The Spanish Civil War and the Pacific Northwest

by Joe McArdle


This photo of Thane Summers appeared shortly after his death in Spain in October 1937. Click to read the accompanying article.
On 28 November 1937, Thane Summers, a University of Washington philosophy student, wrote what would be his last letter to Sophie and Arthur, a couple with whom he had kept close correspondence for several years. It was sent from Albacete, Spain, about 250 miles southwest of the eastern Pyrenees, just a few months before he would be killed fighting in one of the final battles of the Spanish Civil War. Following a fleeting (albeit not uncommon) invective against “class distinctions and hatreds” in American society, Summers teases his friends for visiting Italy, one of the fascist powers supporting the Spanish Nationalists:

"From Italy each day come Caproni bombers to bomb our lines and our civilian population. You may see some passing overhead some day when you are in Italy. They may be carrying a load for me. One bomb can easily kill one person, and the taxes on your expenditures in Italy can easily buy one bomb. So you may donate the bomb that may get me."[1]

Summers was one of nearly seventy volunteers living in the Northwest (Washington, Idaho, Oregon, and Alaska) who traveled to Spain between 1936–37 to fight with the Republican anti-fascists. The war broke out in July 1936, when the recently elected Spanish government was challenged in an attempted coup d’état by a coalition of nationalist generals in the Spanish Army, joined by monarchists and the fascist right. Volunteers from all over the world flocked to the Republican cause on the side of the newly elected government in what they perceived to be a fight against fascism, forming what was called the International Brigade. While the decision to participate in the war varied radically from person to person, there was a nearly universal agreement on liberal and sometimes radical ideas among the volunteers. Not all were outspoken communists like Summers, but there was a distinct correlation between class position and support of Spanish Republicanism that reveals the state of economics and social tensions in the United States—and, more specifically, in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest—at the time.

Seattle in the 1930s was a hub for the labor movement and a hotbed of radical activism. The city’s working people participated extensively in the decade’s union activity, most notably in the Waterfront Strike of 1934, the 1935 Timber Strikes, and the 1936 Newspaper Guild Strike. The Washington Commonwealth Federation, a left-labor political coalition, and groups fighting for civil rights were a conspicuous presence in the region, though conservative reactionaries, like the fascist Silver Shirts, were also visible. Communism was relatively popular among the working class in Seattle. Nearly every volunteer for the Spanish Republicans expressed some communist or socialist beliefs, and an even higher proportion participated in union activity and labor movements of the period.

There were a number of Seattleites who supported the Republicans without going overseas, and who held views similar to those of the actual volunteers. One of the most influential of these was a University of Washington psychology professor named Ralph Gundlach, who helped organize Seattle chapters of the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, the Medical Bureau to Aid Spanish Democracy, the Spanish Refugee Relief program (he later adopted a Spanish orphan), and the Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee. Gundlach was ostracized in the academic community for allegedly holding communist beliefs, but nevertheless worked with his wife to schedule film screenings, fundraisers, speeches, and other gatherings that drew together a considerable number of sympathizers in the region.[2] Left-wing Seattle papers published articles on the progress of the war and advertised support of the volunteers, especially through the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. The Washington Commonwealth Federation’s newspaper, the Sunday News, contained biographical accounts of the volunteers, advertisements for gatherings of organizations like the Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, and eulogies and announcements of funerals when the war was over. For example, an article published on April 19, 1937 summarizes a gathering of members of the Communist Party in Olympia, during which the volunteers were praised and their return to Seattle after “suppressing the fascist seed” in Spain was discussed. The article also contained the following announcement:

Reports of the life of the 3500 Americans in Spain’s Loyalist armies will be given at the Trinity Auditorium Monday evening, April 26, when Capt. Hans Amlie, commanding officer of the Americans there, will speak in person regarding his experiences. Amlie was a ranking officer in the famed Lincoln Battalion, American unit of the International Brigade fighting against the insurgents. Wounded last month, he returned to his native land….Jay Allen, war correspondent, will also speak. Sponsors of the meeting are the Friends of the Lincoln Battalion.[3]

