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A Young American Decides to Fight Fascism in Spain

Large numbers of American college students expressed increasing activism against war in the early 1930s, connecting international war with issues like labor, minority rights, and economic injustice at home. The rise of fascism in Europe, however, forced many young Americans to reconsider their total anti-war position, as Hitler and Mussolini helped launch a destructive civil war in Spain in 1936. This memoir, written in 1986 for an American Student Union fiftieth anniversary reunion, details the moral position of one student, George Watt, and reveals the often-conflicting range of issues confronted by young Americans during this era.

On April 6, 1934, I stood on the steps in front of Columbia's "Alma Mater" and took the "pledge". I was not alone. On that same day, 25,000 students at schools and campuses across the country, took a solemn oath not to fight for our government in any war it might conduct. This was the Oxford Pledge, and it was administered to all participants in our first nationwide Student Peace Strike. 

Three years later, I climbed the Pyrenees into Spain to take an even more solemn oath, a pledge to defend the Spanish Republican Government which was engaged in a life and death struggle against Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. In defending Spanish democracy against fascism, I felt I was fighting for my country and yes, fighting for that very government which I earlier had vowed not to support. 

Unquestionably, this was quite a switch. We should have learned by then never to say "never". But it was the rise of fascism which brought us to our senses. We all knew that Hitler was imprisoning and torturing communists, socialists, labor leaders, student leaders and liberals. We knew that he was launching the genocidal destruction of Jews. He had already annexed Austria and was seeking to spread the Nazi venom to all of Europe and the United States. We knew that Mussolini had destroyed all human freedom in Italy and was invading Ethiopia. We could not stand idly by while all this was happening. The American Student Union continued to fight for jobs, for Negro rights, for academic freedom, for labor's right to organize, but the effort to stop fascism became increasingly the most critical struggle or our time. 

In July 1936, when a group of Spanish fascist generals, with the help of Hitler and Mussolini, started a civil war against the republican government of Spain, anti-fascist feelings among students ran even higher. Spanish workers, farmers, the middle classes and intellectuals fought back tenaciously and won the admiration of the entire world. Tens of thousands of volunteers from all corners of the earth flocked to Spain to form the International Brigades which fought alongside the Spanish people. Writers, artists, intellectuals, labor leaders came to Spain to support this great cause. The ASU raised money for medical supplies and ambulances and exerted pressure on our government to repeal the Neutrality Act. It was this "non intervention" farce which tragically kept the Spanish government from purchasing arms from the Western democracies while allowing Hitler and Mussolini to use Spain as the testing ground for World War II. 

It was illegal for Americans to go to fight in Spain. Nevertheless, some 3,000 Americans managed to get there to create the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Among them were eighty-eight ASU'ers who quietly slipped away from classrooms, exchanging their text books for rifles. I still remember the small send-off party we gave Joe Lash, our National Secretary, as he prepared to leave secretly to join the Brigade. Two months later in July 1937, I followed him across the Pyrenees. 

ASU'ers fought on all battle fronts of the war. They acquitted themselves with honor and many gave their lives. The experience in Spain is part of the ASU's proud tradition.

Source | George Watt, 1986; from New Deal Network, http://newdeal.feri.org/students/asu11.htm.
Creator | George Watt
Item Type | Biography/Autobiography
Cite This document | George Watt, “A Young American Decides to Fight Fascism in Spain,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 14, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1558.

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