The 1917-18 Envoys' Plot and its consequences in Russia Part One
Detailed by us in a 2011 article, variously called Ambassadors' or Envoys' Plot and later when the first related British documents were released, named in the press as the Lockhart-Reilly and finally misnamed as simple 'the' Lockhart Plot remains the most audacious spy plot in British and American history, a bold and extremely dangerous operation to invade Russia, defeat the Red Army, and mount a coup in Moscow against Lenin. After that, leaders in Washington, Paris, and London aimed to install their own Allied-friendly dictator in Moscow as a means to get Russia back into the war effort against Germany.
In The Allied Intervention in Russia, 1918-1920: The Diplomacy of Chaos published in 2015, Ian C. D. Moffat charted the Allied Powers of the First World War’s efforts to preserve Russian commitment to the war against the German Empire after the October Revolution, and their attempt to forestall the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. The author’s use of primary sources provides support to existing arguments such as the pervasive influence of the first world war on Allied intervention in Russia. But when Moffat (as others did before him) still argued that the intervention had little to do with an ideological fight against Bolshevism and was solely rooted in strategic considerations of World War I, recently discovered archival documents had come up with some amazing surprises when it was revealed that long before other high-profile plotters such as Bruce Lockhart and Sidney Reilly came aboard some unusual decisions had already been made.
To understand the full context, we have to go back to January 1917, demonstrations and mutinies broke out among the 330,000 soldiers stationed in Petrograd and the suburbs. The mutinies quickly spread to sailors in the Baltic Fleet. Widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo that had been building since the Brusilov Offensive the year before. Later on, some would call the Russian Revolution of 1917 the February Revolution. But the January disturbances were the true beginning of it all. Some of the troops were anti-war. Others were incensed at the incompetence of the government and the tsar. Hence Tsar Nicholas II and his crooked bureaucrats were seen as the main impediments to victory. Rumors spread about treason in the tsar’s court, and officers with Germanic names were singled out for suspicion.
During the early American presence, that time was Xenophon Kalamatiano, Chapin Huntington, and Charles Crane.
Kalamatiano’s activities in Russia, begins with an examination of a certain “Chicago group” of Russophiles and information gatherers, businessman Charles Richard Crane, University of Chicago president William Rainey, and pictured below Samuel N. Harper, a University of Chicago professor, recruited Americans to go to Russia as operatives for the U.S. State Department:
US spymaster Kalamatiano is best known when he later was to be arrested around the same time Bruce Lockhart was. Chapin Huntington held a doctorate in engineering from the Royal Technical College at Aix la Chappelle, Prussia, and a mechanical engineering degree from Columbia University. His specialty was metallurgy, and he was fluent in French, German, and Russian. In Chicago, he was a commercial agent for the U.S. Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. Huntington had arrived in Russia in June 1916 and spent that summer touring and exploring the country. Now in 1917, he was assigned to the embassy in Petrograd as a commercial attaché. And Charles Crane (known from the King-Crane Middle East mission I earlier highlighted) became an adviser on Russian affairs for Thomas Woodrow Wilson when the president first took office in 1913. Earlier, Crane had been appointed U.S. minister “designate” to China by President William Howard Taft.
Charles R. Crane used his own money to finance private networks of American agents in Russia for several U.S. presidents, including Wilson:
When later, General E.A. Vertsinsky, the new commander of the 18th Army Corps, found that a reserve battalion of the Volyn regiment had rebelled and taken to the streets during the disorders in Petrograd. The district court building and the Transfiguration Cathedral were set on fire, and the arsenal was seized, while General Zabudsky was killed.1 Huntington and Crane made daily reports to the embassy. The reports were coded, ciphered, and wired by Ambassador Francis to London for relay to Washington. But the British still had a monopoly on transatlantic cable service, and London censors delayed the traffic before sending it along. That caused backlogs. The British said they did this to block information that might be useful to the Central Powers. But Americans suspected the English were deliberately uncooperative because the United States had not yet taken sides in the war. London also held up cablegrams sent by U.S. businesses. That allowed the British to conduct industrial espionage against America by stealing trade secrets and contracts' details.2
During this period, Crane continued talking to people in the government and the Duma, acting as an influence for Washington. His reports went to Ambassador David R. Francis in Petrograd for relay to Washington. Kalamatiano was trying to keep his import business afloat. He wasn’t officially working for the State Department yet but undoubtedly was sharing information as a casual agent.
