United States and the Spanish Civil War

On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared the United States government would remain neutral in the conflict. The United States government also took measures to restrict its citizens from selling arms to the Nationalists and Republicans.

However some Americans did take part in the fighting. The Abraham Lincoln Battalion was established by those wanting to fight for the Republic during the war. The first volunteers sailed from New York City on 25th December, 1936 and joined the other International Brigades at Albacete.

An estimated 3,000 men fought in the battalion. Of these, over 1,000 were industrial workers (miners, steel workers, longshoremen). Another 500 were students or teachers. Around 30 per cent were Jewish and 70 per cent were between 21 and 28 years of age. The majority were members of the American Communist Party whereas others came from the Socialist Party of America and Socialist Labor Party.

The Abraham Lincoln Battalion suffered heavy casualties at Jarama. When Robert Merriman was wounded in the left shoulder, he was replaced by Oliver Law as battalion commander. It was the first time in American history that an integrated military force was led by an African-American officer.

In July 1937 the Abraham Lincoln Battalion fought alongside the George Washington Battalion at Brunete. Oliver Law was one of those killed and Steve Nelson now took over as commander of the battalion. Casualties were so high at Brunete that on 14th July the two units were merged.

By the end of the Spanish Civil War there were only 150 American soldiers left in the Lincoln-Washington Battalion. Over the course of the war over one-third of the volunteers from the United States had been killed.

Primary Sources

(1) Bill Bailey wrote to his mother explaining why he was fighting in the Spanish Civil War (1937)

You see Mom, there are things that one must do in this life that are a little more than just living. In Spain there are thousands of mothers like yourself who never had a fair shake in life. They got together and elected a government that really gave meaning to their life. But a bunch of bullies decided to crush this wonderful thing. That's why I went to Spain, Mom, to help these poor people win this battle, then one day it would be easier for you and the mothers of the future. Don't let anyone mislead you by telling you that all this had something to do with Communism. The Hitlers and Mussolinis of this world are killing Spanish people who don't know the difference between Communism and rheumatism. And it's not to set up some Communist government either. The only thing the Communists did here was show the people how to fight and try to win what is rightfully theirs.

(2) Manchester Guardian (5th April 1937)

Twenty-nine Americans who are alleged to have tried to cross the French frontier into Spain to enlist with the Spanish Government forces were detained last night at Muret between Toulouse and the Spanish frontier. The Americans had landed at Havre maintaining, it is stated, that they were genuine tourists. They have been brought to Toulouse for questioning.

(3) Paul White deserted from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in March 1938. He drove to the French border. However, on hearing that his wife had given birth to a son, he began to feel remorse for what he had done. White wanted his son to be proud of his father and he returned to the front where he made a full confession of his actions. White was court-martialled and became the only American to be executed for desertion in the war.

After Belchite I knew I was afraid to go into action again. I tried all this time to overcome my feeling of fear. I felt we were doomed and fighting futilely. I dropped out of line and made up my mind to desert and try and reach France. As I ran towards the Ebro and met more deserters and routed troops, my fear grew. If I succeeded in getting to France, I still would have to face everyone at home but I had lost all control.

I kept going and debating whether or not to turn back. I spoke to the mayor at the border town in which I was arrested and asked where the command post was located. He told me and I decided to eat and make a final decision. I was arrested before I had done this. Once I was in custody I decided that I had been saved from wrecking my life completely.

I realize that "safety" of the kind I was seeking would never compensate me for the loss of everything and everyone I value. I ask for one chance and that is to serve in the lines and wipe out this stain on my military and Party record.

I am 29 years old and am certain that I can serve in the ranks for many years as a class conscious worker. I have had plenty of time to think before making this statement and sincerely believe I will be stronger in my work and devotion if given the opportunity to redeem myself. I regard my position now as the most serious crisis in my life and am ready to meet it.

(4) The Manchester Guardian (11th May 1938)

The news from Washington that Senator Nye's amendment to the Neutrality Act to enable arms to be sold to Spain is unlikely to be passed has caused disappointment and anxiety in Spanish Government quarters here, as well as among all those who considered that the removal of the arms embargo would enormously improve the position of the Spanish Government.

It is held that the great majority of American opinion is as revolted as ever by the 'non-intervention' policy and would heartily welcome the renewal of American arms shipments to the Government side, but it is strongly suspected here that the British Government, fearing that this would 'perpetuate the Spanish war' and would also oblige Great Britain and France to choose between following the United States (and at least not hindering them) and continuing 'non-intervention', has advised Washington against any change in the Neutrality Act.

(5) Edwin Rolfe, New Masses (13th September, 1938)

The war has ripped all illusions from even the youngest of the volunteers, leaving only the reality. That reality is harder than anyone who has never been under machine-gun fire and bombs and artillery fire can ever know. Yet the men of the Lincoln brigade, knowing it well, chose and continue to choose to fight for Spain's free existence. To be true to themselves and their innermost convictions.

