JR'S Free Thought Pages
Epilogue to “Men in Battle” by Alvah Bessie (1939)
The facts are known; they are recorded, and you need not look for them in the columns of the Communist Daily Worker (although you would find more of the unadulterated truth there, than elsewhere). You may read them in the columns of The New York Times, a paper that is proud to print all the" news its owners feel is fit to print. In those columns you will find the facts, attested to a thousand times over by correspondents whose integrity is beyond cavil, as well as by liars who also point the way toward truth.
The people of Spain, who had lived for centuries at a level lower than that enjoyed by American livestock, in 1931 overthrew their monarchy and, in an attempt to rise from medievalism, established a Republic. They wanted to put an end to a state of affairs which countenanced the possession of 50 per cent of their land by 1 per cent of their population. (Another 40 per cent owned no land at all.) But their Republic was weak and indecisive and its enemies were everywhere—the class upon which the monarchy had rested, the owning class and those whose interests tied in with the interests of the owning class. Every mild reform that the Republic attempted was opposed and sabotaged by these people, who fell into four groups: the landlords, the industrialists, the Spanish Catholic hierarchy and the Army. The liberal government of the Republic was superseded for a time by a dictatorship under Lerroux and Gil Robles. And this dictatorship, in 1934 and 1935, proceeded to nullify every mild reform the Republic had instituted.
The people did not accept such retrogression with good grace. The people were stubborn. In 1934 there was a revolt in the Asturias, that was suppressed with a fury and vindictiveness that has no counterpart in our civilized era. And still the people remained stubborn. Every liberal element in Spain combined to form a united front against reaction, and the people went to the polls. Despite corruption of the ballot, despite the constant terrorism of the Army, the landlords and industrialists, despite the fulminations of the Catholic Church, the Popular Front won the elections of February, 1936, by an overwhelming majority. And now it was the turn of those who had always owned Spain, to be stubborn. The Republic had divorced Church and State (as we have); it had settled tenant farmers on the great estates whose owners lived in luxury on the French Riviera while their peasants worked and starved to death. It had placed public education in the hands of the State (as we have); despite Catholic education, between 60 and 70 per cent of the population was illiterate. It had attempted to ameliorate the lot of its people (as we have). But the owning class was not going to permit such a state of things to come into permanent existence; why, this was Bolshevism! And by the spring of 1936 a rebellion, to be led by the very military men who had sworn allegiance to the new Republic, had been planned. It received the unqualified support of the Army, which was a privileged caste; of the landlords who saw their hitherto unquestioned power slipping from them; of the industrialists, and of the higher clergy. Every priest in Spain had been on the public payroll. The Church was a swollen corporation that owned enormous tracts of land, that possessed factories, power-plants, hotels, department-stores and newspapers. The Republic had stripped it of some of its secular power; it had reduced its subsidies; it had taken the 'education' of Spain's children away from it. Its economic interests therefore determined its political allegiance. And the rebellion, more importantly, received the support of German and Italian Fascism, who saw in Spain possibilities of bolstering their tottering economic structure; who saw raw materials; who saw strategic uses for Spain's geographic position.
The people knew their enemies: the landlords, the Army and police, the manufacturers and the Church. Their enemies were determined to thrust them back into 'their place.' And so, with nothing but their determination as a weapon, they went out to fight their enemies. Little enough support was received from outside. The few arms sent by Mexico and the Soviet Union did not go very far. Germany and Italy began to send in men and materials for Franco—machine guns and artillery, tanks and aviation. (The first Fascist planes arrived three days after the rebellion broke out.) They thought it would not take very long; they thought it should be relatively easy. But for two and a half years the people fought them with what arms they could get; with the munitions industry they created themselves; with their flesh and blood. It was not easy. The 'rabble' was in arms; like the rabble of the American Revolution, like the rabble of the French Revolution, these people were determined (one hundred and fifty years later) to take the first steps toward civilization and progressive living.
We never felt that they would lose. We did not believe, even near the end, that they could lose. We said, they must not lose. We said, No pasaran! and we said, Madrid Will Be the Tomb of Fascism! Support began to arrive; the best sons of the international working people of the world, came to Spain to fight beside the Spanish people. They knew, in their own lives, in their own bodies, the importance of this fight. The pennies, the nickels and dimes of millions of people who could least afford to part with them, were pooled to buy ambulances and medical supplies, to send food and milk and clothing to the women and children of Spain, blockaded within their borders by four great powers who had solemnly sworn to see that no intervention in the Spanish conflict would take place. And two of these great powers, Italy and Germany, were the interveners. There has never been any pretence about it; everybody knew it, and the fact that this piece of cynicism was tolerated by the world will always remain one of the blackest pages in human history. For the Spanish people could not have lost, even temporarily, if they had not been strangled and starved out and sold down the river—by the British ruling class, who worked hand in glove with German and Italian Fascism; by the French ruling class, who worked hand in glove with German and Italian Fascism; by the United States Neutrality Act, which embargoed 'both sides,' but did not forbid the sale of arms to the non-interveners.
