Newly declassified U.S. army documents reveal that two American POWs sent secret coded messages to Army intelligence after their 1943 visit to Katyn, pointing to Soviet guilt for the 1940 massacre.
After witnessing rows of corpses in the Katyn forest, on the western edge of Russia, the American POWs told Washington they believed the Nazi claims that Soviets had carried out the killings of 22,000 Polish officers.
Having seen the advanced state of decay of the bodies, the POWs concluded that the killings must have been carried out by the Soviets rather than the Nazis who had only recently invaded the area surrounding the Katyn forest.
The documents shed further light on decades of suppression of Soviet guilt within the U.S. government which began during WWII when the blame for the massacre was being pointed at Nazi Germany. The long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Roosevelt didn’t want to anger Josef Stalin, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan.
Kaytn massacre: This 1952 photo, shows a view of a partially emptied mass grave in the Katyn forest where approximately 22,000 Polish men were killed. Newly declassified documents add proof that the U.S. government helped cover up the Soviets’ responsibility
The testimony about the infamous massacre of Polish officers might have lessened the tragic fate that befell Poland under the Soviets, some scholars believe.
Documents released Monday lend weight to the belief that suppression within the highest levels of the U.S. government helped cover up Soviet guilt in the killing of some 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners in the Katyn forest and other locations in 1940.
The evidence is among about 1,000 pages of newly declassified documents that the United States National Archives is releasing Monday and putting online.
The most dramatic revelation so far is the evidence of the secret codes sent by the two American POWs — something historians were unaware of and which adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on.
Cover up: Secret codes sent by the two American POWs about the massacre¿ something historians were unaware of – adds to evidence that the Roosevelt administration knew of the Soviet atrocity relatively early on
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.
In the early years after the war, outrage by some American officials over the concealment inspired the creation of a special U.S. Congressional committee to investigate Katyn.
In a final report released in 1952, the committee declared there was no doubt of Soviet guilt, and called the massacre ‘one of the most barbarous international crimes in world history.’
Deceit: The long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Roosevelt, centre, didn’t want to anger Josef Stalin, left, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan during World War II. In this 1943 file photo, Stalin, Roosevelt, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill meet for the first time to discuss Allied plans for the war against Germany and for postwar cooperation in the United Nations
It 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.
It was May 1943 in the Katyn forest, a part of Russia the Germans had seized from the Soviets in 1941, when group of American and British POWs were taken against their will by their German captors to witness a horrifying scene at a clearing surrounded by pine trees: mass graves tightly packed with thousands of partly mummified corpses in well-tailored Polish officers uniforms.
The Americans — Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr. — hated the Nazis and didn’t want to believe the Germans. They had seen German cruelty up close, and the Soviets, after all, were their ally. The Germans were hoping to use the POWs for propaganda, and to drive a wedge between the Soviet Union and its Western Allies.
But returning to their POW camps, the Americans carried a conviction that they had just witnessed overwhelming proof of Soviet guilt. The corpses’ advanced state of decay told them the killings took place much earlier in the war, when the Soviets still controlled the area.
They also saw Polish letters, diaries, identification tags, news clippings and other objects — none dated later than spring of 1940 — pulled from the graves. The evidence that did the most to convince them was the good state of the men’s boots and clothing: That told them the men had not lived long after being captured.
Fighting: Franciszek Herzog, 81, holds up a picture of his father who died in the massacre. Herzog has been hoping for more openness from the U.S. since Gorbachev’s 1990 admission and previously made three attempts to obtain an apology from President George H.W. Bush
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.
It’s an important revelation because it shows the Roosevelt administration was getting information early on from credible U.S. sources of Soviet guilt — yet still ignored it for the sake of the alliance with Stalin.
One shows a head of Army intelligence, Gen. Clayton Bissell, confirming that some months after the 1943 visit to Katyn by the U.S. officers, a coded request by MIS-X, a unit of military intelligence, was sent to Van Vliet requesting him ‘to state his opinion of Katyn.’ Bissell’s note said that ‘it is also understood Col. Van Vliet & Capt. Stewart replied.’
MIS-X was devoted to helping POWs held behind German lines escape; it also used the prisoners to gather intelligence.
A statement from Stewart dated 1950 confirms he received and sent coded messages to Washington during the war, including one on Katyn: ‘Content of my report was aprx (approximately): German claims regarding Katyn substantially correct in opinion of Van Vliet and myself.’
The newly uncovered documents also show Stewart was ordered in 1950 — soon before the Congressional committee began its work — never to speak about a secret message on Katyn.
Krystyna Piorkowska, author of the recently published book ‘English-Speaking Witnesses to Katyn: Recent Research,’ discovered the documents related to the coded messages more than a week ago. She was one of several researchers who saw the material ahead of the public release.
She had already determined in her research that Van Vliet and Stewart were ‘code users’ who had gotten messages out about other matters. But this is the first discovery of them communicating about Katyn, she said.
