by Jonathan Rickert
Nicu Ceausescu, the wastrel younger son of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena, was widely believed in the 1980s to be the heir apparent to his father. Unlike his older siblings, Valentin and Zoia, he had been an indifferent student and was more interested in drinking, gambling, and carousing than in any more serious pursuits. Nevertheless, by the 1980s he held high positions in the Romanian Communist Party and government while still in his early thirties —he was First Secretary of the Union of Communist Youth and a member of the Party’s Central Committee, as well as deputy in the parliament and Minister of Youth Affairs. Higher-level positions awaited him.
In mid-September 1983, during my assignment as Romania Desk Officer at the State Department, the Romanian Embassy approached me for help in setting up a meeting for Nicu at the highest possible level. Although he was considered a lightweight and his visit to the U.S. was little more than a junket, my Romanian Embassy colleagues obviously were terrified lest he be dissatisfied with his reception in Washington, with possibly unpleasant consequences for themselves and their careers. They were desperate to arrange something for Nicu that would give his Washington stay at least the appearance of substance. After some discussion within our office, we dutifully sent forward an appointment request for him to meet with Under Secretary for Political Affairs Lawrence Eagleburger, with little expectation that the third highest ranking official in the department would agree.
Earlier in his career, Eagleburger had two tours of duty in Yugoslavia, the second as Ambassador. During his first Belgrade assignment, in 1963, he had earned the sobriquet of “Lawrence of Macedonia” for his outstanding efforts in support of earthquake-stricken Skopje. He was the State Department’s top “go-to” man for issues involving the Balkans and, indeed, all of communist Eastern Europe.
In contrast to the stereotype of a buttoned-down diplomat, Eagleburger was described by Time Magazine in 1992 as looking “like the Michelin Man with a cane.” His success in tense crisis situations, along with his wit and charm, earned him near-legendary status within the State Department. Eagleburger eventually served briefly as Secretary of State, the only career foreign service officer ever to hold the department’s top position.
Much to our surprise, Eagleburger not only accepted the proposed meeting but ended up spending about 45 minutes with Nicu and his Romanian handlers. Meeting in the wake of the September 1 shoot down in Soviet airspace of South Korean airliner KAL flight 007, the Under Secretary skillfully used Nicu’s presence to spell out in detail the U.S. position on that tragedy. He urged that Romania join the U.S. and many other non-communist countries in condemning the Soviets’ illegal and irresponsible action. At the very least, he hoped that the Romanians would refrain from supporting the Soviet position.
Through Nicu and the other Romanian officials present, Eagleburger sought to convey our views and recommended a course of action directly to the highest levels of the Romanian government; his customary warmth, deep knowledge of the region, and disarming humor were on full display. The fact that Nicu had virtually nothing to say during the meeting was irrelevant.
Eagleburger was always impressive in action with senior Eastern European officials, but never more so than in his meeting with Nicu Ceausescu –- I enjoyed watching this master class in the diplomatic equivalent of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.
Whether in response to Eagleburger’s diplomacy or not, Romania generally took a hands-off approach to the tragedy –- at least it did not side with the Soviet Union as did some of its other Warsaw Pact allies. At the September 10, 1983, meeting of the Council of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), for example, Romania abstained on a resolution deploring the shoot down, rather than voting against. Moreover, Romania’s official media reported both sides of the controversy, without aligning with either. Modest steps in the right direction.
As for Nicu himself, though he continued his rise within the Romanian Communist Party and government due to his parents’ backing and his surname, a dark future awaited him. He was arrested in 1990 for instigating murder during Romania’s December Revolution, tried, convicted, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. He was released from incarceration in November 1992 for reasons of poor health and died in a Vienna hospital of cirrhosis of the liver, at the age of 45, in September 1996. With his older siblings out of the picture, the Ceausescu “dynasty” thus came to an ignominious end.
Retired Senior Foreign Service officer Jonathan B. Rickert spent over 35 years of his career in London, Moscow, Vienna, Port of Spain, Sofia, and Bucharest (twice), as well as in Washington. His last two overseas assignments were as Deputy Chief of Mission in Bulgaria and Romania. Mr. Rickert holds a B.A. degree in history from Princeton University and an M.A. in international relations from the George Washington University.