Below is an excerpt from American Betrayal: The Secret Assault on Our Nation’s Character tragically, shockingly, angeringly appropriate for Memorial Day. One day, I hope, the sacrifice of these lost American men, too, will be recognized by the nation — and those responsible for their sacrifice judged by history.
From American Betrayal, Chapter 11:
On May 12, 1945, five days after V-E Day, the AP filed a startling news report from Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF): “Nearly half of the estimated 200,000 British and 76,000 American prisoners of war still in Germany are believed to be within the Russian zone of occupation and Supreme Headquarters has twice requested a meeting or an arrangement to arrange their return.”
Not two months earlier, as we’ve seen, Stalin had belligerently insisted to the now-deceased FDR that there were only seventeen Americans left in the Red zone, and that these last few American boys were safely en route to Odessa.
Behind the scenes, on May 19, 1945, Supreme Commander Eisenhower himself signed a cable stating, “Numbers of US prisoners estimated in Russian control 25,000.”
On May 22, 1945, ten days after the AP report, delegations from the Soviet and American armies met in Halle, France, to settle the POW matter. It was a meeting between a massive, guns-bristling, Soviet delegation and a much smaller and more modest American delegation. The problem they came to- gether to discuss sounds simple, but the Soviets made it anything but. Maj. Gen. R. W. Barker documented these meetings in a memo that describes the emergence of ghastly, heart-stopping complications: Americans in Soviet custody were “in effect being held hostage”; “we may find a reluctance to return them all”; and they might not come home for an “appreciable time to come.” The realization that they might never come home at all begins to break, dimly, like an execution-day dawn. 53
Another jolt of synchronicity: May 22, 1945, is the date on which ex-POW Major Van Vliet made it to the Pentagon to blow the lid off Soviet guilt at Katyn Forest for the benefit of U.S. military intelligence (G-2)–or so Van Vliet thought. His efforts, of course, as we saw in chapter 7, turned out to be only for the dead file. What we see on this day is an overlap of events that becomes difficult to explain without almost believing America’s stars were in misalignment: Just as Major Van Vliet in Washington was trying to unmask the murderers of twenty-two thousand executed Poles in the forest of Smolensk, Russia, General Barker in Germany was staring into the faces of those same murderers, trying to pry as many as twenty thousand live GI Joes from their clutches. Both attempts would be unsuccessful.
Other vectors sped into the global morass. On May 23, 1945, Harry Hopkins, having been roused from his sickbed (literally) in his natty Georgetown home a week earlier, took off from Washington for one final mission to Moscow. Accompanied by Mrs. Hopkins, Harriman, and Charles Bohlen–all Hopkins’s personal picks–he was sent by President Truman as a matter of some desperation to try to smooth out the unseemly rupture between the White House and the Kremlin that had broken into the open since the war’s end. At the same time, Truman dispatched Joseph Davies–that self- aggrandizing boob (at best)!–to inform Churchill that the United States would continue in the Rooseveltian tradition of appeasing Stalin. In so many words.
This is the period most historians regard as “the Creation” of the epic hostilities known as the Cold War, but I see it more as a continuation of hostility suddenly brought to light in part by President Truman’s awkward, unschooled, and almost bumptious efforts to retrench (good instinct)–soon to be tamped down by those “better angels” of ours, Hopkins and Davies–in response to Stalin’s jackbooting through territories and over peoples he now, thanks to us, possessed (good strategy–for Moscow). Churchill, at this disastrous point, appears to have felt increasingly used and abused by the bloody, costly charade of the Uncle Joe Alliance, especially with the Soviets “clamping down” what he was now seeing as a “steel curtain” over Red Army-captured lands. That’s what the British prime minister made known to Davies when the envoy visited him at Checkers to sound him out on the idea from Washington that Truman’s next parley with Stalin would be a Big Two, not Three.
The thousands of British and American men still in Soviet custody don’t appear in the record of the conversation.