(6) Bill Bailey was a member of the International Brigades parade in Barcelona on 15th November 1938.

Everyone who was able to walk was in the parade and the street was lined with people, throwing flowers, running out to hug and kiss us, tears in their eyes. It was sad to leave all these wonderful Spaniards at Franco's mercy. The last words spoken to us were that we should continue the anti-fascist struggle wherever we might be. And we did that to the best of our ability.

(7) After the war Ernest Hemingway wrote about the role of the International Brigades.

The dead sleep cold in Spain tonight. Snow blows through the olive groves, sifting against the tree roots. Snow drifts over the mounds with small headboards. For our dead are a part of the earth of Spain now and the earth of Spain can never die. Each winter it will seem to die and each spring it will come alive again. Our dead will live with it forever.

Over 40,000 volunteers from 52 countries flocked to Spain between 1936 and 1939 to take part in the historic struggle between democracy and fascism known as the Spanish Civil War.

Five brigades of international volunteers fought on behalf of the democratically elected Republican (or Loyalist) government. Most of the North American volunteers served in the unit known as the 15th brigade, which included the Abraham Lincoln battalion, the George Washington battalion and the (largely Canadian) Mackenzie-Papineau battalion. All told, about 2,800 Americans, 1,250 Canadians and 800 Cubans served in the International Brigades. Over 80 of the U.S. volunteers were African-American. In fact, the Lincoln Battalion was headed by Oliver Law, an African-American from Chicago, until he died in battle.

(8) Milton Wolff, interviewed by Judy Montell in 1991.

Spain was only one battle. World War II was only one battle, what's going on in Central America, South Africa, the Middle East now is another battle, and we're into these things. Struggle is the elixir of life, the tonic of life. I mean, if you're not struggling, your dead.

(9) William E. Leuchtenburg, Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963)

In a few months, some who had voted for the resolution had second thoughts. The Spanish "civil war," they feared, was being used by Hitler and Mussolini as a testing ground for the great war that lay ahead. Tens of thousands of Italian soldiers fought for Franco, and the Fascist press celebrated the fall of Malaga as a national victory. The Nazis made no attempt to disguise the airplanes that bombed Bilbao. A number of isolationist progressives came to believe the threat to democratic government more compelling than the doctrines of neutrality. Senator Nye, to the discomfiture of the pacifists, introduced a resolution to repeal the embargo on arms to the Loyalists. Both Secretaries Ickes and Morgenthau supported Nye, and fifteen prominent scientists, including Arthur Compton and Harold Urey, pleaded with the President to lift the embargo to "save the world from a fascist gulf." In January, 1938, sixty members of Congress ostentatiously sent greetings to the Spanish Cortes. For many American intellectuals, the Spanish war was the crucial event of the decade, for it signified an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of democracy and fascism. Placards on college bulletin boards announced: "We dance that Spain may live." A few did more than that. Two or three thousand American volunteers fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and other Loyalist units; most who went died there, including Ring Lardner's son James, who lost his life in the Ebro campaign."

For a brief time in the spring of 1938, it appeared that Roosevelt would lift the embargo, but the American ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, warned him that such a move might spread the Spanish war to the rest of the world. Hull insisted that such action would destroy the work of the Nonintervention Committee. The President also had to reckon with the state of American opinion. Most of the country was indifferent; one poll found the remarkably high figure of 66 per cent of respondents neutral or with no opinion. Pro-Loyalist intellectuals were a negligible political force compared to the large bloc of pro-Franco Catholics. Although Catholic laymen like Kathleen Norris and George Schuster were anti-Franco, and most Catholics did not regard themselves as Franco supporters, the Catholic press and hierarchy were almost uniformly pro-Franco, and polls revealed that the proportion of Catholics who backed Franco was more than four times as great as the proportion of Protestants."

Ickes has recorded that Roosevelt told him that to raise the embargo "would mean the loss of every Catholic vote next fall and that the Democratic Members of Congress were jittery about it and didn't want it done." So the cat was out of the bag, Ickes complained, the "mangiest, scabbiest cat ever."

Although it has been argued that the neutrality laws handcuffed Roosevelt in his efforts to check the aggressors, Congress can scarcely be assigned sole responsibility for American policy toward Spain. Ironically, it was Senator Nye, the symbol of congressional isolationism, who led the move to lift the embargo, while Roosevelt, who had originally opposed such legislation, upheld it. The President's Spanish policy had unfortunate consequences. It helped sustain Neville Chamberlain's disastrous policy of appeasement which permitted Germany and Italy to supply Franco while the democracies enforced "nonintervention" against themselves. "My own impression," wrote Ambassador Claude Bowers in July, 1937, "is that with every surrender beginning long ago with China, followed by Abyssinia and then Spain, the fascist powers, with vanity inflamed, will turn without delay to some other country such as Czechoslovakia-and that with every surrender the prospects of a European war grow darker."