The Abraham Lincoln Brigade: the Historiography of the American soldiers in the Spanish American War

During the Spanish Civil War, approximately 2,800 American men and women answered the call from the Communist party to defend the Spanish republic from fascist aggression. These men and women served in the Fifteenth International Brigade and formed the Abraham Lincoln, Washington and MacKenzie-Papineau Battalions. These soldiers’ stories have been controversial, because 80 percent of these volunteers were Communists. Until recently, historians have not been able to fully tell the story of these men and women, but access to new archives of the American soldiers and Soviet archives have provided a much fuller picture of the story of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.



Early Books on the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

Peter N. Carroll, in his book The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, stated that there had already been three generations of history written about the Lincoln Brigade by 1994. The first generation consisted of a number of first person accounts by the Brigade members. A second generation of books was written by scholars based on somewhat limited information. Carroll believes that he is part of the third generation of historians who were providing a more accurate depiction of the volunteers because he had access to a treasure trove of material from both the veterans and Soviet archives. As part of the third generation of scholars, Carroll not only tried to tell the story of veterans in Spain, he examined their broader roles in America over the past 50 years. Not surprisingly, this third generation of books has benefited greatly from the creation of archives by the Brigade veterans at Brandeis University and University of California, Berkley.[1]

The members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade have been the subject of a number of historical treatments, but until Carroll’s book few of these works could be classified as comprehensive and complete. There are numerous books that examine the Spanish Civil War, but most of these are general Spanish Civil War books which fail to examine the Lincoln Brigade in any detail. This is not surprising, because the Lincoln Brigade played a very small role in a complicated civil war and international conflict. While the Americans were recognized for their bravery, they were a small part of major military failure. They were part of small, poorly trained units which were severely depleted by casualties. The Lincoln Brigade did not shape the military campaigns in any dramatic fashion nor did it alter the outcome of the war. While Anthony Beevor mentions the American battalions in The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, they are not a prominent part of his book. This type of mention is not unusual in more general books on the Spanish Civil War. Therefore, historians researching and writing about the Brigade are typically not military or Spanish historians. Instead, they are Modern United States historian and have typically focused solely on the Lincoln Brigade.

While a number of the histories use the term the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, it should be clarified that there never was an Abraham Lincoln Brigade. There were several battalions (the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the George Washington Battalion, the Regiment de Tren, the John Brown Artillery Battalion, and the MacKenzie-Papineau Battalion) that contained of American volunteers.[2] The Lincoln Battalion was the original American battalion and the first to see combat and was part of the Fifteenth Brigade. As the war progressed, these battalions’ ranks were ultimately filled with Spanish troops as the Americans were decimated.[3] The term Lincoln Brigade essentially has became used as a shorthand way to describe the Americans who fought in Spain regardless of their actual battalion affiliation.

First Generation of Books

The first generation of books on the Lincoln Brigade included a number of first person accounts and histories written by members of the Lincoln Brigade. In the 1940s and 1950s, Bessie Alvah, John Gates, Langston Hughes, Steve Nelson, Edwin Rolfe, Milt Felsen and others published first person accounts of their time in Spain. Robert Colodny and Arthur Landis both wrote scholarly treatments of the Spanish Civil War, even though both were veterans of the Lincoln Brigade. Another member of the Brigade, Albert Pargo, a labor professor, wrote extensively about the international volunteers during the Spanish Civil War. Even though Colodny, Landis and Pargo were veterans, some of their work fits better into the second generation of scholars rather than the first.

As first person memoirs, these works provided a glimpse into the lives of the veterans during the war, but they were very inconsistent. Often these historical accounts relied on memory instead of historical evidence. Carroll spent a great deal of time in his book attempting to iron out a number of differences between the veterans’ disparate stories.

