This is the story of a remarkable group of young American men and women who defied their government and risked everything to fight for their ideological beliefs. It is an important chapter of history that I think more people should be familiar with. I first posted a version of this two-part diary in 2011.
Note: I had Part II completely ready to go, but DK is acting up and I lost the draft. It may take me an hour or so to reformat it. I'll respond to your comments here as soon as I can. Update: I just posted Part II of the diary. The link is at the bottom of this diary.
Over a third of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers were killed in Spain. No one forcibly drafted them. They weren't coerced in any way. No pressures were put on them to risk their lives for another country. Many had never fired a gun let alone receive any formal military training. They were certainly not motivated by profits or other commercial concerns but, rather, simply cared a great deal about their fellow human beings. These brave - and largely-forgotten - men and women traveled to a land most had never seen before nor had any familiarity with. They went to Spain because they believed deeply in their cause.
Those who were lucky enough to survive and return home were labelled "Premature Anti-Fascists" by their government. Doesn't that oxymoronic term imply that the ALB volunteers were prescient in their contempt for Fascism? No matter the period and the circumstances, I don't think it is ever inappropriate to oppose a deadly and discredited Rightist ideology like Fascism.
What in the world was our government thinking?
Flag Source: Legends of Our Time.
On July 18, 1936, the Spanish Army staged a military uprising against the democratically-elected Republican government of Spain, which had been in power for less than six months. The revolt had started the previous day in the Protectorate of Morocco under the leadership of General Francisco Franco and by the next day, had spread to the mainland. The rebels had badly miscalculated and not anticipated that several army units would side with the government nor expected that the working classes in towns and cities would be quickly mobilized and armed in a popular resistance against the rebellion. In what would become a dress rehearsal for World War II, the struggle that ensued between Republican and Nationalist forces to determine the future direction of the country would rage on for the next three years.
In 1937, Bill Bailey (a son of Irish immigrants to America) wrote a letter from Spain to his mother in New Jersey. Unbeknownst to her and defying a travel embargo imposed by his own government, he had secretly traveled to that country to become one of almost 2,800 American volunteers to eventually fight on the Republican side in a brutal war against the defenders of authoritarian conservatism
In the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930's when economic despair gripped the country and the tenets of a capitalist economic system were being widely questioned -- and particularly if you were young, idealistic, leftist, or radical with perhaps a romantic bent -- Paris, Madrid, and Barcelona were the places to be for putting your ideological beliefs into practice. For some Americans, the Spanish Civil War and, more importantly, fighting Fascism and opponents of left-wing politics would become the great cause of their lives.
(members of the International Brigade in Spain, Source: ALBA - The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives)
Vindication (of sorts) for their "radical" beliefs would eventually come but not until a world war would kill tens of millions, and cause unprecedented devastation over six long years from 1939-1945. Fascism was finally defeated in Germany and Italy but would survive in Spain for several more decades. During the Cold War years, many American veterans of the Spanish Civil War were treated with suspicion and blacklisted in their own country. The McCarthy Era spared no one with even the most tangential connection to "subversive" causes. Such was the level of anti-Communist hysteria in this country. (to read more about McCarthyism, see this earlier diary of mine about the Boomers, The Baby Boom Generation, Part I of III - The Wonder Years and another one on the remarkable life of Paul Robeson, "The Most Persecuted, the Most Ostracized, the Most Condemned Black Man in America, Then or Ever")
Part I of this wide-ranging diary looks at a few of the American volunteers who fought in military battalions that collectively came to be known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (ALB); the tense political, economic, and social conditions that existed in pre-war Spain; the response by the American government and its insistence upon assuming a neutral position in this conflict; snippets about the ALB volunteers caught between economic depression at home and alarming developments on the international level; what eventually motivated them to secretly travel to and fight in Spain; and the exploits of the ALB volunteers in Spain.
Part II continues the story of the ALB volunteers and evaluate the factors that contributed to the Republican side's defeat; the poetry, art, and images that resulted from this war; the return home and mistreatment by their own government; and, finally, how the ALB volunteers are perceived in historical terms. It is as long, if not a bit longer, than Part I.
Almost 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries would join hands in helping the Republican Spanish government under siege by rebel forces and their foreign allies.
