• Email
  • Print

The Spanish Civil War: An Exchange

In response to:

In Another Country from the December 1, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

In Bernard Knox’s review of Peter Carroll’s book about the Americans who served with the International Brigades [NYR, Dec. 1, 1994], he states twice, apropos of nothing, that I testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The fact is I did not testify before HUAC. Both it and Joe McCarthy, separately, sent investigators to talk to me about testifying and I advised them I would not plead the fifth, I would admit I had been a young Communist, I was not ashamed of it, but to protest the kangaroo court methods used by both, I would thereafter stand mute. Neither subpoenaed me.

I was however subpoenaed by the government to appear as a witness in a proceeding against the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [sic!] before the Subversive Activities Control Board where rules of evidence prevailed, with direct and cross examination of witnesses by each side, and with right of appeal. I responded to the subpoena, was sworn in, and testified to the truth to the best of my recollection. And Carroll concedes in his book that I did tell the truth. He also reports that it was not the government who asked me to name names, but, astonishingly, the VALB, willing to throw its members to the wolves in order to label me an informer, and that I gave the names of dead men, except for at least one whose politics I said I did not know.

The truth was that the International Brigades were organized, dominated, controlled and massacred by the Comintern, a tool of Stalin. Now, after some 57 years, VALB through Carroll—and concurred in by Mr. Knox—admits to the same, though Stalin’s name is never mentioned by either Carroll or Mr. Knox. It seems that the Americans were a group apart from the rest of the IB, even apart from what was going on in the most complex civil war of the complex 20th century. To read Carroll and Mr. Knox you would hardly know that these brave Americans were fighting in Spain.

Carroll, Mr. Knox states, “undermines the notion, made by George Orwell…that the International Brigades enforced discipline by terror.” I demur. Mr. Knox also seems to demur when he synthesizes Hemingway’s description of André Marty, supreme commissar of the IB, “as a half-crazed…witch-hunter, seeing spies and Trotskyites…and sending them before firing squads.” Later, Mr. Knox appears to change his mind. Marty in all modesty claimed to have executed only 500 men. As for the Lincolns, they were policed by, among others, Tony DeMaio who also modestly and “vociferously denies,” as Carroll reports, the crimes attributed to him. The International Brigades were a creature of Stalin and they did things Stalin’s way. A mere reading of the Lincoln documents from the Comintern archives in Moscow reveals that amply enough, though Carroll in his so-called impartiality as official historian of the West Coast chapter of VALB and as member of the board of directors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade [sic!] Archivists, a creature and fan club of VALB, states that these documents prove there was no terror.

I have only 26 pages from the archives. Page after page of lists of men in the 15th Brigade, which included the Lincolns, accused of being deserters, cowards, thieves, spies, Trotskyites, and even two, both certainly Jews, called Gestapo agents. Who made these lists? Carroll does not tell us. These men—kids most of them—vilified for reasons we shall probably never know, came to Spain, volunteered like the rest of us, to fight for their Party, to fight fascism. One sheet, to me ominous, is simply headed “List of Americans.” Twenty-seven names, with such accusations as high treason, spy, Trotskyist, deserter, et cetera. Were they executed? Were they incarcerated in Tony DeMaio’s fortress-prison at Casteldefels? I recognize two names, Marquette—Trotskyist, thief, and LaMotte—thief, as men who previously were said to have been executed. I have no idea why. Carroll never mentions them; neither does he say a word about this list of 27 Americans.

Neither does he anywhere mention Harry Perchik, young Communist from the Bronx. The Lincoln battalion political commissar writes to the Cadres Service: “We have also had inquiries about Harry Perchik. He was removed from our battalion…with a high fever.” Indeed! Harry was executed, allegedly for desertion, but he was also known to have complained repeatedly that more men were killed thanks to the incompetence of CP-appointed commanders than by enemy capabilities.

