This year’s spectacular commemoration of the Normandy landings was preceded by the publication or re-issue of a number of books dealing with that great enterprise, even though, to Americans of younger generations, the Second World War, something that occurred before the American wars in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf (not to mention military operations in Grenada and Panama), must seem like ancient history. The Spanish Civil War which began in July 1936, and in which America took no official part, must seem to them like prehistory. And yet, as if to herald the approach of the sixtieth anniversary of its outbreak, books by and about participants in that far-off war are beginning to appear on both sides of the Atlantic.
There is even a film, Chronicles of Hope, made by Michkan World in Paris, that has already been shown on French and Belgian television; it consists of interviews with survivors of the Republican Army and the International Brigades. Among them are Enrique Lister, one of the Republic’s best generals; Artur London, who after his service in Spain became vice-minister for foreign affairs in Prague and was one of the victims of the Slan-sky purge in 1949, but survived imprisonment to publish in Paris L’Aveu, an account of his interrogation and trial that was made into a stirring film by Costa-Gavras; Henri Tanguy, commander of the XVth Brigade of French volunteers and later, in 1944, of the FFI in the fighting for the liberation of Paris; Bill Alexander, commander of the British Battalion at Teruel; Milton Wolff, Sam Wellman, and others of the Lincoln Brigade, and also the author of this review (unless, as often happens to people in the celluloid world, I got left on the cutting room floor at the last moment—I have not seen the film).
The books are either by or about members of the International Brigades that were organized, under the direction of the Comintern, in the autumn of 1936. When the remnants of these brigades marched in Barcelona in October 1938, in a ceremony marking their withdrawal from the fighting—a move the Negrín government hoped might produce pressure on Italy and Germany to follow suit—La Pasionaria made a farewell address which concluded with the words: “You can go proudly. You are history. You are legend.” And legend they have become, as contradictory myths have been woven around them, presenting them as idealistic champions of democracy on the one hand or as either “dupes” (J. Edgar Hoover’s word) or victims of the cynical maneuvers of the Kremlin. Michael Jackson’s Fallen Sparrows, which is Volume 212 of the prestigious Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, announces itself as “an attempt to peel off some of the layers of myth that have obscured the International Brigades…myths concern[ing] factual questions of their number, nation, class, age, and political associations” and others concerning “the meaning of their commitment.”
The numbers of course have been wildly exaggerated or underestimated depending on the political or national affiliations of their source; Jackson arrives at a reasonable estimate of 36,000 men drawn from fifty different nations over the whole period of the deployment of the Brigades from November 1936 to September 1938. His emphasis is on the rank-and-file volunteers, not the famous names that have given a literary cachet to the Republican cause; Hemingway was not a combatant, and Malraux and Orwell, who did fight, were not enrolled in the Brigades. In the chapter entitled “Why did they go?” though recognizing the key role of the Comintern in recruiting and organizing the Brigades, he points out that as many as 5,000 individuals like George Orwell made their own way to Spain and carried arms for the Republic outside the ranks of the International Brigades.” A German “centuria” was at the front in Catalonia well before the Brigades were formed; my friend John Cornford fought with it and returned to England to recruit me and a handful of others to form the nucleus of a similar British formation. It was only when we got to Paris that we were routed to Albacete, the base for the Brigades. “The timing of events,” Jackson rightly concludes, “makes clear that the Communists and the Comintern seized the opportunity events provided, they did not determine them.” And he is certainly right when he says that if Republican Spain “had called for volunteers no doubt thousands would have volunteered even if Communist parties had not been involved and even if the Comintern had not recruited and transported volunteers.”
The reason why they went is clear enough in the case of the German, Austrian, and Italian volunteers and those from the dictatorships of Eastern Europe (including, at that time the Greece of General Metaxas). They were refugees and political exiles, unwelcome guests in the Western democracies; Spain offered them not only a possible home in the event of victory, but also a chance to fight against the establishment of an authoritarian regime like the one they had left behind at home. For the Germans and Italians Spain offered, in addition, an opportunity to fight against troops of the Fascist regimes now in control of their own countries. Jackson describes them as “marginal men, produced by the social, economic, and political upheavals of the time.” He also groups under this rubric the volunteers from the democratic countries: for all the volunteers the Brigades were “an outlet for the politically, socially, economically and morally frustrated men who eventually joined.”