Spain in the 1930s
By 1936, Spain was still a country driven by 19th century traditions. Its societal structure was largely dominated by industrialists, wealthy landowners (the Catholic Church among the largest), and the military. Anticlerical feelings were rampant among the working classes and it was said that 'Spaniards followed their priests either with a candle or a club'. With its empire shrunk by defeat at the hands of the United States in the 1898 Spanish-American War, entrenched institutions were resistant to change; obsessed with upholding traditional values; hostile towards and stifling regional aspirations; maintaining law and order; and jealously guarding economic privileges that this status bestowed upon them.
The military dictatorship of General Miguel Primo de Rivera in the 1920's and the subsequent abdication of King Alfonso XIII in 1931 set into motion a series of political events over the next five years. The establishment of the Second Republic in 1931 and its goal of promoting secularism set the stage for General Franco's revolt of July 18, 1936
When the first shots of the civil war were fired, the country was bitterly divided into two camps
On one side was the Republican government supported by liberals, socialists, Communists, anarchists, peasants, the working class, and advocates of regional autonomy. They ranged from those supportive of a moderately capitalist liberal democracy to those advocating a revolutionary state.
On the other side was the military led by General Francisco Franco, nationalists, conservatives, fascists, Roman Catholic clergy, large land owners, and monarchists. They generally favored a strong central state and a dominant role for the Roman Catholic Church in Spanish society and opposed democracy. The Republican side was divided while General Franco was able to unite the various right-wing forces.
Soon after the revolt started in July 1936, the country was split into two parts with the Republicans controlling the red areas and Franco's Nationalist the ones in grey. Map Source: Boston College.
Stuck in Neutral in the United States
After the great stock market crash of 1929, the supply of unemployed workers greatly exceeded the number of available jobs in the country. To secure better work conditions and ensure some measure of job security for themselves, the employed workers rallied to form and join labor unions. In 1930, Bill Bailey became a sailor, joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and, later, the Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA).
In 1935, Bailey had traveled to Italy and seen firsthand for himself the corrosive effect Benito Mussolini's ultra-nationalist, Fascist dictatorship was having upon Italian society. It alarmed him. Later that year, Bailey had acquired quite a reputation as an anti-Fascist when he pulled the Swastika flag from the visiting German ocean liner SS Bremen and tossed it in the Hudson River in New York City. Bailey was arrested and beaten but only released later with the help of Congressman Vito Marcantonio. (read interesting details of this incident as described by Bailey in The Kid from Hoboken, Chapter XIV: Ripping the Swastika off the Bremen - 1993. The entire book is available online.)
The Bremen had been a symbol of pride for a resurgent Germany. In response to this perceived insult and humiliation, German Fuhrer Adolf Hitler would adopt the Swastika as the exclusive flag of Nazi Germany. As Bailey described it, "The old flag of the Weimar Republic was a thing of the past." Hitler was making a clean break from the past in his quest to have the Third Reich last for a thousand years.
Bailey was far from the only American concerned about the rise of Fascism in Europe but was helpless as his own government had different ideas about how to combat this rising menace. Pragmatic approaches are often wrong
Separated by two oceans from much of the rest of the world, it is perhaps easy to understand the natural impulse towards isolationism in the United States.
President Woodrow Wilson's failure in having the United States Senate ratify the post-World War I Treaty of Versailles meant that lack of American participation in the League of Nations (the predecessor to the United Nation) would also promote a countrywide feeling of disinterest in international affairs. In the years prior to the outbreak of hostilities in Spain, isolationism was the fashion of the day in foreign policy and very prevalent in much of the country. In 1919, the treaty's fate had been sealed by stubborn Republican opposition (of course, with the help of some Democratic U.S. Senators) in a closely divided, Republican-controlled United States Senate (49-47 seats). Wilson's refusal to compromise with his political opponents did not help matters much, either.
In 1936, President Franklin Roosevelt was faced with difficult choices. While sympathetic to the Republican cause, he was preoccupied with implementing the New Deal to get the country out of economic depression. He also did not want to alienate an important Democratic constituency group: Irish-Americans, many of whom disliked the anti-clerical feelings amongst various Republican groups towards the Catholic Church in Spain. The Neutrality Laws further limited FDR's options.
To some degree, most politicians (even the great ones) tend to be cautious and play it safe when it comes policy decision making. FDR chose not to rock the boat and go against the current of mainstream public opinion
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Volunteers: Spain On Their Minds
By the early 1980's, many of the surviving volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were entering their seventies. With financial assistance from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a group of independent film makers decided to make and release a documentary film in 1984 about the lives of a few of these volunteers. The Good Fight: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War focuses not as much on the complexities of war itself but, rather, looks at it from a human perspective. Narrated by Studs Terkel, it details the prevailing conditions in this country in the mid-1930's; takes us through their journey to Spain and into battle; has excellent footage of the war; examines their lives in the post-war years; and is interspersed with interviews about their personal initiatives to take concrete action and strongly oppose Fascism.
