It's hardly new to note that Americans are too busy making history to spend much time studying it. Yet this week - the week traditionally designated by the US Congress as Captive Nations Week, to highlight human rights abuses committed by oppressive regimes - is the perfect time to reclaim a history we've almost forgotten.
Case in point: the controversy involving the accession of the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia to the NATO alliance.
The New York Times recently termed this prospect "the first NATO advance onto the territory of the former Soviet Union." The Washington Post warned that it could "court Russian outrage" by "incorporating the three Baltic countries, which were part of the Soviet Union."
Such loose talk belies the fact that the Baltics - as captives - were never part of the former USSR. Certainly, a captive breaking free would "outrage" the abductor, but that is hardly grounds to grant him veto power over his victim's future.
The history we must heed today involves three nations' struggle to preserve their national identity, and our nation's solidarity in that struggle. The story begins with the secret protocols of the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact of 1939, in which Hitler and Stalin parceled out the unfortunate lands that lay between them. The stage was set for June 1940, when - days after Paris had fallen to the Nazis - Red Army tanks rolled into the Baltics.
With that, as the Joint Baltic American National Committee puts it, "three independent, prosperous and civilized countries vanished from the map of Europe."
But not from the maps of the United States government. At the US State Department, for instance, from that fateful June day and for the next 50 years, world maps continued to depict the Baltic nations not as Soviet republics but as independent states, with a legend directing: " 'The United States Government has not recognized the incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the Soviet Union,' should be labeled on all maps and placed in proximity to the three republics displayed as prominently as possible."
Across town at the headquarters of the Voice of America, the Baltic broadcast services lived in VOA's European division, not its Soviet division. And for five decades, in a fine display of symbolism in the service of substantive policy, diplomats from the Baltic nations were welcome at White House affairs, if not in their home capitals of Riga, Tallinn, and Vilnius.
Indeed, Stalin pressed for the US to send the Baltic diplomatic corps back home - a return trip that, after the briefest of Baltic layovers, would have resulted in a final destination in Siberia.
Again, the US refused. This proud history of solidarity with Baltic sovereignty is lost not only on our major media, but on some present-day policymakers also.
Consider Congressman Alcee Hastings (D) of Florida, who sits on the House International Relations Committee and represents the US Congress in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). In an interview last month on the subject of NATO expansion, Mr. Hastings told Radio Free Europe: "When you get to the Baltics, I think they [Russia] see [them] as part of their sphere, and it is going to require a great amount of understanding on behalf of all parties involved."
Fortunately, President George W. Bush has a firmer grasp of history. Speaking last month at the University of Warsaw on the issue of NATO enlargement, the president said:
"The question of 'when' may still be up for debate within NATO; the question of 'whether' should not be. As we plan to enlarge NATO, no nation should be used as a pawn in the agendas of others. We will not trade away the fate of free European peoples. No more Munichs. No more Yaltas. Let us tell all those who have struggled to build democracy and free markets: From now on, what you build, you keep. No one can take away your freedom or your country."
From 1940 on, the United States has refused to take any official act that implied that the Baltics belonged to the USSR. How ironic now if, after such steadfast resistance, the US government cedes to President Vladimir Putin and Russia what Stalin and the Soviets never won.
Daniel McGroarty is senior director with the White House Writers Group, a public policy communications consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor