Journeying a road less travelled

Frank Meehan and Erik Honecker

PRESENT at some of the most tense and iconic moments in the turbulent relationship between the United States and the Eastern Bloc countries throughout the Cold War, the political and personal journey taken by Frank Meehan has been something out of the ordinary.

From being thrown into the aftermath of the capture of a US spy plane and pilot to overseeing high-profile prisoner exchanges and even standing with Ronald Reagan as he called for the Berlin Wall to be torn down, Frank’s career stands in stark contrast to his current placid retirement, living quietly in Helensburgh.

His remarkable story begins in New Jersey in 1924, where he was born to parents from Clydebank staying briefly in the US. It was this quirk which would set in motion the chain of events which built his remarkable story, marking him out as a US citizen and opening up his future career in the US foreign service. Eventually, the circumstances of his birth would see him serving as the US Ambassador throughout the Eastern Bloc—in Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany (above)—after distinguishing himself in a range of other roles for the country of his birth.

After returning to Dalmuir, Clydebank, where he grew up and was educated, Frank’s life was first touched directly by international politics and the spectre of conflict in 1941. Aged just 17, he found himself trawling the wrecked buildings of his hometown in the aftermath of the Clydebank Blitz. Over 500 people were killed and many hundreds more wounded in the raid by the German Luftwaffe, as the people of Clydebank paid the price of their proximity to the shipyards.

Among those dealing with the death and destruction, few would have been able to imagine one day serving as an ambassador in the country which had just rained bombs on their fellow townspeople, but that was the route Frank’s life would take.

“There was a bad attack on the shipyards in March 1941,” he said reminiscing about the fateful night for Clydebank. “I was 17. We were in a shelter and the bombing started quite far away but you could hear them getting closer. The house next door got incendiary bombed and was destroyed.

“I worked clearing the rubble of houses that had been burned. I carried a bricklayer’s hod. I was not much good at that. Maybe that’s what made me think of the Foreign Service!”

Such dark moments were visited on many at that time, and with few families untouched by the conflict that had set Europe in flames it is hard to look back and see normality in the day-to-day lives of those who lived through it. However, life did go on, and throughout the remaining years of the war Frank was completing his education. By the time the war had ended he was a graduate of Glasgow University—having studied History—and a fluent German speaker.

Duty calls

In 1945 his US citizenship meant that the country of his birth could demand his military service. He was drafted into the US Army and—after his training was completed—the man from Clydebank who just four years earlier had been clearing the ruins of his home town after the Blitz, found himself in Allied-Occupied Germany in an American uniform.

It was just one of the many remarkable twists his path would take in the dramatic post-war years of the 20th century. Following his service in the US Army, which concluded in 1947, he began his diplomatic career. Having decided to apply to the State Department on a whim he was accepted—being a suitable candidate thanks to his university education and skills as a linguist.

First filling roles in Bremen and then Washington throughout 1948, ‘49 and ‘50, he was then formally accepted into the US Foreign Service in 1951. That career opened up a fascination with Russia which endures to this day. Having already mastered the German language before he left Scotland, Frank now got to grips with Russian and began his relationship with the mysterious nation which had suffered so much at the hands of Germany before sweeping all before them and setting the new post-war landscape which would characterise the second half of the 20th century.

“I think once you get the Russia bug you never lose it,” he recalled of his first encounters with Russia and her culture. “It’s the unknown that lures you when you’re young, you know? I just thought, ‘what is this world?’

“Who are these people who had almost collapsed under German attack and then fought their way from Stalingrad to Berlin? I wanted to understand.”

Entering the US State Department through the diplomatic corps, he soon found himself trusted enough to be placed at the heart of one of the most gripping and tense sagas of the Cold War. In 1960, while based in Moscow, Frank was thrown into the chaotic aftermath of the capture of Gary Powers.

An American pilot, Powers was captured after his spy plane—part of an undisclosed programme—was shot down on a flight over Russia. The wreckage was put on display by the Russians, and in an effort to confirm the facts about the Soviet claims Frank was instructed to view the remains of the plane.

Supplied with details of what to look for in order to establish if the wrecked plane was in fact the U2 spy plane the Russians claimed it was, the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union ordered him to join the eager crowds queuing for a glimpse of the American military technology.

“I was quite tense,” Frank explained of his state of mind, stepping into one of the tensest scenarios in the Cold War. “I thought there might be some kind of manufactured incident, but I went to the head of the long line of people waiting to view it and the Russian guard looked at my pass and grinned and said, in Russian: ‘Be my guest! It’s your plane after all!’”

But while Frank had successfully completed his role in the crisis—gathering the necessary information to corroborate the Soviet claims—there was another desperate situation unfolding for Gary Powers. Captured by the then mortal enemies of his country, Powers was put on trial accused of espionage and given a sentence of 10 years.

