by Larry Watts
The utility of any primary source evidence for evaluating leadership policy (whether state, government or party) is dependent on its origins and intention. There is often a wide variance between declared policy – produced for public consumption and expressed in official statements and media reports – and actual policy as reflected in internal reports, military planning and deployments and clandestine operations. Any thorough comparison of the two documentary records in any country reveals that governments frequently do not mean what they say. (See, e.g., J. L. Gaddis, “Expanding the Data Base: Historians, Political Scientists, and the Enrichment of Security Studies,” International Security, vol. 12, no. 1 (1987): 7, 9)
Historians rank primary source evidence according to their general reliability, accuracy and vulnerability to interested manipulation. The least accurate and least reliable are media reports. For a variety of reasons the press as institution is the most vulnerable to internal and external manipulation. Public communiqués establishing official positions and reactions, while usually more accurate in terms of declaratory policy, are also a form of self-interested and self-conscious political advertising – an image of policy that leaders purposefully project to domestic populations, allies and adversaries – and thus often not a faithful reflection of actual policy.
More accurate are diplomatic correspondence and instructions. However, diplomats often employ misrepresentation, misdirection, and subterfuge at the direction of their superiors in pursuit of state and national goals. And, on occasion, leaderships mislead their own diplomats to achieve such ends; so that the diplomat believes the misdirection he propagates and therefore does so more credibly.
Most accurate and reliable are executive decisions, internal discussions and intra-governmental instructions that are not designed for public consumption. These documents best reflect real intent and policy. Actual military (and intelligence) plans and deployments are often considered highly accurate indicators of intent and policy. However, these institutions are also more susceptible to bureaucratic inertia and may reflect defunct policies of former leaders, regimes and international situations rather than current policy during periods of transition. The Brezhnev-Andropov-Chernenko era plans and deployments that for the most part remained in effect in the Soviet military and KGB under Gorbachev’s “New Thinking in Foreign Policy” during 1988-1991 provide a case in point.
Ceteris paribus, executive decisions and internal governmental discussions not meant for public consumption easily trump media reports in terms of accuracy and credibility. They especially trump reports from international (rather than local) media, which are the least likely to reflect accurately the internal deliberations, decisions and intentions of a foreign leadership. Where a media report contradicts a contemporaneous internal report, the internal report easily constitutes the better evidence (unless, of course, it can be proven that it was created specifically to be “leaked” publicly or for disinformation purposes.)
In his discussions of Romania’s December 1989 revolution, Richard Andrew Hall overturns this hierarchy, dismissing the primacy of documented internal leadership deliberations in favor of international media reporting that supports his argument, and accepting and promoting their dubious assertions as solid fact. From this rickety base Hall then makes other assertions dependent upon it such that the careless reader is led off into a wilderness of speculation and self-contradiction.
Was Ceausescu Worried About “Soviet Tourists” Or Not?
For example, Hall claims that the Ceausescu regime was not especially concerned regarding Soviet “tourists” in December 1989 based on an Agence-France Press (AFP) report of December 19, 1989. According to the French journalist, a Romanian border guard declared that the “border was closed to everyone but the Soviets!” In more than a dozen blog posts Hall insists that this proves the regime was neither worried about nor taking measures against Soviet “tourists.” (AFP 19/12/89 reproduced in Hall)
To his credit, after his first use of this evidence in his dissertation written in the 1990s, Hall has cited the subsequently published transcripts of the December 17, 1989 meeting of Romanian Communist Party’s (RCP) Political Executive Committee (PolExCom), in which Ceausescu condemns Soviet bloc “tourism” and orders that it be shut down immediately:
“I have also given the order to interrupt all tourist activity. Not a single foreign tourist should be allowed in, because all have become espionage agents. Likewise, the small cross-border traffic should be shut down immediately. I have given the order to the Ministry of Interior but those from [Ministry of] Tourism must be called immediately, and the unoccupied rooms should be given to Romanian citizens.
No one should be allowed in from the socialist countries, aside from Korea, China and Cuba. Because none of the neighboring socialist countries can be trusted. Those from neighboring socialist countries are sent as agents. We are shutting down all tourist activity.
A state of emergency is declared for all counties. The units of the Military, of the Ministry of Interior, of the State Security are in a state of emergency.
We should give the instruction in the teleconference to take all measures against any attempt, because we must defend the independence of the fatherland and socialism against anyone, no matter who it is.”