This crude summation, repeated elsewhere in politer language, reflects Jackson’s persistent obsession that the volunteers from the democracies were an army of social misfits, that they too were exiles, in a sense, in their own countries and so comparable to the volunteers from Fascist dictatorships. He can produce little evidence for this, though it is of course true that most of these volunteers were unmarried and many of them unemployed. But married men, especially if they had children, could obviously not abandon their dependents easily, and as for unemployment, it was a widespread phenomenon in the West as the Depression showed little sign of receding. The volunteers were not, to quote Margot Heinemann’s lament for the death of John Cornford, “an army all of Sidney Cartons,/the best world made conveniently by wasters, secondrates,/ Someone that we could spare,…” Their deaths were, rather, “the loss of our best and bravest everywhere.”1
As part of the process of peeling off the layers of myth that surround the actual achievements of the Brigades, Jackson deals in his seventh chapter, “What Purpose Was Served?”, with “three justifications for their formation and deployment”: they were “to provide a model of military efficiency, to defend Madrid, and to be a moral example of the cause of antifascism.” On the first count, he admits that “many of the earliest spontaneous volunteers were experienced soldiers…like the Germans and Italians” and that “at the squad level of a dozen men or a centuria of 100…effective fighting units existed.” But, he contends, the diversity of languages and the inefficiency and inexperience of staff and command sacrificed the volunteers in ill-planned attacks on positions held by experienced troops, resulting in casualty rates higher then any suffered by armies in World War II. “This,” he says, “happens when untrained men play soldier, especially when they are used as shock troops, the first into attacks and the last out in retreat.”
This needs considerable modification. Quite apart from the Germans and Italians, the French, the most numerous nationality in the ranks, had nearly all of them completed their compulsory service militaire, and among the British there were many who had a fairly good idea of what they were supposed to do. In my own unit of sixteen Englishmen in the machine-gun company of the French Battalion of the XIth, there were two ex-soldiers with overseas experience, one former sailor in the Royal Navy and four Oxford and Cambridge students who had been through the Cadet Corps training compulsory at most English private schools. That training consisted of drill and other exercises every Friday afternoon and a two-week military camp in the summer (mine was on the Isle of Wight). The curriculum included infantry tactics, proficiency on the Lee-Enfield rifle, large-scale maneuvers (often mock battles against other schools), and, in my own case, training under the supervision of NCOs of the 23rd London Regiment on the Lewis light machine-gun, the weapon we were armed with when we arrived at Madrid on November 7, 1936. For all the volunteers except those from the US, where there was no conscription and certainly no military training in high schools, Jackson’s statement that “in general, the men of the International Brigades knew as little about making war as they did about conjugating Spanish verbs” is very wide of the mark.
But even those volunteers who had had no regular training were more advanced than many of the Spanish milicianos. Spain had no compulsory military service and in fact the ordinary Spaniard had not been involved in warfare since the guerrilla operations against Napoleon’s armies at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Spanish milicianos we encountered at Madrid were real innocents, some of them Quixotic types who refused to take over under shell-fire. And the Spaniards did in fact learn from the Brigades, as Jackson might have found out if he had looked at what two Spaniards—reliable witnesses, since the first was a Socialist and the second an Anarchist—had to say on the matter. Julian Zugazagoitia, who had time to write a Historia de la Guerra en España before the Gestapo handed him over to Franco for execution in 1940, wrote that “the miliciano learned; he picked up soldierly habits. Every International became, without realizing it, a teacher.” And Eduardo de Guzmán concurred: “Our men saw them fight with unlimited bravery and skill. They saw how they economized ammunition, how each one built his own firing-post…”2
As for the high casualty rate, although there were indeed mistakes made at the command level—on both sides—it was an inevitable consequence not only of the haste with which the Brigades had to be sent to the front if Madrid was not to be lost, and the war with it, and also of the disparity in training, for Franco’s Moors and Foreign Legionaries, the spear-head of his attack on Madrid, were seasoned professionals who had learned their trade in the hills of Morocco. As the war dragged on, the disparity in armament widened; after 1937 Russian supplies fell short and German and Italian support in aircraft, armor, artillery, and men reached its crescendo.
There are times, too, when men have to be pitted against seemingly impossible odds, when the enemy can be halted only by desperate action. This was the situation of Madrid in the winter of 1936–1937, and, though the casualties were shockingly high, Madrid was saved in the northwest suburbs in November and at Boadilla in December–January, in the Jarama Valley in February and at Guadalajara in March. In all these battles the Brigades were fully engaged. The British section of the MG company of the XIth went into action on November 8; as I have said we numbered sixteen men. By the first week in January, eight of us were dead and two badly wounded; one more was killed that month and another in March. But what Jackson omits is the heavy casualties inflicted on Franco’s forces. They were heavy enough to force Franco to abandon his frontal attack on Madrid on November 23 and turnto a series of attempts to cut the cityoff and starve it into surrender.
Jackson’s second myth, that the Brigades saved Madrid, has no basis in fact; it was clear to everyone except a few hysterical journalists that the men who stopped Franco’s apparently irresistible drive on Madrid were Spaniards and that they had in fact checked the Fascist spearheads on November 7, the day before the XIth Brigade went into action. On the final item he comes to a generous conclusion. “The Brigaders show a fine moral example for all their deficiencies as a military model, exemplifying moral qualities that made their real military contributions possible and also ensured a high human price for those contributions…In response to a morally incoherent world they created enduring political meaning.”
