By: Melvin Small
“We who fought the Fascist Axis in Spain proudly volunteer to march shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Americans for the final crushing of this menace to the independence and democracy of America and all peoples.”
– Milt Wolff to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, December 8, 1941
Europe had been at war for twenty-seven months before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, drawing the United States into World War II. But except for what the public could glimpse through newspapers, newsreels, and radio, few Americans had faced the horror of modern warfare. There was, however, one group of Americans who had already confronted the fascist enemy on the battlefield and had first-hand experience of the political stakes. These were the U.S. veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a volunteer army of about twenty-eight hundred men and women who sailed to Europe to fight against fascism in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). After nearly three years of bitter, cruel warfare, General Francisco Franco’s armies defeated the Republican forces in March 1939. President Franklin D. Roosevelt acknowledged that U.S. neutrality in the Spanish Civil War had been a mistake.
Six months later, the same German air forces that bombed the Basque village of Guernica in 1937 were flying over Poland launching the war that the Lincolns thought could have been prevented. Although many brigaders reluctantly hewed to the Communist party’s non-interventionist line in 1939 and 1940, after Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, they became enthusiastic about the second chance to achieve victory over fascism. Even when U.S. military authorities, who were concerned about the brigaders’ ties to the Communist party, attempted to thwart their ambitions by blocking officer’s commissions and overseas combat assignments, the Lincolns remained doggedly loyal to the struggle. African American volunteers, who after serving in the integrated Lincoln brigade were forced into second-class duties in the segregated U.S. army, maintained their commitments to destroy the fascist beast; and when finally given the chance to fight, they proved to be exceptional soldiers.
Wherever they served, individual Lincoln veterans won innumerable awards for bravery and sacrifice. Despite their heroism in the second war against fascism, the Lincolns never overcame the stigma of having been “premature antifascists.” By going to Spain, they marked themselves as radicals whose loyalty to the government was suspect. After World War II, they were among the first victims of the Red Scare. Most of the letters in this volume were selected from thousands more that may be found in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (ALBA) collection in New York University’s Tamiment Library. Others came from the personal collections of individuals and their families that can be found in the ALBA collection or in other depositories.
Before Pearl Harbor
The Lincoln Brigade volunteers were for the most part members of the generation that came of age during the Great Depression. During the 1930s they became involved in the labor movement and radical politics through the industrial union movement, civil rights activities, efforts to organize the unemployed, and participation in hunger marches that were often led by the Communist party.
The vast majority of Lincoln Brigade volunteers came from working-class families. Of the twenty-eight hundred volunteers who went to Spain, at least 1,250 were Jewish, around three hundred were Italian, over eighty were African Americans and fifty-four were women. As many as 70 percent were members of the Communist party or one of its affiliated organizations; but there were also significant numbers of Socialists, anarchists, and adventurous antifascists who volunteered. At a time when most radicals supported the Popular Front against Hitler and Mussolini, many like Canute Frankson saw the connection between social change and opposition to fascism abroad. Men and women of the Left knew that if fascism triumphed, the labor and progressive movements would be destroyed.
The volunteers saw the war in Spain as both the front lines of the class war and an attempt to halt the spread of fascism and Nazism. This ideology is what drove young Americans to go off to war on a foreign battlefield and in defiance of their own government’s neutrality laws. Many were convinced they would change the world by fighting fascism in Spain.
Coming home in defeat was a searing experience that left many consumed by a sense of tragedy for the rest of their lives. They were convinced that the arms embargo of the United States and the Western allies was in good measure responsible for the defeat of the Republican government. They were especially angry with the French for incarcerating Spanish refugees in detention camps, a sentiment clearly voiced by nurse Ave Bruzzichesi.
Many, however, ultimately came to see that they could continue the good fight against fascism in World War II. Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of brigaders volunteered for service even when confronted with government repression. In addition, William Donovan, a conservative Republican who began working on intelligence for the Roosevelt administration in 1941, recruited Lincolns to work with the partisan underground in occupied countries of southeastern Europe well before the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. By early 1942, brigade veterans were enlisting in the U.S. Army in great numbers. It was almost as if a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders, freeing them to return to the war against fascism. However, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Lincolns’ willingness to change their position on the antifascist struggle in order to conform to Soviet policy would forever cast a shadow on their legacy, as it would with the other elements of the Communist Left.