In 1987, Alvah Bessie and Albert Pargo edited a collection of writings by veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade that gathered a number of these earlier writings and consolidated them into one volume.[4] This volume demonstrated the diversity of material written by the American veterans. The volume includes poems, interviews and excerpts from scholarly works. Pargo and Bessie have selected writings that try to walk the reader through various aspects of the Spanish Civil War. One of the highlights of the book is an interview conducted by Studs Terkel of Irving Goff. Goff was a guerilla warfare specialist in Spain. Terkel interviewed Goff about his experiences during World War II with OSS as guerrilla warfare specialist in Africa and Italy.

The Second Generation of Books

After the first person accounts of the Lincoln Brigade were published, a number of historians began writing books about the Lincoln Brigade and their role in Spanish Civil War. Oddly enough, perhaps the most comprehensive account of the Lincoln Brigade during this second generation of books was drafted by Arthur Landis, an American veteran of the Spanish Civil War, entitled The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Unfortunately, these histories suffer from a number of problems. While Landis’ work is the most comprehensive, it is also potentially the most biased. The other books relied on incomplete information for their conclusions. Additionally, a number of the American veterans during 1950s and 1960s were also discouraged from talking openly about the experiences because they were concerned about being labeled communists.

Richard A. Rosenstone is good example of the second generation of historians who researched the Lincoln Brigade. In his 1967 article “The Men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” and his book Crusade of the Left: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, which was published in 1969, Rosenstone attempted to developed a portrait of the men who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Unlike Landis and Colodny, he did not participate in the Spanish Civil War. In “The Men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” he tried to understand who was an “average member” of the Lincoln Brigade. Unfortunately, a number of his conclusions are speculative. Because he is attempting to provide an outline for an average member of the brigade his descriptions are ultimately inaccurate.

In Rosenstone’s discussion of the veteran’s political party affiliations, he stated that anywhere from 25 to 80 percent of the volunteers were Communist party members. He states that “no one really knows because no records of political affiliations were kept.”[5] In fact, the Soviets in Moscow maintained complete records regarding the political affiliations of the volunteers. Those records indicated that almost 80 percent of the American volunteers were members of the Communist party or the Young Communist Party.

Partly because Rosenstone can only provide an estimate of the number of Communists in the Brigade, he deemphasizes the importance of the role that Communism played in their lives. He states, “[m]ost of them had joined the party because of its worldwide opposition to fascism, and many did so specifically because of its support for the Spanish Republic.” Rosenstone goes further and says that perhaps the Brigade members joined the Communist Party because they had the best parties and that their primary concern was defending the world from fascism. “Spain merely reflected the depth of their dedication; there the forces of the decade---simplified into fascism to the idea of democracy versus fascism.” Rosenstone softened the hard edges of the volunteers by deemphasizing their Communist affiliations, but in the process he watered down their beliefs and motivations for going to Spain.

Rosenstone faced just as many problems when he attempted to determine the ethnic makeup of the brigade. He estimated that Jews comprised approximately 25 percent of the brigade. Rosenstone deduced this number simply by looking at the surnames of the known volunteers. After reviewing the names he determined that approximately 20 percent “had obviously Jewish names.” He then simply rounded up to 25 percent. Rosenstone admitted that it would be difficult to accurately determine the percentage of Jewish Americans because a number of the volunteers adopted nom de guerres during the war. Just as Rosenstone estimated the number of Jews in the Brigade, he guessed that there were probably 50 African American volunteers. It is also clear from Rosenstone’s title that he is only concerned with the men of the Lincoln Brigade, ignored the 60 American women who volunteered in Spain.[6]

Rosenstone’s work suffers from a number of problems. First, Rosenstone did not have sufficient historical resources at his disposal to develop his themes. Second, Rosenstone clearly believes that the veterans were essentially noble. In order to make them sympathetic to an American audience he deemphasized the role the Communist party played in their participation in the Spanish Civil War. It is not clear whether or not this deception was intentional. Additionally, members of the Lincoln Brigade were less willing to talk or give their private materials to historians so soon after a number of them had been persecuted during the 1950s for their Communist affiliations.

