75 years ago, the Soviet secret police, known as the NKVD, would murder nearly 22,000 Polish prisoners, many of them army officers or policemen, in what became known as the Katyn Forest Massacre. In 1943, after the Germans found one of the major killing sites, in western Russia’s Katyn Forest, and gleefully exploited it for their own propaganda purposes, the Soviets denied responsibility for the atrocity and instead blamed it on the Germans. As then allies of the USSR, the US government accepted the Soviet explanation and refused to support the demands of the Polish government-in-exile for an independent investigation. Even after the end of World War II, when US-Soviet relations deteriorated with the start of the Cold War, the American government made no effort to reopen the Katyn issue. Only the efforts of Polish exiles and Polish-American organizations, in alliance with certain journalists and prominent anti-communists such as Julius Epstein and Arthur Bliss Lane, kept the Katyn question alive in America.
By 1951, the activist campaign to encourage an official American investigation of Katyn was gaining traction. Amplified by the fact that America was at war against communist forces in Korea, and fears that American POWs would meet a fate similar to those of the Polish POWs at Katyn, Congress showed a willingness to conduct its own investigation of Katyn. On September 18, 1951, the House of Representatives voted 398-0 in support of House Resolution 390, which “provided for the establishment of a select committee to conduct a full and complete investigation concerning the Katyn massacre, an international crime committed against soldiers and citizens of Poland at the beginning of World War II.” (Final Report, 1)
The House Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre consisted of seven members, four Democrats and three Republicans. All seven committee members came from the Northeast or upper Midwest, and represented districts with large Polish-American populations. In all, the committee included members from Michigan (2), Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts. The committee was unofficially known as the “Madden Committee,” after its chair, Rep. Ray Madden. Madden, a Democrat, represented Indiana’s First Congressional District, centered around the industrial city of Gary.
The Madden Committee held hearings from October 1951-November 1952. It interviewed 81 witnesses, produced 183 exhibits, and took over 100 depositions. It was the first congressional committee to hold hearings overseas, meeting with witnesses in London, Frankfurt, Berlin, and Naples. Ultimately, it would produce 7 volumes worth of hearings, numbering 2,362 pages.
The Madden Committee published an interim report in July 1952, followed by its final report in December 1952. Among its major findings, the committee unanimously concluded that the NKVD committed the Katyn murders. As the committee’s final report stated:
On the basis of voluminous testimony, including that of recognized medical expert witnesses, and other data assembled by our staff, this committee concluded there does not exist a scintilla of proof, or even any remote circumstantial evidence, that this mass murder took place no later than the spring of 1940. The Poles were then prisoners of the Soviets and the Katyn Forest area was still under Soviet occupation. (Final Report, 2)
In light of its finding of Soviet guilt for Katyn, the committee recommended that the US government pursue charges against the Soviets before the International World Court of Justice at The Hague.
The Madden Committee’s most controversial findings concerned the response of the Roosevelt Administration to the news of the Katyn discovery in 1943. It concluded that, out of a desire to preserve the wartime alliance with the USSR, the US government overlooked or deliberately suppressed information pointing to Soviet guilt for Katyn. Specifically, in 1945 President Roosevelt himself had the Navy transfer an officer to American Samoa in order to prevent him from going public with his concerns about Katyn. In addition, the Chief of Army Intelligence suppressed a report by a former American POW who had been taken to Katyn by the Germans in 1943, and had reluctantly concluded that the Soviets were guilty. Finally, the Madden Committee established that the Office of War Information had coerced Polish-language radio stations in Detroit and Buffalo to cease their coverage of the Katyn allegations.
Historians who have studied Katyn have noted that the Madden Committee’s investigation was flawed in several ways. For one, it invited several witnesses whose testimony was proven to be unreliable. One in particular was an anonymous witness designated “John Doe,” who wore a hood and testified that he saw Poles being murdered at Katyn in November 1939, an allegation that flies in the face of all the available evidence. In addition, the Madden Committee was, almost unavoidably, caught up in the broader controversies over McCarthyism and domestic anti-Communism. Finally, its recommendation that the Soviets be brought before the World Court for Katyn was ignored by the incoming Eisenhower Administration and soon forgotten.
Despite these flaws, however, the Madden Committee served a valuable role in both the history and memory of Katyn. It firmly established Soviet responsibility for Katyn in the historical record, and its major conclusions have been vindicated by subsequent scholarship. In the words of historian Alexander Etkind and his co-authors, “The Madden Committee’s resounding verdict of Soviet guilt for the crime of Katyn was a central memory event.” (Etkind, 22) Similarly, Allen Paul has written that “on the whole the Select Committee went about its work in a methodical, workman-like manner. Like a skillful prosecutor, it carefully assembled its case; and when the facts were all laid out, the overall results were impressive.” (Paul, 340)
It was not until 1990, when Soviet communism was in its death throes, that the USSR would finally admit that it had perpetrated the Katyn massacre. In 2000, the Polish parliament (Sejm) passed a resolution thanking the Madden Committee, among others, for its efforts in establishing the truth about Katyn. (Sanford, 218).
The Katyn Forest Massacre. Final Report of the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, December 22, 1952. (Joyner Docs CWIS Serial Set: Y 1.1/2:11578)
The Katyn Forest Massacre. Hearings before the Select Committee to Conduct an Investigation of the Facts, Evidence and Circumstances of the Katyn Forest Massacre, Eighty-Second Congress, First[-Second] Session. 7 v., 1952. (Joyner Docs CWIS: Y 4. K 15: M 38/)
Etkind, Alexander, Rory Finnin, et al. Remembering Katyn. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2012. (Joyner Stacks: D804.S65 R45 2012)
Paul, Allen. Katyn: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010. (Joyner Stacks: D804 .S65 P378 2010)
Sanford, George. Katyn and the Soviet Massacre of 1940: Truth, Justice and Memory. London; New York: Routledge, 2005. (Joyner Stacks: D804 .S65 S33 2005)