All in all, the value of Jackson’s book lies in its conscientious analysis of the known or probable facts about the Brigades, though it is a pity that the book was written before the Brigade archives in Moscow were made available. There are however some lapses in accuracy. The XIth Brigade, for example, is described as “mainly German” and its “main language” is listed as French. In fact, it consisted of three battalions, roughly equal in size: The Edgar André (German), the Commune de Paris (French with a tiny English section), and the Dombrowski (Polish). And since many of the Poles had come from France, where they had for many years been working in the coal mines, the “main language” of the Brigade (if there was one) was French. Jackson also has a tendency to get his sources confused: Paul Preston, for example, is classed as a volunteer, which he was not, and Peter Wyden is given the doubly erroneous title of “British volunteer.”
The “Lincoln Brigade” of Peter N. Carroll’s title is, as he explains, an organization that never existed; the phrase is a catch-all term for the 2,800 Americans who served in the army of the Spanish Republic in the Lincoln, Washington, and Mackenzie-Papineau battalions as well as in other formations, combat, medical, or supply. His book is the first impartial historical account of their careers before, during, and after the war, in which they served from February 1937, when the Lincoln Battalion had its fearsome baptism of fire in the Jarama Valley, until October 1938, when the remnants of the Brigade were sent home after the parade in Barcelona. Of the original 2,800 “nearly one-third were dead; virtually every military survivor had been wounded at least once.”
Carroll’s book is based not only on the documents available at libraries such as those of Brandeis University and the Hoover Institution, but also on the extensive Spanish Civil War archives in Moscow, where in the last days of the war the records of the Brigades were shipped. He has also conducted interviews with many of the veterans, who, trusting his judgment and accepting his impartiality as a historian, spoke frankly about their experiences, their motives for going to Spain, and their political loyalties. They also, Carroll tells us, “produced a wealth of new archival material. As the veterans or their survivors clear out closets and basements, they have uncovered a tremendous number of documents, many of them unread for decades. These sources provide the backbone of this book. Whether quoting from unknown Hemingway letters, speeches of his opponents, or previously unused government records, I have allowed the original words to assume priority over the retrospective memories and belated analyses. But, in fact, the oral history and the written record reveal few contradictions. Usually the one amplifies and corroborates the other.”
All of the books on this subject that have so far appeared have been written either by veterans themselves or by writers hostile to the Communist beliefs and connections of the leading cadres and the bulk of the rank and file (according to Carroll “between two-thirds and three-quarters of all American recruits identified themselves as members of the Communist party or one of its affiliated groups”). He is a conscientious historian, and though his sympathy is clearly with the veterans, he carefully documents the Communist origins of the Brigade and control of its activities. He assesses judicially the serious charges brought against its leadership by discontented veterans, prominent among them the novelist William Herrick, Morris Maken, the Brooklyn-born painter, possessor of an “acerbic wit” that was a thorn in the flesh of the authorities, and Robert Gladnick, a Russian speaker who transferred to a Russian tank unit, where he saw enough to make him break with the Communist Party. All three later testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Carroll carries the story of the Brigade on beyond the return of the veterans from Spain and examines the activity of their organization, the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) through the Second World War, the Red Scare era of the late Forties and Fifties, the US confrontation with Cuba, the Vietnam War, and the US role in Nicaragua to the present day, when the few who are still alive maintain the Brigade’s tradition of left-wing militancy.
The Lincoln Brigade in Spain was perhaps the most extraordinary military unit in American history. Its officers were not the elite products of martial academies but men selected for their military or political experience; they could be and often were replaced if they failed to gain, or lost, the confidence of their men. But what made the Brigade unique in the history of American armies was the complete absence of racial discrimination; over eighty African Americans served in the ranks (about 2.6 per cent of the total) and one of them, Oliver Law, was in command of the Lincoln Battalion when he was killed at Brunete in July 1937, the first black soldier to command white American troops. Not for another decade and a world war did the process of racial integration get a start in the US Armed Forces, with Truman’s directive in 1948. For the whole of World War II the only place where black and white American soldiers lived together was the military prison. Most black soldiers served in support units—transport, construction, etc.—or in a combat division such as the 92nd in Italy where everyone was black except for the officers of field grade. I was once witness to a startling example of the lengths to which this policy of separation was carried.
