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Interview: Does Revelation Of U.S. 'Cover-Up' Of Katyn Change Perception Of Massacre?

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk visit the Polish part of the Katyn memorial in Russia in April 2010.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk visit the Polish part of the Katyn memorial in Russia in April 2010.
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In the spring of 1940, Soviet secret police dispatched by Josef Stalin shot 22,000 Polish nationals dead in the Katyn Forest near the city of Smolensk in western Russia. Their goal was to eliminate military and intellectual elites who had the potential to resist Kremlin domination.

Moscow long attributed the Katyn massacre to the Nazis. Despite a damning report by the U.S. Congress in the 1950s that placed the blame squarely on the Soviets, the White House kept mum for decades.

On September 10, after a request was sent to U.S. President Barack Obama by members of Congress, the U.S. National Archives declassified nearly 1,000 pages of documents that suggest that Washington had early and convincing knowledge of Soviet guilt that it chose not to act upon.

The documents show that U.S. prisoners of war (POWs) who were taken to the scene of the massacre sent coded messages back home suggesting that the Soviets, not the Nazis, were behind the atrocity.

The declassified papers also contain correspondence from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, including a report on Katyn by Owen O'Malley, London's ambassador to the Polish government in exile (read the letter and report here).

"There is now available a good deal of negative evidence," O'Malley wrote, "the cumulative effect of which is to throw serious doubt on Russian disclaimers of responsibility for the massacre."

George Sanford, a professor emeritus of East European politics at England's University of Bristol, is the author of "Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory."

In this excerpt of his interview with RFE/RL correspondent Richard Solash, he says the declassified documents confirm what is already well understood by experts on the subject, but not as much by the general public: the United States, apparently unwilling to antagonize its wartime ally and later Cold War foe, chose to remain silent on the Soviet massacre.

RFE/RL: How significant is this declassification of U.S. documents to the history of the Katyn massacre?

George Sanford:
It's a sensational sort of story, this -- American POWs getting information out. It's in the same sort of category as reports about the killing of the Jews in Auschwitz early on, which Western public opinion and Western governments really didn't want to take on board because then they'd have to do something about it.

Roosevelt had a chap who had been a Democratic governor in Pennsylvania, George Howard Earle. This chap sent him no end of evidence about Katyn, and Roosevelt said, "Get him out of the way." [Roosevelt] sent him off to Samoa until the end of the war. It was almost a Soviet type of thing -- he just stepped out of line. "It's inconvenient, the Soviets are our ally, I don't want any anti-Soviet propaganda."

As far as we know, neither Churchill nor Roosevelt even privately raised the matter with Stalin at Yalta. The specialists know that the American government was well informed of the subject, but a decision was taken at the top, really, to cover it up -- and probably quite rightly, in the national interest of America, to maintain the Soviet alliance and of course to maintain the fact that the Red Army was beating the Germans on the Eastern Front.

But there's a gap between specialists' knowledge and the knowledge of this in public opinion, so any official documentation is valuable in the sense that it confirms and dots the i's and crosses the t's.

RFE/RL: How will this new evidence be received in Russia and in Poland?

Sanford:
The Russians won't be all that happy about this. They'll be slightly embarrassed because, as you know, the Putin administration has slightly backtracked on some of the moves originally taken after the fall of communism, certainly by Gorbachev and Yeltsin, to reveal the whole truth about Stalin's crimes.

This will be great support, of course, to the democratic forces in Russia who argue quite rightly that there is a parallel here with the Germans, who after the Second World War had to accept the truth about Nazi crimes as part of the democratization process.

The problem in Poland is that the Katyn issue has been part of the political conflict between the two major parties and basically, the opposition are arguing that the government hasn't done enough to condemn Soviet, Russian, and Stalinist responsibility for Katyn and that, generally speaking, they've been too soft in their policy toward Russia.

So it's going to be a part of this internal Polish political debate with, presumably, some more evidence being supplied in support of the opposition line on this issue. [In terms of Polish reaction directed toward the West], the Katyn issue ties in with this whole narrative that the West, in the past, and certainly during the Second World War and communist periods, didn't do very much for Poland and that the Polish case was always seen in very functional and realistic terms. This [confirms] it.

RFE/RL: Should this revelation generate any new action on the part of the United States or other countries implicated in these documents, such as new memorialization or apologies?

Sanford:
This is a great issue, isn't it? It's, how can historical crimes be dealt with so that the truth can be told about them without hatred between nations continuing? And the general view is that, at the very least, the historians should have all the documentation available and should be allowed to tell the story in a dispassionate and objective way, so that people can accept, mutually, who has done what to whom without this being the basis for future hatreds.

