Book Review: Spain & the US Home Front
As readers of The Volunteer know, the body of works devoted to the history of the Spanish Civil War in general and on U.S. participation in particular is considerable. Not much, however, is known about the relief activities conducted in the United States in support of the embattled Spanish Republic. American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War rectifies this omission by providing an account of how groups and organizations from disparate backgrounds and persuasions expressed their material and political support for antifascist forces in Spain.
The Spanish Civil War was not the first time the United States had supplied humanitarian relief aid in times of conflict. During World War I, various organizations provided supplies for millions of starving Europeans and, after the end of hostilities, assistance in reconstruction. While these efforts relied on voluntary support, they also depended on public funds and benefited from the official endorsement of the government. In contrast, during the Spanish Civil War, all humanitarian relief effort was based on private donations and received no official sanction.
Relief activities began immediately following the rebellion by the Spanish army on July 18, 1936 and, building on the earlier “Hands Off Ethiopia” campaign against Fascist Italy’s invasion of the African nation, raised funds for clothing, food, and medical supplies. American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War provides a detailed description of the many forms in which Americans expressed their support for Spanish loyalists. Spanish mutual aid societies across the nation were the first to rally in support of the Republic. With backing from the local Spanish, Cuban and Italian immigrant population, the Tampa Committee for the Defense of the Spanish People’s Front stands out as the country’s most successful ethnic-based fundraising efforts.
Radical groups and organizations also engaged in their own separate relief activities. Anarchists, in spite of their shrinking numbers, mounted campaigns in support of their embattled Spanish comrades. By contrast, the various factions of the Socialist party—which ranged from traditional pacifist, to social-democratic and militant revolutionary—could not agree on a common course in relationship to events in Spain. While some called for no action, others pressed for support of the dissident communist Workers Party of Marxist Unity (POUM) in Catalonia. Much more successful were the efforts of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers, which raised thousands of dollars for medical supplies and clothing.
American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War focuses mainly on the activities of the Communist party (CPUSA) as the organization most actively involved in support of the Spanish loyalists. Within the broader context of the Popular Front policy, Communists viewed the struggle of the Spanish Republic against enemies supported by Hitler and Mussolini as concrete proof of the global threat of fascism and, as a result, of the need to defend democratic institutions. For this reason, in addition to its essential role in the recruitment of volunteers for the International Brigades, the CPUSA played a central role in the founding of the North American Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, the most important and largest organization in support of democratic Spain. Founded in the fall of 1936, the Committee acted as an umbrella organization for scores of professional groups such as the Medical Bureau, the Musicians, the Lawyers and the Social Workers Committees whose efforts were directed at mobilizing specific constituencies in support of Spanish democracy. In addition, the Committee also provided a platform for growing numbers of politically active liberals, religious leaders, and non-communist left-wingers like Roger Baldwin, Fiorello La Guardia, and even Eleanor Roosevelt, to voice their concerns over the global threat to democratic institutions.
Throughout the war the North American Committee organized neighborhood parties, propaganda tours by returning volunteers, benefit concerts, and film screenings. It also sponsored refugee children and sporting events between female and male teams representing a variety of unions. While dockworkers refused to handle military cargo and supplies bound for Franco’s forces, hundreds of volunteers took to the streets with collection cans to raise money to buy ambulances for Republican forces or canvassed local stores for food, medical supplies and clothing. All items collected were shipped to Spain on several well-publicized relief ships. Fund raising events took place in cities and communities across the country and were held anywhere from living rooms, union halls, and campus facilities to neighborhood backyards and mansions attracting audiences from common workers to movie stars and upper class patrons.
American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War argues that behind the efforts to provide medical and humanitarian aid there was a broader campaign directed at pressuring Congress to lift the arms embargo and allow the beleaguered Republic to defend itself. In the end, the unwillingness of western democracies to stand up to Fascist aggression doomed the Spanish Republic. Even in defeat, U.S. relief activities continued. Lobbying efforts were now directed toward pressuring the president to provide aid and refuge to the hundreds of thousands fleeing the onslaught of Franco’s troops.
American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War views the movement to send relief aid to the embattled Spanish Republic as the most visible expression of antifascist challenge to U.S. isolationism during the period leading up to World War II. While in the end, the Spanish aid movement failed to arouse the nation’s public opinion to the danger of fascism and to prevent Franco’s victory, nonetheless it played an important role in the process that would eventually transform public apathy over the global fascist threat into support for collective security. As a result, the book provides fresh insight into national attitudes toward foreign affairs in the 1930s.
Fraser Ottanelli is Vice Chair of ALBA and Chair of the History Department at the University of South Florida in Tampa.