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How US journalists helped stop Russian tanks in Vilnius

Rita Stankeviciute
Lietuvos Rytas Correspondencet in Washington
January 15, 2011
 


How much more blood would have been shed in Lithuania, had news about
the Soviet aggression not reached the outside world?  In commemorating
January 13, US journalists still wonder why the Soviets did not expel
them from Vilnius.

“If we had been unable to continue broadcasting, no one knows what would
have happened” stated former US National Public Radio correspondent Ann
Cooper, who was reporting on events in Lithuania 20 years ago.

“It’s always easier to inflict violence when there are no witnesses
around.  In Vilnius, there were a lot of witnesses,” stated former
Newsweek Warsaw Bureau Chief, Andrew Nagorski.

On January 13, 2011, Americans gathered in Washington for the filming of
a broadcast on the role of Western media during the events of January
1991 in Vilnius.  The show would air on Lithuanian television in Vilnius
the following week.

They were afraid to tarnish their reputations

It was a time when telephone calls were routed through Moscow,
information had to be faxed or transmitted via teletype, and news about
Lithuania was transmitted around the world from the basements of ham
radio operators.

David Satter, a Soviet Affairs correspondent for the influential
newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, hurried to Vilnius a few days after
the events of Bloody Sunday.

The number of journalists in the building of the Supreme Council kept
growing. Satter felt that Mikhail Gorbachev delayed his offensive for
that very reason.

"He was not a typical Soviet leader. His predecessors knew not to get
too friendly with the West and become dependent upon their opinion.

But Gorbachev was obsequious with leaders of the Western world so he was
afraid to behave poorly in their eyes.

Gorbachev realized that aggression in Lithuania would discredit him
completely. I think that  made an impact,” said David Satter in an
interview with Lietuvos Rytas.

Images reached congress

Images of tanks attacking unarmed people and buzzing bullets quickly
reached the United States.

The Lithuanian-American community did everything possible to make sure
that these images reached television audiences and important policy
makers.

New York Lithuanians gave a recording to their Congressional
representative, Gary Ackerman, who showed pictures from Lithuania to the
entire U.S. Congress.  “This helped to mobilize the House of
Representatives and the Senate” said Washington Lithuanian-American
community activist Asta Banionis.

Dan Ritter, a Congressman at the time, described how difficult it was to
draw the attention of the White House to events in Lithuania because
then U.S. President George Bush senior, even after the declaration of
independence in 1990, was in no hurry to recognize independent
Lithuania.

Just as Dan Ritter flew immediately to Vilnius, so did other members of
the Congressionally created Commission on Security and Cooperation in
Europe still known as the Helsinki Commission.

"We wanted to show that the people and the state of Lithuania were
important to the US, despite contradictory comments coming out of the
White House.

U.S. authorities did not necessarily support the idea of a free and
independent Lithuania.  But the Helsinki Commission was convinced that
the empire was in its death throes, "said Ritter.

A caricature appeared in one US publication showing Gorbachev in a
Soviet tank headed to Lithuania.  A passerby picks up something from the
side of the road and says "Oops, I think someone just lost a Nobel Peace
Prize."

Holed Up In a Lithuanian Apartment

When news reached Washington from Rita Dapkute, an employee of the
Lithuanian Supreme Council, that the building was full of foreign
correspondents, American Lithuanians tried to inform the Soviet Embassy
of this fact.

"So they would know that if the Supreme Council was attacked,
representatives of the foreign media would be killed, too" explained
Asta Banionis.

Foreigners working in Vilnius were less concerned with their safety than
they were with possibly being expelled from Lithuania.  It could happen
at any moment because most foreigners were accommodated at one hotel,
"The Tourist" so that the Soviets could track their movements more
easily.

"We kept wondering when they were going to come and surround us.”  Peter
Gumbel of The Wall Street Journal found a Lithuanian family who housed
them in an apartment near the Parliament. About eight of us slept on the
floor there. We shared their telephone and their bathroom.

“I kept calling Moscow to ask to be connected to my editor because I
felt that I was preparing what could be the most important report of my
life" recalled Ann Cooper.

The Lithuanian Legation in Washington

Regardless of the important role that the media may have played in
Lithuania's independence, the U.S. journalists underscored that without
the absolute unity of the people, nothing would have been able to stop
the killing.

"I received a call from then Ambassador (Charge d’Affaires) of Lithuania
in Washington, Stasys Lozoraitis, Jr., who said that the people refused
to leave even after being fired upon.

I turned around to the Secretary of State James Baker to say that maybe
it was time to think about opening an American embassy in Lithuania.

Because no one has enough bullets to stop those who are not afraid of
them" stated Paul Goble, then special adviser to the Baltic countries
for the U.S. State Department.

Witnesses to Other dramas in Vilnius

"The Soviet leaders realized that in order to subjugate Lithuania they
would have to kill many people, and still they would not succeed.

In January 1991, they understood that they could go no further, and that
it was time for the Soviet Union to bid farewell to Lithuania" concluded
Dave Satter about these dramatic events..

Category : Lithuania in the world sidebar



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