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The Myth of “Premature Anti-Fascism” By: Harvey Klehr
The New Criterion | Monday, September 16, 2002


In 1984, George Orwell gave the Ministry of Truth the task of rewriting history. Under the slogan “who controls the past controls the future,” an army of scribes modified documents, changed textbooks, and rewrote old newspapers to ensure that history conformed to every shift of the ruling party’s political line. Left-wing American historians have likewise been busily engaged in altering the past to buttress their conviction that Communists are the real heroes of modern history. Of all the historical myths promoted by the American left, few have been more fiercely protected than those about the Spanish Civil War, lionized as “the Good Fight,” a heroic struggle between fascism and antifascism, and the Communist-led International Brigades, a band of selfless volunteers whose brave deeds were immortalized in stirring songs (they won the battles, but we had all the good songs, Tom Lehrer noted).

In this narrative, the American volunteers of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade confronted the fascist menace in 1937, years before the outbreak of World War II finally roused the American government and the public from the torpor of isolationism and appeasement. An often-cited part of the story is that the veterans of the Lincoln Brigade, rather than being hailed for the prescience of their antifascism, were given the pejorative label “premature antifascist” and punished by an American government even then blinded by hatred of communism. The Encyclopedia of the American Left, an Oxford University Press reference book found in many libraries, states that after the United States entered World War II, many of the Lincoln Brigade veterans volunteered for the American armed forces but “in a foreshadowing of the McCarthy period, the armed forces designated the Lincolns ‘premature antifascists’ and confined them to their bases.”

This assertion is a ubiquitous refrain in historical literature during the last thirty years. Ellen Schrecker, a historian at Yeshiva University, wrote that in World War II the Lincoln veterans “were, in the [U.S.] Army’s bizarre terminology, ‘premature antifascists,’ subject to harassment by military intelligence officers and, in many cases, sent to special camps where they were treated almost like prisoners of war.” Fraser Ottanelli of the University of South Florida insisted that the veterans “in the witch hunts of the 1950s were disparagingly referred to as ‘premature antifascists.’” Robin Kelly, a professor at New York University, wrote, “rather than applaud these men and women for risking their lives in a battle America would officially join in 1941, Lincoln Brigade veterans were hounded by the FBI, a variety of ‘un-American activities’ committees, and labeled ‘premature anti-fascists.’” Robbie Lieberman of Southern Illinois University stated that the Americans who fought in Spain “faced problems later because of what the government labeled their ‘premature antifascist’ stance.” Professor Bernard Knox (Harvard and Yale) confidently stated, “Premature Antifascist” “was the label affixed to the dossiers of those Americans who had fought in the Brigades when, after Pearl Harbor (and some of them before) they enlisted in the U.S. Army. It was the signal to assign them to non-combat units or inactive fronts and to deny them the promotion they deserved.”

Despite all these confident assertions, “premature antifascism” is a myth. Not only is there no evidence that the United States armed forces ever used the phrase “premature antifascists” to describe those Americans who fought in Spain, there are indications that it was Communists and the veterans themselves who first employed the term. Moreover, many of the veterans were also “interim profascists” who in obedience to Soviet instructions dropped their anti-Nazism in September 1939 and opposed resistance to Fascist aggression while Germany conquered most of Western and Central Europe. Only when the Nazis turned against the USSR in June 1941 did the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade rediscover their antifascism.

No one has to this day located any documentary evidence that any American government agency coined or used the phrase “premature antifascist” to apply to Americans who fought for the International Brigades. Not until the early 1990s when our research took us into FBI, OSS, and U.S. Army records, the “dossiers” about which Knox had spoken, did it occur to us that there was no documentary support for the charge that had been repeated routinely for years. We examined thousands of pages and realized that the term “premature antifascist” did not occur. Government security agents rarely used euphemisms when describing Communists and other radicals and certainly nothing as coy as “premature antifascist.”