The IB, and the Lincolns, were a recruiting source in Spain for the NKVD under the Russian Orlov and for Spanish Military Intelligence under the Hungarian hangman Erno Gero who also doubled as leader of the Catalan Communist Party (PSUC), using the name Pedro. Orlov and Gero engineered Operation Nikolai which led to the murder of Andreu Nin, POUM leader. Carroll admits several Americans were co-opted into one or another of these so-called intelligence units, but downplays the work performed by these Americans and doesn’t give their names but for one, the infamous Morris Cohen. According to Carroll, it seems only Europeans were capable of torture and murder of Spanish revolutionaries, not Americans.

While in hospital in Murcia recovering from an unsuccessful operation to remove a bullet from my spine, I made a trivial criticism of the Soviet Union to my nurse (and lover). She informed on me and I was severely punished, one aspect of which, to teach me a lesson, was to haul me out of my hospital cot to attend at the execution of three Spanish kids—Trotskyite fascists they were called. None of their executioners were Americans, but over the years there have been Americans who have boasted about their work as apparatchiks in Spain, work which included executions.

Harassment for my ever-increasing dissension continued back in the States, now by VALB, who informed on me (I was caught attending a lecture by Norman Thomas and another by Bob Edwards, Orwell’s commander in Spain), and had me fired from my job with the Communist-led Furriers Union. Not only did I lose a much-needed job, this was 1939, but my war comrades as well, one of whom, my best friend, came to tell me that if ordered by the Party to kill me, he would. (Nothing, Mr. Knox, is that simple.)

Bravery on the battlefield is not uncommon, but bravery to face up to and acknowledge uncomfortable truths is unique. To refuse to be a denier in the face of the compact mass can be called heroic.

Our fight’s not won till the workers of the world
Stand by our guard on Huesca’s plain
Swear that our dead fought not in vain.
Raise the red flag triumphantly.
For Communism and liberty….

So wrote John Cornford, English poet and Communist, who died defending Cordoba. He, and most of us, believed Communism and liberty were indivisible, and he wrote those words at the very time our leader, Stalin, was murdering millions of his own people, including Communists, who also wanted liberty, and was about to begin his crimes against the Spanish people who were fighting for liberty. For his armaments and his brutish intervention, Spain paid Stalin in gold bullion, and we, alas, paid with our blood.

William Herrick

East Nassau, New York

William Herrick is the author of many books, including Hermanos! a novel of the Spanish Civil War. He is a veteran of the Lincoln battalion.

To the Editors:

I feel compelled to write the following comments concerning Peter Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, both on behalf of my deceased husband, John Gates, and myself, as someone very close to the issues raised by him in this book.

The reviewer, Bernard Knox, has commented in depth on the book by Michael Jackson, which I have not read; from what Knox says, I wonder if it is written with the same degree of critical insight as Peter Carroll’s work. Knox seems to take for granted that Carroll is just exercising “conscientious objectivity” when he acknowledges the Communist origins of the Brigade, especially in the United States. But, so far as I know, Carroll is the first historian to show clearly the role of the Comintern in organizing the Brigades, and especially how the members of the organizational apparatus of the American Communist Party were sent throughout the country to secure volunteers for the Brigade. This account is certainly welcome, although it must also be said that for a considerable period of time the threat of McCarthyism discouraged writers who knew these facts from making them public. Until the deaths of many of the principals, those who knew the truth about these Party activities were reluctant to write about them. (I cannot refrain, however, from calling attention to the new drive to the extreme right by the Republicans, who have their own kind of scapegoats.)

By now it should be accepted as established fact that the International Brigades which fought in Spain were mainly the creation of the Comintern and had Stalin’s direct blessing. The volunteers from the US were obtained largely through solicitations by Party functionaries. John Gates was encouraged to volunteer in this way (in Ohio), as were Milt Wolf and many others. I remember a meeting to recruit volunteers in Minneapolis. There were few if any criteria for accepting or rejecting volunteers. The Americans who were recruited did not have military experience and were not given adequate training when they first arrived in Spain, which cost them so heavily in the debacle at Jarama. Ed Bender and William Lawrence, the Party members who were responsible for this phase of the recruiting, knew nothing about military requirements.

