Janos Gereben
Janos Gereben

Fellowship Title:

Impressions of a “Historic Visit”

Janos Gereben
August 18, 1969

Fellowship Year

Lerchengasse 28/43
1030 Wien, Austria


BUCHAREST—That’s what the advance buildup said: “historic.”  But now that President Nixon is here, it appears most unlikely that this will be the start of something new—which would be one way to earn that loosely used term.

Noisy, yes, and colorful, scary, new for this part of the world, strange, sunny, hot, enthusiastic, sweaty, centrally-organized, but overwhelming, friendly, fun, half-forced, half-voluntary, etc., etc.

But what’s so historic about it?

President Nixon is here now, he’ll be gone tomorrow and nothing will be changed.

“History” is made of stuff more enduring, more significant.

What is important then?

Moscow needs another Czechoslovakia like Washington needs another Vietnam.

This central point of fact is essential to the understanding of Nixon’s visit.

This was the factor that allowed the visit to take place at all, and this, too, deprives it from any lasting significance.

The visit was possible because of the present new and different situation in the world, and it cannot be historic within the framework of this world situation of mutual mediocrity and caution to which it conforms rather than “historically” changes.

*(Image not available) MAKING WAVES—These two pictures from Bucharest have one message: The momentary is not to be regarded as historic.

*(Image not available) HOW MANY BOOKS WOULD YOU LIKE? — According to the official announcement, the talks between Ceausescu and Nixon concerned the exchange of libraries. Although the understanding was that the issue of China was also discussed, nobody claims that these meetings resulted in anything substantial. (This photo and Mrs. Nixon’s on P-4 by the U.S. Information Agency, all others by Janos Gereben.)

Just as American foreign policy today is based on an incongruous mixture of attempting to continue the containment of Communism around the world, but at a minimum cost and with as little further involvement as possible, the present uncertain and bungling Soviet government wishes to preserve and extend the Communist domain, but, again, as gingerly and as cheaply as humanly possible.

This strange new situation is far more difficult to understand and interpret than the hard-line confrontations of past years.

These lines, obvious and redundant as they may be, are written in Bucharest’s Athenee Palace during the Nixon visit, alongside the company of such journalists as Max Frankel, Douglas Kiker, Joseph Kraft, Merriman Smith, John Scali, et al.

The saving grace of what is being written here is that in spite of this heady concentration of respected analysts, very little more is coming out of Bucharest—at least as of now—by way of interpretation.

How could it?


There was a stunning and tumultuous welcome here for Nixon, but how little did that mean!

It materialized suddenly, as the result of a truly frightening efficiency. It was brought about by the combination of a tough Communist regime which moves people in large groups with ease and the Romanians’ native warmth and friendliness.

The night before the President’s arrival—as in the preceding days—there was still nothing, but overnight this spacious, airy capital city of 1,500,000 became saturated with the visit.

Trucks and buses brought thousands to strategic points along the 10-mile route of the motorcade from the airport.

United States and Romanian flags were distributed, and those not organized in the government plan came themselves in huge crowds, holding up pictures of Nixon published in the morning papers and pictures of the three astronauts.

The sight and sound gave the impression of the reception for a liberating army, although most Romanians must have realized that the visit is just a vague gesture of goodwill—nothing more.

President Nicolae Ceausescu spoke at the airport ceremony about “feelings of sympathy”—meaning , presumably, friendship—toward the American people, but when the Tenth Party Congress opens here, there will be a great deal more “sympathy” expressed toward Moscow and Peking.

The American policy of “building bridges” is not and will not be accepted by Moscow and the Romanians, cheering on the streets, must know very well that they are walking an extremely thin tightrope.

A tightrope, yes, but something to hang onto, nevertheless.

Moscow knew how insignificant this visit is and therefore made no big thing of it.

*(Image not available) THE RECEIVING LINE—There was both airtight security and a sincere outpouring of warm greeting.

*(Image not available) WAS THE VISIT ALL BECAUSE OF HER? — Mrs. Patricia Nixon—a good Irish woman—was named a Romanian by the Romanians who did not hear any better reason given for the President’s visit.

Why should they? In a reverse situation, Brezhnev or Kosygin (both, even) may easily and without complications visit, say, Mexico or Peru, if they so desire.

So what?


It will be small wonder if high-level visits become the global substitute for military aid or intervention or even for economic aid. After all, it’s so much cheaper, so much easier to hop into a plane and then wave and smile at cheering thousands than to stick your neck out, into a possibly costly commitment.

Perhaps it’s better this way, this mild, cautious, noncommittal, and largely meaningless way than through the saber-rattling, shouting, and high-powered diplomacy of the past two decades.

It’s all very civil and even promising of some kind of peace to conduct foreign policy mildly, meekly, and in a mediocre vein.

The key to this atmosphere is in the personality of the men running the show, although it is possible that these men were called forth by a milieu keynoted by the great exhaustion with the storm and stress of the years during and after the last world war.