To avoid eavesdropping by the British, reports now were increasingly sent to Washington by diplomatic couriers. They were U.S. Marines wearing civilian clothes. They took trains across the border into Finland, Norway, or Sweden, and then either boarded ships for America or transmitted their code reports by wireless. Some couriers went the other direction, on the Trans-Siberian Railway to Vladivostok, and handed their reports to new couriers who then sailed for San Francisco.
American agents in Russia used the State Department’s Green Cipher. It replaced the old Blue Cipher after a blue book was stolen from the Petrograd embassy. Codebooks were similar to dictionaries. They listed words and phrases alphabetically. But instead of definitions, the book assigned groups of numbers to the selected words. Then, as added security, the coded numbers were added to groups of ciphered numbers before being sent. Codebooks could run over 1,000 pages.3
The speed of events in Russia picked up quickly. The tsar dissolved the Duma. The delegates defied him and stayed in session around the clock. Kerensky, a lifelong populist lawyer and leader of the radical left in the Duma, shouted, “Down with the government!” British agent Bruce Lockhart blamed the tsar’s shutdown on German agents provocateurs operating in palace circles. Lockhart said they wanted to provoke a revolution and force Russia into a separate peace with Berlin.4 Kerensky, too, charged that the palace was infiltrated by German agents.5 The Duma formed an executive committee and set up the Russian Provisional Government. An opposition group, the Soviet of Workmen’s and Soldiers’ Deputies, aka the Petrograd Soviet, was created to compete with the provisional government. Soviets (workers’ councils) were first formed in factories during the 1905 revolution to make demands against the government. Lev (Leon) Davidovitch Trotsky was one of the early organizers. His 1905 Soviets included a motley crew of radicals, including Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, anarchists, and Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs). The SRs were formed in 1902 as a terrorist alternative to the Social Democrats (SDS). The SRs believed that peasants, not urban workers, were the revolutionary class.
Soon Nicholas II had lost the support of his soldiers, his people, and his parliament. Now some of his top officers staged a quiet coup. It happened on a bitterly cold night as Nicholas returned from Stavka to Tsarskoye Selo, his beloved country home. His train was diverted to Pskov, a small station southeast of Petrograd, near the Estonian border. There, rebellious soldiers surrounded the train in the deep snow. A group of the tsar’s generals entered his car for a talk. They advised him that Petrograd was in a state of anarchy. It would do no good to send in more troops, for they would go over to the revolutionaries. “Then what is to be done now?” he asked. Alexander Ivanovich Guchkov, a former chairman of the Third Duma (1907–1912), replied, “You must abdicate, te the throne.”
Suddenly Nicholas was a dead man whose friends had followed him to the grave, but not into it with him. He was all alone, with no more sycophants to assure him that he possessed the greatest military mind since Caesar. He took a walk outside on the station platform, then returned to his car and signed two abdication documents. The first turned the crown over to his son, Alexis. Then he changed the abdication in favor of his brother, Grand Duke Michael. But Michael refused the throne.6 With that, 305 years of rule by the Romanovs ended. Guchkov was arrested that night by workers who thought he was part of the tsar’s inner circle.
The existing Fourth Duma proclaimed the country was now the Russian Revolutionary Republic. The new Russian Provisional Government scheduled elections for a constituent (constitutional) assembly to meet and decide what kind of political system the country would have in the future. Within two weeks, U.S. Ambassador Francis gave official diplomatic recognition to the fledgling new nation. France, Italy, and Britain soon followed.
