You turn to us for voices you won't hear anywhere else.

Sign up for Democracy Now!'s Daily Digest to get our latest headlines and stories delivered to your inbox every day.

Fighting Fascism: The Americans–Women and Men–Who Fought in the Spanish Civil War

Media Options

In July 1936, right-wing military officers led by fascist General Franco attempted to overthrow the newly elected democratic government of Spain. Hitler and Mussolini quickly joined in support of Franco. In response, nearly 3,000 Americans defied the U.S. government to volunteer to fight in the Spanish Civil War, calling themselves the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. We speak with two surviving veterans, Moe Fishman and Clarence Kailin. We also play excepts from the documentary “Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War” and speak with filmmaker Julia Newman. [includes rush transcript]

Related Story

Web ExclusiveSep 08, 2020Spain Honors Filmmaker Isabel Coixet with National Cinematography Prize
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: “No man ever entered the earth more honorably than those who died in Spain.” Those are the words of Ernest Hemingway. He was referring to the Americans who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War, the first major battle against fascism.

In July 1936, right-wing military officers led by General Franco attempted to overthrow the newly elected democratic government of Spain. Hitler and Mussolini quickly joined in support of Franco. The Spanish Civil War lasted until 1939. Half a million people are believed to have died on all sides.

Yesterday in New York, hundreds gathered to honor an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York called “Facing Fascism.” Among those there was Julia Newman, who made the film Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War. The film begins with Martha Gellhorn, a world-renowned war correspondent. She was the [third] wife of Ernest Hemingway.

MARTHA GELLHORN: I was in Germany in 1936 and could not avoid seeing these headlines about the “red swine dogs” in Spain. I had been in Spain, but I knew nothing about what had happened, that the king had gone, that there was a republic, but all I needed was to read in a German paper that it was the red swine dogs to know whose side I was on: theirs.

VIRGINIA COWLES: “In spite of numerous and conflicting political terms used to classify the Spanish conflict, the fundamental issue lies neither between republicanism and fascism nor between communism and monarchism. Mainly and simply it is a war between the proletariat and the upper classes.”

MARTHA GELLHORN: The Spanish called it la Causa, the cause, and it was the cause. It was the place where, of course, the Second World War could have been stopped, because it was a tryout for both Hitler and Mussolini.

RUTH DAVIDOW: By non-intervention, we were actually helping the fascists, because they were getting materials from everywhere. Everybody knew that. And to me, we didn’t really believe in our democracy. It really shattered me. So I made that decision almost overnight.

AMY GOODMAN: Ruth Davidow, one of the nearly 80 American women who fought in the Spanish Civil War. They joined over 2,700 of their countrymen here in the United States, in defiance of the U.S. government, to volunteer for what was known as “the Good Fight.” The Americans who fought fascism in Spain called themselves the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. That clip was from an excerpt of Into the Fire, that began with the third wife of Ernest Hemingway, the premier war correspondent Martha Gellhorn.

Julia Newman is the producer and director of that film, joining us in the studio today. Explain the significance of these women joining U.S. men in going to fight for Spain, why you did this documentary.

JULIA NEWMAN: They were extraordinary people, but they were ordinary people who had found their way to a cause that caught their heart. And this is part of my own background. My parents were supporters of the republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and they had friends who fought and died in Spain. And I realized that I knew nothing about the fact that there were 80 women who had gone to Spain as volunteers to serve, primarily as medicals, in support of the international brigades. And I wanted that history to be known.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who Martha Gellhorn was.

JULIA NEWMAN: Martha Gellhorn was a writer and correspondent and a novelist who was quite well known in this country for a book she had written about the sufferings of the Americans under the Depression called The Trouble I’ve Seen. And Spain was her first foreign war, her first war of any kind, and she went there to see what was happening to the Spaniards in that war. She went there with Hemingway. Actually, she followed him there. They had agreed to go together. And she began reporting from the fronts. She had never been a war correspondent before and was very caught up in the cause.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go now to another clip of the film. The most famous attack in the Spanish Civil War came in 1937, almost 70 years ago to the day in the town of Guernica. At 4:40 p.m. on the 26th of April, 1937, German and Italian war planes carpet-bombed the Basque town. Three-quarters of Guernica was destroyed, and as many as 1,600 civilians were killed. The attack was immortalized in Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, one of the most iconic paintings of the 20th century. Franco claimed the attack on Guernica never took place and was, in fact, republican propaganda. This is how Virginia Cowles, a correspondent for The New York Times, described the incident. Her words are read by an actor.

