With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Review of Kaarel Piirimae's "Roosevelt, Churchill and the Baltic Question: Allied Relations during the Second World War"

The number of books published on the Baltic States' international role during World War II and after has increased significantly in the past five years or so. Piirimae's volume, however, is the first comprehensive study of the "Baltic Question" in Big Three diplomacy during WWII. As someone who has researched and published on this book's theme, I have a high regard for this enormous accomplishment of Dr. Piirimae. Not only is the scope of the material covered impressive, but the integration of the Baltic theme into the whole WWII Big Three diplomacy is praiseworthy. Without a doubt, this book fills an enormous gap in WWII diplomatic history that has not been previously available. Even though the book focuses more on British and Estonian diplomatic events, this does not diminish from the total endeavor. But, comprehensive as it is, I beg to differ with some of Piirimae's main conclusions, and wish to point out, in my opinion, some significant deficiencies.

To most Americans, the name of President Roosevelt is associated with an image of mythical proportions, an image of a man whose virtues encompassed the highest standards of statesmanship. On the other hand, to most Balts and other East Europeans, Roosevelt's name evokes the thought of appeasement: Yalta, the name which to them has become synonymous with the "sell-out" of Eastern Europe. The truth of Roosevelt's legacy most likely lies between the two extremes. In dealing with the Baltic Question Piirimae attempts to respond to this issue: was Roosevelt a Wilsonian or a pragmatist – a question that has been discussed by many historians and pundits. The answer is not exactly straightforward because it was Roosevelt's way of doing and saying things that baffled his contemporaries as well as historians. He himself confessed to his own duplicity, "You know I am a juggler, and I never let my right hand know what my left hand does.... I may be entirely inconsistent, and furthermore, I am willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help win the war." This is a well-known quote which appears in Piirimae's book. Not surprisingly, the many contradictory citations and quotes in the book have created problems not only for the author but for the reader as well.

In his introduction Piirimae makes several audacious assertions which he intends to prove. He claims the United States was prepared to officially recognize the Soviet takeover of the Baltic states during 1945-1946, but wished to settle this within the broader context of a peace treaty with Germany. Piirimae also asserts that during the Anglo-Soviet negotiations in May of 1942, Roosevelt's objections did not play a role in Stalin's withdrawal of the envisioned secret protocols to the treaty legitimizing the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union. Thus Piirimae concludes Roosevelt's record of defending the rights of the Baltic States was not significantly more effective than Churchill's, and that Roosevelt, despite the Atlantic Charter and the Four Freedoms declaration, was a realist and not the idealist in 1941-1942 as many historians have deemed him to be.

In chapter one Piirimae, in great detail, describes the Soviet annexation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union. He unabashedly, but correctly, describes the "silent submission" of the Baltic governments to unprovoked Soviet aggression. In chapter two, Piirimae relates the British reaction to the events in the Baltic during 1939-1940 which in some detail has been told previously by Steven Merritt Miner in Between Churchill and Stalin-The Soviet Union, Great Britain and the Origins of the Grand Alliance published in 1988.

Chapter three describes the United States' reaction to the same events in 1941. It narrates  the origins of the nonrecognition declaration announced by Sumner Welles on July 23, 1940, the freezing of Baltic gold deposits in American banks and impounding Baltic merchant marine ships. (These ships served American interests during WWII while flying Baltic colors to the consternation of the Soviet Union.) It also mentions, appropriately, the significance of Washington's decision not to make public the existence of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. This knowledge was available to Washington almost immediately, but made public only in 1948. This fact surprisingly is neglected by number of historians dealing with WWII.  The next chapter recaps the international situation in 1941 and describes the genesis of the Atlantic Charter. Piirimae is correct in concluding the creation of the Atlantic Charter was entirely due to Washington’s fear of British secretive dealings with Stalin, which were seen as compromising the Atlantic Charter and the non-recognition status of the Baltic States. The Atlantic Charter's creation was not mainly a reaction to British imperialism as many American historians have claimed. Piirimae, however takes a dim view of the Atlantic Charter. He refers to it as an "exercise in political hypocrisy," because it gave the Baltic peoples an unjustified hope of liberation from the Soviet Union.

Chapter five describes the making of the Anglo-Soviet Treaty of 1942. This is one of the most fascinating episodes of diplomatic shenanigans of WWII involving the Baltic States. Regretfully, it has received only modest attention by Western historians. Stalin desired a treaty with Great Britain to legitimize his conquests obtained as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939. Stalin's desire for such a treaty was spelled out in great detail during Eden's trip to Moscow in December 1941. Despite Washington's strong objections to the secret protocols to the treaty, London decided to proceed with the treaty and its abysmal appeasement of Stalin. Eventually the treaty was signed without the contested protocols. The question that has mystified historians is why Stalin at the last moment withdrew the territorial demands from the treaty. One argument put forth is that Washington's opposition to the treaty was the reason. Another theory is that Roosevelt's promise of a Second Front in France was the driving factor. At the time, the Red Army was still in dire straits in their fight against the Nazis.

