McCain’s Surprising Tribute to Abraham Lincoln Brigade Forgets History of FBI Harassment

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The adverse information about him, which was brought out by our lawyer, was that he had once belonged to the Communist party, and had attempted to enlist in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Deadeye Dick 1

It has been over a decade since I first read Vonnegut’s Deadeye Dick, but I still remember that sentence jumping out at me. It made enough of an impression that I could almost recall it verbatim from memory, even as I discovered when trying to find the passage, that I had forgotten the novel’s major plot point. The sentence stood out to me, because while being aware of American history I knew of the relentless repression that members of the Communist Party faced, at sixteen years of age I could not not fathom how anyone could view attempting to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group of American volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War on behalf of the Republican government against fascists, fascist that were backed by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, as adverse information. 2

If one was to read Senator John McCain’s “Salute to a Communist” in last week’s New York Times, they would be left with a similar impression. After all, here we have a conservative Republican (of the US variety, not the Spanish) Senator writing fairly laudatory words about someone he concedes was an “unreconstructed Communist” because he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The Communist in question was Delmer Berg, who was the last known surviving member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and recently passed away at the age of 100.*

A Legacy of Repression

Yet, Vonnegut’s depiction of official attitudes to veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade circa 1944 is fairly accurate. As Peter N. Carroll, author of The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, told the Dissent NewsWire, “Senator McCain’s surprising tribute to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade showed a rare appreciation for the moral courage of those 2,800 Americans who defied US neutrality laws to fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, he gives scant attention to the harsh response they received from federal and state agencies upon their return.”

While returning veterans were deemed heroic in progressive circles, they were vilified by conservative elements and targeted by both the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI, which per their usual modus operandi worked closely together. This repression only intensified once the Cold War and the period known as the “Second Red Scare” had begun.

It is hard to underestimate the degree of suspicion that mere association with the Spanish Republican cause put one under during the Cold War. Past support for groups raising money for medical aid for Spanish Republicans is cited by J. Edgar Hoover as being amongst the subversive activities that legendary filmmaker Orson Welles engaged in. A tin can with the markings “Save a Spanish Republican Child” was used as evidence against Julius and Ethel Rosenberg during their trial for conspiracy to violate the Espionage Act.

Premature Antifascists, Premature Victims of McCarthyism

The repression, however, cannot merely be chalked up to the excesses of the Cold War period. As Carroll recounts, “ As the former Brigade commander, Milton Wolff, once said, “We were called ‘premature anti-fascists’ and we also became premature victims of McCarthyism.”

HUAC, in fact, would call its first hearing on the Brigade in 1938, when the war was not only still ongoing, but US citizens were still fighting in Spain.  HUAC would hold hearings on the brigade again in 1939 and 1940, and well into the Eisenhower era HUAC would still be subpoenaing veterans of the Brigade.

In 1940, the FBI raided the offices of Veterans of Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The raid was ostensibly to investigate violations of the Neutrality Act, but its motives and intent were clearly political. From that point on, the FBI frequently surveilled, monitored, and harassed veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. While a 1948 163-page FBI memorandum on Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, went to great lengths to connect the brigade to the Communist Party, Carroll pointed out to the Dissent NewsWire that “the FBI hounded all veterans, regardless of their political views.”

Amongst those hounded was the man McCain praised, Delmer Berg. While McCain’s tribute to Berg made no mention of the FBI, many of his obituaries did. The Associated Press referred to Berg as “drawing inquiries from the FBI.” The Washington Post put things more bluntly, “Mr. Berg was ‘harassed’ by the FBI during the anti-communist inquisitions of Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) in the 1950s.”

Related: FBI Still Monitoring and Harassing Dissidents

These were not the only forms of political retaliation that Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade faced. Both the Abraham Lincoln Brigade itself and Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as well as anti-Franco organizations providing aid to Spanish refugees, were added to the Attorney General’s “Subversive Organizations” list. Being a member of an organization on this list meant the denial of GI benefits, exclusion from public housing, and the revocation of passports.

Many veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade signed up to join the US military at the onset of World War II. Yet, they were not allowed to carry out their struggle against fascism, as the military viewed them with suspicion, systematically discriminated against them, and denied them combat assignments they were both eager to partake in and well-suited to.

Today, the Spanish Civil War continues to occupy a particular niche in our cultural and political lexicon. Ernest Hemmingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, both of which depict the experiences of international fighters in Spain, continue to be widely read. Depictions of the war are not limited to cultural relics of the past, in the last decade popular and academic histories, museum exhibitions, and even popular film and television programs have continued to deal with the war. Those wishing to call attention to modern carnage, be it in Fallujah, Gaza, or Syria, frequently evoke Guernica, the Basque town whose civilian population was ruthlessly bombed by the Nazi Condor Legion.

As a result of this continued preoccupation, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade maintains a unique spot in our culture. Heralded as “premature antifascists,”  the Abraham Lincoln Brigade continues to be viewed with fascination. As Berg wrote in the New York Times, almost a year before his passing, “I get a lot of letters from all over the country. Younger people write me — they want to know what happened. Can you tell me, they ask? You were there. All the rest of them are dead now.” For many, the Brigade members are viewed as heroes.

Sen. John McCain’s tribute to Berg in last week’s New York Times, in which he wrote, “I have always harbored admiration for their [members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade] courage and sacrifice in Spain,” is very much in step with this sentiment. Yet, this was not alway the case. While we have continued to remember the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, we have either forgotten or chosen to omit the treatment they faced at the hands of the US government.

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While the various repressive apparatuses of the state were set in motion against Brigade veterans, the US would move to sign a bilateral treaty with Franco, who was brought to power by the Nazis and Fascist Italy, a treaty that would allow for US military bases in Fascist Spain. As Franco was a bulwark against Communism, it would become perfectly acceptable in mainstream political discourse to praise a man who executed political opponents in what historian Paul Preston called the “Spanish Holocaust,”  and drew up the names 6,000 of Jews living in Spain that he gave to Nazi Germany, all the while blacklisting, maligning, and persecuting those who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. (While no Spanish Jews were sent to Nazi death camps by Franco, Spanish Republicans captured by the Nazis in France were amongst those at Mauthausen Concentration Camp.)

Any tribute to the volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – indeed, any history of this time period – is incomplete without mentioning the political retaliation faced by those who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The full details of this retaliation are not known. While the FBI released its 1948 memo on the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 2008, it withheld numerous pages in their entirety. Senators like John McCain, who support the heroism of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, should move to seeing that all of this information is put into the public domain. As a part of this effort, BORDC/DDF has filed a Freedom of Information Request with the FBI for all files relating to Delmer Berg. Until then, what we do know is best summed up by Carroll, “All this harassment, because they insisted they endeavored to save a democratic government from a fascist takeover.”

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Notes:

1 The quote is from Vonnegut’s narrator. Vonnegut himself was a socialist, whose previous novel, Jailbird, featured a fairly sympathetic portrayal of the Communist Party.

2 There was in fact no such entity as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. There was an Abraham Lincoln Battalion that was part of the International Brigades. However nearly all contemporary accounts refer to the US volunteers in Spain generally, as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.



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