The entire democratic world protested as it could; protest meetings were held for two and a half years in every civilized country of the world; the working people knew what was happening, and they exclaimed aloud in horror. They attempted to force their governments to come to the assistance of Spain; they clamored for the opening of the French frontier; they clamored for the lifting of the American embargo; they demanded Chamberlain's resignation; they cried, Arms for Spain! Airplanes for Spain! Food for Spain! But they did not control the avenues of communication; they did not control the press, the radio, the news-reels of their respective countries. They do not yet control them. Opposition therefore came from the most enlightened section of the world's population; and it was stifled, it was diverted, it was aborted, it was suppressed. And intervention proceeded; intervention was intensified. For the people of Spain worked and slaved day and night; they built a munitions industry, they built airplanes and guns, and even more, they built schools; they built child health clinics and rest-homes; they built hospitals and institutes of cultural advancement; they taught their soldiers to read and write in the trenches; they taught their farmers new agricultural technics; they gave the land to those who worked the land; they were on their way. And so it was not easy. But Great Britain stood aside and France stood aside and the United States stood aside, and more guns arrived for Franco, and more men—regular army corps from Germany and Italy—more airplanes came, more pilots, more technicians, more tanks, until the Spanish Republic had been crushed.
The decent people of this world knew what would happen if Spain died. They said that democratic France would find itself surrounded by Fascism on three sides; it is. They said the death of democracy in Spain would see the end of democracy in Europe; it is dying. They said a Fascist Spain would mean increased Fascist penetration in South America, through economic tie-ups and propaganda; we see it. They said a Fascist Spain would put democracy throughout the world at bay; it is. Austria is gone and Czechoslovakia is gone, and Spain is gone.
But Franco has saved Spain from Bolshevism, as Mussolini saved Italy from Bolshevism (and Ethiopia and Albania), and Hitler saved Germany and Austria and Czechoslovakia, and will try to save others. For it is true that there were Communists in Spain; it is true that there were Communists in the Loyalist Army, some of them in positions of command, many of them in the ranks of the International Brigades. And they were among our most trusted men, they were among our most reliable men; their loyalty to the Spanish Government was unquestioned; they assumed responsibility and fulfilled it; they took on the toughest jobs and did them; their energy and their organizational genius gave cohesive strength to the Army and to the people. And Spain has been saved from them, just as France will be saved from them, and Great Britain, and the United States will be saved from them if the people who pretend to see Communism under every bed and in every teapot (not to mention every piece of liberal legislation and every attempt to ameliorate the suffering of the world's millions) have their way about it.
General Franco has saved Spain, and the late Pope and the present Pope have blessed his arms and his purpose, and committed their children to his tender mercies. Yet wherever he came in Spain to liberate the people they fled from him; and when he marched on Barcelona, blasting his way through human flesh with Italian and German machines, a half a million men, women and children fled over the border into France—and these were only the people who were strong enough to do so, the people who were confined in Catalonia; for those in the rest of Spain could not escape. And he is beginning the work of reconstruction he has promised for so long, and it would take twenty William P. Carneys, writing in The New York Times, to deny what General Franco has himself proclaimed.
In Spain today (tied and bound to German and Italian Fascism) there is no popular representation; there is no freedom of the press; there is no freedom of speech or of assembly; there is no liberty to protest your grievances; there are no labor unions, no workers' organizations; there is one political party, the party of the vast minority; and the land has been given back to the landlords; the factories have been given back to the industrialists; 'education' and its lands, its power and its wealth have been given back to the Church; and the peculiar rights of plunder, of power and of privilege have been given back to the Army and the notorious Guardia Ciwl (the owners' watchdogs) who will take greater care than ever to see that the rabble does not step out of line again. And the 'criminals' and those responsible for 'prolonging the war' by resistance are being punished by the Franco justice—the hundreds of thousands of prisoners that made up the surrendered Loyalist armies are at forced labor, rebuilding what has been destroyed—by Franco (the ultimate irony); hundreds are being court-martialed daily, thousands have had 'information' filed against them by Fascist sympathizers; over a million of undesirable elements had been listed by the General long before he saved his country for Christianity—and these will go to concentration camps or to their death.
You must see these things in terms of human beings, not in words You would not have needed to go to Spain; you do not need to go to China, to Italy or Japan or Germany, to see how Fascism respects the people it governs. You would not need to see the million dead in Spain, the hundreds of thousands of starved or mangled women, children and babies in Spain and China, to know the name and face of Fascism. You do not even need to go into our own deep South, or into the slums of our great cities, to understand the nature and the aims of Fascism. You only need to look at your next-door neighbor; you only need to look into your heart and ask yourself, what do I want of life? Do I want permanent security for my children and myself? Do I want cultural advancement? Do I want leisure and the time to grow into the sort of human being that I would like to be? Do I want love? And, you will know what Fascism is, and what it wants, and what it will do.
The martyrdom of these men, women and children of Spain, of these men from other lands, has not been wasted on the world. Spain is not lost; Spain was a sacrifice. Spain was and is a turning-point in the history of human institutions, and not only for the fact that it demonstrated the invincible and indomitable courage of the working people of the world. If Spain had not resisted, France would have been a Fascist state long since. If Spain had not sacrificed its best sons and daughters and their blood and their future, Fascism would be spread still farther throughout the world. Spain awoke the world to its danger, and the tide is turning. The democratic people of the world saw with their own eyes what could be done to stem the tide of Fascist barbarism, by a people who had nothing to fight with but their hands. Spain awoke millions throughout the many nations of the earth to a realization of the danger that faces them. It held off the monster for two and a half years with its bare hands, starving, blockaded, betrayed by the ruling forces of the great democracies, not by their people. It is one of the great facts of human history, and the world has learned a bitter lesson from this temporary defeat of the working class.
