Newly Declassified Documents Show Allies Buried Proof of the Soviets' Katyn Massacre


Speaking of important documents being ignored, turns out, as Reason 24/7 noted yesterday, the United States has long known more than it was telling about a 70-year-old war crime. The Katyn forest massacre was the killing of 22,000-odd Polish officers and various prisoners in 1940. For decades, the Soviets denied responsibility and tried to blame Nazi Germany, but in 1990, it was confirmed that the real responsible parties were definitely, most assuredly the Soviets…because they finally admitted as such. 

Now, according to the AP, 100 pages of newly declassified documents prove that Allied prisoners of war, including Americans Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr, were taken to the site by their German captors in 1943 and shown the corpses in an attempt at anti-Soviet propagandizing. The Americans reluctantly believed the Germans, due to the state of decomposition of the bodies, as well as papers and letters, none of which were dated past 1940, years before the Germans arrived in Russia. 

Stewart testified before the 1951 Congressional committee about what he saw, and Van Vliet wrote reports on Katyn in 1945 and 1950, the first of which mysteriously disappeared. 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. 

That congressional panel concluded that the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) was responsible for the massacre, even without Stewart and Vliet's testimony being part of the official record. But it took another 40 years for the U.S. to feign surprise when Russian confirmed it was indeed the work of the Soviets. 

The declassified documents also show the United States maintaining that it couldn't conclusively determine guilt until a Russian admission in 1990 — a statement that looks improbable given the huge body of evidence of Soviet guilt that had already emerged decades earlier. Historians say the new material helps to flesh out the story of what the U.S. knew and when.

The Soviet secret police killed the 22,000 Poles with shots to the back of the head. Their aim was to eliminate a military and intellectual elite that would have put up stiff resistance to Soviet control. The men were among Poland's most accomplished — officers and reserve officers who in their civilian lives worked as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or as other professionals. Their loss has proven an enduring wound to the Polish nation.

That '51 panel also concluded that there were "clear danger signals in Russian behavior evident as early as 1942" and that the U.S. might have behaved differently towards the Soviets if they had had more information earlier. Notes AP, congress:

found that Roosevelt's administration suppressed public knowledge of the crime, but said it was out of military necessity. It also recommended the government bring charges against the Soviets at an international tribunal — something never acted upon.

Despite the committee's strong conclusions, the White House maintained its silence on Katyn for decades, showing an unwillingness to focus on an issue that would have added to political tensions with the Soviets during the Cold War.

In '43, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill also sent U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt a long message that concluded Soviet culpability in the massacre. 

The history of shuffling Soviet atrocities aside does not began or end with Katyn, though. For example, letters have long proven that Pulitzer-winning New York Times foreign correspondent Walter Duranty was aware of the extent of the 1930s Ukrainian famine which killed perhaps 6 million peasants, but he deliberately refrained from reporting on it. Pulitzer has so far refused to posthumously revoke Duranty's prize. 

For more on whitewashing (contemporary) dictatorships, check out Reason TV's conversation between contributor Kennedy and contributing editor Michael C. Moynihan on why travel books tend to swoon over some of the world's worst countries: