Lincoln Veterans

Lincoln Battalion button

As I think back on it, I’m not sure when and where I first heard about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Civil War in Spain. Franco still lived and continued to rule Spain in my youth. My favorite uncle, who raised my political consciousness, spoke with venom about fascists in general and Franco in particular. A radio program introduced me to the poetry of Federico Garcia Lorca and I learned of his death in the early days of the war in Spain in 1936.

The poet Lorca in 1934

In high school or college, on one of my albums by Pete Seeger, I heard him sing “Viva La Quince Brigada”–”Long Live the 15th Brigade”–”we fought against the mercenary and the fascist”–“on the Jarama front we have no tanks, no canon, no airplane”–”it was our only desire to defeat fascism.” In my baccalaureate history major I took a course on modern totalitarian states from a brilliant professor, a course which included a section on Spain, its terrible civil war and the rise of Franco.

Then life, work, family and other things kept that war and those soldiers out of mind. Until a Sunday in the late 1980’s or early 90’s when CBS Sunday Morning ran a piece on the elderly American veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [actually a misnomer–it was the Lincoln Battalion, a part of several battalions which made up the 15th International Brigade]. I felt moved to tears as I watched those old soldiers tell their stories. “I left an arm in Spain but brought back so much more,” declared an amputee. Now I am rereading Chaim Potok’s Davita’s Harp, a novel which I find beautiful, deeply moving, and intensely thought-provoking. In this 1985 novel, Michael Chandal, greatly loved father of the main character, Ilana Davita Chandal, is a journalist and left-wing activist who goes to Spain to cover the war for his newspaper and dies during a bombing raid while trying to save a nun. And those Lincoln veterans have stepped to the front of my mind, their clenched fists raised in salute, their voices raised in singing the Internationale.

Internationale songsheet

In July 1936, right-wing military officers in the Spanish Army led by General Franco attempted to overthrow the newly elected government of Spain. Hitler and Mussolini quickly joined in support of Franco. The Spanish Civil War lasted until 1939. Over half a million people are believed to have died on all sides. Approximately 2,800 American volunteers took up arms to defend the Spanish Republic against Franco. They fought alongside 35,000+ volunteers from fifty-two countries In keeping with “Popular Front” culture, as the government’s supporters called themselves, the Americans named their units the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the George Washington Battalion, and the John Brown Battery. Together with British, Irish, Canadian, and other nationals they formed the Fifteenth International Brigade. These U S citizens came from all walks of life and most all regions of the country. They included the unemployed, teachers, artists, dancers, students, seamen, mechanics, miners, lumberjacks, and salesmen They established a truly racially integrated military unit. The exact number of killed and injured continues to be a disputed matter. At least 750 died, perhaps more. Many suffered permanent injuries.

The 15th International Brigade

Nearly 80 American women joined their countrymen in defiance of their government to volunteer for what was known as the “Good Fight.” Most all of these women served with the American Medical Bureau as nurses, doctors, technicians, and ambulance drivers. In 2007 Julia Newman produced and directed a wonderful film called “Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War.” Ms Newman said of her project, “They were extraordinary people, but they were ordinary people who had found their way to a cause that caught their heart. And this is part of my own background. My parents were supporters of the republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and they had friends who fought and died in Spain. And I realized that I knew nothing about the fact that there were eighty women who had gone to Spain as volunteers to serve, primarily as medicals, in support of the international brigades. And I wanted that history to be known.” Righteous work in my opinion, Ms Newman. You did a fine job.

Martha Gellhorn, a renowned war correspondent who was Ernest Hemingway’s third wife, said, “I was in Germany in 1936 and could not avoid seeing these headlines about the ‘red swine dogs’ in Spain. I had been in Spain, but I knew nothing about what had happened, that the king had gone, that there was a republic, but all I needed was to read in a German paper that it was the red swine dogs to know whose side I was on: theirs.”

Virginia Cowles, a reporter for The New York Times who covered the war in Spain, declared, “In spite of numerous and conflicting political terms used to classify the Spanish conflict, the fundamental issue lies neither between republicanism and fascism nor between communism and monarchism. Mainly and simply it is a war between the proletariat and the upper classes.”

About 1,200 Canadians formed a separate battalion named for William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau, who led the 1837 Rebellions in Canada. The battalion was under the command of Edward Cecil-Smith, a Montreal-based journalist and trade union organizer. The Canadians who made up the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion came from all parts of Canada. Unlike Britain and the United States, where a significant number of students and intellectuals enlisted, the Canadian group consisted almost wholly of working class laborers who had been driven to the political left by their experiences during the Great Depression.

Canadian volunteers in Spain

These volunteers included members of the CCF (a predecessor of the current New Democratic Party) as well as some Liberals and others with no political affiliation. A large percentage of those who enlisted had been born in Europe, the two largest groups being Finns and Ukrainians. Better than half these Canadians died in Spain. In 1975 the National Film Board of Canada produced an award-winning film called “Los Canadienses” about the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. The moving film includes many period photographs and film clips along with interviews of aging survivors.

