By: Peter N. Carroll and David Christiano, April, 1995. Revised April 2009.

I came to Spain because I felt I had to. Look at the world situation. We didn’t worry when Mussolini came to power in Italy. We felt bad when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, but what could we do? We felt…that it was their problem and wouldn’t affect us. Then the fascist governments sent out agents and began to gain power in other countries. Remember the anti-Semitic troubles in Austria only about a year ago. Look at what is happening in Poland…

Hyman Katz, November 25, 1937


The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) provides an excellent opportunity to introduce students to enduring problems of United States history and foreign policy. Against the background of isolationism in the 1930’s, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936 forced the American people and the U.S. government to face the question of intervening in a foreign war. Such questions have affected every generation of Americans in the 20th century. In 1931, Spain established a Republican form of government.

Five years later, the Spanish military leader, General Francisco Franco, with the support of the Church and aristocracy, led a rebellion against this elected government. Hitler and Mussolini gave substantial military aid to Franco, but only the Soviet Union provided assistance to the Spanish Republic. Isolationism was the prevailing mood in the U.S. during the 1930’s. As the rise of Fascism in Europe posed an ever increasing threat to democratic societies, the Spanish Civil War challenged the American people, and the Roosevelt administration, to re-evaluate the role of the United States in international politics. Americans faced the question of how to respond to this crisis abroad. Should the U.S. maintain strict neutrality in the hope of avoiding another world war? Did the U.S. have a moral responsibility to send military and humanitarian supplies, or even troops to Spain? If some intervention was called for, on which side should the U.S. intervene?

The United States chose to maintain strict neutrality and passed laws to support this official policy in regard to Spain. This response was controversial. A few American men and women were so compelled by the danger of Fascism in Europe, and the immediate threat to the Spanish Republic, that they chose to defy these laws. Some 2,800 American volunteers formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and went secretly to Spain to fight on the side of the Republican army. Their story is one of courage and commitment. It reveals a willingness to step outside the political mainstream and to take a dangerous stand on ideological and moral grounds. This lesson introduces the story of the Lincoln Brigade in the context of U.S. foreign policy between the wars.

These American volunteers were aware also of the social injustices in their own society. Several lettersin this packet reveal a bold defiance of racism and prejudice that kept African-Americans and other minorities in second-class status. The Lincoln Brigade was the first fully integrated army in U.S. history. Traditional gender roles were, for the most part, unchallenged among the American volunteers. Men volunteered for combat; women volunteered for medical duty as nurses. Unarmed, and stationed close to the front line of combat, these nurses endured the horror of war, demonstrating tremendous courage and ingenuity in the midst of battle. Evelyn Hutchins expressed her feminist ideals by insisting on serving as a truck driver. Initially, she faced stiff resistance from the male leadership of the Lincoln Brigade, but she won her case and gained the confidence and respect of her male comrades.


During the 1930’s, the world was in the grip of a severe, protracted economic crisis known as the Great Depression. Many people were in desperate need. During this time, several countries, notably Italy (under Benito Mussolini) and Germany (under Adolf Hitler), elected fascist governments which promised to end the crisis by taking drastic measures. These measures included military aggression and widespread persecution against ethnic minorities and working people.

Under Hitler’s dictatorship in Germany, and in the other European countries which he conquered, millions of innocent people were deported to concentration camps and murdered. This horrific episode in our modern history has come to be known as the Holocaust. The warning signs of advancing fascist aggression were already apparent to many people when a military rebellion was staged against the Spanish Republic in the summer of 1936. This rebellion lead to a civil war in Spain. The Republic had been established by popular election, following the abdication of King Alphonso XIII in 1931. (This was the second republic in Spain’s political history.)

On July 18, 1936, there was world-wide alarm, as an avowed fascist, General Francisco Franco, threatened to overthrow the democratically elected government of the Spanish Republic. It was less than twenty years since the end of World War I, with its astounding casualty rate of ten million dead and another twenty million wounded. Many feared that the intervention of Mussolini and Hitler on the side of Franco in Spain would be the beginning of a second world war. Already, the German dictator Hitler was threatening neighboring countries, and Italy’s Mussolini had invaded the African country of Ethiopia the year before in 1935.

Leaders of the Spanish Republic began seeking aid from the countries that publicly opposed fascism, countries such as Great Britain, France, and the United States, as well as the Soviet Union. The governments of the first three countries opted instead for a policy of neutrality, and only the Soviet Union came to the aid of the Spanish Republic. Despite his personal desires, President Franklin D. Roosevelt could not persuade Congress to support the Spanish Republic. Congress instead passed a series of Neutrality Acts. In contrast, Franco’s forces were strengthened by aviation and naval power, as well as ground troops supplied by Mussolini and Hitler. This military support enabled Franco to score major victories over the weaker forces of the Spanish Republic.