VIRGINIA COWLES: “Dictators will keep agreements only as long as they are profitable. They will maintain order only as long as might forces them to. They will talk peace only until the day when they think they can make a war and win it.

“When I arrived, a press officer asked if I had been subjected to the Guernica propaganda, declaring that everyone knew that Guernica was not bombed by the whites, but burned by the reds.

“Guernica was a lonely chaos of timber and brick. One old man was inside an apartment house that had four sides to it, but an interior that was only a sea of bricks. I asked him if he had been in Guernica during the destruction. He nodded his head and declared that the sky had been black with planes. ’_Aviones_,” he said, 'italianos y alemanes.' The press officer turned pale. 'Guernica was burned,' he contradicted. The old man stuck to his point, insisting that after a four-hour bombardment, there was little left to burn. The press officer moved me away. ’He’s a red,’ he said.

“When later in the day we ran into two staff officers, he brought the subject up. 'Guernica is full of reds,' he said. 'They all try to tell us it was bombed, not burned.' 'Of course, it was bombed,' said one of the officers. 'We bombed it and bombed it and bombed it. And bueno, why not?' The press officer never mentioned Guernica again.”

AMY GOODMAN: Virginia Cowles, she was writing for The New York Times. This, from the film Into the Fire. Julia Newman, the significance of what was being said at the time?

JULIA NEWMAN: Well, Virginia Cowles got to Guernica right after the bombing and was shown around Guernica by a press agent, and Franco was putting out propaganda that said that anarchists had burned, had set fire to the city and that the Italians and the Germans had nothing to do with the destruction of the city. And Virginia Cowles got there and put the lie to that. She said what she saw, and what she saw was that the town had been just destroyed by German aircraft, primarily. And it was a revelation.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting that recently in The New York Times, in reference to the exhibit, “Facing Fascism,” that they put the term “international fascism” in quotes, when you have here Virginia Cowles so powerful in describing fascism.

JULIA NEWMAN: It’s a bizarre thing to do all these years later, to say that international fascism is something that you would even begin to put in quotes. It was very real, and for a lot of people it continues to be that.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, the Guernica, the famous painting by Pablo Picasso, is also in reproduction in a tapestry at the United Nations. And listeners and viewers may remember right before the invasion of Iraq, when Colin Powell came to the United Nations to push for war, February 5, 2003, the tapestry of Guernica was shrouded so that that famous image of war, Picasso’s antiwar painting, would not be the backdrop of the news conferences of the U.S. officials. When we come back, we’ll be joined by two survivors of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.


AMY GOODMAN: Paul Robeson singing “Freedom,” the great singer Paul Robeson, a great supporter of the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and those who went to fight in Spain, on this 71st anniversary of the beginning of that war, the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Guernica. This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

I want to turn to the words of one of the surviving veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: Clarence Kailin. He’s 92 now. I interviewed Clarence a month ago at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, Wisconsin.

AMY GOODMAN: Are you a pacifist?


AMY GOODMAN: But you fought in the Spanish Civil War?

CLARENCE KAILIN: Yeah. Well, that takes a bit of an explanation, that we were fighting against fascism. And we were political enough to understand that, so it wasn’t for an adventure, and it wasn’t for money. It was fighting against Italy and Italian fascism and German Nazism, is what it was about. And we felt that if we lost the war, that World War II was pretty much inevitable, which is what happened. And it happened because Britain and France and the United States refused to give us any help at all. And so, we fought barehanded at times.

AMY GOODMAN: Why didn’t the U.S. intervene? And why did you go over as an American citizen without your government?

CLARENCE KAILIN: Well, yeah, our passports were stamped “not valid for travel in Spain,” so we had to go quietly, not tell people we were going. And we went because we understood what was happening over there, that Germany and Italy were both invading Spain and — two fascist countries — and so we went to stop fascism. This is what it was about.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you go with anyone you knew?