For it is temporary, even though the technique of Fascism will be tried again, will be extended and is being extended. And the awareness of the evil that Spain gave to the world may yet result in the fulfillment of the slogan: Madrid Will Be the Tomb of Fascism! For the example of Madrid has not been lost upon the world, and every advance of Fascism, every attempt to extend the 'logic' of Fascism, must and will be met by the increasing and the ultimately overpowering determination to resist of all men of good will. For the 'logic' will work again—and the growing discontent of the decent people of this world will be diverted, suppressed, killed—until these people, who have nothing to gain (and everything to lose) by the retention by violence of our present way of life, rise in their majesty and power, destroy their parasites, and reaffirm the beauty and the dignity of human life.
New York City, June 8, 1939
Addendum to the 1975 Edition:
I am still thinking about him. For at least four years after we returned from Spain Aaron* appeared to me in a dream —always the same dream: We were huddled together for warmth, asleep under that tree the second night after we crossed the Ebro. I awoke in the dream with a start and saw he was not there. I sat up and stared into the darkness, listening. After a moment a figure emerged from among the olive trees. It was Aaron. He came quietly out of the night, stopped a few feet from me. His right arm was extended, his forefinger beckoning. He spoke quietly, saying, "Alvah . . . Alvah . . . come . . . come ..." I always awoke with a gasp—sometimes with a scream.
*Aaron Lopoff, Bessie’s dear friend and squad leader who was killed in the retreat from the Battle of the Ebro in 1938.
This recurrent dream was quite as painful as the visit I made to his family, to tell them how he died. They lived in the Bronx: the father who really looked nothing like Aaron but whose eyes were identical with his; the mother who had not known what he was doing in Spain, but knew now. Throughout the dinner and the long evening—an unmarried brother and one of his sisters and her husband were also present—the mother stared at me with what I felt must be resentment. But like the dream it was probably my own guilt for being alive when he was dead that was staring me in the face.
When I left she said something I will never forget so long as I live and I am 70 today, not the 34 I was that winter night in 1939: She said, "I can't say, Pleased to meet you." Then she and Aaron's father asked me to live with them. "You can have his room," they said. "These are his books. He made this model airplane. These are his things. . . . You are the same size."
In 1967 my wife and I tried to find his grave. We found the small town in Gerona province in whose hospital he had died, but there was no grave. For that matter, almost all of the 1,500 comrades we left in Spain had no marked graves and the reason soon became apparent. Ironically enough, it was because they have not been forgotten that they have no graves that can be found today. (See Spain Again, page 126.)
We used to say that if we survived the war we would get home just in time to fight in a bigger one. World War II started five months after Madrid was betrayed—and occupied. A new organization called The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) attempted to enlist en masse the Monday after Pearl Harbor. Our offer was refused but of the 1,500 who returned (200 did not because they were aliens), at least 1,200 served in World War II, either in the armed forces or the merchant marine.
A cynical charade began the moment these men were inducted. It did not take G-2 long to learn they were in the ranks, and since they were the only Americans with combat experience since World War I they were almost invariably used by their officers to train the men under their command. (For the same reason they had been the raw material of a study of fear and courage under battle conditions, published in 1943 by Yale University's Institute of Human Relations: Fear in Battle, by John Dollard, Ph.D., which the War Department found extremely useful.)
The Lincoln men were interviewed by service and local newspapers, put on radio programs, asked to address their comrades-in-arms in orientation classes and were even invited to speak before neighboring "service" organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, Elks, Lions and Odd Fellows. Many were sent to Officers' Candidate Schools, were graduated with high grades and sent back to their original outfits—without commissions.
For the attack on the veterans had begun even before we were withdrawn from the lines by the Spanish government. There had been articles in the Hearst press and in other reactionary publications, denouncing us as international Communist gangsters, soldiers of the Comintern, minions of Moscow who had been sent abroad, first, to "communize" Spain and second, to be trained to take over the U.S.A. for Uncle Joe.
Many of these articles were written by and/or ghosted for men we personally knew to be cowards, deserters and renegades. Some freely admitted they were FBI informers, stool pigeons and police spies. They not only achieved wide publicity in the press, but the House Committee on Un-American Activities gave them an even broader audience. They had a brief spin in the limelight and sank into obscurity, but they surfaced again in 1953 and their "testimony" had an effect on us for years to come.
In the Army of the United States it almost always happened that when the outfit our veterans had helped to train was shipped out, our men were not. Promotions were deliberately withheld, even when earned by hard work and recommended by superior officers. In 1943 and 1944 VALB therefore launched a nationwide campaign that enlisted the support of many VIP's. It brought results: our men were suddenly permitted to move out with their comrades, they won promotions, were sent to OCS again and got commissions—both stateside and on the battlefield.
This did not sit well with such sheets as the Chicago Tribune, which attacked the Army for granting us commissions. Testifying before the House Military Affairs Committee in March 1945, Major General Bissell, then head of Army Intelligence (G-2) answered the charge this way:
"The Army's files show the loyalty of each of these officers .... These officers have shown by their deeds that they are upholding the United States by force and violence."
Testifying before the same committee, Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy was asked by a Republican congressman and member of the American Legion: "Is it possible that an exceptional soldier may turn out to be a Communist?"
The Congressman was referring to Herman Bottcher, a naturalized American anti-Nazi who had fought in Spain, was shipped to the South Pacific as a private and became known as "the one-man army of Buna."
Said McCloy, in reply, "... [he was] suspected of being a member of the Communist Party. He went to the South Pacific, there he was promoted to sergeant, then made captain in the field. He was wounded, decorated, and killed in action at Leyte."
