Friday, March 29, 2019

The Katyn Massacre: Conspiracies and cover-ups

Not the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.

Part III

A tacit deal with the devil

In September 1944, at the time of the Warsaw Uprising, George Orwell unleashed a withering blast against British Stalinists and their fellow-travelers:

Their attitude towards Russian foreign policy is not 'Is this policy right or wrong?' but 'This is Russian policy: how can we make it appear right?' And this attitude is defended, if at all, solely on grounds of power.

First of all, a message to English left-wing journalists and intellectuals generally: Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don't imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist for the Soviet regime, or any other other regime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.
FDR died before the end of the war. Any evaluation of his actions over Katyn must allow that wartime expediency played a large role in his decision-making.

Nonetheless, the choices he made had far-reaching consequences. Key parts of his administration behaved as propagandists for Stalin’s regime. As Orwell warned it would not be easy to put those habits aside or to face up to the moral cost.

We know that people do not change their minds easily. They will fight the evidence in front of their eyes. Most prefer to cling to illusions rather than admit error. When all else fails, people prefer to ignore the matter and pretend that it never happened.

This problem becomes even more acute when an issue becomes grist for political campaigns. Honesty may be the best policy but it can also be a quick way to lose an election.

Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman had no interest in losing elections.

Thus, while the US and Stalin came to be adversaries in the post-war years, the leaders of each country shared certain common objectives. For instance, none of them wanted the whole truth about Poland to come out.

Nor would they want the full story of Soviet penetration of the US government to become public.

  • The NKVD and GRU obviously wanted to avoid a thorough reckoning. They might be able to salvage some of their intelligence and influence assets if the matter remained a shameful secret for the US government.
  • Na├»ve liberals who could not distinguish between fellow liberals and Stalinist feared a witch-hunt. While they trusted communists, they feared the vast majority of the public. Therefore, they preferred to suppress information that might “inflame” public opinion.
  • Clear-eyed functionaries understood that their reputations and claims to power would be damaged if it were revealed that they had permitted Stalin’s agents to roam freely through their departments or that they had helped cover-up Moscow’s crimes.

As Stephen Koch noted the Wise Men, the New Dealers, and the Brain Trusters faced a serious risk if the truth came out:

Any very public housecleaning of the Washington penetrations would have handed the populist right an all-too-powerful blunt instrument for attacking Yalta, containment, and their own position in power.
OK. It is finally time to talk about the narratives of McCarthyism and the importance of Katyn in them

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

The Katyn Massacre: Conspiracies and cover-ups

Part II

Once FDR and Stalin agreed to keep each other’s secrets, the US government labored to cover-up Soviet atrocities.

OWI: Above and beyond

Most of the government preferred to deal with Katyn by ignoring it and hoping the issue would fade away. On 22 April 1943 (nine days after the graves were revealed to the world) a State Department memo recommended that

on the basis of the various conflicting contentions [concerning Katyn] of all parties concerned, it would appear to be advisable to refrain from taking any definite stand in regard to this question.
Other bureaucrats chose to be more energetic and proactive.

The Office of War Information (OWI) was a key player in deep-sixing the truth. OWI loudly denied that the Soviets were responsible. This government bureau smeared those who raised questions as dupes and worse. In OWI’s eyes to doubt Stalin was to be pro-Nazi. The head of OWI Elmer Davies (remember that name) led the charge. On 3 May 1943, he took to the airwaves to defend Stalin’s honor and followed the Stalinist line that the Germans were responsible.

This is not benign neglect of an inconvenient truth. This is lying to the American public. But Davies and his people went even farther to help FDR and Stalin. The OWI actively worked to silence and censor media outlets that raised questions about Stalin’s role in Katyn.

We now know that Soviet intelligence had placed many assets in OWI. Some of its employees left the US after the war and went to work in Warsaw for the puppet government installed by the Red Army. There they wrote propaganda for Stalin. (Hence, their location changed but not their job duties.)

A sorry tale, more than a little sordid. Sadly, all wars, no matter how noble their aims, have their squalid incidents hidden away in dark corners. Governments lie to the public, especially in wartime. In this case, however, the cover-up forced the government to lie to itself with tragic consequences. Moreover, the lying and cover-ups did not end when the war was finally over.