When the war started in the summer of 1936, American participation was strongly opposed by a small but growing group of American Fascists, foremost among them the pro-Nazi German American Bund and the Silver Shirts. The Ku Klux Klan and through the Christian Front, Father Charles Coughlin also railed against the dangers of creeping Communism. A coalition of communists, socialists, and liberals tried to rally American public support against Fascism.
It was an uphill task.
(I wrote about Father Charles Coughlin in 2009 soon after Dr. George Tiller was murdered in this diary - The Week in Editorial Cartoons - Demagogues Amongst Us. He was once described as a "combination of Huey Long and Joe McCarthy in clerical cassock, with a touch of Goebbels thrown in.")
By November 1936, Madrid was in danger of falling to General Franco's forces. Disappointed by its own government's inaction and alarmed by pro-Fascist efforts by these rightist groups, a number of young Americans decided to do something about it. This group included, in addition to Bill Bailey, Ed Balchowsky, Bill McCarthy, Salaria Kea, Steve Nelson, Abe Osheroff, Ruth Davidow, Tom Page, Dave Thompson, Milt Wolff, and Evelyn Hutchins. (watch their reactions to the growing threat of Fascism in "The Good Fight", Episode I of XII)
Not unlike many young leftists of that period, they viewed this struggle in ideological terms
"More clearly than any American combat in the past, wrote an American volunteer in 1937, "the war in Spain is a fight to the finish between all that is new and generous and hopeful in the world and all that is old, cruel, and fetid. It is the thing that moralists had almost given up hoping for -- a clear-cut struggle between the powers of light and the powers of darkness, and very little twilight zone to confuse us. How," he wanted to know, "can one stay out of this struggle?" The decision of the political Left in Spain -- and the Comintern elsewhere -- to confront the Franco insurrection with military force defined the conflict as an ideological struggle between world socialism and fascism. "It was a highly political war," explained the rank and filer Morris Mickenberg. "The first and primary meaning of everything was the political meaning. That is how we lived, that is how we thought, that is how we talked to each other. Indeed, the men engaged in endless political dialogue and debate, avidly following world events, and viewed their commitments in ideological terms." (Carroll, p. 107)
"The Good Fight" is available in full on YouTube. It is divided into 12 episodes with the total film length being about 100 minutes. Pictured on the very top of the DVD cover are (from left to right) Tom Page, Milt Wolff, Evelyn Hutchins, and Ed Balchowsky. The above photograph shows a demonstration in New York City urging the government to support the Republican cause. DVD Cover Source: Amazon.com. Photograph Source: "A Photo Essay on the Great Depression" - Modern American Poetry, University of Illinois.
The volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade came from every corner of the country, every walk of life, and virtually every state in the union except Delaware and Wyoming. Here are some interesting demographic facts about this diverse group of men and women:
- 70% were between 21 and 28 years old. The youngest was 18 and the oldest 60 years old. The group's median age was 27 and the median birth date 1910. Most were unmarried and around 30% were Jewish. Approximately 20% were New Yorkers including Bill Bailey, Milt Wolff, Abe Osheroff, Ruth Davidow, Tom Page, and Bill McCarthy.
- About 90 were African-Americans, including Oliver Law. A labor organizer from Chicago, he went on to command the very first fully integrated American military fighting unit in history. Race relations were mostly excellent in the group. (Law commanded this integrated force over a decade before President Harry Truman signed an Executive Order to desegregate the United States military in 1948. See this 2009 diary of mine for details -- The Week in Editorial Cartoons - Confronting Racism)
- Most came from working class backgrounds and a variety of professions. Over 1,000 were industrial workers coming from the mining, steel, and seafaring industries. About 500 were either students or teachers. At the time, Ed Balchowsky was a student in Chicago and Steve Nelson a labor organizer in Pennsylvania.
60 volunteers were female. Ruth Davidow and Salaria Kea (originally from Georgia, she was living in NYC in 1936) worked as nurses. Evelyn Hutchins (pictured above, from Washington State) worked in transportation and drove a truck in Spain. Women had to fight for their rights but eventually came to be respected by their male peers.
