The Katyn Forest Massacre:
Morals in American Foreign Policy

Prof. Janusz K. Zawodny, PhD.

Dr. Janusz Zawodny was a participant in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, subsequently a prisoner-of-war in Germany. He earned his doctorate after coming to the United States, where he became a prominent professor of political science and international relations, lecturing at many American universities. He is the author of over 200 publications in the fields of history, diplomacy and international relations, the best-know of which include Death in the Forest: The Story of the Katyn Forest Massacre (original in English, but also published in Polish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Hungarian and Japanese), and Nothing But Honor: The Story of the Uprising of Warsaw, 1944. Currently retired, he was Professor of International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Washington State University. This article appeared in The Minnesota Review in 1963.

Used by permission of the author.

Americans commonly take satisfaction in the belief that our society is the repository and safeguard of a set of values rooted in the Greco-Roman past, enshrined in a Judeo-Christian ethic, and incorporated, through a long history of struggle, into a set of democratic political institutions. We feel that it is our special responsibility to maintain and exemplify those values, and that it is because we do this that we are purer and nobler -- “better” -- than totalitarian regimes. These values include reverence for truth, regard for the sanctity of human life, and a refusal to abandon moral principle in the interest of expediency. We believe -- certainly we wish to believe -- that our superiority and righteousness, our dedication to these values we claim to uphold, is made manifest in the contrast between the behavior of totalitarian and democratic leaders.

The validity of this belief cannot withstand examination. It would be premature to claim sweepingly that there are no differences between democratic and totalitarian leaders in their subordination of morality to short-range political objectives. But it is inescapable that, in the implementation of policy, democratic leaders may as ruthlessly sweep aside the principles which their nations claim to represent as do those in the totalitarian camp.

Specifically, our condemnation of totalitarianism and our struggle against it are justified, above all, by its “inhumanity,” its brutal and cynical disregard for human life. However, when the behavior of our own leaders suggests a similar disregard, we absolve them by silence and lack of protest. This acquiescence can only contribute to the erosion of the values we so proudly proclaim, of standards for the conduct of affairs among nations, and of the credibility of our claims in foreign eyes.

In this case study, the attitudes and actions of two democratic societies and their leaders are submitted to illustrate these points. I shall deal with the positions taken by two outstanding democratic leaders of our time, Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill, and the broad implications of their positions for the societies they represented in connection with the Katyn Forest massacre -- the mass murder of thousands of Polish prisoners-of-war. Responsibility for the murder became a point of international controversy and intrigue. The treatment of the case became a blot on the honor of democratic societies.

There is probably no affair emerging from the history of the Second World War which so definitely points to the opportunism and moral indifference of democratic leaders when power considerations and immediate gains were involved.

As will be shown, both leaders of the United States and British Governments had in their hands circumstantial, but nonetheless conclusive, evidence that security agents of the Soviet Union had committed the murder. Both men manipulated without qualm the conscience of their people by distortion and omission of facts to conceal the case and to suppress information about it. In doing so, they were as cynical as their counterparts in the totalitarian camps. Ultimately, they contributed to the erosion of ideals for which they were presumably fighting.

During the German attack on Western Poland in September of 1939, the armed forces of the Soviet Union entered Polish territory from the east and captured 230,670 Polish soldiers. Two years later, when Germany attacked Soviet Russia, these prisoners were organized as an army; however, 15,000 men, over fifty percent of whom were officers (among them 800 Doctors of Medicine), could not be found. While the fighting against Nazi Germany continued, the British and American Governments and the Polish Government-in-Exile tried, in vain, to ascertain the fate of these men from their ally. The Government of the Soviet Union refused to supply any information.

In February 1943, on Russian territory west of Smolensk, German authorities occupying the area discovered mass graves which sheltered evidence of one of the most brutal murders on human record. About one-third of the missing prisoners were found; each had been shot through the skull. The murdered Poles were found on Soviet soil by the Germans; the hands of many had been tied with Soviet-made rope in a manner used by the N.K.V.D. (contemporary Soviet Security Police); the bullets were of German origin. Four medical commissions investigated the graves. Three of them (the International Red Cross Commission, the Polish Red Cross Commission, and the German Medical Commission), placed the guilt on the Soviet Government.

The fourth, the Soviet Medical Commission, asserted that the Germans had committed the crime.

