“American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War”: a unique perspective

Context is central to any historical narrative. This is certainly true regarding the Spanish Civil War. In fact, isolationism, anti-communism, and domestic support of European fascism, among other factors, coalesced to shape the political-historical context within which progressives, socialists and – most importantly – communists worked to erect the organizational infrastructure to provide relief aid to the democratically elected ‘Popular Front’ Spanish Government.

Eric R. Smith’s, American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War, sheds much needed light on this particular historical moment from a unique perspective. Whereas most histories analyze the subject from the veterans’ perspective, specifically of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade – a contingent of over 3,000 U.S. anti-fascist volunteers, mostly communists, who fought in the Spanish Civil War – Smith’s book looks at the domestic aid organizing, its supporters and detractors.

According to Smith, “The international community of nations” responded to General Francisco Franco’s assault against the ‘Popular Front’ government in Spain “with combined horror and disbelief, mingled with apathy – [and] at times hostility” towards the socialists and communists elected to run the new Republic. Domestically, “Isolationism and anticommunism emerged as strong forces obstructing the path of antifascism,” which resulted in President Roosevelt’s refusal to engage in any serious discussion of U.S. government aid to the beleaguered Republic. He instead claimed neutrality.

While the official U.S. position was neutrality, which complicated matters for the domestic aid movement, Hitler and Mussolini were under no such constraints and actively supported Franco. Additionally, Texaco Oil Co. “offered an indefinite line of credit” to the fascist insurgents, and Firestone, Ford and General Motors “all realized profits on insurgent purchases,” despite neutrality.

Contrary to anticommunist propaganda the Soviet Union was slow to involve itself in the conflict. It wasn’t until August 1937 that they would send “medical and humanitarian advisers” to Spain – of course, later they would help mobilize world-wide anti-fascist contingents to fight in Spain against Franco.   

Just as the Communist Party, USA was in the vanguard of organizing the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, it was also in the vanguard of the organized relief effort. “As it had in the case of organized labor in the same period, the Communist Party’s main contribution to the movement came in the form of organizers and providing the infrastructure of the American League Against War and Fascism to set up local chapters of the leading aid organizations.” The Party-led American League Against War and Fascism initiated the campaign that formed what would become the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, “which eventually emerged as the central hub for relief…”

Additionally, Ed Barsky, a CPUSA member and doctor, “played an instrumental role” in organizing the   much needed medical bureau, as the “biggest immediate concern” was “inadequate medical aid.” Barsky also lead a delegation of “nearly 150 American medical professionals who volunteered to serve in the American Medical Bureau in Spain.” The Medical Bureau, led by Barsky, acted as the “primary aid organization” supplying the international battalion with doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, and other medical technicians. Communist nurses, like Lini Fuhr and Salaria Kee – the only Black female volunteer in Spain – would later return and embark on exhaustive speaking engagements to help mobilize more relief aid. Due to ‘Red Scare’ anticommunism, Kee would later deny her membership in the Party.      

Smith also highlights the role of youth and student organizations in the relief mobilization. In fact, of the thousands of supporters who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Medical Bureau, “88 of them came from the American Student Union,” a communist-led national youth/student organization affiliated with the American Youth Congress. Among other activities, the ASU launched an ambulance campaign in late 1937 and a six-week youth committee speaking tour. In all, by February 1938 sixty-one ambulances had been donated by Americans to the beleaguered antifascists in Spain.

Furthermore, Smith looks at ‘Popular Front’ antifascism organizing and relief aid in Hollywood and unions, specifically the maritime unions. John Howard Lawson, a veteran ambulance driver, the first president of the Screen Writer’s Guild and a communist, helped lead the Hollywood relief effort. Communist-led maritime unions, particularly in Baltimore – where ten percent of the seamen who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were communists – staged strikes, refused to load and unload armaments, and organized and participated in antifascist rallies. Additionally, “it is perhaps not surprising” that the Party-led National Maritime Union was the first union to sponsor membership meetings on Spain and organize “…a small wave of strikes” against munitions shipments. The Party’s then trade union secretary, Roy Hudson, wrote a pamphlet Shipowners Plot Against Spanish Democracy, for the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, which implored seamen “not to sail any ships carrying cargo consigned to the fascists!”

By summer 1938 the House Un-American Activities Committee would label the North American Committee “an adjunct to the Communist Party…” and many of the relief aid leaders would soon find themselves in the ‘Red Scare’ cross-hairs.

My only criticism of Smith’s otherwise excellent book is what seems to be at times a purposeful obfuscating of the leading role of Party members in relief organizing. For example, in Smith’s account Ed Barsky is simply an “American Doctor,” while John Howard Lawson is a “veteran ambulance driver,” and Lini Fuhr is only a “veteran Medical Bureau nurse,” etc.  While not openly anticommunist, Smith’s narrative seems to suffer from a mild case of what participants to the recent Organization of American Historians conference called the ‘Red Taboo.’ His narrative would have been strengthened by a more robust assessment of the Party’s role in relief aid. While the Communist Party, due to its size, influence and international connections, undoubtedly cast a shadow over smaller, less organized groups – which is simply a fact of historical record – a more robust assessment of the Party’s role would have also been more honest.

American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War is an excellent, but short book. It covers a broad political landscape, but is still accessible and informative. A much needed and welcomed contribution to the history of the Spanish Civil War.

 American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War

By Eric R. Smith

University of Missouri Press, 2013, 191 pages


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.