For some time now, there have been claims in Estonia by some people that the Voice of America, specifically its Estonian Service, supposedly said that the United States had promised to “help” or liberate Estonia (and Latvia and Lithuania) from Soviet occupation during or after World War Two. In fact, the latest rumor is that British ships were supposed to arrive in Estonia and liberate the country.
Those claims are not true. The Voice of America never made such promises and neither did the United States Government.
The British ships rumor is eerily akin to the rumors spread by Soviet propaganda that certain “white ship” was coming to rescue Estonia from a renewed Soviet occupation.
It is easy to assume the origin of those rumors both then and now. That is, from Moscow, regardless how often they deny it. Their lies are well known and in concert with trying to malign and discredit the U.S. and the West.
The propagandists have known full well how to spread false hopes among desperate people. In 1940-41, the unfortunate Baltic peoples had to live through torture, murder and deportations by Soviet Communists, in short, genocide. Their homes were confiscated or burned, their countries militarily occupied and forcibly annexed into the Soviet Union. The Estonians were not free of the Russian military until 1994, thus the Second World War did not end for them until that year.
It is quite understandable that for the Estonian populations and for the Freedom Fighters in the forests there was no hope except for help from the West. The Forest Brothers fought valiantly until 1956, when it became clear that the Freedom Fighters in Hungary were doomed for lack of help. The West, most specifically the United States, had drowned the hopes for freedom across the Baltics and all of Eastern Europe.
Desperate people cling to desperate hope. Listening to radio, it is natural to hear what they want to hear or think they hear. In the end, it is just as natural to blame someone.
Listening to people, especially the surviving Forest Brothers, who suffered so much, evokes sympathy and makes one sad. One would almost hope that they had been right and that there had been Western help, but none of it was true.
So the truth has to be spelled out.
It should be made very clear that the Voice of America would never make claims that are contrary to the policies of the United States Government. That would violate its Charter and result in a scandal and major dismissals.
Any claims that the U.S. would provide material help to the occupied Baltics, help in its liberation or actually go to war, were totally false.
First, many blame the United States for false claims in the Atlantic Charter, signed by F.D. Roosevelt and Churchill on August 14, 1941. Note that Stalin was not a party to that document. It was nothing more than a statement of principles by the two democracies. They simply said that “they desire to see no territorial changes that do not accord with the freely expressed wishes of the people concerned.” No specific actions should be read into it.
Second, from the continental European point of view, one of the greatest war criminals of them all, at par with the two who concluded the Nazi-Soviet Pact, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He aided in unleashing Stalin’s terror on millions of innocent people without ever trying to curb it and perhaps unwittingly encouraged it. His own diplomats reported to him atrocities throughout Eastern Europe, but he ignored them, as he ignored repeated reports about the slaughter of Polish officers in Katyn Forest.
Third, history will be silent about what would have been the U.S. Baltic policy had Secretary of State Cordell Hull been on the job. Roosevelt wanted to be his own Secretary of State and despised him. In July 1940, Hull’s Deputy, Sumner Welles, had the historic fortune to be Acting Secretary when he received protests from Baltic diplomats in Washington about the Soviet annexations and issued the famed non-recognition policy that became of pivotal importance for half a century.
So Roosevelt interpreted the Baltic occupations in his own domestic political way. On October 15, 1940, conveniently a couple of weeks before the general election, Roosevelt received a group of Lithuanian American leaders from the important electoral college state of Illinois. They gave him a petition about Lithuania’s loss of independence. Roosevelt told them flatly that they had made a mistake, that “Lithuania did not lose its independence. Lithuania’s independence was only temporarily put aside. Time will come that Lithuania will be free again. This will happen much sooner than you may expect.” This statement would be enough to raise the hopes for anyone (and VOA would have broadcast it if the Baltic languages had been on the air. Only the entire VOA did not exist at the time!) FDR of course was thinking of the impending election as well as falsely relying on his powers of persuasion over Uncle Joe.
Fourth, negative historical assessments of President Truman must be changed. The Balts and East Europeans should be thankful that he was around and not, for example, Henry Wallace, who had aspired to the Vice Presidency. Wallace had even visited a Soviet forced labor camp in Siberia and wrote a book how wonderful it was! Truman immediately saw the Soviet threat, but it was too late to undo the horrors that FDR had helped to perpetrate on half of Europe. Truman also helped about four hundred thousand war refugees to come to the United States (with vocal help from a fellow named Ronald Reagan to push a reluctant Congress along!)
