Who says San Francisco doesn’t honor veterans?
Last weekend, the city, which voted in 2005 to ban military recruiters from public high schools and colleges, unveiled a memorial to fighting men and women in uniform. The uniforms they donned, however, were not those familiar to American soldiers, sailors, airmen, or Marines.
The city honored American Communists and their fellow travelers who fought in the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930s. The $400,000 monument, donated from private funds but hosted on public land, extends 40-feet long and eight feet high.
Media accounts of the tribute uniformly noted that members of what has become known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fought against Francisco Franco. But those reports were conspicuously silent about the man they fought for: Joseph Stalin. Similarly absent was the word “Communist,” a party with which roughly eighty percent of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade were officially affiliated.
The few surviving veterans are quick to point out that they fought fascists, but “fascist” in the Communist lexicon of the 1930s was applied to everyone from Franklin Roosevelt to Leon Trotsky to Francisco Franco. Stalin saw enemies everywhere, so many American members of the International Brigades in Spain partook in, and others fell victim to, purges of suspected deviationists among the “republican” armies.
ONE ORGANIZER called San Francisco’s monument “an antidote to amnesia,” but a more apt description would be “a product of amnesia.” Communists who shamed themselves by serving Stalin have time on their side. Short memories, particularly on a subject as seemingly distant as Communism, enable the servants of an evil cause to reinvent themselves as history’s heroes rather than its villains.
In Poland, the Czech Republic, and Romania, monuments to Communist cult-of-personality heroes have been torn down. In America, particularly on college campuses, memorials to Communists have appeared with alarming frequency every few years. San Francisco is not alone in its veneration of people who deserve scorn and not applause.
The University of Washington, which also memorializes American veterans of the Spanish Civil War, boasts a Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies and accompanying Harry Bridges Chair of Labor Studies. The Australian immigrant Bridges, longtime leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, was (despite his repeated denials) a member of the Communist Party.
During the Nazi-Soviet Pact, he followed Stalin’s line and belittled Franklin Roosevelt. When Hitler turned on his erstwhile ally, Bridges’ support for Roosevelt (now an ally of the Soviet Union’s fight against Nazi Germany) became so complete that he urged unions to forbid strikes during the war. Bridges didn’t serve labor. Labor served him, and his cause.
The University of Massachusetts-Amherst named the showpiece of its campus, the tallest library in the United States, after W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP. Du Bois eulogized Stalin as “great,” “courageous,” and “attacked and slandered as few men of power have been.” He contended in 1950 that “the things for which the North Koreans are fighting are exactly the things for which America fought in 1776.” In the midst of the greatest slaughter in history, Du Bois found in Maoist China “a sense of human nature free of its most hurtful and terrible meanness and of a people full of joy and faith and marching on in a unison unexampled in Holland, Belgium, Britain and France; and simply inconceivable in the United States.”
In gratitude, Red China officially observed his birthday, the Soviet Union awarded him the Lenin Peace Prize, and Kwame Nkrumah’s Ghana gave him sanctuary after he renounced his U.S. citizenship. What does it say of the University of Massachusetts that it followed their lead?
Both Penn State and Rutgers house Paul Robeson Cultural Centers, named in honor of the Communist athlete, singer, and actor who provided a morale boost to Americans fighting in the International Brigades by visiting them on the front. Like Du Bois, Robeson won a Lenin Peace Prize. Corliss Lamont, a trust-fund revolutionary who defended the justice of Stalin’s show trials in the 1930s and attacked Joan Baez in the 1970s for defending human rights in Communist Vietnam, has a Corliss Lamont Rare Book Reading Room named for him at Columbia University.
Between 1988 and 2003, Joel Kovel taught from the “Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies” at Bard College. For several years in the mid 1990s, the Borough of Manhattan Community College even awarded dozens of $500 Ho Chi Minh Scholarships to students who had maintained “C” averages.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN BRIGADE Archives chairman Peter Carroll explained, “Our monument is to remember a group of people who stood up to take a stand.” Who they stood up for, and what stand they took, is something those like Carroll choose to blur.
The San Francisco Chronicle reports of the city’s newest war memorial, “The translucent stone squares show scenes from the war and faces of soldiers, as well as words about the period from writers like Ernest Hemingway.” A better source than Hemingway is George Orwell, who was shot in the neck in the Spanish Civil War and avoided the Communist death squads seeking to liquidate ideological deviationists.
“Well, the same people who in 1933 sniggered pityingly if you said that in certain circumstances you would fight for your country, in 1937 were denouncing you as a Trotsky-Fascist if you suggested that the stories in New Masses about freshly wounded men clamouring to get back into the fighting might be exaggerated,” Orwell wrote in 1943. “And the Left intelligenstsia made their swing-over from ‘War is hell’ to ‘War is glorious’ not only with no sense of incongruity but almost without any intervening stage.”
Put that on the monument. Orwell’s observations on the Old Left’s transmutations from pacifists to warriors in the 1930s fit today’s San Francisco just as well.
Daniel J. Flynn is the author of the forthcoming A Conservative History of the American Left and the editor of www.flynnfiles.com.
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