At any rate, this “cheap foreign policy” and this caution and “reasonableness” are now the vogue between men such as Nixon and Ceausescu, Brezhnev and Pompidou, Pope Paul and U Thant, who have replaced the dynamic and dangerous JFK and Gheorghiu Dej, Khrushchev and de Gaulle, Pope John and Hammarskjold.

There is mediocrity in the highest level of governments today and in our world but, with it, a certain quiet and peace which doesn’t sell newspapers as well, but allows people to sleep better.

The explanation offered by Ceausescu about the Nixon visit to his own people is a case in point. There wasn’t any until the day of arrival and then the talk was something about “international friendship.”  Whatever happened to that business of Vietnam?  We’ll hear more about that aspect of this strange relationship at the party congress.

Folks here, speculating in the pre-visit, weeks, came up with a better one. Mrs. Nixon is of Romanian descent, that’s the reason for the visit, they said.  Widely discussed from the hills of Transylvania to the plains of Moldavia, this popular theory had but one fault. It wasn’t true. Still it was accepted, silly that it be as a reason were it even true, because no plausible explanation was offered by the Bucharest government.

*(Image not available) SIGNS OF THE TIMES—A crossed-out, evidently outdated, statement above; Lenin’s statue with an American flag waved right in front of the still-revered leader; a Capitalist-style invitation from Romanian journalists to their Western colleagues; and a plastic smile from 1960 right in the middle of Bucharest, anno 1969.

The Nixon visit, before the morning of his arrival, was treated more routinely and briefly here than any good soccer game. True, there are few good soccer games in Romania.

The reason for this playing down of the visit is much easier to understand, however, than the much-discussed and still unclear reasons for the visit itself.

Romania, the only country in East Europe where the Peking Review, Moscow’s New Time, and announcements of an American exhibit of industrial design may be seen side by side, is most anxious to preserve it’s unique situation in world politics which gives it an importance way out of all the old, “hard-line” proportions.

By not talking about the visit and by not explaining it, Ceausescu and Co. really believed to have done their duty to give it proper perspective towards points East—in the time of cheap foreign policies this too is possible.

How to increase security and ensure hotel space for the invading army of hundreds of journalists? Mr. C. had an answer to that one, too. He closed the city of Bucharest three days before the visit.

Driving down from the north Moldavian city of Iasi, this writer was stopped four times (and turned away once for a 70-kilometer detour at the end of which luck prevailed in the person of an illiterate sergeant in charge of security) at checkpoints ringing the city.

All foreign cars were turned back without explanation and there were thousands of tourists (mostly Czechs, East Europe’s greatest travelers) stuck around Bucharest, cursing Nixon whom they held responsible for their plight.

The Nixon visit, rather the Romanian policy which allowed it, has had one important domestic implication. The country’s minorities—especially the most numerous group, the Hungarians—have been enjoying a bit of easing of the pressure they had lived under.

When Ceausescu took over from Gheorghiu Dej in 1965, letters circulated in the West from members of the Hungarian minority in Transylvania such as this:

“We are facing systematic destruction. Under the direction of the Communist Party, an unchecked and drastic chauvinist movement offers us the alternatives of becoming Romanian or becoming nothing. We have no role in the economy, education, culture, industry, the church—Romanians have everything. There is no Hungarian school, university, culture. We are made into Romanians and must give up our heritage, our past.”

Oppressed minorities may give a good excuse to foreign powers (especially those to the East) for intervention—Ceausescu could not afford to conduct his maverick foreign policy without improving the status of the minorities.

Quoting Lenin—but not Stalin, who had much to say on this subject—Ceausescu set out to put his own house in order, to eliminate or reduce this problem which made him vulnerable from propaganda attacks while worsening his already bad relationship with Hungary whose Moscow-aligned leadership was glad to use the problem of Romania’s minorities—most of which, again, happens to be Hungarian.

*(Image not available) MINI, MIDI, MAXI—Three generations, three styles on a Bucharest street.

From 1967 on, he concentrated on this problem, with good results. By the time of the Nixon visit, Ceausescu could boast that the Hungarians of Translyvania are gaining daily in minority rights, such as having their own schools, theaters, press. Just four years after that (justified) complaint in 1965, there are 31 Hungarian newspapers and periodicals in Romania, six Hungarian theaters, and Cluj (Kolozsvar) even has a Hungarian opera house.

What else was visible in Romania during the Nixon visit? 


It is a country which is said by many to be “Stalinist” within.

Stalinism doesn’t necessarily show on the streets, in the faces of people. Having lived through such a period—in Hungary—one can state that such political atmosphere is not necessarily visible on a short visit.

What is visible in Romania today is the relative appearance of economic well-being in cities such as Bucharest, Cluj, Iasi, Suceava; and the absolute impression of crushing poverty in the country, especially in the northeast.

