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Life in Ceausescu’s Romania

Romania in the 1970s was a study in contrasts. Traditionally a rich agricultural breadbasket, its backward economy could not provide enough food for its inhabitants.  A despotic, communist dictatorship, it still enjoyed a close relationship with the United States, as Secretary of State Henry Kissinger used Nicolae Ceausescu, who ruled Romania from 1967 to 1989, as an intermediary with countries such as China. E. Ashley Wills was posted to Embassy Bucharest in his first overseas position with the Foreign Service from 1973 to 1977. Here he discusses life in that drab, oppressive country, the affairs within the embassy community, including a couple of which were with women in the pay of the Securitate, the omnipresent Romanian secret police, for which he had some, uh, choice words when they threatened one of his human rights contacts.  

He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in October 2008. You can read about the KGB and its tactics as well as the Marine security guard at Embassy Moscow who succumbed to a KGB honeypot.


“It was a Communist dictatorship of the worst kind, very oppressive” 

WILLS: [Romania] was strange, it was shocking. It was a Communist dictatorship of the worst kind, very oppressive. Ceausescu had cultivated a reputation of being a maverick and he had defied the Soviets on a few foreign policy things. But internally he was extraordinarily orthodox and cruel. He was exporting anything that the country made that was of any quality or utility and depriving the population of basic items so that at night, there were no lights on in the city as Bucharest was a city of probably a million and a half and there were no lights at night. It was odd. Then everybody drove around in their little Dacias, which was an old Renault design from the early ‘50s that the Communist Romanians had bought. It was a gray and grim place.

Romania as a country was gorgeous and we were able to travel outside the city as long as we notified the Foreign Ministry a couple days ahead. When I was an aide to Ambassador [Harry] Barnes, he traveled all the time and I had to go with him so I saw a lot of the country. My Romanian was pretty good, not great, but like 3, 3+ when I got there and it ended up being 4 or 4+ [on a scale of 0-5] by the time I left three years later.

One thing I remember about this time when I was a junior officer that might be of interest to historians was we spent a lot of money on Voice of America broadcasts in the languages of Eastern Europe. Because my Romanian was pretty good I would do a weekly report back to VOA headquarters in Romanian about what was going on at the U.S. Embassy and it would be broadcast over VOA. But I was also in charge of monitoring VOA’s signals. My wife and I lived in this little bitty apartment in a Romanian apartment building, we were the only foreigners in the building so that was quite odd, and two or three times a week I would go up to the roof with my short-wave radio and tune the various frequencies that the Voice used to broadcast in Romanian. I distinctly recall how funky and exciting it was to be up on that roof with the wind and the rain whatever the elements were tuning my short-wave radio, people don’t even know what short-wave radios are today but back then it was a significant way to transmit information.

So that was what Romania was like, it was also the first few months of our marriage. We were very, very excited about being there and the embassy was small enough to be a real community and that had mainly advantages but it also had disadvantages.

There were several affairs going on involving members of staff in the embassy. One guy who later got sent home was having an affair with a Romanian woman; that was very much against the rules. The wife of one of the communicators was fooling around with the Economic Counselor and I remember once we had a big dance party at our home and I made the mistake of venturing out onto our porch at some point in the proceedings thinking that no one was there, just to get some fresh air, and lo and behold they were fooling around outside.

It was shocking to my 23-year-old sensibility, but that was the way it was.

We lived in isolation really within the Romanian community. We could have official dealings but we really couldn’t have Romanian friends and the diplomatic community was pretty small so the U.S. embassy people tended to stay together and that, as I say, was mainly good but it did have its disadvantages.

I remember after we had been there a year I asked for leave; we wanted to go to someplace nearby; I’d saved up my money. I was making $9,200 a year when I was appointed to the Foreign Service. I mentioned earlier that we had to stop in Frankfurt to buy provisions, the only way you could buy provisions was by the case and my wife and I making $9,200 a year spent $2,000 on food before we entered Romania. It was a severe blow to our finances but we managed to recover and after a year we saved enough money to go on leave. We decided to go to Greece and Turkey and I never will forget as long as I live I mentioned that there were no lights, no advertising, no neon anywhere in Bucharest. When we landed at Athens airport in May of 1974 on our first vacation, our first time out of Romania it was so thrilling to see lights at night; to see signs, advertising signs, it was a huge thing for us. 

