US coverup of a Soviet massacre

The Associated Press reported today that that newly released documents show that the US hushed up a  Soviet massacre of Polish prisoners of war during World War II. Some 22,000 Polish prisoners were murdered in the Katyn Forest in 1940. For many years, the Soviet Union said they were killed by the Germans. But US POWs told Washington of the coverup in 1943.

Mass grave, Katyn Forest

By unknown, probably Polish Red Cross delegation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The American POWs sent secret coded messages to Washington with news of a Soviet atrocity: In 1943 they saw rows of corpses in an advanced state of decay in the Katyn forest, on the western edge of Russia, proof that the killers could not have been the Nazis who had only recently occupied the area.

The 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 long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t want to anger Josef Stalin, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan during World War II. [AP]

The US National Archives had released about a thousand pages of newly-declassified documents related to the massacre. (Question: why the hell was anything from that long ago still classified until now?)

And why would the Roosevelt administration cover up for the Soviets? (Fox News, predictably, is already attributing it to FDR’s naivete regarding the Soviets.) The National Archives provides some context (linked in previous paragraph):

An internationally-staffed medical commission organized by the Germans excavated the area in early 1943, with several American prisoners-of-war among the observers. This commission determined that the massacre occurred in 1940, when the area was under Soviet control-a determination which was then used as a propaganda tool intended to disrupt the alliance between the US, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. This effort was successful in part, as Polish intelligence sources immediately blamed the Soviets for the atrocities, leading to a break in diplomatic relations between Poland and the USSR. After their recapture of Smolensk in the autumn of 1943, the Soviet government organized its own excavation. This second enquiry concluded that the Polish prisoners of war had been captured and executed by invading German units in August 1941.

The official American response at the time was one of non-involvement. In a June 1943 telegram to Churchill, Roosevelt expressed approval that the British approach to Stalin was grounded “upon the obvious necessity of creating the most favorable conditions for bringing the full weight of the armed forces of all the United Nations to bear upon the common enemy….The winning of the war is the paramount objective for all of us. For this unity is necessary.”

According to the AP report, the US maintained for years that it didn’t have solid evidence of Soviet involvement until Mikhail Gorbachev apologized for the massacre in 1990.

My first reaction is that this is another example of a long-standing habit of governments — ours and just about everyone else’s — of concealing the truth and covering up for criminals, ostensibly for our own good. Our primary response ought to be to ask what’s being covered up today.

The other thing that occurs to me is that a lot of human behavior is a story of ignorance — acting without having the all the facts, being limited by the knowledge and assumptions of one’s time and place, not knowing which piece of a mountain of incoming data is the relevant information, not knowing knowing the future. We’re prone to assuming that the historical figures we read about had the same information available to them that we have, and that outcomes were a lot more predictable than they were.

That’s why it’s so important to find out exactly what people knew at the time, and that’s why this new report is so interesting. Someone could write a very rich and informative history of the human race simply by focusing not just on human ignorance, but on all the things that people didn’t want to know.

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