Willful blindness and self-imposed ignorance

The Katyn cover-up did not simply conceal information from the public (voters). Steps were taken to ensure that the truth was hidden from most of the decision-makers in government. Note, for example, that MG Bissell apparently took no steps to ensure that Van Vliet’s information was shared with those policy-makers who were dealing with Stalin.

Reports came into the War and State Departments that implicated the Soviets. They were buried rather than disseminated. In some cases they were not even archived and ignored they were destroyed so they could never see the light of day.

This destruction was a willful and premeditated rejection of the lessons learned in the intelligence war against Germany and Japan.

At times it did not matter if a report was true or important: if it was perceived as “anti-soviet” it was rejected. People who sent along too many “anti-soviet” reports faced severe consequences to their career and reputation.

FDR actually exiled former Pennsylvania governor George Earle to Samoa after he voiced strong opinions on Stalin’s guilt. Earle was serving as a naval officer and had investigated the massacre while on a diplomatic mission in the Balkans. FDR rejected his assessment and took extreme steps to make sure his view did not become public.

FDR told Earle that he was absolutely certain that the Nazis were guilty. This is not surprising. His closest aide, Harry Hopkins, was completely in the pro-Stalin camp. When the massacre came to light Hopkins followed Moscow's lead in denouncing the Polish government for raising questions and demanding answers. He was happy to impute invidious motives to the ally fighting along side us in the "crusade in Europe".

Indeed, when the Poles exiled in London publicly denounced the Soviets for the massacre, Hopkins responded that they were troublemakers, interested only in preventing their large estates from falling into Russian hands.
David L. Roll, The Hopkins Touch
U.S. policy-makers operated under the illusion that Stalin could be reasoned with -- that he could be a partner to secure the peace and safeguard a free and prosperous Europe. This illusion persisted, in part, because the bureaucracy squelched contrary opinions. Moreover, the arguments of the skeptics were weakened because they and their audiences were denied important information.

Famed diplomat George Kennan is a case in point. He doubted that Stalin could allow any degree of freedom in Poland after the war. As he saw it, the Russians had surely committed atrocities when they occupied Poland in partnership with Hitler. These crimes had to be covered up. The only way for Stalin to ensure that the cover-up would succeed was to install a regime completely servile to Moscow.

Kennan tried to make this case to his colleagues and bosses in State. As he admits his argument was weak because “I had no proof.” Without proof, his astute analysis was no match for officially sanctioned illusions.

He had no proof because key figures in the executive branch worked diligently to bury the evidence of Stalin’s crimes.

So it went for anyone who tried to put US-Soviet relations on a realistic footing. Their voice was muted and their position was weakened because elements inside the government worked overtime to bolster Stalin’s image, hide his perfidy, and punish his critics.


Western opinion was never fully aware, during the war years, of the full monstrosity of what had been done by the soviet police authorities during the Nonaggression Pact period.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

The Katyn Massacre: Conspiracies and cover-ups

For a half-century after the mass murder of the Polish officers, the US government sought to cover-up and downplay this Stalinist atrocity.

The cover-up had far-reaching repercussions. It had a direct effect on the 1944 presidential election. It influenced our policies on the post-war settlement in Eastern Europe. To this day, it distorts our understanding of the history of WWII and post-war anti-communism.

Part I

Dangerous knowledge

Even before the Germans revealed the mass graves at Katyn, the US government had good reason to believe that something horrific had happened to the Polish officers. The Polish government in exile knew that thousands of POWs were unaccounted for. When pressed on this issue, Stalin was first evasive and then offered excuses that were unpersuasive and even laughable. (Gee, maybe they deserted and went to Manchuria.)

In 1942, Army intelligence (G-2) received reports from an agent in France that the Soviets had murdered Polish prisoners on an industrial scale.

Soon after the graves were discovered the Germans took several allied prisoners to the site in the hopes that they would confirm that the Soviets were responsible for the murders. The POWs refused to cooperate with their captors and balked at helping Goebbels’s propaganda efforts. However, the American prisonersCapt. Donald Stewart and Lt. Col. John Van Vliet were able to send coded messages to Army G-2 expressing their belief that the Soviets were guilty.

[The government hid the fact that they possessed this early evidence of Stalin’s culpability for over a half-century.]