Struck by the absence of “premature antifascist” from government files, we checked references to the phrase in scholarly literature. We could not find a single citation to a specific government document. Instead, we found claims with no source, claims with citations to secondary works which had no source, and claims citing an oral history interview with a Lincoln veteran, usually made thirty or more years after the alleged event. In most of these cases, the veteran claimed that some government investigator had used the term in his presence or that he had seen the term stamped on his U.S. Army personnel records. But no one ever produced such a stamped personnel record. There was, moreover, no uniformity about what agency used the term and when it originated. Some scholars and veterans claimed the FBI was the instigator; others pointed to the post-World War II House Committee on Un-American Activities, and, most commonly, still others insisted it was U.S. Army counterintelligence in World War II. Nobody, however, produced a specific document.

One book that promoted the term, dramatically entitled The Premature Antifascists, was based on 130 interviews with American volunteers done between 1979 and 1985. In these interviews a single volunteer claimed that “the first time that [he] heard the expression ‘premature antifascists’” came when military security officers interviewed him in 1942. Another says, “I realized how much ‘the premature antifascists’ as we were called, contributed to save the honor of America” but he did not indicate who did the calling.

Peter Carroll, an independent scholar with a loose association with Stanford University, published The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in 1994. One chapter, entitled “Premature Antifascists,” appears to have an indirect but at least contemporaneous documentary source for the governmental origins of “premature antifascist.” Carroll discussed the experiences of two Lincoln veterans, Milton Wolff and Gerald Cook, in the U.S. Army in World War II. Both were assigned to Fort Dix, New Jersey, but inexplicably received no orders to report for basic training. Carroll writes:

Inquiries about the unusual delay brought mystified responses, until Wolff mentioned to a clerk that they had been in Spain. “Oh, that’s a different story!” exclaimed the friendly sergeant, who finally found their records in a special file. A few nights later, Wolff and Cook sneaked into the office and read their papers. Printed on the corners were the letters “P.A.” The next day, a clerk explained the initials: “premature antifascists.” Thus they discovered a euphemism that would become part of anti-Communist rhetoric of the next decade. Service in the Spanish war qualified the Lincolns for that honor.

Although he is a professionally trained historian and author of several widely used American history textbooks, Carroll does not use the usual scholarly apparatus for documenting material in his book, and it is difficult to identify clearly the source for this story. It appears to be a letter Milton Wolff wrote on July 29, 1942 that is located in a collection of Spanish Civil War correspondence at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. While this letter is not a government document, it would, nonetheless, be contemporaneous indirect evidence if Wolff in a private letter in 1942 made a claim of seeing the label “P.A.” on his military personnel records. We wrote to the University of Illinois to obtain a copy of that letter, but it could not be found. We then wrote Dr. Carroll. He replied that he had seen the letter in Milton Wolff’s possession and had just assumed that Wolff had later sent it to the University of Illinois. He also said “I doubt that these letters include the phrase premature antifascist.” He provided, however, no alternative source for the “P.A.” story in his book. Later when the issue was raised on an internet historical discussion list, he provided this explanation:

I cannot explain the “missing letters,” since I read them before they were sent by Milton Wolff to the University of Illinois. However, I am certain that none of the letters referred specifically to the term “premature antifascist.” My source for that reference was my interviews with Wolff himself. As he told me the story about ten years ago, he and another Lincoln veteran, Gerry Cook, were detained at Camp Dix (New Jersey) in June 1942, soon after they had enlisted in the U.S. army. To their dismay, other recruits were routinely being shifted to other camps for basic training, but they remained unassigned. Frustrated by this situation, they entered the camp’s office at night and found their names on cards with the initials PA. The next day, they confronted a clerk with that information, and he supposedly said something like “oh, that’s why you’re not being shipped out.” Prompted by the recent flurry of interest in this matter, I reinterviewed Wolff yesterday (May 24, 2000) about this issue. He now told the story differently. Only Cook actually broke into the office, so that Wolff could not, in fact, testify to the authenticity of the PA story. But he was sure that something in their records prompted the clerk’s response the next day.
Carroll’s new explanation effectively discredits the story he presented in his book. The source of the “P.A.” story was an interview given forty-eight years after the incident and abandoned eight years later.