Another article from the Sunday News reported the death of a steelworker, George Sperry, in Spain: “The Northwest labor and progressive movement this week mourned the death of George Sperry, active member of the King County Workers’ Alliance, who was killed in the fighting on the Madrid front.”[4] This announcement also appeared in the more mainstream Seattle Daily Times:

"Officials of the Washington Commonwealth Federation and the King County Workers’ Alliance announced today they had received notice from Spain that Charles V. Sperry, 26 years old, of Seattle, was killed recently while fighting with the Spanish Loyalists near Madrid.

Hilliard Bernstein, member of the national board of the Workers’ Alliance, who found with Sperry in Spain, will speak at 8 o’clock Sunday evening in Moose Temple, 1316 Eighth Ave."[5]

The war was therefore a conspicuous presence at home, among the citizens of Seattle and the surrounding population of the Pacific Northwest. It was closely associated with working men and labor movements, which in turn were becoming synonymous with radical ideologies. These political commitments and social patterns are especially evident among the volunteers themselves.

Each volunteer from the Pacific Northwest had his own reason for going, but these reasons overlap from person to person, and by looking at the similarities and commonalities, we can develop an understanding of the Spanish volunteers from the region. At least thirty-two of the sixty-eight Pacific Northwesterners who went to Spain were of the working class.[6] Most participated in local unions and a large proportion held leadership positions in their respective organizations. Raymond “Red” Johnson (Seattle) and Wilfred “Idaho Blackie” Chapin (Aberdeen) were members of the Timber Workers’ Union, known among their fellow soldiers “as leaders in the rank and file movement of the workers.”[7] Several men were activists in the Washington Commonwealth Foundation, including Carlton Bellows, John Givins, and Jim Bourne, all Seattleites.[8] Rudy Colbin of Seattle was a member of the Marine Workers Industrial Union and the Sailors Union of the Pacific, as well as the anarcho-syndicalist union federation the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Several volunteers were activists with the International Woodworkers of America, a new union formed under the auspices of the nonsegregated Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), including Johnson and Chapin; Ernie Kozlowski, Paul Wirta, and Pat Hassett (Aberdeen, WA); and Robert Pettyjohn (Hoquiam, WA).[9] Max Farrar (Seattle) was in the Seattle Cooks and Assistants Union.[10] The number of Northwest workers in Spain is evident from Farrar’s comments in letters home:

"Do you know that we get bundles of the “Daily Worker” here. This paper goes over big. We feel that this paper tells us the truth about what is going on in the States, especially about the C.I.O., and when we heard about the Hearst’s paper in New York being suspended, we nearly went nuts."[11]

In another letter, Farrar directly notes the link between organized labor and volunteering, speaking of his fellow soldiers in the Local 33 Regiment (which was made up largely of Pacific Northwesterners):

"You would be surprised but most of my comrades here are members of organized labor. They are very interested in how their brothers at home react to one of the, or rather, the most fundamental issue of life: the fight against fascism. When you fellows are doing your stuff over there, to help out the cause of Spanish Democracy, and I can show my comrades what you are doing over there, you make new persons out of us. Solidarity will lick fascism."[12]

The article in the Seattle Daily Times announcing George Sperry’s death also emphasized this: “About twenty Workers’ Alliance members from King County have joined the Loyalist forces in the Spanish Civil War, enlisting in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, the Alliance said.”[13] Evidently, membership in organized labor was nearly universal among volunteers, and was often paired with radical anti-capitalist or communist beliefs. This position is most easily understood from the writings of Thane Summers.

The most extensive collection of personal writings among the volunteers comes from Thane Summers, who embodied many of the typical qualities of his fellow volunteers, and whose background in philosophy provided him with an interest in thoroughly explaining and analyzing his political convictions. Through a chronological study of Summers’s correspondence with his friends Sophie and Arthur (their last names are unknown), we can better understand the ideological reasons that compelled him and other like-minded sympathizers to join the fight against fascism in Spain.