After he was liberated from his POW camp, Lt. Col. Van Vliet made a report directly to Major General Clayton Bissell, head of Army G-2, in May 1945. In this report, he confirmed his assessment of Soviet guilt and expanded on his reasons for believing this. MG Bissell classified the report TOP SECRET and emphasized to Lt. Col. Van Vliet that he was to discuss the matter with no one.

This report was not circulated within the government. The single copy mysteriously went missing soon after it was written.

In 1951, congress created a committee to investigate Katyn. Stewart and Van Vliet were again sworn to secrecy about the coded messages they sent as POWs. Van Vliet was ordered to write a new report to replace the missing one he wrote in 1945. The Defense department eventually provided this report to the committee after a prolonged period of obfuscation and stonewalling.

The Katyn Committee heard testimony from MG Bissell. While he could not (or would not) explain how the 1945 report was lost, he was happy to explain why he failed to give the report wide circulation within the government:

Poland couldn't participate in the war with Japan. The Russians could participate in it. Those were the factors.
Based on realpolitik it is impossible to fault Bissell’s strategic calculus. With the war still raging in the Pacific, maintaining good relations with Stalin made strategic sense.

Guilty knowledge and a conspiracy of silence

Bissell was not alone in his assessment. Throughout the war, US military planners feared that Stalin might make a separate peace with Hitler. This, in turn, would allow Hitler to concentrate on the western allies and cost the lives of untold thousands of soldiers from the US, Britain, and the other nations fighting with them.

Of course, Poland was one of those nations fighting with the Allies in the West. The United States may have had no choice but to placate Stalin. They did have the option to be honest with the ally whose soldiers were fighting beside them. Allied leaders made the morally dubious decision to lie to a faithful partner. Eisenhower did not inform the Poles fighting under him in France that his great crusade would not bring freedom to their families in Poland. Churchill never told the Poles that they were fighting for the glory of the British Empire instead of the independence of their homeland. Instead he assured Gen. Anders "we will not abandon you and Poland will be happy."

Realpolitik was not the only factor at work. On the American side an even more repugnant calculus came into play FDR’s political prospects. At the Tehran Conference in late 1943, Roosevelt acceded to many of Stalin’s demands. But, he explained to the despot, the details of the negotiations must remain secret for a time: 1944 was an election year and he did not want to alienate millions of Polish-Americans whose votes he needed.

Stalin played along. During the campaign FDR told the Polish premier that "A strong and independent Poland will emerge" after the fighting ended. Stalin's silence allowed this lie to pass unchallenged.

The same need for secrecy obviously held true for Katyn. If the truth came out, it would do more than complicate US diplomacy: it would hinder Roosevelt's campaign for a fourth term.

So it was that FDR and Stalin became tacit co-conspirators. They shared an interest in hiding the truth about Poland.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Katyn and the historians

Anthony Daniels:

There is a curious phenomenon in Western intellectual life, namely that of being right at the wrong time. To be right at the wrong time is far, far worse than having been wrong for decades on end. In the estimation of many intellectuals, to be right at the wrong time is the worst possible social faux pas; like telling an off-colour joke at the throning of a bishop. In short, it is in unforgivable bad taste.

There was never a good time, for example, to be anti-communist. Those who early warned of the dangers of bolshevism were regarded as lacking in compassion for the suffering of the masses under tsarism, as well as lacking the necessary imagination to “build” a better world. Then came the phase of denial of the crimes of communism, when to base one’s anti-communism on such phenomena as organised famine and the murder of millions was regarded as the malicious acceptance of ideologically-inspired lies and calumnies. When finally the catastrophic failure of communism could no longer be disguised, and all the supposed lies were acknowledged to have been true, to be anti-communist became tasteless in a different way: it was harping on pointlessly about what everyone had always known to be the case. The only good anti-communist was a mute anti-communist.
The handling of the Katyn massacre by Western historians fits Daniel’s description to a “T”:

The treatment of the Katyn massacre illustrates the determined myopia of revisionists in the decades prior to the collapse of the USSR and the opening of its archives.
Haynes and Klehr, In Denial
As Haynes and Klehr go on to record, the left-wing’s campaign to protect Stalin was fought on several levels and went through several phases. Initially, they tried to promote Stalin’s lie that the Nazis were responsible. Part and parcel of this strategy was a willingness to label those who promoted the truth as Nazi-dupes and proto-fascsts.

