Assembly of Captive European Nations

The “United Nations” of Eastern-European émigrés

The activities of East European émigrés in the United States during the Cold War—for many years a neglected topic—have recently become the subject of historical and political research. A large wave of exiles was expelled from countries in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans by new Communist regimes after the end of World War II—a group that included workers as well as cultural, scientific, intellectual, and political elites. Many of them became determined to contribute to the challenging task of liberating their homelands from Communist rule. To do so, they lobbied for the support of Western governments willing to back their cause, and, most importantly, they created a unifying umbrella organization that would give them greater legitimacy as a respectable partner for Western governments.

Albanians, Bulgarians, Czechoslovaks, Estonians, Hungarians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Romanians in the exile all established national committees on American soil. Despite numerous conflicts and grievances from the past, the exile representatives of these nations understood that unity through cooperation and the maintenance of transatlantic ties was the only possible way to achieve their common goals. They also built and maintained transatlantic non-governmental networks between numerous political, social, cultural, and religious groups. At the height of the Cold War, these “defectors” from the “enemy camp” were a handy propaganda tool and a potential source of strategic information for the West. By contrast, the central goal of the exiles, the establishment of democratic rule in their home countries, was considered of secondary importance by U.S. diplomatic, military, and intelligence planners.

Anti-Communist Collaboration: Involvement with America’s “Cultural Cold War”

The exile communities represented a conglomerate of diverse political currents, and none of them were able to completely avoid internal strife or financial problems. The national committees maintained contacts with their homelands, informing U.S. politicians and the CIA of the latest developments. Yet all attempts to create covert organized networks of informants and spies failed. The Americans felt the need to coordinate their activities, at first via the State Department and then through a proxy organization, the National Committee for a Free Europe, which was established in 1949 and later renamed the Free Europe Committee (FEC) in 1953.

The FEC ran a variety of information and propaganda campaigns, but its most important outlet was Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). RFE/RL first went on air on May 1, 1951 and relied heavily on exile expertise in the coming decades. Broadcasts came to include several regular weekly segments focused on developments in Communist countries and on specific issues, such as the Sovietization of industry, education and agriculture, the loss of free speech, and the repression of the clergy and political opponents. Objective information useful to RFE/RL broadcasting and the exile committees came from a variety of sophisticated channels, including the employees of foreign embassies in Communist countries, staff of international train lines, traders, and a small group of people who were still allowed to travel. In addition, smugglers of goods and humans, most with their own safe routes through the Iron Curtain in both directions, proved themselves to be very useful couriers. While originally dedicated to giving the exiles their own political voice, RFE/RL was primarily a U.S.-controlled operation. On the occasion of anniversary events, representatives of different exile communities were given an opportunity to present their points of view, but they were otherwise rarely able to influence the content of broadcasts.

Next to the establishment of the RFE/RL, the plans of their American patrons also took shape as a political body that would unite the political figures among the exiles and allow them to speak with one voice (and in line with U.S. foreign policy). On February 11, 1951, 202 exile representatives gathered in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and signed the “Declaration of the Aims and Principles of Liberation of the Central and Eastern European Peoples.” It was a symbolic act, through which the participants expressed their willingness to fight against Communism and to cooperate closely with one another. Despite fears that World War II and interwar conflicts had produced insurmountable mutual distrust and bitterness, the complicated relationships between Poles and Czechoslovaks, Hungarians, and Romanians did not prevent the formation of a common front against a shared enemy. Soon after the Philadelphia declaration, their cooperation was institutionalized and the Assembly of Captive European Nations (ACEN) was established on September 20, 1954.

A Supra-National Assembly of Exiles

The ACEN was made up of members of nine “national committees” in addition to representatives of various international movements (e.g. International Peasant Union, Socialist Union of Central Eastern Europe, Christian Democratic Union of Central Eastern Europe, etc.), which had already brought together many political and cultural exiles. The ACEN was intended as a “shadow” organization whose actions would counterbalance the United Nations. It was further meant to coordinate the management of anti-Communist campaigns, publicize news from behind the Iron Curtain, generate international support for the liberation of Soviet-controlled parts of Europe, and cooperate with other organizations such as the Council of Europe and the European Movement to establish a basis for future pan-European integration. Visions for achieving a peaceful coexistence among European nations varied from smaller regional confederations and custom unions (Danubian, Baltic, or Central-European), to larger economic and political cooperation spanning across the entire continent. A prerequisite for the enactment of any of these plans, however, was still missing: democratic regimes in all European countries (NCFE, 1954).

The structure of ACEN generally followed the structure of the United Nations. It consisted of a general assembly, a general committee, and six working committees (political, legal, social, economic, information, and cultural) that at the end of the 1960s were merged into three (political-legal, socio-economic, and culture-information). The general sessions were held once a year, usually in September in New York or Strasbourg, and functioned as the sanctioning assemblies through which resolutions were announced and the members of the general committee were elected. Each of the participating nine “captive nations,” through their respective national committees, sent a sixteen-member delegation to these sessions, during which lectures and situational reports on developments in individual countries were presented, and voting on resolutions and protests took place. Each of the international movements could send a four-member delegation, but without the right to vote.

The national composition of the ACEN was one of the aspects of the organization that strongly mirrored the interests of U.S. foreign policy. Exiled Croats or Slovenians were not allowed to join because Yugoslavia, after Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, represented an important Balkan partner for the West. Thus, “separatist” representatives of the various peoples of Yugoslavia had little chance of full recognition in the supranational bodies funded by the American government. Neither Ukrainians nor Belarusians, constituent nations of the Soviet Union, had full ACEN representation either. Americans had no intention of provoking Moscow further by entertaining doubts about the integrity of the Soviet state. The question of the three Baltic nations was a little bit different because Washington D.C. had never recognized their annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940. As a result, Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian exiles were represented by ACEN full delegations. Thus, though the ACEN involved a diverse group of émigrés from across the political and ideological spectrum, the organization’s representation of different nationalities was less universal and worked to the detriment of certain ethnic groups.