We also placed inquiries in the Newsletter of the Historians of American Communism in 1998 and on several history internet discussion lists in 2000, asking for a citation to a specific document showing that some government agency had labeled International Brigade veterans as “premature antifascists.” We received many responses, but none provided a citation to a specific government document. New York Polytechnic University Professor Marvin Gettleman, then executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, responded in 1999 with the comment that while no document had been found “that may be because the relevant FBI files have not yet become publicly available… . But be assured that the search you call for is underway.” In 2002 he posted a message on an internet discussion list devoted to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade indicating that as yet no such document had been located.

Some respondents cited oral history interviews and personal conversations, all from decades after the events in question and none adequate to document the claim. Others cited secondary sources, all of which we checked and none of which cited a primary source document. A few respondents suggested archival collections that might contain such documents. In so far as those could be checked, we did so and found no documents. The burden of proof that the government originated the “premature antifascist” label for Americans who fought for the International Brigades rests with those making the assertion. And the burden has not been met. Documentary evidence ought to be readily located in the many thousands of pages of World War II military personnel records and OSS records dealing with these individuals. FBI records are less open, but the Freedom of Information Act has made much material available. Congressional investigating committee files contain copies and excerpts from executive branch investigative reports. Despite extensive searches in appropriate archival collections by many people, no documentary evidence has surfaced. At a minimum, the claim made by numerous scholars that U.S. security agencies commonly labeled or stamped the records of Americans who served in the International Brigades with the term “premature antifascist” is false.

That does not preclude the possibility that some government agent on some occasion may have used the term or even written it in a document or reported that some third party used the term. Some such document may turn up some day. But until such documentation is located, the handful of oral history claims about this matter, assertions made thirty or more years after the events in question, are not sufficient to override the absence of direct documentary evidence and the near complete absence of indirect contemporaneous corroboration. That so many scholars and a pretended reference work such as The Encyclopedia of the American Left have disregarded scholarly standards in regard to “premature antifascism” is a symptom of the myopia that exists in the academic world on issues that touch upon American Communism. When we publicly asked for documentation of the claims advanced about “premature antifascism,” Peter Carroll was “amazed that serious scholars are so exercised about the origins of the term. It seems to me that the important point is that the U.S. Army during World War II did discriminate against Communists or suspected Communists, including Lincoln Brigade veterans… . Does it matter what they called ‘them’?”

Yes, it does matter. Historians are not free to shade the truth, create dramatic illustrations out of their imaginations, or manipulate the evidence in the service of what they believe is some other truth. “Premature antifascist” appears repeatedly in the 1940s, 1950s, and into the 1960s as a proud self-reference by Lincoln veterans, Communists, and others of the Popular Front left with only a single indirect claim during World War II that the government had invented the term. (In 1944 a magazine article claimed that the FBI used this label but provided no specifics and no examples.) As one of the respondents to our internet queries stated: “You will never find the term in official records because it was used by people who opposed Hitler ‘too early’ as in the Spanish Civil War as a self-deprecating term for their own ability to see ahead and the U.S. Govt’s inability to see what Hitler was planning.” It was a way of claiming credit for being antifascist in the late 1930s before antifascism became fashionable following America’s entry into the war in December 1941.

But it was also in part camouflage to cover the opposition of the veterans and their supporters to assisting the anti-Hitler belligerents during the period of the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Only after 1970 did historians begin to blame the government for originating the term. Just as Peter Carroll contributed to the myth about premature antifascism, he has distorted the refusal of the Communist veterans (and most were Communists) of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight against fascism from 1939 to 1941.