At War with the Army
Since the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) had been campaigning aggressively for U.S. entry into the war. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor gave the Lincoln veterans what they wanted. On December 8, 1941, Milton Wolff sent a one-sentence telegram to the president:
“We who fought the Fascist Axis in Spain proudly volunteer to march shoulder to shoulder with our fellow Americans for the final crushing of this menace to the independence and democracy of America and all peoples.”
By the end of the war, at least 425 Lincoln veterans had served in the U.S. armed forces, in most every function from the medical corps to the Seabees, and another one hundred in the merchant marine and nursing corps.
As they entered military camps for assignment and basic training, the Lincolns were pleasantly surprised at what they found. Nearly all commented on how good the food was, in contrast to their garbanzo-bean diet in Spain. They also commented favorably on the abundance of supplies, the quality of their weapons, and the sophistication of the military organization. These advantages stood in notable contrast to their experience in Spain. The Lincolns would repeat these points throughout the war as U.S. industrial production soared to meet military demands and the Army achieved seemingly logistical miracles in fielding invasion forces.
The Lincolns also felt satisfaction by their reception among the rank and file. Although they discovered that many soldiers knew little about the Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War, the fact that they were combat veterans put them in the spotlight, even among officers. Most of the Lincolns took these opportunities to educate their buddies about the anti-fascist nature of the war. They acknowledged meeting a mixed response to these efforts. Nevertheless, they remained optimistic that the average G.I. Joe, if properly instructed in the war’s objectives, would understand why they had fought in Spain and why they had to defeat fascism in World War II.
The major difference the Lincolns perceived between service in Spain and training in the U.S. Army was the quality of political education. Within the structure of the Spanish Republican Army and the International Brigades (of which the Lincolns were a part), each grade of the military organization, from the general staff and brigade headquarters to the battalion, company, platoon, and squad, had both a military officer with appropriate rank and a political commissar who was responsible for morale, education, and personal problems. Given the mistrust of the professional military whose leaders had rebelled under Franco, this double system protected the government from the army; the commissars technically outranked the military leaders.
Despite their realization that participation in the Spanish Civil War was politically suspect to government officials, Lincoln veterans, like Alvin Warren and Sam Nahman, were surprised to discover that the military had adopted policies that treated them as potential subversives. Instead of being assigned to basic training programs to prepare for war, many Lincoln veterans found themselves placed in limited service units, which included pro-fascists, Nazis, German and Italian nationals who refused to fight against their homelands, as well as assorted misfits. “I hadn’t looked forward to being in the Wehrmacht,” veteran Jack Lucid wrote wryly from Camp Ripley, Minnesota, but “that is what I am in here.”
By early 1943, VALB leaders had become convinced that orders limiting the role of the Lincolns in the U.S. military expressed a government policy created in Washington.
Gathering testimony from veterans, including Wolff, Lucid, Moishe Brier, and many others, VALB executive secretary Jack Bjoze went to Washington, D.C. to meet with sympathetic political leaders, including Representatives John Coffee (D-WA), Warren Magnuson (D-WA) and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, as well as the syndicated journalist Drew Pearson, whose “Washington Merry-Go-Round” column appeared in many newspapers. The result was a series of news stories, beginning in April 1943, which described various cases of Lincoln veterans who had been denied the right to fight as equals in the U.S. army. P.M., a New York afternoon newspaper, headlined the problem in May 1943: “Premature Anti-Fascists Still in Army Doghouse.” And a handful of congressmen publicly demanded that the army explain its policy.
Such publicity broke the dam, somewhat. To be sure, War Department officials continued to deny that political discrimination existed and cited as evidence the well-known examples of Lincoln veterans Bob Thompson and Herman Bottcher who had served overseas and won medals for their courage under fire. But after Pearson’s articles appeared, many Lincolns like Edward Lending found that their applications for regular service were approved and they began to ship out for overseas assignments.
Always the Lincolns assumed that if military leaders understood why they had fought fascism in Spain, the army would alter the policies that kept veteran anti-fascists from the war zones. For them, the Spanish Civil War was nothing less than the first battle of World War II. From the moment the United States entered the war, as Private Daniel Fitzgerald wrote on December 8, 1941, the Lincoln veterans were determined to destroy fascism “once and for all.”
