When and Why Romania

Distanced Itself from the Warsaw Pact

by Raymond L. Garthoff

In April 1964, the Romanian leadership issued a declaration in which it first expressed public dissatisfaction with the Warsaw Pact. Georghiu Dej, and after 1965 his successor Nicolae Ceausescu, increasingly distanced themselves from the Pact and Moscow's leadership, although without challenging the Soviet Union. Romania ceased to participate actively in the military command of the Warsaw Pact after 1969. All of this small slice of history has, of course, been well known. It has not been known why Romania launched itself on that path at that particular time. Above all, it has not heretofore been known that even earlier Romania essentially repudiated its allegiance obligations in a secret approach to the United States government in October 1963, promising neutrality in case of the outbreak of war. This was a stunning, unilateral breach of the central obligation of Warsaw Pact alliance membership, which Romania nominally maintained until the very end, when the Pact dissolved in 1991.

What precisely happened, and why? The precipitating event was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The tensions generated by that crisis had reverberations throughout Europe. No country wanted to be brought into a war over the issue of Soviet missiles in Cuba. But while members of NATO and the Warsaw Pact dutifully gave public support to the United States and the Soviet Union, respectively, some did so with considerable trepidation. And in Bucharest, the leadership decided after that crisis that it would seek to disengage itself from any automatic involvement if their superpower alliance leader, the Soviet Union, again assumed such risks.

Romanian-American relations at that time were minimal. Nonetheless, when Romanian Foreign Minister Corneliu Manescu asked to meet with the Secretary of State Dean Rusk, when both were in New York for the opening of the UN General Assembly in the fall of 1963, a routine meeting was arranged for October 4. Manescu then arranged a private meeting with Rusk, attended only by an interpreter. It was the first opportunity after the crisis nearly a year earlier for the Romanian leadership to approach the United States government at this level.

Manescu told Rusk that Romania had not been consulted over the Soviet decision to place nuclear missiles in Cuba, and was not therefore a party to the dispute. The Romanian government wanted the United States to understand that Romania would remain neutral in any conflict generated by such actions as the Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, and sought assurances that in the event of hostilities arising from such a situation, the Unites States would not strike Romania on the mistaken assumption that it would be allied with the Soviet Union in such a war.

Secretary Rusk in response indicated that the United States would take into account any country that did not participate in or permit its territory to be used in military actions against the United States or its allies. In this connection, he said that it would be important for the United States to know whether there were nuclear weapons on Romanian soil, and that if the United States were given assurance that there were none, that fact would be taken into account in U.S. targeting. The Romanians subsequently responded that there were no nuclear weapons in Romania and offered the United States any opportunity it wished to verify that fact. (The absence of nuclear weapons accorded with U.S. intelligence, and the United States did not pursue the verification offer.)

In view of the sensitivity of the matter, any knowledge of this exchange was very closely held in Washington, and no doubt in Bucharest. It was not divulged to NATO governments. So far as is known, the Soviet leadership did not learn of it--although that remains to be determined from the Soviet archives. It did not "leak" in thirty years. I do not know if there is today any written account in either American or Romanian archives.

I was told about the exchange by Dean Rusk soon after it occurred, and I reconfirmed this account of it with him in 1990. It seemed to me that with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the overthrow of the Romanian government, and the reunification of Europe, the matter is now safely history, and should become a footnote to the historical record.

It may be instructive, as well as interesting, history. For example, as far as I am aware no one has ever speculated on a relationship between the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Romanian actions in distancing themselves from the Warsaw Pact. It is also interesting to reflect that despite that crisis and other severe trials, the two alliances did hold together throughout the Cold War, and with relatively little evident concern over the risks involved, even in other countries hosting nuclear weapons of the superpowers. Thus, remarkable as was the Romanian case, it was the sole exception to alliance solidarity--assuming the archives or informed officials do not have any other case, on one side or the other, to reveal.

Raymond L. Garthoff, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a retired Ambassador and a diplomatic historian. He disclosed this episode from the history of the Cold War in remarks at the January 1993 CWIHP Moscow Conference on New Evidence on Cold War History.

Published in the Cold War International History Project Bulletin, Issue 5, Spring 1995, p. 111.