CLARENCE KAILIN: Yes, I did. I went with — there were six of us — two from Madison, two of us, and four from Milwaukee. And we went together.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you come back together?

CLARENCE KAILIN: No. I came back alone. It was sad, because I lost my best friend, who was a very famous scientist, even at a young age. And he was killed right at the end of the fighting. It was a very — it was a great shock to everybody.

AMY GOODMAN: You were injured also?

CLARENCE KAILIN: Yeah. I had a machine-gun bullet in my right elbow.

AMY GOODMAN: In the same fight where you lost your friend?

CLARENCE KAILIN: No. He died later on, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: What was his name?

CLARENCE KAILIN: John Cookson. Yeah, well, I wrote a book about him. And, well, his story is in there.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s the book called?

CLARENCE KAILIN: It’s called Remembering John Cookson, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: How old was he when he died?


AMY GOODMAN: How old was he when he died?

CLARENCE KAILIN: Oh, about 24. And the Spanish people felt that this book was so important that it was translated into Spanish, and they published it there, a Spanish edition. So I was happy with that.

AMY GOODMAN: When you came back to the United States, how were you received here?

CLARENCE KAILIN: Well, that depends. Coolly in many areas and, you know, our friends were very supportive. It was nice, but difficult.

AMY GOODMAN: Why coolly, and by who?

CLARENCE KAILIN: Well, you know, there was so much propaganda against us. And, well, that’s how public opinion was affected, you know? Although during the war, I think that about two-thirds of the public was supportive of what we were doing there. Yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Why was it called the Abraham Lincoln Brigade?

CLARENCE KAILIN: Well, I guess they thought — the people who named it, I think they thought Lincoln was one of the great leaders, one of the best presidents we’ve had. And I agree with that.

AMY GOODMAN: Clarence Kailin, he’s 92. He’s a survivor of the Spanish Civil War. I spoke to him in Madison, Wisconsin, though he was here in New York for the major event yesterday honoring those who fought in the Spanish Civil War. It happened at the City University of New York in the Museo del Barrio. And in a moment we’re going to be going to Harry Belafonte, who spoke there, but right now, one of those who attended is another Abraham Lincoln Brigade survivor: Moe Fishman, executive secretary of Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, joining us in the firehouse studio. Welcome.

MOE FISHMAN: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, Moe. Talk about that time 71 years ago, the significance of the Spanish Civil War and how it relates to World War II. Do you think World War II would have happened if the outcome in the Spanish Civil War had been different?

MOE FISHMAN: I say no, and I’m reinforced by the fact that all of the Lincoln Brigade veterans felt the same way and all of the International Brigade felt the same way. The International Brigade, of which we were a part, consisted of about 40,000 to 45,000 volunteers from 52 countries who came to the aid of the Spanish Republic, and I want to emphasize “came to the aid of.” It was the Spanish Republic and their people who fought this war and deserve the major credit for the big fight that they put up, which gave the democracies a two-and-a-half-year window of opportunity to change from a policy of appeasing fascism, led by Chamberlain of Britain and subscribed to by Roosevelt, to one of actively fighting fascism. If they had actively fought fascism in 1936-1939, we would have stopped Hitler, and there would have been no World War II.

AMY GOODMAN: How would you have stopped Hitler? This was Spain. This was Franco. How would you have stopped Hitler?

MOE FISHMAN: Well, Hitler had been appeased by — they permitted him to re-arm Germany, and it was done with the finances of both Britain and the United States, the financiers — financed it on credit — that permitted Hitler to march into Austria. And then Spain came along, and they were letting him do as he felt in Spain with this policy of appeasement. If they had turned to fighting fascism and opposing what he was doing, Hitler would not have attempted a two-front war, which he was trying like mad to avoid. He would not have been armed as much as he became armed, when he conquered one country after another and built a war machine that almost succeeded in conquering the world. And he would have been stopped if there had been a conflict, and there might have been. He might have been rash enough to start something there. He would have had a two-front war to confront, and it would have been a minor kind of war. It would not have been World War II, where fascism almost won—and 60 million dead and destruction beyond compare. And, no, there would have been no Holocaust, if Hitler had been stopped in Spain in 1936-39.

