Memories of the Good Fightby Robert Steck
Robert Steck, a veteran of the Lincoln Brigades, regularly delivers the following talk on the Spanish Civil War to high school students across Arizona.
It is heartwarming to share some Lincoln Battalion history with students. The second largest contingent in the Lincoln Battalion was students. This history brings back another time, another place, but it also points out continuing problems we need to grapple with.
Can I bring back the spirit and passion of those turbulent, tragic, and yet hopeful times? Let me try to tell you something of what we were…or thought we were doing. It was Christmas Eve 1936. Why was this Christmas different than any other Christmas? Ninety-six young Americans—of their own free will—boarded a steamship in New York Harbor. They set sail for sunny Spain, the land of toreadors, senoritas and wine, a land they’d never seen, a land where all was not calm, all was not bright. They spoke no Spanish. In Rock Island, Illinois, where I lived, there were no traveling posters featuring swirling senoritas; we never heard of the flamenco. But in Spain the silent night was being torn by dumdum bullets, where Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, and Francisco Franco sought to maximize their gains at the expense of others.
The Fascists screamed:
- To hell with the legitimately elected popular front government!
- To hell with the majority of the population who shaped a constitution in the language of Thomas Paine and Jefferson!
Franco and the Vatican objected to 5,000 new schools not under church control. Franco demanded subservience and no equal rights for women.
- No workers right to organize!
- Let’s get Garcia Lorca!
Franco and his foreign legion General, Astray, hated intellectuals. Lorca, a poet renowned the world over as “a genius beyond question,” became one of the first to be butchered by Franco forces. General Astray looked like a figure out of horror films. He once interrupted a lecture by the renowned philosopher, Unumano, at Salamanca University shouting, “Viva La Muerte! Abajo La Intellegencia!” Dr. Unumano replied, “There is no more fundamental distinction between men, psychologically and morally, than the one between those who love death and those who love life…those totally devoted to death are insane.” Before his death, Lorca said that he would write in the time of wars the poetry of those who hated the war. In the following months more than 2,600 more Americans sailed to Spain. They joined 45,000 volunteers from 52 countries.
More than two decades ago I sought biographical data for Carl Geiser’s Prisoners of the Good Fight. I went to Spain, Puerto Rico, Columbia, Mexico and Canada. I crossed the United States from Los Angeles and Seattle to New York and Boston. I traced Seaman Tex Stanley in Corpus Christi, Texas; John Piekarski in Iron River, Michigan; Martin Maki in Annandale, Minnesota; Indiana teacher Walter Fairbanks Grant. I was in Boothbay, Maine; Sequatchie, Tenn.; Lone Wolk, Oklahoma; Cocomongo, California; and Tucson, Arizona. I asked my army comrades, those still living or their kin, “What drove you to do what you did? You disregarded your government’s edict stamped on your passport, ‘not valid for travel in Spain.’ You reached Spain by a never-to-be-forgotten all-night climb over the mountainous Pyrenese. No, don’t give me the ready slogans ‘to fight fascism,’ ‘to do what Lafayette and Kosciusko did.’ Give me the pulse, the heartbeat! Can you?”
Let us turn back and see what we can pick up. Half the 2,600 no longer had heartbeats. As Hemingway wrote, “They enrich the Spanish earth.” What do we know about the man we called Missouri? Mussolini’s “Black Arrows” surrounded us. We Americans were afoot. The Fascists rode in American GM and Ford trunks fueled by American Texaco and Standard Oil. Three times we tried to break through the encirclement. Missouri fell, his real name not remembered; his smiling eyes, his brave heart. We loved him as a brother. He came to Spain. There was no bread at home, that’s true, but also he knew democracy by heart! He was at Jarama, and the storming of Brunete, and at Tereul and Bechite too. He sat against a tree, a smile on his face, his guts hanging out. We pushed them back in, but they kept falling out; four times, or was it six? When the Fascists came, Major Lobo growled, “We gotta go, we can’t stay!” Missouri stayed, propped against the tree. We put a cigarette in his lips, but his name we would never know.
Walter Fairbanks Grant, too, nourishes the Spanish earth. I put the question to his sister and a neighbor. Walter was born in Ohio in 1908. His grandparents on both sides were rebel Scots, Presbyterians who refused to bend to the will of an English king seeking to impose his religious creed. They chose to brave the Atlantic in a sailboat, the Mayflower, on its second trip in 1636. Their grandsons fought against another English king in 1776 that denied Yankees their human rights. Walter’s two grandfathers fought in the Union Army during the Civil War. Walter’s father turned away from the sword. He became a Congregational minister. Religion dominated the Grant household, imposing very strict inhibitions and discipline.
