Vienna, August 26 --In June 1940, Moscow sent its forces into Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania and then declared that they had “voluntarily” joined the Soviet Union. Those actions were among other things a direct challenge to the United States, whose Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson had declared eight years earlier that Washington would not recognize international territorial changes brought about through the use of force.
Stimson’s declaration was a response to Japan’s seizure of Manchuria, but unfortunately by the time that Moscow moved against the Baltic states, there were all too many in the American government and Department created a special working group to consider what Washington’s attitude should be.
That group was led by Loy Henderson, who in his report to Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles posed the question in the most fundamental way: ''Does the United States Government intend to respond with one kind of attitude and behavior to the aggression of Germany and Japan, and refrain from such response in case of the aggression exercised by the Soviet Union?”
“In other words,” he continued, “will the government apply one kind of policy to Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and Poland occupied by Germany, and another to Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and Finland? Will the United States continue the non-recognition of the results of aggression independently of who the aggressor might be, or, proceeding from practicality, close their eyes to the fact that some states exercise aggression against their neighbor states?''
To ask these questions in this way is to answer them, and on July 23, 1940, Under Secretary Welles announced that the United States did not recognize the forcible incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union. That policy which lasted throughout the Cold War with all its limitations – it never meant everything the Baltic peoples wanted but it never was disbanded even when Soviet-American relations warmed – not only reminded the Balts that the most powerful country in the world had not forgotten them but also provided encouragement to them as they recovered their de facto independence in 1991.
Most scholars and officials treat non-recognition policy as a historical curiosity, but the principle enunciated by Stimson and reaffirmed by Henderson and Welles continues to be a foundation stone of the Baltic countries today. But now that Moscow has announced its recognition of the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which the Russian government helped create by force, the principle of non-recognition should once again be a centerpiece of American policy.
Many will say that the aspirations of the South Ossetian and Abkhazian peoples make this situation different than Japanese seizure of part of China and its setting up of the puppet state of Manchukuo or Moscow’s occupation of the Baltic countries and its effort to suppress their independent statehood. But whatever the differences, the principle that the U.S. will not recognize any change in international boundaries achieved by force remains unchanged.
That does not mean that we must counter any such action militarily or refuse to have anything to do with the aggressor – until 1991, after all, we had an embassy in the capital of the Soviet Union even though we did not recognize the USSR’s right to control the Baltic countries – but it does mean that we must never recognize such actions as somehow legitimate, a step that would open the floodgates of aggression not only in Eurasia but around the world.
Sometimes we cannot do more, but as the great Russian memoirist Nadezhda Mandelstam reminded us, we can never afford to do less.