The Americans Who Fought Fascism in Spain and Stuck Around for D-Day
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade volunteers weren’t awarded the same reverence as other soldiers.
By Philip Kowalski
The United States had been a combatant in World War II for more than two years by the time tens of thousands of American troops scrambled onto the shores of Normandy for D-Day, but it was still a watershed moment. Here began the campaign to liberate Europe from Axis forces, and thus the U.S. fight against fascism.
But by the time June 6, 1944, rolled around, American soldiers like Gerald Cook, Alvin Warren, Lawrence Cane and Max Silverman had already been fighting fascism for seven years. They were among the approximately 2,000 surviving veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade — an all-volunteer military unit that fought in the Spanish Civil War between 1937 and 1938, taking the side of the Spanish Republican cause against the ultimately victorious fascist forces of dictator Francisco Franco.
For many young men coming of age during the Great Depression, honest work and social stability were firmly outside the realm of possibility. Times were particularly hard for marginalized groups, including African-Americans, Jews and those of immigrant descent. Members of these groups formed the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a ragtag band of idealist fighters with little opportunity at home and the chance to fight fascism abroad, specifically in Spain.
While the American government was unwilling to get involved in the Spanish Civil War, the Republican cause was lauded abroad by the layman and celebrity alike, including Charlie Chaplin, Paul Robeson and Frida Kahlo. According to Peter Carroll, a professor of history at Stanford University, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade was so named because its members saw themselves as opposed to a racist rebellion, much as Lincoln was during the U.S. Civil War. The brigade certainly honored Lincoln’s legacy — it was the first racially integrated military unit in American history and, under the leadership of Oliver Law, the first to be led by an African-American.
Despite the group’s lofty political dreams, the fight would prove to be a crushing endeavor. After organizing within Spain and joining the larger XV International Brigade, the Lincoln Brigade underwent a few weeks of training and received military equipment supplied by the Spanish Republic and its foreign contributors such as the Soviet Union and Mexico. Further support came from donations by the American Communist Party. Poorly trained and equipped, the volunteers were facing a fearsome and skilled enemy. The Republicans slowly lost ground to Franco from 1936 to the war’s end in 1939. The brigade lost nearly a quarter of its 2,500 soldiers in the fight before pulling out in 1938, its volunteers returning home to a country still uninterested in intervening.
When the U.S. officially entered World War II after the attacks on Pearl Harbor, many veterans of the brigade eagerly signed up to join the American military for another round against fascism … only to discover that their help was largely unwanted due to their socialist leanings and ethnic backgrounds. Alvin Warren, a Jewish socialist and Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran, pleaded his case to rejoin the military by declaring, “All I want out of the Army is the chance to serve like any ordinary American soldier, to be able to go overseas to participate in the battles which will bring the downfall of my country’s enemies.” Eventually, Warren was allowed to join, his engineering skills and battle prowess badly needed. In 1943, journalists and sympathetic politicians demanded the Army explain its policy of barring or not promoting brigade veterans, which saw a turnaround in the policy. More than 400 other brigade veterans also served in the armed forces during the war.
The House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted all Lincoln Brigade veterans, making it extremely difficult for them to find work.
The American victory at D-Day was a much-needed one for the Lincoln Brigade veterans. Gerald Cook, a Missouri-born union organizer, described the invasion of Normandy in glowing terms, declaring, “It was the best way possible of returning to the continent we had left at the close of ’38.… This time when we leave Europe, fascism will have fought its last battle.” Lawrence Cane, a teacher before he joined the Lincoln Brigade, served in Normandy and afterward as a captain, while Max Silverman’s French language skills proved to be indispensable as the Allies drew deeper into France. Lincoln Brigade veterans served not only in Normandy but also in Italy, North Africa and the Pacific. In total, 24 brigade veterans died during the conflict.
Nevertheless, the service of brigade members went largely unappreciated and even demonized by the American government in the years following the conflict. In the era of Joseph McCarthy, the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee blacklisted all Lincoln Brigade veterans, making it extremely difficult for them to find work, rent an apartment or even travel abroad.
However, not even a government blacklist could bring an end to their work. By the 1970s, with the anti-Vietnam movement in full swing, the Lincoln Brigade regained its prestige by aligning itself with the anti-war movement, drawing thousands of supporters in their appearances in Berkeley, California, and New York City. In 1982, when more than a million demonstrators crowded Central Park to protest nuclear armaments in the largest anti-nuclear protest in history, the Lincoln Brigade received a tremendous ovation when 20 surviving members joined the protest waving the same flag they flew in the 1930s. Lincoln Brigade veterans remained active in progressive causes up to the death of its last veteran, Delmer Berg, who died at 100, in 2016.
In recent years, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade has undergone something of a rehabilitation. “When talking about fascism as a threat to democracy,” explains Carroll, “the Lincoln Brigade epitomizes what could have been done to prevent fascism.” When Berg died in 2016, Sen. John McCain penned an op-ed in The New York Times thanking the brigade members for their service. While McCain denounced their socialist cause, he also noted: “You might consider them romantics, fighting in a doomed cause for something greater than their self-interest.”
- Philip Kowalski, OZY Author Contact Philip Kowalski