There was so much for Walter to absorb. In his senior year at high school Walter devoured books at the library, not part of the school’s curriculum. He joined a Sunday evening discussion group. He came to understand that the United States had always been a divided country. Unity remained and remains a hope to be fulfilled. Its greatest patriots, its noblest citizens, were dissidents, independent thinkers, and revolutionaries: Jefferson and Paine, Lincoln and Frederick Douglas, and many more. To quote General Ike, later President Eisenhower, “Americans are born to be rebels.” Walter loved music and constantly listened to his Victrola. His sister recalled that in those days you had to crank the Victrola by hand. Walter was determined to become a concert pianist.
In 1924, the Ku Klux Klan moved its headquarters from southern strongholds to Indiana and enlarged its program. They added to their black victims the foreign born, Catholics and Jews. They grew to four million. On a hot, suffocating August night in 1930, masked hoods marched down the streets of Marion, Ohio. A frightened 16-year-old black lad was pulled from his home and taken to the Grant City jail. Soon three more black youths were dragged in. Early the next morning a mob gathered with robes, shotguns, knives, clubs, rifles, and hatred. Walter was there. He pleaded with neighbors and the town banker to stop the outrage, to no avail. He fell to his knees and pleaded with God, to no avail. The four were beaten and lynched. His sister recalled that Walter didn’t talk for two days. When he spoke he asked where were the thinking people, the caring people, the ministers and priests and Rabbis? Where were the teachers to challenge the bigots? Where was his father who often exchanged pulpits with the black ministers? This lesson helped shape Walter’s understanding of fascism as a society whose ideology promoted irrational forces to challenge the rational forces of democracy. As in the case of the Ku Klux Klan, physical violence and brutality characterized the Hitler/Mussolini/Franco onslaughts.
Later, as editor of Indiana University’s Vanguard, Walter wrote, “I came to realize my regret for being a minister’s son was founded upon valid, substantial reasons, but I did not understand the precise nature of my accusation until I have been in college several years…I learned I could not with justification direct my criticism to my church because intellectual honesty demanded I indict the whole of society of which I and my church were a part.” In an essay, “Minothustus,” subtitled “Youth arrogantly subjects some of the main tenets of religion to an acrid gaze,” Walter argued that if Jesus walked the earth today his doctrine and teachings would be enlarged to meet the advanced understanding of the time. He insisted that “If you make no contribution, you had better leave this life at once for you burden the world with your presence…I council you to love, be happy and worthwhile.”
Walter opposed the military on campuses of higher learning. Fellow students noted his passionate quest for intellectual awareness. One student wrote: “Walter is a true intellectual. He has the courage to seek and explore the unknown.” For his part Walter declared, “The spirit of intellectual awareness is Indiana University’s greatest need.” But Indiana’s atmosphere was filled with Robert Ingersoll’s “audacious atheist gospel” that man’s salvation and the path to brotherhood lay in the use of reason. Eugene Victor Debs, the Socialist candidate for president, lived in neighboring Terre Haute. Episcopal Bishop the Right Reverend William Montgomery Brown, from Ohio, wrote a book called Communism and Christianism, with the subtitle “Banish God from the skies and Capitalists from the earth.” Five hundred forty-two socialists held public office: 56 mayors, 305 alderman, 22 police officials, 355 school officials and 4 pound keepers. And Indiana was the home of Robert Owens’s socialist experiment. But the Great Depression decimated Indiana University’s staff, including Associate Professor Grant. He went to work for Anaconda Wire and Copper, but was fired after a year. His sister noted, “It wasn’t that he didn’t get along well with people. He always did that easily. It wasn’t that he didn’t work hard. He could always do that easily. It was just that he became a union organizer.”
Walter joined the heavily traveled road to New York. Long breadlines filled the streets. He spent one of his scarce dimes to rent a cubicle for the night at Mills Hotel in the Bowery. In the morning the Salvation Army offered breakfast after an enforced attendance at church service. Luckily he bumped into Heywood Broun, an aficionado of Eugene Victor Debs. Broun put him up for a couple of days. He landed a job with the WPA’s Writers Project at $23.86 a week and participated in sit-down strikes in WPA offices, “even though,” he wrote to his sister Charlotte, “I did sneak out to hear Flagstaff sing at Carnegie Hall last night.” He loved music. He saw mounted police charge gatherings of the jobless in Madison Park. Speakers demanding unemployment insurance were arrested, including Vito Marcantonio, a leftist U.S. Congressman. Walter attended introductory meetings of the Communist Party, where he found “a kind of comradeship that makes swell in man and woman the deepest sense of their own humanism.”
