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Confronting Legendsby Lynne Olson and Stanley Cloud
"History will be kind to me," Winston Churchill told an associate during World War II, "for I intend to write it." And, sure enough, Churchill's magisterial six-volume history of the war, written in the late 1940s and early 1950s, is nearly as self-serving as it is eloquent in describing his tenure as Britain's wartime prime minister. While Churchill could at times be remarkably frank about his own shortcomings and policy failures, the generally positive spin he put on his role in the war still heavily influences historians. According to the British historian J. H. Plumb, "Churchill the historian lies at the very heart of the historiography of World War II, and will always remain there."
In our new book, A Question of Honor, we challenge one aspect of the idealized image of Churchill as wartime leader his conduct toward Poland. Similarly, we raise questions about the other mythic Western leader of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
When we first started thinking about the book several years ago, we had little idea it would take us in this rather revisionist direction. Our initial plan was to write about another neglected piece of history the Polish fighter pilots who helped defend England during the Battle of Britain. Despite the attention paid to World War II in the past decade, this is a story almost unknown in the U.S.: Polish pilots not only flew with the RAF in one of the crucial conflicts of the war, they were credited by many top RAF officers with making the difference between victory and defeat. Initially, we saw a book about these men as a gripping adventure story about forgotten heroes. Such a book had everything, we thought romance, drama, triumph, glory, and tragedy. And so it does.
But when we began our research, we realized that the story was richer and far more complicated than we had imagined. For one thing, the importance of the Poles' contribution to the Allied victory went well beyond exploits of the fighter pilots. Nearly 200,000 Polish troops fought during the campaigns in North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, and Germany. It was the Poles who finally captured Monte Cassino in May, 1944. Polish cryptographers were the ones who initially cracked the Germans' Enigma code the most important intelligence coup of the war and thus, by sharing their findings with the British, paved the way for the famed Ultra code breaking system. And in occupied Poland, the Polish underground was spectacularly successful in sabotaging German supply and troop transports and in providing vital intelligence to the Allies about German troop and ship movements, and armament and industrial production. Indeed, Poland was the only country invaded and defeated by the Nazis that neither formally surrendered nor officially collaborated.
So one question we had to address in the book was: If the Polish role in the Allied victory was so important, why has it been so overlooked? The main reason, we believe, is that what happened to Poland during and after the war does not reflect well on its principal Western allies Britain and the U.S. The fate of Poland was central to the British war effort: After all, Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939 precisely because of the German invasion of Poland. Throughout the war, Churchill repeatedly promised the London-based Polish government-in-exile that postwar Poland would be sovereign and independent. "We will conquer together or we will die together," Churchill told General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Polish prime minister, early in the war.
Yet, in the end, Churchill and Roosevelt acquiesced in Poland's betrayal, ceding postwar control of Poland to Stalin in violation of their prior commitment to self-determination for all nations espoused in the Atlantic Charter. During their meetings with Stalin at Tehran and Yalta, the two Western leaders were unwilling to jeopardize or even seriously strain their alliance with the Soviet leader for the sake of protecting Poland. The Soviets had borne the brunt of the Nazi onslaught for more than three years. And by 1945, few in the West wanted to be reminded that until the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Stalin had been Hitler's staunch collaborator, supplying moral support and vital raw matériel for the Nazi invasion of Western Europe. Similarly, few wished to be reminded that under the terms of the infamous 1939 deal between Berlin and Moscow, both Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland that year, dividing the country between them and deporting and killing thousands upon thousands of Poles in the process.
In our research we came across this interesting analysis from New York Times correspondent C. L. Sulzberger, who covered World War II: "Triumph in battle offers twin trophies to the victors. Their writers can impose on history their version of the war they won, while their statesmen can impose the terms of peace." Poland was one of the Allied victors, the only ally whose armed forces fought, in one place or another, from the first day of the war in Europe to the last. Yet the Poles received neither of the trophies mentioned by Sulzberger. They were robbed of both the right to tell their own wartime story and of the right to dictate terms. Indeed, because of the concessions made to Stalin, the telling of Poland's story was largely left to the Soviets, who at best belittled the Polish war effort, and at worst illogically and shamefully branded as "fascists" those Poles who participated in it.
