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KENGOR: Stalin’s dupes, past and present

Gallery of the hoodwinked ranges from FDR to the D-Day Memorial

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It's customary at year's end to share our favorite news items from the year past - from happy moments to outrages. As a professor and historian, I tend to highlight things I fear are lost to American education. To that end, I've become somewhat of a pessimist, especially as I observe what the next generation is not being taught.

So, my enduring "news item" of 2010 falls under the category of historical outrage, though it is redeemed somewhat by another item considerably more positive. I'd like to link them here as a teachable moment.

My outrage of 2010: the National D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Va., erected a statue of Josef Stalin, architect of the Great Purge, Ukrainian famine, gulag, war on religion and upwards of 60 million deaths. We learned about this travesty, thanks to the vigilant work of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which has the heroic goal of trying to educate Americans about the forgotten holocaust committed by communists. The group created a website (Stalinstatue.com) to call attention to this moral-historical slander. The site featured a petition to remove the statue, with thousands of signatures from all over the world. Addressed to the National D-Day Memorial Foundation and to President Obama's secretary of the interior, it demanded that the "true history of World War II must be protected from distortion and misinformation."

Among the distortion and misinformation, as noted by the petition: "neither [Josef] Stalin nor Soviet forces played any part in the D-Day landing at Normandy."

Indeed, worse than that, it was Stalin, via the August 1939 Hitler-Stalin "Non-Aggression" Pact, who helped launch World War II in the first place, ultimately leading to D-Day - i.e., the horrible deaths suffered by all those American boys on those beaches in France.

Ironically, such disinformation was once the crass domain of Kremlin propagandists, of Stalin's in-house stooges. That this absurdity would happen in America today, by educators, is breathtaking.

The Stalin statue has since been removed, though perhaps as part of a compromise to merely move it to another exhibit. They fear it hasn't gone away for good. Without a stake in the chest in a sealed coffin stuffed with garlic, the fear is that Stalin could rise again in Bedford, especially if we don't stand vigilant with torches and crosses.

I'm not optimistic, which brings me to a more fundamental point and concern: Many Americans have been duped by Stalin for a long time now, from Potemkin village progressives who traveled to Moscow in the 1920s and 1930s - including John Dewey, speaking of educators - to the folks who erected that statue in Bedford. Laying out that sizable list of stunning dupes here is impossible, but one American stands out: Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The ways in which FDR was misled by Stalin, or by advisers sympathetic to or even serving Stalin, is a lengthy matter, which I cover in great detail elsewhere. Yet, there's one example that is currently very relevant. It involves a likewise notable historical news item from 2010: the Katyn Woods massacre.

The slaughter at Katyn was one of the worst war crimes of the bloody 20th century. It was rooted in that "Non-Aggression" Pact between Hitler and Stalin, who in Sept. 1939 jointly invaded, annihilated and partitioned Poland. The Soviets seized thousands of Polish military officers as prisoners. Their fate was secretly sealed on March 5, 1940, when Stalin signed their death warrant, condemning 21,857 of them to the supreme penalty: shooting.

What happened next remained a state secret for a half-century. The Polish officers were taken to three primary sites, the most infamous of which bears the namesake of the crime: the Katyn Woods, located near Smolensk, Russia. There, these unsuspecting men were methodically slaughtered. The Bolsheviks covered their crime with a thin layer of dirt.

Heaping insult upon tragedy, America's iconic president, FDR, refused to believe that Stalin and the Soviets had committed the atrocity. Consider:

The Katyn massacre was first exposed by the Nazis in April 1943. By then, the Nazis had betrayed the "Non-Aggression" Pact. They discovered the mass graves, and immediately converted the atrocity into a propaganda coup to split the Big Three Allies: the U.S., the U.K., and the USSR. The Soviets, in turn, claimed the Nazis had done the crime. Stalin and his goons attempted to pin the massacre on Hitler and his goons. Which goons would FDR believe?

Truth be told, FDR, who was terrific in stopping Hitler, was terribly naive in assessing Stalin. He dispatched George Earle, former Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, as special emissary to investigate Katyn. In short order, Earle discerned the obvious, which was not what FDR wanted to hear.

"George," protested FDR, "the Germans could have rigged things up ... I'm absolutely convinced that the Russians didn't do this."

An amazed Earle responded: "Mr. President, I think this evidence is overwhelming." It was.

Earle pressed the evidence, but FDR refused to believe him. Years later, Earle expressed his exasperation, saying he felt "hopeless."

Katyn deserves the same infamy as words like "the Rape of Nanking" or "Auschwitz." And yet, America's president at the time got it wrong: FDR believed Stalin.

Would history get it right? Would Americans get it straight?

That brings me to that other news item from 2010, a more joyous one. The people of Poland got an early Christmas gift this year - and from an unlikely source: Moscow. There, the State Duma, Russia's legislature, passed a statement conceding Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre.

That is splendid news, a news item from 2010 to add to the history books. It was something many of us who have studied and written about this incident have waited to hear. And it is too bad that Roosevelt is not around to hear it.

Frustration is a persistent feeling that pervades many of us educators and historians who study the horrors of 20th century communism, only to see those horrors get ignored repeatedly by our illustrious "scholars" in the academy - FDR hagiographers, chief among them - and by people who erect statues to Stalin on American soil. Stalin and his cronies duped our four-term president in the 1940s. Must we still be dupes today?

I think not. If Russia can apologize for the massacre ordered by "Uncle Joe" - FDR's term of endearment for Stalin - then surely we can make amends for any historical misunderstandings on our part. Permanently removing statues to Stalin here in America would be a good start.

Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include "The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism" and the newly released "Dupes: How America's Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century."

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