Churchill’s criticism of the Communist regime, however, triggered a most extraordinary harangue–sorry, “expression of my personal views”–from Davies, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning (the 11:00 P.M. meeting on May 26, 1945, didn’t break until 4:30 A.M.). Reading the State Department record, it is hard to imagine a more hysterical dressing-down of a head of state committed to official papers.
What was it all about? Essentially, Davies was “shocked beyond words,” “staggered,” and “found it difficult to bring [himself] to believe he’d heard right” when Churchill vociferously criticized the police states the Soviets were setting up in Europe. Davies, in effect, was telling the Prime to shut up. He seemed petrified that Churchill’s feelings might become public knowledge. Davies feared that Soviet suspicions of hostility in the West “would harden into action if they knew of this [Churchill’s] attitude.” Indeed, in Davies World, Churchill’s attitude, if known to the Soviets, “would be more than sufficient explanation for their actions in Europe” since war’s end. In the mind of the über- apologist, it was Churchill’s attitude, not Soviet actions, that posed the threat to so-called unity. As Davies put it, “It was not the facts, so much as the interpretation of the facts, which might have a destructive effect.”54
What was that again?
It’s not your facts, Prime Minister, it’s just your interpretation of the facts.
Meanwhile, back in Moscow, Hopkins’s role was a little different. In the course of six ministerial sessions and a private tête-à-tête with Stalin, Hopkins was there, in sum, to convince Stalin to ensure that “the facts” added up to the best possible “interpretation.” Pro-Soviet Poland? No problem. Pro-Soviet border nations? Fine with us. In fact, the United States wanted to see “friendly countries all along the Soviet borders,” Hopkins told Stalin.
Good-bye, national self-determination. Hello, Eastern Bloc.
The problem wasn’t Poland, per se, Hopkins assured Stalin. “We had no special interests in Poland and no special desire to any particular government.”
Hello, Sovietized Poland.
The problem, Hopkins explained, was U.S. “public opinion.” I guess military censorship was starting to wear a little thin in the States. Apparently, just as Churchill had to be encouraged not to provoke any undue outcry by criticizing Sovietization, Stalin had to do his bit, too, by making Sovietization less glaringly objectionable.As Hopkins put it, “He hoped that the Marshal would put his mind to the task of thinking up what diplomatic measures could be used to settle this question, keeping in mind the feeling of the American people.”55
To better fool them, right? When the Soviets arrested and incarcerated sixteen Polish underground leaders, all members of the four main Polish political parties, who had been invited by Moscow into Moscow to discuss the formation of a new government according to the Yalta Agreement, it was as if a toxic eddy threatened the whirl of events, tainting the flow of great news of victory and “world peace,” at least a little. In his private meeting with Stalin, which Hopkins himself wrote up as a top secret memorandum, Hopkins pressed this issue–not as an injustice, not as outrage–as apublic relations problem. He took great pains to explain to Stalin this incident’s “unfavorable effect in Amer- ica” and the political danger it posed to Truman’s abilities to continue Rooseveltian policy if, as a result, he was unable “to carry American public opinion with him.” This is why, Hopkins said, “it was in the interest of good Russian- American relations . . . to release these prisoners.”56
Not in the interest of right and wrong, fair play, or humanitarianism, mind you, and not because these men were citizens not of the USSR but of an allegedly sovereign Poland, but in the interest of how it all played around the American watercooler. Think: If sixteen Polish prisoners of the USSR threat- ened to wake the sleeping giant (us), just imagine what would have happened if we had learned about the Soviet imprisonment of tens of thousands of American and British soldiers.57
That remained secret–it had to–a document trail to nowhere, as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee minority staff discovered on recreating it from government files in 1991. This final betrayal can be reduced to several pertinent documents, all created at the end of this same victorious–or is that “victorious”? (cue laugh track)–month of May 1945.