But before records like this became known, we had experiences like these: Joe Hecht, interviewed in press and on the radio, sent to OCS, returned without a commission. At OCS itself, when an instructor was explaining the importance of the battle of Stalingrad—"A matter of saving face for the Russians because the city is named after Stalin; that is all . . ." —Joe stood up and begged leave to disagree. The instructor handed him his pointer and Joe said that the city was both tactically and strategically important. He explained that if the Nazis could take this crucial communications hub, they could join forces with their Japanese allies and outflank the entire Soviet front. The instructor asked sarcastically if Joe had been there and Joe said, "No, sir, but it's obvious from the map." "I can read a map, too," snapped the instructor. "Sit down!"
Joe sat. On his return to camp he told his Commanding Officer that probably his grades hadn't been good enough. His CO said it wasn't his grades and showed him his personnel card, in the corner of which there were the initials, S.D. Joe asked what that meant and was told, "Suspected of disloyalty."
Now rated sergeant, Joe was transferred to a hospital in New Jersey where he kept medical records and started to do some independent research on the incidence of "combat fatigue" in American troops in training and in action. He even wrote a paper for his new CO, a doctor, demonstrating that such a condition had been practically unknown in the Spanish Republican Army and less so in the International Brigades. He cited Dollard's study and explained that an understanding of one's cause and dedication to it made it practically impossible for such things to happen. He suggested and even outlined an orientation and education course that would go more deeply into the origin and causes of the war and the nature of Nazism and Japanese and Italian fascism.
Perhaps to be rid of so uncomfortable a fellow, after two and a half years in the Army Joe was finally assigned to a combat unit and went to Europe in early spring of 1945.
At Saarlautern in Germany, in command of a company rifle squad, Joe and his men were "caught in the open by grazing fire from a German machine-gun emplacement which was also inflicting casualties on the entire platoon," the citation reads.
"Showing no hesitancy, and at the cost of his life, Sgt. Hecht charged the gun emplacement single-handedly in an effort to destroy it. As a result of his heroic action, his men were afforded the needed time to secure cover. His undaunted courage in sacrificing his life for the men of his squad reflects the highest credit upon Sgt. Hecht and the military service." His family received his posthumous Silver Star. Joe was a Communist.
Milton Wolff was the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a major at the age of 23. He had impressed a number of U.S. military men, stateside politicians and foreign correspondents by his natural-born qualities of military leadership, his achievements and his obvious potential. They tried to get him an appointment to West Point and/or a commission and failed, but with the aid of General William (Wild Bill) Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, they managed to place Wolff with British Special Services after the fall of Paris and the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia.
He served as a civilian with Major equivalency recruiting "proved" antifascists (International Brigade veterans) for behind-the-lines work in occupied Europe. After Pearl Harbor he was transferred (in rank) to OSS and recruited Lincoln men for the same type of work: men like Irving Goff, Vincent Losowski, Bill Aalto and Mike Jiminez, three of whom had been among the handful of American guerrilleros in Spain.
When he discovered that OSS was also recruiting the rag-tags of European royalty, nationalists, actual neo-fascists and other off-scourings of alleged "resistance" groups, he quit the outfit in disgust and enlisted in the Army of the United States as a private.
He was then held at Camps Dix and Wheeler with men suspected of disloyalty: German and Italian nationals, pimps and criminals. He protested and was ultimately co-opted for OCS—and thrown out eight weeks later, like others of similar background. He then launched a long fight to get into action and was assigned in swift succession to Chemical Warfare, Alaskan Replacement, Puget Sound Patrol (watching for invading Japanese submarines) and to a longshore battalion in North Africa.
In desperation he appealed to Donovan but was shifted to longshore work in India, missing a plane the General had sent for him. He had risen in rank, by this time, to corporal, sergeant and second lieutenant. In India he managed to hook up with General (Vinegar Joe) Stilwell as liaison officer with the Chinese engaged in long-range penetration into Burma, and came down with malaria, it was there that Donovan finally caught up with him and had him flown to Italy where Goff, Losowski and his other comrades had met the General and said they needed him.
Frozen in rank for the rest of the war, Wolff and his comrades successfully dropped men, money, munitions and propaganda behind the lines in Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece, as well as in Italy. He went on one mission behind the Nazi lines in northern Italy and all the men—except for Wolff and the guide—were captured. When the defeat of Germany was imminent, he attempted to get help for the Spanish Maquis who were all set to march from the Haute-Savoie to the Pyrenees in an attempt to liberate Spain. This operation was said to have been approved not only by Donovan but by Franklin Roosevelt, but it was overruled by Eisenhower at the insistence of Churchill. Wolff was rushed out of Europe and shipped home.
While they were still in Italy working for OSS to help the Italian guerrillas under the command of Luigi Longo (known as Gallo in Spain where he was Inspector General of the International Brigades), the VALB men discovered that while the Army of the United States wanted a general strike throughout northern Italy—under the guidance of social-democratic labor leaders on the scene—said strike to coincide with the start of our offensive up the Italian boot, it was also our intention to arrest as many as possible of the guerrillas fighting the Nazis to hold the towns and cities for us. What the hell, they were Reds, weren't they? (Most of them were not.) Longo himself had learned of this and the guerrillas had been warned to do their job and vanish the moment they heard American troops in the vicinity.
The morality of our Establishment does not seem to have changed very much in the last four administrations. And when the VALB-OSS men were home Donovan decorated them with the Legion of Merit and issued them fine-sounding personal letters praising their contribution to the war effort. He told them they could call on him any time they needed work—he had contacts—and one of them said, Thanks, but he could always get a job with his union, the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers-CIO and another said, Thanks, he could always go back to being an organizer for the Communist Party.
