U.S. Helsinki Commission

Overview of the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, also known as the U.S. Helsinki Commission.  Courtesy of the Commission.  Public domain.

Just days following the signing of the Helsinki Final Act, 19 members of Congress visited Eastern Europe as part of a U.S.-Soviet Union inter-parliamentary exchange. The trip provided an excellent opportunity for members of Congress to meet with Soviet officials and to judge their reaction to the new international agreement.  Those on the trip also were able to meet with human rights activists. One of those on the trip, Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-NJ), was profoundly influenced be her experience and the importance of the Helsinki Final Act, according to  Rep. Fenwick: “[t]he trip made a lasting impression on many of us who realized, after talking for many hours with dissidents and Soviet citizens wanting to emigrate, that the hopes of these people had been pinned to the implementation of the Helsinki Accord which had been signed just before our arrival” (Snyder, 42).

Rep. Fenwick returned home and began working on legislation to ensure that the Helsinki Final Act was not forgotten, and to provide a distinct role for Congress in ensuring its implementation. Her plan came to fruition and a U.S. Commission on Security on Cooperation in Europe was established in 1976 and continues to this day. In the battle to end human rights violations in Eastern Europe, the U.S. CSCE held hearings on Helsinki compliance, “…undertaking a considerable, broad-based study of adherence to the Helsinki Final Act, and serving as a clearinghouse for information”; “…offered an outlet for Eastern European monitoring groups, which would emerge shortly thereafter…”; “…played a critical role, connecting different activists and policymakers across international lines”; “…worked to focus American attention on Helsinki implementation”; and “…sought to influence Soviet and Eastern European leaders directly through correspondence and meetings…” (Snyder, 50-2).  (Source: Snyder, Sarah.  Human Rights Activism and the End of the Cold War: A Transnational History of the Helsinki Network (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011).

For more on Millicent Fenwick and the U.S. Helsinki Commission, watch Amy Schapiro’s book talk on Millicent Fenwick: Her Way on the C-SPAN Web site.    (U.S. CSCE portion starts at 3:25.)  View

Timeline of the Establishment and Early Days of the U.S. Commission on Security on Cooperation in Europe

September 1975– Rep. Millicent Fenwick proposes a select Congressional-Executive commission to monitor implementation of the Helsinki Final Act. The State Department responds by indicating that they do not approve of such an idea, cite progress already being made, and invite Congressional consultation.

October 1975 – comments are requested of the State Department on two House of Representative bills that would establish a U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Once again State objects to the proposal, citing that a mechanism is already in place.


  • State Department Proposed Report on H.R. 9466 and H.R. 10193 (Identical Bills), “To Establish a Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe” [Case File], 9/11/1975-11/21/1975.  View

March 1976 – Myron Kuropas, in charge of ethnic affairs in the Ford administration, notes that the Eastern European ethnic communities are strongly supportive of the legislation, and recommends Ford support it, or create his own commission. However, the National Security Council believes either scenario would be redundant and could hamper monitoring and implementation efforts.


  • Memorandum for William J. Baroody, Jr., From Jeanne Davis, Subject: H.R. 9466: To Establish a Congressional Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 4/5/1976.  View
  • Correspondence of Mrs. S. Sakalys, Secretary, Lithuanian American Community of Rhode Island Requesting President Support Legislation Establishing a Commission to Monitor Implementation of CSCE Final Act (Case File), 2/11/1976-3/1/1976.  View

May 1975 – Senate bill 2679 comes to the White House for signature. As is common, the White House solicits the views of Federal agencies on the legislation.  Although the State Department continues to hold that the commission will not be helpful to the cause, they note the overwhelming Congressional support of the bill.  No agency objects signing the bill into law.  The Commerce Department in its comments observes that “…Presidential disapproval of the legislation at this time might be construed, albeit incorrectly, as evidence of a callous Administration attitude toward the question of human rights, the basic focus of S. 2679.”


  • S. 2679, Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe Enrolled Bill Case File, 5/25/1976-6/2/1976.  View

By May the President has decided to sign the legislation into law, and is now contemplating whether to have a signing ceremony. Because the Ford administration is opposed to the commission, a low-key ceremony is been proposed, just enough to satisfy Rep. Fenwick and Senator Clifford Case.  Myron Kuropas requests that four or five Eastern European ethnic leaders be invited to the ceremony, but the White House wishes to keep it as low-key as possible, and declines.


  • Briefing Paper for Signing Ceremony for S. 2679, Establishing a Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 6/3/1976.  View
  • Memorandum for Bill Nicholson from Bob Wolthuis, Subject: S. 2679 Signing Ceremony, 6/2/1976.  View

June 1976 – Dante Fascell, who would become Chairman of the U.S. CSCE, expresses his personal appreciation to President Ford for signing into law S. 2679 and urges him to rapidly designate Executive branch Commission members.


  • Correspondence of Rep. Dante B. Fascell (Case File), 6/4/1976-6/10/1976.  View

The State Department executives plan for the first Commission meeting.  In the meeting they discuss who will attend, what will be the role of the Executive branch participants.  Also, Secretary Kissinger acknowledges that “[t]he President signed the bill only because I had not been told what was happening. I would have fought it to the death. It never would have passed if I had known more about it.” Kissinger first proposes sending just lawyers to the first meeting, but his staff point out that this view would be construed as non-cooperative. He later settles on Monroe Leigh.