In the face of this imbalance, many Americans opposed U.S. neutrality as a matter of conscience. Some 2,800 men and women decided to go to Spain to fight for the Republic against Franco. These volunteers called themselves the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The members of the Lincoln Brigade took a great personal risk in opposing the Neutrality Laws of the United States. Placing conscience above the law, they enlisted to help the Spanish Republic against Franco and fascism because they believed it was the only right action to take.

General Discussion Questions
Individuals throughout history have challenged the law and the status quo on conscientious grounds. This historical episode can serve as an exercise for discussion on the ethics of law versus individual conscience; and on the responsibilities of American citizens in the world.

– What happens when there is a conflict between the “conscience” of governmental leaders and the conscience” of individual citizens?
– What role does a concern for humanity and morality play in shaping a nation’s foreign policies?
– How can citizens know what is the appropriate policy for the U.S. to follow in any given world crisis?
– How do these questions apply specifically to the United States since the end of World War II?

Roosevelt’s “Quarantine Speech”

Excerpts from Roosevelt’s “Quarantine Speech” of October 5, 1937

…It is true that the moral consciousness of the world must recognize the importance of removing injustices and well-founded grievances; but at the same time it must be aroused to the cardinal necessity of honoring sanctity of treaties, of respecting the rights and liberties of others, and of putting an end to acts of international aggression.

It seems to be unfortunately true that the epidemic of world lawlessness is spreading. When an epidemic of physical disease starts to spread, the community approves and joins in a quarantine of the patients in order to protect the health of the community against the spread of the disease.

It is my determination to pursue a policy of peace and to adopt every practicable measure to avoid involvement in war. It ought to be inconceivable that in this modern era, and in the face of experience, any nation could be so foolish and ruthless as to run the risk of plunging the whole world into war by invading and violating, in contravention of solemn treaties, the territory of other nations that have done them no real harm and which are too weak to protect themselves adequately. Yet the peace of the world and the welfare and security of every nation is today being threatened by that very thing….

War is a contagion, whether it be declared or undeclared. It can engulf states and peoples remote from the original scene of hostilities. We are determined to keep out of war, yet we cannot insure ourselves against the disastrous effects of war and the dangers of involvement. We are adopting such measures as will minimize our risk of involvement, but we cannot have complete protection in a world of disorder in which confidence and security have broken down.

If civilization is to survive, the principles of the Prince of Peace must be restored. Shattered trust between nations must be revived. Most important of all, the will for peace on the part of peace-loving nations must express itself to the end that nations that may be tempted to violate their agreements and the rights of others will desist from such a cause. There must be positive endeavors to preserve peace.

America hates war. America hopes for peace. Therefore, America actively engages in the search for peace.

Click here to read the entire speech.

Press Reactions to President Roosevelt’s “Quarantine Speech”

From the New York Herald Tribune:
President Roosevelt, for all his eloquence at Chicago, cannot be credited with anything…specific. His world audience no doubt thinks that much of his speech had reference to Japan. But he did not say so. His talk of “quarantine” may be construed as an endorsement of economic sanctions but he did not mention them. His appeal was wholly emotional. It named no names. It cited no specific treaty clauses that are in default and no specific way of resenting treaty violation. If it was an appeal for anything it was a popular emotional mandate to the President to take whatever course in our international relations seemed to him the best.

From the Washington Post:
This speech, coming at the psychological moment, may well foreshadow a turning point in world history. The forces now fighting intolerable aggression, whether in the case of the Chinese at Shanghai or the Spaniards defending Madrid, are neither cowards nor weaklings. They are prepared to carry on the fight for human decency unaided. But with the assurance that the United States has not forgotten all moral standards in its ostrich hunt for security, the strength of their resistance will be redoubled. President Roosevelt has only to make explicit the assurances implied in yesterday’s speech and the turn toward peace will, for the first time since 1931, become apparent.

From the Boston Herald:
The mantle of Woodrow Wilson lay on the shoulders of Franklin Roosevelt when he spoke yesterday in Chicago. It may be true that “the very foundations of civilization are seriously threatened.” But this time, Mr. President, Americans will not be stampeded into going 3,000 miles across water to save them. Crusade, if you must, but for the sake of several millions of American mothers, confine your crusading to the continental limits of America!

From the Chattanooga Times:
Did Mr. Roosevelt intend to indicate, as it is apparently believed in some quarters, that the United States will join other powers and be contributing police work in the Far East and the Mediterranean, try to “quarantine” aggressor nations? Or does the President desire to encourage Great Britain and France to follow a more determined course in Europe and Asia, while standing on this nation’s traditional policy of isolation?