Piirimae, however, contends it is a myth that Roosevelt's actions saved the recognition of the Soviet Union’s annexation of the Baltic States from being included in the Anglo-Soviet Treaty of 1942. I contend this conclusion is not necessarily justifiable. The problem arises from the fact the author does not cover Washington's opposition to British diplomacy with Moscow adequately. Most importantly, he sloughs off the “deal” Roosevelt offered to Stalin. The “deal” consisted of a promise of a second front in Europe in 1942 by the Western Allies in exchange for not including secret protocols in the Anglo-Soviet treaty planned in London to legitimize 1941 Soviet borders. In fact Piirimae, more or less, ignores Molotov's meeting in Washington with Roosevelt where and when the promise of a second front was made. Such a “deal” has been acknowledged by prominent American historians. The “deal” had immense ramifications in American-Soviet political altercations between Stalin and the Western Allies as well as Soviet territorial legitimization efforts. Therefore, avoiding discussion of this episode is unjustifiable. Piirimae's conclusion that Roosevelt and the State Department fundamentally gave up on the Baltic Question after mid-1942, thus giving Stalin "tacit" approval of his territorial demands, is also unreasonable.

Chapter six deals with American postwar planning efforts, which are not usually dealt with in connection with Baltic issues. In the discussion of post-war planning the name of Leo Pasvolsky (p.84) is brought up as head of the Research Program. He was responsible for providing summary reports on various topics including the Baltic States. Many of these reports utilized mainly Soviet sources, which were inevitably unfavorable to Baltic independence. Pasvolsky, born in Russia, was not a communist, but he obviously trusted propaganda emanating from Moscow. His views and actions were highly detrimental to the Baltic cause.

The question arises, how much did these the various planning committees have on the President? It is known the leaders of these groups met with Roosevelt on a regular basis. As I have pointed out (1943, the Year Roosevelt Betrayed the Baltic States, Yearbook of the Museum of the Occupation of Latvia, 2005, Riga, Latvia), the language Roosevelt used in the Teheran Conference was very similar to the conclusions and terminology advocated by Pasvolsky’s Political Subcommittee.

The next chapter deals with what Piirimae calls the "Big Russian International Game" at Allied Conferences in Moscow and Teheran in 1943. In the book, Stalin's attempt at gaining international recognition of the annexation of the Baltic States by requesting all 16 Soviet republics (including the Baltic States) be recognized in international assemblies is quite extensive and informative. One can argue with the author's contention that the Baltic issue was tied to Poland's future. Polish leaders may have pushed this idea, but to little effect in Western thinking.

Chapter eight covers the years of 1944-5 and the Yalta Conference. Of interest here is the discussion of Stalin's ploy of rewriting the Soviet constitution in February 1944. This ruse was obviously meant to strengthen Moscow's plan to implement the 16 republic's representation in international organizations. Ostensibly, the new constitution gave the republics autonomy from Moscow. This deception resulted in dubious results.

Piirimae again downplays Washington's support of the Baltic issue by giving too much credence to State Department's memo of January 8, 1945 written by John Hickerson (p.132). The memo was not representative of the State Department's thinking at the time and was not included in any further discussions.

In the last chapter, "The Drift into the Cold War," Piirimae goes into the Truman administration and beyond. On page 142, he contends the administration's policy can be characterized by the Advisory Committee on Foreign Policy's document dating back to March, 1944, H-19a. Piirimae fails to point out a later document which spells out Truman's policy much more explicitly – for example Truman's speech in New York City on October 27, 1945. Political pundits at the time declared it a clear warning to Stalin. It became Foreign Policy of the United States document dated December 1, 1945, in which the twelve fundamentals were enumerated. It expounds the Wilsonian ideals more unambiguously than the Atlantic Charter or Wilson's Ten Points themselves. The fourth paragraph refers to the "nonrecognition" policy of the US. In consideration of these fundamentals, it is inconceivable that Washington would have declared de jure recognition of the annexation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union in 1945 or 1946 as Piirimae contends.

Piirimae is correct to point out on page 146, that after the war Baltic refugees were saved by the nonrecognition policies of the United States and Great Britain However, he does not allude to the State Department document dated March 9th, 1945 that directed the military response to the Yalta directive on repatriation of Baltic refugees. Nor does he refer to Washington's important decision on the status of the former members of the Estonian and Latvian SS. It was five years after the war had ended, on September 12, 1950, that these Baltic solders were exonerated and declared not to be a movement hostile to the Government of the United States, thus extricating them from being equated to the notorious Nazi Waffen SS units.

Yet another topic that Piirimae omits is the significances of the information filtering into the media and government agencies about the Holocaust being perpetrated in Eastern Europe by the Nazis and their local collaborators including the Baltic States. Specific details about Jewish annihilation in the Baltic States appeared in the press in May 1942. Roosevelt alluded to the Holocaust in public in August of the same year. The question arises, was the information about the Holocaust just another reason that the president soured on Eastern Europe by late 1942 and through his weight behind appeasing the Soviet Union?

In the final analyses of the book, I believe Piirimae has difficulty in characterizing Roosevelt's views and actions, and thus reaching conclusions on these judgments that are not historically consistent or satisfactory. In the Introduction, he correctly states that generally historians' take on the Baltic States has been "muddled," but his effort to "unmuddle" the situation has not been entirely successful. Because of its inadequacies and flaws, this book cannot be considered a definitive work on the Baltic Question in Big Three diplomacy during WWII.

But as stated in the beginning, even with the noted objections and flaws withstanding, Piiremae's book is a very valuable and welcome addition to Baltic history during the all-important period of WWII. Evaluation of history, after all, is an ongoing and ever changing process. There is always room for debate.