I was one of many thousands of men packed into the Queen Elizabeth for the Atlantic crossing in February 1943. The numbers aboard can be gauged from the fact that I shared a small cabin with eight other second lieutenants, and we had a right to the space for eight hours only—the cabin slept twenty-seven of us in the course of twenty-four hours. Midway in the voyage the loud speakers that governed our lives carried a call from the captain for a boat drill. As a rehearsal for abandoning ship it was a ludicrous affair, since it took us over two hours to get everybody on deck. As we stood there, packed tight as sardines in a can, and listened to the captain’s voice exhorting us to do better than that next time, we heard the clatter of steps on the main staircase and into the sunlight, blinking and rubbing their eyes, came a battalion of black soldiers of the Quartermaster Corps. No one had any idea that they were on board. They must have been loaded first and clapped into some ghetto equipped with a mess hall and other facilities in the ship’s bowels just above the keel. Nobody could have imagined at that moment that in just about fifty more years, a black soldier would become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that the United States Army would finally catch up with the Lincoln Brigade.
Of all the international volunteers, the Americans were the least prepared for what was to come. And in their first engagement, in the Jarama Valley, they had the misfortune to be sent, in spite of the protests of their commander, Robert Merriman, into an attack that Hemingway described as “stupidly conceived and insanely executed”3 ; it resulted in horrendous casualties. The stunned survivors, reinforced by new arrivals, were later to suffer through three weeks of constant combat under the July sun in the Brunete offensive, where they were exposed to superior fire power on land and from the air. Small wonder that there was a morale problem; after Jarama the men organized a meeting in which they demanded immediate removal from the front lines and a minimum of two weeks’ training under the supervision of experienced officers.
The first demand was met though not the second. But the survivors of Brunete no longer needed training; they had learned their trade and become “a disciplined army.” It was to give proof of its hard-won effectiveness in the capture of Quinto and Belchite, and at Teruel before the long retreat began, in which the Republican army, battered by overwhelming Fascist superiority in planes, tanks, artillery, and men, fell back fighting to the Ebro as Franco pushed through to the Mediterranean at Vinaroz and cut the Republic’s territory in half. The Lincoln Brigade played its part in the Republic’s last, Quixotic offensive, the Ebro crossing—“Maybe we were naive,” said Wolff, its commander, later, “maybe we believed in miracles, maybe we were stupid but…for us there was no other way”—and though suffering heavy casualties, the Brigade remained a fighting unit in the retreat before the huge Fascist counter-offensive that followed. At the end of September 1938, when the Brigade was withdrawn from the lines for the last time, “there were barely 200 Americans left in the country.”
Carroll celebrates their Iliad (“We have lived an Iliad,” said Pietro Nenni, a volunteer in the Garibaldi Battalion who later became vice-president of Italy), but he also deals frankly with the matter of the volunteers who could not meet the stern demands combat made on them, the deserters. He estimates their numbers, relying on State Department archives, interviews with |veterans, and the documents recently made available in Moscow, at “about one hundred, conceivably several dozen more…about 4 per percent of all military volunteers.” Some of them returned to the ranks on their own initiative, others were forcibly returned and disciplined in various ways but elected to stay on, others still, some after many frustrations, made their way home.
One of those who returned testified before the Dies Committee in 1938 that the veterans who remained were “virtually prisoners” and would come back “every one of them” if given the chance—a statement denounced by a group of wounded veterans in Spain as “an unmitigated lie.” Carroll also deals with the allegations that Americans were executed by Communist officials. He finds two cases of execution for criminal conduct, one for “black market schemes involving drugs, currency and fine art,” the other for taking part in a drunken spree that “wrecked a town near Barcelona.” Both executions were carried out by Spanish firing squads. One American volunteer was court-martialed and shot by his fellow soldiers after deserting from the front lines in March 1938; on the day of his arrest orders had been received from Division to pass the death sentence on deserters as an example to others—an order that was very soon rescinded. Two others, each of whom had deserted three times, were apparently shot by an officer without benefit of court-martial. “The rarity of these killings,” Carroll sums up, “undermines the notion, made popular by George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, that the International Brigades enforced discipline by terror.” And, it might be added, the leniency with which most of the cases of desertion were handled is in striking contrast with the practice of the British, French, Italian, and German armies in the First World War.
In December 1937 three prominent veterans in New York founded the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB), which was to organize and direct the activities of the veterans through the next fifty years or more. Not all of the returning veterans joined. Some of them, once home, put their experience behind them, married, and lost contact with their former comrades. Some few, who had for various reasons run afoul of Communist discipline in the Brigade, made public their distrust and disillusionment in testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee and, in the case of Herrick, in novels, especially notable among them Hermanos!, published in 1969.
