U.S. Ambassador Joseph E. Davies intercedes for IBM during Stalin's Great Purge

Copyright © 2002 by Hugo S. Cunningham
Quoted text copyright © 1941 by Joseph E. Davies

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Joseph E. Davies, Mission to Moscow: A record of confidential dispatches to the State Department, official and personal correspondence, current diary and journal entries, including notes and comment up to October 1941., Simon and Schuster, New York, 1941; cloth, 659 pp.

Even before the computer age, IBM found their way everywhere with Hollerith-card tabulating and other equipment. Edwin Black wrote a whole book accusing them of facilitating the Nazi Holocaust (IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation, Crown Publishers, 2001; cloth, 519 pp).

In that context, the following letter is curious: at the height of Stalin's Great Purge (1936-38), foreigners were intensely distrusted. Some (especially those from weaker countries like Poland) were arrested to be shot or sent to prison camps, while luckier ones were simply expelled. IBM wanted to keep their representative Mr. Shervdt in Moscow, and asked Ambassador Davies to intercede. His letter may have been useful; in any case Mr. Shervdt was allowed to stay.

At this time, when Stalin hoped for a Western alliance against Hitler, his government usually tried to accommodate Ambassador Davies, although Davies (like other ambassadors) was shut off from contact with ordinary Soviet citizens.
(The Soviets did not presume to tell Ambassador Davies whom he could talk to. Instead, the prohibition worked indirectly: Soviet citizens knew that any unauthorized contact with a foreign diplomat posed extreme risk of arrest and punishment as a spy.)

pp. 212-214:

Intercession for International Business Machines Company

Leningrad -- August 10, 1937

To his Excellency Maxim Litvinov

My dear Mr. People's Commissar:

May I call your attention to a matter which is now pending before the appropriate visa authorities of the Soviet government, in connection with the extension of the visa of Mr. Shervdt, who is an American citizen and a representative of the International Business Machines Company of the United States, now in Moscow.

The International Business Machines Company is engaged in the business of making and leasing various types of machines to be used by large enterprises, in connection with bookkeeping and accounting facilities. It has had a long-continued business relationship with different branches of the Soviet government, which relations, I understand, have always been pleasant.

As a matter of fact, many Soviet institutions are now using these machines, which represent a very substantial capital investment, and Mr. Shervdt's presence here in Moscow is partially due to the desire on the part of the company to have a man on the ground to assure they are kept in proper repair and used to the best operating advantage.

In view of this situation, it would appear to me to be advisable that Mr. Shervdt should be permitted to stay in the Soviet Union.

In addition to this fact, I am interested because of the fact that the head of the International Business Machines Company is Mr. Thomas Watson.

Mr. Watson is the type of citizen who gives a great amount of his energy and time to the furtherance of matters of public rather than private interest. He is widely and favorably known in all of the liberal sections of American business, and is a close friend of our great President. He is distinctly the type of man who would be sympathetic, in connection with the humanitarian impulses and enterprises upon which the Soviet Union is engaged, and I should be very unhappy to have him feel that he had been dealt with in an unfriendly and unfair manner. You may perhaps know Mr. Watson because he has been very active in international affairs, and is now the President of the International Chamber of Commerce.

Please pardon the intrusion of a small matter upon your attention when you are engaged upon these very important affairs of state.

With assurances of my great respect and esteem, I am, Very truly yours,
[Joseph E. Davies, Ambassador of the United States]

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