There are some people who, until very recently, argue[d] that Katyn should really have come up in front of some international legal body and that some sort of judgment should have been made, either by the United Nations or by some other body. The [families of the] victims of the crime do feel hard done by and even to today, I suppose, there is some justice in the claim of some Poles that justice will only be done when some authoritative either apology or recognition by an international body will put the issue to bed.

RFE/RL: How much historical information is yet to be uncovered regarding the massacre?

Sanford:
There aren't gaps as far as the organization, the carrying through of the massacre, and its consequences. All this is completely known, mainly because of the NKVD [Soviet secret police under Stalin] documentation, which was meticulous, and which was published in Warsaw mainly during the 1990s.

The big question, I've found, and it's a bit surprising, is that although there is some documentation about how the decision was arrived at, at the end of the day, it is still speculative why Stalin and [Lavrenty] Beria, his security police chief, decided to shoot the Poles in the spring of 1940 rather than just send them to the gulag, where a very large percentage would have died anyway because of the winter and so on. It is possible there is still some documentation which may yet come out.
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Comments
     
by: Ray F. from: Lawrence, KS
September 11, 2012 19:16
Welcome to another sorry and revealing chapter in American history. We were fighting a war, and if the allies had to align themselves with Stalinist devils to defeat Hitler, well that’s just the way the world works. US officials should have admitted the truth once the war was over, but they would have appeared as somehow complicit in this crime and could have lost the Polish vote at home. Believe it or not, countries (even the US!) are driven mostly by their national and parochial party interests and not moral considerations. It was true in 1951 and it’s true in 2012.

by: john from: canada
September 11, 2012 21:51
Katyn massacre happened when Nazi-Soviet peace pact in place, but coverup happened when Nazi's revealed the truth later and (finally) were at war with Soviets.

When Allies turned over prisoners of war and Eastern European soldiers to Stalin at end of WWII, more were murdered by Stalin's NKVD than were murdered at Katyn.

Another REALLY embarrassing comparison that should be made is with Stalin's mass-starvation murders of 3-8 MILLION Ukrainians several years earlier - and the shameful Holodomor-denial cover-up by Western journalists.

by: Wilson Dizard III from: Washington DC
September 12, 2012 02:38
Unfortunately, this interview and the headline muddy the waters regarding the facts of the gruesome Katyn tragedy, by implying that the US condoned or connived in Stalin's lies. Even worse, the irresponsible and inaccurate characterization of the Roosevelt/Truman/Eisenhower/Kenned/Johnson/Nixon/Ford/Carter/Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama policy toward the atrocity affect politics inside Poland today, Poland's relations with its neighbors and allies, and the lessons that can be drawn from an accurate characterization of those facts (as RFE/RL should know). A specialist like Prof. George Sanford should be aware of the description of how Stalin and his inner circle reached this decision, as it is presented on pages 333 and 334 of Simon Sebag Montefiore's history, "Stalin: in the Court of the Red Tsar." Stalin and his magnates discussed the decision and signed the order in the Politburo on 5 March 1940; Sebag Montefiore relies on sources that include Beria's son. The role of George Howard Earle has been well reported and known to even casual students of that era and that incident, in this country, for decades. For example, it's been known that at the time, Roosevelt likely chose Guam as a post for the Earle because it lacked a telephone connection with the US --- Earle would be safe and sound in his new post, but incapable of foiling US' national security and foreign policy projects. As for Roosevelt's decision that war aims trumped immediate publication of known facts about Katyn, it's striking that RFE/RL omits context that would place that decision in perspective. During those months, Roosevelt (close to death himself) was weighing the responsibility, in fact the likelihood, of approving a nuclear attack on Japan that would cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians. Acknowledging these known facts in no way devalues the lives of the men (and at least one woman) murdered in the Katyn shootings. As Prof. Timothy Snyder correctly states in his landmark book "Bloodlands", that event (as well as the other murders carried out between Moscow & Berlin in the era 1930 to 1945) shouldn't be understood simply as the murder of almost 26,000 people. It was the murder of 26,000 people "times one," because the murder of each one of those people ended a unique life with an irreplaceable trove of memories, hopes, loves, desires, aspirations and human qualities. However, presenting Sanford's views -- without checking the known historical record and alternative interpretations of subsequent decisions (including, for example, the effect of publicizing that information on arms control talks in the 1960s and 1970s) -- does not fairly present the various ways that that terrible tragedy is being interpreted in Poland today, especially in light of the how those interpretations influence current democratic processes in Poland.

by: Λέων Τρότσκι from: Nowogródek
September 12, 2012 04:26

How many times during the modern history did Poland invade Russia and how many times did Russia invade Poland?

