A Baltic Tale
BY TOM LONGO
As a 14-year-old boy in Boston, I followed the dramatic 1956 uprising in Hungary and its crushing by the Soviet Union with rapt attention. I learned then that in 1940 the United States had refused to recognize the Soviet Union’s forcible incorporation of the three Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. At the time, that impressed me as a very honorable little corner of American foreign policy.
Today, as tensions with Vladimir Putin’s Russia over the status of Ukraine heighten and concern once again haunts the newly independent nations of Eastern Europe, I am reminded of that early introduction to U.S. foreign policy and how, later, the Foreign Service gave me the opportunity to contribute personally to Baltic affairs.
As the Hungarian and Baltics desk officer in the late 1970s, I was the State Department point person for implementing the U.S. Baltics non-recognition policy. As a corollary of the policy we continued to recognize and accredit legations of the three countries. However, survival of the importantly symbolic legations was threatened both by dwindling resources and biological longevity.
By 1979 the three small legations were in financial straits. They had been supporting themselves from Baltic assets in the United States that had been blocked by our government to prevent their transfer to the Soviet Union.
Each year, on State Department request, the U.S. Treasury would license the release of sufficient resources to permit the three chargés d’affaires (Ernst Jaakson, Estonia; Anatol Dinbergs, Latvia; and Stasys Backis, Lithuania) to keep their legations going.
The three, whom I remember vividly, were professional Baltic diplomats who had been in the United States in 1940, and stayed. True Baltic patriots, they should be a lasting source of pride for their countrymen in the three now-independent nations.
As the blocked assets dwindled inexorably, I was faced with a dilemma. Direct U.S. funding of the legations, even if Congress had agreed, was a nonstarter. First, it would have fed the Soviet propaganda line that the legations, like the non-recognition policy itself, were simply puppets in U.S. hands.
Second, direct U.S. support would have made the three supposedly independent legations subject to the annual budget process. Private financing by Baltic-Americans, even if that could be realized, would also have been ridiculed by Moscow.
In researching the issue, I discovered that Latvia’s remaining blocked assets included a considerable amount of gold in our Federal Reserve Bank. Since President Richard Nixon had untied gold from its longstanding $35-per-ounce peg in 1971, its value fluctuated with the market. At the time it was several hundred dollars per ounce.
If I could persuade the Latvian chargé to sell (with U.S. Treasury permission) an amount of gold per year at market price, with the proceeds invested at interest, the yield could suffice to finance all three legations. With periodic gold sales, the arrangement could be supported indefinitely.
It took a year of patient negotiations to persuade Anatol Dinbergs to agree. I then had to persuade the other two chargés, as well, because the three countries had not been used to working with each other.
Keeping my State superiors, the White House, interested members of Congress, the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve, as well as Baltic-Americans, informed and quiet—lest we give the Soviets propaganda ammunition—was a challenge. But it worked!
Before I left Baltic affairs on reassignment in 1981, another problem arose. Some 40 years had elapsed since the forcible Soviet takeover in 1940; the three chargés were now very elderly, and there was no one with diplomatic credentials to succeed them.
U.S. appointment of successor diplomatic representatives was, of course, out of the question.
But because relevant decisions could be taken by the State Department, with consent from Congress and the White House, we were able to establish that the three chargés could nominate their own successors from the respective ethnic communities. These nominations would be subject to tacit agreement from the U.S. government, in the same way that it receives ambassadors named by foreign governments.
It is gratifying to me to know that with these two measures, sovereign representation of the three Baltic states in the United States was ensured until they regained their full independence in 1991.