In the end he was to serve just under two of those, and in the circumstances of his release—as part of a prisoner exchange arranged between the powers of East and West—Frank Meehan was again to emerge as an important figure.

Having already captured the spy plane in reasonable condition and placed the enemy captain on trial, Moscow measured the importance of keeping Powers in their hands against the opportunity to recover an agent of their own—Rudolf Abel—who had been caught by the Americans.
Abel had been spying in Brooklyn, and the Soviets saw an opportunity to arrange a swap—Abel for Powers—and into this mix came a young American student named Frederic Pryor. America wanted him as part of the deal.

Pryor had been studying in East Berlin when the Communist regime there arrested him for espionage. Now he found himself included in the prisoner exchange, and would be the latest to rely on Frank in the highly-charged and risky atmosphere of East-West relations.

Frank had been reassigned from Moscow to Berlin as a political officer, and similarly the Gary Powers saga had moved from the Russian capital to the divided German city. While Powers and Abel were exchanged on the Glienicke Bridge—the subject of a Steven Spielberg blockbuster, the Bridge of Spies, which naturally features Frank’s role—he found himself at the iconic Checkpoint Charlie, ready to take responsibility for the young Mr Pryor.

Crammed into the back of a car with an East German lawyer—Wolfgang Vogel—the two had to nervously wait to hear of the successful exchange elsewhere in the city before Pryor’s freedom could be granted.

Nerves of steel were required to bring the saga to its successful conclusion, and as he walked into the unknown Frank was left with a series of uncertainties which could have possibly derailed the plan.

“There were tense moments obviously,” he recounted. “When I was walking over, I didn’t know how the kid, Frederic Pryor, would be.
“He’d been in prison. I didn’t know whether he’d be well, whether we’d get him out, whether I would be able to get out myself.”

And so Frank found himself—an American diplomat—nervously anticipating the confirmation that he could take Pryor back to the safety of the West, even that he could himself take those steps back beyond Checkpoint Charlie. It must have seemed a long way from Clydebank.

“Vogel said: ‘Frank we’re not ready. Get in the car and wait.’ He was waiting for word from the bridge that the Powers-Abel swap had taken place.

“We were in the car waiting. I was getting more and more nervous. The car was surrounded by a group of East German goons—security people. Eventually one of them came over to me and said: ‘It’s OK.’ And Vogel said: ‘Frank—you can go.’”

While the two great powers were at daggers drawn, bonds were nevertheless formed by those on the ground. Relying on the nerve and professionalism of one another to get the job done despite the conflicts and manoeuvring raging around and above them, Meehan and Vogel were then briefly colleagues—and from the trust required by that shared work a lifelong friendship emerged.

Berlin, too, would loom large in Frank’s life and career. Decades later he would return there as highly respected member of the US diplomatic corps, to serve as Ambassador in the crucial years before the Berlin Wall crumbled and ushered in a new era in global politics.

Fluent in German, French and Russian, Frank soon added Polish, Hungarian and Czech to his repertoire—languages which are notoriously difficult to master in isolation, let alone in number and as part of such demanding duties.

A faithful friend

Following a return to the US, where his rise through the diplomatic ranks continued, Frank found himself in Budapest, once again encountering an iconic figure of the time. Serving as Deputy Chief of Mission in the Hungarian capital, he became close with Cardinal József Mindszenty. Cardinal Mindszenty had suffered for his country and his faith both under Fascism and Communism, and in the Soviet era he found himself first imprisoned by the state and later confined to the US Embassy, where he had been given asylum. It was there that Frank, and his wife Margaret, formed their relationship with the isolated Catholic leader.

The cardinal had already been 12 years in the US Embassy by the time Frank took up post and the Meehans were quick to reach out to him in his loneliness.

“He was tremendously courteous man and Margaret was terribly fond of him,” Frank explaied to The Irish Voice. “He was also quite a tricky character and inclined to play politics in the embassy which we had to watch out for.

“Once when she was going on a trip to Vienna he asked her to post a letter. Since communications had to go through the embassy, Margaret told him she would have to tell me.

“We used to laugh when we recalled his reply: ‘Mrs Meehan, there is no need to tell your dear husband.’ Of course Margaret told me and that was where it ended and I’m sure it did—although I sometimes wonder as Margaret could be tricky herself!”

Ambassadorial roles

From Budapest he went on to serve in Vienna and Bonn, before being appointed to his first ambassadorial role, in Czechoslovakia in 1979. However, Frank was in position there for just one year before he was made US Ambassador to Poland.

His time there was just as eventful as his duties in Moscow and Berlin, though of course as Ambassador the stakes were now higher. Arriving in the country at the same time as the Solidarnosc movement was born, the turmoil which ensued saw martial law proclaimed after a coup by the Polish Army.

However, as fate would have it the Ambassador found himself back on American soil at the crucial moment.

