The Sisson Documents are a set of 68 Russian-language documents obtained in 1918 by Edgar Sisson, the Petrograd representative of the US Committee on Public Information. Published as The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy, they purported to demonstrate that during World War I Trotsky and Lenin as well as other Bolshevik leaders were agents in the pay of the German Empire to bring about Russia's withdrawal from the conflict. Their authenticity was debated even as they were widely publicized to discredit the Russian Revolution.
Sisson had worked as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, as managing editor of Collier's Weekly, and then as editor of Cosmopolitan before joining the Committee on Public Information (CPI), a wartime unit of the United States government that sought to control information and promote America's war effort principally on the home front but also overseas. He joined the CPI's central administration in April 1917. On October 27 of that year he left the United States for Russia to serve as the CPI's operative there, but he arrived after the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Russian Provisional Government and was frustrated in most of his efforts. He managed to recruit Russians to deliver US propaganda to Germany and also distributed a million Russian-language copies of Woodrow Wilson war message to the US Congress.
He believed his greatest success came when he acquired the Sisson Documents in Petrograd in the spring of 1918. Sisson returned to the US in May and became head of the CPI's Foreign Section in July 1918. His report describing the documents reached Wilson on May 9, 1918, and the administration released them to the American press on September 15. Most of the press reported without question that the German General Staff had hired Lenin and Trotsky and discredited the Russian revolutionaries.
The New York Evening Post challenged the authenticity of the documents on September 21, 1918 by saying they originated with Santeri Nuorteva, a well-known propagandist who had worked for the Communist government the Bolsheviks had established in Finland. Newspapers debated their authenticity for months. The New York Times reported the CPI's version of the documents in September and detailed the damaging charges, with the newspaper claiming:
that the present heads of the Bolshevist government – Lenin and Trotsky and their associates – are German agents... that the Bolshevist revolt was arranged for by the German Great General Staff and financed by the German Imperial Bank and other German financial institutions... that the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was a betrayal of the Russian people by German agents, Lenin and Trotsky; that a German-picked "commander" was chosen to defend Petrograd against the Germans; that German officers have been secretly received by the Bolshevist government as military advisers, as spies upon the embassies of Russia's allies, as officers in the Russian army, and as directors of the Bolshevist military, foreign and domestic policy... that the present Bolshevist government is not a Russian government at all, but a German government, acting solely in the interests of Germany, and betraying the Russian people, as it betrays Russia's natural allies, for the benefit of the Imperial German Government alone. And they show also that the Bolshevist leaders... have equally betrayed the working classes of Russia whom they pretend to represent.
The CPI produced a pamphlet based on the Sisson Documents called The German-Bolshevik Conspiracy and distributed 137,000 copies of it. It contained translations, a number of reproductions of the documents, and an analysis made by two prominent scholars for the National Board for Historical Service, J. Franklin Jameson, and Samuel Harper, that determined that most of the documents were genuine even if a few were questionable. Sisson defended the documents as genuine in his 1931 memoir and again in his 1947 memoir.
In 1956, George F. Kennan claimed that the Sisson Documents were forgeries in an article. The arguments were largely technical, "ranging from the use of suspicious letterheads and seals, to language discrepancies, to the presence of defunct dating systems..., to apparently forged signatures, and... evidence that the same typewriter had been used to prepare... documents emanating from different offices."
His analysis of the decades-old controversy attracted little public attention, but it proved more important within the scholarly community. It challenged "the growing tendency in academia and government to conflate all forms of totalitarianism, in particular Nazism and Communism," and questioned the wisdom of scholarship's alliance with national interests.
- Alan Axelrod, Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009)
- George F. Kennan, "The Sisson Documents," Journal of Modern History, v. 28 (1956), 130-54; Axelrod, 166, 236n20
- Axelrod, 85
- Axelrod, 189, 194, 203-4; George Creel, Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years (NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1947), 176
- Axelrod, 205; Creel, Rebel, 179-80; New York Times: "Sisson Book Says Germans Paid Reds," April 17, 1931, accessed February 24, 2010
- Axelrod, 189; Creel, Rebel, 180
- Axelrod, 205
- Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security: Martin J. Manning, "Document Forgery", accessed February 24, 2010
- New York Times: "Documents Prove Lenine and Trotsky Hired by Germans," September 15, 1918, accessed February 24, 2010
- Jameson had been president of the American Historical Association and an editor of American Historical Review. Harper was professor of Russian language and institutions at the University of Chicago. See Robin, Scandals and Scoundrels, 1.
- Axelrod, 165-6; Manning, "Document Forgery"
- Edgar Sisson, One Hundred Red Days: A Personal Chronicle of the Bolshevik Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1931)
- Creel, Rebel, 181-5
- Robin, Ron Theodore (2004). Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy. University of California Press. pp. 1–3.
- New York Times, September 19, 1918
Books and articles
- Axelrod, Alan (2009). Selling the Great War: The Making of American Propaganda. NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Creel, George (1947). Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years. NY: G.P. Putnam's Sons.
- Sisson, Edgar (1931). One Hundred Red Days: A Personal Chronicle of the Bolshevik Revolution. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Kennan, George F. (1956). "The Sisson Documents". Journal of Modern History. 28.
- Manning, Martin J. Encyclopedia of Espionage, Intelligence, and Security: Document Forgery.
- Robin, Ron Theodore (2004). Scandals and Scoundrels: Seven Cases That Shook the Academy. University of California Press.