American Relief Aid and the Spanish Civil War tells the story of the political campaigns to raise aid for the Spanish Republic as activists pushed the limits of isolationist thinking. Those concerned with Spain’s fate held a range of political convictions (including anarchists, socialists, liberals, and communists) with very different understandings of what fascism was. Yet they all agreed that fascism’s advance must be halted. With labor strikes, fund-raising parties, and ambulance tours, defenders of Spain in the United States sought to shift the political discussion away from isolation of Spain’s elected government and toward active assistance for the faltering Republic.
In the spring of 1937, Daniel Saidenberg, first cellist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, conducted twelve musicians in an impromptu performance on Chicago’s North Shore at the estate of the late Julius Rosenwald. The event brought out some of the region’s most privileged citizens. One of the event organizers commented: “We are still trying to figure out just what caused the excitement. People were scrambling for tickets and we succeeded in getting 783 in that yard.” The excitement in question was stirred by a benefit concert for the Spanish Republic sponsored by the North Shore Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. It was a cultural event repeated in various forms across the United States in the second half of the 1930s by activist intellectuals, union members, artists, and musicians of every variety—the cross-section of the Spanish Republic’s American advocates was wide.
Despite persistent interest in the war itself and its international volunteers, little is known about the international movement to aid the Spanish Republic. The story of the International Brigades and the nearly 2,800 Americans who volunteered to fight fascism in Spain is well known, and scholarship on the four brigades has bolstered the enduring image of the Spanish Civil War as an exemplar of the various forces in conflict during the Great Depression and as a precursor to World War II. About one-third of these international volunteers died in action; nearly half were injured. Yet as historian Daniel Kowalsky has commented in his research on the Soviet Union’s involvement in Spain, “The subject of solidarity and relief aid . . . has received scant attention in Western secondary literature.” On the British side the subject has garnered scholarly attention, but the literature on Americans’ Spanish Republican aid has remained a subject mentioned only in passing. Allen Guttmann’s oft-cited study of Americans’ reactions to the war, The Wound in the Heart, offers an intellectual history of American thinking about the Spanish conflict, but nonetheless fails to explain what actions Americans undertook. This oversight by historians obscures the centrality of the Spanish Republic for many Americans amid the emerging international crisis. The war, as Dominic Tierney recently pointed out, was not only the major international conflict in the interwar period, “it altered the course of European and therefore world politics.” Americans’ responses to these events and their involvement in Spanish Republican aid reveals an underside to isolationism in that period, the development of postwar internationalism, and what it meant to be anti-fascist.
The primary political device for antifascists was the Popular Front, a critical feature of this period that assumed different forms. Its main characteristic was cooperation between communists and others as revolutionary rhetoric was tempered to make a common cause against fascist gains. In Spain, this Popular Front consisted of a coalition of antifascist parties with a vast majority of Socialists and three communist ministers constituting the government elected in February 1936. In the United States, this coalition was more informal than elsewhere but with the ever-present communists serving as a conduit and as its most active organizers. While antifascist cooperation among different political persuasions was not new when it was made official by the Communist Party in 1935, it did expand its reach afterward.
As international events unfolded in the 1930s, Spain served as a symbol. Fears of fascism’s growing strength and its support for the coup against the Popular Front government butted up against appeasement, isolationism in its American form. Among western governments, the July 1936 coup by half of the Spanish military against a democratically elected Popular Front government provoked concerns for the Republic’s survival. The international community of nations responded to these developments with combined horror and disbelief, mingled with apathy—at times hostility. That hostility was typically directed toward the Popular Front government rather than the insurgents. Although President Roosevelt tilted left- ward on a number of political issues, Republican Spain’s cause was one on which he had not yet forged an alliance with the left. Any possible step in that direction the president might have intended to take was headed off by resistance to Spanish aid by that segment of the political right backing Franco, which found allies to conduct grassroots operations against the Republic’s supporters. Isolationism and anticommunism emerged as strong forces obstructing the path of antifascism. At the same time, many citizens in the international community expressed a notable sympathy to the Republic, and by no means were these exclusively those on the political left. In the United States, the movement to send humanitarian relief to Spain’s embattled Second Republic represented the most visible manifestation of the Popular Front’s antifascism and illustrated a growing reconsideration of isolation as it was then understood. This activity promoted an involvement in foreign affairs while making concessions to the isolationist disposition, yet this relief work failed to shake the cultural foundations of diplomatic disengagement or even fully to arouse American opinion on the growing crisis.
