Remarks at a White House Reception for Baltic Americans

June 13, 1983

I once learned in a public-speaking class that you should never open your remarks with an apology. [Laughter] But, then, how can I explain to you that I'm sorry I was late and have kept you waiting here? I'll tell you how that happened here if some of the fellows behind me won't get mad. They had a meeting scheduled also with a delegation from the Congress, and I've found out that every time that happens I'm late from then on. [Laughter] But welcome to the White House.

We're gathered to draw attention to the plight of the long-suffering Baltic people and to affirm to the world that we do not recognize their subjugation as a permanent condition.

The Soviet occupation of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania is a living reminder of the cynical agreement between Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany that precipitated the Second World War. The Soviets would like the world to forget this dark chapter of history, but it's something the Baltic people and freedom-loving people everywhere will always remember. The Soviet Union invaded these small but proud countries in 1940. And then, in June of 1941 -- only days before Hitler turned on his partners in the Kremlin -- the Soviets arrested tens of thousands, executed many, and began a mass deportation to Siberia. At the end of the war, the horror continued as hundreds of thousands were sent to the Gulag.

Today, it's no coincidence that a large percentage of people living in these occupied countries are not of Baltic descent. The Soviets have tried their best to Russify the Baltic peoples, as they have with so many of the other oppressed nationalities within the Soviet empire.

The worship of God, once at the heart of Baltic culture, has been brutally suppressed. Any legitimate attempt at independence from Moscow has been suppressed. Any tangible effort to preserve their national identity has been denied. But the Soviets have never broken their spirit. Underground publications flourish, and ad hoc committees and groups defend religious and national rights as guaranteed by the Helsinki accords.

It seems ironic that those responsible for the repression I've been describing are now proposing what they call an atom-free Baltic, a Nordic nuclear-free zone, especially since unidentified submarines have repeatedly violated the territorial waters of Norway and neutral Sweden. This kind of conduct doesn't lend itself to a spirit of trust. As a matter of fact, the curious thing is, if you really stop to think about it, their description of a nuclear-free zone is that there won't be nuclear weapons in that zone. The kind of nuclear-free zones we want in the world are zones where nuclear weapons will not be landing and exploding.

I urge the Soviets to concentrate on the serious negotiations in Geneva instead of making meaningless gestures. Last week, as you're aware, I unveiled a new arms control proposal. We hope the Soviets will take this proposal seriously. We've demonstrated flexibility. The ball is now in their court. We're seeking verifiable and equitable agreements, because we're firmly convinced that such agreements are in the interest of both our countries and all the people of the world.

However, we should never delude ourselves as to just who and what we're dealing with. I can promise you we will not, in the process of seeking peace, be lured from our moral commitment to those captive peoples who are now held in bondage.

There are those who believe that we should muffle our criticism of totalitarianism in the mistaken notion that this will further the cause of peace. But we Americans want nothing more than to remain free and at peace. Nevertheless, ignoring reality, giving up the moral high ground, refusing to speak the truth will not engender the respect needed for the preservation of peace and human liberty. Totalitarian regimes must know that free men will not cower. Then and only then can conflict be avoided.

I'm happy to report after the Williamsburg summit that I'm confident freedom and peace can be preserved. The leaders of the Western democracies gathering there in the cradle of liberty met as friends and allies. A new spirit is emerging in the West, a fellowship of decent and free people. We have the strength of our convictions, and we're not afraid.

June 14th, the day in 1941 when the massive deportation of the Baltic people began, is a day which reaffirms our commitment to our ideals. The people of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, and all the other captive nations look to the United States. We must keep the peace, and we will. We must also keep the beacon of freedom shining, and from that sacred responsibility, we will never shrink.

Last week, Congress expeditiously adopted legislation proclaiming June 14th Baltic Freedom Day. And I will now sign the proclamation marking that designation.

[At this point, the President signed H.J. Res. 201 and the proclamation.]

Note: The President spoke at 5:14 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

As enacted, H.J. Res. 201 is Public Law 98 - 39, approved June 13.