  • Memorandum of Conversation — Participants: Secretary Kissinger, Hartman, Leigh, Eagleburger, Jenkins, and Gantz [Subject: CSCE Commission], 7/26/1976.  View

July 1976 – The first U.S. CSCE Commission meeting is held on July 27, 1976. State Department member Monroe Leigh prepared a briefing memorandum for Secretary Kissinger. Leigh noted that four substantial issues were raised at this meeting: “1) interrogation of Executive branch witnesses by Executive branch members; 2) use of the Chairman-Agency head channel for seeking information; 3) direct Commission actions vis a vis foreign governments; and 4) voting.” The Commission planned to meet in ten days and discuss these issues further.


  • Briefing Memorandum from Monroe Leigh to Secretary Kissinger, Re: CSCE Commission Initial Meeting, 7/27/1976.  View

Arthur Hartman and Monroe Leigh propose, and Henry Kissinger accepts, that an attempt should be made to eliminate the Executive branch members of the Commission.


  • Action Memorandum from Arthur Hartman and Monroe Leigh to Secretary Kissinger, Re: CSCE Commission — Executive Branch Participation, 7/20/1976.  View

August 1976 – The second U.S. CSCE meeting is held on August 6, 1976; the only business conducted was the appointment of Spencer Oliver as staff director of the Commission.  Neither branch of government was prepared at this point to discuss the matters raised at the previous meeting.


  • Memorandum for Brent Scowcroft from A. Denis Clift, Subject: Meeting of CSCE Commission, 8/6/1976.  View

On August 24, 1976, State Department officials, including, Kissinger and Arthur Hartman, meet with Senators Pell and Case and Representatives Fascell and Fenwick to discuss the Commission, specifically the status of Executive branch members. The consensus was that the Executive branch members should be downgraded to observers. Chairman Fascell, however, encouraged the continuation of the member status, in order provide a unified force in monitoring. Secretary Kissinger said he would take up the matter with the President.


  • Memorandum of Conversation — Participants: State Department: Secretary Kissinger, Sonnenfeldt, Hartman, McCloskey, Aldrich, Gantz; Congress: Rep. Fascell, Sen. Pell, Sen. Case, Rep. Fenwick; Subject: CSCE Commission, 8/24/1976.  View

September 1976 – The State Department then moves along with the proposal of downgrading the Executive branch members to observers, who “…would not vote in the Commission…” or “…participate in the questioning of witnesses…” or “accept no responsibility for any reports the Commission might prepare…” and “reserve the right of not attending meetings of they believed that their presence would adversely affect foreign relations interests or the Executive branch / Legislative branch relationship.”


  • Memorandum to Secretary Kissinger from Hartman, McCloskey, and Feldman; Subject: CSCE Commission – Presidential Letter on Executive Branch Participation, 9/1/1976.  View

On September 27, 1976, Chairman Fascell inquires of the President when he will appoint the Executive branch participants.


  • Correspondence of Rep. Dante B. Fascell (Case File), 9/27-9/29/1976.  View

On September 28, 1976, the State Department writes to the NSC that they have prepared a draft response to be signed by the President that calls for conversion of Executive branch members to participants.


  • Letter to Chairman Dante Fascell on CSCE Commission (Case File), 9/28-10/7/1976.  View

October 1976 – On October 1, 1976, the letter from the President to Fascell is given to the President for his signature, which is sent on October 2, 1976.  On October 4, 1976, Dante Fascell responds and accepts Executive branch participants as member-observers.


  • President Ford – Rep. Fascell Correspondence on CSCE Commission (Case File), 10/1-6/1976.  View

On October 2, 1976, President Ford approves the appointment of Eugene McAuliffe (Department of Defense), Monroe Leigh (Department of State), and Mansfield Sprague (Department of Commerce) to the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.
On October 8, 1976, the State Department objects to Fascell’s October 4, 1976, letter to President Ford: “the Commission rather than the Department of State which could assume primary responsibility for assuring the commitments under the Helsinki Final Act are complied with, and the Commission would become the principal repository of information on such compliance.”
On October 12, 1976, Ford sends a letter to Chairman Fascell naming his appointees to the Commission, they are: James Poor (Department of Defense), Monroe Leigh (Department of State), and Mansfield Sprague (Department of Commerce). That day a press release is issued.


  • Presidential Appointments to the CSCE Commission (Case File), 9/28-10/12/1976.  Part I: View.  Part II: View
  • Press Announcement on Executive Branch Participants in CSCE Commission, 10/12/1976.  View

November 1976 – As required, the President submitted his bi-annual report on CSCE implementation to the U.S. CSCE. Discussion occurred as to whether the document should be made public. It was decided that the Commission should make that decision.


  • First Semi-Annual Report to the U.S. Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, 11/4-12/1976.  Part I: View.  Part II: View.  Part III: View
  • Release of the President’s Report to the CSCE Commission (Case File)], 12/1-13/1976.  View

December 1976 – As Mansfield Sprague’s term of service on the Commission neared its end, he wrote to President Ford describing his experience. Sprague praised the Commission and its Chairman, and encouraged Executive branch participation. It offered the opportunity of contact with a diverse set of individuals who were highly knowledgeable of issues pertinent to Helsinki Final Act. It provided an opportunity for a wider range of individuals to have access to those created U.S. foreign policy.


  • Letter from Mansfield Sprague to President Ford, Re: CSCE Commission, 12/17/1976.  View

Next: Implementation and Legacy