In 1959, during the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower signed into law a joint declaration of Congress recognizing “Captive Nations Week” and issued a proclamation that has been reissued by every U.S. president since. Here are five facts you should know about this annual commemoration:
1. The term “captive nations” began to be used after the First World War to refer to countries that were being held captive by the newly formed Soviet Union. Lev Dobriansky, an economics professor and American-born son of Ukrainian immigrants, successfully lobbied for the congressional resolution that created Captive Nations Week.
2. On July 17, 1959, the text authored by Dobriansky was adopted as Public Law 86-90. The law compels every President of the United States to proclaim the third week of July of each year as Captive Nations Week, as commemoration to the “captive nations” and to “call upon the people of the United States to observe this week with appropriate ceremonies and activities, demonstrating America's support for those who seek national independence, liberty, and human rights.” The law also created the National Captive Nations Committee, a Washington, D.C.-based anti-Communism advocacy group, which Dobriansky chaired for many years.
3. Public Law 86-90 was one of the key documents during the Cold War that recognized and promoted religious liberty of all people. As the text of the document states, “these submerged nations look to the United States, as the citadel of human freedom, for leadership in bringing about their liberation and independence and in restoring to them the enjoyment of their Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Buddhist, or other religious freedoms, and of their individual liberties.”
4. The original version of Public Law 86-90 specifically referred to the following Captive Nations: Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Estonia, White Ruthenia, Romania, East Germany, Bulgaria, Mainland China, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, North Korea, Albania, Idel-Ural, Tibet, Cossackia, Turkestan, and North Vietnam. [Some historians dispute that Idel-Ural and Cossackia were ever independent nations.] All of those nations have been freed, except for China (which remains under Communist Party rule), Tibet (which seeks to be independent but the U.S. government recognizes as part of the People’s Republic of China), Ukraine (which declared independence but is still controlled by Russia), and North Korea (which remains under totalitarian rule).
5. Although the proclamation has been issued by every U.S. president in every year since 1959, the emphases have varied. President Carter issued the most perfunctory statements because he believed the law to be, as Lee Edwards says, a relic of the Cold War. In contrast, President Reagan said, “Though twenty-five years have passed since the original designation of Captive Nations Week, its significance has not diminished. Rather, it has undeniably increased—especially as other nations have fallen under Communist domination.” More recently, President Obama has used the proclamation to highlight other global threats to liberty, both new and old. In this year’s proclamation he wrote,
We must bolster our commitment to upholding freedom and democracy wherever they are jeopardized. That means ensuring the people of Ukraine have the right to choose their own destiny and ensure their independence; it means helping the millions of those displaced from Syria seek a better and safer future, while continuing our efforts to bring an end to this brutal conflict and destroy ISIL. It also means discussing our differences with nations more directly. And we have opened a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, which includes direct engagement with their government on human rights and steps to empower and create opportunity for the Cuban people.
Around the world, a new generation of young people — connected by technology and driven by idealism and a willingness to stand up for their beliefs — is calling for more accountability in government. As heirs to a struggle for freedom that has long defined our character, Americans must lead by example and chart new paths to liberty and opportunity. We will continue to stand for equality and dignity beyond our borders and encourage economic and political reforms that foster democracy. And we remain dedicated to leading and working with others to build security, prosperity, and justice, and to fighting for any person still suffering under the grasp of tyranny.