One, Morris Cohen, who had been wounded on the Aragón front in 1937, went all the way to the opposite pole: he became a Soviet agent and his wife passed information he had obtained on the atomic program to Soviet officials. Soon after the arrest of the Rosenbergs, the Cohens disappeared; living under another name in England they were arrested for stealing naval secrets and sentenced to prison. They were later exchanged for a British businessman held by the Soviets. But most of the veterans lined up with the VALB to carry on the struggle against fascism in Spain and elsewhere. Like the Brigade before it, the VALB was under Communist leadership, which organized with its usual efficiency demonstrations against American neutrality in the Spanish war, a neutrality that allowed US oil companies to supply Franco’s army while denying arms to the Republic, and also the collection of money to help relieve the suffering of the thousands of Republican refugees in French concentration camps. The VALB also organized demonstrations demanding that the State Department secure the release of Brigade prisoners of war still held in Franco’s jails.
From the beginning captured members of the Brigades had been, on Franco’s orders, summarily executed. But as the war drew to a close, the Italians, who were now backing Franco to the hilt with troops, tanks, artillery, and aircraft, put pressure on him to take prisoners, especially English and American, for exchange against the Italians captured by the Republicans at Guadalajara in the spring of 1937. Of the 287 Americans known to have been captured in the course of the war 173 were killed. But during the great retreats a group of 87 American prisoners were saved from the firing squad by the arrival of two Italian staff cars. Together with other prisoners, they spent thirteen months in concentration camps and prisons where they concealed from their captors the fact that one of their number, Carl Geiser, had been political commissar of the Lincoln battalion, a rank that, if known, would have been his death warrant. Geiser’s Prisoners of the Good Fight is a carefully researched account of what is known of the fate of all the Americans captured in Spain and an absorbing narrative of life in the prison of San Pedro de Cárdenas, where the Americans produced an illegal newspaper, the Jaily News, set up the San Pedro Institute of Higher Learning, and also contrived the escape of six German volunteers who were about to be handed over to the Gestapo.
In October 1940 the VALB had to face a painful situation when Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls was published. Hemingway had been a warm friend of the brigaders in Spain, welcoming them when on leave to his rooms in the Florida hotel in Madrid. He had published a tribute to Wolff, who had fought through the war and ended up in command of the battalion; he had sent money to help veterans returning to the United States and helped arrange the publication of Alvah Bessie’s Men in Battle. He had also, in 1939, contributed to a special “Lincoln Brigade Number” of the Communist periodical New Masses an eloquent funeral speech, “On the American Dead in Spain.”
The veterans knew that the book was on the way and looked forward to it eagerly. “It was going to be the greatest book,” one of them said. “It was going to vindicate us all.” Its hero, however, turned out to be an American loner who had nothing to do with the Brigades, seemed to have no political convictions whatever, and, far from serving in the ranks, was engaged in guerrilla operations behind the Fascist lines. The book contained a savage portrait of André Marty, the political commissar of all the Brigades, as a half-crazed self-important witch-hunter, seeing spies and Trotskyists right and left and sending them before firing squads. (At the time, few of us who had served in Spain realized that this was not far from the truth.) Further, in what is perhaps the most memorable scene of the novel, the Republicans of a small Spanish town, after defeating the attempt of the local fascists to seize power, put them to death in a spectacularly brutal fashion. As if all this were not enough, one of the men facing certain death on the hill with El Sordo taunts a young Communist with the fact that La Pasionaria had sent her children to safety in the Soviet Union.
At the end of two meetings the VALB decided (though twenty-two veterans, among them the poet Edwin Rolfe, dissented) to issue and distribute a denunciation of the novel. Wolff was particularly offended. “The portrayal of Robert Jordan,” he explained much later in Remembering Spain,
as clean-cut WASP guerrilla leader, derring-do behind the lines, bombardier blowing up a bridge when not with Maria in a sleeping bag, the earth moving with each climax, was okay for Hollywood, I thought. The reality, however, was a guerrilla squad led by Goff, a Jewish kid who had won a New York State diving championship, and Billy Aalto, a Finn and professed Village poet. These guys had no Abercrombie & Fitch sleeping bags. They slept on the ground using their ponchos for both ground cover and blanket. There were no Marias to share their bedding.
At the time, he wrote an indignant letter to Hemingway, “calling him a tourist in Spain and saying that as such he could not know his ass from his elbow as to what the war was about.” Predictably, this aroused Hemingway’s wrath and prompted a letter to Wolff calling him “a prick” and ending: “We are no longer friends.” He later apologized for the epithet, but contact between Hemingway and the VALB was broken off.