Problems in Red and Black
“Spain was the first place that I ever felt like a free man,” remembered the African American veteran Tom Page, a native of New York City. “If someone didn’t like you, they told you to your face. It had nothing to do with the color of your skin.” In their struggle against fascism in Spain, the members of the Lincoln Brigade had resolved to eliminate the racial animosities that limited democracy in the United States. Among the nearly three thousand volunteers, more than eighty were African Americans, a half-dozen identified as Native Americans, two were Chinese, one was Japanese; there were also Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and at least sixty different European white nationality or ethnic groups represented in the ranks. That brigade leaders kept such detailed records indicates the Lincolns saw themselves as a self-conscious melting-pot organization.
Viewing itself as a “people’s army,” the brigade created fully integrated military units from officers to foot soldiers. Captain Oliver Law, killed in action in 1937, was the first African American battalion commander to lead predominantly white troops into battle. And when, despite official policy, racist comments did occasionally emerge, as they might in any army, brigade leaders acted decisively to stifle such outbursts.
The U.S. military treated the black Lincolns, like their white comrades, as a distinct species both officially and informally. Their unique combat experience gave them a favorable status among the white officers and black soldiers. Some, like the former officer Walter Garland, were invited to give public lectures about the battles in Spain. Indeed, Garland recounted how his expertise as a machine gunner enabled him to make a mechanical improvement in the army’s machine gun sights for which he received a military commendation. Others, like Vaughn Love, became respected instructors who trained African American GIs for combat roles, even though black troops were not expected to fight the enemy with weapons. Within the ranks, their personal prestige made the politically mature, battle-hardened veterans a steadying force to bolster the morale of their fellow soldiers. Yet despite their favorable impressions, the black Lincoln veterans typically faced the same political discrimination that confronted other Spanish Civil War veterans. And like other Lincolns, the African Americans waged a two-front war in the army, seeking opportunities to persuade the white leadership to give them meaningful assignments to hasten the defeat of fascism.
Such possibilities were drastically limited by the racially segregated system within the U.S. armed forces, a stark and omnipresent contrast to their circumstances in Spain’s International Brigades. White and black Lincoln veterans, like Bunny Rucker and Julius Hene, frequently commented on this anomaly, and it remained a persistent insult to the ideology and personal feelings of those who faced both political and racial discrimination in a war ostensibly fought against the Nazi Master Race.
Lincoln correspondents also reported numerous instances of racial violence on and off base, particularly in the southern states. Black veterans feared assignments in the South and often stayed on the bases to avoid trouble. Some like Jimmy Yates noticed improvements in race relations from his earlier days in the South; Burt Jackson was delighted to be reassigned near Detroit. Northern whites like Milton Wolff were appalled by examples of public terror near Camp Wheeler, Georgia, and compared anti-black sentiment to fascist racism.
Black volunteers saw such racist treatment undermining the war effort. In his later oral history, Vaughn Love described his discovery of an elaborate scam by which white military police near Chattanooga, Tennessee, regularly arranged to prevent black soldiers from boarding buses back to their base, then arrested them for being Absent Without Official Leave (AWOL), and transferred them to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where they were kept in an empty jail. “Every morning they would take them out and farm them out to these Georgia farmers,” said Love.
Despite this hostile environment (or because of it), the African Americans pulled every string they could to obtain transfer into combat units. Once in combat, none achieved greater heroics that Sergeant Edward Carter, II. Although his military record in Spain is sparse, Carter boasted of combat experience in a 1942 interview with the army newspaper at Fort Benning, Georgia. He had enlisted the previous year, two months before Pearl Harbor, and took basic training in Texas, where he expressed shock at racial conditions in the south. Although Carter was an excellent marksman, the army placed him in a quartermaster truck company and shipped him overseas in 1944. The German counter-offensive in December, known as the Battle of the Bulge, encouraged the army to use black troops in combat situations. Like Bunny Rucker, Carter seized the opportunity. Coming under attack in Germany while riding with his rifle squad on a tank in March 1945, Carter bravely fought off a German squad, killed at least six enemy soldiers, and captured two, despite receiving multiple wounds. The Army awarded him the Distinguished Service Cross, the highest honor given to any African American during World War II. Fifty years later, in a ceremony held at the White House in Washington, D.C., President Bill Clinton added to the laurels by awarding Carter, along with six other African American soldiers of World War II, a posthumous Congressional Medal of Honor for his valor in Germany. By then, only one African American Lincoln veteran, Frank Alexander, was still alive; he died in 1996.
