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William J. Chase

An anti-Stalin Professor of History at University of Pittsburgh

“Trotskii v Mekcike. K istorii ero neglasnykh kontaktov s pravitel'stvom SShA (1937-1940)” ("Trotsky in Mexico: Toward a History of His Informal Contacts with the U.S. Government, 1937-1940"), Otechestvennaia istoriia, 4 (July/August 1995)

Some of his books and writing;

Enemies Within the Gates? The Comintern and the Stalinist Repression, 1934-1939 (Yale University Press, 2001).

Workers, Society and the Soviet State: Labor and Life in Moscow, 1918-1929, (University of Illinois Press, Studies of the W. Averell Harriman Institute, 1987, 1990).

“Scapegoating One’s Comrades in the USSR, 1934-1937,” in James Harris and Sarah Davies, ed., Anatomy of Terror. Political Violence under Stalin (Oxford University Press, 2013)

“Micro-history and Mass Repression: Politics, Personalities, and Revenge in the Fall of Béla Kun,” Russian Review (July 2008),
"Stalin as Producer: The Moscow Show Trials and the Construction of Mortal Threats," in Sarah Davies and James Harris, eds., Stalin: A New History (Cambridge University Press, 2005),

“El Extraño Caso de Diego Rivera y el Departmento de Estado” ("The Strange Case of Diego Rivera and the U.S. State Department"), Zona Abierta (Suplemento de Economica, Politica y Sociedad del Financiero) II, 61 (Noviembre 1993).

Social History and Revisionism of the Stalinist Era,” Russian Review, 46 (1987)

With Anti-Communist historian  J. Arch Getty;

Patterns of Repression among the Soviet Elite in the Late 1930s; A Biographical Approach” (with J. Arch Getty), in J. Arch Getty and Roberta Manning, eds., Stalinist Terror: New Perspectives, (Cambridge University Press, 1993),

The Moscow Bolshevik Cadres of 1917: A Prosopographic Analysis,” (with J. Arch Getty) 

The Moscow Party Elite of 1917 in the Great Purges,” (with J. Arch Getty),

The Soviet Bureaucracy in 1935: A Socio-Political Profile,” (with J. Arch Getty) in John W. Strong, ed., Essays on Revolutionary Culture and Stalinism, (Slavica, 1990)

And numerous other anti-communist, anti-Soviet articles.


On 25 May 1933, Leon Trotsky wrote from his home in exile, to the U.S. Consul in Istanbul, requesting "authorization to enter the United States and to remain for a period of three months" to conduct historical research for a book that would compare the American and Russian civil wars. Trotsky assured the Consul that:
"my journey has no relation whatsoever with any political aim. I am ready to undertake the categorical obligation not to intervene, either directly or indirectly, in the internal life of the United States." 
Trotsky to The General Consulate of the United States of America, Istanbul, May 25, 1933. The National Archives, Record Group 59 (Records of U.S. State Department; hereafter RO 59).
Yet, from 1934 until his death in August 1940, the U.S. Government's refusal to admit Trotsky played a recurring role in his personal and political life. During those years, he repeatedly sought to secure admission to the United States.
Trotsky arrived in France on 23 July 1933 and lived there for almost two years before the French Government rescinded his visa, forcing him to establish temporary residence in Norway.
In October 1936, the American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky (hereafter referred to as A.C.D.L.T.) was formed. Its stated goals were "to help obtain for him [Trotsky] the normal rights of asylum and to aid in the formation of an International Commission of Inquiry, which shall examine all the available evidence [relevant to the charges made against him at the August 1936 Moscow trial] and make public its findings.  (1. The October 22, 1936 letter from these six announcing the formation of the ACDLT referred to it as the Provisional American Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky. ACDLT Collection.)

In November 1936, the Trotskyist leaders issued a circular to its formally dissolved, but very active, local committees. It announced that: 
At present the most important programmatic issue is asylum for Trotsky; as soon as Trotsky is safely settled in a safe haven, our work thereafter will center around the issue of securing a complete, impartial investigation of the Moscow trials; we plan to set up or to have set up organizationally independent of this committee, a Legal Commission of distinguished jurists in America; at the same time we will work for an international commission to sit as a tribunal, to take Trotsky's own testimony and hand down a verdict. BUT THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE [sic] we must concentrate on the question of asylum for Trotsky....
Trotsky ended by instructing "the comrades in the committee" on what needed to be accomplished immediately: "The delegation of the sub­ commission to Mexico must be decided and organized in two or three is necessary to establish the list of people for the commission begin the work immediately after the return and report of the delegation." The importance that he attached to the inquiry commission is clear from his description of what he was sure would be its findings: "The greatest historical, philosophical, and psychological book of our time will be written by the commission of inquiry."

Trotsky's views on the inquiry commission's composition and "Marxist rules of coalition" may have been appropriate within a Marxist party, but they were not appropriate-in fact, they were potentially destructive-to an American political coalition that sought to defend his rights not because of who he was, but because the "right of asylum is one of the oldest of democratic principles." His criticisms illustrate his inability or refusal to understand and respect the principles shared by American liberals and radicals. Most of the A.C.D.L.T.'s members did not share Trotsky's political views, but rather viewed him and his case as a symbol. The A.C.D.L.T.'s early successes were due precisely to the fact that it consisted of a coalition of different political interests that shared a deep belief that he deserved asylum and an impartial inquiry. On April 10, 1937, the Dewey Commission, as it has come to be known, began its week-long hearings in Mexico.