Wolff himself served as National Commander of the Veterans for many years after the war, working also with the Civil Rights Congress and every committee set up to aid Spanish refugees or political prisoners. He was the sparkplug of VALB's campaign to keep fascist Spain out of the United Nations during 1946-48, and he was involved in the Willie McGee case in Jackson, Mississippi, touring the south before the Freedom Marchers were organized, helping save the lives of the Martinsville Seven and raising $2,000,000 in bail money for Smith Act victims and helping to save the XVth Brigade's commissar Steve Nelson from literal death in a Pittsburgh dungeon. Nelson was held under a Pennsylvania "sedition" act frame-up and had been sentenced to 20 years by a judge who was an outspoken admirer of Benito Mussolini.
But the attack on the veterans surfaced again in 1953 when a governmental agency, created to forward the Cold War at home and which was the brainchild of the late Senator Pat McCarran (decorated by Franco for his sterling aid to the dictator) started to hear charges against VALB that had been voiced before.
This was the Subversive Activities Control Board, a creature of the McCarran Act that was passed over President Harry Truman's veto in 1950. The allegation—advanced by six deserters from the Brigade and other professional witnesses—was that the Lincoln Battalion and its successor, The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, were subversive organizations probably under the domination of and certainly doing the work of the U.S. Communist Party. This particular fight went on throughout most of 1954 and in 1955 SACB ordered the organization to register as a Communist front, which it promptly refused to do.
Individual veterans were also persecuted under the Smith Act which was allegedly designed to punish—not overt attempts to overthrow the government by force and violence, not teaching and/or advocating the overthrow . . ., but conspiring to teach and advocate .... Any lawyer will tell you it is far easier to "prove" conspiracy than it is to prove a man or an organization committed an overt act—when he or it didn't.
Lincoln victims spent many years in jail for committing so nebulous a crime. They included:
• Robert Thompson, captain in Spain where he was wounded twice, soldier in the South Pacific in World War II where he was decorated (like Herman Bottcher) with the Distinguished Service Cross by General Clark Eichelberger for service "above and beyond the call of duty." To make the cheese more binding, jail officials in New York were suspected of inspiring a physical attack on Thompson by a Yugoslav fascist inmate who had reason to believe he would be dealt with more lightly under the immigration laws. He fractured Thompson's skull with an iron pipe. After he recovered from that—and he very nearly didn't—and was sent to Federal prison for seven years, the Veterans Administration attempted to take away his 100 percent disability pension (malaria and a new attack of an apparently arrested case of tuberculosis). Once he was safely dead, much too young, our august government attempted to deny his widow his pension and prevent his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. In each instance, it took a nationwide campaign to redress these grievances.
• Irving Weissman, twice wounded in Spain, three years in the Army of the United States, holder of six battle stars and veteran of the invasions of Anzio, Salerno and southern France. (Five years under Pennsylvania's "sedition" act, reversed by a higher court.)
• John Gates, Lieutenant-Colonel in Spain (political commissar of the XVth International Brigade), paratrooper in World War II. (Five years.) Gates later had a change of heart about his political affiliations but has never denounced and/or renounced his pride in his record in Spain.
• Saul Wellman, officer in Spain, wounded at Bastogne, eight months in hospital and rated 100 percent disabled. This was later reduced to 50-percent disability and once he was convicted (1954) the Veterans Administration not only stopped his pension but billed him in the sum of $9,581.85 for the benefits it had already paid him! (Conviction reversed by a higher court.)
(James Kutcher and Robert Klonsky, both World War II veterans as well, met similar treatment at the hands of the Veterans Administration. At the same time, veterans of Hitler's Condor Legion which had devastated much of Spain, were voted pensions by the new government of West Germany.)
These four men—and Steve Nelson (also convicted under the Smith Act)—were among the handful of VALB men who became Communist Party functionaries, but there were many others who were similarly charged and similarly imprisoned. For it is really very easy to convict people who have committed no crime if you make use of that classic diagnosis-by-parallel beloved of the John Birch Society and American Legion brass hats, and both the government and the many witch-hunting committees throughout the land have used it regularly: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck."
In other words, if the Communist Party opposed our adventures in Korea, Guatemala, Vietnam and Cambodia, our invasion of Cuba, our support of Chiang Kai-shek and Franco, the Smith and McCarran Acts and Spain's admission to the United Nations, and if it favored the graduated income tax, the organization of labor unions, Social Security and unemployment insurance and unemployed councils during the Depression, the support of Republican Spain and such remedial patchwork measures as WPA and the like, then anyone who opposed or supported any of these items must, ipso facto, be a Communist, a fellow traveler or a dupe. To make the label stick, you merely forget the millions of individuals who arrived at the same positions on these issues through contemplation, bitter experience or arguments with their fellowmen.
Other Spanish veterans who were naturalized citizens or legally resident aliens were put to enormous expense and emotional suffering when the Immigration Service tried to get them deported. (Allan McNeil—the Major Johnson of this book—Felix Kusman, Willy Busch, Frank Bonetti, Pierre du Valle, among others.) One veteran (Alvah Bessie) was caught up in HUAC's investigation of "Communist influences" in the Hollywood motion-picture industry in 1947 and served a year's sentence for "contempt" of Congress, and others were victimized by HUAC in other investigations in other cities.
The distinguished surgeon, Dr. Edward K. Barsky, who had headed all American medical services in Spain and later served as chairman of the Joint Antifascist Refugee Committee, was jailed for six months and his medical license was temporarily revoked for refusing to turn over to that same committee the list of thousands of contributors to JARC's campaigns.
There can be little doubt that the SACB attack on the Spanish veterans was part of an attempt to justify our alliance with Franco Spain which began in 1950 with an "import-export" loan of $62,500,000 promoted by Senator McCarran himself.