With Truman, we get into a maze of USG attempts to figure out what to do with the impending threat from the Soviet Union. This was also a reincarnation for the Voice of America, which had been created in February 1942, primarily in the German language. Remember that its opening line was: “The news may good. The news may be bad. We will tell you the truth.”
NSC Decision Directives
Most people may not know that U.S. Government policy is set in motion by top secret Presidential Decision Directives written by top people but finalized in the National Security Council. Many directives are published after fifty years, some less. But even those published may have sections that will remain secret for a long time.
So, on November 23, 1948, President Truman signed what is known as “NSC 20/4, U.S. Objectives with Respect to the USSR to Counter Soviet Threats to U.S. Security.” This is the first document that spells out American objectives that among others, apply to the Baltic States.
The lengthy document makes very clear that “we should endeavor to achieve our general objectives by methods short of war.”
“To encourage and promote the gradual retraction of undue Soviet power and influence from the present perimeter areas around traditional Russian boundaries and the emergence of the satellite countries as entities independent of the USSR.” (Remember here that the U.S. did not recognize the Baltic States as part of the USSR)
“To encourage the development among the Russian peoples of attitudes which may help to modify current Soviet behavior and permit revival of the national life of groups evidencing the ability and determination to achieve and maintain national independence.”
The paper made clear that the U.S. military capability had declined since the end of World War Two and that in order to counter Soviet objectives and threats in any meaningful way, it was necessary to again build up that capacity. The paper stresses meaningful negotiations and psychological aims that are in accord with the values of the United States. But in acknowledging its military weakness, it adds:
“We should avoid making irrevocable or premature decisions or commitments respecting border arrangements, administration of government within enemy territory, independence for national minorities, or post-war responsibility for the readjustment of the inevitable political, economic and social dislocations resulting from the war.”
There were a number of subsequent Directives, but all harked back to 20/4 in stating that whatever the objectives, they had to be short of war. They also stated that the U.S. will not start a war, but has to be careful about a war resulting from miscalculations by either side.
This was also the beginning of Operation Rollback, a scheme of anti-Soviet sabotage by sending men behind the Iron Curtain. The famed George Kennan was involved here, trying to atone for his policy of containment, because that policy had left all the Soviet-occupied countries behind the Curtain. Rollback was well-intentioned but not well thought-out and rather foolish. Worse, the presence of Soviet master spy Kim Philby in Washington gave Soviets advance warning, thus damning all participating patriots to death or slave labor in Siberia.
In any case, the war issue became moot when the Soviets exploded their atomic device in 1949. All efforts, including covert ones against the USSR, were scaled back for fear of a nuclear exchange that would devastate both sides. That was the beginning of the “balance of terror” or MAD, mutual assured destruction.
Two years after NSC 20/4 came a more sober and somber NSC 68 of April 14, 1950, “United States Objectives and Programs for National Security.” It endorsed 20/4, but added that there should be “a plan for negotiation with the Soviet Union always ready on terms consistent with our objectives.”
However, it warned that “the present world situation is one which militates against successful negotiations – for the terms of agreements on important pending issues would reflect the realities and would therefore be unacceptable to the U.S., if not disastrous.”
So, from the Baltic point of view, the U.S. would not go to war and would not consider negotiations.
VOA conveyor of truth
The Estonian Service of the Voice of America went on the air in June 1951. The VOA as a whole was mentioned in the Presidential Decision Directives as a conveyor of truthful information, a part of the U.S. Government and a player in the struggle against the Soviet Union. An arm of the U.S. Government does not act against itself.
There is a lot more to the background of how the United States waged a psychological war against the Soviet Union. There were many problems, as there were many successes. At VOA, there were at times many-faceted internal struggles. In the end, when President Reagan increased the VOA budget manyfold and supported those of us who dared to walk on that razor’s edge between factual news and psychological warfare, both barrels aimed at the heart and mind of Soviet communism, we smelled success. How sweet it was!
But there were no promises of U.S. help, warlike or negotiable. Nevertheless, the U.S. did help in every way it could, some of it not yet revealed. It never abandoned the Baltic States. There were very specific reasons for its policies. Most concerned its national interests and its very survival. There were U.S. hopes for future Baltic freedom and democracy. VOA did not lie and the U.S. did not lie. One can argue whether its policies were good or bad, right or wrong. But that’s the way it was.
The U.S., Baltics and VOA (8)