There is the May 30, 1945, Kenner Memorandum, named for Gen. Albert Kenner, Eisenhower’s surgeon general at SHAEF headquarters. This memo states that twenty thousand Americans remained under Red Army control. It also states that twenty thousand British remained under Red Army control as well, not to mention literally hundreds of thousands of other nationals.58
There is the May 31, 1945, top secret letter from General Deane to a Russian general, General Slavin, assistant chief of the Red Army in Moscow, the staff officer Deane had been dealing with on and off for almost a year by this time. This document states that the number of American prisoners believed to be in Russian custody is 15,597.59
The Senate report continues, logically, noting that it is “therefore difficult toreconcile these facts” with a third document, a cable signed by Eisenhower on June 1, 1945, which reads, “It is now estimated that only small numbers of U.S. prisoners of war still remain in Russian hands.”60
“Now”? Since when? Since the memos written twenty-four and forty-eight hours earlier? Fifteen, twenty, forty thousand men were now in the West, just like that? No. There is a gaping, deeply dispiriting chasm between these two conflicting sets of documents. Did Eisenhower recognize this abyss? We don’t know for sure. The subject isn’t even addressed in biographies written since the Senate disclosures, up to and including Jean Edward Smith’s 2012 Ike biography, which weighs in at 950 pages.61 What we do know is this, as the Senate report states concretely: “Given the contents of Major General Deane’s TOP SECRET letter, and given the contents of the Kenner memorandum, the Eisenhower cable of June 1 appears to be an attempt to gloss over a serious problem.”62
A serious problem of exposure, that is.
Americans were never supposed to know. This darkest secret didn’t enter our history books, our movies, our lore. It remained another unseen void, another intensification of the black hole of antiknowledge. Such omissions help explain many things, including the riddle of why Soviet crime never stuck, maybe even why the fall of the Wall rang so few lasting bells of victory. Uncle Sam has been part of, or was made into part of, the Russian Bear’s cover-up for too long, all to maintain the fiction, the lie, of relations with the Soviet Union. Sometimes we called it the anti-Fascist alliance, sometimes we called it peaceful coexistence, sometimes we called it détente. Whatever name was in vogue, each described a chain of Big Lies that lashed us together. No wonder Ronald Reagan’s onetime use of that mild, storybook phrase “evil empire” sparked such outrage. The fortieth president, who came from outside this secret circle, was breaking omertà, flouting the Washington-Moscow Establishment. This Establishment wears no clothes. When such a large sector of that Establishment went down at the end of 1991, it wasn’t just open Leftists and diehard Communists in the West who didn’t feel like throwing a party because the wicked witch seemed to be dead. The better part of a century of silence had made all Western democracies complicit in the successive reigns of terror and entrenched regimes of tyranny. They would have remained complicit in silence, I do believe, forever, if the Soviet Union hadn’t begun to crack apart, its secrets–our secrets– spilling out at the seams.
Remember, the Venona cables were not released until after the Soviet ar- chives began to open.
Due to the West’s conspiratorial record of denial, then, there was great am-
bivalence in the demise of the conspiracy’s leader. There must have been great unease, too, about what might come out next, what Boris Yeltsin might say next, what document might pop out of the archive next–what would happen if by some miracle there would be no more secrets anymore. It was probably enough to give those senior Washington muckety-mucks cold sweats. Suspense: Would the great Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky convince Yeltsin to inaugurate a Nuremberg-like trial of the Communist system? I hope not, they said, ensconced in all of the best addresses of the West. For these lifelong conspirators the end was nothing to celebrate. It was something to prevent.
Revelation and exposure, in other words, are not for VIPs. Whether it was the truth about Communist penetration at home or Communist perfidy abroad, those whom we might now think of as the “unindicted coconspirators” out there, high and low, had to do everything they could to suppress all. No wonder, as Bukovsky is quoted as recounting many pages ago, Yeltsin said no to a legal reckoning on the crimes of Communism due to “the enormous pressure he felt from the West not to have such a trial.”63 Who knows? Maybe it was under similar Western pressure that Yeltsin sealed Stalin’s archives for forty years.64 Me, I’ll try to hang on if only to see if there’s anything about Harry Hopkins in the files–although who would be surprised to learn any evidence was burned long ago? Meanwhile, who knows what else might be in the American Venona archives? The government line is always to keep a lid on it.