Early letters reveal a divide between Summers and his father, the latter supposing the former to be a communist (which was already taboo at this time), but which Summers refutes.[14] Summers was intimately concerned with the capitalist crisis evidenced by the Great Depression. He believed that the survival of capitalism in the United States could only be maintained by resorting to fascism and total state control, which he believed to be the ultimate political logic for upper–middle class Americans.[15] The alternative, he stated, was communism,[16] which he referred to in his early letters as the “radical ideology.” This “coming struggle for power” would be a decisive turning point in history,[17] and Summers expressed his desire to be an active part of the events that promised to unfold.[18] He discussed the “capitalist contradictions” among business owners in Seattle,[19] and attacked fascism vehemently, considering it “detrimental to the progress of civilization.”[20] Summers’s radical views grew with his desire to act on his beliefs,[21] until he finally declared himself a “communist fellow traveler”: “I feel that the crucial problems we are faced with force action, and consequently I feel compelled to act.”[22] He discussed a book he wished to write, which clearly outlines his political position:

The purpose of the book will be to develop the radical point of view from considerations of social ethics—something which, so far as I know, hasn’t been done adequately. I shall attempt to show that revolution may be avoided if the liberals and conservatives get behind obviously needed reforms. On the one hand I hope to make some of the petty bourgeoisie more liberal, to show the implications of the true Christian ideals to the churchgoer.... I shall also attempt to point out to the radical that every attempt to get reform peacefully must be exhausted before violence is resorted to.[23]

Summers believed that these “bread and butter” tactics, emphasizing pragmatism and social activism, were communists’ surest path to victory.[24] The anarcho-syndicalism of the IWW, who sought to organize “one big union” for all workers and thus achieve democratic worker control, Summers believed to be too idealistic and romantic.[25] He criticized conservatives’s isolation and their technique of evasion, observing that “the worker is made a radical by actual contact with economic conditions, but the young student with a more fortunate background is made a radical by contact with conservatives.”[26] In his last letter before leaving for Spain, having accused the fascists of flouting reason,[27] Summers asserted: “If reform is needed, and if the time ever comes when it can only be gotten by violence, there will be only one reason why violence will be necessary and that is because one of the two sides has abandoned the life of reason.”[28] His decision to go to Spain made logical sense, he believed,[29] as it must have for many of the communists who left the Pacific Northwest to fight with the Republicans.

Indeed, even sympathizers who didn’t identify themselves as communists went to Spain on their behalf and because they were influenced by communist beliefs. In a 1980 interview with the City Collegian, the veteran Albert Chisholm (Seattle) stated, “I went to Spain because I felt I owed it to the people who helped me get my job. The Communists.”[30] Chisholm’s remark speaks to the final commonality among Pacific Northwesterners who decided to go to Spain: difficulty finding a job. On March 12, 1937, the Seattle Star published an article entitled “Chance to Serve Democracy’s Cause and Fruitless Efforts to Find Job Put Lewiston Youth in Spain’s War.”[31] Edward Robel, the article’s subject, was quoted as saying, “I was disgusted with the daily job hunt and its fruitlessness.” This difficulty would remain for the men who returned from Spain, who found prejudice waiting for them.

When the International Brigades disbanded in 1938 (the Republicans were formally defeated the following year), the volunteers who returned found themselves in a hostile environment now that their radical views had been publicly exposed. Of the sixty-eight men who went to Spain from the Pacific Northwest, twenty-six were killed in action. Of those who returned, many fell victim to the period’s anti-communist red scare. Upon his return, Brook Carmichael got a job as a mechanic at Boeing, but was dismissed soon thereafter from the International Association of Machinists (IAM), who sent him a letter saying “his actions and talk caused discord among other workers. Therefore he is found guilty of communism.” Upon learning this, Carmichael’s landlord evicted him.[32] Another Boeing employee and Spanish veteran, Carlton Bellows, was fired for agreeing to attend an IAM meeting called on April 20, 1941 “to attempt to restore rank-and-file control of Lodge 751.... At least 50 persons were expelled from Lodge 751 and fired from Boeing at that time.”[33] Rudy Colbin describes his experience upon returning from Spain:

