Since early 20th century, when after more than a century, on 16 February 1918, Lithuania restored its national statehood again, and the United States recognized it de facto and de jure on 28 July in 1922, Lithuanian-U.S. relations have been exceptionally friendly, positive and dynamic to date. This nature of international relations after the Great War (1914-1918) was largely determined by several circumstances: the clear emergence of U.S. economic power, its ever-increasing global geopolitical weight and the stabilizing effect on Europe; the interwar Lithuania’s interest in its geopolitical security, and stability and peace in Europe; as well as the exceptionally abundant, active, patriotic, politically literate and quite rich Lithuanian American community.
The moral and political value, as well as the power of the relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the United States was highlighted after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact concluded in Moscow on 23 August 1939, the secret protocols of which denied the sovereignty of Poland and the Baltic States, and divided them into Nazi and Soviet “spheres of influence,” and moreover, they unequivocally encouraged Hitler to start a war against Poland. Back in September 1939, following the Ribbentrop-Molotov conspiracy, Nazi Germany and the Stalinist USSR divided Poland, and on 15 June 1940 Lithuania was captured by the Red Army, after the Nazis had invaded Paris. Within weeks, the Soviet Union occupied and annexed the country. Lithuania both lost its de facto statehood, and moreover, had to live for decades under the repressive, terrorist policy, under the Soviet communist experiment and oppression implemented by the USSR. The same fate befell Lithuania’s northern neighbors at that time, Latvia and Estonia.
In this context, the Declaration of 23 July 1940 by Sumner Welles, who was the U.S. Acting Secretary of State, stating that the U.S. Government did not recognize the forced incorporation of the “three small Baltic republics – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania” into the Soviet Union, gave political hope to Lithuania and its neighbors, as well as a certain guarantee that the independence of the enslaved countries would sooner or later be restored. It became particularly important in 1944-1953, during the armed anti-Soviet resistance in Lithuania, and the growing Cold War in Europe and the world, which was the principled struggle of the free Western world against the USSR and its communist ideology.
The initial version of the 23 July declaration was commissioned to Loy Wesley Henderson, an officer and Assistant to the Head of the Eastern European Affairs Division of the U.S. Department of State. Perhaps that was done because he served as a long-term diplomat in Riga, Kaunas, Tallinn, and Moscow in 1924-1938, and knew the regional geopolitical peculiarities well. The initial declaration proved a little too weak for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Sumner Welles was tasked with “making it stronger.” Thus, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself made a political contribution to the editing of the declaration that was highly significant to the fate of the Baltic States. The Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles made the final document editions and made it available to the press.
The U.S. principled position of 1940-1990 was not to recognize the forced and illegal incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union. It was multiply and officially repeated and confirmed by senior officers of the White House, the Department of State and the Congress, was useful to Lithuanian struggle for the independence restoration and to the Lithuanian case on the international arena in many ways: practical-political, legal, and moral.
Due to this attitude of the U.S. Government, during the whole half-century of the Soviet occupation and annexation of Lithuania, the Lithuanian embassy in Washington was always open, as well as the consulates in New York and Chicago. They clearly demonstrated the legal continuity of the Lithuanian state, and performed actual functions: issued passports and visas to Lithuanian citizens traveling abroad. Lithuanian diplomats were constantly on the list of the Diplomatic Corps in Washington, they maintained close official, as well as private and friendly relations with the responsible officers of the Department of State and the embassies of the third countries based in Washington. They enjoyed practically all the diplomatic and consular rights and privileges. The U.S. Secretaries of State or other responsible officers of the U.S. Department of State regularly and officially congratulated Lithuania on the occasion of the National Independence Day of 16 February.