“If there’s going to be a revolution in Eastern Europe and you’re the ambassador, you’d better be in the country,” he says today, looking back. “I was told to get back in quickly.”

It wasn’t quite that simple, however, with the border closed and no-one getting in or out. Via Berlin, he made his way to the US Embassy smuggled in the back of a van, making something of a habit of finding himself squeezed into a vehicle in order to do his duty at moments of great tension.

“I flew to Berlin and travelled overland to the East German-Polish border,” he said. “The embassy sent a van for me. Travelling back was sad. Everything had changed.”

This change was one which was to happen across the Eastern Bloc in the following years. Frank was back in Berlin in 1985—after a brief return to America and Georgetown University—as Ambassador to East Germany and had an important role to play as the machinations which ultimately led to the reunification of Germany took place.

He had a ringside seat as President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and called for Mr Gorbachev to ‘tear down this wall!’

Coming ‘home’

Though he nurtured the dream of one day returning to serve in Russia, it was not to be. Following his retirement he returned to Scotland, reasoning that having been at his side through his many and varied postings it was time for his wife to decide the course of their lives.

Born Margaret Kearns and also hailing from Clydebank, Frank’s wife was known wherever they found themselves posted for her skills as a host and valued even more greatly by her husband for the support which she gave him. Together they had four children, and met the challenges of a family life which saw the Meehans call 23 different places home throughout their life.

The last one was to be Margaret’s choice, and so the couple settled in Helensburgh—far from the cities and countries they lived and worked in through Frank’s career. When Margaret’s health deteriorated, with the support of his family, Frank devoted himself to her care until her death in 2015.

“Margaret takes up a lot of my time, but the memories are all happy ones,” he said of his late wife. “Her organisational abilities were legendary, and it’s entirely thanks to her that family life ran so smoothly.”

“I’m an American,” Frank explained, making sense of his mixed—but never confused—identity. “I love Scotland and I came back to retire here because it’s what my wife wanted. When we came here, we worked out that this was our 23rd home since we were married.

“When you’ve dragged your wife around Eastern Europe for all that time, you owe her something. But I miss America. I’d love to be in Washington now watching what’s going on there up close.”

Frances, one of Frank’s four children, has returned from America to live with him and together they enjoy shared interests such as their love of War and Peace.

“By a country mile, it’s my favourite book,” Frank notes. “Frances and I have seen all the various adaptations and we love to sit and compare they characters. I admire Peter Fonda’s portrayal of Pierre in the Hollywood movie made in the 1950s.

“I was in Russia at the time the movie came out and the Russians were offended that we should presume to see into the Russian soul. I would tell them that if they were so offended they should make their own, which eventually they did.

“We didn’t rate the Russian adaptation which was rather wooden. I think they had the entire Russian Army as extras… but they only had one expression!”

Family ties

Another of his passions is his own Irish family history. The American, who has the closest of bonds with Scotland, never forgets his Irish heritage, and among his proud possessions is his Irish passport.

“I applied for my Irish passport purely for sentimental reasons. It had nothing to do with Brexit,” Frank explained. “I suppose it was a nod to my father and my grandfather Boyle, who was a United Ireland man. My father was a Derry man and my mother’s father was from a little place in Tyrone called Aughnacloy, near Dungannon. I’ve been to both places.

“When I went to Derry to see where they lived the house was still there. It was above a fish shop, which I think would have been a barber’s shop as my grandfather was a barber. It was good to walk up William Street where my father was born, and where St Eugene’s Cathedral is and to remember my father’s recollections of being an altar boy.”

Political commentary

Now 93, Frank’s mental acuity is undiminished. He may have slowed down physically, but with Frances’ support, the mobility scooter which gives him added independence and the Nordic walking machine he uses daily, he remains active. And with Russian-American relations again making headlines across the world he still feels compelled to use his powerful intellect to make sense of what he thinks is happening—but unlike the commentators forming the narrative today, he is able to use the experience he gained through his decades on the political front line in Eastern Europe to view the current climate in a wider context.

“It’s one of the great mysteries as I look back on it and on my own work,” he explained of Russian policy in the last 30 years. “I still have difficulty understanding exactly what happened to the Russians—why they decided to pack in and leave Eastern Europe. It is to me an inexplicable decision.

“What strikes me about Russia today is the tremendous sense of loss they have—of power and position. That explains Putin’s hold over them. But Putin can’t last forever. The more I look at Russia today the more I’m reminded of the last days of the Czars, Russia between 1900 and 1917.”

In a life of such accomplishment there can be few regrets, but Frank probed at one before concluding that even that may not have changed the remarkable course of his life.

“I often think I would liked to have had a law degree,” he said. “Then again as so many of our people in the Foreign Service have law degrees that is where I may have ended up anyway, so maybe it was always meant to be.”