and one here, of the leaders of the two republics.”

You mentioned Sokol. Somebody told me that something like 200 Sokols were coming to Prague from the US for the Sokol slet, or Sokol meeting, in July. Does your organisation have anything to do with that?

“No. I don’t have any involvement with them. Our organisation, as I say, is more involved with the politics of the US-Czech relationship.

“But at the end of this month, May, in Pittsburgh there’s going to be a celebration of the Pittsburgh Agreement, whereby Masaryk got the support of Czech-Americans and Slovak-Americans to work with Wilson on basically the making of a nation, in 1918.”

Your group brings together Czechs and Americans. The nations may seem quite different in their outlook and attitude to life. The Czechs are quite reserved, the Americans can be relatively brash – is there much common ground between them?

“We believe in the same values.

“We believe not only in the concept and the processes involved in democracy, but also rule of law, economic opportunity and equity, freedom of expression, freedom of speech, freedom of faith.

Woodrow Wilson statue opposite the Main Train Station,  Prague
“Both populations are products of the Renaissance.”

Do you ever fear that those shared values are waning a little bit in this country? Some people say it’s looking a bit toward the East in a way that it wasn’t previously.

“Let me be… not reserved whatsoever. Values are seemingly changing in Washington.

“So we all have to keep our eye on the ball, in this case freedom and democracy, not only here but also in Washington.

“Our political situation in Washington is of deep concern to me.”