Why did Trotsky want to enter the U.S.? There were several reasons. Although he appreciated Mexico's granting him asylum, given his pledge not to interfere in Mexican affairs and Mexico's isolation from Europe, living out his life there was probably not an exciting prospect. Nor was the Mexican political environment friendly to Trotsky. The Mexican Communist Party (P.C.M.), the prominence and influence of which were on the rise during the Cardenas years, and the CTM (Confederacion de Trabajadores Mexicanos-Confederation of Mexican Workers ), the country's largest and most powerful labor organization, opposed Trotsky's asylum. Trotsky and his staff feared that President Cardenas was the only guarantee of his asylum. They also feared that the "Stalinists here...[are] 'preparing a favorable atmosphere' for the assassination of Trotsky and his friends." Furthermore, the Mexican Trotskyist party was extremely small, about thirty members, and politically impotent. Finally, Mexico and the USSR were the only countries that provided material support to the Popular Front government during the Spanish Civil War. Support in Mexico for the Popular Front ran high and, in some circles, so too did sympathy for the USSR. Trotsky’s consistent criticisms of both undermined political support for him in Mexico. 

On the other hand, the political prospects for Trotsky and his movement in the U.S. seemed to be brightening. The American party was the world's largest Trotskyist party and its influence appeared to be growing. Trotsky's strategy to disband that party and infiltrate the American Socialist Party for the expressed purpose of either taking over that party or winning its militant wing to the side of the Trotskyists seemed to be working in mid-1937. In addition, Trotsky was almost totally dependent on the American movement for funds and personnel. Virtually all of his personal secretaries and guards in Mexico were Americans and he received periodic financial contributions from American sympathizers. Given these realities, asylum in the U.S. had much to recommend it. 

After the Dewey Commission left Mexico, Trotsky and his supporters began serious private efforts to gain his admission to the U.S. In July 1937, Benjamin Stolberg, the labor journalist who had accompanied the Dewey Commission to Mexico, visited U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins to request permission for Trotsky to visit the U.S. in order to undergo a comprehensive medical examination. Stolberg told Perkins that, for the past few years, Trotsky had suffered from a mysterious ailment which he described as "inexplicable fevers." In fact, the real motive was not medical, as Herbert Solow's letter to John Dewey makes clear: "I note your appoint [sic] about having LDT for the September hearings [of the International Commission]. It is not essential, but it would be a great service to him. If Roosevelt could be induced to give him a seventy-two hour visa for that purpose, he would return thereafter to Mexico. The whole thing would be an experiment, to let Roosevelt judge whether he can safely give WT a year's visa later on." Much to Stolberg's surprise, Perkins agreed to his request on three conditions: that Trotsky pledge not to make public his visit, to refrain from engaging in politics, and that Secretary of State Cordell Hull approve Trotsky's entrance. If Trotsky violated these terms, he "could never get in again." Trotsky readily agreed to the conditions: "I shall observe all conditions with absolute loyalty." Acting on Perkins' advice, Stolberg asked Dewey to make the case to Hull. ( Stolberg to Trotsky July 27, 1937; Trotsky to Stolberg, July 31, 1937, Trotsky Archive.)

By late 1937, Trotsky's prospects of gaining admission to the U.S. did not seem bright. Several times the State Department had rejected his indirect overtures for a visa. By then, popular support for Trotsky in the U.S. was waning for several reasons. The Dewey Commission and the International Inquiry Commission had exonerated Trotsky, but ironically that vindication did not enhance support for him as people's political energies shifted to more pressing and ominous events in Europe, in particular the Spanish Civil War and Nazi Germany's aggressive behavior. Having fulfilled its role, the A.C.D.L.T. was virtually moribund by October 1937; in February 1938, it voted to dissolve itself. Trotsky expressed his disappointment and anger in a letter to Herbert Solow: 
"The necessity to dissolve the Committee after a year of work is, however, a great defeat and terrible waste of energies. Now you must begin again. It is the fate of political celibates! In any case the creation of a general defense committee against Stalinist gangsterism is now one of the most urgent tasks. The happenings in Spain are only a beginning. It is necessary timely [sic] to create cadres of political 'militias' against the murderers." 
see Herbert Solow letter to Trotsky in which he wrote: ''I endorse a document which is...highly confidential. I have drafted it, and it will be acted on by a special sub-committee. I will show it to [Max] Schachtman. Otherwise, nobody else on the Committee [ACDLT] is going to see it. After we have your corrections and Scnactman's, and after the sub-committee approves it, we...will send it out...if you have no particular use for [it], please destroy it." Apparently, Trotsky did destroy it, because I have been unable to find it in his archive.
What Trotsky referred to as "the happenings in Spain" also contributed to the erosion of popular support for him. The outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 reverberated throughout Europe and the Americas. In the U.S., sympathy for the anti-fascist struggle of the Spanish Popular Front government was widespread, especially among liberals and radicals. Trotsky's and his comrades' criticisms of the Popular Front angered and bewildered many of its American supporters who questioned the wisdom of dividing the anti-fascist coalition at a time when fascist aggression threatened world peace. 

Another factor weakened support for Trotsky. In June 1937, he advised his American comrades that the time had come to break with the Socialist Party and to re-form an independent Trotskyist party that "must again appear on the scene as an independent party...[n]ot later than November 7," that is the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution. He urged his comrades to launch a relentless campaign against that party's moderate wing: 
"We must denounce them as traitors and rascals."
So fierce was the Trotskyists' political offensive that the party expelled them in October. Their tactics angered Socialists and their sympathizers who had actively supported the A.C.D.L.T. and the Dewey Commission.