[Am dat, de altfel, indicatia sa se intrerupa orice activitate de turism. Nu trebuie sa mai vina niciun turist din strainatate, pentru ca toti s-au transformat in agenti de spionaj. De asemenea, sa se intrerupa micul trafic de frontiera imediat. Am dat ordin la Ministerul de Interne, dar trebuie chemati si cei de la turism imediat, iar locurile neocupate sa fie date la cetateni romani. Nici din tarile socialiste sa nu mai vina, in afara de Coreea, de China si din Cuba. Pentru ca toate tarile socialiste vecine nu prezinta incredere. Cei din tarile socialiste vecine sunt trimisi ca agenti. Intrerupem orice activitate de turism. La toate judetele se va declara stare de alarma. Unitatile militare, ale Ministerului de Interne, ale Securitatii sunt in stare de alarma. Sa dam la teleconferinta indicatia ca sa se ia toate masurile fata de orice incercare, pentru ca trebuie sa aparam independenta patriei si a socialismului impotriva oricaruia, indiferent cine este. Acestea sunt problemele care se pun acum. (Hall cites M. Bunea, Praf in ochi (1994): 34. The original transcript was found in the military court archives by V. Roncea and is reproduced here CPEX Transcript 12/17/89.)
“Soviet bloc “tourism” – the only significant “tourism” during that period – was likewise implicitly condemned in the teleconference following that meeting: “We have ordered that foreign tourists will not be received for awhile and that the so-called small cross-border traffic will also be discontinued. We suspend it! We will restart it later. Now we do not have time for small cross-border traffic! Each one should be occupied with their own problems! We must not admit anyone, neither foreigners and nor anyone from the country, those who are caught engaging in anti-socialist activities should be struck without mercy, with no [other] justification, and we should tell the people clearly, to avoid any ambiguity!”
[Am stabilit sa nu mai primim in perioada urmatoare turisti straini sis a nu mai aiba lo casa-zisul mic trafic de frontiera. Il suspendam! Vom reveni mai tirziu. Acum nu avem timp de mic trafic de frontiera! Fiecare sa se ocupe de problemele lor!
Nu trebuie sa admitim, si oricine, si strainii, dar si din tara, care sint prinsi ca desfasoara ativitate antisocialista trebuie loviti fara crutare, fara nici un fel de justificare si trebuie sa supunem poporului clar, nu sa umblam cu subintelesuri!] (Arhiva Nationale, fond CC al PCR, Sectia Cancelarie, dosar 338/1989; See also page 8 of Teleconference 12/17/89)
How does Hall deal with this? He insists Ceausescu was merely being paranoid and argues that, since “Ceausescu had ordered not just that Soviet tourists, but that all tourists, from East and West” be stopped, the dictator was not especially concerned with Soviet “tourists.”
The problem with Hall’s reasoning is that specific complaint was made only against Soviet bloc“tourists.” Aside from the odd Bucharest-based diplomat attempting to visit Timisoara the only troublesome Westerners were the journalists who attended the RCP Plenum in November and never left. Although Ceausescu never mentioned western “tourists,” he did single out the socialist countries three times. First, to order that none of their citizens be allowed into Romania, then to underscore that none of them were trustworthy, and finally, to underscore that all “tourists” sent to Romania from the socialist countries came as hostile espionage agents. And the repeated reference to “small cross-border traffic” can only refer to the traffic into Romania from its socialist neighbors.
Hall dismisses more recent evidence regarding Ceausescu’s preoccupation with Soviet “tourists” in similar fashion. Consider, for example, the correspondence between Bucharest and its embassy in Moscow in December 1989. (Originally reproduced in D. Preda and M. Retegan, 1989: Principiul Dominoului (2000): 445-498. Some of this correspondence is translated in M. Munteanu, “New Evidence on the 1989 Crisis in Romania (2001): 3-11, Munteanu – Correspondence on Soviet Tourists)
According to Hall, this diplomatic correspondence “never once” mentions or objects to “the presence or behavior of ‘Soviet tourists’ in Romania during these chaotic days of crisis for the Ceausescu regime.” (Hall on Romanian Diplomatic Correspondence)
One wonders whether Hall read the diplomatic correspondence that he reproduces. The December 17 PolExCom meeting not only identified the Soviet “tourists” as agents entering the country to engage in hostile espionage – which certainly qualifies as “mentioning” and “objecting” to Soviet behavior in Romania – it also ordered a halt to all Soviet bloc tourism (Telegram no. 20/016 750, 12/17/89). Reporting on his implementation of the December 17 order the next day, the Romanian ambassador in Moscow noted that as of “the morning of December 18, Soviet citizens have been telephoning the Embassy from border points with Romania, reporting that there are hundreds of automobiles that are not being permitted entry into our country.”
