- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
After six months of war, a parade or demonstration barely ruffled the surface of downtown Barcelona. Whenever bands and crowds occupied the Plaza de Cataluna and lightly shook the surrounding buildings with anthems and vivas , only a few clerks at the United States consulate abandoned their desks for the windows. The reason for these disturbances was ever the same: the volunteers of the International Brigades were arriving from France, or Catalan troops were departing for the front. But on January 6, 1937, Mahlon F. Perking the consul general, who watched the crowd teeming below, spotted an object that had never before appeared in the marches and rallies. Coming up the street was the flag of the United States. Behind it ambled sixty men in 1918 doughboy uniforms. They were lined up in four-front squads with their leader out in front, a .45 automatic strapped to his hip. The United States Army in Barcelona? Impossible! Throwing open his window for a better look, Perkins watched in puzzlement as the group halted under the consulate window and began singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” They sang nearly as badly as they marched, but what must have astonished him as much as anything else was that they knew the words to the second, and even the third, stanzas. (A common notion during the thirties was that if a man could recite the Declaration of Independence by heart or sing any stanza of “The Star-Spangled Banner” beyond the first one, he must be a member of the Communist party.) It flashed upon him that the spectre that had haunted the Department of State for the past three months had materialized under his very window. Despite “the most scrupulous policy of nonintervention” in Spanish affairs, a policy spelled out by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and underlined many times by Secretary of State Cordell Hull, the first group of American volunteers had arrived in Spain.
A clerk sent down to talk with the paramilitary band returned with the information that “they had come to fight for their principles.” Some claimed to be veterans of the World War; others were callow youths barely out of high school. Their leader refused to say whether they possessed legitimate passports. As they marched off, one of them called out, “We’re just the beginning!” Consul Perkins had reason to recall this impudent shout, for on the next day sixteen more Americans filed past his window. Then, on January 17, there appeared forty more, these carrying a blazing red banner marked A MERICAN B ATTALION . A day later there were twenty new ones with a banner of the same color and size, labelled A BRAHAM L INCOLN B ATTALION .
As yet only a trickle of American volunteers was seeping across the French frontier. Hopeful that the leak could be promptly plugged and caulked, Perkins cabled the information to Washington, which thereupon commanded its consular representatives in France to board each incoming liner and to stamp American passports N OT V ALID FOR T RAVEL TO S PAIN . It quickly became evident, however, that men willing to expose their flesh to fascist bullets were not likely to be intimidated by American consuls brandishing rubber stamps.
At Barcelona, Perkins continued to be troubled. Powerless to prevent or dissuade the volunteers, he could do nothing more than count them as they trooped through the city in their odd apparel, singing and laughing. So far as Perkins knew, the Department of State had not formulated a policy to cover American volunteers: Should they be accorded diplomatic protection, like other citizens, or had they forfeited this privilege when they agreed to serve a foreign power? He cabled Washington for clarification: In view of the hardships which they will soon undergo, I am apprehensive that some of them will be calling for assistance in the not distant future. I should be glad to be informed of the Department’s general attitude toward the question of expatriation and loss of the right of protection of American citizens enlisting in the Loyalist armies.
In response, Secretary Hull cabled back on February i that protection should not be extended to United States citizens who fought in Spain. Though the State Department had no power to prevent American citizens from travelling where they wished, it nevertheless had no obligation to protect those who violated the conditions of their passports. Did this mean, Perkins inquired with bureaucratic thoroughness, that American volunteers were not to use the consulate as a mailing address? They most certainly were not. That was that.
By the end of January, three hundred Americans had crossed into Spain. The floodgates were open and the volunteers streamed south.