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Historians Have Yet to Face Up to the Implications of the Katyn Massacre

Harvey Klehr will be speaking on the morning of 22 May 2004 at the NAS conference in the New York City's Roosevelt Hotel. He will referring to the theme of his and John Earl Haynes's In Denial, their study of the continuing refusal of American left-liberals, in the face of recently revealed evidence, to acknowledge the barbarities and in some cases outright genocide of the Soviet Union during World War II. As Klehr and Haynes demonstrate, the denial is particularly strong at all levels of academe, where the"ideal type" of left-wing ideology finds its cosiest home. There, constrained, relatively exclusive contact with like-minded anti-capitalist and anti-anti-Communist true believers permits the development of"academic Stalinophilia."

I can recall an incident at Rutgers when the most prestigious of our professors of education actually lamented the absence of a movement to re-establish Josef Stalin's reputation as a positive force in human affairs. Today such a disposition is complemented at secondary education levels by history teachers who, according to my own experience in New Jersey, refuse to countenance any criticism of the Soviet Union. Walter McDougall has called the effects of such teachers' ideological persuasion"a quiet conquest of America's schoolrooms."

To illustrate the "denial," Klehr and Haynes cite liberals' continuing repression of the Katyn Forest massacre, Stalin's World War II extermination of the core of the Polish elite, regular and reserve officers who had been made prisoners as a consequence of the collaboration between Stalin and Hitler that began the war. I recently experienced the denial first-hand when, in a conversation with a west coast history professor, I suggested that we had had enough discussion of the number of those executed by the Soviets and that historians should begin to examine the cover-up of Katyn on the part of the Roosevelt administration. There was no response to my suggestion. I had touched a sensitive ideological nerve; I had had the temerity to impugn one of liberal academe's most dearly embraced historical memories, the integrity of the Roosevelt administration in its alliance with Stalin during World War II. Nevertheless, I suggest that Klehr and Haynes's treatment of the American response to Katyn be extended somewhat to include the significance of the American cover-up in later years.

 No one who was not alive and aware in the United States during the war can imagine the deference to the Soviet Union and its war effort exhibited by Franklin D. Roosevelt's war-time administration and the American media. For example, not only did the Office of War Information blame the Katyn executions on the German army; OWI also implicitly threatened to remove licensure from the Polish language radio stations in Detroit and Buffalo if they did not cease broadcasting the details of the executions. In all the long years when Alan Cranston served as U.S. Senator from California no one mentioned his part as an OWI functionary in the intimidation of the Polish-American radio station managers. The London-based Polish government-in-exile, whose leaders had requested a Red Cross investigation of the affair, was characterized as having "stupidly walked into Goebbels' trap". Was that the initial manifestation of what later became America's favorite ethnic stereotype?

It was the heroic Sidney Hook who responded to the discoveries at Katyn, not with the fear of displeasing Stalin that characterized Roosevelt and his advisers, but with the hope that the revelation of the identity of the Soviet perpetrators would in some way slow the accumulating adulation of the Soviet Union among the American citizenry. Hook noted:

As the evidence assembled by the Swiss Red Cross showed that this horrible deed was the work of Stalin and his henchmen, the Soviet government dismissed it as a piece of Nazi propaganda . . . . The American press, following the lead of the Office of War Information, played down the story or treated it as another Nazi atrocity.

Hook reported that at the time, Oscar Lange, a pro-Soviet Polish emigre who "tried to pin the responsibility for the massacre on the Germans," challenged his view of the crime. Hook felt strongly enough about the issue to agree to participate in a public debate with Lange, to be held at Columbia University. Unfortunately, the debate did not come off and Lange returned to Poland to work for the Communist regime that Stalin was installing there. Needless to say, to the great disappointment of Hook and others, there was no slowing of the American rush to beneficent judgment of Stalin's regime.

Probably, the worst directly effective consequence of the refusal to publicize the truth about Katyn was Franklin D. Roosevelt's accommodation of Stalin's post-war imperialistic aims at the Teheran Conference, held in fall 1943. It was at that conference that Roosevelt secretly agreed with Stalin to allow him to retain the pre-war Polish territory that he had been granted in 1939 by Hitler. Roosevelt actually took the Soviet leader into his confidence, committing Stalin to secrecy over the Polish settlement because he was facing a presidential election the following year and needed the Polish-American vote. Note the comments of the British journalist Kevin Myers:

[I]t was statecraft at its most pusillanimous to allow those lies [about Katyn] to become a cornerstone of the relationship between the Western allies and the Soviet Union. That is what happened when the three leaders -- Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin -- met at Teheran in November 1943. Far from berating the Soviet leader for the massacres, the two democratic leaders propitiated him, awarding him the Polish land he had stolen even as he seized his future murder victims . . . . Teheran was the true nadir of international diplomacy, morally far more ignoble and strategically far more catastrophic than either Munich five years before or Yalta a year later. And the key to Teheran was Katyn; once Stalin had got away with that, he realized he could get away with anything.