In 1947 the VALB began to plan a meeting to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Lincoln Battalion’s appearance on the front lines in the Jarama Valley. The organizers asked Wolff to call Hemingway in Cuba and invite him to New York to read the tribute to the American dead that he had published in New Masses. Wolff was understandably reluctant to do so but was finally persuaded to pick up the phone. To his astonishment, he received a warm greeting from Hemingway on his finca and a promise that, though he could not come to New York, he would make a recording of the text and send it to be played at the meeting. The eulogy is preceded by an introduction that begins: “I am glad to be present in this distinguished company of premature antifascists…”
In 1940, when the VALB quarreled with Hemingway, the organization was hewing to the Communist line that the European war was an imperialist not an anti-Fascist war and that it was in America’s best interests to remain neutral. It is understandable that even those veterans who were not Communists harbored bitter resentment against the British and French governments which had refused to help the Spanish Republic and had betrayed the Czechs at Munich. But the VALB’s acceptance of the Communist line cast doubt on their credentials as an anti-Fascist organization when the Nazis overran France and threatened England with invasion in the summer of 1940, and that same line imposed a silent acquiescence by the VALB in the Russian invasion of Finland. These positions had alienated many sympathizers by the time the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June turned the VALB into a pressure group for immediate American commitment to action against the Axis.
Yet even before this event there had been an extraordinary case of unofficial VALB involvement in anti-Nazi activity. In the spring of 1941 Wolff was invited by his friend the journalist Vincent Sheean, whom he had known in Spain, to meet William Donovan, who had been with Franco’s forces as an observer and was later to organize the OSS. Donovan asked Wolff if the Lincoln veterans could help British Intelligence operatives who wished to recruit aliens resident in the US for work with resistance forces in their own home countries, Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Balkans, that were now occupied by German troops. Wolff checked with Communist Party officials and was given permission to go ahead, provided that the scheme remained secret. As a result George Delitch, a Yugoslav metal-worker, who had fought in Spain and had been captured and held with Geiser at San Pedro, parachuted into Yugoslavia “with about twelve of his buddies” to work under Tito, who had been one of the organizers of the International Brigades in Paris.
Delitch did a fine job in Yugoslavia, Wolff was told later—“blew up more enemy installations in five months than anyone else.” But like so many others who had worked and fought in Spain and then returned to the Communist world—like Kléber, who commanded the XIth and XIIth Brigades at Madrid in the critical months of November and December; like Koltsov, the Pravda correspondent who once had the ear of Stalin himself; like Rajk, political commissar of the Rakosi Battalion in the XVth Brigade who later became foreign secretary in Hungary—Delitch was rewarded for his services with a death penalty: he was executed by Tito in 1946 as an American spy.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the entry of the US into the war against the Axis was the signal for the veterans not incapacitated by wounds inflicted in Spain to rally to the colors now that the nation as a whole was committed to the fight against fascism. “At the minimum,” Carroll calculates, “425 veterans served in the armed forces and about 100 more sailed in the merchant marine.” Those who enlisted in the army were the only Americans who had personal experience of modern war and weapons, who had been subjected to the deadly fire of the German 88mm cannon, the bane of the GIs in the European fighting, to bombing and strafing by Luftwaffe pilots flying Nazi Germany’s latest aircraft models, to massed attacks by Italian tanks. They expected a welcome but were in for a cruel disappointment. Time after time veterans of the Spanish war who had been selected for officer training and won commendation for their work were suddenly transferred to ignominious noncombat duty as kitchen hands or sanitary workers; others were sent off to inactive theaters like the Aleutians where they spent the war years in a sort of military exile.
Milton Wolff, whose experience in the front lines and in command certainly qualified him for the combat duty he demanded, was shifted from one low-grade service job to another; he discovered early on that his official papers were marked at the corner of the page with the letters PA—premature anti-Fascist—an FBI classification that barred him from promotion and from combat and overseas assignments. It was not until 1944, after he served with the harbor patrol at Seattle and in India unloading ships, that his persistent appeals won him a transfer to Burma, where, under Stillwell, he took part in long-range patrol against the Japanese. Right at the end of the war he was posted to Italy, to join Goff, Fajans, and other Brigade veterans who were working for the OSS.
They had escaped the Army’s political quarantine net because even before Pearl Harbor, Wolff, after recruiting veterans of East European origin for British Intelligence, went on to form, for the same agency and at Donovan’s suggestion, a cadre to work behind enemy lines in the Egyptian desert. Wolff had approached Goff, who invited other veterans to participate, including Billy Aalto, who had been with him on missions behind Franco’s lines in Spain. This scheme was abandoned when the US entered the war, but Donovan “turned the project into an American operation,” sending the volunteers to what is now Camp David, where, together with many other OSS personnel, they were put through a rigorous training course that included parachute jumping. The Lincolns were scheduled to go to Spain under false colors, as embassy chauffeurs, for example, and lay the groundwork for Spanish guerrilla resistance if the Germans should attempt to cross Spain to attack Gibraltar.