As evidence mounted that Katyn was a Stalinist crime Uncle Joe’s Western apologists threw up their hands and pronounced the whole thing a complicated mystery. They adopted an even-handed approachmaybe Nazis, maybe Soviets, who knows?

Of course, those scholars and pundits had no desire to unravel the mystery themselves. Ignorance is bliss when the truth maybe politically damaging.

Without a doubt the primary tactic of Stalin’s left-wing apologists was to simply bury the massacre and ignore it in their writing, e.g. Eric Hobsbawm:

In his book The Age Of Extreme, published in 1994, he quite deliberately underplayed the Soviet Union’s attack on Finland in 1939-40, saying it was merely an attempt to push the Russian border a little further away from Leningrad. He also omits any mention of the massacre of 20,000 Polish soldiers by Russian Secret Police at Katyn.

In the same book, he dismisses the appallingly violent suppression by the Nazis of the Polish resistance in the 1944 Warsaw uprising - when a complacent Soviet army ignored desperate pleas to come to the Poles’ aid - as 'the penalty of a premature uprising'.
Finally, when the evidence is undeniable and they are forced to confront it, they still have ways of minimizing it. Long-hidden information that clears up the mystery can be dismissed as “old news” and minimized as of only “antiquarian interest”. Those scholars who research these questions are painted as “obsessives” and apologists for unsavory causes.

Thus the experts can avoid reckoning with their mistakes, inconvenient questions can be buried, and the essential and all-important narratives can be saved.

All of this happened with the Katyn massacre. It continues to this day. The Left is willing to accept the truth about the crime as long as the damage falls only on Russia and “Stalin’s heir” Putin. But in no way is it acceptable examine Stalin’s apologists in America and the West.

What must be ignored at all costs is what the massacre and its aftermath tells us about the Narratives of “McCarthyism” and the “Red Scare”.

A meaty subject, maybe one deserving its own post.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019


On 5 May 1940 Stalin's Politburo ordered the NKVD to liquidate the Polish officers held as POWs after the conquest of Poland. What we now know call the Katyn Massacre claimed the lives of 22,000 men.

There is a Katyn memorial in St. Adalbert Catholic Cemetery in Niles, IL. It was conceived and created by Wojciech Seweryn. His was an amazing life.

You can hear about it in this informative interview with his daughter.

Remembering Katyn
Seweryn was born one day before the Nazis invaded Poland. He never knew his father who was one of the POWs murdered by the NKVD.

After making his way to the US, he conceived and designed the memorial and then worked for decades to raise the money and create the monument. One year after the memorial was finished, Seweryn was invited to join Poland's president Lech Kaczy?ski at the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the massacre. He died with all on board when the president's plane crashed.

The historiography of the massacre tells us a great deal about the state of the historical profession and also sheds an important new light on the "McCarthy Era" and the so-called Red Scare.

But that is for another post.

Monday, March 04, 2019

"We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Jack Vinson:

Insight - Seeing What Others Don't

Insights by their very nature are difficult to harness into a process. Of course, “process thinking” itself is a “reduce errors” mindset: define the process, operate that way, check for deviations from the process, refine the process. But it is pretty clear from the rest of the book that this is not the way to create an organization that encourages and embraces insight. The way we come to insights is messy by its very nature.

Many organizations have focused so heavily on the idea of being predictable that it has become the ONLY goal. Insights disrupt predictability. And when organizations are already in the midst of disruption and changes being imposed from the outside, it is very difficult to accept changes coming from the inside as well. It is much more likely that they will double down on predictability and reliability: more reports, more update meetings, more analysis. All of which allows very little time or room for insight into new ways of operating.
Jeffrey Phillips:

How to know when the old models don't work any more

Senior executives trust their understanding of the market and prefer to fail based on models of the present and recent past, where they were successful, rather than risk anything on models that aren't proven. This is, also, true of all recorded human history.
Eric Hoffer:

In a time of drastic change it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
Reflections on the Human Condition

Why transformation efforts fail (redux)

Friday, March 01, 2019

A different way of looking at the past

The early Greek imagination envisaged the past and the present as in front of us -- we can see them. The future, invisible, is behind us ... Paradoxical though it may sound to the modern ear, this image of our journey through time may be truer to reality than the medieval and modern feeling that we face the future as we make our way forward into it

Bernard Knox, Backing into the Future: The Classical Tradition and Its Renewal