If you are a newcomer to this series, then here again is the proper order in which to read this series of posts:
And then this current one, Part II-(I), which you are reading right now! All of this material is riffing off my original source, which is this 3-part piece by Professor William Chase, a historian teaching at the University of Pittsburgh. I am still working my way laboriously through Part II of his work, and discovering some fascinating characters and stories along the way.
Where we left off: It is two months away from Trotsky’s actual assassination. The earlier attempt, which included a home invasion and drive-by shooting, took the life of one of Trotsky’s bodyguards, Robert Sheldon Harte. Subsequent revelations, years after the fact, were to reveal the shocking truth: Namely that Harte was actually a GPU mole planted inside the Trotsky household. Just like in some bad Hollywood thriller, with slab-faced Russian goon baddies, the clean-cut American mole Harte was abducted at gunpoint and offed on the orders of his own handler, Nahum Eitingon. Which was pretty rude, if you ask me. This was a decision that Eitingon made in the heat of the moment, when Harte suddenly grew a conscience at the last minute, and balked at the idea of killing Trotsky. Trotsky himself never knew, until the day he died, or even afterwards, that Harte was a mole. In his mind, Harte was an innocent victim, a martyr, of the Stalin Terror-Squads. Trotsky even arranged for a memorial plaque to be put up on the exact place on the highway, where Nahum’s Mexican goons left Harte’s body.
For our purposes, the important “take-away” here, as my former boss used to say, is that Harte was an American citizen. Therefore, the investigation of his violent death in Mexico would have brought the American police and FBI to Trotsky’s door, willy-nilly.
Chase, writing in Russian, describes the feeling of panic which enveloped the Trotsky household and circle of friends:
После этого покушения в убежище Троцкого воцарился страх. Ривера также опасался за свою жизнь. 29 мая 1940 г. он обращается в консульство США за пропуском, который позволил бы ему въехать в Соединенные Штаты. Консульство согласилось ходатайствовать за него перед Вашингтоном, и спустя неделю Управление по вопросам иммиграции и натурализации провело специальное заседание своего Бюро особых расследований в г. Браунсвиль ( штат Техас) по этому поводу. Просьба Риверы была удовлетворена.
TRANSLATION: After this (assassination attempt), fear gripped Trotsky’s (household). Rivera was also terrified for his life. On May 29, 1940 he applies for a visa at the American consulate, which would permit him to enter the United States. The consul agreed to petition on his behalf to Washington, and a week later the Bureau of Special Investigations of the Immigration and Naturalization Services heard the case in a special session, in the city of Brownsville, Texas. Rivera’s request was granted.
This is all factual, except for Chase’s characterization of “panic” in the Trotsky household, and his assumption that Rivera’s “terror” urged him to flee to the U.S. (In fact, Rivera wasn’t really fleeing, he had a legitimate reason to be in the U.S., and he eventually returned to Mexico. Still, I suppose it is fair to conclude that he might have wanted to make himself scarce in Mexico for a few weeks, following such a shocking event as the Siqueiros drive-by shooting.)
As for Trotsky’s “panic”, I would imagine that most normal people would be scared out of their wits after a violent home invasion; and I am pretty sure that Mrs. Trotsky (Natalia Sedova), was not very happy about this whole situation. Still, Chase wasn’t there, and he doesn’t know what was going on in Trotsky’s mind. If we learned anything about Trotsky, we know that he was far from being a “normal” person. Hardened as he was, having been through revolutions, civil wars, exiles, and all the rest of it, maybe to him this was just another day at the office (?)