Many Americans were becoming conscious of that ugly thing happening in Italy, Germany, and Spain, and to some extent here at home. Hitler was burning books. Mussolini was casto-oiling Italians and sending spear-carrying Ethiopians to Kingdom Come. Toto was raping China. Dolfuss usurped Austria. There was Horthy in Hungary, Pilsudski in Poland, Metaxas in Greece, Salazar in Portugal, the Cagoulards and the Croix De Fe in the streets of Paris, Mosley’s Black Shirts in London and their counterparts in Belgium. The very thing happening over there had reached our shores too. Father Coughlin in Detroit screamed his anti-Semitic and anti-democratic messages to millions, Pelley’s Silver Shirts in St. Louis and the fascist Black Legion in Michigan, Fritz Kuhn and his Nazi Bund, Reverend Winthrop in Kansas aping them all; and there were the Liberty League and the American Firsters. General Smedley Butler testified in Congress that he was urged to lead a fascist coup. In the South, 32 pieces of strange fruit hung from Magnolia trees. But handing over everything was: SIEG HEIL AND ARRIBA ESPANIA.
In his next letter to his sister, Walter wrote, “The front line trenches are now in Spain, so cheerio, I’m off to the wars! You know how I feel about the importance of democratic freedom. The Spanish People’s Republic needs help, badly. Their struggle, if they fail, will certainly be ours tomorrow; and believing as I do, it seems clear where my duty lies.” From Spain he wrote: “Essentially the conflict is the problem of land, of the peasant and the landowner, the oldest story in history. The pattern is always the same, only the name of the oppressor changes. There would be a Roman peace of sorts if the peasants would consent to remain serfs, if they would forget about justice. But they can’t forget, and as so often in history, the dispossessed peasant takes a rifle in hand and fights for what’s his. At the moment the Spanish people are proving that flesh and spirit are stronger than steel and fire.”
Like Garcia Lorca, Walter foretold his end and so closed the letter with a poem—“I want to share these thoughts with you.”
When I am dead, think it no wrong
I’ve spun my thread, I’ve sung my song.
When I am dead, let there not be
Any tears shed by you for me.
Forty-three years later his sister, recalling Walter’s love for music, presented the Reston Unitarian Universality church with an Allen organ in his memory. At the memorial meeting the Reverend John Wells spoke. “Walter was filled with grace. He sought to bring harmony out of chaos, to live a life of love in a land of hate. The main thing is that Walter Grant lived his ideals. He fought and died for democracy in Spain, setting an example for all of us. He predicted that if the democracies did not support the emerging democracy in Spain, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco would cause a world war. His analysis was accurate.”
Volunteering to go to Spain came from a mixture of selfless idealism, romanticism and historic insight. We came from our big cities: Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis, St. Paul, New York, and Boston; but also from Iron River, Michigan; Corpus Christi, Texas; Rock Island, Illinois; Buring, Wisconsin; Annadale, Minnesota. We were from every state except Wyoming and Delaware. Spain became the political and moral crisis which forged the destinies of our generation. We came from every social strata of our diverse country—each of us moved by whatever our own traditions and backgrounds, all of us illuminated by the need to find a better way.
This year I will celebrate by 88th birthday. Some say memory loss comes with old age. What have I forgotten? What do I remember? What have I learned that is worth passing on? In my long life I have tried to affirm the truth of Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’s dictum, “As life is action and passion, it is required of a person that he or she should share the actions and passions of their time at peril of being judged not to have lived.” Every generation, I believe, must choose between the culture of the past and the culture of the new: Galileo challenged the authoritarian church, human rights replaced the divine right of kings. The crucial debate of the 1930s pitted democracy and change against dictatorial lies, violence, and demagoguery. Is that democratic spirit alive today?
