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From Les Misérables to Good Americans: One Ambassador’s Fight to Secure Refugee Status for Romanian Dissidents

They were doctors, professors, and, in some cases, even peasants. The one thing they all had in common, however, was the desire to flee communist Romania for America and being “just miserable” because of it. Thanks to the efforts of two people at the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest, “The Miserables” found a voice in the U.S. government.

Romanian Revolution 1989. Photographer Unknown
Romanian Revolution 1989. Photographer Unknown

Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu had little tolerance for dissent. So when thousands of desperate Romanians committed the “crime” of wanting to become American citizens, Ceaușescu cracked down. He had them fired from their jobs, revoked their benefits, and all but stripped them of their Romanian citizenship. Despite their pleas for help, the U.S. embassy declared that these asylum seekers did not qualify as refugees, since Ceaușescu’s assault on them was “not politically motivated.”

Virginia “Ginny” Young, the Consul General, personally took on their case. She lobbied the front office again and again over the years but they rejected her every time. Sometimes she was called “too emotionally attached;” at other times, she was rejected because a senior official’s reputation was at stake in preserving our relationship with President Ceaușescu. Finally, in 1989, she took the issue all the way up to the new U.S. ambassador, Allen “Punch” Green.

Ambassador Green was not sure exactly what he could do—“the Miserables’” asylum request meant looping in other agencies and getting authorization from above even his position as ambassador. But “Punch” Green was not going to give up on these Romanians without a fight!

To find out what happened to Ambassador Green’s fight to secure refugee status for “The Miserables,” check out this excerpt from his exclusive oral history below.

Ambassador Allen “Punch” Green’s interview was conducted by Jim Strassmaier on April 20, 1999.

Read Ambassador Allen “Punch” Green’s full oral history HERE.

Be sure to also check out Virginia “Ginny” Carson-Young’s account of the Romanian Revolution and the fight to give “The Miserables” refugee status HERE.

Drafted by Reagan Ashley

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Excerpts:

“There’s nothing like keeping hope and spirit up in people—that’s what people live for.”

           
Nicolae Ceaușescu Speaking, 1989. Photographer Unknown
Nicolae Ceaușescu Speaking, 1989. Photographer Unknown

The Miserables: I wonder if this is a time I could bring up the Broadway play Les Misérables? It happened later on, but the reason I bring it up at this time…

Q: Yes, do that now.

GREEN: Yes. At this time Ginny Young came to see me, and she said—this is probably—and Ginny was, as I say, I’m not sure how much on a personal basis she particularly liked me, but that’s all right, she was a professional. And she came to see the ambassador. She knew I was close to George Bush. She said, “This is kind of the last shot I’ve got. We’ve got about 1,600–1,700″—let’s settle on 1,663 because it was an odd number; I’m not sure exactly what it was, but I think it’s in there somewhere—but anyway, “—of people we call “The Miserables.” They have one crime they had committed under the Ceaușescu regime.”

And I said, “What was that?”

“They wanted to be Americans. They were willing to give up everything.” And these were professors; there were some peasants, but they were mainly professors, doctors, and the type of people who any country would be lucky to get.

And I said, “Well, Ginny, I don’t know.”

I think this is the thing I’m the most proud of having participated in, and frankly I don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t been there.

And so I said, “Ginny, I tell you what you do. Why don’t you get – have you got a board there of these people, of maybe leaders of these people, who can meet with me?” I said, “If they’ll meet with me, and if they speak English, I could get this thing started.” And we did.

To make a long story short, we met in the annex, talked about it. And I said, “Well, I can’t, you know, promise anything, I wouldn’t have any idea, but I’ll keep trying.”

And I met with them again because Ginny kept on me because I kept their spirit up. There’s nothing like keeping hope and spirit up in people—that’s what people live for.

“Well, you got the nod from the right guy.”

Recalled to Washington: So I was recalled to Washington, DC because Ion Iliescu, who was the president of the country, had gone down and thanked the miners for coming to town after they’d trashed the town, and that made all of the world news, and you know, our government was mad about it. I was mad about it. He’d been elected, but he hadn’t been inaugurated yet.

And so I went back to Washington, D.C. in protest. They recalled me in protest to the leadership. They didn’t like the way the election had gone. Actually, I think Washington was wrong, the election had gone rather well, I mean considering it was the first election they’d ever had. But they—Washington itself hadn’t had much experience with these elections behind the curtain. Romania, really, when you think about it, it was the first free election they’d had, one of the first.

So anyway, so I went back and I let the President know I was in town, and he wanted to have dinner on Sunday night with me, as I recall. And I told Dot Evans, my secretary, to get a hold of Joan who was out of country. I couldn’t even—you know, I had no chance to get a hold of anybody. And Joanie at that time was in Paris and on her way to visit the Irish ambassador, and you might be interesting to talk to Ester Jantzen Moore. Richard Moore was the Ambassador to Ireland.

