Memos show US hushed up Soviet crime

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 during World War II.

Documents released Monday lend weight to the belief that suppression within the highest levels of the US 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 corpses' advanced state of decay confirmed the killings took place early in the war, when the Soviets still controlled the area.

The evidence is among about 1,000 pages of newly declassified documents that the US National Archives released Monday.

The most dramatic revelation so far is the evidence of the secret codes sent by the two American POWs, Capt. Donald B. Stewart and Lt. Col. John H. Van Vliet Jr., 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 US 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.

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 US officials over the concealment inspired the creation of a special US Congressional committee to probe 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.'

It found that Roosevelt's administration suppressed public knowledge of the crime, but said it was out of military necessity.

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