Arthur Landis’s mammoth book, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade is a comprehensive history of the American contingent in Spain. Robert F. Lucid both criticized and lauded Landis’s book by writing, “[t]hirty years after the war, Landis composes with a style and an enthusiasm which are ingenuous in their partisanship. It is impossible for anyone who is knowledgeable about the Spanish Civil War to be removed or unbiased…So one is likely to excuse Landis’ high regard for his comrades-in-arms although he will wish as I did, that the author had tempered his gusto.”[7] Stanley Payne argued that while Landis’ work was reliable when he discussed the military affairs of the Lincoln Brigade, but he found that Landis was completely unreliable whenever he talked about politics.[8] In addition to completely misunderstanding Spanish politics, Landis attempted to dismiss the idea that the Lincoln veterans were predominantly Communist. Payne assails Landis for failing to discuss the role played by the Soviet Communist party in the development of Spanish Communism.

Unlike Landis, Albert Pargo focuses on the role Jews played in the International Brigade. Pargo argued in his article “Jews in the International Brigade” that Jews viewed the Civil War in Spain as the “first organized resistance to European fascism” and anti-Semitism. He emphasized the Jewish character of not only the American contingent, but a number of the international volunteers. Pargo stated that approximately 900 to 1100 of the 2800 American volunteers were Jews. Pargo criticized Landis’s scholarly history of the Spanish Civil War because he completely ignored the Jewish participation in the Lincoln Bridgade. Pargo argued that the level of Jewish consciousness within the left was “minimal” and it did not occur to Landis that a number of American Jews were in Europe fighting anti-Semitism. Not surprisingly, Jews occupied important positions in the American veterans. Both the highest ranking and last commander of the Lincoln Battalions were Jews. More material was available for Pargo in his analysis than was available to Landis back in 1967.[9]


The Third Generation

Since the creation of the archives at Brandeis University and UC Berkley, historians have had an opportunity to search a number of first person writings of members of the Lincoln Brigade. These archives have allowed historians to start writing a third generation of books and articles on the Lincoln Brigade. Peter Carroll’s books The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, The Good Fight Continues: World War II Letters from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and Danny Duncan Collum’s African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do” represent what Carroll referred to as the third generation of books on the Lincoln Brigade. Unlike the previous generations of books, these works relied heavily on the Lincoln Brigade and Soviet Spanish Civil War archives.

Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is an attempt to provide an up to date and comprehensive history of the members of the Lincoln Brigade both before, during and after the Spanish Civil War. Carroll states that “[f]or forty years, from the time the first American volunteers had journeyed to Spain in December 1936, they had stood outside the mainstream of society.” It is clear from Carroll’s work that these men and women stood outside of mainstream of society even before they journeyed to Spain.

Carroll makes it clear that most of the volunteers went to Spain primarily for political reasons. The veterans were overwhelmingly Communists. Carroll never states that Landis attempted to hide the volunteers’ true political beliefs, but he makes it clear that Communism played a vital role in a number of the volunteer’s lives. Not surprisingly, Carroll starts his book with Moscow sending a secret communiqué to the American Communist party leadership in New York to start recruiting Communists to fight in Spain for the Popular Front government.[10] Unlike Rosenstone, Carroll makes it clear that the men and women recruited by the Communist party were for the most part radicals who “nearly all accepted the leadership of the Communist party, at least for the war’s duration.” He asserts that most of the veterans had little interest specifically in the Spanish War. They were good Communists, who for various reasons decided that the fight in Spain against fascism justified their sacrifice.[11]

Not only were the volunteers overwhelmingly Communists, they were much older than previously believed. The average age of Americans serving in the Brigade was twenty-seven years old. This supports Carroll’s contention that these people made an informed political decision to go to Spain. These men and women were not impressionable youths.

