Alvah Bessie

Alvah Bessie

Alvah Bessie was born in New York on 4th June, 1904. After attending Columbia University he worked as an actor and stage manager in Massachusetts.

In 1928 Bessie had his first short-story, Redbird, published. He worked for the New Yorker before his novel, Dwell in the Wilderness, appeared in 1935.

Bessie held strong left-wing views and joined the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War fought alongside Robert Merriman, David Doran, Leonard Lamb, Joe Bianca and Edwin Rolfe, who he described as being "frail; he resembled a bird; he had a fine, delicate bone structure and he did not look as though he should be in an army... I do not think I have ever met a gentler guy, a less pugnacious guy, less of a soldier. But he had the iron of conviction in him just the same. He had a tiny automatic pistol some one had given him, and it became him, though I could not imagine him ever using it."

While in Spain he was interviewed by journalists, Ernst Toller, Ernest Hemingway, Vincent Sheean and Herbert Matthews. Bessie took part in the battle for Gandesa and served under Milton Wolff at the Ebro. On his return he wrote a book, Men in Battle (1939) about his experiences in Spain. He was also appointed as drama and film reviewer of the New Masses (1939-43).

Bessie moved to Hollywood and two of his screenplays were produced by Warner Brothers, Northern Pursuit(1943) and The Very Thought of You (1944). His next screenplay, the extremely patriotic, Objective Burma (1945) was nominated for an Academy Award. This was followed by Hotel Berlin (1945), Ruthless (1948) and Smart Woman (1948).

After the Second World War the House of Un-American Activities Committee began an investigation into the Hollywood Motion Picture Industry. In September 1947, the HUAC interviewed 41 people who were working in Hollywood. These people attended voluntarily and became known as "friendly witnesses". During their interviews they named several people who they accused of holding left-wing views.

Bessie appeared before the HUAC on 28th October, 1947, but like, Herbert Biberman, Lester Cole, Albert Maltz, Adrian Scott, Dalton Trumbo, Edward Dmytryk, Ring Lardner Jr., Samuel Ornitz and John Howard Lawson, he refused to answer any questions. Known as the Hollywood Ten, they claimed that the 1st Amendment of the United States Constitution gave them the right to do this.

The House of Un-American Activities Committee and the courts during appeals disagreed and all were found guilty of contempt of Congress and Bessie was sentenced to twelve months in Texarkana Federal Correctional Institution and fined $1,000.

Blacklisted by the Hollywood studios, Bessie worked as a stage manager in San Francisco. Bessie, who left the American Communist Party in 1954, resumed writing and published several novels including The Un-Americans (1957), The Symbol (1966) and One For My Baby (1980). He also wrote Inquisition in Eden (1965), an account of his experiences with the HUAC.

Alvah Bessie died of a heart attack in Terra Linda, California, on 21st July, 1985. His son, Dan Bessie, directed a movie, Hard Travelling (1986), that was based on his father's novel, Bread and Stone.

Primary Sources

(1) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)

In training most men received the chance to command at one time or another, as corporals or sergeants, and they held the jobs (in training) so long as they demonstrated the ability to command. But it was understood by all the men that stripes, as such, were only won in action, and we had many lieutenants who went to the front as common soldiers and many soldiers who emerged from action, officers. This was considered only just, and was never questioned by the men; and it was no uncommon thing for a man to be a sergeant one day, a corporal the next, a machine-gun loader on the next, and vice-versa. It was expected, too, that soldiers could be interchanged; that a squad-leader could be used as a scout or a stretcher-bearer; that a machine-gunner might work on fortifications or be used as a runner; and men were so used. Elasticity thus made for greater efficiency, and compensated for understaffed cadres.

(2) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)

At Ebro... the country was so mountainous it looked as though a few machine-guns could have held off a million men. We came back down, went up side roads, crossroads, through small towns, and on a hillside near Rasquera we found three of our men: George Watt and John Gates (then adjutant Brigade Commissar), Joe Hecht. They were lying on the ground wrapped in blankets; under the blankets they were naked. They told us they had swum the Ebro early that morning; that other men had swum and drowned; that they did not know anything of Merriman or Doran, thought they had been captured. They had been to Gandesa, had been cut off there, had fought their way out, travelled at night, been sniped at by artillery. You could see they were reluctant to talk, and so we just sat down with them. Joe looked dead.

Below us there were hundreds of men from the British, the Canadian Battalions; a food truck had come up, and they were being fed. A new Matford roadster drove around the hill and stopped near us, and two men got out we recognized. One was tall, thin, dressed in brown corduroy, wearing horn-shelled glasses. He had a long, ascetic face, firm lips, a gloomy look about him. The other was taller, heavy, red-faced, one of the largest men you will ever see; he wore steel-rimmed glasses and a bushy mustache. These were Herbert Matthews of The New York Times and Ernest Hemingway, and they were just as relieved to see us as we were to see them. We introducd ourselves and they asked questions. They had cigarettes; they gave us Lucky Strikes and Chesterfields. Matthews seemed to be bitter; permanently so.