Eisenhower’s June 1, 1945, cable only echoed that same government line. On the very day Ike was talking about receiving “only small numbers” of prisoners, the War Department announced that “substantially all” American sol-diers taken prisoner in Europe were accounted for. End of exposure. Just like that. According to a brief New York Times report, Undersecretary Robert Patterson put a damper on lingering hopes that men who had been carried on the rolls as missing in action (MIA) for the duration might still be discovered as POWs. Patterson said, “This means that it is not expected that many of those who are still being carried as missing in action will appear later as having been prisoners of war.”65
“In other words,” the Senate report states–as though we need other words, but, OK, go ahead, give it to us straight–“on June 1, 1945, the U.S. govern- ment’s public position was that most American GIs taken prisoner have come home and been repatriated, even though the classified cable traffic for the previous fortnight was reporting between 15,000 and 20,000 still held.”66
What happened? The Senate report goes on to assemble the relevant record of subsequent statements, memos, tallies and the like to arrive at its bottom line: between 12,500 and 20,000 U.S. servicemen were left behind after World
War II, their lost lives locked away from view by the gates of the Gulag itself–but also and even primarily by American acquiescence, American si- lence. Our own men were “contained” along with everything–and I mean everything–else.
I can’t think of anything that puts a more American face on this uniquely twentieth-century record of perfidy than the betrayal of our own fighting fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons, Americans of successive generations be- ginning back before the so-called Greatest Generation, all the way up to the baby boomers. Along with their long-suffering families, they would become the uniquely American sacrifice to the conspiracy of silence that improbably held the Free World and the Un-Free World together, partners in crime, over the course of the twentieth century. Sacrifices, all, to American betrayal.
What men? said Hanoi, Peking, Pyongyang, Moscow.
What men? said London, Washington.
Call and echo.
What kulaks starving by the million? What purges by the ten thousand?
What massacres here, there, and everywhere? What forced repatriation and liq- uidation of millions? What slavery of more millions? What Gulag Archipelago? What strategic deception? What subversion? What Communist conspiracy? What espionage? What Hungary? What tanks? What Prague? What Red Terror network? What Soviet-inspired Western drug epidemic? What evil empire?
The president of Russia “misspoke,” said the Bush administration, after Yeltsin was safely out of the country. This, British historian and author Nigel Cawthorne observed, was coming “as close as you can come to calling the head of a foreign power a liar without starting a war.”67
War, shmar. As far as Washington was concerned, the overriding goal was to save the conspiracy–a far more difficult task with that gonzo Russian president having gone over to the Other Side . . .
What am I saying?
Let me rework that startling idea–that Yeltsin, in speaking about American POWs quite possibly still alive in Soviet captivity, had become the enemy to the Washington Establishment–and see if it still makes sense. In breaking with the Soviet past, Yeltsin was breaking silence, too, a silence that Washington–in one sense, the last conspirator standing–wanted to preserve above all. This indeed turned Yeltsin at that moment into a threat, a whistle-blower, a turncoat, who required neutralization, marginalization, the laugh-track treatment, something, anything, to shut him down via disinformation. Even Soviet Lite would do. Nothing extreme. Yeltsin’s own “erratic” behavior, plus the overwhelming, all-consuming nature of the task before any mortal assuming leadership of the toxic waste dump known as the former USSR, would do the rest. The man was a drunk, they said (untrustworthy); the transcript translation was incorrect (it wasn’t); he “misunderstood” the information that was “given to him” (incompetent). He meant well, of course, but he “misspoke.” Anything to knock out the bomb thrower.