The United Nations had voted (with American support) in 1946 to exclude Spain from all UN organizations because it had come to power thanks to Nazi-Fascist military aggression. By 1952 the USA was leading the fight to have Spain admitted to the Educational, Scientific & Cultural Organization of the UN. And that same year McCarran forced an additional $100,000,000 appropriation for Franco as a condition for passage of a foreign-aid bill. In 1953 and 1954 an additional $226,000,000 was proposed for the use of air, naval and military bases in what could be called a Spanish place d'armes, a safe base dominating the Middle East, Africa and even the U.S.S.R.
In his eloquent defense of the American veterans' organization before SACB (13 September 1954), Commander Milton Wolff said:
We have listened to the petitioner (then U.S. Attorney General Herbert J. Brownell) and to the petitioner's witnesses, and from their lips we have heard all the old tales and lies of the defeated Axis, once more resurrected, as the petitioner attempted to rewrite history to fit the fancy of this hearing. Perhaps what happens to those now present and involved in this hearing in the years to come is of little importance. But what is important is that the petitioner, representing the administration now in power, an administration which has entered into a military alliance with Franco Spain, is determined to rewrite history in such a fashion as to accommodate that alliance and its purposes. And perhaps the panel sitting here as a result of the efforts of Senator McCarran, who is the evil genius of the military alliance . . . and at the same time the author of the Act under which we are being heard, can do little, under these circumstances, but serve the same ends as does counsel for the petitioner. While what has been happening in this hearing has been obscured by a conspiracy of silence, it has served to set the stage for such events as took place in the historical closing days of the 83rd Congress, and in the forging of closer links with the remnants of resurgent fascism throughout the world.
What is generally forgotten is that the Subversive Activities Control Act, authored by McCarran, was originally proposed by Richard Nixon and Karl Mundt as the Mundt-Nixon Act, and the 24-year life of the Act was finally ended on 30 May 1974 by an order signed by a man whose life became inextricably involved with the same Nixon: Judge John J. Sirica, later of Watergate fame.
Of course, the Lincoln veterans have always had many advocates and we could list them for pages, but singly and together they were unable to stem the attack on us as premature antifascists, international Communist gangsters and agents of the Comintern so long as the Cold War was so effective a tool in American efforts to dominate the world economically and politically—as well as militarily.
Number among them, for the record:
• Justice William O. Douglas (commenting on the Barsky case): "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."
• "They (the veterans) were among the first to see the menace of fascism and certainly among the first to offer their lives to fight this menace. ... In the last decade they have been in the forefront of all the battles for democracy, and they deserve the best this country has to offer."—Harold L. Ickes, Secretary of the Interior under Franklin Roosevelt.
• "The Brigade has long since taken its place in the history of our times and become a tireless symbol of man's resistance to exploitation and oppression. The Brigade was right when most of the world proved tragically wrong." —Louis Brom-field, novelist.
• "If the world has a future, they have preserved it." —Vincent Sheean, author and foreign correspondent.
• "The Ebro was a heroic, bloody, costly battle, a truly magnificent example of human courage. The defense by the Americans of Hill 666 above Gandesa against just about the heaviest artillery barrage, bombing and strafing of the war and against Franco's crack Moorish troops, was a proud achievement." —Herbert L. Matthews, New York Times correspondent, chief editorial writer and author.
• Pete Hamill, New York Post columnist, reporting on the Brigade's annual dinner in New York in 1971: "They went upstairs to a large bright room, and drank a lot of whiskey at the bar, and there was nothing at all to indicate that they were the best Americans of their generation. "They were the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and to be able to say that about yourself might be the only badge of honor that is worth having . . . "It has been a long, lonely time for them in the years since Franco's legions finally marched into Barcelona. Never have so many good men been treated so badly by a supposedly civilized nation. . . . They had gone to Spain because they loved America and wanted its honor preserved; when they came home, America kicked them in the teeth . . "When the evening was over, they exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and collected the coats and went back into the strange country that America has become in the years since they were young. That country had done badly by them, but honor is not something that is pinned on you by the likes of Richard Nixon. ..."
• We won and lost many battles in Spain and we lost and won many legal battles once we had come home. Each and every one of them commanded every dollar we could beg, borrow and raise from among our surviving members and our friends; and most of these battles had to go all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
• Steve Nelson's conviction in the framed-up "sedition" case in Pennsylvania was overturned and he was vindicated by the Supreme Court in 1956—but that was also the year Franco Spain was admitted to the United Nations.
• On 20 April 1966, after 13 years of litigation, the Supreme Court vacated the SACB order requiring VALB to register as a Communist-front organization. Having accomplished absolutely nothing in its more than 20 years except to pay its members salaries of $36,000 a year each, and having been able neither to control subversion nor even to define it, it was abandoned in 1973 and expired for lack of further appropriations. Homer C. Clay was VALB's successful and devoted attorney. An identical fate was met by HUAC in January 1975 when a new Congress "retired" it to deserved oblivion.
• The Emergency Civil Liberties Committee of New York undertook the fight to get our name removed from the Attorney General's idiotic list of subversive organizations, first promulgated by Tom Clark in 1948 and since used as a basis for loyalty oaths by federal, state and municipal governments, and as material for blacklisting in defense and private industry. It took another six years before the U.S. Court of Appeals in a unanimous decision ordered the Attorney General to remove the name of our organization from his list.
But Nixon's administration, like those that preceded him since World War II ended, had coddled, nursed and nourished the last reigning fascist dictator in Europe. Even the Greek colonels, taking a leaf from their Portuguese counterparts and behaving totally unlike military men anywhere in the world, have returned democracy to their countrymen.
