What are the moral and spiritual implications of the U.S. not directly sanctioning the Saudi Crown Prince for killing Jamal Khashoggi? The U.S. non response to the Soviet WWII Katyn Forest massacre of thousands of Polish officers may be instructive. 

Last month a U.S. intelligence report publicly confirmed the Crown Prince sanctioned slaughtering and dismembering a U.S. based Saudi dissident and journalist while he visited the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The U.S. has sanctioned lower level Saudi officials tied to the murder but not the Crown Prince.

Of course Saudi Arabia is a key partner in the Mideast and leading oil producer. It’s central to a regional alliance against Iran and in that role has facilitated increasing Arab diplomatic relations with Israel.  Under the Crown there have been judicial reforms, reduced authority for religious police, increasing social liberties regarding public entertainment and interaction between sexes, and relaxed restrictions on women, who now can drive, travel and sign legal documents without male guardians. Imagine!

But Saudi Arabia remains tyrannical.  Critics of the monarchy are jailed or worse.  There is no freedom of speech or religion.  Non Islamic religion is publicly illegal.  By some measures, persecution of regime critics has increased under the Crown Prince. His murder of Khashoggi, a sometime Washington Post columnist posing no serious threat to the regime, confirms the Crown Prince is a paranoid megalomaniac and sadist.

The Crown Prince is not the first psycho with whom the U.S. has needed to collaborate.  Joseph Stalin was one of history’s most murderous psychos whose murder roster matches Hitler’s and Mao’s.  He was an essential partner in defeating the Third Reich, with the Soviets bearing about 90% of the Allied casualties.

So it was awkward when Germany in 1943 claimed to have discovered thousands of graves left by the Soviets after they had jointly with Germany occupied Poland in 1939.  In 1940 the Soviets murdered about 22,000 Polish military officers, police and other notables, hoping to exterminate any Polish resistance to Soviet control.  The Germans, now at war with their former collaborators, gleefully broadcast evidence of the Soviet mass murder, bringing in Red Cross and other neutral observers for forensic investigations.  Poland’s exiled government in London believed the report and demanded explanations from Stalin, who broke relations with the Poles, creating his own puppet alternative.  

In 1943 the Soviets reconquered the Katyn area and elaborately seeded the graves with new “evidence” that the Germans were the killers.  Local witnesses were threatened into backing the new Soviet narrative.  In 1944 the Soviets brought journalists and diplomats to examine the reputed proof.  Representatives from the U.S. embassy in Moscow included Ambassador Averell Harriman’s daughter Kathleen, who despite obvious flaws in Soviet claims still affirmed German guilt.  After all, the Nazis were expert at mass murder and massive false flag coverups.

Churchill received reports from exiled Poles and other sources.  He had no doubts about Soviet blame, telling the Poles that Bolsheviks could be very cruel.  The British conducted their own investigation but only for internal purposes, Churchill pledging “we should none of us ever speak a word about it.” He sent Britain’s report to FDR not for action but for background.

FDR privately claimed he believed Soviet claims of German guilt, but it was easier for him to say so.  Who knows what he actually believed.  It made no difference.  National interest in sustaining the Soviet alliance required publicly affirming the Soviet story.  Internal U.S. reports about Soviet guilt were suppressed, as they were in Britain.  The Soviet Union was needed to defeat Germany, and its help was hoped for in defeating Japan.  At stake were potentially millions of lives.

Churchill and FDR met with Stalin in Teheran in 1943 and at Yalta in 1945 with full knowledge of Katyn.  Of course, the thousands of dead Poles were a small fraction of Stalin’s millions of victims across the years.  The Western statesmen negotiated, dined, drank and joked with the Soviet dictator.  Churchill awarded him a sword from the royal family.  Their focus on sustaining the anti-Nazi alliance with the Soviet Union required smiling public indifference to Stalin’s countless crimes.

Silence about atrocities is sometimes required in statecraft for imperative national and moral purposes.  Any major friction among the Allies in WWII could have been calamitous, prolonging if not losing the war. Both Hitler and Stalin could not be opposed at the same time.  But democracies, especially Anglo-American, which struggle with their Puritan consciences, typically are averse to openly confronting these unsavory political necessities. It’s usually easier to deny or ignore the moral dilemma.

Saudi Arabia is not as crucial to America or the world as was the WWII era Soviet Union. But it is important.  The strategic relationship must continue no matter how reprehensible its regime, especially its Crown Prince. U.S. policy now is to sanction junior officials complicit in Khashoggi’s murder while largely ignoring the Crown Prince’s central responsibility.  The official excuse is that the U.S. doesn’t sanction heads of governments with whom it has diplomatic relations.  That excuse must suffice.

But it’s important for the souls of democracies that, even as they must make nasty accommodations in pursuit of a wider good, that they fully admit to themselves this reality, without self-delusion.  Reinhold Niebuhr spoke of the need for “dirty hands” in statecraft.  But that dirt should identified for what it is.