Rebel with a Cause

September 22, 2020, Lapham’s Quarterly

The eighty-year-old mystery of the murder of Sheldon Robert Harte, Leon Trotsky’s most controversial bodyguard.

On a sultry May night in 1940, two dozen Stalinists wearing police and army uniforms, goggles, and fake mustaches approached the villa in Mexico City where Leon Trotsky lived in exile. They disarmed several officers in a nearby police booth. One of the former Soviet leader’s bodyguards stood at the compound’s gate; the posse strode up to him and asked to enter. Once inside, they tossed a homemade bomb into the room of Trotsky’s grandson and fired submachine guns into the bedroom of Trotsky and his wife Natalia. The elderly couple dove to the floor shortly before seventy shots pockmarked their bed and walls.

After twenty minutes, the assailants withdrew. Trotsky and his entourage were virtually unharmed. But the bodyguard who had been on duty at the gate was gone. From where they had been tied up, the real police officers said they had seen him protesting as the shooters marched him to a stolen car and sped off.

Cables flew between Mexico City, Washington, DC, and Moscow in the following days. Nobody was surprised that someone was trying to kill Trotsky, who had been in exile from the Soviet Union since losing a power struggle with Joseph Stalin in 1928. But questions surrounded the missing bodyguard, known to Trotsky and his associates as Bob Shields, a twenty-five-year-old New Yorker from a bourgeois background. His disappearance triggered an investigation involving the Mexican secret police, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Soviet intelligence units.

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