Another Katyn expert aware of the documents, Allen Paul, author of ‘Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth,’ said the find is ‘potentially explosive.’ He said the material does not appear in the record of the Congressional hearings in 1951-52, and appears to have also been suppressed.
He argues that the U.S. cover-up delayed a full understanding in the United States of the true nature of Stalinism — an understanding that came only later, after the Soviets exploded an atomic bomb in 1949 and after Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe were already behind the Iron Curtain.
‘The Poles had known long before the war ended what Stalin’s true intentions were,’ Paul said. ‘The West’s refusal to hear them out on the Katyn issue was a crushing blow that made their fate worse.’
The historical record carries other evidence Roosevelt knew in 1943 of Soviet guilt. One of the most important messages that landed on FDR’s desk was an extensive and detailed report British Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent him. Written by the British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile in London, Owen O’Malley, it pointed to Soviet guilt at Katyn.
Murdered: New evidence adds proof that the U.S. government helped cover up Soviet guilt in the killing of some 22,000 Polish officers. Franciszek Herzog, pictured here in 1938, died in the massacres
‘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.’
It wasn’t until the waning days of Soviet hegemony over Eastern Europe that reformist leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admitted to Soviet guilt at Katyn, a key step in Polish-Russian reconciliation.
The silence by the U.S. government has been a source of deep frustration for many Polish-Americans. One is Franciszek Herzog, 81, a Connecticut man whose father and uncle died in the massacre. After Gorbachev’s 1990 admission, he was hoping for more openness from the U.S. as well and made three attempts to obtain an apology from President George H.W. Bush.
‘It will not resurrect the men,’ he wrote to Bush. ‘But will give moral satisfaction to the widows and orphans of the victims.’
A reply he got in 1992, from the State Department, did not satisfy him. His correspondence with the government is also among the newly released documents and was obtained early by the AP from the George Bush Presidential Library.
The letter, dated Aug. 12, 1992, and signed by Thomas Gerth, then deputy director of the Office of Eastern European Affairs, shows the government stating that it lacked irrefutable evidence until Gorbachev’s admission:
‘The U.S. government never accepted the Soviet Government’s claim that it was not responsible for the massacre. However, at the time of the Congressional hearings in 1951-1952, the U.S. did not possess the facts that could clearly refute the Soviets’ allegations that these crimes were committed by the Third Reich. These facts, as you know, were not revealed until 1990, when the Russians officially apologized to Poland.’
Herzog expressed frustration at that reply.
‘There’s a big difference between not knowing and not wanting to know,’ Herzog said. ‘I believe the U.S. government didn’t want to know because it was inconvenient to them.’
September 1939: World War II begins with the German invasion of Poland from the west, quickly followed by the Soviet invasion from the east. The carving up of Poland results from a secret pact between Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Soviets soon capture thousands of Polish officers and transport them to POW camps in Russia. They also deport hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians to Siberia.
April-May 1940: Soviet secret police kill 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners of war and dump their bodies in mass graves. The murders, carried out with shots to the back of the heads, take place in the Katyn forest in western Russia and other locations. At that time, letters from the officers to their families come to a sudden stop, bringing despair to relatives and creating an early Polish belief that the Soviets killed them. Questioned by Polish leaders on the fate of the officers, the Soviets begin decades of denying their guilt.
1941: Germany attacks Soviet Union, and in its eastward advance overruns the territory surrounding Katyn. The Soviets join the Allies in the war against Hitler.
April 1943: Nazi Germany’s propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels announces the German discovery of mass graves at Katyn. Goebbels hopes public knowledge of the Soviet crime would sow distrust between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies and weaken their alliance.
May 1943: As part of the Nazi propaganda effort, the Germans bring a group of American and British POWs to Katyn, as well as other groups, to see the remains of the Poles in the mass graves, in an advanced state of decomposition.
May 1945: World War II ends. Upon being freed Lt. Col John H. Van Vliet gives his first report to Army intelligence on what he witnessed at Katyn, one that disappeared and still has never been found.
1951: The U.S. Congress sets up a committee to investigate the Katyn crimes after questions about the whereabouts of the missing Van Vliet report from 1945. Even ahead of the formal establishment of the committee, Van Vliet in 1950 makes a second written report on his impressions from Katyn.
1952: The Congressional committee concludes there is no question that the Soviets bear blame for the massacre. It faults Roosevelt’s administration for suppressing public knowledge of the truth. The report also says it suspects pro-Soviet sympathizers within government agencies buried knowledge about Katyn. It expresses anger at the disappearance of the first Van Vliet report and says: ‘This committee believes that had the Van Vliet report been made immediately available to the Dept. of State and to the American public, the course of our governmental policy toward Soviet Russia might have been more realistic with more fortunate post-war results.’
1990: The reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admits that the Soviets bear guilt for Katyn.
Sept. 10, 2012: The U.S.National Archives releases about 1,000 pages of newly declassified records related to the Katyn massacre. Among them are the newly declassified U.S. army documents proving that two American POWs wrote encoded messages to Army intelligence, MIS-X, soon after their 1943 visit to Katyn, pointing to Soviet guilt.