The Formulation of an American Response to Lithuanian Independence, 1990

By Gvosdev, Nikolas K. | East European Quarterly, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

The Formulation of an American Response to Lithuanian Independence, 1990


Gvosdev, Nikolas K., East European Quarterly


In the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bush Administration has claimed that the policies undertaken by the United States government were instrumental in leading to the re-establishment of the independent Baltic States.(1) A careful assessment of American policy during the first year after Lithuania declared its independence, however, might lead one to reconsider that conclusion. Rather than encouraging the devolution of power from Moscow to Vilnius, American efforts appeared to be geared toward maintaining the Soviet system. The goal of this paper is to examine the initial American response to the efforts of the Lithuanian government to re-establish an independent state during 1990.

Introduction: Recognition and Non-recognition

After the Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940, the United States took immediate action. Executive Order 8484, issued July 15, 1940, froze all Lithuanian assets in the US and prohibited transfer of these assets back to Soviet-controlled Lithuania without a license from the Secretary of the Treasury. On July 23, 1940, the Acting Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, issued a statement in which the US condemned the

... devious processes where under the political independence and territorial integrity of the three small Baltic Republics... were to be deliberately annihilated by one of their more powerful neighbors.(2)

On August 19, 1940, Welles, while acknowledging that the Soviets had obtained "full control" over the territory of Lithuania, reiterated that so "long as this government refuses to recognize the legality of the seizure by the Soviet Government of the Baltic States" that the "diplomatic missions and consular offices of Lithuania" would "continue to function in the United States and to protect the nationals and interests which it represented."(3) On September 18, 1941, the Secretary of State (Cordell Hull) reaffirmed the US stand, citing the Atlantic Charter and stating that the United States wished "to see self-government restored to those peoples who have been forcibly deprived of it.(4)

Under Soviet pressure, however, the United States closed its diplomatic offices in Lithuania in September 1940. Eager to obtain Soviet cooperation during the prosecution of the war and in the plans for the postwar world, the US did little to press the Soviets to abandon their claims to Lithuania. In January 1945, the following memorandum was circulated by the Deputy Director of the State Department's Office of European Affairs:

We know that the three Baltic States have been reincorporated into the Soviet Union and that nothing we can do can alter this. I would favor using any bargaining power that exists in connection with the foregoing matters to induce the Russians to go along with a satisfactory United Nations organization and the proposed Provisional Security Council for Europe to deal with... other trouble spots. I would favor... our recognition of these areas as Soviet territory.(5)

Ultimately, the government arrived at a compromise: in its official statements, the United States continued to deny the legitimacy of Soviet control over Lithuania; at the same time, however, it did not allow the non-recognition of Lithuania's incorporation to disrupt the basic pattern of US-Soviet relations. This approach was based on the assumption that there was nothing that the US could do to dislodge the Soviets from Lithuania without inviting major repercussions that would be very damaging to American national interests; therefore, ceteris paribus, it was considered unwise to jeopardize potentially beneficial ties with the USSR (such as arms control) over the Lithuanian issue.

The Position of the Bush Administration: 1988-1989

During the 1988 Presidential campaign, then Vice-President George Bush had personally stated his desire to see Lithuania regain its independence. In an October 13, 1988 campaign letter to Lithuanian-Americans, he wrote:

. …

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