OK. The idea still makes sense. At this point in time, Yeltsin had become one them–I mean, one of us.
Because ultimately, the villain is “them.” By “them,” I mean anyone who preserves the Big Lie, any Big Lie. We are back to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers trope, the almost science-fictional subversion of the crisp-looking ad- mirals and benevolent preschool principals whom we started with many pages ago. Presidential envoys, too. “It’s clear to me that he misspoke, because we have found nobody here that will tell us that Mr. Yeltsin’s information was cor- rect,” said Malcolm Toon on June 27, 1992.
“Here,” of course, was Belly of the Beast Land–Moscow, where Toon heard only sympathetic echoes to his crazy-Yeltsin lament.
The New York Times’s Serge Schmemann picked up on the same cry: “Mr. Toon’s conclusion that Mr. Yeltsin misspoke supported previous responses from Moscow, Hanoi and Washington, where baffled officials insisted that no evidence had been found to support his assertion.”68
What they all wanted was to cram this particular genie, with all of his dog tags, medals, and stars, back into the bottle. Would Americans sit up and notice the scant facts and massive implications coming from the “erratic” Yeltsin, or return to hypnotic static? If there was more to it than fiction, Boris Yeltsin was promising a real-life cliff-hanger. “Some of them were transferred to the former Soviet Union and were kept in labor camps,” Yeltsin said in a television inter- view on the eve of his June 1992 visit. “We don’t have complete data and can only surmise that some of them may still be alive. That is why our investigations are continuing. Some of them may have ended up in psychiatric asylums.”
I hope it’s clear by now that the answers to these questions don’t lie only in the police state of Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko, Gor- bachev, Yeltsin, and Putin. Sure, these police-state chiefs kept their police-state secrets, but we kept secrets, too. After World War II’s end, for example, there were the Wringer files, secret U.S. Air Force reports compiled between 1947 and 1956 from interviews with roughly 300,000 former German and Japanese prisoners of war returning from Soviet camps, where a significant number of these ex-prisoners had been detained with American servicemen. At random, Tim Tzouliadis notes firsthand accounts from declassified Wringer archives describing a U.S. Army major in Vorkuta, about a hundred kilometers north of the Arctic Circle, a Fredericksburg, Virginia, pilot, who spoke broken German with an American accent and whose gold teeth were removed by a camp den- tist. In 1948, a broken-down German serviceman attested to the presence of six American intelligence officers incarcerated in a “silence camp” in the South Ural Mountains where prisoners of all nationalities were forced to work in mer- cury mines. “None of the prisoners are supposed to be discharged and they are not authorized any connection with the outside world,” the German said. “Mortality is very high.”69
What about the death of hope? In 1954, a German officer reported that he had shared a cell in a Soviet prison near Moskva in 1949 with an American pilot–“30-35 years old, 1.8 meters tall, slim, sportsmanlike figure, normally full black hair yet shaved in prison”–and nineteen other German officers. “He was self-confident and expressed to his cellmates on several occasion the conviction that . . . his imprisonment would not last long as the American Government in the USA would intervene on their behalf.”70
When we meet the Americans we will tell them . . . and absolutely nothing at all will ever happen.