The ACEN assemblies, which took place in New York to coincide with the United Nations General Assembly sessions, frequently coordinated with public demonstrations to draw public attention to the organization and their message. Between 1956 and 1963, the ACEN rented a two-story building owned by the Carnegie Endowment on First Avenue, directly opposite UN headquarters. Thus, UN delegates from Communist countries could not avoid the “unpleasant view” of posters and billboards hanging across the street, alerting passersby to the ongoing “red terror” and “Soviet imperialism.” In 1956, the ACEN opened another three permanent offices in London, Paris, and Bonn, all of which remained active until 1973. As in the United States, these new offices were staffed primarily by émigrés. The newly-created branches maintained close contact with ACEN in New York and with the many exiled political parties and organizations that were now based in the United States in order to coordinate publications, events, and a unified stance on events behind the Iron Curtain.

The chairman, who represented the ACEN externally, was elected for a one-year term. While the chair moderated sessions and supervised communication with international, governmental, and private organizations, and with individuals, the secretary general had greater influence within the assembly. It was the secretary general that oversaw all administrative matters and daily operations, and was supported by a permanent staff. Romanian diplomat Brutus Coste served in this post from 1954 to 1965, and was succeeded by Polish journalist Feliks Gadomski (1966–1985).

Several individuals emerged as crucial figures in advancing ACEN activities. This group included, among others, the Polish wartime underground leader Stefan Korboński, Latvian diplomat Vilis Māsens, former Hungarian prime minister Ferenc Nagy, and Bulgarian politician Georgi G. Dimitrov. These exile leaders not only gained recognition within their respective exile communities, but also from the wider American public. A small number of them had a strong financial background with wealthy families or companies of European origin. Some served as university lecturers and, in exile, had an opportunity to spread their ideas within American academe. All were considered positive symbols of the anti-communist struggle of their “captive” nations. The more publicity and recognition they received in the American media, the more attention they attracted from the communist secret services.

The ACEN took advantage of every opportunity to highlight the crimes of the Soviet Union and its East European satellite regimes. Representatives of the ACEN were constantly active at international scholarly and political conferences, lobbying for support and sharing scarce information from the Eastern Bloc. One of the ACEN’s most high-profile activities was the establishment of “Captive Nations Week” which became included in the U.S. political calendar. Initiated in 1959, this public campaign was used to directly oppose policies of détente, which the ACEN regarded as no more than another form of “appeasement” in the face of Soviet aggression and the “enslavement” of the peoples in Central and Eastern Europe. Officially recognized by the U.S. Congress and the White House, “Captive Nations Week” became the official annual remembrance of the fate of captive nations. Looking to extend its reach as a source of information, starting in April 1955 the ACEN press bureau also published the monthly bulletin, ACEN News, in multiple languages including Arabic. It ceased publication with issue number 153 in December 1971.

Decline of Influence after 1956

The ACEN and its exile community fought for a confrontational stance towards the Eastern Bloc. The 1955 Geneva Conference, which brought together representatives of the Soviet Union and the United States for the first time since World War II, resulted in a cool rapprochement between the two rivals. Even the Hungarian uprising in 1956, with its thousands of casualties, failed to change this position among Western governments. The exiles responded to this acquiescence to the status quo with dismay, fearing that further East-West normalization through trade deals and cultural agreements would undermine their position. Indeed, from the middle of the 1960s, the political importance of the ACEN gradually declined. The representatives of exiles in the Assembly were criticized for their inefficiency in the political field, departure from official U.S. policy standpoints, old-fashioned political belief, impractical forms of expression of political goals, and a lack of communication with the American public and media. Public interest in ACEN activities declined in this period of increasing East-West détente. The deaths of many of the exile communities’ postwar leaders, furthermore, effectively spelled the end of the organization by the early 1970s.

On May 22, 1972, the Supreme Court in New York registered the ACEN as an incorporated company, which allowed it to continue its activities, but only to a very limited extent. The “exile parliament” was now reduced to an almost meaningless lobby association, although Captive Nations Week did continue as a reminder of what the ACEN represented. The ACEN maintained its contacts with the U.S. State Department and the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, contributing its views at the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1973 and the resulting Helsinki Final Act, which sought to improve relations between Communist Bloc and Western countries. The election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought with it a limited revival of ACEN activities as part of the Reagan administration’s determination to put pressure of the Soviet Union, and Reagan himself welcomed several ACEN delegations to the White House.

The recognition of the role the ACEN played in representing Eastern European political émigrés and networking with Western governments is an important addition to the development of “exile studies” as a crucial part of Cold War history. Although sometimes seen as no more than an extension of covert U.S. foreign policy whose shallow foundations collapsed when details of the CIA’s role were exposed by the media, the ACEN did at least contribute to sustaining the voice of the “stateless” over three decades. Because of organizations like the ACEN, the American public’s worldview regarding Communist and other “captive” areas of Europe gradually changed, becoming more sophisticated and empathetic to the fate of those nations lacking elementary freedoms.

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  • Article Title Assembly of Captive European Nations
  • Author
  • Keywords Assembly of Captive European Nations, Eastern Europe, Political Exile, Communism, Anti-Communism, Eastern Bloc, CIA, Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, Cold War
  • Website Name Transatlantic Perspectives
  • URL
  • Access Date May 30, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 4, 2018