Polish reports with the names of missing men and data gathered from survivors, who had been released from the Soviet camps in 1941 when Germany had attacked Russia, were given to the United States Ambassador in Moscow and dispatched to the State Department in Washington as early as the winter of 1942. They indicated possibilities of Soviet guilt. Supplementary information followed. Lieutenant Colonel Szymanski, U.S. Army, a liaison officer attached to the Polish Forces in the Middle East, and his British counterpart, Lieutenant Colonel Hulls, began compiling material on the missing men as early as 1942. On April 30, 1943, about a month after the grave had been discovered, Szymanski sent an additional report dealing specifically with the Katyn massacre to General George Strong, Chief of U.S. Army Intelligence. By this time, material on the Katyn case and the missing men was voluminous and a special file on “Katyn” was compiled by U.S. Army Intelligence. All of Szymanski’s reports and those of British Intelligence were included.

At the same time, Mr. John P. Carter, chief of a small, select research team working especially for President Roosevelt, gave an oral report on the case to the President. Subsequently, he dispatched his findings to the President in writing, including a comprehensive report prepared by Polish military intelligence. The findings of this team -- which included experts on Germany -- were that the Government of the Soviet Union was responsible for the massacre.

Another American official of ministerial rank corroborated the evidence. Mr. George Howard Earle, a Special Emissary of President Roosevelt for Balkan affairs, received information bearing on the responsibility for the Katyn murder through his contacts in Romania and Bulgaria. He also obtained some photographs of the graves and exhumations. In May 1944, Earle submitted to the President the pictures and his impressions about the case, affirming Soviet guilt. The President’s reaction was to the contrary: “George, this is entirely German propaganda and a German plot. I am absolutely convinced the Russians did not do this.” Earle was dismayed because he thought he had evidence which was quite convincing.

Two years after the war was over, Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr., of the U.S. Army reported to Gen. Clayton Bissell, Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 (Intelligence), War Department, General Staff, on the subject of the Katyn massacre. (Lt. Col. Van Vliet had been captured by the Germans and during his captivity was taken, with Capt. Donald B. Stewart, another American prisoner, to the Katyn graves.) Gen. Bissell ordered Van Vliet’s report be stamped “Top Secret” and told Van Vliet “to remain silent on the matter.”

It has been established beyond the shadow of a doubt that by the end of the war, the United States Government was in possession of the following reliable and well-documented material on this case:

  1. Col. Szymanski’s U.S. Army report;
  2. British Intelligence reports (including observations of a British Medical officer);
  3. Polish Intelligence reports;
  4. the report of Adm. William H. Standley, United States Ambassador to Moscow (1942);
  5. John F. Carter’s research group report, submitted to the President;
  6. the report of the Minister, Special Emissary for Balkan Affairs, Mr. George H. Earle;
  7. the report of Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr., U.S. Army;
  8. the report of Anthony J. Drexel Biddle, United States Ambassador to Polish and Balkan Governments-in-Exile.

All of these documents either by implication or in plain words blamed the Soviet Government for the massacre.

There was one additional paper concerning Katyn at the disposal of the State Department. This was a report written by Miss Kathleen Harriman, the daughter of the American Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1943). Visiting the graves during the Soviet investigation in 1943, she had arrived at the conclusion that the Germans were responsible for the massacre.

The data placing the guilt on the Soviet Government were available to Roosevelt and the State Department; yet, when the handling of the Katyn affair by the agencies of the United States Government is reviewed, it appears that:

  1. The State Department was more inclined to rely on Miss Harriman’s account than on the reports of its two ambassadors, one minister, two lieutenant colonels, the results of a study by a Presidential research team, and the information supplied by the British and Polish Intelligence agencies. Miss Harriman was twenty-five years old at the time she made her report.
  2. On the highest policymaking level, including Roosevelt, there were definite attempts to suppress information concerning the Katyn massacre, particularly when such information contradicted the Soviet version.
  3. Men who voiced their opinion about the possibility of Soviet guilt were punished or silenced.

Evidence: the Suppression of Information.

  1. Between September 21, 1944, and July 5, 1945, Arthur Bliss Lane was in the State Department preparing for his duties as Ambassador to the Polish Government in Warsaw. Since the Katyn affair was so important to the Poles, he tried to obtain reliable information in the topic. The only “document” he was allowed to see was the paper by Miss Harriman.

  2. In 1944 nine members of the Congress, all Americans of Polish descent, disgusted with the manner in which the Katyn affair was being handled in America, requested Szymanski’s report from the War Department. The Congressmen were told that the matter was “secret.” They did not receive Szymanski’s reports.

