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Ceaușescu and the Soviet Invasion of Czechoslovakia: The Early Years of Dealing with a Dictator

The Romanian Führer. The West’s “favorite communist.” Both of these descriptions have been used to describe Nicolae Ceaușescu, the rapacious Romanian dictator of twenty-four years.

Ceaușescu rose up through the Communist Party ranks in post World War II Romania, becoming party general secretary in 1965 and eventually obtaining the presidency in 1967. Despite later being notorious for his disastrous economic policies and attempt to establish the most totalitarian state in Europe, Ceaușescu’s reign trended comparatively liberal in its early years.

Nicolae Ceaușescu (1988) Posta Romana | fa.m.wikipedia.org
Nicolae Ceaușescu (1988) Posta Romana | fa.m.wikipedia.org

Censorship in the public media was eased and the nation was “free” relative to other communist states. However, this period of stability was short-lived. Human rights abuses and increasing restrictions on the freedom of the press heightened while the Securitate, the secret police, skyrocketed in membership.

In a bold act of defiance, Ceaușescu made a point to distance his country from the Soviet bloc. He openly disputed the Kremlin’s views of certain issues, especially the Romanian role in regional agreements. Tensions were further aggravated following the Warsaw Pact’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 led by the Soviet Union. On August 21, in what would become his most famous speech, Ceaușescu declared the invasion to be a “grave error and constituted a serious danger to peace in Europe and for the prospects of world socialism.”

Foreign Service Officer Harry Barnes served in Romania during the relatively calm early years of Ceaușescu’s reign. He witnessed the nation’s reaction to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, an action that deeply angered the dictator. Barnes worked closely with the dictator, even serving as his interpreter in state visits to the United States. Later in his career, he became ambassador to Romania as well as India.

Barnes’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on April 25, 2001.

Read Barnes’s full oral history HERE.

Read about the Romanian Revolution and the fall of Ceaușescu HERE.

Read about Barnes and the Chile Burn Victim case HERE.

Drafted by Sophie May

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Excerpts:

“ He (Ceaușescu) just decided Romania would not go along with the Soviet views.”

Different from the Others:
Q: Let’s talk a bit about you know, were you looking at the situation there but also you’re back before you went to Romania. How did we see Romania at that time and the Ceaușescu regime which was rather at its peak?

BARNES: Ceaușescu took control in ’65 and began fairly early on to try to differentiate himself—as the embodiment of Romania—from the rest of the Warsaw Pact, almost like there being a separate Romanian road to socialism. He didn’t use that expression as such. Part of this came in domestic activities in the sense that he just decided Romania would not go along with the Soviet views of what Romania’s role was in CEMA, Council on Economic and Mutual Assistance, the rough equivalent of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty organization) for economic purposes. For example, the Soviets felt that Romania ought to be essentially an agricultural country producing for the benefit of the whole community but of course particularly for the Soviet Union. Ceaușescu thought that agriculture had been indeed one of Romania’s strengths and didn’t want to do away with that, but he thought that Romania couldn’t progress economically unless it had an industrial base much greater than it had at that time. So there was a split almost in dogma there, somewhat visible, not overly so but enough so that the U.S. could pick that up and others did as well.

…………………

“Ceaușescu quite quickly denounced the invasion as a violation of the norms of Socialist friendship.”

Reaction to the Invasion of Czechoslovakia:
Q: On the ground when you got there, how did you see the Ceaușescu regime?

BARNES: Without putting too fine a point on it, however I would have seen when I arrived at the end of August, there would be a change two days later because two days later is when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

Q: Oh, yes, this was in August of ’68.

BARNES: Yes, on the 20th of August ’68 and Ceaușescu quite quickly denounced the invasion as a violation of the norms of Socialist friendship or whatever phrase he used. But it was clear both because one knew that the Soviet troops had been joined by these token forces from Poland, Hungary, and other Eastern Europeans, yet Romania was clearly the odd country out. That next morning I went down to the…have you ever been to Bucharest?

You may recall though the royal palace is a large square and in front of that and Ceaușescu spoke from the balcony of that on the square and condemned the invasion publicly, that Romania would not participate in that sort of activity. Not only was the square packed, which could have been explained in a Communist country by the fact that everybody was told to be there, but the final note that Ceaușescu struck was taken up by the crowd. I can’t tell you again how much of that was artificial and how much was not, but my sense was from talking to people in the next couple of days or so that it was partly spontaneous. It was very, very popular. This goes back to a whole bunch of questions of the Romanian-Russian relations, not to mention Romanian-Soviet relations.

So the next couple of weeks we at the embassy would were caught up in trying to understand, guess where Romania was going with this approach because it seemed clear to us that they couldn’t get away with too much for too long and it is true there were a lot of rumors in that first week or ten days that Soviet troops were massing on the Romanian border and there was going to be an invasion and they were recruiting stands that were set up to accept the volunteers for all sorts of military service. They organized what they called the Patriotic Guard which is sort of like a civilian militia. A couple of days later was a Romanian national holiday, August 23 and units of the Patriotic Guard which had been created in the last couple of days marched there as well.

As it turned out, about ten days or two weeks later, Ceaușescu, if not shut up, at least was more restrained in his comments, putting more stress on the Romanian unique position, Romania’s unique role in trying to meet the needs of his people, not in terms of a broader lesson for the socialist community and so on, but more toned down defiance as an assertion of their own special nature and so on, and de-emphasis on the communist community and so the sense of real danger that there could be an invasion or something like that, dissipated.