Premature Antifascists and the Post-war World
The Lincoln Brigade veterans, like most other Americans, looked forward to the postwar world with considerable optimism. By 1945, their fight against fascism that had begun nearly ten years before appeared to be won, a fact that eased some of the disappointment they had carried leaving Spain in defeat. On the domestic front, many Lincolns hoped that the progressive movement that had made such great progress in the 1930s would be able to build upon the successes of the New Deal, strengthen the industrial union movement, and perhaps set the stage for socialist reform.
Many veterans, among them Bill Susman and Martin Kraus, understood that the emerging conflict with the Soviet Union would push domestic politics sharply to the right. The origins of the Cold War remains a subject of endless debate among historians, but what is not debatable is the fact that once the anti-Communist campaign began, the Lincolns were among its first victims. The government’s suspicions of their loyalty once again became an issue late in the war when a congressional committee in March 1945 investigated the promotion of fourteen Communist officers, including the Lincolns who served in the OSS. William Donovan’s testimony about their loyalty provided no defense when conservative congressmen threatened to cut the OSS budget unless the Lincolns were discharged from the service.
Despite these ominous signs, most Lincolns resumed their trade union and political work with renewed enthusiasm and optimism. They were particularly active in the steel, automobile, maritime, fur, and electrical workers union. However, they quickly realized that the nature of labor unrest, at least in the northern industrial states that had been organized by the CIO, was far different than it had been in the 1930s. In any case, the period from 1946 to 1948 would be the last opportunity for most Lincoln vets to work within the industrial union movement. After the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, labor leaders who aspired to union office were obliged to sign an affidavit stating that they were not members of the Communist party. Many of the Lincolns preferred to leave the labor movement rather than take this oath.
Although the veterans often disagreed about strategy and tactics within the labor and civil rights movements, all believed that Francisco Franco and Spanish fascism represented a major piece of unfinished business. In 1945, David McKelvey White, national chairman of the Friends of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, lobbied Congress and delegates to the UN’s founding conference in San Francisco to keep Spain out of the new world body. The Lincolns also organized numerous public demonstrations outside the Spanish consulate in New York. But although they and their allies were able to get a good deal of public support for their position and Spain was not admitted to the UN, the anti-Communist thrust of American foreign policy meant that Franco was now being seen as an important strategic ally in the Cold War.
Despite or perhaps because of these anti-Franco activities, the Lincoln Brigade and its allies found themselves under increasing attack. As early as January 1946, the House Committee on Un-American Activities opened an investigation of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. When the organization refused to turn over membership and donor lists, ten officers were convicted of contempt of Congress and sentenced to jail.
When Robert Colodny wrote in 1947 that “the intellectual night was fast setting in,” he was from the perspective of most Lincolns describing the political situation in postwar America. In December 1947 Attorney General Tom Clark released a list of subversive organizations that include the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, VALB, and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. With the passage of the McCarran Internal Security Act of 1950, the noose tightened even further. VALB was required to register as an agent of a foreign government. Almost all the officers resigned and other Lincolns in the Communist party leadership were put on trial.
During these years, nearly every Lincoln veteran, particularly those active in the labor and civil rights movements, but even those known as non-Communists or even anti-Communists, were targeted for investigation. Federal agents routinely interviewed their employers, neighbors, and landlords. Among this group was future Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Edward A. Carter Jr.
By the early 1950s most of the Lincolns were facing the political inquisition. The campaign culminated in a Subversive Activity Control Board hearing in May 1954. Although several veterans testified that they went to Spain to fight fascism, not to support communism, the government relied on FBI informers and veterans who were disillusioned with the Communist party to establish a direct link between the Lincoln Brigade and the party.
The Lincolns, like so many other radical organizations, were decimated by the Red Scare and blacklists of the late 1940s and 1950s. But when the long night of the fifties began to lift and the civil rights and antiwar movements began to gather strength, the veterans were still around. During the next quarter-century and beyond, they once again took up the banner of the good fight as part of the peace movements that opposed U.S. wars in Vietnam, Central America, and the Middle East.