Even in the West, the important contribution made by the Polish armed forces to winning the war has been largely ignored. Indeed, many World War II histories promoted the idea that the Poles demonstrated both military ineptness and a lack of will in their 1939 defense of Poland. Specifically, a number of historians accepted the myth, peddled by the Nazis at the beginning of the war, that the romantic, feckless Poles, faced with the German invasion, sent their mounted cavalry against tanks, while their air force was destroyed on the ground. In fact, the Polish military, including the air force, fought that September with considerable skill and bravery against overwhelming odds.
One of the most poignant moments in our research for A Question of Honor came in Warsaw when we interviewed a former Polish pilot who had flown with the RAF during the war. An old man now, he spoke about the Polish defense in 1939 but said he didn't think we'd believe him when he told us that the Poles fought hard to save their country. "For you, it's probably funny," he said. We assured him it was not.
During the war, the British and American governments engaged in propaganda campaigns aimed at prettifying their new ally, Stalin, and at minimizing the repeated failures of the Western Allies to come to Poland's assistance, despite promises and treaty obligations. There were many deceptions and cover-ups, including attempts to whitewash the Soviets' savage treatment of the Poles when Stalin was still allied with Hitler. Perhaps the most heinous example of this treatment was the 1940 mass execution of more than 4,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest in western Russia. For years, the Soviets insisted that the Germans had committed the crime, and, during the war at least, Washington and London were content to let the world think that was the case. Then, as the war was drawing to a close and Stalin was poised to take over Poland, American and British propagandists portrayed the Polish government-in-exile as reckless troublemakers for opposing the Soviet actions.
There is considerable evidence that Churchill felt haunted and guilt-ridden by the betrayal of Poland and by his own culpability in it. Yet when he wrote his history of World War II, he glossed over this aspect of his record. While praising the gallantry of Polish pilots and troops, Churchill suggested that the Poles bore much of the blame for what happened to them and their country. "[T]hey doomed themselves by their follies," he wrote, to "awful slaughters and miseries."
In the postwar United States, Poland was lumped in with the rest of Eastern Europe as a Cold war symbol, enshrouded in a fog of ideology and recrimination. Republican and Democratic conservatives, in their anti-communist witchhunts, claimed the Eastern Europe issue as their own. Roosevelt and many around him were particular targets of right-wing diatribes. Liberals, on the other hand, tended to be understandably defensive of FDR and his legacy. In many liberal circles, any criticism of FDR was regarded with great suspicion and hostility; critics were denounced as tools of the right.
Almost sixty years after the end of the war, remnants of that polarization still exist. When we were working on the book, some wondered if we had a political agenda in writing about Roosevelt and Churchill's appeasement of Stalin in regard to Poland. In fact, we consider ourselves liberals and have long and greatly admired both men.
Churchill was not only a remarkable statesman and wartime leader, he was also a brilliant writer, rhetorician and thinker. Roosevelt was a politician whose stature, buoyant optimism and willingness to take risks helped rescue the U.S. from the worst effects of the Great Depression and win a two-ocean war. But the historical record letters, memos and the official accounts of the Tehran and Yalta conferences led us to the inescapable conclusion that both men treated Poland, their most faithful wartime ally, as nothing more than a "diplomatic trading asset," in the words of a British historian. Churchill and Roosevelt were human. They made moral and political mistakes. Their betrayal of Poland was one of those mistakes.
In our view, providing a full and balanced account of that betrayal is as vital a part of A Question of Honor as giving Poland and the Poles the credit they deserve for their important contributions to the Allied victory in World War II.