- Most (60%) were members of the communist party. Others were either IWW members (Wobblies) or socialists. Some were unaffiliated.
The good interpersonal relations between the volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade -- and two groups in particular -- were rooted in the emergence of a common threat and a desire to change their fortunes in American society. It was a harbinger of what would occur two decades later when the same groups would join hands in overcoming Jim Cow laws and confront an internal enemy in the American South: racial segregation
The motivations and experiences of the volunteers were multifarious. Political, social, economic and psychological factors all played their part and it would be wrong to generalize about a monolithic Jewish or African-American response to the war. Some volunteers considered themselves communists; others anti-fascists or liberals...
The Jewish and African-American Lincolns offer fascinating subjects for comparison. The two groups had a deep affinity based on a common victim status and rich cultural exchange. Jewish radicals were at the vanguard of the black civil rights movement. Hitler’s persecution of Jews and Mussolini’s attack on Ethiopia in 1935 were understood as part of the same racial threat. Black entertainer Paul Robeson recorded Yiddish songs for the Jewish Lincolns whilst Edwin Rolfe sang Negro spirituals in the company of Langston Hughes. Such moments typified Jewish-black relations on the radical Left in the mid-30s.
[M]any Jews saw the Left as a means of shedding their ethnicity, black radicals were attracted by its potential for racial uplift. Both groups hoped Spain would allow them to overcome their social marginalization and achieve integration within the American polity and the international proletariat. (Sackman, p. 8)
Sarah Sackman, "The Identity Politics of Jews and African Americans During the Spanish Civil War" - Free Ebooks Online, U.K.. Photograph Source: Black in the Day: Black American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. The above photograph show Salaria Kea working in a Republican hospital in Spain. To read more about Salaria Kea, see "Salaria Kea: A Negro Nurse in Republican Spain" -ALBA.
What finally motivated them to make the journey by late 1936 to Spain? At the time, Tom Page was a poor, unemployed, African-American living in New York City. Milt Wolff worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps. Ruth Davidow had graduated earlier that year from Brooklyn Jewish Hospital with a degree in nursing and had never been active in politics. Dave Thompson was unique in this group in that he was a magazine writer from a fairly affluent family in California.
Here's how they reacted to events in Spain
Tom Page: Any demonstration against Fascism, I would be there... I didn't have a nickel but I'd go. Go down to 14th Street. This is what I would do. And the beautiful thing about it was the feeling of camaraderie there. Everyone had a oneness, a singleness of purpose irrespective of their color or their sex. And this is a wonderful feeling.
Milt Wolff: I told them (in public forms) that the Spanish people have risen up and are resisting this. This is the first resistance to the march of Nazi aggression that has manifested itself. It has not happened in China. It has not happened in Africa. In both places, they were suppressed and defeated. But the Spanish people are fighting back and they are winning. And with your help, with our help, we can defeat Fascism in Spain. We can make Madrid the tomb of Fascism. And we can save our lives, our children's lives, and turn back this menace.
Ruth Davidow: First there was Hitler and the whole question of abuse of the Jews. Bad as I felt about it, I thought it was a German problem and not an American problem. And then the Italians went into Ethiopia and I still thought it was pretty much an Italian problem or an Ethiopian problem. I could not really connect it. What really shook me when both Hitler and Mussolini went into Spain and I realized they were not going gonna be satisfied with a piece here, a piece there. They were out for the whole world. And I began to feel pretty much involved in what was happening. I was pretty upset, as a matter of fact.
Dave Thompson: I became aware of what was going on over there and was very much on the side of the Republic because it seemed to me they were for all the things America stood for: a little less power to one church, a little less land for the nobility, more for the people, universal education. All the things America stood for. Well, the first thing you know is that England, France, and the United States aren't going to stand for anything like that. The next thing you know is that Congress has voted for non-intervention following the lead of Neville Chamberlain and not to get involved on either side. This was cutting off the Republic's chance to defend itself.
Tom Page's comments are from The Good Fight, Part II of XII beginning at the 0:40 mark. Comments by Milt Wolff, Ruth Davidow, and Dave Thompson are from The Good Fight, Part III of XII starting at the 4:20 mark. The above photograph shows 16 volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Ambulance Corps in New York City. Photograph Source: A Photo Essay on the Great Depression, University of Illinois.
Reaching Spain and Fighting the Fascists
Having made the commitment in late 1936 to go fight in Spain, the volunteers began to organize. Often disguised as tourists, they left on ships for France and then took trains that put them near the Pyrenees Mountains. Making the treacherous trek through the mountains and evading border guards, they reached Catalonia in northern Spain.