In any case, Chase’s main point here being that Diego Rivera has decided to bow out of the anti-Stalin game. Stalin is a formidable opponent, going up against him is way too dangerous for the sensitive artist. Fortunately for Rivera, the American government were surprisingly cooperative, and readily granted him a visa. Rivera’s wiki records, blandly, that the muralist “returned for the last time” to the U.S. on June 5, 1940, to paint a giant fresco for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. After that he apparently returned to Mexico, despite whatever tremors of fear in his capacious gut, and he never again returned to the U.S. His biography records that he died in Mexico City 17 years later (1957), a normal death. Not assassinated. By then Stalin was also dead and Soviet life had calmed down somewhat, as well. Given this, one could dismiss Professor Chase’s sneaky inferences and make a completely alternate case for Rivera’s behavior, many interpretations are possible.
Were it not for those pesky archives.
[Note that these American government archives are available online to anybody who possesses the bibliographic skills to mine through them. Which excludes Yours Truly, which is why I have to depend on the kindness of real historians like Professor Chase.]
The Case Against Rivera
Professor Chase states boldly that the only reason Rivera, “a known communist and Trotskyist”, was allowed into the U.S., was (…) not because of his international stature as an artist, or the desperate need of American fans to admire his frescos. It was because he had already turned: Like a dirty rat-fink he has been snitching to the American consulate, giving up whatever details he knows about the Mexican Communist Party and trade unions.
Chase Footnote #37: [translation from Russian]: At the beginning of January 1940 Rivera communicated the names of 50 probable members of the Mexican Communist Party who occupied high positions in the (Mexican) government. He also declared that he knew the details of a campaign of murders in Mexico (National Archives. RG84. G.Shaw to Secretary of State. January 5, 1940). On January 11 1940 Rivera met, in his home, with the American consul, Robert G. McGregor Jr. (same archive, J.Stewart to Secretary of State. January 17, 1940). Rivera had meetings with American government employees one or two more times after that. (same archive, J.Stewart to Secretary of State. February 16, 1940). Messersmith’s memo note is dated 26 January 1940. (F.D.R. Presidential Papers. Secretary’s File. Box 44). Rivera again met with McGregor on March 2, 1940. McGregor’s memo note is appended to J. Stewart’s letter to the Secretary of State (National Archives. RG84. J.Stewart to Secretary of State. March 4, 1940). Although Rivera had given up quite a lot of names to the American government, the State Department considered this information to be dubious (National Archives. RG59. A.Berle to J.Stewart. March 12, 1940). For more information on Rivera’s role as a U.S. government informant, see also: Chase W., Reed D. El Extrano Caso de Diego Rivera у el Departamento de Estado // El Financiero, 1993, 19 Noviembre. Vol. II. 61..
[Okay, for starters: Not being very knowledgeable of Mexican politics of that era, I don’t fully understand why members of the Mexican Communist Party had to keep their Party affiliation secret, in order to keep their jobs in the government. This was a socialist and coalition government, right? Not like in the U.S., where a card-carrying member of the Communist Party would never be allowed a post in the government, and therefore any Communist in, say, the FDR administration, would be forced to conceal his political affiliation and serve under-cover. But that’s just a question mark.]
Rivera initially was also (tentatively) scheduled to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in Washington DC. In December 1939 Rivera bragged openly that his testimony would “disclose the activities of Stalinist agents in Mexico and in other Latin American countries.” In Footnote #35 Professor Chase backs up this assertion, while also quoting Rivera stating that any testimony concerning himself should be strictly separated from testimony concerning Trotsky. Rivera even remarks disdainfully that “I have nothing in common with that gentleman.” By this time, Rivera and Trotsky had broken off their friendship (although some people allege, and I think Chase implies, that the break-up was just a fake, for public consumption).
In the end, though, Senator Dies retracted his invitations to both Rivera and Trotsky. Again, the implication is that the American government already got what they needed from both men, and didn’t need to hear any public speechifying from either of those rascals.
So, this is where we get to the meat of it. Up until now, it’s just been inferences, but the good Professor has just proved that, yes, Rivera truly did cross over to the Dark Side, and he became a Confidential Informant to the American government. But whether he did it out of fear, greed, vanity, or some other motive, is unknown.