During interwar years, the Lithuanian gold reserve deposited with the U.S. Federal Reserve by the Lithuanian Government was protected from USSR attempts to appropriate it, and due to favorable U.S. policies and decisions became a main and most important financial source supporting the existence of the Lithuanian diplomatic service (hereinafter – LDS) in exile for many years after World War II. These specific funds were used to finance the Institute of the Chief of the LDS and the LDS branches in Washington, New York, Chicago, and some embassies or their fragments that still operated in some European and South American capitals after the Soviet occupation. They lasted nearly to the second wave of Lithuanian revival in the 20th century and the formation of the Sąjūdis liberation movement (1988–1990).
At the end of World War II, more than 55,000 political emigrants fled from Lithuania to the United States. They were predominantly politicians, intellectuals, scientists, cultural, artistic people, students and high school students. The President of Lithuania Antanas Smetona was among the first to find political asylum in the United States. Back in March 1941, he and his family arrived in New York via Germany, Switzerland and Portugal, on board of the vessel Serpa Pinta. He immediately began his political tour in the United States, visiting the abundant and active right-wing Lithuanian colonies. In virtually all the official or private meetings and in the press, Antanas Smetona was titled “His Excellency the President of the Republic of Lithuania”, “Exiled President of the Republic of Lithuania” or simply “President in exile”. When the U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull was ill, the Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles received Antanas Smetona at the Department of State. As was customary for foreign leaders visiting Washington, on 2 April, the President Antanas Smetona and his wife, Sofia, laid a wreath to solemnly honor the tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington. On 18 April, President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave a private audience to Antanas Smetona and wished him and Lithuania success.
Due to the exceptionally favorable U.S. policy towards Lithuania, many different Lithuanian political, social and cultural organizations settled in or moved from Europe to the United States during the war and after it. Their main goal was to liberate Lithuania from the Soviet occupation and restore the country’s political independence. They were the Supreme Committee for the Liberation of Lithuania (hereinafter - VLIK), the Lithuanian American Council (LAC), the Lithuanian-American National Union (ALTS), the Lithuanian Community (LB) and others. With the knowledge and support of the U.S. Government, Lithuanian political-patriotic organizations were active in the U.S. until 11 March 1990, when Lithuania’s independence and statehood were again restored.
The heads and leaders of Lithuanian organizations were multiply received and heard at the highest level in the Congress, the White House and the U.S. Department of State. Lithuanian or joint Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian political delegations were on several occasions repeatedly received in the White House by U.S. presidents: Harry S. Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan.
Undoubtedly, the continued U.S. political will not to recognize the forced incorporation of Lithuania and other Baltic States into the USSR in 1940-1990, stimulated the determination of the third countries to support, one way or another, the struggle of these nations for political independence. Thus, the Lithuanian political geography of the struggle for liberation from the oppression of the Soviet Union expanded considerably, and for many years after the Soviet occupation, the LDS or its elements operated to varying degrees in other world capitals that did not recognize the forced incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR.
Supported by the U.S. Government, the Lithuanian political-diplomatic struggle for the state’s legal continuity on the international arena and the restoration of independent statehood during the Cold War was complex and changing. With the U.S. support, various propaganda or legal attacks by the USSR had to be multiply repelled, and care had to be taken for the third countries not to succumb to Moscow’s political, legal or ideological pressure to legalize the occupation and annexation of Lithuania on the international scale. The principled and determined U.S. policy towards the Baltic States in 1940-1990, and the political-diplomatic activities of Lithuanians, Latvians, and Estonians resulted in the unrecognized, or at least disputed legitimacy of the occupation of the Baltic States by the USSR by the majority of the international community.
The political determination of the Soviet-occupied Lithuania and the nation’s spirit not to surrender and fight during the long Cold War were significantly supported by radio stations Voice of America and Free Europe sponsored by the U.S. Government. Until the very restoration of independence, the radio stations broadcasted special Lithuanian information and cultural programs, true information on the Soviet Government policies in Lithuania, on the national, religious or spiritual persecution of Lithuanians, and provided moral and political support to the dissident movement in the Soviet Lithuania.