Tzouliadis notes also the account of a “Major Thompson” from San Antonio, Texas, captured in 1944 when his plane went down and sentenced to twenty-five years for espionage. It was 1991–thirty-six years later–before his daughter learned for the first time that a German repatriate had told U.S. au- thorities about her dad in 1955, that he had been imprisoned at Budenskaya prison near Moscow and later in Tayshet labor camp. Not only was Thompson’s daughter “overwhelmed,” as the Senate report notes, picking up her story; she also wanted to know why her family had never been told by the United States government that Major Thompson, declared killed in action, body not recov- ered in 1944, had been seen alive and well enough in the Soviet Gulag in 1955.71
By 1992, when Yeltsin began broadcasting his own do-it-yourself headlines to the media, research into the plight of thousands of American soldiers in the slave-camp network in the USSR especially since 1945 had begun breaking into the public square. The story of “men left behind” after Vietnam had earlier entered pop consciousness but gone no further. Independent researchers John M. G. Brown, Jim Sanders, Mark Sauter, and others had been putting two and two hundred and two thousand andtwenty thousand together to discover the scope of a scandal in which Uncle Sam is revealed to have regularly and know- ingly sacrificed his own living sons to the bloodlust of Soviet Russia and its Red acolytes. Leaving men behind was not just a fantastical Hollywood premise; it was a secret ritual that marked the shameful aftermath of every losing Ameri- can conflict with Communism–i.e., every American conflict with Communism. In 2002 Joseph D. Douglass Jr. would put these stories together powerfully in his book Betrayed, concluding that as many as twenty thousand American POWs were forsaken to Communist control after World War II, five thousand to eight thousand after Korea, one thousand throughout the rest of the Cold War, and two thousand at the end of the Vietnam War.72 Incendiary though it is, the story never spread like wildfire. It is a scandal to report that in May 1991, one year before Yeltsin’s trip to Washington, the landmark report by the Re- publican minority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (which I’ve been quoting in this chapter) on this unknown history of American men abandoned by the U.S. government came out, stopping no presses. Despite its solid documentation, concise form, and, as British historian Nigel Cawthorne would underscore, “august source,” the report failed to generate much in the way of headlines, let alone Yeltsin-sized headlines. Not even the most shocking claim–possibly twenty thousand American enlisted men and officers, former prisoners of war in Germany, ceded to the Soviets in “the Good War”–moved the media. The report did, however, help kick-start the Senate into creating the U.S. Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs.
What did that do? Since the U.S. government was more interested in pre- serving the secrecy than doing public penance, or even saving fellow citizens who might actually have been living, not much. Looking back on the commit- tee’s record, journalist Sydney Schanberg wrote in 1994 that the committee had been dominated by a faction led by Senator John Kerry (D-MA) that “wanted to appear to be probing the prisoner issue energetically, but in fact never rocked official Washington’s boat.” He continued, “Nor did they lay open the 20 years of secrecy and untruths.”73
In 2010, Schanberg speculated on the impact of opening the secret archives on POW/MIA history in The American Conservative.
My guess would be that hell could break loose. Some people might go to jail for violating the public trust and their oaths of office. There’s no statute of limita- tions on crimes like murder, and most of those abandoned prisoners are proba- bly no longer alive. Those who began and continued the cover-up were surely accomplices in their deaths. At the very least, laws affecting the military would be rewritten. And the reputations of the people who played the largest roles would crumble all over the country–people such as Henry Kissinger, John Mc- Cain, John Kerry, and Dick Cheney, plus many others including Pentagon chiefs, national security advisers, secretaries of state, intelligence chiefs, and so on. Since this is probably all a daydream, may I say that perhaps it could be a cleansing of the temple–for a while at least, human nature being what it is.74
This, of course, assumes that we as a people would and even could react to the release of (more) documents confirming that Uncle Sam knowingly abandoned thousands of American servicemen to Communist servitude and medi- cal experimentation over the course of the twentieth century,75 in the way, for example, that our precious freethinkers, from Sydney Schanberg on the Left to Joseph Douglass on the Right, reacted after embarking on their own courses of independent study. Is it a reliable assumption? Doubtless, the kind of confirmation the archives hold (unless they’ve been scrubbed) would convince some of the people, but what is evidence, what are facts, to the postmodern mind? Things to manipulate. Things to cast out of the “existing view of the world.” Our brains washed clean of context, we have been conditioned to laugh at morals and absolutes. We can’t see straight. We have been communized. “Not even high intelligence and a sensitive spirit are of any help once the facts of a situation are deduced from a political theory, rather than vice versa,” as Conquest wrote.
Thus, the ship of state secrets sails on. It always does….