The provisional government, when the status of the monarchy was still unresolved, sent a manifesto urging the soldiers to hold the line against Germany and defend Russia’s new freedoms. “Yes, we will!” the soldiers shouted. But then they received the infamous Order No. 1 from the Petrograd Soviet. It abolished all army titles. Officers were to be disarmed.
When Lenin arrived, one of the faces in the crowd that April night in Petrograd was that of Boris Viktorovich Savinkov, who had arrived at the station simultaneously as Lenin. Savinkov was a professional terrorist who used to belong to the Socialist Revolutionary Party, aka the SRs.7 Now, he was an independent SR with his own agenda aimed at both monarchists and Bolsheviks. Lenin did not later mention having seen Savinkov at the station. But Boris, a vain man, was reportedly offended because the crowd was not there to greet his return from exile.
In fact, one could say that the SRs, not the monarchists, the Mensheviks, or the anarchists, were the Bolsheviks’ main enemy in Russia. (Cossacks came in a close second.) So, it was no secret that Savinkov was gunning for Lenin. Boris saw it as a duel to the death. Boris carried a Browning pistol, so why didn’t he shoot Lenin that night? That would have been a quick way of preventing a Bolshevik coup.
The answer probably lay in Savinkov’s style of assassination. He was a meticulous assassin. He spent weeks researching his target’s movements in advance, and carefully planned the hit at just the right time. Lenin’s unexpected arrival that night caught him off guard. Also, Savinkov preferred to use a bomb in killing but apparently didn’t have one on hand that night. Nor did he have a team in place. He had to let it go for the time being. He would find other chances later.
Al the while, The US remained neutral vis a vis the war with Germany demands war increased with the sinking of five American ships, the Vigilancia, the City of Memphis, Illinois, the Healdton, and the Algonquin, by German submarines. Twenty-one Americans died when the Healdton went down.8 But the straw that broke the camel’s back was the infamous Zimmermann telegram.
Then after America was in the war. Wilson recognized the need to keep Russia in it, too. First, there was a strategic need to keep the Russian fronts intact. That would force the Central Powers to continue fighting in two theatres.
Second, he had economic reasons for turning his attention to Russia. When war broke out, America was a debtor nation still reeling from the recession of 1913–1914. But a big recovery took off as the United States started selling goods to the European belligerents. Then, in 1917, after the war was declared, Washington began awarding its own military contracts. Factories that once manufactured automobiles and stoves now made guns and trucks. Millions of women joined production lines as men went off to fight. Some 3 million jobs were added to the military, and 500,000 in the federal bureaucracy. The national jobless rate dropped to 1.4 percent. Most of the war’s financing was met not by running up huge deficits but by selling war bonds (for 58 percent of the cost) and raising taxes (22 percent).9
Wilson also figured the United States, with 103.2 million, would be packed with surplus goods after the war.10 To prevent America from sliding back into recession, he wanted to sell those surplus products overseas like in Russia... Russia would be a prime market for American cars, locomotives, blue jeans, sneakers, jazz records, Western movies, and cigarettes. Officially, Wilson’s closest adviser in his developing Russian policy was Secretary of State Lansing. The unofficial voices were those of Charles Crane and Wilson’s old friend Edward Mandell House. But another influence was closer to him than all of those. That was his second wife, Edith Wilson.
She was the president’s companion day and night, and his closest political adviser. She was the only person in the White House who held Wilson’s special presidential code, which he used outside official channels for top-secret messages to embassies, consulates, and military missions. She ciphered and deciphered his signals and advised him on his wartime decisions. The press called her the “secret president.” Telephone and telegraph equipment was installed across the Oval Office hall in the West Wing and became Wilson’s war room, staffed by around seventy clerks. Members of Wilson’s administration dropped in at all hours to read the latest reports from the fronts. Edward House, Wilson’s chief foreign affairs adviser, became increasingly unwelcome. The first lady didn’t like House, evidently because of his closeness to Wilson. She began to cut off House’s access to the president. That left Wilson and Lansing as the primary influence.