All these matters have been touched on before. But, so far as I know, the origins of the International Brigade and its American contingent have not been described with the honesty Peter Carroll brings to the subject. In my view, however, Carroll exaggerates the actual Communist influence on the volunteers. A good many of them were not Communists and volunteered not because of Communist pressure but to fight for democracy and against fascism in Spain. Carroll also does not make it sufficiently clear that many people joined the Party in order to support what they considered to be democratic causes; only later did they see that the Party was itself an ideologically rigid and non-democratic organization.

On another related issue, moreover, Carroll’s book fails to give an adequate explanation of what caused some 100,000 Communists (adding together Party members with the Young Communist League) to quit the Party. This departure took place over a period of years and reflected the Party’s loss of credibility owing to strange flip-flops in Communist policy, beginning most notably at the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, when VALB members found themselves declaring the “Yanks Are Not Coming,” and continuing on through the post-war period with the Wallace debacle, the Party’s badly conceived struggle for the rights of African-Americans, and its divisive trade union tactics. The result was that the Party was extremely weak at the time when the rise of McCarthyism made changes within the Party all the more difficult.

John Gates and Bob Thompson, two prominent veterans of the VALB, were members of the National Board of the American CP and were sentenced to jail terms for espousing their beliefs. While they and others were in jail, the CP functioned under peculiar conditions known as the “underground.” Many of the acting leaders at that time realized they were losing every constituency that made a viable political existence possible. Demands for reform that would give Party members the right to decide their own American destinies were being made long before the famous Khrushchev speech acknowledging the crimes of Stalin. After the contents of the speech became known, an entire year was set aside by the leaders to discuss this question and the difficulties that had arisen with the Party.

According to Peter Carroll, “For the first time in its 37-year history, the Party was permitting individual discussion, but ironically the weakening of the orthodoxy further eroded loyalty and support. As the spirit of unity collapsed, party membership dropped from 17,000 to 5,000 members at the end of the next year…recrimination and government pressure destroyed the Communist political force.” (One could ask him about what happened to the 100,000 who quit.)

Long before the Party conventions reached their decisions about the Party’s future (which were a compromise) the membership was walking out, particularly after Soviet troops rolled into Hungary. As news spread of the content of the Khrushchev speech, members did not wait for “leaders”—they trusted nobody. Carroll does not give adequate reasons for the decline, which may account for his characterization of John Gates as having “accommodated” himself to liberal reformism.

As a member of the Party’s National Board Gates became the outstanding advocate of complete reform, with emphasis on democracy and the independence of the American Communist Party. This position never prevailed; the compromise reached at the National Convention was only a formal gesture. Khrushchev in Russia beat a retreat; nothing happened to change the situation in the Soviet Union until it fell apart many years later. Gates left the Communist Party in 1958 over the issue of the abolition of the Daily Worker. He went to work for the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, and spent his time helping workers collect unemployment insurance and also participated in mainstream politics. (I was more active in Democratic politics and recently took part in the campaign to prevent Jeb Bush from being elected governor of Florida.)

After they left the Party, John Gates, George Watt, and many others found prodemocratic and worthwhile objectives in their work in hospitals, unions, and elsewhere. The rules of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade precluded a frank discussion of anything but “anti-fascist goals,” and these never included political objectives within the United States.

Another omission in Carroll’s book; he does not give an objective account of how democracy was achieved in Spain after the death of Franco. With a fully democratic structure, the Spanish people chose to vote for the Socialists, who have governed (and not without some difficulties) ever since.

We face a period of racist and economic reaction. If ever there was time to revive concerns for liberty, it is now.

Lillian Gates

Miami, Florida

Bernard Knox replies:

Mr. Herrick is right about one thing: I misrepresented his reluctant testimony before the Subversive Activities Control Board as an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee. I offer him my sincere apology. It was simply an error that crept into the text of a complicated article that was shortened and revised several times.

I do not understand his statement that after citing Hemingway’s portrait of André Marty as a half-crazed witch-hunter who sent suspected Trotskyites to the firing-squad, “Mr. Knox appears to change his mind.” This must be a reference to the parenthesis that follows the statement about Marty; it runs: “At the time few of us who had served in Spain realized that this was not far from the truth.” The statement clearly implies that many of us later came to recognize that Hemingway was right. In my case I made public my initial blindness and my realization of the truth in the pages of this journal many years ago.

  • Email
  • Print