As Bill Bailey describes it in his book, the difficult fighting lay ahead but their spirits were soaring, even after making an 8,000 miles long trip from all the way from San Francisco as he did
From early 1937 onwards, the ALB volunteers fought in every major battle of the Spanish Civil War. Among other encounters, these included the battles of Jarama, Brunete, Belchite, Aragon, and the decisive last stand at Ebro before the fall of Madrid in late March 1939. This summary will give you a very good idea of the major campaigns they participated in, the losses they inflicted upon Franco's Nationalists, and the casualties they suffered themselves.
The above map (click this link for larger map version) gives a good visual overview of these battles. You can read an excellent week-by-week summary of the ALB's military activities and major developments in the war -- Chronology of the Spanish Civil War - Emphasizing the Lincoln Battalion Involvement. Although most of the volunteers of the international brigades left Spain by late 1938, a few stayed on until the bitter end. This withdrawal had been initiated by the Republican government to force Germany and Italy to also withdraw their troops. Both countries refused to do so.
The Spanish Civil War officially ended on April 1, 1939.
Saw lots of Negro comrades, Andrew Mitchell of Oklahoma, Oliver Ross of Baltimore, Frank Warfield ofSt Louis. All were thrilled to see us and talked at length with Paul. All the white Americans, Canadians and English troops were also thrilled to see Paul... Major Johnson told the men that they are to go up to the front line tomorrow. The men applauded uproariously at that news.
Then Paul sang, the men shouting for the songs they wanted: 'Water Boy', 'Old Man River', 'Lonesome Road', 'Fatherland'. They stomped and applauded each song and continued to shout requests. It was altogether a huge success. Paul loved doing it. Afterwards we had twenty minutes with the men and took messages for their families...
As we drove along, Lt. K. got talking and told us the story of Oliver Law. It seems he was a Negro - about 33 - who was a former army man from Chicago. He had risen to be a corporal in the US Army. Quiet, dark brown, dignified, strongly built. All the men liked him. He began here as a corporal, soon rose to sergeant, lieutenant, captain and finally was commander of the Battalion - the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. K. said warmly that many officers and men here in Spain considered him the best battalion commander in Spain. The men all liked him, trusted him, respected him and served him with confidence and willingly.
Read her full diary entry in which she recounts the details of Oliver Law's death from a sniper's bullet.
Every war has its distinctive sounds. From the American Civil War in the 1860's to the two World Wars to the Vietnam War, music has always played a big role in how these wars are remembered and events seared into most people's minds. Songs capture the restlessness and fears every soldier experiences before going into battle; celebrate victories; express sorrow and dismay over defeats; and mourn their dead comrades. Big political aims and grand war strategies are secondary to actual combatants. Those are left for politicians and generals. As for soldiers, all they care about is survival. (see this 2007 diary of mine for more on war combatants -- "Shared National Sacrifice" and 'The War' Tonight on PBS).
The American government was officially not a participant in the Spanish Civil War. That didn't prevent the ALB volunteers from having their own songs which reflected their fears, hopes, and dreams. One of the more famous songs, "Jarama Valley" was recorded by, among others, folk singers/activists Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
Here is Pete Seeger's version (along with Arlo Gutrie), in which he narrates the history of the song, how this and other songs of his became very popular in the oppressive Franco years even in Spain! The video has excellent still shots of the bloody Battle of Jarama and its participants.
There's a valley in Spain called Jarama
It's a place that we all know so well
It was there that we gave of our manhood
And so many of our brave comrades fell.
We are proud of the Lincoln Battalion
And the fight for Madrid that it made
There we fought like true sons of the people
As part of the Fifteenth Brigade.
Now we're far from that valley of sorrow
But its memory we ne'er will forget
So before we conclude this reunion
Let us stand to our glorious dead.
A Note About the Diary Poll
In the final episode of the The Good Fight (go to the 1:25 mark of this video), you will see a number of the ALB volunteers reflecting back on their experiences in Spain. There are no feelings of regret nor any second-guessing about their decision to go to Spain. In fact, there is nothing but real pride and satisfaction in their voices that they were true to themselves and their individual consciences.
If you believe passionately in a cause, if you did what you thought was right, then, your conscience has be clear and unburdened with any guilty feelings or sense of remorse. Having the courage of your convictions is hardly a human character flaw.
Believing in something is what really matters in life.