On Aug. 23, 1944, a young Eastern European king in his early 20s was arresting the head of his government and switching sides from fighting with the Germans in World War II to joining the…
On Aug. 23, 1944, a young Eastern European king in his early 20s was arresting the head of his government and switching sides from fighting with the Germans in World War II to joining the Allies. History credits King Michael of Romania with having changed the course of his country’s history and shortening the war by months.
With the Germans now depleted of oil resources in the Carpathian region, the Soviets were slowly taking over the Eastern European country, changing key people in the government and replacing them with Communist figures. America and the U.K. were far away, and both were keen on keeping their alliance with the Soviet Union, regardless of signs that Moscow was about to take over much of Central and Eastern Europe.
It is in this context that Frank Wisner, a lawyer enrolled in the U.S. Navy and stationed in Bucharest, began reporting to Washington about the first signs of what would become the Cold War, reveals a new book by George Cristian Maior, Romania’s ambassador to the United States. Throughout his time in Romania, Wisner ran the Office of Strategic Services, an early espionage mission in southeastern Europe that paved the way to what would later become the Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, in the U.S.
Wisner was a spy, mixing seamlessly with both the Turkish and the Romanian elite from his assignments in both countries. Wisner took part in several missions around the world, was stationed in Germany after his time in Bucharest ended, and struggled with deepening psychological issues stirred by Washington ignoring his warnings about the fast-approaching Cold War. Wisner reportedly suffered a mental breakdown after the Soviet Union quashed the Hungarian revolution in 1956 , and in 1965 he committed suicide.
Almost 30 years after the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, espionage in the region is active and now more sophisticated. From election interference — notably, allegedly from Russia — to online privacy invasion, agents are still collecting and distributing information in the name of countries’ national security and international cooperation. “Technologically we have evolved but the method is still there,” says Maior, who previously ran the Romanian Intelligence Service.
U.S. News sat down with Romania’s ambassador to talk about espionage missions, the Cold War, and how history often repeats itself. The Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How was the beginning of the Cold War seen in Eastern Europe?
The U.S. was in alliance with the Soviets during World War II. It was a strong alliance to overcome the Nazi threat but at the end of the war Wisner detected — and he was one of the first individuals to understand — that Central and Eastern Europe would be swallowed in a way into the orbit of the Soviet influence. And he reported back and it was not easy because officially there was an alliance with the Soviets. Some of his masters put pressure on him to be more neutral in terms of that type of reporting, but he saw that something very bad will happen in Central and Eastern Europe, and for him (the approaching Cold War) was a drama in a way. He noticed that those people wanted free elections, democracy, they were struggling to overcome the hardships of WWII and all they wanted was a natural evolution in terms of their destiny. Which they didn’t have because of the geopolitics of the time. This is a personal psychological drama of Frank Wisner that really affected him during his mission and work later in the CIA.
You write in your book that the early days of modern espionage in the U.S. were similar to a tech startup. What did you mean by that?
There was a reluctance because of your (U.S.) Constitution, because of the way America defined itself as a democracy — there was reluctance to establish intelligence services. Other countries didn’t have this reluctance and the U.S. was obliged to learn that in a very complex world you need those types of organizations. It was at the beginning a certain naiveté in terms of the structure and the craft of intelligence. (Americans) were trained by their good friends, the British, and until they gained a certain experience , it was a bit amateuristic.
What role did the Office of Strategic Studies, or OSS, play in your region?
The Eastern front was very important. For the U.S., developments in Romania really influenced the evolution of the war dramatically. Also because of the dynamics of the war the U.S. had many pilots that were prisoners of war (in Romania) and one of Wisner’s first missions was to repatriate those pilots to the U.S.
Then the mission changed; it was important to evaluate many Nazi German activities in Romania. Lots of information after Germany retreated from the southern part of Romania was taken by U.S., very important information related to the German army, as the war was continuing in Central and Western Europe. And then the mission started to change because of this Soviet infiltration in the (Romanian) society and the political parties in order to gain control over these territories. The OSS was observing this and reported back. It was a very unclear period and (the OSS) tried to inform the U.S. government that something negative will happen in Central and Eastern Europe in terms of spheres of influences, in terms of the forced introduction of communism in those societies, not only in Romania, but also in Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
Did the Romanians have an intelligence office back then?
The Romanian intelligence service was very professional , but unfortunately the Soviets managed to remove some of the good professionals. They accused them of collaborating with the Nazis, in some cases it was real, and they were put in prison. It was dismantled practically in a few years. but parts of that service cooperated with the Americans and with Wisner on a very secretive basis.
He noticed any changes in government with pro-Soviet figures coming into strong political positions. He was noticing the growth of the Communist Party, which was nonexistent in the interwar period, but was (now) aided by the Soviets with propaganda money and resources. He noticed how traditional democratic parties were slowly but steadily removed from power, the fact that Soviet agents deployed from Moscow directly into Romania were taking executive powers in the state, (and) the isolation of the Romanian king as head of state. All those aspects that were so negative for my people.
What was Washington’s response?
Because of the alliance with the Soviets, because the war was ongoing in Central and Western Europe and Franklin Roosevelt’s idea of creating a postwar structure of power involving also the Soviets, the response was, to say the least, very prudent. They understood and Harry Truman (Roosevelt’s successor) really started to put pressure on the Soviets. The Cold War began in countries in Eastern Europe, in countries like Romania and Poland.
Could the Cold War have been avoided?
That’s a hypothesis that many historians debate. Probably not, because the Soviets were very powerful in terms of their military, in terms of gaining ground in Central and Eastern Europe, in terms of developing nuclear weapons. There were two ideological philosophies also in competition, very different in terms of values, in terms of the way they saw history — communism and the “free world” — so unfortunately I believe it was not possible to avoid it. But to diminish it in terms of consequences , yes — for example, by assisting countries like Poland and Romania.
What’s Romania’s relationship with the U.S., given the communist history?
It is very strong in the area of defense and security. We have very good political dialogue and good cooperation countering threats like terrorism together and sharing information that is very important. Romania is the frontier of NATO and the European Union, in a very strategic location. Crimea is less than 150 miles from the shore of Romania , so we have a very big responsibility in terms of protecting these frontiers and projecting stability in other parts of the regions.
We tend to have a romanticized view of what spies do and how their lives are. What does a good spy look like?
A spy is first and foremost a powerful intellect in terms of analyzing information, trying to distill truth from perception and corroborate facts on a neutral basis. A spy is spectacular in terms of his/her intellect and the craft, but they are very low-profile and dull as individuals, not the type of James Bond individuals.
Should we learn from history?
History is full of surprises. Sometimes it repeats itself, sometimes not. We notice today again the debate in Europe and in the U.S. about foreign intelligence activities interfering in other societies and states , which are unhealthy for democracies. If we look back into history , those lessons are there. From time to time we should try to meditate about them.