Trotsky’s accusations that liberals and radicals who did not share his views on certain issues were Stalinists or GPU agents further diminished support for him. Among those he stridently criticized was Freda Kirchwey, one of the A.C.D.L.T.'s founders and the editor of The Nation which actively supported the Spanish Republican Government and the Popular Front, and which had published articles suggesting that the defendants' confessions at the first two Moscow trials appeared to have been genuine. Although one can understand his frustrations, the rude tone of his letters to and comments about the influential Kirchwey further eroded sympathy for him among American liberals. 

Trotsky forcefully conveyed his intolerance of those who did not share his views to the anarchist, Carlo Tresca: 
"Against the attitude of the Nation and the New Republic [American liberal magazines], I totally share your indignation. The executioner is hideous, but more hideous is the priest in service of the executioner. As the agent of imperialism, Stalin's G.P.U. invokes hatred. Completely nauseating are the long­ haired democratic preachers who pander to Stalin's executioners. The struggle for the liberation of humanity is impossible without the simultaneous mobilization of contempt for such courtesans, sycophants, lackeys, bigots as the Nation and the New Republic. "
His characterizations alienated liberals, radicals and intellectuals who had worked for his defense and who might have provided him with future support. Such people defended Trotsky's right to asylum and to an impartial hearing not because they shared his beliefs, but because they believed the rights of asylum, a fair trial and free speech were inalienable human and democratic rights. Although he sought to use these rights for his interests, Trotsky viewed these credos of American political thought as "purely formalistic, purely judicial, unpolitical and un-Marxian conception[s]" Taken together, the A.C.D.L.T.'s dissolution, the Trotskyists' expulsion from the Socialist Party, and Trotsky's attacks on liberals and radicals reduced the ranks of his American supporters.

In May 1938, Suzanne Lafollette met with Assistant Secretary of State  Adolf Berle and requested that he grant Trotsky and Sedova "a visa to visit the United States for a short period, say 60 days, to enter a hospital such as the Mayo Clinic or Johns Hopkins." Berle refused because "the admission of Trotsky created some very serious questions."

Berle later wrote that "Lombardo Toledano [the anti-Trotskyist leader of the CTM, Mexico's largest trade union] is theoretically visiting Russia on his European trip. Conceivably, there may be some political pressure which suggests to Trotsky that Mexico may not be too healthy for him." Adolf Berle to Moffat, May 27, 1938, National Archives, RO 59.


In July 1938, a new issue reinforced the State Department's anxieties about Trotsky. That month, an American named Robert Blackwell (aka Russell Negrete Blackwell), who fought with the International Brigades, was arrested in Spain. Blackwell was a former communist and a former Trotskyist whom the Spanish Republican Army's police accused of aiding the fascists and promoting counter-revolution. Police officials charged that Blackwell had been Trotsky's personal secretary and had participated in a sustained counter-revolutionary campaign. Blackwell was held over for trial before a military tribunal. 

In September 1938, the American Committee for the Defense of Robert Blackwell was formed in New York. Its membership list was virtually identical to that of the A.C.D.L.T., and Trotskyists played an active role in its campaign to get the State Department to secure Blackwell's release. For this essay's purpose, the most intriguing aspect of the Blackwell affair was Trotsky's brief role in it. 

On 8 November 1938, Trotsky wrote to James B. Stewart, the American Consul General in the Federal District of Mexico, to inform him that: 
"I find it necessary to declare here that I have never met Mr. Blackwell. I have no connection of any kind with him. Furthermore, he was never my secretary. My friends inform me that he belongs to an American political group which is completely opposed to the Fourth International.... I hope this information which I give you here and which I am ready to repeat before any authoritative body of the United States or Spain, can have some bearing on Mr. Blackwell's case. "
Trotsky's letter is intriguing for two reasons. It was the first letter that he had written to a U.S. Government representative since his 1933 application for a visa. One can interpret this in one of two ways: either his compassion for the plight of Blackwell motivated him to intervene on Blackwell's behalf, or he sought to dissociate himself from a man the State Department viewed as politically undesirable in order to keep alive his own chances for entry into the U.S. Given Trotsky's lack of compassion for those who opposed him and his views, which Blackwell may have done, the former seems unlikely. Second, although Trotsky apparently had never met Blackwell and Blackwell was not his secretary, Trotsky's efforts to convey ignorance of Blackwell were disingenuous. In fact, Blackwell had established the Trotskyist party in Mexico (Liga Communista lnternacionalista) and belonged to the Workers' Party until 1935.

The timing of Trotsky's letter to Stewart is also of interest. In September 1938, two of Trotsky's acquaintances sought to help him gain admission into the U.S.. Diego Rivera, with whom Trotsky was living, visited the U.S. Consulate to discuss Trotsky's and his wife's deteriorating health and their need for competent medical treatment. Nothing came of this effort. Just prior to this, Trotsky received a letter from General Pelham Glassford, the former chief of police in Washington, D.C. ....(Pelham Glassford to Trotsky, August 5, 1938, Trotsky Archive. ) Glassford was a friend of General Douglas MacArthur and other influential people in Washington.

