The U.S. government’s cry to the American people during recent wars has been: “Support the troops.” A person might disagree with the war itself. Or the president may have failed to secure the constitutionally required congressional declaration of war. But, the government says, put all objections aside once the shooting starts. What matters then is that the people support the troops. The strategy is always effective in diminishing opposition to the war.
Unfortunately, however, the U.S. government has not always followed its own exhortation. Sometimes, not only has it failed to support its own troops, it has actually knowingly and deliberately abandoned them to imprisonment and death. The best example of this is what happened to American soldiers who had been captured by the Nazis and who were “liberated” by Russian forces at the end of World War II. The sordid tale of how the U.S. government failed to support its own troops is detailed in a shocking book published in 1992 entitled Soldiers of Misfortune: Washington’s Secret Betrayal of American POWs in the Soviet Union by James D. Sanders, Mark A. Sauter, and R. Cort Kirkwood.
On the Eastern Front, German forces had taken hundreds of thousands of Russians as prisoners. On the Western Front, they had taken Americans, British, and Commonwealth prisoners. The prisoners were incarcerated in German POW camps inside Germany.
As the Allied forces invaded Germany from the west, they liberated the German POW camps in their sector of operations. These camps included Russian, American, and British prisoners. As the Russian forces invaded from the east, they liberated camps that, again, contained Allied soldiers.
Quite naturally, the Americans and British soldiers held captive in the Russian zone wanted to return quickly to their own forces. But such was not the case with Russian prisoners. Their attitude toward returning to their homeland was exactly the opposite. Many of them hated the communist system. More important, all of them feared what Stalin and the communists would do to them for having been taken captive by the Germans.
At Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill entered into a secret agreement with Stalin that required the U.S. and Great Britain to forcibly return the Russian prisoners to the clutches of Joseph Stalin. Over a million Russians were returned against their will, and most of them were either immediately killed or sent to the gulag, where many of them later died. (See Part 3 of this series.)
By the time the war ended, however, political events were shifting dramatically. Throughout the war, the U.S. government had taught the American people to hate not simply the Nazi regime but the German people, as well. Thus, for example, when thousands of defenseless women, children, and refugees were firebombed at Dresden by Allied forces, the American people, by and large, saw nothing wrong with this. Since Germany and the German people — not simply the Nazi regime — were trying to conquer the world, Americans believed, there was nothing wrong with killing them all.
Throughout the war, through his highly effective propaganda machinery, Roosevelt also taught Americans to view the Soviet communists as friends and allies of the American people.
Hitler and Churchill shared a different perspective about the communists. They both viewed Stalin and his regime as a monumental threat to world peace and security.
Why is all this important? Because it had enormous consequences that resulted in the suffering and death of millions of innocent people, including the American and British POWs “liberated” by Stalin’s forces.
Roosevelt had insisted that only an “unconditional” surrender of German forces would be acceptable to the U.S. The result of this unusual demand was not only that German forces fought harder, thereby prolonging the war, but also that the Soviet Union ultimately took control over Eastern Europe and East Germany.
Recall that in World War I, the Kaiser abdicated near the end of the war as a condition of peace. Suppose the same thing had happened near the end of World War II. Suppose that the U.S. and Great Britain had opened negotiations with Germany in 1944 — before Russian forces had invaded Eastern Europe — and before millions of Jews had been killed in the Nazi ovens. There is at least the possibility that Hitler — whose health was failing dramatically anyway — along with Göring, Goebbels, and other leading Nazis — might have chosen to live in exile rather than continuing to fight a war they knew they were losing. If such a peace could have been negotiated, Eastern Europeans and East Germans would not have had to suffer under fifty years of Soviet domination. And millions of Jews would have been saved from the Nazi ovens.
But FDR’s hatred of Germans and Germany — and his deep admiration and respect for Joseph Stalin and the communists — and his profound sympathy for communist goals — precluded him from exploring such a possibility. Americans would have to continue hating Germans and loving Russians until there was an unconditional surrender by Germany.
But things changed on Roosevelt’s death near the end of the war. America’s new president, Harry Truman, shared Churchill’s (and Hitler’s) perspective about the communist threat to the West. Soon after the war ended, Americans were told to immediately shift positions with respect to hatred and admiration. They were told that Germans — at least those in the western half — were not so bad after all. They had simply been misled by the Nazis. Americans were encouraged to love, admire, and assist these Germans. But those on the eastern side were still to be hated and despised, especially since they were now part of the Soviet bloc.
Americans were also told that it was necessary to begin hating the Soviet communists — the same communists who Americans had been taught were great and wonderful during the war.
All of this shifting of feelings was not lost on Joseph Stalin. Since Churchill, Roosevelt, and Truman had honored the secret agreement to return most of the Russian forces to the Soviet Union, where Stalin was able to finish off these “traitors,” Stalin had honored his side of the bargain by returning most of the American and British soldiers in the Nazi camps liberated by Russian forces. But the operative word is “most.”
