- Historic Sites
For Whom The Bell Tolled
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
Throughout the rainy October and chilly November of 1936, Spain had been front-page news, and for left-of-center readers in the United States that news was bad. The rebel armies of General Francisco Franco penetrated the outer districts of Madrid, collecting their strength for a final thrust which would carry them into the city and deal a deathblow to the Second Spanish Republic. Neutral journalists took refuge in their embassies and predicted that Madrid was doomed. General Emilio Mola, second in command of the besieging army, announced that while four Nationalist (rebel) columns were converging on the capital from outside, a fifth column of armed sympathizers and provocaleurs was preparing to strike from within. The darkest day was November 7, 1936, when Mundo Obrero , the Communist party daily of Madrid, printed in red ink the headlines: ALL OUT TO THE BARRICADES/THE ENEMY IS ACROSS THE RIVER . But in the days that followed, newspapers began to describe a phalanx of foreigners who had reached the trenches and barricades of the city. Forming well-disciplined lines, they hurled back the Nationalist attacks in Carabanchel, the Casa del Campo, and University City. The International Brigades, consisting of volunteers recruited by the Communist International, or Comintern, agencies in a dozen European countries, had come to the defense of Madrid, and despite repeated attacks by the armies of Franco to break the ring of defenders, the city held out.
Fascism, rampant elsewhere, had been halted at Madrid. For antifascists the moment was galvanic, the mood contagious. In the United States, they asked what they could do to assist the Republic. The answer was simple and the apparatus ready: contribute to the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, whose list of sponsors reads like a “Who’s Who” of the thirties: Van Wyck Brooks, Edna Ferber, Martha Gellhorn, Rockwell Kent, Sinclair Lewis, Archibald MacLeish, Dorothy Parker, Elliot Paul, Elmer Rice, and Upton Sinclair, to drop but a few names. It drew its support from oldfashioned liberals of the Nation-New Republic tradition, men and women of good will who deplored the rise of fascism. Young men who preferred a more activist role in defending Spanish liberty could enlist in the International Brigades, provided they knew the right people in leftist political or trade-union organizations. No mere adventurers—or “romantics” as they were called in the Communist party—need apply; nor, at this stage in the recruiting program, were bourgeois liberals desired. The ideal recruit was a youngish man with a proved, or at least promising, record in the Communist party.
Just as the Comintern had approved and organized the International Brigades, setting up an International Control Committee in Paris, so the Communist Party of the United States of America founded the Abraham Lincoln Battalion as its contribution to a worldwide effort to fight fascism in Spain. Every man accepted by the battalion had been tacitly approved by the party—a far cry from saying that every man was a Communist, however. The party had no intention of dipping into its coffers to finance the battalion. Money would be raised through front organizations like the North American Committee, whose membership would not know that they supported the battalion, much less that the C.P.U.S.A. whistled the tune both of them danced to. It was a well-oiled, ballbearing mechanism: in the interests of the Comintern, the C.P.U.S.A. provided the expertise and apparatus for sending men to Spain—and would, in the end, accept the credit, provided there was credit to accept.
November was a month of strikes along the New York waterfront and in the garment industry, and a large percentage of the first American volunteers were recruited from these trades. Recruitment was always low-key, even surreptitious. A second-generation Communist named Bill Harvey ( né Horwitz), who worked in the furriers’ union, happened to be talking with his union boss about the war in Spain and burst out with “I wish I was there!”
A week or so later Harvey received a letter in a plain envelope. Inside was an onionskin, without address or signature, which read: “Please appear on the Ninth Floor,” adding a date. The ninth floor was the head-quarters of the Central Committee of the C.P.U. S.A. on Twelfth Street. At the appointed time Harvey entered that sanctum and faced a screening committee composed of five men. The committee asked him a number of casual questions, making notes at suitable moments. Then one of the members shot a question at him, “Have you ever fired a rifle?”
“I have,” Harvey replied promptly, fortunately recalling a shooting gallery he had patronized at Coney Island.
A few days later he was notified, once again on an unsigned onionskin, that he had been accepted.