Trotsky promised Glassford that "I would live [in the U.S.] incognito... would choose my residence in agreement with the authorities... " would not participate "in the political life of the country," and "my guard would be assured by my personal friends." Reassured, Glassford urged Baldwin to seek a visa for Trotsky to live in the U.S. for ''three months or more" and indicated that Trotsky was "reluctant to make application here without some assurance that it will not be denied." Baldwin's efforts proved fruitless. In October, he informed Glassford that the government would refuse Trotsky a visa because "the climate of the Dies Committee [the U.S. Congress' House Un-American Activities Committee] makes a visa impossible.... This does not, of course, preclude Mr. Trotsky from making an application...but by so doing he would almost certainly preclude any chance of later entry." (Trotsky to Glassford, January 7, 1939, Trotsky Archive.)
In September 1938, Mexico City was host to the World Congress against War and Fascism and the Latin American Labor Congress (both of which were Comintem front organizations), which Trotsky and his staff viewed as "gathering places for GPU agents" who "will use the Congress against Trotsky personally [and] against his right of asylum." He urged his followers to "mail as soon as possible known names of congress delegates who are GPU agents.... This is a matter of great importance.

The arrival of Spanish Civil War refugees in Mexico alarmed Trotsky. On 7 January 1939, Trotsky wrote to his attorney and comrade, Albert Goldman, of the imminent arrival of "1500 veterans" of the International Brigades:
 "I suppose that the selection of these people is done by the GPU and that agents of the GPU will form an important percentage of the 1500." 
He had reason to worry. Many of the thousands of International Brigade veterans who took refuge in Mexico perceived the anti-Popular Front politics of Trotskyists, during the Spanish Civil War, as tantamount to counter-revolution and support for fascism. Blackwell was only one of many who were accused of being a Trotskyist agent of fascism. In addition, the influx of veterans, many of whom were communists, threatened to, and ultimately did, alter the political positions of the  (Mexican Communist Party) P.C.M. and the CTM, much to Trotsky's detriment. 

Although prior to 1939, both of those Mexican organizations had opposed publicly Trotsky's asylum in their formal policy was to ignore him, not to legitimize him with undue attention. But, after mid-1939, as the veterans' influence grew, both the  P.C.M.(Mexican Communist Party) and the CTM subjected Trotsky and his asylum to increasingly harsh attacks. That campaign intensified markedly after the P.C.M.'s Extraordinary Congress in March 1940, at which the veterans forced the party into a more militant stance. More broadly, the influx of Spanish Civil War refugees introduced into the Mexican political culture many of the political views and behaviors that characterized the European left's struggle against fascism. The political climate in Mexico became increasingly unfavorable to Trotsky.

Trotsky was not alone in his concern about the (Mexican Communist Party) P.C.M. The U.S. State Department also feared that party's influence and militancy, its support for the confiscation and/or nationalization of properties owned by U.S. nationals, its increasing denunciations of U.S. policies, its organizing efforts among Mexican nationals working in the U.S., and the alleged growth of support in Mexico for a "Soviet form of government as a solution to Mexico's economic maladjustments." Similar concerns fueled the work of the Dies Committee.


(Dies Committe is a special investigating committee  established by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to investigate alleged disloyalty and subversive activities of private citizens, public employees, and those organizations suspected of having communist ties. It was chaired by Martin Dies Jr. and  known as the Dies Committee)