  3. A Polish radio announcer in Detroit, Mr. Marian Kreutz, using materials supplied by a press agency in the Polish Government-in-Exile, condemned the Soviet Government for the Katyn massacre. The anti-communist broadcast was silenced at once by the Foreign Language Division, Office of War Information. According to Mr. Allen Cranston, former Chief of the Division, Mr. Kreutz “was asked to restrict his activities... to ones from reputable American wire services and was requested to avoid making propaganda over the air.” [At the same time, pro-communist broadcasts were allowed.]

  4. Mr. Justice Robert H. Jackson, when acting as Representative and Chief Counsel for the United States at the Nuremberg prosecutions, fared little better than Lane with materials on Katyn. On February 26, 1946, his staff received several documents, all classified as “secret,” from American Military Intelligence. These included “the German report accusing the Soviets, two Soviet documents accusing the Nazis, and a paper labeled ‘Excerpts of Conversations between Sikorski, Anders, Stalin and Molotov.’” This was a pittance in comparison with evidence known to have been available.

Evidence: Pressure and Punishments

On December 19, 1943, the United States War Department expressed dissatisfaction with Col. Szymanski, charging him with having furnished information of little significance, and with a “bias in opinion in favor of the Polish group which is anti-Soviet.” A telegram sharply criticizing Szymanski was sent from the War Department in Washington to his immediate superiors in the Middle East. [Notice that the Washington reaction followed Szymanski’s reports on the Katyn graves.]

Mr. George Howard Earle was evidently disturbed about Katyn and the President’s general attitude and, upon his return to the United States from his mission in Turkey, decided to write a “complete statement about Katyn.” On March 22, 1945, he wrote a personal letter to the President saying that unless he heard from Roosevelt to the contrary, he would publish the article. In two days he received a letter from President Roosevelt , who wrote: “I have noted with concern your plan to publish your unfavorable opinion of one of our allies...

“I not only do not wish it, but I specifically forbid you to publish any information or opinion about an Ally that you may have acquired while in office or in the service of the U.S. Navy.” [It was on precisely these grounds that Milovan Djilas was forbidden by Tito to publish Conversations with Stalin and subsequently jailed.] Shortly afterwards, Earle got an order transferring him to Samoa.

Earle reluctantly went to Samoa and was there until Roosevelt’s death. He was immediately recalled to the United States where the Chief of Personnel of the Navy and Commander Vardman, the President’s Naval Aide, apologized to him and assured him that his being sent to Samoa was not the decision of the Navy Department.

It is the sad duty of policymakers to make, on behalf of “national interests,” choices between greater and lesser evils. This article is being written in 1963, not in 1943-44, when the general climate of public opinion and the mood of the leaders were geared to defeating Germany, first of all. Why, however, after the cessation of hostilities in Europe, was the Katyn affair still suppressed by government officials in the United States?

Major-General Clayton Bissell, the officer responsible for classifying Van Vliet’s observations on Katyn as “Top Secret,” explained to the Congressional Committee in 1952 that “I saw in it great possibilities of embarrassment, so I classified it....” It was the General’s opinion that it was the intention of the Commander-in-Chief (President Roosevelt) to induce the Soviet Union to fight Japan. Therefore, the General felt he should do nothing to put a strain on Soviet-American relations.

“Poland couldn’t participate in the war with Japan. The Russians could participate in it. Those were the factors.” Then, he pointed out that the United Nations Charter was already in the process of formulation. “I don’t think that the Russians would have sat down the first time if that [the Katyn problem in general and Van Vliet’s report specifically] had come out. The would have gotten mad....” Therefore he suppressed the report; subsequently it disappeared.

Even in the post-war years, after President Roosevelt had died, the war with Japan had been won, and the United Nations Charter was in effect, the policy of suppressing the Katyn case was continued by the State Department. The war had been over for several years when Mr. Czapski, a survivor of the annihilation, came to the United States for a visit in the early spring of 1950. The Voice of America invited him to make a broadcast in the Polish language to Poland. He submitted a script. Officials of the Voice of America meticulously eliminated all references to the Katyn massacre. He was not even allowed to mention the word “Katyn.”

