Apology long overdue

Posted on April 17, 2010. Filed under: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Columns |

The forest area known as Katyn was a factor in yet another tragedy last Saturday when the airliner carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and other dignitaries crashed as it attempted to land in Smolensk, Russia.

All on board perished.

The entourage was en route to attend a commemorative ceremony of the infamous Katyn Massacre, which refers to the mass murder of nearly 22,000 Poles by the Soviet secret police in 1940.

Official government condolences were immediately expressed in both Moscow and Washington, but what the Polish people deserve is a long overdue apology-from both capitals.

Moscow’s culpability is clear-cut enough. When the Nazis and Communists co-invaded Poland in September 1939, Russia occupied the Eastern half of the country. The Red Army took more than 250,000 Polish soldiers prisoner, and in November 1939 the Russian government declared the 13.5 million inhabitants of its occupied territory to be citizens of the Soviet Union.

In March 1940, Russian dictatorJosef Stalin was presented with a recommendation to execute 25,700 Polish military officers and civilian personnel as enemies of the state. He and other members of the Politburo signed the order and in early April the killings began. Released Soviet files eventually would reveal that only 22,000 were actually executed, most shot in the head and then buried in mass graves.

Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, and German troops discovered the graves in April 1943 as they pushed the Red Army back into Russia. The Soviets immediately blamed the Germans for the massacre, a lie it would cling to for the next 47 years.

No lie of such magnitude can survive without complicity from credible parties, however, and it’s a shameful chapter in American history that the United States let political expediency trump truth and integrity on the matter.

The Allies were already intercepting and decrypting German military transmissions when the mass graves around Katyn were found, so England knew of the discovery prior to the public announcement.

An international commission that Germany invited in quickly produced physical evidence proving that the victims were murdered in early 1940 during Russian occupation. Ultimately, the British alliance with Russia outweighed the moral complications, and Great Britain not only officially supported the Soviet claim, but also actively censored contrary voices.

Here in the U.S.A., President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered an investigation, headed up by Navy Lt. Cmdr. George Earle, but when Earle’s report stated that the Russians had committed the massacre, Roosevelt refused to officially accept that conclusion.

Declaring that he was convinced of Nazi Germany’s responsibility, Roosevelt ordered the report suppressed. Earle filed a formal request to publishhis findings. It was greeted with a written order to desist and a reassignment for the rest of the war to the American Samoa.

Another intelligence report, with similar findings, was destroyed in 1945 by an intelligence officer under Gen. George Marshall’s command who would later argue before a congressional investigation in 1951 that it wasn’t in American interests to embarrass an ally while the war still raged in Japan.

At the heart of Katyn is a chilling reminder of the evil that was the Communist regime during Stalin’s reign. Having already murdered millions during the Purge, Stalin would hardly have blinked over approving the killings of 25,700 Poles.

But to read the official document, and to think how it was typed out—all nice and procedurally correct and legal, as if the government were ordering new carpet instead of sanctioning mass murder—is shuddering.

The list of the prisoners “full of hatred toward the Soviet system” makes for somber reading: government officials, landowners, priests, factory owners, police officers and settlers, in addition to military officers and two favorite catch-all categories, spies and escapees.

Many of the victims had surrendered under promise of freedom. Many of the officers were reservists (Poland had mandatory conscription) who were doctors, lawyers, scientists, professors and the like.

The order specified that the U.S.S.R. secret police “considers it necessary” to (1) try the 25,700 cases before “special tribunals” with examinations to be “carried out without summoning those detained and without bringing charges,” and (2) “apply to them the supreme penalty: shooting.”

How tidy trials can be when verdicts are predetermined, and how efficiently government can operate when due process is separated from unalienable, God-given rights.

Even if the vagaries of war might have been responsible for the U.S. considering it necessary to prop up a Russian lie in 1945, that excuse died with the Japanese victims of the atomic bombings.

World War II began as a moral defense of Poland independence. The United States can’t force a recalcitrant Russia to apology for its atrocity. But what we can do, and what would be a grand gesture following the latest Katyn tragedy, would be to officially apologize for covering it up.

The Polish people deserve at least that.

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