A new possibility for Trotsky to enter the U.S. arose in October 1939 from a most unlikely source-the Dies Committee, formally known as the U.S. House of Representatives Special Committee on un-American Activities. Established in May 1938, the Dies Committee, which was named for its chairman, Representative Martin Dies of Texas, sought to expose alleged communist and subversive activities in the American labor movement and political life. Towards this end, it conducted congressional hearings. On October 12th, J. B. Matthews, the Committee's chief investigator, telephoned Trotsky's secretary, Joseph Hansen, and then cabled Trotsky to invite him to appear before the Committee and provide it with "a complete record of the history of Stalinism." Matthews promised Trotsky that he would arrange for visas for him and his wife, and for their protection. Hansen wrote at the time that: 
"[Trotsky] discussed the matter with all of his secretaries and guards. We were familiar, of course, with the Dies Committee and its investigations. All of us agreed unanimously that it was a Marxist political duty for Comrade Trotsky to accept the invitation, since for the Fourth International it was not any different from any other parliamentary body, could be used as a tribune to explain Stalinist degeneration to the workers, and deal a stiff blow at the same time against the reactionary politics of Dies.  
Later the same day, Trotsky wired Matthews the following telegram: 
"I accept your invitation as a political duty." 
Trotsky understood clearly the Dies Committee's purpose and role in American politics. He and his secretaries had followed closely its investigation of communist and trade union activities and organizations. His attorney, Albert Goldman, met several times with Matthews, who spoke frankly of the Committee's aims. After each meeting, Goldman conveyed their conversation to Trotsky. Following a November meeting with Matthews, Goldman wrote to Trotsky: 
"The Committee wants to connect the Communist Party with the Stalinist government because it wants to persecute the Communist Party under a new law compelling all parties which are agents of foreign governments to register. Our objective, as I told Matthews, will be to expose the really corrupt nature of Stalinism and its corrupting influence on the labor movement. I asked him to get you a regular visitor's visa which will permit you to remain in the United States for six months. " Goldman to Trotsky, November 2, 1939, Trotsky Archive.
Over the next few weeks, Trotsky and his staff diligently prepared for his appearance before the Committee. But his decision to testify angered some members of the Socialist Workers' Party (S.W.P), the reformed American Trotskyist party. At the October 17th meeting of the party's Political Committee, James Burnham introduced a motion "disapproving of Trotsky's acceptance, requesting him to reconsider and refuse to testify, and proposing that the S.W.P. publicly dissociate itself from and criticize his action if he did not comply with the request." The motion was defeated. In a letter to the Political Committee, Trotsky acknowledged that "[T]he [Dies] committee, like the whole parliament, is reactionary and pursues reactionary aims," but asked his comrades: 
"Why can we not appear before this committee with the purpose of establishing the truth?... To appear if necessary, on the foe's territory and to fight him with his own weapons-that is revolutionary radicalism." 
Nor was opposition to Trotsky's appearance confined to the S.W.P.'s leadership. Six S.W.P. members wrote to him of the Dies' political agenda and urged him to reconsider his decision: 
"..  Dies Committee's  role has been to discredit every shading of radical and liberal thought and action in the guise of ferreting out 'foreign agents', specifically those of Berlin and Moscow. Actually, as the war crisis deepens, the work of the committee has been to publicize evidence gathered or invented calculated to garner support for anti-labor legislation. In doing this it has earned the bitter hatred of the entire trade union movement both conservative and militant, as well as all leftist political organizations....At the conclusion of its investigations its evidence will be the basis for linking anti-labor legislation with police activities against spies. Its work will result in greatly strengthening the police power of the federal government in illegalizing strike movements....We feel you should carefully weigh your voluntary appearance... there remains the grave danger that objectively your appearance will hurt our movement rather than advance it, because your action as a voluntary one will be associated with future anti-labor legislation...and...your testimony will inevitably be distorted for red-baiting ends...."
While there is no cause to question Trotsky's stated reason for testifying before the Dies Committee, it may not have been the only one. He knew that the U.S. Government had admitted Walter Krivitsky (the former head of the Soviet political police in Spain during the Civil War), who had testified before U.S. Congressional committees and received political asylum. It would not have been unreasonable for Trotsky to conclude that his testifying before the Dies Committee might produce the same effect. The invitation to testify offered him the opportunity to expose and condemn Stalin and Stalinism before a large audience (of anti-communists and fascists EA)), and to receive a U.S. visa.
In the U.S., Trotsky's intention to testify before the (Communist witch hunter EA)  Dies Committee seriously undermined the already waning support for him. His American partisans consisted of liberals, civil libertarians, and S.W.P. members, all of whom ardently opposed the Dies Committee, although a majority of the S.W.P.'s Political Committee abided by his decision. His willingness to testify suggests that he failed to appreciate how much his American allies, and even some of his comrades, detested the Dies Committee and the impact that his decision to testify would have among them. Perhaps he believed that the anti­-Stalinist positions of his liberal and radical supporters meant that they would understand his decision. He also failed to appreciate that the political principles and liberties which the Dies Committee threatened were among those that the A.C.D.L.T. was formed to protect. To his American supporters, those principles applied equally to Trotsky, Blackwell, and the Communist Party USA. To Trotsky, the revolutionary engaged in a life and death struggle with Stalinism, such principles seemed naive and perfidious.
The Mexican reaction to Trotsky's decision to testify before the Dies Committee was virulent and almost universal. The (Mexican Communist Party) P.C.M. was especially angry. Those attending its 10 January 1940 meeting denounced the Dies Committee as a reactionary body that served the interests of American oil companies in Mexico and condemned Trotsky's willingness to testify before it. 
Some charged that Trotsky was collaborating with Dies Committee. The meeting passed a resolution calling for his expulsion from Mexico.