I think this article selectively covers facts biased towards Polish aggressors.

No mentioning of the Polish invasion of Russia in February of 1919 that ended with Russian defeat. What did Polish invaders do to 100,000+ Russian POWs and civilians on occupied lands?

Why did US government send Henry Morgenthau's Commission to investigate Polish war crimes against Jewish POWs and pogroms of Jewish civilian population of Russia?

Remember, that people who survived these horrific acts of violence committed by Polish "military and intellectual elites" were running NKVD and remembered what happened to their comrades and families.

I think that explains why so many innocent Polish people were allowed to form Polish army in Russia and fight against Nazis while others were unfit for this task.

In Response

by: Vakhtang from: Moscow
September 12, 2012 06:48
americans knew about this crime and did not talk about it ......but crime was committed by russians...
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In Response

by: Λέων Τρότσκι from: Nowogródek
September 14, 2012 01:09

Why do Russians get blamed for this?

Stalin was Georgian, Beria was Mingrelian, NKVD were majority non-Russian...
In Response

by: Sergio from: The Netherlands
September 12, 2012 10:14
This is an article about one massacre -- Katyn. Of course it shows who the aggressor was -- Russia -- and who the victim was -- Poland -- because, in this case, that is simply the truth. In this one, particular case, I repeat: this is the truth. Before pointing out other crimes and atrocities, why don't you recognize this?

That's the question I always ask those who try to make the point you're trying to make: what's the problem with acknowledging that Katyn was a Soviet atrocity against Poles? What do you lose if you admit that? What's the big problem?

This is of course not to say that Poles are angels. If your own history isn't enough, just ask the Lithuanians--they have their own Polish stories to tell. And whatever crimes and attrocities Poles have committed (have you seen the novel "Neighbors", by the way), they will have to also acknowledge, accept, and apologize for them.

But that doesn't change the fact that Katyn was a Soviet atrocity against Poles. And that the people who, in their own eyes, still see themselves as the heirs of the Soviet Union -- Russia and the Russians -- should acknowledge this fact, accept it, and apologize for it.

That is what honest, decent humans are supposed to do. Russians and Poles. And Americans. And Chinese. And everybody else. Or do you disagree? Think about what decency means before you start shouting "bias! bias!" again. Think again about what is better: to accept the errors in the past, or to either deny them or claim they're part of some smear campaign. What is the honest, decent course of action here? Even if there indeed are smear campaigns out there? What would an honest, decent person do?
In Response

by: Λέων Τρότσκι from: Nowogródek
September 14, 2012 01:38

I have yet to see a single article on this site that would acknowledge a shred of atrocities committed against Russian people by their "democratic" and "non-democratic" neighbors.

The reason I mentioned the "disappearance" of 100,000+ Russian POWs after the democratic Republic of Poland invaded Russia in 1919 is because I think these events could be connected to what happened to the Polish military officers IF they were executed by NKVD.

In any case, it was not an "atrocity against Poles" (as demonstrated by other Poles doing just fine and being allowed to fight for liberation of their country) but an execution of Polish military officers who could not be trusted by either Nazis or Soviets.
In Response

by: Camel Anaturk from: Kurdistan
September 12, 2012 13:43
Dear lion Trottsky from`Novgorodek`-Russia invaded and butchered Poles umpteen times in history and russian atrocities against poles since tsarist times are common knowledge but for dupes like you who choose their pseudonim after one of the bloodthirstiest satraps in human history.And vah vah vah tang ,Russia`s head at the time came from your lovely and most demockratic Georgia,me thinks and you should have defended his honour,instead of blaming russian people for his deeds.And finally thanks to RFE/RL-ers for including a comment section-a very rare bird on its news coverage these days!!!And why do we have to wait for official documents to see what everybody knew: Uncle Joe`s pardners in crimes were not only the big bad nazis but the good old shamericans as well???
In Response

by: Λέων Τρότσκι from: Nowogródek
September 14, 2012 01:19

"Russia invaded and butchered Poles umpteen times"

This is not really an answer I was looking for. I asked HOW MANY times Polish troops invaded Russia to compare with the number of times Russian troops invaded Poland. Once you provide details on the alleged "umpteen" we can compare and see who's the real aggressor here.
In Response

by: Jubus from: Poland
September 18, 2012 08:04
How many times Russia invaded Poland? About 10 times, since XVI century. How many times Poland invaded Russia or Russian-language lands? About 2-3 times, first in the late XVI century, last in 1919 but then it was with Ukrainian help, to fight bolshevism.
How many POW were killed during the war of 1920? I mean, Polish POW, not only Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian ones?

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