The execution of the Polish officers was not the only wartime instance of Stalin's genocidal approach to Polish soldier-patriots who, if they were permitted to survive the war, would have become troublesome for Stalin's already planned control of postwar Eastern Europe. A year later, on 2 August 1944, the Polish Armia Krajowa ("Home Army"), responding to Soviet radio broadcasts, rose up within Warsaw to help approaching Soviet forces liberate the city from Hitler's occupiers. Stalin then not only halted his armies on the banks of the Vistula but refused to allow British or American planes to use Soviet landing fields to refuel after projected air-drops of munitions and supplies to the AK. ( The British and American air forces had already been using Soviet airfields to refuel after bombing industrial targets in Eastern Germany.) Hitler, whose troops had been leaving the city until it was clear that the Soviet forces had halted, ordered his army to "wipe out" the AK, which it proceeded to do while Stalin's forces sat on the other side of the river. When Churchill suggested to Roosevelt that the aid be given to the AK anyway and that Stalin could hardly deny permission to land when British and Anerican planes approached Soviet airfields, Roosevelt responded that he had information to the effect that the uprising had collapsed. The AK fought on for four more weeks.

George Kennan said in his memoirs that Stalin's betrayal of the AK should have been followed by an American decision to terminate all Lend-Lease aid to the Soviet Union, thus demonstrating American opposition to Stalin's plans to have his own way in Eastern Europe. However, given what we know about the Roosevelt administration's policies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, it is doubtful that such a decision would at that time have been anywhere near the realm of practicality for Roosevelt and his advisors or even for the American people at large, given the unalloyed adulation of their Muscovite co-belligerent.

But Kennan, in a preface to his comments on the Soviet betrayal of the AK, had lamented that "when it came to the murdered officers, I had no proof -- nothing more than a general intuitive idea, in fact, based on experience and on the limited evidence available -- as to what was likely and what unlikely to have been the case." Kennan's implication is clear; if he had had definitive knowledge concerning the murderers of the Polish officers, his recommendations for sanctions or at least leverage designed to constrain the Soviet Union's intention unilaterally to determine the future of Eastern Europe might have been overtly pressed or perhaps have come sooner. If the western allies had a year earlier confronted Stalin with evidence of his responsibility for the Katyn massacre, and if the American people (and the world at large) had been truthfully informed about the Katyn killings, Stalin, by the time of the Warsaw Rising, might have been compelled by western and world public opinion to moderate his aggressive campaign to desert the AK and make Poland the keystone of his East European empire. In any case, it has been persuasively argued that publicizing the truth about Katyn would at least, as Sidney Hook had hoped, have alerted the American people to Stalin's revolutionary-imperial paradigm and his never-ceasing attempts to implement it. And it would have constituted fealty to an ally who had made significant contributions to the Allied war effort, in defeating Hitler's air force in the skies over Britain, and later, in clearing the road to Rome at the battle of Monte Cassino and in the costly airborne attack at Arnhem.

In recent years some defenders of the functionality of the Katyn cover-up for Soviet-American wartime collaboration, have cited the possibility of Stalin making a separate peace with Hitler as a reason for American placation of Stalin by covering-up the Katyn executions. But there has been no serious consideration given to the likelihood of such a contingency by historians of the period. In spring, 1943, Stalin had aready turned back the German armies at Stalingrad and the preference on the part of German soldiers to surrender to western rather than Soviet forces precluded a separate peace for both Stalin and Hitler; surely, given Roosevelt's fierce commitment to the unconditional surrender policy, there was no threat of an American and British-initiated separate peace with Hitler that would offer Stalin a beat-them-to-it motivation. Neither Kennan, nor Herbert Feis, nor Averill Harriman, nor any other historian or memoirist awards any credence to the threat of Soviet participation in a separate peace or even to the belief in the existence of such a threat in spring, 1943.

Meanwhile the memory gnaws.

This article first appeared on the blog of the National Association of Scholars and is reprinted with permission.