"I was sailing as Chief Officer and Relief Master with the American President Line, when the screening program (Black List) went into effect. I was screened off my ship as a Security Risk on 10/10/50. At first it was damn hard to adjust—no job, house mortgage, kids to feed. However, I did discover that I had some friends, in the progressive movement. Friends that I knew and some that to this day I have never met."[34]

Ralph Gundlach, the hard-working organizer of Republican sympathizers, weahtered an extensive red square campaign that accused him of communism.[35] One of the most documented controversies was his influence on Thane Summers, who, it was suspected, adopted communism with Gundlach’s encouragement. A transcript of the testimony of Lane Summers, Thane’s father (a conservative), reveals the government’s attitude toward veterans of the Spanish Civil War in the late 1940s. Upon being asked, “You describe yourself as a middle-class American family, were you not?” the elder Summers replies, “I was loyal to our American institutions.”[36] He goes on to name Gundlach as having housed Thane for several months during his schooling at the University of Washington. Gundlach was forced to deny his influence on Thane Summers in a statement published in the Seattle Daily Times on July 25, 1948.[37] Thus, the prejudice against American Spanish Civil War veterans extended even to possible inducements for their joining the fight. The Spanish Civil War, then served as rallying point in the Pacific Northwest not only for radical sympathizers but for the conservative reactionaries who led the blacklisting campaigns of the 1940s and 50s. Its mark on the Pacific Northwestern war veterans was long-lasting, and sometimes, as in the years of the red scares, a personally intrusive one.

A rough sketch, then, can be created of the type of Pacific Northwesterner who went to Spain in 1936–37 to fight with the Republicans. He would almost certainly have been in the working class, and was likely a member of at least his local craft or industrial union, if not national organizations like the IWA or IWW. Some, like Thane Summers, were registered members of the Communist Party; a good many more supported the communists’ ends, or were involved in organizations like the Young Communist League.[38] Several were affiliated with the University of Washington, including Professor Frank Plumb. The group can therefore be seen as a collection of idealists who generally found themselves morally bound to go, or perhaps found themselves with no other job holding them here. It was not a common, ordinary decision to decide to go to Spain; volunteers were recruited by underground radicals, and often left without telling any of their friends or family. Dr. Edwin Weisfeld of Tacoma did just that. When asked about his son’s secret departure, Morey Weisfield could not explain it: “Why did he go? He’s young. I guess it was the adventure.”[39] This may have been the case for many others, but it is surely an incentive for any young person to go to war. The connection between manual labor, working as a seaman, lumberjack, or mechanic; radical political beliefs, from moderate liberalism to full-fledged communism; and fighting for the Republican cause against the oncoming flood of fascism, whether at home or in Spain, reveals social, political, and economic tensions in the Pacific Northwest during the Great Depression. The Spanish Civil War provided an outlet for the conflict.

Copyright (c) 2009, Joe McArdle
HSTAA 353 Spring 2009


[1] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie and Art, 28 Nov. 1937. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: “Nov. 28, 1937,” pp. 4-5.

[2] University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Ralph H. Gundlach Papers (Accession 686-3), Box 1, Folders 1, 3, 4, 22, and 36.

[3] Unsigned. “Party Assembly in Olympia Draws Protest and Criticism.” The Sunday News, 19 April 1937, p. 4.

[4] Unsigned. “Seattle Worker Killed in Spain, On Madrid Front.” The Sunday News, 28 October 1937.

[5] Unsigned. “Seattle Man Killed in Spain, W.C.F. Learns.” Seattle Daily Times, 22 October 1937, p. 18.

[6] Reed, Bob. “Intro by Reed,” 10 Nov. 1993. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Bob Reed Papers (Accession 3512-7), Box 2. Folder: “Intro by Reed.”