It will take Franco's death to accomplish as much in Spain. What happens then will be determined by the Spanish people, who have made their intentions plain and who are in action. (Cf. Spain Again.) And those of us who survive are more confident than ever that we will live to return to Barcelona to claim the honorary citizenship in the third Spanish Republic which Dolores Ibarruri, La Pasionaria, speaking in the name of her government, promised us in her farewell speech 37 years ago. And we are almost equally sure that we will see her again on El Diagonal, where we marched in that final parade on 29 October 1938, and that great avenue will also have reclaimed its original name and will no longer be known as Avenue of The Most General, Francisco Franco.
Of the 1,300 American volunteers who returned from Spain, we lost another 400 in World War II, and it is said we won more combat decorations than any other comparable group of men has ever earned. This may be true but there never has been a group to compare to us, in the sense that we and our comrades of the other brigades were the first and only spontaneously gathered international volunteer army in the history of the world.
Of the men mentioned in this narrative, many have died since 1939, and some of them, like Aaron, cannot be forgotten. One turned up at a party at Vincent Sheean's New York house early in 1939. He was hilariously funny that night and the next morning we read that he had hanged himself: Ernst Toller, the anti-Nazi dramatist and poet. He had been unable to adjust himself to what he saw as a life in exile and which need not have been one at all—had he only waited.
John Kozar, the seaman-mecdnico at the 35th Division hospital, went back to sea in World War II but he never got another chance to swim ashore with a pound of coffee in his teeth: he froze to death in a lifeboat in January 1942 when his ship was torpedoed on the Murmansk run. He left a wife and child in Canada.
Edwin Rolfe, poet and author of the first history of the Lincoln Battalion, whose eloquent volume of poems, First Love, expressed what all of us have always felt about Spain, was in Hollywood, blacklisted and unemployable when he was taken by a heart attack on 25 May 1954. Two wars (for he was in the AUS also) were too much for so physically frail a man and unemployability added final insult to the injury.
Ernest Hemingway committed suicide on 2 July 1961. He had apparently felt that he was through—both as a writer and a man. His dedication to the cause of the Spanish Republic was never questioned, even though the VALB men attacked his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, as a piece of romantic nonsense when it was not slanderous of many Spanish leaders we all revered, and scarcely representative of what the war was all about. (But see below.)
A second heart attack killed Allan McNeil (our training officer in Tarazona) after 11 years under threat of deportation, in January 1966.
Harold Smith, our Company 2 commissar, who was wounded twice and always took up too much room in the chabola he shared for awhile with Aaron and me, is gone. So are Moishe Taubman and Dave Gordon. So is Juan Negrin, last Prime Minister of the Republic, and so is Manuel Azana, its last and most defeatist President.
Colonel (and later General) Juan Modesto, former woodcutter who gained some experience in the Moroccan Foreign Legion under Franco himself, was a military genius who rose to command three army corps: the Army of the Ebro with its 70,000 men. He died in exile in Prague in 1969. (See Spain Again.)
Another exile died in Mexico on 14 January 1958. I had never seen him in Spain but his name was on our lips whenever we sang the song, No pasaran. For a time after we returned I was unable to eat in any New York restaurant that was not authentically Spanish. There were few enough of them and in one such place—and a poor one at that—I saw a man one night whose face was world famous. He was sitting with three younger men and all were obviously Spaniards. I approached the oldest, introduced myself and asked if he were not General Jose Miaja. He stood and said he was and embraced me in the Spanish fashion. He was on his way to Mexico, he said. He thanked me for fighting for his country!
All our men who fought—or fought and died in Spain or World War II or who survived both wars were, of course, fighting for our own country. We are still fighting for it in one way or another. As an organization and as individuals we have fought our "country" itself when it was misled into Korea and Guatemala and Cuba and Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos. And we are still fighting for the liberation of the Spanish people in the only ways now open to us—and there are many.
There are very few of us left—perhaps 700, perhaps less. But whether they died in Spain or on the high seas, in any of the later battles of the Second World War, or of the passage of time, Ernest Hemingway was speaking for them—and about them—in 1939 when he wrote:
"For our dead are a part of the earth of Spain now and the earth of Spain can never die. . . . Our dead will live in it forever.
"Just as the earth can never die, neither will those who have ever been free return to slavery. The peasants who work the earth where our dead lay know what these dead died for. There was time during the war for them to learn these things, and there is forever for them to remember them in.
"Our dead live in the hearts and the minds of the Spanish peasants, of the Spanish workers, of all the good simple honest people who believed in and fought for the Spanish republic. And as long as all our dead live in the Spanish earth, and they will live as long as the earth lives, no system of tyranny ever will prevail in Spain. . . .
"The Spanish people will rise again as they have always risen before tyranny.
"The dead do not need to rise. They are a part of the earth now and the earth can never be conquered. . . .
"Those who have entered it honorably, and no men ever entered earth more honorably than those who died in Spain, already have achieved immortality."*
*From New Masses, Vol. XXX, No. 8 (February 14, 1939), page 3.
It is too bad Hemingway could not have waited, too. He would have enjoyed this time. This is the time when many of the world's most dishonorable men—from Seoul, Saigon and Taipei through Washington to Lisbon, Madrid, Athens and the Middle East—are being cashiered, driven from positions of power they bought or stole from the people by force and violence, and they are approaching their own graves, which will also be unmarked—but for entirely different reasons.
