Sputnik Escalates the Cold War
Teaser Image

Ceauşescu, Nicolae (1918–1989)

First secretary of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) during 1965–1989 and president of Romania during 1974–1989. Born the third of ten children to peasant parents on 26 January 1918 in Scorniceşti, Nicolae Ceauşescu received only a rudimentary primary schooling before he moved to Bucharest at age eleven to work as a shoemaker's apprentice. Joining the outlawed Union of Communist Youth (UCY) in 1933, he became a regional secretary in 1936 and secretary of the central committee in 1938. Ceauşescu was first arrested in November 1933, charged with inciting a strike and distributing communist pamphlets. Upon his fourth conviction in July 1940, he was imprisoned until August 1944. In the Tîrgu-Jiu prison camp, he became a protégé of Romanian Workers' Party leader Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej and future Premier Ion Maurer.

After the postwar communist takeover, Ceauşescu occupied various party posts. He became regional secretary for Oltenia in November 1946, deputy in the Ministry of Agriculture during 1948–1950, and deputy minister of the armed forces during 1950–1954. Appointed in 1952 to the Romanian Workers' Party (PMR) Central Committee, he was made secretary in 1954 and a Politburo member in 1955. Upon Gheorghiu-Dej's death in 1965, Ceauşescu became first secretary of the renamed PCR, backed by Prime Minister Maurer.

As with Gheorghiu-Dej, Ceauşescu both supported rapid industrialization and minimized Soviet control. In 1967 he established diplomatic relations with the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany) and maintained relations with Israel after the Six-Day War. Romanian diplomats also acted as negotiating brokers between the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV, North Vietnam) and the United States. Ceauşescu's popularity rose at home and abroad when he opposed the 1968 Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, a stance that led to U.S. President Richard M. Nixon's visit to Romania in August 1969 and Ceauşescu's return visits to the United States in 1970, 1973, and 1978. He also visited the People's Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) in June 1971, followed in April 1972 by meetings with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) head Yasir Arafat. Subsequently, Romania achieved most-favored nation (MFN) trade status with the United States in 1975 and was admitted to international organizations including the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.

Internally, the liberal tendencies of Ceauşescu's early government in freeing political prisoners detained under Gheorghiu-Dej and deposing pro-Soviet members of the Securitate (the Romanian secret service) soon gave way to nationalism, a personality cult, and even more stringent Securitate surveillance. Upon the retirement of Premier Maurer in 1974, Ceauşescu assumed the newly created office of president of the republic. Natural disasters such as poor harvests and the 1977 earthquake combined with reckless trade practices and economic mismanagement led to an immense foreign debt crisis and domestic shortages. In response, Ceauşescu imposed strict rationing for food and electrical power and, to boost the country's workforce, forbade abortion and contraception. His regime also began a systematization campaign to resettle villagers in agroindustrial centers, a movement that led to massive discontent and the destruction of historical landmarks. As his popular support eroded, Ceauşescu increasingly surrounded himself with sycophants and appointed family members to strategic posts. His wife Elena became a Central Committee member in July 1972, a member of the Politburo and head of the PCR's personnel section in 1973, and first deputy prime minister in 1980.

In the 1980s, Romania's international relations deteriorated as growing condemnation of human rights abuses accumulated. This compelled Ceauşescu to renounce Romania's MFN status in 1988 before it could be revoked by the U.S. government. Unrest spread throughout Romania, marked by brutally repressed miners' strikes (1977, 1983, and 1986), the protest marches of 1987 in Iaşi and Braşov, and, in March 1989, an internationally released letter signed by six senior PCR members in the name of the National Salvation Front (NSF). Shortly after Ceauşescu's November 1989 reelection for another five-year term, antigovernment demonstrations in Timişoara in December 1989 left 122 dead after an army intervention. Returning from a state visit to Iran on 20 December, Ceauşescu denounced the demonstrators and called for a progovernment rally in Bucharest. This evolved into another protest and led to the defection of much of the army. Ceauşescu and his wife fled the capital in a helicopter but were eventually captured and detained in the Târgovişte military garrison. There they were tried by a tribunal of the NSF and executed on 25 December 1989.

Anna M. Wittmann

Further Reading
Fischer, Mary Ellen. Nicolae Ceauşescu: A Study in Political Leadership. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1989.

©2011 ABC-CLIO. All rights reserved.

  About the Author/Editor
ABC-cLIO Footer