Hemingway was eager as a child, and I smiled remembering the first time I had seen him, at a Writers' Congress in New York. He was making his maiden public speech, and when it didn't read right, he got mad at it, repeating the sentences he had fumbled, with exceptional vehemence. Now he was like a big kid, and you liked him. He asked questions like a kid: "What then? What happened then? And what did you do? And what did he say? And then what did you do?" Matthews said nothing, but he took notes on a folded sheet of paper. "What's your name?" said Hemingway; I told him. "Oh," he said, "I'm awful glad to see you; I've read your stuff." I knew he was glad to see me; it made me feel good, and I felt sorry about the times I had lambasted him in print; I hoped he had forgotten them, or never read them. "Here," he said, reaching in his pocket. "I've got more." He handed me a full pack of Lucky Strikes.

(3) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)

We began to be aware of exactly how bad the situation was. The Brigade went in with about two thousand men, came out with thirteen hundred; the Lincoln Battalion went in with about five hundred, and now we had about a hundred twenty. Most of the men who had come up from Tarrazona with me for their first action were gone, though many old-timers too had not yet appeared. Sam Grant, decorated just before the action, was gone-steel helmet and all. Joe Bianca, the Italian-American seaman from the machine-gun section, was with us, but half his men were gone, including the social-worker who had reprimanded Irving that day. We lost the commanders of Companies 1, 2 and 3, the only companies we had. We lost the commissars of Companies 1, 2 and 3. Wolff had not yet returned, nor Leonard Lamb of the Brigade staff. Undoubtedly many were still behind the Fascist lines, wandering through the hills toward the Ebro; or so we thought, for they never came. Mail came up with Harry Hakam, the mailman; and we sat crouched around a lighted match under a blanket in a deep ditch, while he went through the mail. He read hundreds of names, but only about fifteen men claimed letters. It took him half an hour to read all the names on the letters, and after the first few times nobody would say, "Dead" or "Missing"; we just kept silent.

(4) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)

We issued rifles, ammo, hand-grenades; I checked on these details and met a new recruit. He said his name was Rolfe; I looked at him. "Edwin Rolfe ?" I said, and he said, "Yes." "The Edwin Rolfe ? The poet?" "The same," he said. "Christ!" I said, "You know Carnovsky of the Group Theater, and Phoebe Brand." "Sure," he said. "Christ!" I said, "they told me you were here in Spain; that I should look you up and say hello." We laughed. "Hello," he said. He had been editing the Volunteer for Liberty, our publication, first edited by Ralph Bates. He was frail; he resembled a bird; he had a fine, delicate bone structure and he did not look as though he should be in an army. I asked him what he was doing here and how he liked it, and he said it was pretty tough at first, but that he liked it fine. He had volunteered to quit the desk job when the call came after the Fascists reached the sea. I do not think I have ever met a gentler guy, a less pugnacious guy, less of a soldier. But he had the iron of conviction in him just the same. He had a tiny automatic pistol some one had given him, and it became him, though I could not imagine him ever using it. I felt better to have another writer on the spot. Writers will understand just what I mean.

(5) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)

Joe North returned again, this time with Ernst Toller, the exiled German dramatist, and a young man whose name was Daniel Roosevelt, who told me he was a correspondent for my old paper, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. That is to say, he had agreed to send them articles from Spain that they might publish if they cared to, but he had not written any and was going back to Paris any day. Toller was a quiet, heavy-set man, who wandered about talking to the soldiers, asking questions; how much did we get to eat, and did we get enough to smoke, and watching the Fascist airplanes through a pair of opera-glasses, when everybody else was under cover. "Who's that dope standing out there in the open?" some one shouted; but Toller stood and watched, changing his position to get a better view, and saying quietly, "We did not have so many planes during the World War."

It was quite definite now that Joe North was going to go home; that Edwin Rolfe would take over his job as correspondent, and that I would take Edwin's job.

(6) Alvah Bessie, Men in Battle (1939)

Austria is gone and Czechoslovakia is gone, and Spain is gone. But Franco has saved Spain from Bolshevism, as Mussolini saved Italy from Bolshevism (and Ethiopia and Albania), and Hitler saved Germany and Austria and Czechoslavakia, and will try to save others. For it is true that there were Communists in Spain; it is true that there were Communists in the Loyalist Army, some of them in positions of command, many of them in the ranks of the International Brigades. And they were among our most trusted men, they were among our most reliable men; their loyalty to the Spanish Government was unquestioned; they assumed responsibility and fulfilled it; they took on the toughest jobs and did them; their energy and their organizational genius gave cohesive strength to the Army and to the people. And Spain has been saved from them, just as France will be saved from them, and Great Britain, and the United States will be saved from them if the people who pretend to see Communism under every bed and in every teapot (not to mention every piece of liberal legislation and every attempt to ameliorate the suffering of the world's millions) have their way about it.

General Franco has saved Spain, and the late Pope and the present Pope have blessed his arms and his purpose, and committed their children to his tender mercies. Yet wherever he came in Spain to liberate the people they fled from him; and when he marched on Barcelona, blasting his way through human flesh with Italian and German machines, a half a million men, women and children fled over the border into France - and these were only the people who were strong enough to do so, the people who were confined in Catalonia...