President Woodrow Wilson (seen with his wife Edith Wilson) authorized the American war against Soviet Russia and approved a secret plot in Moscow to depose Lenin and his government:
An American military mission was opened in Petrograd to advise the provisional government on battle tactics. Other missions had been opened earlier by the French and British. Chief of the U.S. mission was Brigadier General William Voorhees Judson, a fifty-two-year-old graduate of West Point and the army’s engineer school. Judson had worked on river, harbor, and canal projects in Illinois, New York, and Texas, and was a consultant on the Panama Canal. He had also been a military attaché to the Russian Imperial Army during the Russo-Japanese War. Judson would later prove a controversial figure in what became to be known as the Ambassadors' Plot.
Initially, the Americans send the so-called Root Commission, whose members individually supported the 1917 revolution, as did President Wilson and Secretary of State Lansing. But General Scott wondered why Kerensky didn’t do something about the Bolsheviks. They were threatening the revolution and the continuance of the war. British adviser General Knox had a simple solution: shoot them, shoot all the Bolsheviks.11
While the Root Commission was in Russia, the provisional government asked for an additional $75 million ($1.460 billion today) to pay army salaries. The money was approved in Washington.12 It would also be used to buy rifles and ammunition, artillery, and shells. Even before then, Westinghouse had signed a contract to manufacture 1.8 million Russian rifles at the cost of $48 million ($935 million today).13 Humanitarian assistance was coming from the American National Red Cross, the commander of which Major(not yet Colonel) Raymond Robins would turn out to be one of the top spies in the Plot.
Enter Raymond Robins
In the past, Russian history had been recorded patiently, with a new book written every few years or so. Now every day in Russia was an emergency. A new chapter was penned every week. Lansing recognized that if the Allies wanted Russia to support the war effort, they would have to do something besides the usual routine of viewing events with concern. In his new position as secretary of state, Lansing could do something daring, something radical.
Raymond Robins was forty-five years old when he arrived in Petrograd. He confidently and determinedly conducted himself, leading Bruce Lockhart to compare him to an Indian chief with a Bible for a tomahawk. Raymond’s commanding officer was Colonel William Boyce Thompson.
When Thompson heard that a Raymond Robins had reported in, he stood up from his desk. “Major Robins? Raymond Robins, that uplifter, that Roosevelt shouter? What is he doing on this mission?”
As Robins explained it later in testimony before Congress, “You could not get two persons more absolutely alien in all past associations and habits of thought than Colonel William B. Thompson and me. He was a stand-patter. He was the friend of those whom I had fought in American politics. He was in association with the large financial interests of the country.”
Major Robins referred to some that the American Red Cross mission to Russia was a front for Wall Street. In those days, armies did not have big medical services. The Red Cross in each country sent its own doctors, nurses, and ambulances to the front lines. They picked up wounded from the battlefields and performed surgery on them at dressing stations and Red Cross hospitals. Then they helped them in their rehabilitation. But the American Red Cross was low on funds. They needed subsidies. Those were provided by big corporations, including Chase National Bank, International Harvester, National City Bank, Liggett & Myers, and Swift & Company. Some said those Wall Street companies used the Red Cross mission as an “operational vehicle” in Russia to plot future financial influence in the country.14
But despite their differences, Major Robins recognized that Colonel Thompson had “that thing that is common in America among successful businessmen… an outdoor mind, a mind that does not take chatter, that constantly reaches out for facts, that has had to do that to be successful in business.”
An example of indoor minds today would-be politicians who think from “inside the Beltway” and refuse to listen to their constituents. In Revolutionary Russia, Robins said, the indoor thinkers were the sheltered, privileged Russian bourgeoisie. They were “the richest and most attractive and delightful persons you will meet anywhere, interested in education, in art, in literature, in the ballet, in the opera, in painting, in fine large, expensive things, but utterly incompetent.”