Three years ago the Spanish Cortes voted unanimously to offer citizenship to living International Brigade veterans. It was a fulfillment of a promise made in 1938 after the British sellout at Munich, a deathblow to Republican Spain. Negin, in a last-ditch effort, decided to send Internationals out of Spain hoping for reciprocal action with the Italians and Portuguese. The remnants of the International Brigades marched down the Gran Via in Barcelona to the applause and cheers of thousands. “La Passionara” bid an emotional farewell, “We shall not forget you! When the olive tree of peace puts forth its leaves again, mingled with the laurels of the Spanish Republic’s victory, COME BACK!”
Three years ago we went back. Seventy Americans, some with canes and crutches, some in wheel chairs, plus children, grandchildren, relatives, and friends. Three hundred surviving vets came from 29 other countries in Europe and other continents. On the plane I relived sensations for so long not remembered that it seemed they belonged to a stranger. Who of us who were there can forget the Spanish conflict? It reached deeply into our hearts. It nurtured our minds.
The excitement of our return continues to flood my being. Huge crowds in the thousands filled Madrid and Barcelona sports arenas—cheering, singing, shouting “No Pasaran.” Day after day there were city and town and village receptions. We passed through gauntlets of applauding and saluting enthusiasts. They pushed through the lines to shake hands. They tore away mementos pinned to their breasts and pinned them on us. We were hugged and kissed on both cheeks. We laughed and cried together. Every day was like Times Square on V Day. We were dined and wined. A specially prepared concert with dance and song, flamenco and poetry was presented. I have not yet found words to describe the special flavor of Bilbao and Guernica. We relived the warmth of camaraderie. We again knew in our hearts the true meaning of peace. The cause of the Spanish Democratic Republic was in great measure the cause of all mankind.
The pity of ongoing wars mocks out failure to achieve global peace. Our generation saved civilization from 100 years of Fascist domination. We promised future generations the century of the common man. But we are delivering a heritage of nuclear bombs, diminishing finite resources, pollution, ideas and tools for children to kill children. So our story is not yet done. Our old struggle against injustice still reverberates. Our numbers have dwindled but not our spirits. Despite some disillusionment we are still engaged in the struggle for that better world we continue to envision. Our beliefs continue to be an all embracing humanism growing out of the Enlightenment, growing out of the American, French, and Latin American revolutionary ideals of true participatory democracy.
We continue to look through the window of Spain’s good fight and we see what life can be. A vision of the cooperative future gave Spain its quality, camaraderie, creativity, and dedication. At the heart of it all is the dream of a good life, for a good-natured society where girls and boys can work and play and laugh in friendship.
Our generation’s task was to stop fascism. Today we are called on to join with younger generations to stop the disaster looming on the horizon. We bring a special message. We failed in Spain but there was backup with the allied armies who eventually triumphed. Our only hope today is to develop a cooperative popular effort in time to avert the threatening ecological disaster. There is no backup.
There is another Delaware to cross, another frontier to pioneer, a new world to create out of the agony of poverty and the hanging clouds of nuclear holocaust, out of the disillusionment of past promises to make was no more, to create again a marching song to the tune of Walt Whitman’s “Songs of Democracy,” Martin Luther King’s dream, Mark Twain’s essays, and Lincoln’s words—to create a new birth of freedom.
And so, in closing, I say that even though there are many reasons for us to be short-term pessimists, we need to remain optimists who take the long view expressed by poet Genevieve Taggard:
Never heard happier laughter.
Where did you hear it?
Somewhere in the future.
Very far in future?
Oh no. It was natural. It sounded
Just like our own, American, sweet and easy.
People were talking together.
They sat on the ground.
It was summer
And the old told stories of struggle.
The young listened.
I overheard our own story, retold.
They looked up at the stars
hearing the serious words.
They loved us who had passed away.
They forgot all our errors.
Our names were mixed.
They story was long.
The young people danced.
They brought down new boughs for the flame.
They said, Go on with the story now.
What happened next?
For us there was silence.
Something like pain or tears.
But they took us with them.
Their laughter was peace.
I never heard happier.
Their children large and beautiful.
Like us but new-born.
This was the mountains of the west.
They were resting. They knew each other well.
The trees and rivers are on the map, but the
time is not yet.
I listened again.
Their talk was ours.
With many favorite words.
I heard us all speaking.
But they spoke of better things, soberly.
They were wise and learned.
They sang not only of us.
They remembered thousands, and many countries, far away.
One poet who sat there with them began to
talk of the future.
Then they were silent again,
And they looked at the sky,
And then in the light of the stars they banked
their fire as we do.
Scuffing the ground, and said good night.