[Incepand din dimineata zilei de 18 decembrie a.c., cetateni sovietici au inceput sa faca apeluri telefonice la Ambasada, de la punctele de frontiera cu Romania, semnaland ca sunt sute de masini carora nu li se permite intrarea in tara noastra si anticipam ca autoritatile sovietice vor solicita explicatii in legatura cu decizia luata.] (Doc. 258 in Preda and Retegan; Doc. 1 in Munteanu – Correspondence on Soviet Tourists)
The ambassador then requested instructions from his ministry on how to field Soviet demands for explanation of the border closure.
On December 21 the Romanian ambassador explained to the Soviet Foreign Ministry that the closure of the border “to Soviet citizens, especially tourists” was a “temporary” measure “for limiting the access of some groups of foreign tourists,” much like Moscow had done in “restricting the travel of Romanian tourists” at certain times to Georgia and Armenia. The ambassador then suggested the linkage between Soviet “tourists” and espionage agents by following up with a reiteration of Romania’s “decision to repulse any attempt to interfere in its domestic affairs and to take decisive measures against any provocative or subversive actions initiated by reactionary, anti-Romanian circles, secret services or foreign espionage agencies.” (Doc. 278 in Preda and Retegan; Doc. 4 in Munteanu – Correspondence on Soviet Tourists)
In one document apparently missed by Hall (and Munteanu), the Romanian Embassy in Moscow relayed the Soviet television broadcast of December 19, which reported “the closing of the border in a unilateral manner by our country” and presented the official communiqués issued “by the Soviet tourist agency Intourist, and by the [tourist] agency of the GDR, regarding the temporary halting of tourist travel to our country from these countries.” Thus, it would appear, Soviet media sources did confirm the ban against Soviet “tourists.” On December 20 further confirmations appeared in Pravda, Sovietskaia Rossiia, Izvestia, Selskaia Zhizni, Komsomolskaia Pravda, and Sotsialisticheskovo Industriia bearing titles like “A Worsening Border Regime,” Tensions with Romania,” and “Tensions on the Borders of Romania.” (Document 276 in Preda and Retegan)
In spite of this daily mention of Soviet “tourists” ever since Ceausescu first ordered that they be stopped at the borders on December 17, Hall considers his contention that the regime was unconcerned by Soviet “tourism” proved by the AFP report of December 19, 1989, claiming that two Romanian border guards at the frontier with Yugoslavia told a journalist to: “Go back home, only Russians can get through!” Hall reproduces this report in subsequent posts as if it were an unproblematic truth – and better evidence than the Transcript of the PolExCom meeting of December 17, 1989. “Why,” Hall asks rhetorically, “was it precisely ‘Soviet travelers coming home from shopping trips to Yugoslavia’ who were the only group declared exempt from the ban on “tourism” announced on that day?” (Hall on Soviet Tourists #1) It is possible, although not plausible, that the journalist actually heard – and the border guards actually made – such a declaration. In no way, however, could that be taken as representative of Romanian policy at the time. Documentary “best evidence” indicates that no such exemption was ever given.
Importance of Nuance
Relying on a translation provided by Mircea Munteanu (Document 5 in Munteanu – Correspondence on Soviet Tourists) Hall makes much of an alleged statement on December 21 by the Romanian ambassador to the Soviet Foreign Ministry, that the “limitations do not apply to business travel or tourists transiting Romania,” as proving Bucharest’s lack of concern regarding Soviet “tourists”. (Hall on Soviet Tourists #1)
Unfortunately, Munteanu’s translation is in error. In fact, the ambassador specifies an exemption only for “those in transit” and not for “tourists transiting Romania.” Given that the Romanian-Soviet discussion at that point was precisely about “the closing of the Soviet-Romanian frontier” to tourists, it stands to reason that the ambassador’s reference was to transit for non-touristic purposes. Readers may judge for themselves which of these translations best reflects the meaning of the original:
“In legatura cu problema turismului, am mentionat ca nu dispun de o comunicare oficiala privind inchiderea frontierei soviet-romane. Am aratat, totodata, ca au fost adoptate unele masuri temporare privind limitarea accesului unor grupuri de turisti straini, din considerente legate de dificultatile de asigurare a hotelurilor si a conditiilor corespunzatoare. Aceste masuri nu afecteaza calatoriile in interes de serviciu si nici pe cele in transit.” (Romanian original – Doc. 278 in Preda and Retegan)
English translation by Munteanu:
“With regard to the issue of tourists crossing the border in Romania, I said that I did not possess an official communication in this regard. I suggested that some temporary measures were adopted due to the need to limit access of certain groups of tourists [in the country]. [Those limitations were imposed] due to difficulties in assuring their access to hotel rooms and other related essential conditions. Those limitations do not apply to business travel or tourists transiting Romania.”
(Doc. 5 in Munteanu – Correspondence on Soviet Tourists. Brackets added by Munteanu.)
