Thank you very much, Ambassador, and it is such a delight for me to be here for this occasion. I am sorry that the rain did not permit us to do this outside, but it is wonderful to be in this new Embassy, which I think is a great symbol of our friendship with Latvia and between the American and Latvian people. I’m delighted to be joined by the Speaker, the Foreign Minister, other distinguished Latvian personages, and also Professor Paulis Lazda, who did so much to make this day happen. And I am deeply grateful. I’m sorry the mayor could not be here, but I also appreciate his support of this project.
As the Foreign Minister and I discussed in our meeting earlier today, the United States and Latvia are working together on a wide range of issues – from shared security concerns, to promoting democracy, to building a strong trade relationship. And as we chart the course of our future together, it is important to reflect on our shared history and common values.
Now there are many people, Latvian and American alike, who deserve credit for the 90 years of friendship between us. Some were Latvians, whose pride in their country and faith in democracy were never shaken, even through more than a half century of Soviet domination. Many lived out their lives in exile, advocating around the world for the country they loved. Some were Americans who wouldn’t tolerate the closed door bargains that stripped the Baltic people of their rights and dignity.
But one American in particular, Sumner Welles, he played a very special role as an American diplomat. Sumner Welles served off and on in the Foreign Service for more than 20 years, working at posts from Tokyo to Buenos Aires, throughout the Caribbean. By 1939, he was acting Secretary of State when news arrived in Washington: Germany and the Soviet Union had made a deal putting the Baltic Republics under Soviet control. Welles called President Roosevelt and recommended that the United States strongly condemn the predatory annexation of these independent countries. What followed was the Welles Declaration decrying the agreement that cost Latvia and its neighbors their freedom. Today, the values and ideas it stood for still ring true: political independence, territorial integrity, the rule of reason, of justice, and of law.
Now as World War II progressed, many argued that we should recognize Stalin’s conquest of the Baltic States. But Welles didn’t give in. He believed that the United States needed to stand firm on the principles of sovereignty and self-government for those nations under both Nazi and Soviet control. The Welles Declaration was more than just a symbolic show of support. From 1940 until the Soviet Union ended its occupation, the United States never recognized Soviet control of Latvia.
Back at the State Department in Washington, we hang the flags of all the countries with which the United States has a diplomatic relationship. And for 51 years, as the hammer and sickle flew overhead here in Riga, we never took down the maroon and white stripes of the Latvian flag. Through the alliances of World War II, in the darkest hours of the Cold War, at countless bargaining tables where American and Soviet leaders struggled to solve problems, our commitment to the sovereignty of the Latvian people never wavered.
Now that sovereignty and freedom are secure, Latvia once again is a fully recognized, independent nation in the eyes of the entire world. And Latvians are at the forefront of working toward a Europe that is whole, free, democratic, and at peace.
So today, we honor Sumner Welles and all the men and women who struggled to regain Latvia’s freedom and never lost heart through decades of oppression. And we celebrate how their contributions helped shape the deep friendship we share today. Just as this new Embassy represents the future of our relationship, this street, now named for Sumner Welles, symbolizes the long journey we’ve travelled together, and I, for one, am looking forward to the next steps in that journey together.
So I am deeply honored to be able to be here for this really important occasion.