The State Department promptly torpedoed this project, but with the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa a place was found for the OSS Lincolns, and a group of them spent the rest of the war in Italy. Goff, with Donovan’s approval, made contact with the powerful Communist underground forces in North Italy and was able to place multiple teams of agents behind the lines; it was “the most effective intelligence operation in northern Italy.” Goff could count on fourteen separate radio reports every day and as a result, “We had the identifications, the material in every car on every highway,” and one of his agents captured an overlay map marked with all the German positions in Italy and the military supplies at each one.
Billy Aalto, however, was not with his fellow guerrilleros in Italy, and the reason for his absence “spoke volumes,” as Carroll puts it, “about the values—and the limits—of the radical movements of the 1940s.” The incident in fact demonstrated that though the men of the Lincoln Brigade eliminated racial discrimination from their organization many years before the US military even recognized that the issue had to be faced, they were no more able to deal with the problem of homosexuals in the ranks than our naval and military authorities today. Aalto had at one point confessed to Goff that he was a homosexual. Goff found it hard to believe, and recommended him for inclusion in the group to be sent off for OSS training. Later he began to worry, and reported his misgivings to the other veterans. They decided to keep a watch on Aalto, and eventually saw him coming out of a bar with his arm around a sailor. Goff reported the matter to Donovan, who, characteristically, was not at all disturbed; he would cheerfully have recruited a hermaphrodite or a Martian if he had thought they could help the war effort. But the veterans continued to worry and Donovan finally had Aalto transferred out of the team and assigned to an infantry training unit at Fort Meade.
Carroll records a final conversation between Aalto and his roommate Lossowski, who said: “Bill, I’m sorry for what I did. But I had to do it. Have you ever thought of seeing a psychiatrist?” Aalto, in tears, could only reply: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” His military career came to an abrupt end six weeks later, when he lunged to grab a live grenade one of his trainees had dropped. Before he could throw it, it exploded and blew off his right hand.
The veterans in OSS were not the only ones to sidestep the FBI’s denial of their wish to fight; some others somehow slipped through the net. Herman Boettcher, a German refugee immigrant who had fought in Spain, enlisted after Pearl Harbor and rapidly made a name for himself as a combat soldier. He won the unofficial title of “the one-man army of Buna” for his command of a squad that “split the Japanese lines and held a crucial salient for seven days.” Promoted to captain and awarded a Distinguished Service Cross, he was featured in LIFE magazine, while Congress passed a special law awarding him citizenship. He went on to win another DSC and receive three Purple Hearts, but was killed on Leyte in an operation behind Japanese lines in January 1945. And there were others like him, who won DSCs and DFCs, some of whom, like Boettcher, did not return home. “In this war,” as Carroll points out, “the Lincolns had much to lose, much to gain, much to prove…. they showed not only remarkable courage but an impressive dedication to the fight…. they volunteered for dangerous assignments…so often and so repeatedly as to constitute a peculiar fighting breed.”
Those who did return home had to face a country obsessed with the menace of Soviet expansion in Europe and the Far East, and a government intent on destroying the American Communist Party as the agent of a hostile power as well as suppressing any organization affiliated with it such as the VALB. Alvah Bessie, who had gone to Hollywood to write film scripts in 1942, realized by 1944 that with the emergence of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals “the boys are frankly out to drive the Reds out of Hollywood.” The organization, he reported, “is attempting to terrify producers and writers with the threat of a blacklist of progressives.”
Much worse was to come. The VALB ran into trouble as soon as the war was over. The veterans had expected to see the Franco regime collapse or be dismantled by the victorious allies after the defeat of its Axis partner; Franco had allowed U-boats to use Spanish ports and had sent an infantry division to fight under Wehrmacht command in Russia. When it became apparent that the US government now regarded Franco as a potential ally in the cold war that was in the making, the VALB intensified the campaign against Franco; its members picketed the Spanish consulate in New York and Spanish ships in American ports; they lobbied in Washington and organized protest meetings.
The government reaction was to summon before HUAC Dr. Edward Barsky and other executives of the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee and demand a full accounting of its financial transactions, including the names of all donors and recipients. Since such information would endanger Spanish recipients of aid, Barsky, who had formed the Lincolns’ medical unit in February 1938 and remained with it until the withdrawal of the Brigades, refused to testify. He was held in contempt and, after many appeals, served five months in a federal prison and had his medical license suspended for six months. The appeal had gone all the way to the Supreme Court, where Justice William O. Douglas, in his dissent from the majority ruling, wrote in 1954: “When a doctor cannot save lives in America because he is opposed to Franco in Spain, it is time to call a halt and look critically at the neurosis that has possessed us.”