So, Rivera became a snitch. But what about Trotsky? Did he become a snitch too? Did he know about Rivera’s snitching? Professor Chase poses the question, but does not answer it. He points out that the two men had not spoken in 15 months, but implies this alienation might have been a sham. Then he mentions the name of a certain individual named Leah Brenner.
Chase Versus Trotsky
Chase Footnote #40: [translation from Russian]: In his letter to Salazar, the Chief of Police of the (Mexican) district, dated May 31, 1940, Trotsky writes that he has “nothing in common with the political activities of Diego Rivera. He and I broke up personal relations 15 months ago,” and since that time, Trotsky asserts, they have not had “neither direct nor indirect contacts”. (Trotsky Archive. L.Trotsky to L.S.Salazar. May 31, 1940.) Nonetheless, they did have some friends in common, who were capable of conveying information from one to the other. It is completely plausible that (one of these) was Leah Brenner, Rivera’s secretary, who fled from Mexico on June 2, 1940, after receiving a threatening letter. (National Archives. RG84. Leah Brenner Protection Case. R.Kenneth Oakley, Reporting Officer. June 2, 1940).
Leah Brenner was born in 1915 in San Antonio, Texas (which made her a U.S. citizen), the daughter of Latvian-Jewish immigrants. According to the brief biographical sketch I just linked: “She attended La Universidad de Mexico, receiving a master’s degree in Modern Languages in 1937 and her doctorate in Letters in 1941. Brenner worked as a secretary for Mexican artist Diego Rivera from 1939 to 1945. After leaving Rivera’s employment and returning to the United States, Brenner lived for a time in New York City and eventually settled in San Antonio, where she lived until her death in 2004.”
Given this chronology, Leah Brenner was working for Rivera during this very period when Rivera was snitching to the American government. Apparently Brenner was a Trotskyist; Professor Chase mentioned her earlier (in Footnote #7), in conjunction with the Blackwell affair, as the Trotsky Archive contains a letter from Brenner, dated November 2, 1938, addressed “to Comrade Olay“, and on the topic of Blackwell. This earlier citation is important only in that it shows Brenner to be a card-carrying Party member (possibly) of Trotsky’s Fourth International. Since she actually uses that word “Comrade“. (I’m not being sarcastic here, this is an actual tell.)
Leah’s official biography does not mention that episode in June of 1940 when she fled from Mexico, after receiving the threatening letter, and was put into protective custody in the U.S. (Remember that she was an American citizen, and hence deserved official protection.) After some unspecified period of time, Leah apparently returned to Mexico, and resumed her duties as Diego Rivera’s personal secretary and biographer.
Professor Chase infers that Brenner served as a conduit between Trotsky and Rivera long after Trotsky allegedly “broke ties” with Rivera. And an even sneakier inference, that Leah was a conduit, for both men, to the American government. But here, inference is simply inference, as Chase does not provide any documentary proof of this allegation. Many other interpretations are possible: Probably Leah did not know that her boss, Rivera, was snitching to the American government. I mean, this was all a big secret until Professor Chase blew the lid off in 2003, right? And then Leah died one year later, in 2004. Coincidence? You be the judge.
Also, Leah could have been spying on Rivera, on behalf of Trotsky and/or the American government. Or she could have been spying against Trotsky for the FBI. Many theories are possible. Her primary loyalty seems to have been to the artist (as she was to go on to write his biography), and perhaps she held that relationship in more value than whatever relationship she had with Trotsky. Perhaps she wasn’t even a fanatical Trotskyist anyhow, more like a dabbler. My point is that, without Facts, it is all just speculation. And Professor Chase seems to be stretching it a bit here. He proved his case against Rivera with facts and numbers. Against Trotsky himself, he has …. just speculation and inferences.
Which isn’t to say that Trotsky was an innocent lamb who just turned the other cheek to his oppressors. In the next segment we will see how Trotsky fought back, sometimes quite viciously, against the Mexican Communist Party and the Mexican newspapers.
[to be continued]