Key Point: The Soviets killed 20,000 Polish officers. It was a terrible atrocity that initially was blamed on the Nazis.
Months after the Red Army stormed across the Polish frontier from the east and occupied approximately half of Poland in the autumn of 1939, the Soviet secret police (NKVD) rounded up thousands of Polish Army officers and summarily executed them at various locations around the war-torn country. All told, more than 20,000 were murdered.
The most infamous of these mass murders took place in the Katyn Forest, near the Russian city of Smolensk. These officers the backbone of the Polish military; the reservists among them were teachers, politicians, doctors, and lawyers—the core of an intelligentsia that could oppose Soviet rule in the future. For Josef Stalin, NKVD head Lavrenti Beria, and the politburo the solution to the threat was to execute the victims with a single gunshot to the back of the head.
No admission of responsibility for the massacre or apology occurred until Mikhail Gorbachev owned up to it in 1990 as the sun was beginning to set on the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe.
An American Policy of Silence
Officially, the United States had stopped short of accusing the Soviets of a cover-up concerning the massacre. Openly accusing the Cold War adversary of mass murder would only serve to heighten the tensions of the half-century ideological and military standoff.
Early outrage over the official silence prompted a Congressional investigation in the early 1950s, and the 1952 report called Katyn “one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history” while acknowledging that the Roosevelt administration had knowledge of the true perpetrators, the Soviets rather than the Nazis, as early as 1943.
The source of renewed interest in the Katyn Forest Massacre and the evidence of Soviet culpability available to the Roosevelt administration is a trove of 1,000 pages of documents that the National Archives released last September. According to an Associated Press report, Roosevelt received confirmation from two American prisoners of war who had been specially trained to gather and submit intelligence information to Washington, D.C., through coded messages.
In the spring of 1943, the Nazis took a group of American and British prisoners to the Katyn Forest. There they were shown row after row of badly decomposed bodies wearing Polish Army uniforms. The intent of the Germans was clear—to potentially drive a rift between the Western Allies and the Soviets as the noose tightened around the collective Nazi neck. The two Americans, Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet, Jr., and Captain Donald B. Stewart, confirmed that German propagandists accusing the Soviets of the atrocity were indeed correct.
According to the AP, one message from Stewart read, “Content of my report was aprx (approximately): German claims regarding Katyn substantially correct in opinion of Van Vliet and myself.” The documents further reveal that in 1950 Stewart was instructed not to discuss Katyn with the Congressional committee before it convened.
Maintaining a Lie for Political Expediency
Although much of the new evidence has yet to be assessed, it appears virtually certain that Roosevelt and high-ranking members of his administration suppressed information regarding the Katyn Forest Massacre due to military necessity and political expediency. Roosevelt needed good relations with the Soviets to finish the fight against the Nazis and potentially to enter the war against Japan, particularly if an invasion of the Japanese home islands was required.
However, in failing to inform the world—particularly the American people—of Soviet guilt in the massacre some scholars argue that Roosevelt went too far in his efforts to garner favor with the Stalin regime. How does the historical perspective on Roosevelt change with the knowledge that a sitting U.S. president was aware that his country’s ally had innocent blood on its hands?
Actually, the AP report contends that the U.S. government was “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….”
Had the American people known much sooner about the true depths of Stalinist evil, would the negotiations that divided Germany and resulted in Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe have worked out differently? Then again, how would postwar Japan have emerged if Red Army troops had occupied Hokkaido and portions of Honshu and Tokyo had been divided into occupation zones similar to Berlin? These are tantalizing questions.
This article by Michael E. Haskew first appeared in the Warfare History Network on September 23, 2016.