At a secret (Mexican Communist Party) P.C.M. meeting in April, allegations that the muralist, Diego Rivera and "possibly Trotsky" had leaked sensitive information about the (Communist Party of Mexico) P.C.M. to the U.S. Government resulted in another call to make "every effort to get rid of Trotsky" and a pledge to "take punitive action against the informers." In reaction to Dies Committee's charge in April that the P.C.M. sought the overthrow of the Mexican Government, the P.C.M. again demanded "the expulsion of Trotsky and all spies and agents of Martin Dies." Dies Committee's public statement on 24 April that he might again invite Trotsky to testify further fueled the P.C.M.'s resolve "to get rid of Trotsky." 
Such was the environment when, on 24 May 1940, the muralist, communist and Spanish Civil War veteran, David Alfaro Siqueiros and a band of twenty-five armed men entered Trotsky's compound, then fired some 200 rounds throughout the house. Trotsky survived, but one of his American guards, Robert S. Harte, was kidnapped and later murdered.
After the attack, fear gripped Trotsky's compound. No less anxious for his life, Diego Rivera contacted the U.S. Consulate and asked for a Border Crossing Card to allow him to enter the U.S. The Consulate agreed to press his case in Washington. Within a week, an Immigration and Naturalization Service (I.N.S.) Board of Special Inquiry convened in Brownsville, Texas to consider Rivera's application, which was promptly approved. 
Rivera was a former communist and former Trotskyist. So one might wonder why he received such official courtesy. The reason is that, throughout the previous eighteen months, Rivera had been giving information about the and Mexican labor organizations, both to the press and to American consular officials in Mexico. The first known instance occurred in September 1938, when Rivera gave journalists in Mexico the names of alleged communists working in the Mexican Government. After the Dies Committee's invitations to Trotsky and Rivera became public knowledge in December 1939, Rivera stated that his testimony would reveal "the extensive activities of Stalinist agents in Mexico and other countries in Latin America, and he again gave journalists the list of names that he had given them in 1938. Dies withdrew his invitation to Rivera and Trotsky on the same day.
Rivera's willingness to provide information about Mexican affairs did not end there. From January 1940, he met regularly and secretly with U.S. Consulate officials and provided them with information about communist organizations and objectives in Mexico, (Mexican Communist Party) P.C.M. affiliations among the Spanish refugees, alleged (Mexican Communist Party)  P.C.M.-Nazi collaboration, internal P.C.M. politics, alleged P..C.M. and Nazi agents working in the Mexican Government, communist agents working in Mexico, and "alleged financial aid given by John L. Lewis' CIO to Mexican Labor Organizations. When the P.C.M. leadership at its April 1940 meeting charged that Rivera was leaking information to U.S. officials and the press, they were correct. Rivera had good reason to flee Mexico. The fact that, before leaving Mexico, he publicly called on President Roosevelt to "offer Trotsky asylum in the United States" to aid the U.S. "in combatting the Nazi­ Soviet menace," only fueled the P.C.M.'s effort to expel Trotsky and "all spies and agents of Martin Dies," and increased the danger to Trotsky.
After the May 24th attack, Trotsky's need for secure asylum increased. The threat of being murdered had always been real. The deaths of many of his political supporters in the USSR and in Europe, and of his two sons-Sergei in a Soviet labor camp, Sedov of mysterious circumstances in Paris-strengthened his belief that his life was in constant danger. Although Trotsky claimed to have been "certain there would be an attempt" on his life before May 1940, after the bungled attempt by the Siqueiros gang, his fear of being murdered intensified. His compound was further fortified. The ongoing Mexican presidential election campaign made clear the precariousness of his Mexican asylum. The two leading candidates, Avifa Camacho and Almazan, publicly stated their intentions to expel Trotsky. His days in Mexico appeared to be numbered. If Trotsky as an individual, the leader, theoretician, and embodiment of the Fourth International, were to play an active role in that movement and in revolutionary politics, he needed a secure place of asylum that permitted him close contact with his supporters. With war raging in Europe and Asia, the only possible places of asylum were in the Americas; of these, asylum in the U.S. was the ideal. Previous efforts to gain even temporary admission to the U.S. had failed, and in the aftermath of the Dies Committee affair, Trotsky's support within the U.S. had diminished considerably.
In this context, Trotsky’s writings and his staffs behavior during his last three months suggest that he pursued a dual strategy, designed to enhance the prospects of retaining his asylum in Mexico and to provide the U.S. Government with information of sufficient value to enhance his prospects for a visa. 
During his last three months, Trotsky set aside the biography of Stalin on which he had been working and devoted his energies almost exclusively to investigating the May 24th assault and its aftermath. He wrote on two related issues. First, he claimed that three Mexican publications-Futuro, El Popular, and La Voz de Mexico-received financial support from the N.K.V.D. (People's Commissariat of Internal Affairs, referred to by Trotsky as the G.P.U., its predecessor) in exchange for which they adhered to the Stalinist line. Related to this charge was his accusation that Lombardo Toledano, the (Confederation of Mexican Workers) C.T.M.'s leader, was Soviet foreign agent. Second, he claimed that the Soviet Government, through the N.K.V.D., exercised complete control and direction of the Comintern and the communist parties of the U.S. and Mexico. What bound the two issues together was his urgent need to expose the NKVD network that he believed engineered the May 24th assault and that would try again because, as he noted, "Stalin seeks my death."
Shortly after the May assault, Futuro, El Popular, and La Voz de Mexico asserted that Trotsky himself had engineered what they called a "self assault." Trotsky was outraged by the charge which he viewed as having two purposes: 
"(1) to stir up police hostility against the victim of the aggression and thus to aid the aggressors; (2) to cause, if possible, my expulsion from Mexico; that is to say, my transfer into the hands of the GPU." 
On 27 May, he wrote to the Attorney General of Mexico, the Chief of Police of the Federal District and the Secretary for Internal Affairs charging that these publications received money from the Soviet Government. He claimed that the "attempted assassination could only be instigated by the Kremlin; by Stalin through the agency of the GPU abroad," that the "GPU is particularly concerned with the problem of preparing public opinion for a terrorist act [and that]...[t]his part of the job is always assigned to the Stalinist press, Stalinist speakers, and the so-called 'friends of the Soviet Union.""' To understand how and by whom the attack was organized, "it is essential to categorically establish that the activity of the GPU is closely intertwined with the activity of the Comintern...[l]n the Central Committee of each section of the Comintern there is placed a responsible director of the GPU for that country." Therefore, "[t]he judicial investigation [into the May 24th assault], it seems to me...cannot fail to examine the work of the newspapers El Popular, La Voz de Mexico, and some collaborators of El Nacional.'' 

El Popular and Futuro immediately initiated a libel suit against Trotsky. The evidence that he presented to the court sought to accomplish two aims: to show the interlocking network of the publications' editorial boards and to prove that the publications acted as agents of the Soviet Government, specifically the GPU. Trotsky's evidence in support of the former was far more convincing than that in support of the latter, which was circumstantial and aimed at turning the charges of slander and defamation against his accusers. 

Trotsky also claimed that Lombardo Toledano, the (Confederation of Mexican Workers) C.T.M.'s leader and editor of Futuro, "took part in the moral preparation of the terrorist attack," and that "Toledano knew in advance of the preparations for the attempt, even if in the most general way." He described Toledano as a "foreign agent of the Kremlin." 

At the July libel hearing, Trotsky charged that La Voz de Mexico also received financial support from Moscow. That newspaper responded with a libel suit. Over the next month and a half, Trotsky worked tirelessly on a document that he would use to substantiate his charge and that was his last substantive work--"The Comintern and the GPU." Although he began the essay with the assertion that "[T]his document pursues aims which are juridical and not political,"the piece is of inestimable historical value. 

