Day by day, the two vice presidents walked the corridors of power in Washington. Everyone was polite. Some were supportive. And yet, at the end, both knew they were bringing a message no one wanted to hear.

It was not a role either would have chosen for himself. Bronius Kuzmickas, 55, was an academic and philosopher, the head of the Lithuanian equivalent of the American Association of University Professors. Dainis Ivans, 35, was a popular Latvian magazine and television journalist turned environmental activist.

Last year, when the Baltic republics began their bids for independence from the Soviet Union, both men were elected to the parliaments of their nations and, from there, to the vice presidential offices. Like others I have met in the democratic movements of Central and Eastern Europe, they have stories recall the biographies of the Founding Fathers: the bravest and wisest men in the land, who put aside their careers to serve their country.

Kuzmickas and Ivans had been sent west to arouse the conscience of the Atlantic democracies to the bloody repression of freedom in their homelands. They came after Soviet "Black Beret" security forces had killed 18 civilians at a television station in Vilnius and a government ministry in Riga. They came begging help, moral and material, for their fellow citizens who have formed volunteer militias to protect the Latvian and Lithuanian parliament buildings -- and the infant democracies they house -- from Moscow's thugs.

They arrived in Washington on the second night of the Persian Gulf war, when this capital was preoccupied with the battle between the Scuds and the Patriots in the dramatic television pictures from Israel and Saudi Arabia. America was focused on one small country -- Kuwait -- and hardly had time for others.

Even in such a week, many doors were open to them -- and many minds as well. Ivans found the support offered by members of Congress at a hearing on Capitol Hill "fantastic." He was "satisfied" with the assurances he and Kuzmickas received from Secretary of State James A. Baker III that "the United States would," as Ivans paraphrased it, "continue to look for ways to help."

But at the end of the visit, when I caught up with them for interviews, both men were exhausted and more than a bit downcast. Despite the sympathetic reactions, there was nothing substantial to take home to their embattled countrymen.

More openly frustrated were members of the delegation of Americans of Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian ancestry who met with President Bush to protest the repression in their homelands. "He acts as if he does not wish to see what is happening," one of them told me. "It seems he has made up his mind that {Soviet President Mikhail} Gorbachev is the key to the future, and we must support him at all costs."

Bush and Baker told their visitors that they had already communicated Americans' condemnation of the shootings and takeovers in conversations with Soviet officials, from Gorbachev on down. But they declined any of the offered suggestions for actions to give force to their words.

Their timidity is conspicuous. The World Bank and other international organizations, the Scandinavian countries, Canada and the European Community all have suspended economic assistance to the Soviets because of the Baltic repression. Kuzmickas and Ivans asked only that the United States give its economic and food assistance to the republics that are instituting economic and political reforms, not to the old-guard Communist bureaucrats in the ministries in Moscow. They were told that Moscow already had snapped up most of the $1 billion in credits Bush made available in December.

Their suggestion that the United States formally recognize the elected governments of the Baltic republics -- a step which would clearly make Moscow think twice about its harassment and repression -- was greeted coldly.

They understand that the Bush administration believes it has bigger interests at stake, which make it impolitic to push Gorbachev too hard. He is cooperating in the Gulf War, and he may be ready to sign a new arms-control agreement.

But the two vice presidents argue that it should be "unthinkable" for Bush to meet with Gorbachev next month while Soviet security forces are still threatening more violence and repression in the Baltic republics. At a minimum, they say, Bush should insist that the "Black Berets" be withdrawn before he and Gorbachev sit down.

They are right. The moral principle we invoked in opposing Iraqi aggression against Kuwait cannot be suspended when Soviet forces attack Latvians and Lithuanians.

"Even in the midst of the Gulf crisis," Kuzmickas told me, "the United States must think ahead a year or two. The Baltics are the crucial test. If democratization is stopped in the Baltic states, it will be in the Soviet Union as well. And the world will be faced again with a hard-line Communist Soviet Union, and hopes for a new relationship will be suspended."

That is a truth Washington does not want to hear at the moment, any more than it wanted to hear harsh things about Saddam Hussein when he was fighting Iran. But it is still the truth.