AMY GOODMAN: Moe Fishman, I want to turn to another excerpt of the film Into the Fire. This clip begins with a narrator reading the words of Eleanor Roosevelt and ends with the words of Ernest Hemingway.

ELEANOR ROOSEVELT: “Three very interesting people came to dine with us last night: Ms. Martha Gellhorn, Mr. Ernest Hemingway, both writers, and Mr. Joris Ivens, a [inaudible] maker of films. After dinner, the two men showed us a film which they made. The profits are going into the purchase of ambulances to help the sick and dying in a part of the world which is at present war-torn.”

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: The men, who never fought before, who were not trained in arms, who only wanted work and food, fight on.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the voice of Ernest Hemingway in this film called The Spanish Earth. But Roosevelt would not arm the Spanish government.

MOE FISHMAN: He joined in the Non-Intervention Committee. He didn’t join the committee, but he agreed with them, and he enforced an embargo in the United States which called for no arms being sold to the republic. Let me remind you, the republic didn’t want volunteers. The republic didn’t want anybody to join them. All they asked for is what was happening normally in the world at that time, where a democracy could just buy arms for money from another democracy. And this Non-Intervention Committee, formed by Chamberlain, agreed to by Roosevelt, so Roosevelt has an embargo and will not sell arms to Spain, will not sell them any trucks, and so on and so forth. And this — if they had simply sold the arms, the Spanish Republic would have beaten the fascists.

AMY GOODMAN: Julia Newman, Eleanor Roosevelt disagreed with her husband. Eleanor Roosevelt was a close friend of Martha Gellhorn, the war correspondent.

JULIA NEWMAN: Yes. She did everything she could to help convince FDR to go against the embargo. Ultimately, he was too politically frightened — I guess isn’t too strong a word. He was a consummate politician, and he did not want to alienate what he saw as a collection of powerful lobbies in this country who were primarily Catholic, but who were pro-Franco. There was a strong movement here that was pro-Franco, along with the fact that most Americans were not.

AMY GOODMAN: Led by a powerful radio talk show host.

JULIA NEWMAN: Named Father Coughlin, yes. Father Coughlin was the radio priest, and he was quite rabid in rallying his listenership to Franco, to the right.

AMY GOODMAN: Moe Fishman, you are 91 years old right now. You fought in the Spanish —

MOE FISHMAN: A young 91.

AMY GOODMAN: Very young. You fought in the Spanish Civil War.


AMY GOODMAN: When you came back, it was World War II, yet many of you were vilified. The FBI called you “premature antifascists”?


AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean?

MOE FISHMAN: It means that you understood fascism before everybody else. They tried to make it a nasty word. For, unfortunately, most American historians, World War — fascism, the fight against fascism in the United States doesn’t begin — World War II doesn’t begin until Pearl Harbor. This way, they avoid dealing with the Spanish Civil War, dealing with the fact that Roosevelt, president of the United States, was wrong on this question, that World War II could have been prevented. He could have been one to do it. And secondly, we were dubbed “reds.” It’s not true that all who fought against fascism were reds then, were reds while the fight was going on in World War II, and are reds today.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of that, I want to turn to another clip of Into the Fire: the women who fought. Into the Fire includes the voices of many American women who volunteered for the Spanish Civil War. Decades later, they described why they joined.

EVELYN HUTCHINS: I couldn’t be a nurse. I wasn’t a nurse. I couldn’t be a doctor, because I wasn’t a doctor. And I wanted to go. And I was doing a lot of driving. I helped to collect clothes and to advertise what was happening in Spain. And that’s what gave me the idea in the first place. If I could do that here, I could do it in Spain just as well. And that would replace some man who would then be able to do what I really wanted to do, which is go up front.