In it, Trotsky sought to prove that La Voz de Mexico received funds from the GPU in Moscow and that all communist parties and organizations sympathetic to the USSR did so. In the first part, Trotsky presented his views on the degeneration of the Soviet experiment, claimed that the GPU organized the May 24th attempt on his life, and charged that: "The editorial board of La Voz de Mexico knew of the impending attempt and was preparing the public opinion of its own party and sympathizing circles." In the second half, he presented some rather compelling substantive and circumstantial evidence in support of his accusation that "La Voz de Mexico, El Popular, and Futuro are tools of the GPU and enjoy its economic aid."

To appreciate the political importance that Trotsky and his staff attached to his charges against the (Mexican Communist Party) P.C.M., the Mexican radical press, and the Comintern, we will examine their meetings with U.S. Consulate officials after the May 24th assault. The process began, understandably, when he and his staff cooperated with the Consulate's investigation into the fate of his kidnapped guard. Trotsky's secretaries provided the Consulate's staff with information about the assault and Harte. In June, Robert McGregor of the Consulate met with Trotsky in his home and discussed Harte's case. He met again with Trotsky on 13 July "to learn of developments" in the investigation. Trotsky told McGregor in detail of the allegations and evidence that he had compiled while preparing ''The Comintern and the GPU," although he apparently made no mention of that essay. He gave McGregor the names of Mexican publications, political and labor leaders, and government officials allegedly associated with the P.C.M. He charged that one of the Comintern's leading agents, Carlos Contreras (aka Vittorio Vidali), served on the P.C.M.'s Directing Committee. He also discussed the alleged efforts of Narciso Bassols, former Mexican Ambassador to France, whom Trotsky claimed was a Soviet agent, to get him deported from Mexico. 

Five days later, Charles Cornell, one of Trotsky's secretaries, visited the U.S. Consulate and gave a staff member a "strictly confidential memo" from Trotsky that discussed the activities in Mexico of Enrique Martinez Riqui. Trotsky asserted that Riqui was a GPU agent in Latin America, who had allegedly "planned and directed" the 1940 purge of the (Mexican Communist Party) P.C.M., but who operated out of New York and "has direct contact with Moscow." is not unreasonable to conclude that Trotsky provided this information to enhance his value as a source, while simultaneously striking a blow against alleged Soviet agents in Mexico and the U.S., whom he believed threatened his safety.

On 22 August, just such an agent, Ramon Mercador, murdered Trotsky. On 3 September, Joseph Hansen visited McGregor at the U.S. Consulate, informing him of Trotsky's three unpublished works on the Mexican press and "The Comintern and the GPU." The next day, Hansen gave McGregor those works and a secret memorandum of a conversation between a "Directing Member of the Fourth International in New York and a prominent member, "W" [Whittaker Chambers], of the Fourth International". This material touched on a series of issues relating to Trotsky's murder. Ten days later, Hansen gave McGregor more documents and information found in Trotsky's desk about a number of individuals in Mexico, the U.S., and France, some of whom were suspected Soviet agents. 

It is easy to interpret Trotsky's giving information about alleged communists and Comintern agents to U.S. Consulate officials as an understandable effort to identify and apprehend those responsible for the May assault and Harte's murder.

From 1933 until December 1939, Trotsky and his supporters worked persistently to obtain him a U.S. visa. Some of those efforts were made under false pretenses and with Trotsky's full knowledge.

Trotsky's acceptance of the Dies Committee's invitation would have allowed him not only to expose Stalinism and issue a call for revolution, but also would have secured for him and his wife a six-month visa. His willingness to contribute to Dies' anti-communist and anti-labor witch-hunt severely damaged his credibility among his former American supporters. ..
Trotsky, the U.S. Government, the A.C.D.L.T.'s members and the Dies Committee may have all shared a common enemy-Stalin­ ..... His U.S. liberal and radical supporters, for whom the means were as important as the ends, for whom the defense of inalienable rights was paramount, became disillusioned with his sectarian behavior. Tactics that had been effective in revolutionary Russia and the USSR failed miserably in the U.S. .. Trotsky's efforts to gain admission to the U.S. must be considered in light of his unusual dilemma. He was a hunted man, the object both of a sustained political campaign directed by the Kremlin, and of attacks by political assassins. He justifiably feared for his life. .... his desire to do what was necessary to protect his and his wife's lives is understandable. Judged by another, his willingness to testify before the Dies Committee and to provide information to an "imperialist" government, in hope of securing a visa, may be interpreted as hypocritical. In this case, to Trotsky himself, personal needs and political desires coincided.

One task remains. His discussions with U.S. Government officials and his accusations against Mexican publications and communists in 1940 force require us to consider an important question, one that historians have not asked before now. Why was Trotsky murdered when he was? Conventional wisdom holds that Stalin hated Trotsky and wanted him dead before Trotsky completed his biography of Stalin. Stalin's reasons for killing him were personal. No one denies that Stalin hated Trotsky and probably wanted him dead. But there are questions about the timing of the murder that require consideration. 

Why was Trotsky not killed before August 1940? Ramon Mercador, Trotsky's murderer, had been in Trotsky's house nine times in 1940 before he killed him. Given that Mercador had had ample opportunity before 21 August, why did he not kill Trotsky earlier? Mercador's preparations for the murder were calculated and extended for two years. If the reason for killing Trotsky was to avenge Stalin's personal hatred, why did Mercador not kill him at the first opportunity? 