In his book Carroll wrote that sometime in the Spring of 1941 and prior to the German invasion of the USSR on June 22, William Donovan, an adviser to President Roosevelt on intelligence, arranged a meeting with Milton Wolff through “Dinah Sheean.” At the meeting:

Donovan told Wolff that British intelligence officers, working in the United States, wanted assistance in establishing contact with resident aliens from southern and eastern Europe—Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Austrians, and Hungarians—who would be willing to help the partisan resistance fighters in German-occupied countries. Donovan asked if the Lincoln veterans, particularly those with language skills, would participate in such an operation. Wolff agreed to find out. He knew that before undertaking such work individual volunteers would want the sanction of the Communist Party. Steve Nelson referred him to Eugene Dennis, an important party official… . Dennis gave his consent and assured Wolff that the party would cooperate, provided the scheme was kept secret. According to Wolff, in other words, the highest level of the American Communist party authorized clandestine operations that violated the avowed noninterventionist line… . The party’s acceptance of Donovan’s overture to Wolff thus represented an audacious departure from its previous distrust [of the U.S. government].

Carroll went on to relate that with the CPUSA’s “permission granted,” Donovan introduced Wolff to two British agents named Bryce and Bailey who asked Wolff to recruit “reliable antifascists to place behind enemy lines in Greece, Yugoslavia, and the Balkans.” Carroll concluded, “So, at a time when the Communist party officially opposed American involvement in the war, Wolff started a recruitment program on behalf of British intelligence” and was paid a salary plus expenses. After the United States entered the war in December 1941, Donovan asked Wolff to redirect his recruits from British intelligence to the American Office of Strategic Services, headed by Donovan himself. Wolff later entered the OSS and as an OSS officer worked with anti-Nazi partisans in Italy.

Carroll’s account dramatically whitewashes the historical image of both the CPUSA and the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB is the veterans organization of the Americans who fought in Spain in the International Brigades). Both groups’ acceptance of the Nazi-Soviet Pact had always been a historical embarrassment to their admirers. In the late 1930s Communists had been in the forefront of the fight against fascism. But the Nazi-Soviet Pact changed everything. From September 1939 to June 1941, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, the CPUSA dropped its support for an antifascist Popular Front. It denounced President Roosevelt’s efforts to aid Britain, France, and other nations at war against Germany and opposed FDR’s reelection in 1940. The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, led by Milton Wolff, tacked in parallel with the CPUSA and opposed all assistance to the anti-Nazi belligerents. After the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, all this changed. The CPUSA once again donned the cloak of antifascism, and the VALB called for American intervention in the war.

Carroll’s story of the Communist Party and the VALB covertly continuing to fight fascism makes the case that antifascism remained at the heart of both groups’ world view, even when it conflicted with Soviet foreign policy. In this account Wolff, the last commander of the Lincoln Brigade in Spain and chief of the VALB, secretly realized the error of the Soviet position and began helping the British before the Nazi attack caused Moscow to change its policy. Even more dramatically, Carroll asserts that Eugene Dennis, then the de facto number two figure in the CPUSA hierarchy, sanctioned Wolff’s actions with the support of other party leaders. Thus, “the highest level of the American Communist party,” as Carroll put it, had also seen the error of the Soviet position and possessed sufficient independence from Soviet control that it gave permission for Wolff to work for British intelligence and recruit Communist veterans of the International Brigades for British covert operations

If it were true, Carroll’s story would require a major revision in thinking about American communism. But is it true? The answer is no. Everything that Carroll related occurred, but it took place after June 22, 1941, not before. With CPUSA permission, Wolff agreed to assist British covert operations but only after the Nazi invasion of the USSR and only after Wolff and the CPUSA concluded that assisting the British was in concert with the post-June 1941 Soviet policy of all-out support for the anti-Nazi war effort.

Carroll based his account on a 1988 interview with Milton Wolff. He claimed it was corroborated by other interviews, but cited only one, an undated interview with Irving Goff, a Lincoln veteran and fellow Communist whom Wolff recruited for this covert work. Carroll failed to cite a single document in support of the story, nor did he attempt to fit his account within the historical context about British covert operations in this period. In fact, there is abundant evidence that Carroll’s timetable cannot be accurate.

