Documents show US covered up Soviet crimes
For decades Soviet officials blamed the massacre of 22,000 Polish prisoners of war during World War II on the Nazis. The truth didn’t officially come out until 50 years later, when Soviet reformer Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admitted his nation’s responsibility for the mass slaughter.
However, recently declassified documents, released Monday, show that American POWs sent secret coded messages to Washington, DC, with news regarding the massacre at the Katyn Forest that offered proof that the Germans could not have committed the killings.
The information, though, was suppressed by the US government, possibly because President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t want to draw the ire of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, whom the Americans needed to help defeat Germany and Japan, according to The Associated Press.
The Katyn massacre was a mass execution of Polish nationals carried out by the Soviet secret police the spring of 1940. The victims were murdered with pistol shots to the back of the head, killed in the Katyn Forest in Russia, Kalinin and Kharkiv prisons, and elsewhere.
Of the total killed, about 8,000 were officers taken prisoner during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, another 6,000 were police officers, and the remainder were Polish intelligentsia arrested for allegedly being “intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials and priests.”
The Soviets’ aim was to eliminate a military and intellectual elite that would have put up stiff resistance to Soviet control, according to The Associated Press.
A 2004 report by the Commission for the Prosecution of Crimes Against the Polish Nation said the killings were specifically intended destroy the strength of the Polish nation: “The physical elimination of these people was meant to prevent the rebirth of Polish statehood based on their intellectual potential.”
The documents, released Monday, reinforced the idea that top American officials were aware of who was responsible for the Katyn massacre and that the US government helped cover up Soviet guilt:
The evidence is among about 1,000 pages of newly declassified documents that the United States National Archives released and is putting online. Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who helped lead a recent push for the release of the documents, called the effort’s success Monday a “momentous occasion” in an attempt to “make history whole.”
Historians who saw the material days before the official release describe it as important and shared some highlights with the AP. The most dramatic revelation so far is the evidence of the secret codes sent by the two American POWs – something historians were unaware of and which adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on.
The Associated Press added that, “testimony about the infamous massacre of Polish officers might have lessened the tragic fate that befell Poland under the Soviets, some scholars believe. Instead, it mysteriously vanished into the heart of American power.”
The government of Nazi Germany announced the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest in 1943. When the London-based Polish government-in-exile asked for an investigation by the International Red Cross, Stalin immediately severed diplomatic relations with it.
In May 1943, a group of Allied prisoners of war were taken by the Nazis an area on the edge of western Russia where they were shown mass graves tightly packed with thousands of partly mummified corpses in well-tailored Polish officers’ uniforms, according to the wire service.
The two Americans in the group – Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr. – didn’t want to believe the Germans, having seen German cruelty up close. In addition, the Soviets by that time were a US ally.
“But returning to their POW camps, the Americans carried a conviction that they had just witnessed overwhelming proof of Soviet guilt,” The Associated Press reported. “The corpses’ advanced state of decay told them the killings took place much earlier in the war, when the Soviets still controlled the area.
“They also saw Polish letters, diaries, identification tags, news clippings and other objects – none dated later than spring of 1940 – pulled from the graves,” the wire service added. “The evidence that did the most to convince them was the good state of the men’s boots and clothing: That told them the men had not lived long after being captured.”
Not only did Stewart testify before the 1951 Congressional committee about what he saw, and Van Vliet write reports on Katyn in 1945 and 1950, but the newly declassified documents show that both sent secret encoded messages while still in captivity to army intelligence with their opinion of Soviet culpability.
“It’s an important revelation because it shows the Roosevelt administration was getting information early on from credible US sources of Soviet guilt – yet still ignored it for the sake of the alliance with Stalin,” The Associated Press reported.
Allen Paul, author of “Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth,” told the AP the find is “potentially explosive.” He said the material appears to have also been suppressed.
Paul argues that the US cover-up delayed a full understanding in the United States of the true nature of Stalinism – an understanding that came only later, after the rest of Eastern Europe were already behind the Iron Curtain.
“The Poles had known long before the war ended what Stalin’s true intentions were,” Paul said. “The West’s refusal to hear them out on the Katyn issue was a crushing blow that made their fate worse.”
(Above: German soldiers dig up a mass grave in the Katyn Forest in western Russia in 1943.)