James Walker Benét (1914-2012)
Jim Benét, lifelong journalist and veteran of the American Regiment de Tren (Transport) in the International Brigades, died in December near his home in northern California of a blood infection. He was 98.
Born in New York to a literary family on both sides—his father was William Rose Benét, a poet; his uncle, Stephen Vincent Benét was a famous author, and his mother was the sister of novelists Kathleen Norris and Frank Norris—Jim was raised in California following the death of his mother during the flu epidemic of 1919. “I think I resented the world for having taken my mother away from me,” he told me in an interview. But he expressed pleasure at having turned his resentment in the right direction—“the ills of society”—when he adopted radical political views during the 1930s.
A graduate of Stanford University in 1935, he went east to forge a career in journalism, writing regularly for The New Republic. As a reporter, he covered a major fundraising rally to aid the Spanish Republic in Madison Square Garden in 1936. Sympathetic to the Republican side, Jim and his cousin, Dave Thompson, agreed to enlist in the International Brigades together in 1937. Both ultimately served as truck drivers and saw action in several battles.
After the war, Benét resumed journalism, but expressed uneasiness as the world lurched toward a second world war. “You can be afraid to come home,” he wrote, “and we were afraid, that the folks wouldn’t understand, that we had changed too much or they had, that Hitler and Mussolini had fooled them, that Chamberlain had fooled them, that maybe they just wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t be fighting the way the Spanish do.”
After World War II began, Jim worked as a reporter for the Soviet news agency Tass in New York. He was also one of the core interviewees for sociologist John Dollard’s study, Fear in Battle¸ which relied on veterans of the Spanish Civil War to create a template for morale education in the U.S. Army.
Jim returned to California in 1947, joining the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle. He also published two mystery novels. But his left background caught up with him when the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed him in 1960. Benét refused to cooperate and managed to avoid any punishment when his newspaper’s management defended his position. He later helped organize the Chronicle’s news staff into the Guild union and participated in a major strike in the late 1960s.
With newspapers shut, Benét became a contributor on local public television and later became a commentator on the station’s award-winning Newsroom program. He also joined the journalism department at San Francisco State University. “He was one of gentlest and most courageous people I have ever known,” remarked Betty Medsger, one of his teaching colleagues, “he influenced hundreds of future journalists.” After he retired, Jim was a regular contributor to the Chronicle section on gardening, a hobby that absorbed his retirement.
“Spain made a man of me,” Benét told reporter Nadya Williams two years ago. “Going to Spain was the right thing to do. You couldn’t have a better beginning in life! We thought then, and I know now, the civil war was a genuine attempt by the Spanish people to defend democracy against the tyrannical and inhuman regimes of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini.”