Stalin was not a man to trust others, and he certainly did not trust Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. To ensure that Churchill and Roosevelt would live up to their side of the bargain to return the Russian soldiers to him, he retained “bargaining chips” in the form of American and British soldiers. If Churchill or Roosevelt reneged on their end of the bargain, Stalin would do the same.
As the war against the Nazis ended, the new war — the Cold War with the communists — began in earnest. The U.S. and Great Britain began treating the Germans (the ones in the west) more nicely and also began enlisting the active assistance of former Nazis — yes, the same Nazis that Americans had only recently been taught to hate and despise! Moreover, Churchill and Truman quietly began releasing thousands of anticommunist Russians who had still not been returned to Stalin — these Russians could be valuable friends and spies in the new “cold” war against the communists.
Stalin learned what was happening and retaliated. He permanently “retained” the American and British soldiers whom he still held as bargaining chips. What did he do with them? He carted them to the Soviet Union where they lived the rest of their lives in the Russian gulags. How many American and British soldiers? Over 20,000 Americans and over 30,000 British and Commonwealth soldiers ! In fact, as the authors of Soldiers of Misfortune point out: “Starting in 1945, the Soviet Union became the second-largest employer of American servicemen in the world.”
This horrible tale is well documented in Soldiers of Misfortune . Much of the evidence involves the eyewitness accounts of American POWs who barely missed being “liberated” by Stalin’s forces. For example, the authors detail the story of three Americans held in a German POW camp — John L. Connolly, Carmen Gomez, and Joseph Friedl. One morning in 1945, they woke to find their German captives gone. Connolly and Gomez decided to head west in search of American forces. Friedl decided to wait for Russian “liberators.” Their story will chill you:
But when the men tried to cross a bridge to the tantalizingly close American line, Red Army troops stopped them at gun point. “The Russians herded us into a bombed-out building. . . . When there were several hundred of us [Americans], they began to march back into Germany.”
Wisely refusing to march away from their own lines, Connolly and about a dozen others ducked out of the column as it passed through town. Hours later, they ran across a team of American scout cars under the command of a brigadier general. “The Soviets are taking a column of American POWs back east,” Connolly told the general. Flying into a rage, the American officer sped off to catch the column. But the POWs had vanished.
Joseph Friedl was taken back to the Soviet Union. He was one of the fortunate ones — he was released in 1946.
Another American soldier, Technical Sergeant D.C. Wimberly, was straggling back to American lines and found himself in the German town of Luckenwalde. The Germans were herding back a column of German POWs to the Soviet Union, but when a few men near the end of the column saw Wimberly’s American flag on his uniform, they called out: “Hey! You American? We’re American. I’m from Philadelphia . . . Boston . . . Chicago. Help me!”
Americans also compared German army records of how many Americans were held in the camps. It was not difficult to see that the Soviets had failed to return all of them.
So, why has all of this been kept secret from the American people? World War II has been billed as the “good war” — the war that justifies all subsequent foreign wars. And every student in every public school across America is taught that FDR was one of our country’s greatest presidents.
How could the U.S. government tell the truth about what happened to American servicemen? To tell the truth would mean exposing American complicity in the murder of over a million innocent Russian people. It would entail a closer examination of the Allied alliance with one of the most brutal political regimes in all of history. And it would expose all the scheming and machinations that resulted in the abandonment of over 50,000 Allied soldiers to our communist “friends.”
What could the U.S. government have done differently as the war approached its end? It could have negotiated a peace with Germany that entailed the exile of Nazi leaders and ensured democratic regimes in all of Germany and Eastern Europe. It could have refused to participate in one of the worst holocausts in history — the forcible repatriation of Russian anticommunists — by refusing to force them to return to the Soviet Union against their will.
If Russian forces refused to return American and British POWs, one option would, of course, could have been war against the Soviet Union. But if war was not a practical option at that point, then the least that the U.S. government owed its own soldiers was to let the world know what happened — so that the soldiers would never be forgotten. Imagine the loneliness those men must have felt as they were being transported to the Soviet gulags. They had trusted their own government. They had fought and had been willing to die at the behest of their government. They had helped to win the war. Instead of coming home to their loved ones, they were being transported from a German POW camp to a Russian gulag.
Would public pressure over the years have resulted in the release of these American and British soldiers? Possibly. But even if it did not, there was always the chance that word would leak into the gulag — letting American and British doughboys know, before they died, that they still had not been forgotten by their fellow Americans.
Unfortunately, however, they were forgotten, because they were abandoned by their own government — the same U.S. government that starts out every new war with “Support the troops.”
As the authors of Soldiers of Misfortune carefully document, U.S. governmental officials not only have refused to open the files on this dark and sordid episode of World War II, they have also altered and destroyed pertitent documents. Moreover, American officials still refuse to open up the files on the forcible repatriation of the Russians as well as other aspects of World War II. They claim that national security is at stake — fifty years after the end of the war.
The final questions arise: So what? Why bring all of this up now? What is the purpose? What good does it do? Why not let sleeping dogs lie? Why focus on World War II rather than simply on current episodes of governmental misconduct?
Because the lessons to be learned affect us so deeply today — fifty years after the end of World War II. And the lessons are profound indeed.