Memos show U.S. helped cover up Soviet massacre

Col. Andrzej Kopacki, right, an assistant military attache with the Polish Embassy in Washington, attends an event on Capitol Hill to announce the release of information about the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish Army officers and others captured by the Soviets during their invasion of Poland during World War II, in Washington, Monday, Sept. 10, 2012. At left is W. J. Milan-Kamski of Easton, Md.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

(AP) WARSAW, Poland - The American POWs sent secret coded messages to Washington with news of a Soviet atrocity: In 1943 they saw rows of corpses in an advanced state of decay in the Katyn forest, on the western edge of Russia, proof that the killers could not have been the Nazis who had only recently occupied the area.

The testimony about the infamous massacre of Polish officers might have lessened the tragic fate that befell Poland under the Soviets, some scholars believe. Instead, it mysteriously vanished into the heart of American power. The long-held suspicion is that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn't want to anger Josef Stalin, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan during World War II.

Documents released Monday and seen in advance by The Associated Press 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 released and is putting online. Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who helped lead a recent push for the release of the documents, called the effort's success Monday a "momentous occasion" in an attempt to "make history whole."

Historians who saw the material days before the official release describe it as important and shared some highlights with the AP. 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.

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.

poland, smolensk, russia, soviet, massacre, katyn
In this May 1943 file photo, a group of American and British POWs being held by the Germans, including Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr. and Capt. Donald B. Stewart, look over a mass grave where murdered Polish officers are buried, near Smolensk, Russia.
AP Photo/File

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." 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.