Raymond’s list of incompetents included Kerensky and the Russian Provisional Government. They had little personal contact with workers or peasants, Robins said. Kerensky ran a “paper government” ruled by decrees issued from the top, similar to today’s presidential executive orders and regulations, by unelected bureaucrats. Once Robins and Thompson agreed on that, their two outdoor minds began to work together.
Major Robins started recruiting spies in the Russian army to report on the Bolsheviks. Soon he was running agents at the front lines and in barracks back in Petrograd.
Pictured below Robins ran one of the most effective U.S. spy networks in Revolutionary Russia:
Washington and London had been planning a joint intelligence operation in Russia since June 1917, when Edward House discussed the subject with Lieutenant Colonel William George Eden Wiseman, head of the British Secret Service in America. That was before the Bolshevik coup when the main focus was on countering German designs in Russia. After that meeting with Wiseman, House talked to Lansing, and Lansing talked to Wilson. The president okayed the new cooperation project.15 Wiseman would soon recruit a top British spy to work against the Bolsheviks for Wilson.
At this time, the French were operating independently against the Bolsheviks and the Germans in Russia, but would soon team up with the Americans and British. Meanwhile, Washington and London moved quickly to send in spies, his time, professionals.
It must have seemed like a good idea at the time: Overthrow Lenin and the Soviet government on humanitarian, military, and economic grounds and install a benevolent dictator in Moscow until a democratic government could be elected...
1. E.A. Vertsinsky, “Year of the Revolution: Memoirs of an Officer of the General Staff, 1917–1918,” RGR project.
2. Robert Lansing, War Memoirs of Robert Lansing, Secretary of State. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1935,124–25.
3. Ralph E. Weber, United States Diplomatic Codes and Ciphers, 1775–1938 (Chicago: Precedent Publishing, 1979), 246–48.
4. Robert Bruce Lockhart, The Diaries of Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart, 1915–1938, entry of Thursday, 16 September 1915 (London: Macmillan, 1973), 24–25.
5. Kerensky, Alexander. Russia and History’s Turning Point. New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1965, 160.
6. FINAL SCENE WITH THE TSAR: A MIDNIGHT INTERVIEW, Manchester Guardian, March 18, 1917, account given by a member of the executive committee of the Duma; GENERAL RUSSKY’S ACCOUNT OF THE CZAR’S ABDICATION, Current History, vol. 13 (1917), 272–74, a description by General Nicholas V. Russky, the Russian army’s chief representative in abdication talks with Nicholas.
7. The full name was the Party of the Socialist Revolutionaries. But the common initialism SR is most used.
8.“American Ship Casualties of the World War,” Naval History and Heritage Command, at http://www.history.navy.mil. The tanker Healdton was sunk on March 21, 1917, north of the Netherlands.
9. Hugh Rockoff, “The Economics of World War I,” Working Paper 10580, the National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, http://www.nber.org.
10.“Historical National Population Estimates,” U.S. Census Bureau, 1918, http://www.census.gov.
11.Raymond Robins testimony as quoted in the testimony of Samuel N. Harper, Bolshevik Propaganda Hearings Before a Subcommittee of the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, Sixty-fifth Congress, third session, February 11, 1919, to March 10, 1919 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919), 94. The subcommittee chair was Senator Lee Overman of South Carolina, 780. Hereafter referred to as Overman.
12. Alton Earl Ingram, “The Root Mission to Russia, 1917” (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Historical Dissertations and Theses, 1970),187–88 www.digitalcommons.lsu.edu. Monetary inflation calculations come from Morgan Friedman, www.westegg.com.
13. Norman E. Saul, The Life and Times of Charles R. Crane, 1858–1939 (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 130.
14. Antony C. Sutton, Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution (West Hoathly, England: Clairview Books, 2001), Chapter V, “The American Red Cross Mission to Russia–1917,” online at http://www.reformed-theology.org.
15. Lansing to Wilson, June 8, 1917, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, ed. by Arthur S. Link, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), 42:463.