The Comintern archive in Moscow contains a May 1942 report by Eugene Dennis about Wolff’s work for British intelligence and the American OSS. The report confirms that Diana Sheean (Carroll mistakenly spells her name Dinah) set up a meeting between Donovan and Wolff, that Donovan asked Wolff to recruit International Brigade veterans for the British, that Wolff got CPUSA sanction for the project, and that Wolff set up a recruiting operation funded first by the British and then, after December 1941, by the OSS. However, this document placed the Donovan-Wolff meeting in November 1941, well after the Nazi invasion of the USSR, and not before as Carroll would have it. The change of date robs the story of its ability to revise the history of the CPUSA and the VALB during the Nazi-Soviet Pact period. This document is corroborated by other 1942 documents in the Comintern archive. The NKVD judged that Wolff’s recruiting might allow American intelligence insight into Communist networks in the United States and ordered it stopped. In the Comintern archive one finds a Comintern directive to the CPUSA to end the recruitment operation and a subsequent report from Dennis that Wolff had shut down his activities as directed. So, not only is Carroll’s story wrong but the documentary evidence is that Wolff and the CPUSA refused to cooperate with American intelligence to fight fascism at the behest of Soviet intelligence even when the U.S. and the USSR were allies.

In 1982 the historian Maurice Isserman reported that Eugene Dennis’s widow, Peggy, and the veteran Communist Gilbert Green told him that Eugene Dennis had met with and furnished Donovan with information on possible recruits for the OSS after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. While Carroll reports that Goff corroborated Wolff’s pre-invasion dating, this is contradicted by a 1964 Goff interview with the historian Robert Rosenstone where he said that he had been recruited for OSS work shortly before Pearl Harbor and well after the Nazi invasion. All of these sources support a fall 1941 date for these activities and contradict a pre-Nazi-Soviet pact date.

Wolff’s 1988 claim that he worked for the British prior to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union is not even supported by his own testimony to the Subversive Activities Control Board in 1954. Wolff appeared as a witness for the VALB which was contesting the SACB proposal to list it as a Communist-front organization. He proudly testified that he had worked for British military intelligence and the OSS in 1941 and 1942 and that his work for the British had been at the initiative of General Donovan, then a leading White House adviser. While his testimony was vague on the precise timing, he clearly placed his work for the British in the latter half of 1941, perhaps starting as early as July but still after the Nazi invasion of the USSR.

Even more damning, Eugene Dennis, who played a central role in the Carroll version of the story, was not in the United States during most of this period and could not have met with Wolff during the period claimed. The outbreak of war in Europe in September 1939 had disrupted the usual channels of communications between the CPUSA and the Comintern. The frequent visits of high party officials to Moscow became difficult. But in the spring of 1941, the CPUSA dispatched Dennis to Moscow. The reports Dennis prepared and personally delivered before the Comintern leadership in Moscow in April 1941 are in its archives. The earliest is dated April 1, 1941 and the latest June 18, 1941. Given the conditions of wartime travel in 1941, Dennis had to leave the United States no later than mid-March to reach Moscow by the first of April. He did not return to the United States until after the Nazi invasion.

Could Wolff’s meeting with Donovan and his consultation with Dennis have occurred prior to Dennis leaving for Moscow in March 1941? No, it could not. Carroll is vague about his dating of the Wolff-Donovan meeting; he says only that it was prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union and likely in the late spring or early summer. It could not have been earlier than May because in Carroll’s account Donovan relayed a British request for aid in recruiting “resident aliens from southern and eastern Europe—Italians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Austrians, and Hungarians—who would be willing to help the partisan resistance fighters in German-occupied countries.” Germany did not invade Yugoslavia and Greece until April 1941 and the British expeditionary force sent to Greece was not forced to withdraw until May. It was not until August 1941 that the British learned that significant remnants of the shattered Yugoslav army were regrouping under the command of Colonel Draza Mihailovich and not until September that they received reliable information about Communist partisans organizing under Josip Tito. The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) sent a small team into Yugoslavia in September 1941 to evaluate the possibility of British aid. Encouraged by their report, the British began preparing SOE units for deployment. The availability of recruits with appropriate language and ethnic backgrounds in North America persuaded the SOE to train its Balkan teams in Canada and it opened “Camp X” near Toronto in December 1941. This timing fits a Donovan approach to Wolff in the autumn of 1941, not prior to the German invasion of the USSR.

