The Baltic Question 1940-1945

The Welles declaration signed in  July 23 1940 stating US policy on the occupation of the Baltic states

The occupation and annexation of the Baltic States in 1940 by Soviet Union took place in the time of the Allied failure in the Western front, British weakness and American isolation. The Soviets hoped that the Western world would let not notice the occupation and acknowledge it as legal action. In the turn US and UK did not legally recognized the occupation and annexation despite the Soviet efforts. Although in  practice  nothing was done by the western powers to free the Baltic states the non recognition policy made a serious effort at regaining the Baltic States independence. As in most Western world Latvia was not recognized as legal juridical part of the Soviet Union and its exiled diplomats continued to work there was serious legal ground for state continuity of the Baltic states that helped to restore independence in the late eighties and  restore them according to pre-war legislation and borders.

On  August 23 1939 the German-Soviet nonaggression pact that included secret protocols dividing Eastern Europe into spheres of interest settled the fate of the Baltic states. On September 28 Soviet Union forced Estonia to sign a mutual cooperation pact that allowed the entry of 25 000 man large Red Army garrison. On October 3 Latvia had to sign the same agreement allowing formation of 30 000 men large Soviet garrison. A size larger than Latvian peacetime army. On 10 October Lithuania also was forced to open borders to garrison of 20 000 men. The Baltic states became the satellite states of the Soviet Union. While the governments remained in their seats, the independence and sovereignty could be fully canceled by Stalin at the every moment he pleases. It has to be noted that the agreements with the Soviet Union was signed in the atmosphere of threats and Soviets gave no peaceful compromise.

While watching the actions of Nazi Germany in the summer of 1941, the Soviet Union decided to completely occupy the Baltic States and annex them. At the time of the Nazi invasion in France they presumed that their actions in the Baltic states will go unnoticed.   The Baltic States received ultimatums demanding the change of the government and unrestricted entry from the Red Army. With the large number of Soviet armed forces already on the ground and international diplomatic isolation the Baltic states had no other option but to meet the demand. On 17 June Soviet Army occupied the Baltic states.

According to Hague convention (1907) it was an occupation, by seizing other country territory by military force and taking control over its administration. According to  point 42 of the convention the occupation means the country being in full control of the foreign military. In 1940, de facto Latvia was under full control of the Red Army and Soviet emissary Andrey Vyshinsky. After staging one party list elections that were faked in August Latvia was annexed along with Estonia and Lithuania.

One of the important tasks by the Soviets was to make the occupation look legal. However the United States were one of the first who officially condemned the Soviet action. It was thanks to American diplomats in Latvia who closely watched the events unfolding. US ambassador  John Wiley and his deputy Earl Packer sent reports to US State Department about the real Soviet intentions. John Packer criticized the Latvian government for having no escape plan for actions in exile. Only few top officials left Latvia for the west. Also the Americans discovered that other countries even Latvians themselves were not informed about the Soviet intentions for ultimatum in June. Even the Soviet Ambassador in Latvia found about the ultimatum from radio news. Moreover the German diplomatic staff was caught by surprise from the Soviet action. That was one of the reasons for the German invasion in the Soviet Union year later.

American diplomats in June 17 1940 reported that Latvians were not willing to resist and after occupation they had no free hand in every state matter. In so the US diplomats clearly understood the situation in the Baltic states. Until the closure of the US embassy in Riga in 7 September US had detailed information that proved that Soviet accusations of breaking the mutual agreement pact that was used as pretext for occupation was false and about the Soviet pressure on Latvian government.

On  July 23 1940 the acting US State Secretary Sumner Welles issued a special declaration that stated the Soviet Union is close to its goal to destroy the independence of the Baltic states by using phony ways. The US condemned the breach in Baltic affairs by the Soviet Union and its use of force to annex them. In so with this declaration the US officially did not  recognize the annexation of the Baltic States by the Soviet Union. In  July 15 1940 the US froze the Baltic monetary assets in their banks to not let the Soviets get hands on them. Latvia had gold deposit of 17 890 422 Lats according to prizes of those times. However the US allowed the funding of Baltic diplomatic consulates and diplomats which were important step.  The Soviets reacted angrily by accusing US of the appropriation of their property and sent official protest to US ambassador in Moscow. US ambassador Thurston sent an official note to the Soviet deputy of the Foreign commissary Lozovsky  explaining that the Soviet actions in the Baltic states have caused a great loss to American property and US has made steps to defend its interests.