The veterans, in Milton Wolff’s phrase, were “not only premature anti-fascists” but also “premature victims of McCarthyism.” They were investigated by the FBI, many of them placed on a list of “individuals deemed most dangerous to the national security,” denounced in local newspapers and pamphlets issued by self-appointed authorities like the League for Justice in Cleveland, Ohio, fired from their jobs after visits from the FBI and blacklisted in their professions—Lini Fuhr, for example, a nurse who had served with Barsky in Spain, was fired from one position after another and finally in 1949 moved to Mexico to serve a rural population. Foreign-born veterans were threatened with deportation under the Walter-McCarran Immigration Act of 1950 and pressed by FBI agents to testify against their fellow veterans before the many committees that were busily engaged in the hunt for subversives. The authorities descended to measures that can only be described as despicable. Sam Wellman, for example, who had served as commissar with the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion was, it is true, a high Communist official and had been convicted under the Smith Act, but there is no possible justification for the action of the Veterans Administration which canceled the disability pension he received for serious wounds suffered as an infantryman in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and sent him a bill for $9,000 for back payments. Even more disgusting were the tactics used against Billy Aalto. He had been expelled from the Communist Party “for refusing to relinquish his homosexuality,” and after graduating from Columbia was living in Paris on his disability pension and what he could earn by writing. He was approached by “American intelligence officers,” who asked for information about his former comrades, especially Goff. When he refused to talk to them, they had his disability payments halted and his passport canceled. Forced to return home, he was still recalcitrant, and finally, with legal help recovered his passport and his disability pay. He died of leukemia in 1954.
Carroll carries the story of the veterans on through the trials, fines, and prison sentences of the Fifties and records the dismay with which many of the VALB members reacted to the revelations of Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin’s regime. Some of them abandoned the organization altogether; a small core of dedicated leaders, many of them Party members, kept the VALB afloat, “but barely.” Many of those who left, however, did not abandon radical activity. Abe Osheroff, a carpenter by trade, resigned from the CP and found his vocation in the South, where he began building a cultural center for blacks in Holmes County, Mississippi, defying local whites who greeted him with placards inscribed “White Nigger” and dynamited his car. He worked on his building with a shotgun in his toolbox and a .38 at his waist. Ruth Davidow, who had been a nurse in Spain, worked as a volunteer in Mississippi in 1966 for a program to evaluate the nutrition of preschool children; she persuaded the state Health Department to provide vaccinations for 1,500 rural children. And in 1969 she went to provide medical care for the Native Americans who had occupied Alcatraz Island as a protest against centuries of mistreatment.
In the increasingly liberal climate of the early 1960s the VALB, though still awaiting the outcome of an appeal from rulings declaring it illegal, returned gradually to life and in 1962, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the formation of the Brigade, held a very successful luncheon that attracted 1,500 supporters, widespread press coverage, and donations of $2,500 to assist the campaign for the release of the 6,000 political prisoners still held in Franco’s Spain. They were on the march again: against US support for Franco, against the Vietnam War, against Reagan’s intervention in Nicaragua. “The struggles of the Lincoln veterans,” Carroll writes, “thus formed part of a continuing history of dissent and protest, a radical tradition that challenged the structure of power and defied the American consensus.” And Wolff summed up their deepest belief. “Struggle is the elixir of life, the tonic of life. I mean, if you’re not struggling, you are dead.”
Wolff himself shows no signs of giving up the struggle; he recently defied government regulations by visiting Cuba and had his passport canceled. And he has now published Another Hill: An Autobiographical Novel. Readers of Wolff’s racy account of his relations with Hemingway in Remembering Spain will not be surprised to find the novel engrossing; he has an eye for significant detail and a gift for dialogue. But the novel is only partly autobiographical. It has one character, Mitch Castle, most of whose actions and motives are based on those of the author, but he is not at the center of the novel, for it contains an equally important character, Leo Rogin, who is a three-time deserter. He is a young man who came to Spain with two college friends who are both killed early in the fighting, the first one lying side by side with him as they take cover at Brunete. Chapter for chapter the novel presents the separate careers of Castle and Rogin, the one rising to command of the battalion, the other escaping from a penal unit to make several unsuccessful attempts to leave Spain, only to be captured and brought back to the battalion, where Castle, facing a new Fascist attack with a handful of men and fearful that Rogin’s presence may undermine their morale, executes him.
What is remarkable about the novel, besides its vivid re-creation of the realities of combat and the crushing burden of command, is the sympathetic understanding it displays for Rogin; it is, as Cary Nelson writes in his perceptive introduction, “a picture of a man drawn to the cause but incapacitated on the battlefield, driven to desert repeatedly, and yet capable of rationalizing everything to himself so as to retain his dignity…. One of the surprising things about Another Hill is that a commander who was notoriously fearless has somehow written sympathetically about a soldier who could not stop himself from being afraid. Indeed, at moments, Rogin almost becomes Castle’s double—the rogue within the warrior—voicing the doubts Castle learns to suppress in order to survive…and do what he needs to do.”
(This is the first of two articles dealing with recently published books about the International Brigades.)
December 1, 1994