At our first meeting, not long after World War II, when few of its ravages had yet been repaired, Marshal Tito outlined to me what he visualized for Yugoslavia.
The 1948 break with Stalin had been made, quite simply, on the issue of independence. It was a courageous leap into the unknown.
The goal, Tito said, was an independent state capable of "giving our people the goods they need and a real voice in their own affairs."
The country was menaced by the Communist Information Bureau's blockade -- and military threat -- and Western aid was then highly hypothetical. Tito went on quietly: "There must be a steady process of giving more and more real administrative control to republican, regional, and local authorities -- for an ultimate community of all the peoples, schooled in a new way of self-management dependent on popular participation."
When he passed on May 4, the dream stood remarkably fulfilled. The six Yugoslav republics, the minority regions of Voivodina and Kosovo, and local councils all have virtually total self-rule in their own affairs. The federal Constitution assures equality to all the nationalities.
The succession, the "collective leadership" Tito designed in the last years of his life, is divided meticulously and equally among the nationalities.
Throughout his regime, although Moscow always considered him a heretic Marxist "revisionist," Tito remained a single-minded communist ruler.He was largely benign and, given his political schooling, extraordinarily tolerant; yet on issues he deemed crucial, he was an uncompromising and sometimes ruthless party disciplinarian.
In spite of private regrets, he displayed no compunction over old friendship in dismissing even the "favorite son," Milovan Djilas, when the latter demanded more and faster reforms in 1954. ("You are pushing on an open door, Djido," Tito told him, still using the affectionate diminutive; and to a large extent it was true.)
Nor did he hesitate 12 years later to purge another old comrade, Aleksandar Rankovic, the conservative who was plotting to halt "liberalization."
Always Tito stuck to the middle road of essential, regulated reform. He would not have the clock put back. Nor would he countenance "excessively" liberal ideas. Could one have expected more?
"Why," he asked me, "does the West want us to have a multiparty system?" He insisted that his way had united the Yugoslav patchwork quilt of four peoples (and a score of minorities), four languages, and three religions as never before.
"Opposing programs," he said, "would only expose us to the danger of being what Yugoslavia always was before -- somebody's satellite."
The tumult in Croatia in 1971 suggested he was not far wrong to fear fragmentation of the country if the party rein should be too slack. He cracked down on radical "liberals" and nationalists alike. But the basic reforms survived.
Yugoslavs still traveled freely, had foreign-currency bank accounts, imported Western cars, read almost anything they pleased. They still lived in a visa-free, open country.
"Socialism," Tito had told me back in 1952, "should be for people, not something arid and and statistical. True humanism is an essential."
Such communism with a human face was to fail tragically in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Alexander Dubcek lacked the steel-tough qualities that Stalin had overlooked in Tito 20 years before.
Had Stalin not forced the break, would Tito have been the disciplined member of a Soviet-dominated bloc that he was expected to be? I believe not. The elements of independence were evident well before.
In 1943, Tito told Brig. Fitzroy Maclean, head of the British military mission to partisan headquarters, "Don't overlook our sacrifices in this struggle. We shall not lightly cast aside an independence won at such cost."
There was an engaging extrovert facet to the man. In later life, he made no bones about liking good clothes and good living. When British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden visited in 1952, the lavish reciprocal gift-giving included rolls of fine English cloth. Tito was delighted.
He was the first Communist Party chief to don white tie and tails to hobnob with royalty. He liked fast motorboats and barbecuing steaks at his Adriatic home for guests as incongruous with himself as John Foster Dulles, the arch anticommunist Us Secretary of State during the Eisenhower years. When Britain's Queen Elizabeth stayed at Brioni, he had the orchestra strike up a Strauss waltz and asked her, "May I have the pleasure?"
His urbane sense of style and good humor were far from the preconceived notions many had of a "communist boss" from the Balkans.
East-bloc leaders sneered about a "personality cult" but privately envied Tito's unique position and independence. Yugoslavs saw the show as an acceptable part of the man who had kept them free and put their country on the map.