[7] Farrar, Max. Letter to Ray, ca. May/June 1937. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Bob Reed Papers (Accession 3512-7), Box 2. Folder: “Max Farrar,” p. 2.

[8]  Ibid., p. 9.

[9] Chapin, Wilfred. Letter to Jeremy Egolf, 21 October 1985. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Bob Reed Papers (Accession 3512-7), Box 2. Folder: “Wilfred Chapin.”

[10] Unsigned. “’We’ll Give Fascists Plenty of Hell,’ N.W. Unionist in Spain Says.” The Sunday News, 21 Aug. 1937, p. 3.

[11] Farrar, Max. Letter to Ray, ca. May/June 1937. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Bob Reed Papers (Accession 3512-7), Box 2. Folder: “Max Farrar,” p. 2.

[12] Farrar, Max. Letter to Ray, 1 June 1937. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Bob Reed Papers (Accession 3512-7), Box 2. Folder: “Max Farrar,” p. 4.

[13] Unsigned. “Seattle Man Killed in Spain, W.C.F. Learns.” Seattle Daily Times, 22 October 1937, p. 18.

[14] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie and Art, 13 Nov. 1935. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Nov. 13, 1935, pp. 1, 2, 4.

[15]  Ibid., p. 7.

[16] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie, 16 Nov. 1935. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Nov. 16, 1935, p. 8.

[17] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie and Art, 13 Nov. 1935. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Nov. 13, 1935, pp. 5, 6, 7.

[18]  Ibid., p.p. 7-8.

[19] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie and Art, 19 Nov. 1935. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Nov. 19, 1935, pp. 2-4.

[20]  Ibid., p. 7.

[21] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie, 4 Feb. 1936. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Feb. 4, 1936, pp. 10, 13-14.

[22]  Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[23]  Ibid., pp. 11-12.

[24] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie, 25 Mar. 1936. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Mar. 25, 1936, pp. 2, 4, 13-14.

[25] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie and Art, 28 Feb. 1936. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Feb. 28, 1936, p. 4.

[26] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie and Art, 3 Jun. 1936. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Jun. 3, 1936, p. 22.

[27] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie, 25 Mar. 1936. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Mar. 25, 1936, p. 9.

[28] Summers, Thane. Letter to Sophie and Art, Jun. 1936. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Thane Summers Papers (Accession 4473), Box 1. Folder: Jun. 1936, p. 11.

[29]  Ibid., p. 2.

[30] Peoples, John. “One man’s tale of the Lincoln brigade, part two.” The City Collegian, 6 November 1980, p. 6.

[31] Unsigned. “Chance to Serve Democracy’s Cause and Fruitless Efforts to Find Job Put Lewiston Youth in Spain’s War.” The Seattle Star, 12 March 1937, p. 18.

[32] Egolf, Jeremy. “NW Volunteers Carmichael and Bellows,” 1985. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Bob Reed Papers (Accession 3512-7), Box 2. Folder: “Edward Carmichael.”

[33]  Ibid..

[34] Colbin, Rudy. Letter to Bob Reed, 17 March 1992. University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Bob Reed Papers (Accession 3512-7), Box 2. Folder: “Rudolph Colbin,” p. 3.

[35] University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections Division, Ralph H. Gundlach Papers (Accession 686-3), Box 1, Folder 3.

[36] Committee on Un-American Activities (Canwell Committee): “Transcript of the Proceedings of the Testimony of Mr. Lane Summers, Attorney at Law,” Second Report, Un-American Activities in Washington State. Proceedings of the Washington State Legislature, 1948: Vol. 2, p. 298. Olympia, WA, 1949.

[37] Unsigned. “Gundlach Denies He Influenced Thane Summers.” Seattle Daily Times, 25 July 1948, p. 15.

[38] Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, 2008. <http://www.alba-valb.org/volunteers>. Visited 11-17 May 2009.

[39] Unsigned. “Dr. Edwin Weisfield, 25, Sails for War in Spain.” Jewish Transcript, 5 November 1937.