Carroll also reports that Donovan introduced Wolff to two British intelligence agents, one of whom was named Bailey. During most of 1941, S. W. Bailey worked out of the SOE Istanbul office. After the autumn 1941 decision to send SOE teams to Yugoslavia, he traveled to North America sometime in late 1941 to recruit men of Balkan background. Histories of the Canadian role in SOE recount his meetings with Canadian Communist party officials in early 1942 to recruit Canadian Communists who had served in the International Brigades. Bailey was not in North America before the Nazi invasion of the USSR; he could not have met with Wolff until late 1941.

Wolff’s own words and actions in 1941 also contradict his later claims. He delivered the keynote address to the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade’s convention in May 1941 when Nazi Germany had conquered most of Western and Central Europe. Wolff mentioned Hitler only once, in a sentence that denounced as equally evil “Roosevelt, Hitler, Churchill and Mussolini.” The chief target of his speech was FDR’s policy of providing assistance to Great Britain, then the only major power fighting Hitler. Wolff told the convention:

under the dishonest slogan of anti-fascism, he [President Roosevelt] prepares the red-baiting, union-busting, alien-hunting, anti-Negro, anti-Semitic Jingoistic road to fascism in America: we accuse him. Turning with cynical calculation on his own lies and false promises, he drags the American people, despite their repeated expressed opposition, closer and closer to open participation in the imperialist slaughter in which the youth of our country will, if he has his way, join the 1,000 British seamen of the H.M.S. Hood, the 30,0000 German bodies floating in the Mediterranean, the bloody and bloated corpses on battle fields the world over, for the greater glory of foreign trade and the brutal oppression of free people at home and abroad: we accuse him, Franklin Demagogue Roosevelt we accuse; tirelessly and until the people hear and understand, we accuse him… . We fight against the involvement of our country in an imperialist war from which the great majority of the American people can derive only misery, suffering, and death. We stubbornly oppose every move of Roosevelt and the war-mongers in this direction, and call on the American people to organize and make vocal their deep and sincere opposition.
Nor was this all. Some Americans who had fought in Spain with the International Brigades criticized the Nazi-Soviet Pact. Wolff had them expelled from the VALB and continued to treat them with scorn for the next fifty years. Wolff claimed in 1988 that his public adherence to the Nazi-Soviet Pact was feigned but there is no documentary evidence to support him and a great deal that demonstrates that his assertions are not credible.

Equally false is Carroll’s claim that prior to the Nazi invasion of the USSR, Eugene Dennis and “the highest level of the American Communist party” secretly dissented from the Nazi-Soviet Pact and supported aiding the British in opposition to Soviet policy. Not one word of such dissent has ever surfaced, either in the recollections of Communist leaders or the reports they sent to the Comintern. Dennis had a lifetime record as a Moscow loyalist. At the very time Carroll has Dennis undercutting Moscow’s policies in the United States, he was actually in Moscow bragging to the Comintern about the enthusiasm of the CPUSA’s campaign to defeat Roosevelt’s policies of assisting Britain.

Peter Carroll currently serves as chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives (housed at New York University), a project that combines research on the ALB with hagiography and efforts to honor Brigade veterans. His own efforts at whitewashing the veterans’ subservience to Stalinism and gilding their efforts to claim victim status do not rest on any evidence or scholarly foundation. It may be appropriate to honor the Spanish Civil War veterans for their bravery but it is simply not true that the vast majority were independent of the Communist party and its rigid ideological line.




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