The presidential proclamations commemorating National Captive Nations Week—the third week of every July–are a revealing reflection of U.S. foreign policy over the past 50 years and America’s sometimes hard, sometimes soft attitude toward those who suppress the basic human rights of peoples and nations.
The first proclamation, issued by President Dwight D. Eisenhower on July 17, 1959, crackles with phrases like “the imperialistic and aggressive policies of Soviet communism.” It urges the American people to study “the plight of the Soviet-dominated nations” and recommit themselves to the support of the “just aspirations” of the peoples of the captive nations for “freedom and national independence.”
No wonder Soviet dictator Nikita Khrushchev vehemently protested, that the official Soviet newspaper Pravda published a three-column article on its front page denouncing the Proclamation, and that communists around the world called the Proclamation an unfriendly act and detrimental to U.S.-Soviet relations.
Khrushchev and his comrades understood the significance of the Captive Nations Proclamation. They understood that it struck at the very heart of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, which was not a “nation” but a grab-bag of nations and nationalities “united” only by the force of the Red Army and the threat of the KGB.
Every American president since then, from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama, has used Public Law 86-90 to speak out about the intrinsic right of nations and peoples to determine their own form of government and their destiny.
To be sure, their rhetoric has widely varied.
Notwithstanding President Kennedy’s reference to the “long twilight struggle” against communist oppression, Kennedy does not, in any of his Captive Nations Proclamations, use the words “communist” or “Soviet.”
While calling for the freedom and independence of “all the captive nations of the world,” the president does not mention the reason why there were so many captive nations—the imperial designs of the Soviet Union.
President Carter initially dismissed Captive Nations Week as a relic of the Cold War. His proclamations are the shortest and rely more on anodyne phrases than any other president until Barack Obama. .
One president who understood full well the importance of the Captive Nations concept was Ronald Reagan. In 1978, two years before he ran for president, Reagan devoted one of his radio commentaries to Captive Nations Week, reminding his listeners that the Soviet Union still held “millions of people in bondage” and asking, “Are we really serious about human rights?”
Once in office, President Reagan proved his commitment to true human rights and freedom by resolving to defeat—not merely contain—communism.
He instituted a multi-faceted foreign policy offensive, including the Reagan Doctrine, a policy of direct assistance to anti-communist forces in Afghanistan and Nicaragua.
He sanctioned covert and other support to the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland and signaled his personal support of captive peoples by holding a public ceremony marking Captive Nations Week in the Rose Garden of the White House—the first president to do so.
Reagan hastened the collapse of communism when he stated in early 1983 that the West should recognize that the Soviets “are the focus of evil in the modern world” and the masters of “an evil empire.”
When Reagan visited Poland and East Berlin after the fall of the Berlin Wall, former dissidents told him that when he called the Soviet Union an “evil empire” it gave them enormous hope. Finally, they said to each other, America had a leader who understood the fundamental nature of communism.
While the Soviet empire is no more, there are still captive nations like China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos whose people live, but not by their choice, under communism.
Which brings us to the present occupant of the White House and his 2011 Proclamation which asserts that the “United States stands firmly behind all those who seek to exercise their basic human rights.” But Mr. Obama does not point out that the most consistent deniers of human rights include China, the Land of the Laogai–the Chinese version of the Gulag–and North Korea, whose people have suffered and died by the millions under a communist dictatorship for more than 60 years.
Captive Nations Week affords us an opportunity to reassert our determination to keep alive the hopes and aspirations of all the captive peoples.
Captive Nations Week enables us to say that we believe in the power of words—words like “freedom” and “liberty” and “Tear down this wall” – to change history and for the better.