“Some of the early contacts between Kissinger and Zhou En-lai were made through Ceausescu as the intermediary”

Q: How were Romanian-American relations at the time?

WILLS: Pretty good in the sense that Nixon, and later Ford, realized that Ceausescu could help the United States in a lot of ways in opening to China for example; much of that was done through Ceausescu. Kissinger would use Ceausescu who had good relations with the Chinese unlike the Russians or the Soviets. Some of the early contacts between Kissinger and Zhou En-lai were made through Ceausescu as the intermediary. He also helped us with our Middle East diplomacy; he was able to communicate effectively with Yasser Arafat. At that time we were not dealing with Arafat; later we did and Ceausescu helped us. As a trade-off for using Ceausescu’s good offices, we ignored what he was doing internally or didn’t draw attention to it; this was before the days of human rights reports.

Kissinger came through a couple of times as I recall, at least once, before President Ford came through. When President Ford came through, [Kissinger] also visited as Secretary of State so he came twice and maybe three times. So as the press attaché at the embassy I was exposed to all kinds of big events. I was not central to any of them but I was able to observe them and it was really fun.…

At one point in my tour, I was the press officer, but Harry talked with the political officer and decided to make me the human rights officer in the embassy as well. I developed a close relationship with a Romanian dissident who had come back from Paris named Paul Goma; he was a novelist.…

“’Hop up on your mother’s private parts.’ Then I said, ‘Fuck you,’ in English”

I met with many Romanian dissidents but Paul was one that I got especially along with, he was then about forty or forty-five. He didn’t speak English so our whole relationship was in Romanian and I saw him several times.

I remember the first time I saw him at his home and, of course, the Romanian authorities didn’t like this at all and I knew it. The next morning I came out of the garage at the apartment building where we lived and I had a little Volkswagen bug that my wife drove but I needed a car to get back and forth to the embassy. I bought from the motor pool an old American car that had been used as an official vehicle for years and years and years. It was a 1963 Chrysler, big, heavy vehicle but it was fine for driving the three miles or so to the embassy.

I came out of that garage that particular morning after I had met Paul Goma (at left, photo — Corbis) the first time and the Romanian security guys are called Securitate, the Securitate agents all seem to wear long black leather trench coats and we could identify them no matter where we went in Romania and we were all frequently followed.

This car came up and cut me off as I left the driveway of the apartment building and these two Securitate guys got out and walked over to my car, knocked on the window and I rolled down the window.

It was a winter day and they told me in Romanian “Don’t ever go see Paul Goma again or else,” in Romanian.

I said in my then improving Romanian, “Du te in pizda matei.” Which is a very inelegant thing to say to a Romanian, basically it means “Hop up on your mother’s private parts.” Then I said, “Fuck you,” in English. They looked at me and got really huffy, got back in their car and left.

I, of course, reported this to the embassy and the embassy wouldn’t let me see Goma again for a couple months. But I did renew my relationship in a couple months and they never bothered me again and I don’t know why.

The other interesting thing about life in Romania at that time as I say I traveled quite a lot when I was working for [Ambassador] Harry Barnes but I also traveled a lot as the press attaché.

Very often, I don’t want to say every trip, when you would go out to provincial towns in Romania you would have to stay in the state-approved hotel and these beautiful Romanian women would seem to happen into your life somehow or other. Now I, of course, was a dashing and handsome young diplomat and one could understand the great attraction these young women would have had for me [laughs] but it was clear that this was not a natural organic sort of thing. These women were agents of the Securitate.

That must have happened fifteen times in the eighteen months I was the press attaché at the embassy. The Romanians were kind of oafish about it; these Romanian women were clearly not seasoned agents. They knew I was twenty-three, twenty-four or twenty-five, they would have had a file on me. So they were in their first years or months as security agents and they weren’t very good at it either.

It was amusing and flattering as long as you didn’t let it go anywhere because it was clear they wanted you to take up their offers of romance in exchange for secret information….

There were a couple officers who sadly succumbed to these approaches. I referred to one earlier, he was sent home. Actually, both of them were sent home. The other junior economic officer fell in with a Romanian woman, one has to assume she was Securitate agent, and he was sent home as well. I would report, and I assumed everybody did, any contact like that because the security people needed to know what was going on.