HELEN FREEMAN: I met some friends and went to a meeting. And the meeting was called to aid Spanish democracy. All the different unions were supporting the group. They asked for nurses and doctors and volunteers to go to Spain. And so, I volunteered. They called us in and started organizing the trip. Meeting with the different people who were going, like Fredericka Martin, Lini DeVries, and my friend Anne Taft, who was graduated from the same school that I did. People had to resign from their jobs. Most of us were young nurses. And so, that’s why they had meetings to teach the young people what to expect when they get over there. How are you going to cope under these difficult situations? Can they do a good job while they leave responsibilities at home? Anyway, January 16, 1937, we left for Spain.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I think, basically, it was because I was a nurse that I was very upset about the kind of things that were happening, not only to Jews in Germany, people in Spain and people in Ethiopia. And, you know, for a while, I thought this had nothing to do with us, that these people had to fight their own battles. I was against another world war. I was sort of an isolationist without thinking about it. But as things got worse, and when they went into a country that just had democratically elected a new government, and our own government, which said they were democratic and believe in elections, put an embargo on them. I was terribly upset.

SALARIA KEA: I was not a political person, because you shifted too much.

See, I didn’t know about fascism. Here’s the thing that brought everything to me. It was the way Germany was treating the Jews. I never really thought that white people do against white people, because we don’t look at you as French or Italian. You’re white. I have met a lot of Jewish people who had left Germany, and they told us about what Hitler was doing to them. It was like the Ku Klux Klan. So now, we’re matching what is happening in Germany to the Jews to us here in the United States. So I went downtown to this meeting, and the meeting was all these people from foreign countries, and they said to me that they hoped to go to work with the republican side. So they said, “Would you like to go with us?” I said yes. The next thing I knew, I was accepted to go to Spain.

CELIA GREENSPAN: Personally, I went because my husband was there, and I got to Madrid early in October. And I felt I had a skill and I could work there, I could do or contribute to the fight against fascism that we knew was taking place.

ESTHER SILVERSTEIN: Oh, it was all around me, from the time the war started. By that time, I wasn’t exactly politicized, but I was certainly aware. And I was in the United States Public Health Service, the Marine hospital that took care of the various trade unions from the waterfront early in 1937. I volunteered to the Spanish War Relief Organization. I had to pass an examination. And they wanted to be sure that they weren’t sending out an adventurist. I was sort of overweight, and I wore glasses. I wore my hair in a bun. And it’s hardly likely I would look like an adventurist, but just the same. And they all passed me, and I went on to New York and joined up with a group of people from Chicago and here and there.

IRENE GOLDIN: Somebody mentioned that nurses were needed in Spain, and I decided I would apply. And I was accepted immediately, and I was to leave in one month. There was one question that asked, “Why do you want to go to Spain?” And I all I wrote was: “To fight against fascism.” And I was accepted.

AMY GOODMAN: The voices of women. Almost 80 fought or went to Spain to participate in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. Moe Fishman, we heard an African-American nurse describing her experience. What about the forces, the veterans being integrated, those who fought, the volunteers?

MOE FISHMAN: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was the first American military unit that was completely integrated. We had officers, we had ordinary soldiers, sergeants, etc. It didn’t happen in World War II, where the black brothers from the United States fought so valiantly with white officers, and it didn’t happen until Truman in 1948 integrated the United States Army by an official decree. He didn’t dare go to Congress to do it.

I want to make one more point. Fascism, the word has been bandied about a lot, and I want people to remember that it is not just the racist aspect of fascism. If you want to understand fascism, it is the negation of everything that is democratic. It makes it impossible to have a trade union, a neighborhood organization, to fight for civil liberties. It is a system that is terrible.

And in conclusion, I would like to tell you that there is a monument that we’re very proud of that’s going up in the San Francisco on the Embarcadero, and if you would like to send some funds, get on your computer and contact And thank you. We’d appreciate any contribution you make.

AMY GOODMAN: Dot-org, is that?

MOE FISHMAN: Yes, dot-org.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much, Moe Fishman, executive secretary of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, and Julia Newman, who directed and produced Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War. When we come back, Harry Belafonte, he honored the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade here in New York yesterday.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

Harry Belafonte Pays Tribute to U.S. Vets Who Fought Fascism in Spain: Abraham Lincoln Brigade “Represents an Important Part of the American Soul”

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.
Make a donation