In addition to clarifying the actual political affiliation of the veterans, Carroll attacks a number of important myths surrounding the Lincoln Brigade. Not surprisingly, a number of questionable stories had circulated about the Lincoln Brigade. Some of these stories were told by members of the brigade in their first narratives or in testimony before legal bodies. After the war, several veterans became anti-Communists and circulated stories about the Party. Some of these stories were true and others exaggerations. Additionally, Carroll was extremely critical of a number of stories circulated by deserters. At times, he essentially argues that a number stories told by deserters were fabricated in order to justify their failure to continue fighting in Spain.

Carroll highlights some of the statements by Abraham Sobel and Alvin Halpern made to the House Committee on Un-American Activities. At the hearing, Sobel and Halpern claimed that the Americans were virtual prisoners. While the veterans denied those accusations back in 1938, Carroll argues that their statements were an attempt to cover up their desertion of their fellow volunteers. While one American soldier, Paul White, was executed for desertion after the Battle of Belchite., executions by the Popular Front of American soldiers were exceedingly rare. Not surprisingly the Americans were outraged by the execution and one day after White’s execution, the Spanish command reversed its policy of executions. Carroll could only find two other confirmed cases of executions. Those executions appear to have both been for criminal activity. Even when you include the cases of two soldiers, Albert Wallach and Bernard Abramofky, who appear to have been murdered for insubordination, few Americans were killed outside of combat. Carroll argues that in the case of the American soldiers remained in their units because they felt responsible for fighting for Spain, unlike Orwell’s claim in Homage to Catalonia that discipline was enforced by the use of terror. The difference between Orwell’s and the Lincoln Brigade’s experiences may have differed because the Americans never experienced the same type of political purges that Orwell’s force faced.[12]

Carroll makes it clear that the Communist party did not order any American Communist party members to Spain. Instead, the Soviet archives indicate that several of the Communist party members were considered too valuable to be sent to Spain. Carroll does make it clear, that after the volunteers arrived they were expected to stay until they were no longer needed. Some Communist party members, such Harry Haywood, Steve Nelson and others, were deemed too important in the United States to Communist Party to risk in Spain. Ultimately, a number of these individuals went to Spain and assumed leadership positions in various units.

Carroll also tried to restore the reputation of Oliver Law, the first African American officer to lead white Americans into battle. A number of the first person stories told by some surviving battalion survivors were highly critical of Law’s capabilities and abilities as a commander. Carroll argues that even though there is little documentary evidence to support the various viewpoints of Law; there appeared to be sufficient collaborating statements to resolve some of disputes. Law’s leadership, like many of his poorly trained soldiers, essentially depended on the battlefield situation. Like many of the veterans, Law displayed extraordinary courage, but at other occasions he was undone by lack of training, but died with the respect of his men. Carroll believed that most of the negative stories about Law where disseminated by the anti-Communist, novelist, veteran William Herrick. Unlike Herrick, Carroll claims that the men who served under Law and with him when he was killed disputed the stories that Law was fragged by his troops or that his body was desecrated after his death.[13]

Carroll’s story does not end with Spanish Civil War; he follows the veterans through the last half of the twentieth century. Almost five hundred of the veterans fought again in World War II. It is clear that Carroll has an enormous amount of respect for the veterans who continued the fight against fascism. In fact, Carroll dedicated the Good Fight Continues to the twenty four Lincoln Brigade veterans who were killed in combat during World War Two. Carroll does an excellent job highlighting the problems that the “premature fascists” faced after the war in the United States and he does not hide his sympathy for several of these individuals.