Still, the aid movement fostered antifascism’s popularity and its growth. It provoked an outpouring of collective concern like no other foreign event of the interwar decades. Spanish aid committees formed across North America and throughout Europe. In the United States, key organizations of various political persuasions disseminated propaganda, lobbied Washington, and raised funds for relief aid to the Republic. A smaller effort to offer nonpartisan aid and another largely unsuccessful one to assist the fascist-backed insurgent forces also captured the imagination of some Americans and has also recently received historical attention. However, this larger effort to aid the Republic has not received closer scrutiny. Such an examination will expand our understanding of American reactions to the rise of international fascism, to the relationship between the foreign policy public and Washington, and to the shift from isolation to foreign engagement.
Organized American aid efforts were not unprecedented. Americans had most recently responded to crises after the Great War when the U.S. government underwrote massive aid. Just as that war fostered isolation- ism, its ravages had also inspired aid efforts. Herbert Hoover was a purveyor of large-scale assistance when he directed postwar relief, steering eighteen million tons of American food to Europe. The U.S. Congress allocated $100 million in assistance. Relief to Armenia in 1918 and to famine-wracked Russia followed in 1921. In 1923 relief was undertaken for Japan, where upwards of 200,000 died in an earthquake. At that time the quake was the biggest disaster in history, and the U.S. Congress voted unanimously to send $6 million toward assistance there. In contrast, the Spanish Republic’s supporters directed a relief effort without governmental support, without existing public funds, and amid the general public’s lack of concern.
The trend toward partisan relief had also been determined after the World War and was significant for Spanish aid. The humanitarian relief the American government approved for Europe following the war contained an amendment sponsored by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge forbid- ding any of the relief to be used to feed “enemy” families, adults and children alike. The $2 million in assistance that did reach official enemies came only through a food draft system set up by the American Relief Administration, since the administration itself was forbidden to distribute public funds to official enemies. The nongovernmental effort to aid Republican Spain was akin to the gift-giving among German-Americans who donated through this food draft.
So while Spanish aid was in many respects not new, at least four characteristics of the Spanish Civil War distinguish the international solidarity of that conflict from the internationalist but more unilateralist approach that developed in the United States in the following years. First, the Spanish Republic was under a left-wing government at the time of the coup so that international solidarity was intended to bolster the progressive achievements of the young Republic. Second, the involvement of Hitler’s Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Fascist Italy on the side of the rebels provided the republican aid movement with an antifascist focal point. Third, the aid movement’s ultimate goal, aside from supplying relief aid, was to lift the restrictions western governments had placed on the Republic’s ability to procure arms legally in order to defend itself. Put another way, the solidarity movement was defending international law and was critical of the governments that refused to abide by it. Finally, the movement did not articulate a view of blanket interventionism to be applied everywhere. Spanish Republican supporters saw the legal right to arms amid an already existing conflict as the single imperative for avoiding a wider conflict that would most certainly mean devastation on a scale far worse than the Great War. These features, along with internationalists’ sentiments, distinguish the late 1930s from later American articulations, in particular appeals in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries for an almost general intervention by the United States all over the globe to promote—as opposed to defend—democracy and to avert calamities and bloodshed, which is to say that the historical context of the Spanish relief efforts marks their uniqueness from later events.
To be sure, the United States had already made forays into foreign territory at the time of the Spanish conflagration. By the administration of Woodrow Wilson the country had committed troops across the Americas and the Caribbean, but such direct foreign involvement was put on hold by Roosevelt in the 1930s under the Good Neighbor Policy. When the Spanish Civil War erupted in 1936, the president was not committed to foreign military actions and the collective attitude of the country had turned against diplomatic entanglements.