San Rafael, California 30 January 1975
Listen to the inspirational farewell speech to the International Brigades in Barcelona November 1, 1938 by La Passionara (Dolores Ibarruri) “It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.” Here is a link for the abbreviated text version and another wonderful dedication posted on You Tube in Spanish.
On the book:
Over 1700 Canadians (Mackenzie-Papineau Brigade) and over 3000 Americans (Abraham Lincoln Brigade) fought in the Spanish Civil War for the Republic. “Men in Battle” was written in 1939 soon after Alvah Bessie returned to the United Sates and went through several printings thereafter, the last being in 1975. The detail and graphical descriptions in this book are amazing. There are many passages in this well written book that were impressive and moving, especially the commentary on the close friendship between Bessie and Aaron Lopoff*, as well as Bessie’s numerous glowing comments on the character and courage of Milton Wolff, the 23 year old commander of the Lincoln Brigade, but here are two passages from the “Men in Battle” that moved me:
*Aaron Lopoff was a man of great character and the leader of the unit that Bessie was in during the Battle of the Ebro in the final year of the war, during which the republican troops took huge losses. On the infamous Hill 666 near Gandesa, Lopoff received shrapnel wounds in the head, causing blindness and eventually succumbed to the injuries. Bessie, until his death in 1985 never really recovered emotionally from the loss of his good friend. The parts of the book where he talks about Lopoff’s immense courage, generosity, compassion and the deep friendship they had are especially poignant.
Two Excerpts from the book:
Thoughts travelling on a train toward the front:
You could think of the beauty of the country, the orange trees and the lemons with their bright ripe fruit, the almond trees dressed in fragile pink-white blossoms, the kilometers of grapevines, cut now to within a foot of the ground, waiting for spring to bring them to leaf and growth again. The mountains skirted the coast on our right; fantastic peaks and curves, pinnacles and hollows, and on the slopes there were many small towns that all seemed to have been cast in a mould, built after an endless pattern. Even from the train you were startled by the medievalism of the country, which had persisted down into this twentieth century and had again precipitated this conflict between the poor and those who owned the poor. For each little town consisted of a huddle of wretched, tight-packed houses, thrown together in confusion or revealing the traits of an organic growth over centuries, one house tacked onto the wall of the next. And towering above each town, generally built on a height commanding it, stood the church, its finger pointed to heaven, its masonry rich and heavy, permanent and menacing, a constant reminder of the domination of the Church down all the ages. For although this deeply Catholic people had been burning their churches for centuries, the Church and its allies had always reasserted their power over the people, and this power was in dispute again j today. And for final contrast or corroboration you looked again to the endless hills, carved from root to summit with stone-shored terraces to hold the olives and the vine fields, quiet evidence of thousands upon thousands of years of grinding hours of man and woman labor. Sunny Spain, land of mafiana, where nothing was done today that could be put off till tomorrow!
Or you could think of the children you had seen, standing beside the railroad tracks or on the platforms, thousands of bright-eyed children dressed in rags, their feet unshod, covered with the red dust of the earth, holding their fists aloft, crying "Saludl" to the international soldiers. These children were very close to us; we came to know them well. And from thinking of them, undernourished from conception to the grave, uneducated except in the Catechism, apt as slaves for a slave society, you thought of the dozing men in the trains and the first Spanish soldiers we had seen that afternoon, loaded into box-cars and on flat-cars, armed with rifles and machine guns, moving the other way; their brothers, their fathers. And the dozing tired men who had come this long way to a distant foreign country, fathers of children themselves, or future fathers of future children, or fathers of children who never would be born…children themselves of working fathers the world over, who had prepared to face death, if death were necessary, to defend their living and their unborn children on a foreign soil. (pp. 40-42)
On the camaraderie between Spanish troops and the International Brigades
But at first the spontaneity of the friendship between them was unquestioned. At the May Day celebration, held in the open fields near Darmos, the new men and the old took to each other like ducks to water. Spanish and Americans competed in athletic contests—foot-racing, boxing, the variety of soccer they call futbol, grenade throwing, rifle competitions, an 'infiltration' race, jumping and skipping, a three-legged race—with boyish enthusiasm and fraternity. They roared with laughter at the infiltration race, when soldiers crawled, using only their elbows, across the field; they pounded each other on the back as the wheelbarrow teams competed and the three-legged contestants fell on their faces. They sang together. Prizes were won and shared between them—a box of Sunshine crackers, a bar of soap or Hershey's chocolate, a pack of Looky Streek. They definitely liked each other; the new recruits looked on us as seasoned warriors; they listened with invariable politeness to our efforts to explain the previous actions in our atrocious Spanish; they listened as we told them of America and of the international sympathy that existed for the Spanish people. They knew nothing of America, less of international working-class feeling. They told us, simply, speaking slowly and with infinite pains, of their homes in Alicante, of their work, of their brothers who were at other fronts down south. They tried to understand us and we tried to understand them.
They greeted the reorganization of the Battalion with enthusiasm. They greeted their American commanders with enthusiasm, and the Americans accepted Spanish cabos and peloton leaders with good grace. Certain Negro Americans, such as Marcus Ransom, squad leader in our company, were the most popular among the Spanish boys. The Negroes in our outfit loved Spain with a deep and abiding love they could not quite achieve for America—for here there was no prejudice against them because of their color; they were curiosities to the Spanish, but they were invariably liked for themselves. Marcus, who could not learn a word of Spanish, commanded a squad of Spanish boys with complete success. He developed the fine art of pantomime to a spectacular level; to us, it looked something like clowning, but the boys laughed with him and obeyed his orders; what is more, they loved him, called him 'Mar-koos' and followed him around like dogs. (pp. 154-55)