On the 65th anniversary of the death of Leon Trotsky, a 1988 reminiscence from Jake Cooper

Following our previous article on the 65th anniversary of the assassination of Leon Trotsky we publish this interview with Jake Cooper. He was one of Trotsky’s guards in Mexico who was present in the house at the time of the assassination.

The article below is an excerpt from “My Brother, My Comrade,” which is a biography of Jake Cooper (1916-1990) published by Walnut Publishers. Cooper was a founding member of the Fourth International, the US Socialist Workers’ Party, and Socialist Action. He was also a participant in the great Trotskyist led Minneapolis Teamsters’ strikes and organizing drives of the 1930s, and later one of Trotsky’s bodyguards. This article is based on a videotaped interview of Cooper that was conducted in 1988.

I want to say for the record that I think I am the luckiest person on the earth. If there is anyone more lucky than myself, I would like to know who they are. I say this not just because of the nice wife I married, but because of the people that I have had close contact with in my life. Among the people I have known was Leon Trotsky. In 1940, I was in Mexico as a personal bodyguard of Trotsky for four months, up until the time that he was killed.

Let me tell you some of my personal feelings about Trotsky. I was selected by the Socialist Workers Party to be a guard, and I’m honored by the fact that I was selected because perhaps it tells you that they thought I was not only a militant, but that I was honest and would go there to die for our ideas if necessary.

I remember that on the drive down to Mexico there was one thing that really bothered me: how was I going to react when I met this man? Here I was, a nobody, really, at least as far as the world revolutionary movement was concerned. How am I going to react when I meet a man who was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution, the leader of the Red Army, a man known throughout the world. I was really nervous about it.

We drove to Mexico City and then to Coyoacan, followed all the way by agents who we were sure were GPU (the forerunner of the KGB) agents. They followed us the entire trip. They knew that somebody was coming. How they knew I don’t know. When we got close to Trotsky’s house they just turned off the road and left.

Then came the meeting with Trotsky. And, as I said, I was nervous. I stepped out of the car and was introduced to Trotsky. He immediately put me at ease and I realized that I was meeting with a fellow human being who treated me like a human being. To me it was like meeting your grandfather, or your dad. This gives you a bit of an idea of what Trotsky was like.

He was so grateful for the comrades who came from the United States to assist him in what he was doing. I imagine that he treated us like he treated the average soldier of the Russian Revolution – with warmth, a big hug. It was really no big deal, just a lot of warmth, inviting us into his house, asking us if had something to eat, bringing us to his table. That was Trotsky.

Another day, still alive

I had been there just a short time when I became ill. I had the “Mexican curse” and tonsillitis. One day I was walking in the patio when Trotsky came up to me and asked, “Jake, how are you feeling?” I answered that I was OK. “You’re not OK, Jake,” Trotsky said. The he went over to Harold Robbins, who was the head of the guard, and told him, “Jake is not feeling well. We have to see that he puts in less time and we have to see that he rests.”

Now you wonder why he was so concerned about me. He had the problems of the world on his shoulders. He knew that the long arm of Stalin would eventually get him, which is, by the way, why he worked in such a feverish way. But this was the kind of a human being he was. After Trotsky was murdered, his companion Natalia said that every morning when Trotsky got up, he would say to her, another day and we’re sill alive. I’m trying to tell you that we are talking about a human being, a man who was human.

Another example of the kind of human being he was took place only a short time after I arrived. On May 24, 1940, we had the first assault on the house. I thought I was dreaming when I awoke in the middle of the night (I don’t know exactly what time it was) and heard all this machine gun fire. But I wasn’t dreaming. I went to the door and started to open it when Robbins yelled out, “Jake, stay back and down.” I did. I went down. And just as I went down there was a burst of machine gun fire across the door. Had I stayed there I probably would have been killed.

As the assailants were breaking into Trotsky’s room, Trotsky got out of his bed, went over to the corner and pulled a blanket over his and Natalia’s head so they looked like a piece of furniture or a cloth in the corner. The attackers then sprayed Trotsky’s bed with bullets, just riddled his bed with bullets. They also wounded Seva Volkov, Trotsky’s grandson. They shot him in the foot in that assault.

