As Lithuanians around the world were to celebrate the 20th anniversary of independence on March 11, Americans also gathered to remember the significant roles they carried out in shaping U.S. diplomacy toward the newly liberated country in the Cold War era. The Lithuanian Embassy of Washington hosted an evening (March 11) of remembrance and lessons learned, to those who mobilized awareness campaigns, press coverage and community-building during the years leading up to the Parliament’s vote.
Bill Sarpalius, a former Texas Democrat, had little idea of what he would do to actively aid in Lithuania’s freedom movement from 1989-1991. As a freshman Congressman at the time, the Lithuanian-American “struck a bond” with Lithuanian politician Vytautas Landsbergis in January 1989. “I told him I would do anything possible to help,” Sarpalius said.
Guests at the Embassy who also shared experiences included Richard Miles, a former Council General in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Paul Goble, an expert on public diplomacy who served under Secretary of State James A. Baker.
The relations between Washington, Vilnius and Moscow were tricky at the time, said the keynote speakers. After bearing the hurdles of the Soviets denying visas to the Eastern Bloc, the dignitaries said they all tried to keep the morale high in Vilnius in the wake of March 11.
All of the presenters recalled vivid memories in promoting freedom. Sarpalius said his colleague Christopher Cox shared a Lithuanian-translated version of the U.S. Bill of Rights to a group of Lithuanian politicians and religious leaders in Vilnius. Miles raised the American flag on his car and drove around the fortified Parliament building and observed the Baltic Way to “keep the morale high and provide a symbol of freedom to the Lithuanians.”
Back in Washington, however, the mood was unchanged. The Bush Administration had tolerated its stance of non-recognition policy of the Soviet government. In the Oval Office, “Bush asked us about our trip, about Landsbergis, and what to do,” said Sarpalius. “He asked, ‘If you were me, what would you do?’ I said to him, ‘You need to recognize Lithuania’s independence.’” Sarpalius said.
It wasn’t until the Sajudis victory, otherwise known as Reform Movement of Lithuania, did the U.S. react differently. “The victory was leading to a fundamental transformation in the way the U.S. discussed the Soviet Union,” Goble said.
However, not until 551 days later, did the U.S. finally send an ambassador, on Sept. 2, 1991.
“I think Lithuania deserves a lot of credit for the destruction of the USSR,” Goble added. He pointed to the every day amateur “ham” radio operators from small towns who sent reports to popular U.S. cities to help with news dissemination, and even for the State Department, in formulating their Baltic Situation Reports.
Without the transparency and perseverance of the Lithuanians, and the Americans who backed their efforts, the tide may have turned in another direction.