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CPUSA - Popular Front [1935-1939]

The Popular Front period [1935-1939] was the period of "collective security." During this period, the Soviet Union felt itself menaced by Fascist Germany. It needed the help of the Western powers and, because it needed that help, it urged a system of collective security against aggression. Maurice Isserman estimates CPUSA membership at between 50,000 and 75,000 in the years before the war [Which Side Were You On?: The American Communist Party During the Second World War (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1993), pp. 18-21.]

The CPUSA was well respected by many American liberals, for they and the Party made common cause to promote unions, civil rights for black Americans, and to oppose perceived domestic rightwing threats. Although the CPUSA's prestige suffered greatly when the Party slavishly supported the Nazi-Soviet Pact, liberals and Communists again worked together once the United States and Soviet Union joined forces against Hitler. Indeed, the success of the struggle against Nazism led many liberals to expect that, after the war, Washington and Moscow would maintain friendly relations while the United States embarked on a fresh round of New Deal-style economic and social reforms.

Accordingly, the Communist Party of the United States firmly supported a policy of collective security and urged that the United States enter into such a system with the Soviet Union. The interest of American labor, the Communist Party said, was in the elimination of fascism wherever it was found. American labor had a stake in the maintenance of free institutions throughout the world and labor should, the party declared, go all out for aid to the victims of Fascist aggression and for the creation of a genuine system of security against such aggression.

In pursuit of this policy the Communist Party supported vigorously, and urged labor to support. President Roosevelt's anti-Fascist policy and the amendments to the United States Neutrality Act, which would permit the United States Government to support victims of aggression.

Abraham Lincoln Brigade

During the Spanish Civil War and in World War II, Communists volunteered to fight fascism. Many died in battle. When Franco’s forces attacked in July 1936, there was little secret the fascist forces of Hitler and Mussolini were backing him. Comintern made a moral argument that the global Popular Front was duty bound to support the Popular Front government in Spain.

They fought on the Republican side, in defense of the democratically elected leftist government of Spain, and against the Nationalists, the military rebels led by Gen. Francisco Franco. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade was originally called a battalion, one of several volunteer units that were part of the International Brigades, the name given the tens of thousands of foreign volunteers who came from dozens of countries, and were organized and largely led by the Comintern, the international Communist organization controlled by the Soviets.

Due to the secrecy of membership, aliases, and destroyed records, a complete picture of all 2800-3000 members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade is difficult to construct. Not all the Americans who fought in the Lincoln Brigade were Communists. Many were. Others, though, had just come to fight fascists and defend a democracy.

In Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls”, Robert Jordan, a Midwestern teacher who fought in Spain, began to see the cause as futile. He was cynical about its leadership, and distrustful of the Soviet cadres who suborned it. But at the end of the book, a wounded Jordan chooses to die to save the poor Spaniards he fought beside and for. “The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for,” Jordan mused as he waited to die, “and I hate very much to leave it.” But he did leave it. Willingly.

Later, despite their combat experience, Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans were discriminated against, as "premature" anti-Fascists. During World War II nearly 500 Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans enlisted in the U.S. armed forces. Many served with distinction, were decorated and were cited for heroism. Some found, however, that their time in Spain battling Franco’s insurgent forces seemed to compromise their status in the U.S. military.

The British and French governments (the French often under pressure from the British) had passed up one timely opportunity after another to become anti-Fascist. They allowed Hitler and Mussolini to supply Franco with planes, tanks, guns and troops, while enforcing a so-called Non-Intervention Agreement that cut off supplies to the Government.

The son of a traveling missionary living in Shanghai in the 1930s, Edward A. Carter Jr. joined the Chinese Nationalists to fight against the Japanese. He then served more than two years in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, the military organization consisting of American volunteers that fought Gen. Francisco Franco's Nazi-backed fascists during the Spanish Civil War. Unfortunately, the Lincoln Brigade's strong ties to the American Communist party tainted the idealism that motivated many of its volunteers in their fight against the fascists. These ties would ultimately and unfairly be used to cast doubt on Carter's patriotism.

Carter arrived in the United States in 1940 and enlisted in the Army in September 1941 on the eve of America's entry into World War II. The Army made him a cook in a quartermaster truck company. In February 1945, the Army turned to black soldiers in support units to help plug holes in the line caused by fierce fighting during the Battle of the Bulge. Carter was among the first of more than 2,600 African American volunteers.

When he tried to re- enlist in 1949, Carter's Lincoln Brigade service apparently caused Army officials to investigate him secretly and then keep close watch on him throughout his service. The note that triggered the watch intimated only that Carter's time in Spain might have exposed him to communism. Another note mentioning his ability to speak Chinese was more "evidence." The Army ignored two of his commanders who recommended the whole matter be dropped as groundless.

In January 1997, Army Sgt. 1st Class Edward A. Carter Jr. and six other World War II heroes became the first African American veterans of that war to receive Medals of Honor. That wasn't enough for the Carter family. Following the award of the nation's highest military honor for combat gallantry, Carter's family pressed for the answer to a 50-year-old mystery: Why had the Army barred him from re-enlisting in 1949. When they learned earlier this year that the Army's bar stemmed from a groundless concern he was a communist, they demanded justice and that his name be cleared. They got their wish Nov. 10 when the Army apologized during ceremonies in the Pentagon's Hall of Heroes.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:29:11 ZULU