The US has long held in its possession verified documentation proving the 1940 Katyn forest massacre of several thousand Polish POWs was committed by the Soviet Union. Why did Washington conceal it: to cover-up for its wartime ally Josef Stalin.
The Associated Press has seen newly declassified documents illuminating the Katyn Massacre, which are being released and put online by the US National Archives on Monday.
Among the 1,000 papers include encrypted messages from American Prisoners Of War (POWs) kept in German captivity during the World War II.
Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr. were among a group of American and British POWs taken to witness a grisly 1943 scene at a “clearing surrounded by pine trees: mass graves tightly packed with thousands of partly mummified corpses in well-tailored Polish officers uniform.”
Judging by “the corpses' advanced state of decay,” the US officers said the killings took place much earlier in the war – presumably before the Soviets lost control of the territory in 1941.
They also saw Polish letters, diaries, identification tags, news clippings and other objects — none dating later than the spring of 1940 — pulled from the graves. The most damning evidence indicating the time of the tragedy and the country responsible for it was the relatively good state of the men's boots and clothing: the state of the men’s uniforms showed that had not likely lived long after being captured.
The released papers now prove that the US officers informed their country of the concealed murder scene and the evidences some months after their 1943 visit.
The MIS-X military intelligence unit tasked with coordinating ultra-secret communications and intelligence gathering missions with POWs sent a coded request to Van Vliet asking him "to state his opinion of Katyn." The papers state "it is also understood Col. Van Vliet & Capt. Stewart replied."
The historians who spoke with the Associated Press called it “the most dramatic revelation” as it shows that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his administration were getting information early on from credible US sources illustrating it was the Soviet Union behind the massacre.
The finding further supports suspicion that regardless of the verified knowledge, Roosevelt chose not to make it public and wrangle with Josef Stalin, an ally whom the Americans were counting on to defeat Germany and Japan during World War II.
The records also contain other illuminating evidence. One of the most important messages that landed on Roosevelt’s desk was an extensive and detailed report from British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Written by the British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile in London, Owen O'Malley, the document pointed to Soviet complicity in the Katyn massacre.
"There is now available a good deal of negative evidence," AP quotes O'Malley as writing, "the cumulative effect of which is to throw serious doubt on Russian disclaimers of responsibility for the massacre."
In the early years after the war, a special US Congressional committee was set up to investigate Katyn. In a final report released in 1952, it declared there was no doubt of Soviet guilt. 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 Soviet Union at an international tribunal.
Despite the conclusions, the White House maintained its silence on Katyn.
Moscow however has always denied it involvement in the Katyn shooting, claiming that Nazis staged the killing in 1941 after taking control of the area.
The issue was a sore spot between Russia and Poland until Soviet responsibility and the subsequent cover-up were officially acknowledged and condemned in 1990.Moscow then officially apologized for the tragedy.
An investigation conducted by the Prosecutor General's Office of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation was able to confirm the deaths of Polish citizens, blaming Stalin and other Soviet officials for having personally ordered the massacre.
In 2010 the Russian side began to release documents related to the Katyn mass execution to the Polish authorities.
The declassified documents also show the United States maintained that it could not conclusively determine guilt until Russia’s admission in 1990.
Historians say the new material helps “to flesh out the story of what the US knew and when.”