So anyway, I told Jim Baker, or I told the people, Ray Sykes, I think, mainly, who went on to become Ambassador to Great Britain, the Court of St. James, I said to him what I wanted to do. I said, “I want to get “The Miserables” to the attention of the President.”

And they okayed it. What I wanted to do was I wanted to bring to the attention of the President the plight of these 1,683 people, and was there anything he could do about it, or should I just drop it. But I thought it would be something that would appeal to President Bush.

But this, you see, involves not only the State Department, it involves the Treasury Department, and they have a branch in Rome, and they had to come up to Bucharest—four or five of them had to come up and check and set up a thing in our consulate where we had the passports and all that. It was quite an operation. Doesn’t happen very often in government.

Q: You mean they sent an officer?

GREEN: They sent about four or five officers to Bucharest.

But anyway, so what I did was, the morning of that meeting with Bush, that dinner, I sat down with hotel stationery and wrote the whole thing out. And then I went down and made a copy of it, and I think I’ve got it in there somewhere. I hope so.

I then went to see him, and I had warned that I wanted to talk to him personally. So there were a bunch of people. We saw a movie. It was a lousy movie. And then he said, “I won’t talk to you now. I’m going to see you later on.”

I said, “Fine, Mr. President.”

So we went upstairs, and there again was [National Security Advisor] Brent Scowcroft. He’s on the right side, and the President’s on the left side of me, and they take me over to this chair, both of them. And I bring out this hotel stationery with my notes, and I go over briefly with him what the problem is, and I said, “It would be a fantastic thing to do, and this country would be blessed if these people became citizens—they want to be Americans, that’s all.” And I went through this whole litany.

And I handed my written stuff to the President. The President went like this, Jim: He nodded his head. That’s all he did, to Brent Scowcroft, and then he handed the papers that I had given him to Brent Scowcroft.

And then we had dinner, and nothing else further was said about it. But the next day I went in to see somebody, and somebody from CIA was there, and they brought out my notes. And I said, “Is this thing going to be possible?”

They said, “Well, you got the nod from the right guy.”

So I just felt great.

Q: What was the President doing—he didn’t want to commit himself?

GREEN: No, he didn’t want to commit himself. He nodded to his right-hand man. He said, “I want this done.” I mean, a President can do it, if he wants to. And people will do it, if they want to.

“But I’ve often thought, I said, ‘If I do nothing else in my life, that has to be the most significant action colloquial in which I have ever participated.’”

           
Naturalization Ceremony, 2017. Monica Herndon. Tampa Bay Times
Naturalization Ceremony, 2017. Monica Herndon. Tampa Bay Times

Back to Bucharest: But anyway, so I went back to Bucharest and we went through all of this stuff. And then, to make a long story short, Treasury came to Bucharest, and these people were—and not all of them were taken, but 95 percent of them were. Some of them were phonies, and you know, they heard about it and tried to cheat.

So they did a good job. So the “miserable Board” came by to see me, and I don’t know why I said this, at the end we were talking and they were, you know, crying and—you know, tears in their eyes. And I said to them, I said, “You know, America’s a tough country. This is a tough country, but America’s a tough country. You’re going in there, we have gangs, we have as many pistols and firearms as you’ve got over here.” And I said, “Play the buddy system. One person’s out of a job, help that person out till they get a job. Just stay together as best you can. Get a buddy and work a buddy system.” And I said, “My ancestors I’m sure did that, and that’s how America was established.”

But I said, “There’s one thing I want you to know.” And all these people, they didn’t have any money, you know. And I said, “I’m a businessman, and I don’t do anything free.” Just dead silence. And one of them said, “What do you mean, Mr. Ambassador?”

I said, “Well, I’ve got a price for all of this that I’ve done for you.”

And they said to me, “What is it?”

And I said, “That you be good Americans.” And their reaction was amazing.

Two days later—we always had a demonstration every day in front of the chancellery and my car was always parked there, and the demonstrators were across the street. And they’d have signs up and things like that. And Paneit was driving me to the residence where I’d get a little rest, and he looked across the street and he said, “Mr. Ambassador, look at that.”

And I looked across the street, and there was this big sign in English, “Mr. Ambassador, we will be good Americans.” And there was about 50 of them, I guess.

And then I went out to see them off, too, at the airport, and the place was just jammed. I got way up and wished them “Noroc” Romanian for luck—

But I’ve often thought, I said, “If I do nothing else in my life, that has to be the most significant action colloquial in which I have ever participated.”

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
Stanford University 1944-1949
Washington, D.C.—Federal Maritime Commission, Chairman 1981-1985
Joined the Foreign Service 1989
Bucharest, Romania—Ambassador 1989–1992
Retirement 1992