There, the barefoot, rag-clad peasants, almost always drunk or in a sober and heart-breaking stupor of poverty, show the look of centuries-old deprivation, not the ravages of Stalinism.

But the better-fed, better-dressed (and still heavily drinking) Romanians of the cities show a significant improvement from their way of life of only 10 or 15 years ago.

There is none of the fat affluence and complacency of Hungary, the drabness of East Germany, the spiritual depression of Czechoslovakia. Romania presents an entirely different and unique picture, impossible to describe in terms that may apply to other East European countries.

Beyond the retardation (behind America and West Europe) of her neighbors, Romania seems to be truly 30-plus years behind the world in many respects. Thus a traveling American exhibit of industrial design was a great hit because of its construction of showing side by side items used in America in their present form and 40 or 50 years ago. Romanians easily related to these relics, much of which they have in their homes, and drew a clear vision from the comparison of which way they may go.

As the exhibit moved into the city of Iasi, there was a remarkable encounter between the exhibit’s designer, George Nelson of New York, and the city’s professional people during a lecture on the subject of industrial design.

The questions after the brief presentation all concerned technical problems: The relationship between environment and a new industrial park, the influence of design on prefabricated housing, the role of design in selling, etc.

*(Image not available) MINORITY RIGHTS—Season tickets for the Cluj Hungarian Opera are advertised next to announcements for Romanian-language plays and operas.

There were no political questions although the presence of Americans in Iasi was certainly something new.

This nonpolitical attitude carried over to the exhibit, too, where 17,O00 of the city’s 200,000 residents turned up in three days (vs. a total of 35,000 visitors in the two weeks of showing in Bucharest). The guest book was packed with complimentary comments on the exhibit, congratulations to the Apollo’s success, expressions of goodwill. The only reference to Vietnam was entered by an African student.

U.S. Information Agency officials and young American workers at the exhibit were asked only personal questions (e.g., how much they earn, what does it cost to rent or buy an apartment in the U.S., etc.)

The one political question to the Americans, on “what do you think about our Communist Party,” was quickly fielded by an official who said: “I think of it as I think of our own Republican Party—I know it’s there, but I wouldn’t vote for it.” The ensuing discussion on the “American kind” of elections—with more than one party—showed up the visitors to Iasi in a good light without causing any useless argument or political debate.

One more point was scored for “our side” by Nelson himself, working with the laborers setting up the exhibit. Bare to the waist in the Romanian August (it’s a hot one, as Mr. Nixon discovered later in Bucharest), Nelson was approached by a local reporter who inquired “where the boss is.” Told that he is speaking to the boss himself, the Romanian said it was impossible as Nelson was without coat and tie. Shirt, even.

“Young man,” came the punchline, “you must understand that in the United States we have no class differences.”

These exchanges in Iasi, and similar ones in Bucharest during the visit, did work towards the materialization of Ceausescu’s own propaganda about “international friendship and understanding.” The new kind of overseas American is a dangerous one from the Communist point of view. Easy-going, friendly, and ready without being tense or impatient, these American “ambassadors” destroy the old, outdated Communist image of America once and for all.

However, these contacts are limited geographically and can be effective only on a certain level of civilization.

The vast majority of Romanians live on the rural countryside which, apart from the spanking-new industrial cities scattered around the farmlands, is as ancient and rural as it can be. Here, the Americans, the Nixon visit, even the party congress all went unnoticed.

But the cities and industry are booming, and the Romanian armed forces (displayed prominently during the Nixon visit) may cause severe headaches for Russian generals toying with the idea of another Aug. 21.

But Moscow, again, doesn’t want another Czechoslovakia. Moscow and Washington may not like the status quo, but they don’t want to go into the trouble that it would cost to change it.

Statesmen must have gotten the message that people are tired of the past’s meaningless conquests and struggle, turmoil and suffering. They are willing to draw the line and today’s line is good enough.

Hence Mr. Nixon’s visit—a mild demonstration of accepting the status quo while ever so slightly one up on the other fellow.

But Candide’s example now seems to work around the world—with the not-so-negligible exception of China—and people (in and out of ministeriums) are now saying in effect: “Let us work in our garden and let other folks mind their own, inferior, gardens.”

It may all work out in the end—for a while.

Meanwhile, not to be outdone by Mr. Nixon, Billy Graham is getting ready for a trip to Prague.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Mr. Graham had a better perspective of what’s “historic” and change his mind.

He’ll just skip the whole thing.

And history will never notice.

*(Image not available) AMERICANS IN IASI—The eye-catching emblem of the exhibit (the U. S. flag in form of a Mobeus), one of the show’s popular guides giving autograms, and exhibit designer George Nelson (right) with a Iasi city official who was instrumental in getting word of the show around by large-scale, free advertising.

*(Image not available) FROM THE MANY FACES OF ROMANIA

Received in New York on August 18, 1969.


Mr. Gereben is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from the Honolulu Star-Bulletin. This article may be published with credit to Janos Gereben, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.