Cold War Symbolism: Not Just for the 1950s Anymore

29th Jul 2015

Last Saturday, July 25, marked the end of Captive Nations Week, though you can’t be blamed for being caught unawares. Established via a 1959 presidential proclamation signed by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, the commemorative week recognizing the plight of the “captive nations” — those countries either occupied by the Soviet Union or subjugated by communist puppet governments — is today remembered as a musty relic of the Cold War, when it’s remembered at all. The bipartisan congressional resolution that created Captive Nations Week is infused with the moralistic fervor of 1950s anti-communism. “[T]he enslavement of a substantial part of the world’s population by Communist imperialism makes a mockery of the idea of peaceful coexistence between nations,” it declared.

Every U.S. president since Ike has dutifully recognized Captive Nations Week, though the acknowledgment rarely consists of anything more than a brief statement. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the continued acknowledgment of Captive Nations Week might have seemed anachronistic, an annual moment for Cold Warriors not yet ready to let go of the great “twilight struggle” to bask in the glory of headier times. Yet post-Cold War Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all found ways to tailor the spirit of Captive Nations Week to their presidencies. Clinton, under whose administration NATO began its expansion into the former Warsaw Pact countries, used it to acknowledge the Soviet Union’s peaceful demise and promote “a stable, democratic, and undivided Europe.” In his 2001proclamation, Bush went so far as to name countries like Afghanistan, Cuba, and Iraq as places where “freedom is not accessible to all.” Obama, less comfortable with the language of American exceptionalism and channeling the populist passions of his base, declared this year that, “economic inequality and extreme poverty are laying the foundation for instability.”

The meaning of Captive Nations Week has been watered down over the past five decades. As Obama’s statement shows, the rare instances that it’s invoked today are to express solidarity with the world’s downtrodden, wherever they may be, and evoke gauzy feelings of hope in the inevitable progress of humankind. These are noble feelings, and they strike at the heart of how Americans view their country’s role in the world. But with the Russian regime of President Vladimir Putin acting more and more like its Soviet predecessor, it’s long past time to restore Captive Nations Week’s initial purpose: acknowledging the plight of countries under Moscow’s occupation.

Indeed, in a depressing case of déjà vu, parts of some of the very nations mentioned in the original resolution once again lie under Russian occupation: Georgia (its breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which host thousands of Russian troops) and Ukraine (the Crimean peninsula, which was annexed last year, and the country’s eastern provinces, currently the site of a bloody war fomented by Moscow). More than a “weird artifact of the Cold War,” as Georgetown University international affairs professor Charles King deemed it last year in a piece for Slate, Captive Nations Week is gloomily relevant again.

Nor is it the only seemingly obsolete and symbolic instrument of U.S. foreign policy that remains applicable. This month marks the 75th anniversary of the Welles Declaration, the timing of which was the predicate for Captive Nations Week. Issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s then-acting secretary of state, Sumner Welles, this doctrine condemned the 1940 Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — ceded to Joseph Stalin by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact — and avowed that Washington would never recognize their annexation by the Soviet Union. This nonrecognition policy persisted throughout the U.S. wartime alliance with Moscow, when the Nazis pushed the Red Army out of the Baltics and instituted their own occupation. And it remained in force for the entire period of the Soviet reoccupation, which began in 1944 and lasted until the Soviet Union’s collapse nearly five decades later when the Baltics regained their independence.

All this time, the Baltic states were represented in Washington by exile governments, not the puppet ones instantiated by Moscow. By refusing to accept the Soviet occupations, the United States was doing more than merely offering token support to the peoples of these small countries cursed by lousy geography. Acknowledging the state continuity of the Baltics — particularly during a time when few people predicted they would ever again be free — upheld one of the most sacred principles of international law, which is that borders cannot be changed through force.

Alas, this is a principle that Russia blatantly disregards today, just as it has in the past. The past and present plight of the Captive Nations, then, is not just a piece of Cold War arcana; it is a real, live issue. As the Russian regime hardens its domestic authoritarianism and acts ever more aggressively on the international stage, prominent voices in the West will argue that we ought not let the plight of the occupied and others living in Russia’s shadow distract us from the bigger picture. Reaching an accommodation with Moscow, they will say, is more important than obsessing over small, benighted lands. For the new advocates of détente, like those of a generation earlier, Russian belligerence can always be explained away. After all, it was only a few months after Russia invaded and occupied Georgia that the Obama administration announced its doomed-from-the-start “reset.” Just last week, a delegation of some 11 French parliamentarians visited Crimea, conferring legitimacy upon Russia’s territorial conquest.

If there’s anything that Captive Nations Week and the Welles Declaration teach us, it’s that firm adherence to the principles of self-determination and rule of law eventually prevail. Taking that lesson to heart means steeling ourselves for a long confrontation with Moscow and not backing down over basics. An easy place to start would be using the annual occasion of Captive Nations Week to at least mention, well, actual captive nations. Obama’s declaration this month is replete with paeans to freedom and democracy, a call to “stand in solidarity with those who still yearn for a stake in their future,” but makes no mention of Crimea or other territories occupied by Moscow. For as long as Russia subjugates its neighbors, it will be the duty of America to constantly remind the world of these facts, lest we be held captive to our own fears.

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