Whatever the official position of the United States Government concerning the Katyn affair, many Americans not only abhorred the crime but resented the manner in which knowledge of it was kept from the American public. In 1949 a group of distinguished personalities from American public life organized themselves for the purpose of inquiring into the matter. The American Committee for Investigation of the Katyn Massacre, Inc., came into being. State Department or not, the member started a vigorous campaign to bring the case to the attention of the public. The former American Ambassador to Poland, Arthur Bliss Lane, as the chairman of the organization, made public speeches and wrote articles. So did the other members. By 1951 the United States was involved in the Korean conflict and the treatment of prisoners-of-war created considerable concern. The approaching national elections and the search for political ammunition helped direct attention to the Katyn affair. The United States Congress decided to investigate.

A Special Congressional Committee was established, commencing hearings on October 1, 1951, in Washington, D.C. Subsequently the hearings were conducted in Chicago, London, Frankfurt, Berlin (sub-committee), and Naples. The Committed extended invitations to participate in the hearings to the Soviet Government, the Polish Government in Warsaw, the German Federal Republic [West Germany], and the Polish Government-in-Exile. The Soviet Government and the Polish Government in Warsaw declined. Having at its disposal staff, money, prestige, and the power to order the submission of appropriate documents from the files of the State Department and the Department of the Army, the Committee did a thorough job in accumulating data bearing in the disappearance of Polish prisoners in the Soviet Union. In total, 81 witnesses were heard, 183 exhibits studied, and more than 100 depositions were taken from witnesses who could appear at the hearings. “In addition, the Committee staff... questioned more than 200 other individuals who offered to appear as witnesses but whose information was mostly of a corroborating nature.” Most of the testimony contributed to the clarification of the case (in spite of the fact that the hearings were carried out in a rather anti-Soviet atmosphere.)

The Committee unanimously concluded that the security police of the Soviet Union were responsible for the massacre. It made recommendations that the “depositions, this evidence, and these findings should be presented to the General Assembly of the United Nations, with the end in view of seeking action before the International World Court of Justice against the Soviet Union for a crime of violation of the law recognized by all civilized nations.” This statement was subsequently supplemented: “If the United Nations cannot act, then the President of the United States should seek the assistance of an International Commission of nations other than Germany and Russia to sit as jury, hear the facts of the Katyn Forest Massacre, weigh the evidence, record it findings, and make such recommendations as it determines are required by justice.” These recommendations were made in 1952; but no action has been undertaken.

British leadership was even more efficient in suppressing the case. No systematic investigation of this affair, to the author’s best knowledge, was made by British authorities. Even seven years after the end of the Second World War, Sir Winston Churchill refused comment on the Katyn massacre.

I am not seeking to avenge 15,000 dead Poles nor to condemn the communist system. I am concerned with the discrepancy between our own grandiose claims and the sorry behavior of the chosen leaders who act in our name. If it be protested that the acts of the leaders are not the acts of the collectivities or of those who make them up, and that to extend responsibility to the general citizenry is to take a legal fiction the reality -- then I am concerned with the apathy and complacency of the general citizenry. Only a small and occasionally articulate minority has shown any great zeal to establish the true authorship of a heinous crime, or any indignation at the moral complacency of our leaders, insofar as the facts about that complacency have come to light.

I will not undertake to argue that the reluctance of our government to talk about the Katyn affair, much less to consider the question of Soviet guilt, is tantamount to the actual perpetration of the crime, although the legal principle of accessory after the fact invites application.

However, it is difficult to deny that the conduct of our government in this affair is parallel to and morally equivalent to that of a businessman who has entered into arrangement with some other businessman for some mutually advantageous (and even honorable) end, who observes his partner commit an exceptionally cruel and callous murder, and who refrains from mentioning this fact lest his partner take offense and the common enterprise be jeopardized. It may be argued that the acquiescence in one evil, including murder and the suppression of truth, may be justified in order to extirpate a greater evil. If we accept this proposition, however, we must accept its consequences. One consequence is that we have reduced to a shadow the difference between our own moral stance and that of the totalitarian regimes, with which we so proudly contrast ourselves. Another consequence, I believe, is the gradual erosion of the moral values that have been “temporarily” suspended.