Perhaps Stalin deferred Trotsky's murder until August 1940 because he needed Trotsky alive to lend credibility to the alleged anti-Soviet Trotskyist conspiracies that were the core of the Moscow show trials. But the last big show trial ended in March 1938. In December 1938, Ezhov, the head of the NKVD, was removed and the mass repression subsided. If the reason for killing Trotsky was personal, why did it take so long for Mercador to commit the foul deed? As the murders of Wolf, Klement, Nin and Krivitsky demonstrated, if the NKVD wanted to kill someone, it could do so quickly. In light of the May 1940 assault and Mercador's visits to Trotsky's house, one cannot seriously consider the security around Trotsky to have been a deterrent. 

But of course, Mercador was not the first person to try to murder Trotsky; Siqueiros and his gang attempted to do so in May 1940. Or did they? The assumption has been that Siqueiros and Mercador were both NKVD agents. That they both used the same Mexico City address suggests that this is plausible. But we are again left to wonder why Mercador, who had been in Trotsky's house before the Siqueiros attack, did not kill Trotsky first, and why twenty-five heavily armed Spanish Civil War veterans managed to fire some 200 shots in Trotsky's compound, even into his bedroom where he and his wife were huddled behind the bed, but still not kill Trotsky. Uncoupling the two attacks provides a more reasonable answer. Siqueiros' stated reasons for assaulting Trotsky's compound were rooted in the Spanish Civil War, especially in Siqueiro's bitter reaction to the 1937 POUM uprising, what he called the "Trotskyist treachery in Barcelona." His stated intention was not to kill Trotsky but rather "to close what I [Siqueiros] called 'the counterrevolutionary headquarters of Trotsky in Mexico."' Siqueiros was hardly the only Spanish Civil War veteran who hated Trotsky. 

Shortly after Siqueiro's assault, Mercador went to New York. When he returned to Mexico, he acted peculiar, nervous, edgy. His biographer and others have argued that his nervous condition was due to the fact that, while he was in New York, Mercador had received orders to murder Trotsky soon. Let us grant this. Still, the question remains. Why was the order given to kill Trotsky only in mid-1940? What precipitated the order? What had changed? 

Here Trotsky's accusations that Soviet agents financed and directed Futuro, El Popular and La Voz de Mexico, U.S. consular officials' visits to his house, and his secretaries' visits to the Consulate raise an intriguing question. Did those accusations and discussions finally lead to the decision to murder Trotsky? Did the NKVD and the Soviet government fear that Trotsky's accusations against the C.T.M.(Confederation of Mexican Workers)  and the radical Mexican newspapers, and his discussions with U.S. Government representatives, might expose their agents in the Americas? Did Moscow fear that his accusations that it financed and directed the (Confederation of Mexican Workers) C.T.M. and CPUSA would lead to outlawing those parties? Given the timing of the murder and the fact that the murder occurred only on Mercador's ninth visit to Trotsky's house, the possibility that Trotsky was murdered for calculated political reasons - to protect Soviet and Comintern agents, and communist parties in the Americas - rather than for personal reasons, cannot be ruled out. In fact, such a hypothesis seems more consistent with the available evidence. 

To entertain seriously the hypothesis that Trotsky's murder resulted from calculated political considerations rather than personal animus means that we must also ponder its implications. Mercador had been recruited as Trotsky's assassin no later than spring 1938, while Ezhov headed the NKVD. In December 1938, the Politburo removed Ezhov and appointed Beriia to head the NKVD. By August 1940, Ezhov and many of his underlings were dead or under arrest. Yet Mercador remained free to pursue his assignment. He was clearly not Ezhov's man. In mid-1940, Trotsky posed no serious threat to the USSR. The Fourth International was a small sectarian movement and Trotsky himself was more politically isolated than ever. The September 1940 Mexican presidential elections might very well have resulted in his having to leave Mexico. As a political threat to the USSR, Trotsky was insignificant. To paraphrase Stalin's remark about the pope-how many divisions did Trotsky have? 

But Trotsky still could have posed a potential threat to the USSR. He could have betrayed, knowingly or unknowingly, the identity of Soviet spies and Comintern agents in the Americas to Mexican and/or U.S. officials. World War II had begun and the U.S. was the center of Soviet intelligence operations for the Americas and Pacific Rim, so exposing and disrupting espionage or intelligence networks posed a serious threat. Trotsky's accusations might have been used by the Dies Committee to make membership in the (Confederation of Mexican Workers)  C.T.M. and CPUSA illegal for U.S. citizens. Although Beria was in charge of the NKVD, he was not a member of the Politburo. As such, he could not make a decision as significant as murdering Trotsky without approval from Stalin and the Politburo. In view of the fact that the Politburo had removed Ezhov for not keeping them and Stalin informed, Beria would have been stupid to make the decision on his own initiative, and Beria was not stupid. 

Only the opening of the relevant Russian archives will enable us to determine if Trotsky's murder was the result of a calculated geo-political decision. Until then, the hypothesis presented here provides an explanation that is consistent with the available evidence and Soviet behavior in 1940, and a plausible answer to the question, why was Trotsky murdered in August 1940 and not before then?

William J. Chase

“Trotskii v Mekcike. K istorii ero neglasnykh kontaktov s pravitel'stvom SShA (1937-1940)” ("Trotsky in Mexico: Toward a History of His Informal Contacts with the U.S. Government, 1937-1940"), Otechestvennaia istoriia, 4 (July/August 1995)