However US decided not to seriously breach the relations with the Soviet Union as its goal was to make it go to war against Germany. However, the Soviets did not back down and started a negotiation rounds with Sumner Welles and US ambassador to give back the Baltic assets and not cancel the diplomatic rights for Baltic diplomats. In all events US declined the Soviet demands and kept their policy.

The British Empire also did not recognize the occupation of the Baltic states, but did not issue any official declaration for it was vital for them to keep good relations with Stalin. After the German invasion in 1941, Soviet diplomats again tried to persuade the US and UK to recognize the occupation. UK was ready to back down in December 1941 when Stalin demanded to UK Foreign Secretary Antony Eden to recognize the annexation.  Eden showed understanding and willingness but UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill turned down Stalin’s demands.

In 1942 May 20 Soviet Foreign Commissary Vyacheslav Molotov arrived to London to sign British-Soviet agreement. In the first agreement draft the Baltic states were already included in the Soviet Union, however, Stalin sent a request to add annexed parts of Finland and Poland in the agreement. Eden turned down the demand. The agreement was signed but the Soviet 1941 borders were not officially recognized. The US and UK could not legally acknowledge the Baltic occupation because they signed the Atlantic Charter in August 1941 that declared that every nation has its rights for sovereignty and right to choose its own government. Soviets later joined the charter but interpreted in the borders of 1941.

Even though the Western powers refrained from official recognition of the occupation they did nothing to prevent it. Already in 1942 the Western powers were quite submissive to Stalin’s demands and was ready to acknowledge the Baltic occupation as de facto while not recognizing de jure. Latvia was not allowed to join the United Nations and Atlantic Charter. US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was pessimistic about restoring the Baltic states independence. He however in Tehran conference asked Stalin to hold referendums of statehood after the war, Stalin turned down this idea and the question was not raised again. The British officials on the other hand did not see much to do to stop the second occupation of the Baltic states and recommended to see it as already happened fact. In 1944, Britain came to conclusion that no diplomatic action is needed in both recognizing and non recognizing the occupation, as it would cause problems both with US and Soviet Union. The British Foreign minister Eden stated her majesty’s government has not recognized any other  governments in the other Baltic states than those that existed before 1940.

When World War draw to conclusion the US concluded that it must not take two extreme steps in the Baltic question. First the Baltic question must not be a serious drawback in the US – Soviet relation, second US must never legally and  morally support the Soviet actions in the Baltic States. Basically that was the US policy for decades to come.

In 1945, at the Potsdam conference the Baltic question was not raised. Although the Soviets wanted voting rights for all Soviet republics including the Baltic Soviet republics in the United Nations. That would de jure recognize the Baltic occupation. The demand was turned down. But nothing further was done as the US and UK was not considering a military conflict with the Soviet Union and kept its rights to not recognize the occupation and annexation of the Baltic States. With that Latvia had no real possibility to restore independence in the next decades. After the Soviets acquired nuclear weapons it was even more unreal for west to make any serious steps for it.

The western policy was dual, on one hand it supported the Atlantic charter notion for freedom and sovereignty of the nations in other hand in practice it was not refereed t0 the Baltic States. But, the non recognition policy that most states except Sweden practiced throughout the Cold War helped Latvian exile organizations to defend the interests of Latvians in the west and during the process of regaining the independence it was used as serious ground to restart diplomatic relations with the US and gaining its support for independence. In so the US and UK non recognition policy should be viewed as noble and productive over a large period of time.

Selected Sources:

Zunda, Antonijs. (2012)  Baltijas valstu jautājums, 1940-1991.  Rīga : Zvaigzne ABC.

Hidden, John (Ed.) (2008) The Baltic question during the Cold War.New York : Routledge, 2008.


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