Q: Were we at the embassy getting reports through our intelligence saying any about Soviet possibilities and so forth?

BARNES: We had some. We had some but I mentioned before the reports about maneuvers and so on. There was some concern from Washington, but basically after about two weeks or so, it calmed down. There didn’t seem to be great movement in that direction.

What Ceaușescu did do in order to take advantage of his popularity was to loosen up some of the controls. The cultural media were able to be much more outspoken about, what should I say, Romanian virtue. This fit in with Ceaușescu’s own emphasis on Romania in particular but also the cultural press was able to talk some about general human values and so on. It represented a modification there. There was some relaxation in terms of people being able to travel outside the country. There had been some loosening of those restrictions in the previous two, three years or so after ’65 but there was more of it now. There was a greater willingness to look for ways of cooperating, if only symbolically, with Western European countries, nonaligned were understood to go along and then some attention to the Chinese relationship.

…………….

“He seemed to have very little doubt about his own capabilities, his own wisdom, very little doubt therefore that he knew what was best for Romania.”

           
During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning tank in Prague. (1968) The Central Intelligence Agency | commons.wikimedia.org
During the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Czechoslovaks carry their national flag past a burning tank in Prague. (1968) The Central Intelligence Agency | commons.wikimedia.org

First Impression of a Communist Dictator:
Q: What was your impression of Ceaușescu?

BARNES: It is hard here to separate, except for some specific events, it is hard to separate what I remember from ’68 to ’71 when I was DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission) and when I remember from ’74 to ’77. For example, Ceaușescu came to the U.S. a couple of times and I came along as the interpreter, among other things. There was one visit in ’70 and one or two in the other period so my impressions of him come in part from those travel experiences and part from sitting in often as the interpreter, although sometimes just accompanying visitors when one would go around and see him at his office. He would sometimes receive you at the party central committee because he remained the secretary general of the party; sometimes it would be in the presidential palace, the former royal palace in his role as head of the council of state which was head of state.

A couple of general impressions: He seemed to have very little doubt about his own capabilities, his own wisdom, very little doubt therefore that he knew what was best for Romania. He might know best for other places too but certainly knew what was best for Romania. He was someone who liked to talk and had little reluctance to say what he thought his interlocutor ought to hear; not so much from arrogance, it wasn’t quite that. It was perhaps the same sureness in himself and in what he had to say was relevant to his visitor as well as to him. Not an inquisitive mind and, in fact partly the same self assurance—he probably knew what he needed to know. He wouldn’t necessarily probe his interlocutors and yet at the same time he could get into a conversation where he would argue with his interlocutor and make his case in different ways. Yet a good part of the time he seemed to be determined to try to find some common ground because I think he felt that as long as you could maintain a sense of some common interest it would redound to his general benefit.

Q: In your impression he was not a person who was so fixed in his ideas. I assume he probably had yes-men around. Did he sort of relish getting outside that circle, do you think?

BARNES: That’s what I was trying to get at just now, up to a point. I didn’t feel that intellectual curiosity, a visitor was not someone from whom he might be able to learn, even in part. But it was somebody whom he had to convince of the relevance of his ideas and he was smart enough. Some people, Romanians, used to call him clever, rather than smart, rather than intelligent. He was smart enough to know that he couldn’t appear to ignore his interlocutors’ ideas or in some cases to go along with the visitor, but it was his agenda, a good part, most of the time, I would say.

Q: What was the nature of governance the first time you were there? You know, later he became betrayed as kind of a monster in some of the things he started doing.

BARNES: No. Certainly with respect to the situation of the Romanian people, it was significantly better than it had been in the ‘50s, maybe the early ‘60s, although there were a few signs of change toward the end of the fifties. This period that came with the invasion of Czechoslovakia did provide, as I mentioned, for some loosing up inside Romania and then over next years the atmosphere remained paradoxically becoming more restrictive in some respects, but also remaining somewhat open in others. In other words, the ability to travel was still fairly extensive, the ability to exchange ideas with people coming to Romania, being able to talk to groups of Romanians, intellectuals in this case were not cut off from visitors. Now how freely they could express their own ideas and under what circumstances was still another question.

In May of ’71, which was the year we left after the first tour, he took a trip to China and to North Korea. He came back obviously from his statements, obviously impressed with the discipline shown by those societies, which were headed by Mao and Kim Il Sung in North Korea. In the period between May of ’71 and when we came back in March of ’74 there began to be some tightening up but with more I would say in the area of how the government was organized and the tasks that were given to the government; the emphasis on discipline, the emphasis on self reliance which was Kim Il Sung’s favorite slogan, which fitted in some ways with Ceaușescu’s that Romania having its own ways. So although the situation didn’t get that much better on the whole, during my second tour, it didn’t get that much worse. The sorts of things you referred to began to happen more in the ‘80s.

Q: What about Madame Ceaușescu during this time?

BARNES: She became increasingly a part of the scene and if I were to over generalize, her role during our first years there, ‘68 to ’71, was more background. She traveled with him when he came to the States, for example, and was in the public in that sense. She began to assume the more important role in terms of the party hierarchy. That became more pronounced in the second period of ’74 to ’77 that we were there.

TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS

Education
BA in French, Amherst College 1943–1944, 1946–1949
MA in Russian Studies, Columbia University 1949–1950
Joined the Foreign Service 1950
Prague, Czechoslovakia—Consular Officer 1953–1955
Bucharest, Romania—Deputy Chief of Mission 1968–1971
Bucharest, Romania—Ambassador 1974–1977
New Delhi, India—Ambassador 1981–1985