English translation by Watts:
“In connection with the issue of tourism, I mentioned that I did not dispose of an official communication regarding the closing of the Soviet-Romanian frontier. I explained, at the same time, that some temporary measures were adopted for limiting the access of some groups of foreign tourists, from considerations connected with the difficulties of assuring hotels and appropriate conditions. These measures do not affect travel for official purposes or those in transit.”
In fact, only several days earlier Bucharest had decided to continue a very specific form of non-tourist transit traffic from the Soviet Union. This exception is described by the Romanian ambassador in his December 18 Telegram.
“The Consulate Section has continuously accorded transit visas for Jews from the USSR who have approval to settle in Israel, as well as for foreign students studying in the USSR. Since the chief representative of TAROM has received instructions to continue this transit traffic in the normal way, we request that you communicate to us clarification on how to act in such cases.” (Watts translation from Doc. 258 in Preda and Retegan)
[In mod continuu, la Sectia consulara s-au acordat vize de transit pentru evreii din URSS, care au aprobare sa se stabileasca in Israel, precum si pentru studentii straini care invata in URSS. Intrucat seful reprezentatei TAROM a primit orientarea de a continua traficul de transit in mod normal, rugam sa ni se comunice clarificari asupra modului cum actionam in astfel de cazuri.] (Romanian original – Doc. 258 in Preda and Retegan)
In his translation of the same document Munteanu intercedes with a note of his own specifying that the approvals were given by Moscow:
“Continuously, at the Consular Section, we have given transit visas to Soviet Jews who have the approval [of the Soviet government] to emigrate to Israel.”
(Doc. 1 in Munteanu – Correspondence on Soviet Tourists. Bracket added by Munteanu.)
This time the error is one of nuance. But that nuance has significant implications. Munteanu translates “se stabileasca” as “emigrate (emigra)” but it is more accurately translated as “to settle” or “immigrate (imigra).” Obviously, only Tel Aviv could decide who was approved to settle in or immigrate to Israel. Munteanu’s stipulation of Soviet government approval for such transit does not clarify; it misleads. The sentence actually describes an established Romanian practice of granting visas to Soviet Jews leaving the USSR. It makes no reference to Soviet authority because the visa exception existed as a result of Romania’s long-term cooperation with Israel, not because of Soviet initiative. The TAROM representative was instructed to continue this practice by Bucharest, not by Moscow.
In the internal deliberations of the Political Executive Committee on December 17, 1989, Ceausescu ordered a halt to “all tourism” from “the neighboring socialist countries” because those tourists operated as “espionage agents.” He also forcefully expressed his belief that the USSR bore chief responsibility for organizing “all that happened and is happening in [East] Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria now, and in the past in Poland and Hungary.” (See CPEX Transcript 12/17/89.) Ceausescu viewed Moscow as driving this process, and the United States in a supporting role. The diplomatic correspondence between the Romanian foreign ministry and its embassy in Moscow explicitly identified Soviet tourism as a problem that Bucharest prohibited. Together, the internal executive deliberations and Romanian diplomatic correspondence soundly debunk AFP’s claim that Soviet tourists had free entry, not the other way round.
Media Meltdown in December 1989
There are, however, other problems with credibility of the AFP report. Although the violence had produced 50-70 casualties at the time, AFP reported “thousands” were killed in Timisoara. AFP likewise claimed that “at least 1,000” of these alleged fatalities were located in a single hospital, when the total number of losses in Timisoara during the entire revolution was less than 200. These are grim comparisons and they were not confined to AFP or the French media, but they bear directly on factual reliability. Although Hall focused his attention on the claim that the tourism ban applied to “all but Soviet travellers,” later in the same article AFP reversed itself to report that the ban applied to “all travellers.” (“Travelers Say ‘Hundreds’ Dead, Wounded” in Foreign Broadcast Information Service, East Europe, FBIS-EEU-89-242, 19 December 1989: 85)
In fact, international press coverage of the Romanian revolution was so outrageously manipulated that it is now used as a case study of journalistic ineptitude and media failure. According to the conclusions of one inquiry into the manipulation of news coverage during December 1989, the “misreporting of events in Timisoara by French media,” including even that of the “usually reputable French news agency AFP,” will “go down in history” as “an example of journalists failing to check the accuracy of the news they broadcast.” (Failure of French Media Coverage in December 1989)
Solid research methodology might not deliver results anticipated or desired, but it will bring us closer to answers that the evidence actually supports. Testimony after the fact and media reports crafted for public consumption are almost never superior in accuracy and reliability to non-public internal deliberations and decisions produced in the course of events. Continued reliance on the former to the neglect of the latter is unlikely to answer or clarify the outstanding questions regarding Romania’s Revolution of December 1989.
To be continued.