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?
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?
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?
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?
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.