President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed Public Law 86-90 in 1959, thereby declaring the third week of July to be National Captive Nations Week. Since DDE every American president has made the same annual proclamation, calling on the American people to support captive peoples – especially those under communism – in their just desire for liberty and independence.
Eisenhower knew first hand from his lengthy military career what communist ideology meant in actuality. Diplomat George Kennan, author of the “Long Telegram” and principal architect of the Containment Theory attempted to influence DDE’s successor, President John F. Kennedy, that the United States had no reason to continue to proclaim Captive Nations Week. This on grounds that the resolution, in effect, called for the overthrow of all the Warsaw pact governments (as well as the SSR regimes in countries such as the Baltics). Yet it has remained an integral part of American foreign policy to this day.
Kennan’s point was a diplomatic one. However, the brain behind the Cold War containment notion, itself a result of the Domino Theory, which held that if one country fell under communist control or influence others would follow, somehow was blinded to the fact that Congressional resolutions and presidential declarations have public policy impact. Containment became the cornerstone of the Truman Doctrine, followed by the implementation of the Marshall Plan and other building blocks of Cold War era foreign policy.
Without such a foundation and public understanding it is unlikely that Ronald Reagan, for example, would have overridden the more cautious individuals of Foggy Bottom and called on Mister Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The State Department’s speechwriting editors repeatedly excised that famous challenge from Reagan’s June 12, 1987 speech at the Brandenburg Gate, delivered ostensibly to commemorate the 750th anniversary of Berlin. But Reagan persisted, knowing in his gut that he was right. Berlin today is no longer divided; Europe’s Iron Curtain is no more.
But the Bamboo Curtain remains. Today there are only five communist nations in the world: China, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba. The first is the world’s most populous country, North Korea the most unstable. Vietnam, like China, practices a form of capitalist communism, to which Western businessmen turn a blind eye. Laos has a despicable human rights record. Cuba turned to China for aid after the Soviet collapse, and is still jailing dissidents, crushing opposition to the Castro frères regime.
What will President Barack Obama do? Signing the proclamation is one thing – enacting official U.S. policy is another. As the brutal suppression of Uighurs this summer has shown, China has no interest in allowing its persecuted peoples to express their just aspirations. Tibetans have equally cruelly been denied their claim to regaining liberty and independence.
Obama is still enjoying the international glow of the honeymoon effect. American polls, however, are suggesting that his rockstar popularity and Yes We Can call for change have lost their buzz, with people looking for actions rather than words. Recent summit statements and trips abroad including visits to Russia and Africa have yet to firmly establish Obama’s foreign policy platform.
Half a century after DDE’s proclamation the need to raise public awareness of the oppression of nations remains important. Captive Nations Week is also a call for vigilance. Putinism as Russia’s authoritarian policy of exerting influence and perhaps control over its near abroad, what it calls its “sphere of influence” is eerily similar to Soviet policy as outlined by the Domino Theory. The Cold War may be over, but its root causes flourish still, tolerated perhaps by free nations because no one desires a return to military confrontation. That in itself is no reason to accept brutality, repression and egregious human rights violations today. America’s – and Obama’s –task remains still to take on what communism hath wrought.
Captive Nations Week at 50