A new page in Lithuanian-U.S. relations was opened by the Act on the Restoration of the Independent State of Lithuania of the Supreme Council of Lithuania of 11 March 1990, as well as the international recognition of the restored independence that took place a year and a half later. In the spring of 1990, American citizens (not only of Lithuanian origin) and various political, social, cultural, and professional organizations congratulated Lithuania on the independence restoration, supported Lithuania in the dispute with the USSR authorities over the normalization of mutual relations, and condemned the USSR President Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic blockade.
The political and moral support of the U.S. Government and the U.S. nationals to Lithuania was crucial on the fatal 13 January 1991 in Vilnius and shortly afterwards, when the USSR authorities used open military aggression in their effort to suppress the nation that had restored its independence and statehood.
In 1989-1991, as the Iron Curtain was falling, Washington for Lithuanians became the most important capital of the world, visited by the leaders of the Lithuanian liberation movement Sąjūdis, Lithuanian dissidents, the Heads of Government and Parliament of the restored state and many other Lithuanian state officials of various ranks, as well as ordinary citizens. In the summer of 1989, a symbolic route between Lithuania and United States of America across the Atlantic was laid by three Lithuanian yachts that sailed from Klaipėda to New York.
The legal recognition granted to Lithuania by the U.S. Government in early September 1991, and the eventual collapse of the Soviet Union shortly afterwards eliminated the illegitimate legal legacy of World War II, finally ended the Cold War, changed the geopolitical balance in Europe and the world, and moreover, witnessed a historical triumph of law and democracy against violence, dictatorship and the communist ideology.
The strategic partnership with the U.S. has become a priority of Lithuania’s foreign policy, as well as a security guarantee. The U.S. political support was a key factor for Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to join NATO.
Currently, transatlantic cooperation with the U.S. is being strengthened, and political, defense, economic, cultural, and social ties are being developed.
The exhibition devoted to the SUMNER WELLES DECLARATION is primarily intended to highlight the U.S. political and diplomatic support, which Lithuania (and its northern neighbors) felt in practical terms throughout the years of the Soviet occupation. Thus the exhibition is rich in historical documents that testify to the U.S. political attention to the USSR-occupied Lithuania; to the activities and the diplomatic struggle for the independence restoration by the Lithuanian Embassy in Washington and the consulates in New York and Chicago; to regular working meetings and contacts between Lithuanian diplomats and leaders of various Lithuanian patriotic organizations that operated in the United States with officers of the U.S. Department of State, congressmen, and to receptions at the White House, as well as to protests against the USSR imperial policy. The exhibition discloses political and diplomatic activities of the LDS and its chiefs Stasys Lozoraitis, Dr. Jurgis Šaulys and Stasys Antanas Bačkis, as well as their efforts to coordinate the fight for the restoration of Lithuania’s independence in the U.S. and Europe.
The documents testify that in many cases the Declaration of 23 July had become a certain political guarantee or umbrella for activities of the LDS and Lithuanian patriotic organizations that fought for Lithuania’s independence in the U.S. and Europe. Due to the Declaration of 23 July, the Lithuanian political struggle for the statehood restoration during the Soviet era did not stop for a moment and acquired a global character.
Moreover, the letters of moral or political support, and telegrams of the U.S. nationals and various organizations to Lithuania and Lithuanians sent in 1990–1991, when Lithuania, which had already regained its legal independence, was still getting out of the grip of the USSR's geopolitics, say a lot.
The path of political, diplomatic, defense and cultural cooperation walked by Vilnius and Washington in the late 20th century and early 21st century is also impressive.
The exhibition devoted to the Sumner Welles Declaration has been initiated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Lithuania and the U.S. Embassy in Vilnius. The exhibition has been developed by the Twentieth-Century History Department of the Lithuanian Institute of History. The exhibited documents have been sourced from Lithuanian Central State Archives, Lithuanian State Modern Archives, Archives of the Office of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, Lithuanian Special Archives, ELTA Archives, U.S. Department of State, Lithuanian Sea Museum, and public Internet sources.