Perhaps it is too strong to say that Mr. Roosevelt and Mr. Churchill and all the others who collaborated in subordinating principle to expediency were callously indifferent to the values of truth and respect for human life. It may be that they did not find it easy to reconcile what they did with their images of themselves as honorable men and of the societies they led as exemplars of the virtues. Various techniques are at hand that make it easier to act on one principle and proclaim adherence to another. One is to turn the blind eye -- indeed, to enter into a tacit conspiracy with the others with whom one is implicated to avoid forcing one another to defend, before the world and before our consciences, facts we find unpalatable. You say nothing and see nothing; I say nothing and see nothing. We grant one another a mutual amnesty. Another technique is the actual distortion of facts, the reconstruction of reality. If we cannot deny the corpus delicti, we can tacitly conspire to assign responsibility elsewhere. The governing consideration in both techniques is to avoid disturbing the partnership by embarrassing the other. Whether we are dealing with the affairs of national states, business organizations, or private individuals, the victim in every case is the truth, and it is hard to believe that the moral value in whose violation we have acquiesced and even conspired has not suffered from erosion.

Several months ago, while driving a car, I was passed by a woman who had two small children in the front seat. About 300 feat past me she crashed into a tree. When I ran to her, I saw that she was bleeding profusely from glass splinters. The two little girls were also cut quite severely. As I tried to open the door to help, I was forcibly restrained by two by-standers. Their argument was based on what might happen to me. Namely, “If something happened to her, you would be responsible.” They looked at her passively. A few weeks ago, in San Francisco Bay, a man from a capsized boat fought for his life in the water. He was by-passed by several fishing cruisers who rendered no assistance. Finally a life-preserver was thrown from one of them. No doubt there are important differences between these examples and Roosevelt’s position on Katyn, but I am impressed by the similarities. Through all three examples, there runs this maxim: “You are absolved of obligation to act on moral principle if so acting might make trouble for you.”

In no other case occurring during the Second World War was the position of leadership so detrimental to the integrity of the values for which our society presumably stands, particularly with regard to our concept of justice on the international level, as in the Katyn affair. The treatment of the Katyn case at the Nuremberg Trial may serve as an example. It was a sorry performance and a story in itself. In this connection, Mr. Churchill had the decency to make a frank statement: referring to the consideration of Katyn at the Nuremberg Trial, he wrote, “it was decided by the victorious Governments concerned that the issue should be avoided and the crime of Katyn never probed in detail.”

Here was a case where the murderer sat among the judges, and his democratic colleagues helped to hide his bloody hands with their own judicial robes.

The British and American Governments were not reluctant to investigate and bring about punishment when soldiers wearing British and American uniforms were concerned.

To locate the murderers of 50 Allied prisoners from Sagan, a man-hunt continued through post-war Germany for several years. According to Col. Scotland, the Chief of the British War Crimes Investigation Unit, “more than 200,000 people altogether were questioned before the search finally ended,” and 13 of the guilty were hanged in 1948. Also, a hunt of the same intensity was carried out for the German assassins who with two machine guns wiped out Company “A”, 2nd Battalion, Royal Norfolk Regiment on May 27, 1940, at Paradis, in the area of Pas de Calais. The 90 men of this company were shot after they had already surrendered and stacked their weapons. The man responsible for the order was identified, searched for, captured, tried on October 11, 1948, and subsequently hanged.

The Americans reached and brought to justice, after the war was over, those who massacred their soldiers at Malmedy.

But there has been no judicial consideration of the case of the murder of 15,000 Polish Allied prisoners.

There has been no such consideration, I believe, because Churchill and especially Roosevelt, from the outset ignored, denied, and misrepresented the truth for raison d’etat [reasons of state], the same reason for which the Soviets murdered the 15,000 allies.

It seems to me that if we, who proudly boast of our Western heritage, do not react, without regard to the inconvenience it may cause us, to the Katyn massacre, to a Frenchman who shoots a one-year-old Moslem girl in an ambulance in cold blood, to the treatment in South Africa of fellow men as creatures of another species -- if we do not react, we destroy the credibility of our values not only in the eyes of the communists, and of neutrals, but even in our own eyes.

Not only are compassion and the capacity for moral indignation being eroded, but we even build elaborate social techniques to legitimize this erosion. It is easier to document the fact than it is to explain. Possibly it has something to do with the cumulative effect of the killing of 50 million persons in wars over the past 50 years (an average of about one million people a year). Maybe the political process, possibly even more in democratic than totalitarian societies, tend to focus the concerns of leaders on the solution of immediate problems. Maybe the dependence of tenure of office on elections tends to make for a pre-occupation with immediate consequences, immediate pay-offs, results that can be immediately converted to political currency -- and for short shrift to moral “complications.” Whatever the reason, I believe that democratic societies cannot afford callousness toward human life, through an amnesty of silence, without destroying the basic values which provide the very reason for their existence.