American celebrities such as Albert Einstein, Dorothy Parker, Gene Kelly, Paul Robeson, Helen Keller, A. Philip Randolph, and Gypsy Rose Lee supported the Republican cause. In one of her newspaper columns, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote, “Three very interesting people came to dine with us last night: Miss Martha Gellhorn, Mr Ernest Hemingway, both writers, and Mr Joris Ivens, a maker of films. After dinner, the two men showed us a film which they made. The profits are going into the purchase of ambulances to help the sick and dying in a part of the world which is at present war-torn.”

In her interview in 2007 with film maker Julia Newman on Democracy Now, Amy Goodman noted that, “Eleanor Roosevelt disagreed with her husband. Eleanor Roosevelt was a close friend of Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent.”

White House photo of Eleanor Roosevelt

Ms Newman replied, “Yes. She did everything she could to help convince FDR to go against the [arms] embargo [against the Spanish government]. Ultimately, he was too politically frightened I guess isn’t too strong a word. He was a consummate politician, and he did not want to alienate what he saw as a collection of powerful lobbies in this country who were primarily Catholic, but who were pro-Franco. There was a strong movement here that was pro-Franco, along with the fact that most Americans were not.”

Ms Goodman: “Led by a powerful radio talk show host.”

Ms Newman: “Named Father Coughlin, yes. Father Coughlin was the radio priest, and he was quite rabid in rallying his listener-ship to Franco.”

In November 1938, as a last attempt to pressure Hitler and Mussolini into repatriating their troops, the Spanish prime minister Juan Negrin ordered the withdrawal of the International Brigades. The German and Italian coalition refused to follow suit and Madrid fell in March 1939.The Lincoln veterans returned home as heroes of the anti-fascist cause but enjoyed no official recognition of their deed.

In the 1950’s many of these veterans suffered harassment or were forced out of their jobs by the FBI. Some were prosecuted under legislation like the Smith Act and state sedition laws, although over time all but a few convictions were overturned. Yet both in the United States and Canada the majority of the veterans continued to be active on the political left.

From 1937 through 1948, the FBI maintained files on these men. About 160 pages of this material was publicly released in 2008. I find the following from that file quite revealing: “The American people were misled. into thinking that the Spanish Civil War was only between the forces of darkness and light, ignorance and enlightenment, retrogression and progression, tyranny and freedom, Fascism and Democracy. This was precisely what the Communists wanted the American people to believe. As was indicated earlier in this memorandum the truth is there was no clear cut, black and white issue in the Spanish Civil War. Each side was made up of differing factions, and of men with varying social viewpoints. No one side had a monopoly on any virtues or vices pertaining to human relations. As the war progressed Communists under the guidance of Russia came to infiltrate and influence the Loyalist Government. And the one thing which did have the sound ring ot certainty to it was: Communists were not attempting to establish democracy in Spain. On the contrary they were opposed to democracy and sought to establish Communism; a dictatorship of the proletariat as a satellite of Soviet Russia. Judging from the evaluation made of public opinion in the United States the American people did not seem to fully understand or appreciate the fact, remaining contused about it all as so many Americans today appear to be confused and misled.” This from the agency that kept secret files on First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Rev Martin Luther King, Jr, Jane Addams and Dr Benjamin Spock.

Moe Fishman, a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade who died in August of 2007 at age 92, once said, “The International Brigade, of which we were a part, consisted of about 40,000 to 45,000 volunteers from fifty-two countries who came to the aid of the Spanish Republic, and I want to emphasize ‘came to the aid of.’ It was the Spanish Republic and their people who fought this war and deserved the major credit for the big fight that they put up, which gave the democracies a two-and-a-half-year window of opportunity to change from a policy of appeasing fascism, led by Chamberlain of Britain and subscribed to by [President] Roosevelt, to one of actively fighting fascism. If they had actively fought fascism in 1936-1939, we would have stopped Hitler.”

Thought-provoking. One of those “what-if” questions that make the study of history vibrate. Regardless of the apparent failure of the International Brigades, those women and men have things to teach us. At an address in New York City in April, 2007, the singer, actor and activist Harry Belafonte declared so movingly, “I say to the Lincoln Brigade, thank you so much for what you have given all of us, me in my youth and the youth of today. Without your courage, without your vigilance, without your insight, America could never have hung on as tenaciously as we have done to the things hat are decent about this country. It is your example, it is that which you have given us, that has helped guide us through some of the darkest times in the history of this nation. We defeated Hitler, but we did not defeat fascism. We defeated McCarthy, but we did not defeat fascism. . . . We still have work to do. We must still be vigilant. And all we need to do when we have moments of doubt is to look back at what was given us by the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the valiant sacrifices that were made by them to know what we have to do in our time.”

Preach it Brother Harry! As President Lincoln said about the dead of another war: “That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Monument to the U S volunteers

 The final word I leave to a great historian, the late Howard Zinn. “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives.”

Monument to the Canadian volunteers

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