World War II Letters from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade

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Before Pearl Harbor

The Lincoln Brigade volunteers were for the most part members of the generation that came of age during the Great Depression. During the 1930s they became involved in the labor movement and radical politics through the industrial union movement, civil rights activities, efforts to organize the unemployed, and participation in hunger marches that were often led by the Communist party.

The vast majority of Lincoln Brigade volunteers came from working-class families. Of the twenty-eight hundred volunteers who went to Spain, at least 1,250 were Jewish, around three hundred were Italian, over eighty were African Americans and fifty-four were women. As many as 70 percent were members of the Communist party or one of its affiliated organizations; but there were also significant numbers of Socialists, anarchists, and adventurous antifascists who volunteered. At a time when most radicals supported the Popular Front against Hitler and Mussolini, many like Canute Frankson saw the connection between social change and opposition to fascism abroad. Men and women of the Left knew that if fascism triumphed, the labor and progressive movements would be destroyed.

The volunteers saw the war in Spain as both the front lines of the class war and an attempt to halt the spread of fascism and Nazism. This ideology is what drove young Americans to go off to war on a foreign battlefield and in defiance of their own government's neutrality laws. Many were convinced they would change the world by fighting fascism in Spain.

Coming home in defeat was a searing experience that left many consumed by a sense of tragedy for the rest of their lives. They were convinced that the arms embargo of the United States and the Western allies was in good measure responsible for the defeat of the Republican government. They were especially angry with the French for incarcerating Spanish refugees in detention camps, a sentiment clearly voiced by nurse Ave Bruzzichesi.

Many, however, ultimately came to see that they could continue the good fight against fascism in World War II. Even before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, hundreds of brigaders volunteered for service even when confronted with government repression. In addition, William Donovan, a conservative Republican who began working on intelligence for the Roosevelt administration in 1941, recruited Lincolns to work with the partisan underground in occupied countries of southeastern Europe well before the first bombs fell on Pearl Harbor. By early 1942, brigade veterans were enlisting in the U.S. Army in great numbers. It was almost as if a great weight had been lifted from their shoulders, freeing them to return to the war against fascism. However, the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Lincolns' willingness to change their position on the antifascist struggle in order to conform to Soviet policy would forever cast a shadow on their legacy, as it would with the other elements of the Communist Left.