It was interesting that the assailants knew the exact layout of the place. As a matter of fact, they had a machine gun mounted by the tree that was opposite the string of rooms that the guards stayed in. The guards were completely immobilized. Any guard who had attempted to get out would have been shot and killed.

When the firing started I pulled out my gun. The assailants were dressed in police uniforms. I remember I saw a policeman walking across the patio and I leveled by gun at him. Then I thought, I can’t kill him, that’s one of the policemen from the outside. I could have killed him just like that. But I didn’t shoot. And if I had maybe I would have gotten a burst of machine gun fire too.

Sheldon Harte, who was one of the guards on duty that night, was kidnapped and murdered. There had been a question that night of who was to be on duty – Sheldon or myself – and it had been decided that it would be Sheldon.

Trotsky was fearless

The interesting thing about the entire incident was what happened after the assault was over. Everyone gathered on the patio. We knew that Trotsky was OK. He came out of his room. His hair was ruffled, kind of flying in the wind. He looked amazingly calm considering what he had just gone through. I thought to myself that Trotsky had probably gone through situations as bad or worse during the Russian Revolution, such that this situation didn’t really shake him.

“What has happened to the police on the outside?” Trotsky asked. There was a little garrison post for the police right outside of our building. They were there 24 hours a day. One of the guards climbed to the top of the roof, where there was a ladder, looked down, then came back down and said that the guards were bound hand and foot.

Trotsky reacted by saying that we must immediately go out there and untie the police. The guards were a little hesitant. Can you imagine why? Right across from our place was a cornfield, with the corn high, which we thought would be a perfect place where we might be ambushed. The guards were a little hesitant about going out and we all kind of stood back and didn’t say anything.

Finally, Trotsky said, “Well, I’ll tell you what, I will go out there and untie the police. The assailants are long gone from here.” Of course, we wouldn’t permit that and the guards finally went out and untied the police. Doesn’t that tell you something about a human being? Doesn’t that tell you something about Trotsky, who would not send anybody out to do a task that he wouldn’t perform himself. It tells me something else, too. Trotsky was fearless. He was a fearless man. There isn’t any question about that.

I would like to tell you about another incident that I think says something about Trotsky the man. One day I was off duty and I looked at the yard and thought to myself, I’ve got a few hours off today, I’m going to do something special. I am going to clean up the walkways, which had bricks setting on the edge along the way. I decided to clean out the weeds to make the walkway look nice.

So I proceeded to do that. Not only that but I raked it up so it really looked nice and neat. Trotsky came out of his house and said to me, “Very nice job, Jake. It looks excellent. It’s clean. The weeds are pulled. Excellent job.” But then he added, “Don’t you think, Jake, that before you did this, perhaps you should have consulted with Natalia?” The garden was something that was special to Natalia. It was like her baby. But again, it tells you something about the man. It tells you that he didn’t want to do anything to offend me. On the other hand, he didn’t want to do anything to offend Natalia. I thought this told a great deal about the man.

Trotsky a great humanitarian

I want to make it clear that I did not go to Mexico just to defend Trotsky the man. I went there to defend the ideas that the man represented. In Mexico, I saw how Trotsky spent all of his time, from morning till dusk, working desperately to record his ideas on what had to be done in the revolutionary movement. Trotsky knew that human beings were at an impasse, and he had a lot to offer the working class in view of the experience he had gone through in the Russian Revolution.

I want you to take note of the words on my T-shirt (“Union Solidarity, Austin, Minnesota”). One thing that Trotsky said was so important was the solidarity of the labor movement: the solidarity of the working class of the world. When Stalin said that we have to come to terms with the capitalist class and proclaimed the idea of “socialism in one country,” Trotsky taught that Stalin had abandoned the prospect of solidarity with the people, the workers, of the rest of the world. That is where Trotsky broke with the Stalinists and that is where he established the flag of the Fourth International, which stood for the proposition of building socialism everywhere in the world.

I want to conclude by saying that Trotsky was a great humanitarian. His whole life was devoted to building a better world for humanity. He showed this not only in his ideas and what he stood for, but in his relations with people. All this left me with a tremendous feeling for Leon Trotsky as a human being.