Beyond Carroll

The Good Fight Continues

One of the sharpest criticisms of Odyssey was made in the collection of essays entitled written by John Earl Haynes an Harvey Klehr In Denial: Historians, Communism & Espionage. Two of the essays in the collection accused Carroll of scholarly malpractice for suggesting that the term “premature anti-fascists” was used by the government to classify veterans of the Lincoln Brigade pejoratively. John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr instead argued that the term was adopted by veterans of the Lincoln Brigade as a badge of honor. Carroll fights back in the Lincoln Brigade newsletter stating that Congressional Representative John Coffee in 1945 indicated in a speech that people in Washington had referred to members of the Lincoln Brigade as “premature anit-fascists.”[14] In addition to Carroll’s Odyssey, the Lincoln Brigade archives have spawned additional books. The Good Fight Continues:World War II Letters from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade edited by Peter M. Carroll, Micahael Wash and Melvin Small and African Americans in the Spanish Civil War:"This Ain't Ethiopia, but it will do." edited by Danny Duncan Collum contain a number of primary sources from the Lincoln Brigade archives along with a number of interpretative articles. The Good Fight Continues is a collection of letters from Lincoln Brigade veterans during World War II. These letters express a number emotions and feelings. A number of the Brigade members’ were frustrated at being denied combat positions. Still, a number of the veterans did serve in combat and these letters share their experiences. Some of the letters address problems that Brigade members faced in the immediate post-World War II period.

African Americans in the Spanish Civil War explores the stories of the 90 African Americans who served in the Lincoln Brigade. This volume includes first person essays by some of the veterans and an article by Robin D. G. Kelly describing the reasons why several African American men and women fought in Spain. Kelly argues that most of the African American men and women who served were committed Communists who had both an internationalist outlook and a militant race-conscious nationalism. Collum makes it clear his book is relevant because the motivations between white and black veterans differed.</ref> Collum, Danny Duncan, eds. African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do”, p. 9.</ref> The differences in motivations made it critical to highlight these differences.

Conclusion

The historiography of the Abraham Lincoln has been a mess. Carroll’s The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln is the best attempt to provide a comprehensive and fair account of these veterans lives. Most of the first and second generation accounts were shaped by politics and limited archival sources. The creation of the Lincoln Brigade and Soviet Spanish Civil War archives hopefully can provide the promise of more exciting scholarship on this intriguing chapter of American history.

Bibliography

Bessie, Alvah and Albert Pargo eds., "Our Fight: Writings by Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Spain 1936 -1939" Monthly Review Press, 1987.

Carroll, Peter, “A Premature Anti-Fascists Again” The Volunteer, Vol.XXV, no. 4 (2003)

Carroll, Peter, eds., The Good Fight Continues: World War II Letters from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, New York University Press, 2006.

Carroll, Peter, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Stanford University Press, 1994.

Danny Duncan Collum. African Americans in the Spanish Civil War: “This Ain’t Ethiopia, But It’ll Do.” G.K. Hall & Co., 1992.

Landis, Arthur, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Lyle Stuart Hardcover (1967.)

Lucid, Robert, “In Our Time: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Historians,” American Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, 1970.

Payne, Stanley, “Review of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” The American Historical Review, vol 73, no. 1, 1967.

Rosenstone, Richard, Crusade of the Left: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, Pegasus, 1969.

Rosenstone, Richard, “The Men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” Journal of American History, Vol. 54, No. 2, 1967.

References

  1. Carroll, Peter N., The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: American in the Spanish Civil War, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California 1994, p. vii-x.
  2. Carroll p. 94.
  3. Carroll p. 95.
  4. Bessie, Alvah and Albert Pargo, eds., Our Fight: Writings by Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Spain 1936 -1939, Monthly Review Press (New York) 1987.
  5. Rosenstone, Richard, “The Men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade” Journal of American History, Vol. 54, No. 2. (1967) p. 335.
  6. Rosenstone, 335, 337.
  7. Lucid, Robert, “In Our Time: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Historians,” American Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 1, 1970, p. 116.
  8. Payne, Stanley, “Review of The Abraham Lincoln Brigade,” The American Historical Review, vol 73, no. 1, 1967, p. 253-254.
  9. Pargo, Albert, “Jews in the International Brigades”, Jewish Currents Reprint, February-March 1979, p. 3-19.
  10. Carroll, 9
  11. Carroll, 3, 19
  12. Carroll, 180-181, 183, 188.
  13. Carroll, 135-138
  14. Carroll, Peter, “A Premature Anti-Fascists Again” The Volunteer, Vol.XXV, no. 4 (2003), p. 5-6, 8-9