Writing Assignment

Write your own editorial response to Roosevelt’s speech, addressing this basic question:

Should the U.S. intervene to help the Spanish Republic in its fight against
fascism or should the U.S. continue to remain neutral even if it means the defeat of the
Republic at the hands of the fascists?

Curriculum Materials

Click here to download a copy of this lesson plan.

To prepare the students for this unit of study, it is advisable to assign the materials that appear on the following pages: the Background, the Glossary, and the Time Line. Ask students to read these materials and take notes of ideas, themes, or issues that most impressed them.

On the day of the lesson, to initially and effectively engage students, we begin by giving them the opportunity to become policy makers in the context of current events. We then provide students with information from a documentary film that will help them to better understand the historical issues of the inter-war period, especially the Spanish Civil War. We close this section by giving the students a chance to voice their own views on the U.S. government’s position during the Spanish Civil War.

Step-by-step plan: One-hour unit

Begin by asking students to write their responses to the “quick write” topic (see below).

Hand out note-taking strategy or study guide questions for Eric Sevareid’s Between the Wars series on the political and diplomatic crises between World War I and World War II, available here.

Show the class the half-hour episode on the Spanish Civil War. You may want to adapt, modify, or combine both the note-taking strategy and study guide questions mentioned above.

If you wish to extend this unit into a second hour, see below for more options. If you wish to limit this unit to a one-class session, you could end it here, asking students to write brief essay answers to the questions below. Students should use the notes they took during the film or their answers to the study guide questions to help them answer these questions:

– Why did some American men and women volunteer to serve in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War?

– How did General Franco manage to win the Spanish Civil War?

– Should the U.S. government have supported the Spanish Republic? Why or why not?

Step-by-step plan: Second hour

Pass out copies of excerpts of personal testimony by some of the volunteers who went to Spain. These are in the form of excerpts from letters written by Canute Oliver FranksonHyman Katz, excerpts from an interview with Evelyn Hutchins, and some sections of Congressional testimony made by Crawford Morgan before the Subversive Activities Control Board in 1954.

Read these excerpts aloud with the students, discussing the kinds of political and personal issues that are raised. This is an excellent opportunity to lead a discussion on what motivated men and women to defy U.S. law and foreign policy by leaving the U.S. to take military action against the fascists in a foreign country. Allow a half-hour to 40 minutes for this part.

Pass out copies of excerpts from President Roosevelt’s “Quarantine Speech” of October 5, 1937 and read aloud in class.

Pass out copies of excerpts from “Nationwide Press Comments” that appeared in the New York Times of October 6, 1937 and read aloud in class.

For homework assignment, ask students to write their own editorial response to Roosevelt’s speech.

Writing Assignment

Pretend that you are in charge of U.S. foreign policy, and you have just learned about a severe state of emergency in another country where hundreds of thousands of people are being slaughtered by soldiers fighting against one another in a civil war.

Both sides have sought military assistance and supplies from you. Knowing that you have the power to authorize the sending of American troops, military equipment, and supplies to this country, you also realize that American intervention into the affairs of other countries is bound to be criticized severely by the public, especially if there are any American casualties.

Remembering the horrors of World War I, you are concerned that intervention might contribute to yet another destructive world war. Keep in mind, too, that this is an election year and your public standing is already in jeopardy from a series of economic problems at home.

Which policy would you choose: intervene in this country in an effort to end the bloodshed? Issue a humanitarian plea for restraint to both sides in the civil war, but pledge to remain neutral?”

In a quick-write, respond to the question above and support your position. Be prepared to discuss.

Questions for Discussion

1. What motivated the following individuals to go to Spain?
Canute FranksonCrawford MorganHyman KatzEvelyn Hutchins

2. What connections did African Americans Canute Oliver Frankson and Crawford Morgan make between fascist aggression in Europe and violent racism at home?

3. What historical perspective did Hyman Katz bring to his role in Spain as one of the many Jewish volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade?

4. The majority of women who volunteered to go to Spain went as nurses. Why do you think Anne Taft chose to go? Describe her life as a nurse in Spain. How does it compare with Ave Bruzzichesi’s account?

5. Evelyn Hutchins made the exceptional choice to be a truck driver. Why did she make this choice? What connection did she see between fascist aggression in Europe and injustice toward women?

6. Discuss how these volunteers drew on personal experience to understand their place and responsibility in the world at large. How do these stories help us define what “conscience” is?

7. Would these American volunteers understand and appreciate Hemingway’s essay “On the American Dead in Spain?”