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Published:June 1st, 2008 21:20 EST
Mysteries of History: The American Diplomat Who Spurred the Cold War

Mysteries of History: The American Diplomat Who Spurred the Cold War

By Krzys Wasilewski

*Audio by Kristin Marzec

The Cold War began not in 1945 but four years earlier. In a scarcely known episode, a plane carrying an American diplomat with top secret documents was shot down by two Soviet air fighters. Now, the mystery behind the so-called Kaleva Incident may finally be revealed.

The Baltic Sea, miniature as it is, hides many secrets. It is there that after the end of the Second World War, tons of German and Soviet chemical weapons were buried in the seabed never to be retrieved again. The Baltic Sea, which stretches from the coastline of Germany through Poland to the Baltic republics to Finland and Sweden, also remains a graveyard for numerous wrecks of ships and planes that prematurely ended their heroic service in the depths of the vicious waters.

One of them especially captures the imagination of historians and mystery lovers. For decades the Kaleva airplane had lain somewhere in the Baltic, jealously guarded by Russian frigates. Finally, on May 30, 2008, the USNS Pathfinder - a US Navy oceanographic survey ship - began an unusual mission that, if successful, might shed new light on the last flight of the Kaleva and the beginnings of the Cold War. "This is a unique mission," admitted one of the ship`s crewmen. "We`re not in the business of looking for aircrafts or sunken ships, so this is very exciting for my surveyors."

The story began in Tallinn, Estonia, on June 14, 1940. A handsome, 28-year-old American diplomat, recognized by the airport servicemen as Henry W. Antheil Jr., entered a small plane bound for Helsinki. He could not resist a smile as he sat comfortably in a seat, putting his black suitcase on a shelf above. In a few hours he would be in the Finnish capital where, apart from the US embassy officials, his beautiful fiancee would be waiting. Besides, there was a rumor that the Soviets were to impose a blockade on Estonia, officially still an independent country, and any further delaying of his return might become a grave error.

The Kaleva, belonging to the Finnish Aero O/Y airlines, took off as planned. Antheil was not the only diplomat on board; there were also two envoys from the French embassy in Estonia going en route to Paris that several hours earlier had fallen into German hands. Two German businessmen, an Estonian lady, a Swede, and two pilots comprised the rest of those on board. According to one Estonian fisherman, at 2:05 pm local time, two air fighters with visible red stars on their tails approached the plane and opened fire on it. Seconds later, a huge explosion tore the Kaleva into dozens of pieces that quickly fell into the impregnable depths of the Baltic Sea.

Why did the Soviets shoot down the passenger airplane? The Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland ended several months before the incident, in March 1940. The two countries realized that sooner or later new fights would break out, but according to the signed treaty, both pledged to refrain from any hostile activities. June 14, like most summer days in this part of Europe, was chilly but sunny and the Soviet pilots must have seen the blue Aero O/Y inscriptions on the Kaleva`s tail that clearly indicated the plane as belonging to Finland. Was the attack just a tragic mistake, a demonstration of military superiority, or a thoroughly designed operation?

Perhaps a glance at Henry W. Antheil Jr.`s life could answer this question. One of the two sons of Henry William Antheil, a shoe store owner and an immigrant from Germany, Henry Jr. spent much of his life in the shadow of his famous older brother, George. It was George, a cosmopolitan composer, who in 1934 introduced Henry to the political elite of Washington, DC. Among his new acquaintances was William C. Bullitt that only recently had agreed to stay at the helm of the American embassy in the Soviet Union. With several months still remaining until graduation from Rutgers University, Henry decided to give up his studies and go with Bullitt as an embassy staffer.

Like the rest of the employees of the embassy who paved the way for future diplomats, Henry`s ambitions surpassed his knowledge on the region. In his unpublished letters, George Antheil wrote that "Henry lived a lone [sic] and dangerous life, traveling from country to country, followed by foreign agents from border to border, never knowing what moment might be his last."  It was one of such errands that took Henry to Finland where he met and fell in love with a local beauty, Greta Lindberg. During the Winter War, the couple could see first-hand the strength of the Red Army and the determination of the Fins who, outnumbered by the Soviets by 4 to 1, managed to defend their country.

Henry`s diplomatic career was somewhat ambiguous. His superiors praised him for his strong character that enabled him to go to places which other "brilliant young men" hoped to avoid. But Henry had a serious vice that had killed many promising careers in the State Department: he loved to gossip. He could hardly be trusted with diplomatic secrets and any bit of information he managed to get he usually shared with his foreign fiancee or his brother, who at that time worked as a war correspondent for American newspapers. Henry`s long tongue made him one of the objects of the 1950s FBI investigation into Soviet agents in the US State Department. He was posthumously cleared of all accusations.

Would then Henry W. Antheil Jr. have been given some top secret materials to transport to Helsinki? Very doubtful, say some historians. But Estonian researchers, who have been working on the case, claim that Antheil`s suitcase contained blueprints for the Soviet occupation of the Baltic republics that the US embassy in Tallinn was to have obtained a day before. Less than 24 hours after the Kaleva incident, the Red Army rolled into Lithuania. On June 16, the Soviets were in the other Baltic states, Latvia and Estonia. If the United States had learned about these plans, would Washington have pressed its European allies to contain Stalin?

Perhaps it wasn`t the young American courier that the Soviets wanted to eliminate. Another theory concentrates on the two French diplomats who also boarded the Kaleva. They were heading for Paris with two pouches whose contents were no less mysterious than Antheil`s baggage. Some believe that the two carried transcripts of a meeting that several days earlier French Ambassador in Moscow Erik Labonne had with Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov. Probably Molotov had lambasted Hitler - still Moscow`s official ally - and now, when the Germans were in Paris, the Soviet Union`s two-faced policies would have been uncovered.

On June 15, 1940, the talk of the day was the German occupation of Paris. The crash of the Kaleva was hardly mentioned in American newspapers; and when it did appear, it was usually on the last page. Time magazine reported the following on June 24, 1940: "Died. Henry W. Antheil Jr., 27, attache of the U.S. Legation at Helsinki, younger brother of noted Composer George Antheil; when the Finnish airliner in which he was flying from Tallinn, Estonia, to Helsinki mysteriously exploded in mid-air and plunged into the Gulf of Finland." Other titles were similarly imprecise.

For half a century, it was impossible to investigate the Kaleva incident. The Soviet Army that had invaded Estonia and the other Baltic republics in 1940 would stay there until the early 1990s, when all three countries regained independence. Now, 67 years after Henry W. Antheil Jr. and the other seven passengers of the Kaleva airplane died in unexplained circumstances, the mystery of the fateful flight is on the verge of being unraveled. "There was plenty of talk about it in Finland," remembered one Finnish senior diplomat in his interview for the Associated Press. "Hopefully, the Americans will help solve this case."

If the findings prove that the plane with Henry W. Antheil Jr. on board was shot down by Soviet air fighters, the history of the Cold War will have to be written again.

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