The martyrdom of these men, women and children of Spain, of these men from other lands, has not been wasted on the world. Spain is not lost; Spain was a sacrifice. Spain was and is a turning-point in the history of human institutions, and not only for the fact that it demonstrated the invincible and indomitable courage of the working people of the world. If Spain had not resisted, France would have been a Fascist state long since. If Spain had not sacrificed its best sons and daughters and their blood and their future, Fascism would be spread still farther throughout the world. Spain awoke the world to its danger, and the tide is turning. The democratic people of the world saw with their own eyes what could be done to stem the tide of Fascist barbarism, by a people who had nothing to fight with but their hands. Spain awoke millions throughout the many nations of the earth to a realization of the danger that faces them. It held off the monster.

(7) Alvah Bessie, The Spanish Civil War (1975)

Thirty-eight years ago last July, Francisco Franco, aided by his Nazi German and Italian fascist allies, started a rebellion against the legally elected Spanish Republic he had sworn to defend. That rebellion ended three years later with the defeat of the Republic by the fascist powers, but the people of Spain have not yet spoken the last word and their voices are heard more loudly every day.

The Franco regime would not have lasted this long were it not for the support given Franco during his treasonous uprising by the Axis, as well as the passive complicity and later the active assistance provided by the great capitalist democracies - especially the United States of America.

Had we sold arms to the Republic - its right under international law - the rebellion would have ended in its first month. Had we armed the thousands of Spanish refugees in France the last days of World War 11 -and they were ready and anxious to move, and many did - Franco would have gone down the drain with Hitler and Mussolini. Had we not taken the place of Germany and Italy as procurer of arms, money and political support, beginning almost immediately afier World War II ended, the new regime would have foundered in bankruptcy and could have been removed by the Spanish people with no loss of blood.

(8) Alvah Bessie, The Spanish Civil War (1975)

We used to say that if we survived the war we would get home just in time to fight in a bigger one. World War II started five months after Madrid was betrayed-and occupied. A new organization called The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) attempted to enlist en masse the Monday after Pearl Harbor. Our offer was refused but of the 1,500 who returned (200 did not because they were aliens), at least 1,200 served in World War II, either in the armed forces or the merchant marine.

(9) Alvah Bessie, The Spanish Civil War (1975)

Milton Wolff was the last commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, a major at the age of 23. He had impressed a number of U.S. military men, stateside politicians and foreign correspondents by his natural-born qualities of military leadership, his achievements and his obvious potential. They tried to get him an appointment to West Point and/or a commission and failed, but with the aid of General William (Wild Bill) Donovan, head of the Office of Strategic Services, they managed to place Wolff with British Special Services after the fall of Paris and the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia.

He served as a civilian with Major equivalency recruiting "proved" antifascists (International Brigade veterans) for behind-the-lines work in occupied Europe. After Pearl Harbor he was transferred (in rank) to OSS and recruited Lincoln men for the same type of work: men like Irving Goff, Vincent Losowski, Bill Aalto and Mike Jiminez, three of whom had been among the handful of American guerrilleros in Spain.

When he discovered that OSS was also recruiting the ragtags of European royalty, nationalists, actual neo-fascists and other off-scourings of alleged "resistance" groups, he quit the outfit in disgust and enlisted in the Army of the United States as a private.

He was then held at Camps Dix and Wheeler with men suspected of disloyalty: German and Italian nationals, pimps and criminals. He protested and was ultimately co-opted for OCS-and thrown out eight weeks later, like others of similar background. He then launched-a long fight to get into action and was assigned in swift succession to Chemical Warfare, Alaskan Replacement, Puget Sound Patrol (watching for invading Japanese submarines) and to a longshore battalion in North Africa.

In desperation he appealed to Donovan but was shifted to longshore work in India, missing a plane the General had sent for him. He had risen in rank, by this time, to corporal, sergeant and second lieutenant. In India he managed to hook up with General (Vinegar Joe) Stilwell as liaison officer with the Chinese engaged in long-range penetration into Burma, and came down with malaria. It was there that Donovan finally caught up with him and had him flown to Italy where Goff, Losowski and his other comrades had met the General and said they needed him.

Frozen in rank for the rest of the war, Wolff and his comrades successfully dropped men, money, munitions and propaganda behind the lines in Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece, as well as in Italy. He went on one mission behind the Nazi lines in northern Italy and all the men-except for Wolff and the guide-were captured. When the defeat of Germany was imminent, he attempted to get help for the Spanish Maquis who were all set to march from the Haute-Savoie to the Pyrenees in an attempt to liberate Spain. This operation was said to have been approved not only by Donovan but by Franklin Roosevelt, but it was overruled by Eisenhower at the insistence of Churchill. Wolff was rushed out of Europe and shipped home.

(10) Alvah Bessie, The Spanish Civil War (1975)

Wolff himself served as National Commander of the Veterans for many years after the war, working also with the Civil Rights Congress and every committee set up to aid Spanish refugees or political prisoners. He was the sparkplug of VALB's campaign to keep fascist Spain out of the United Nations during 1946-48, and he was involved in the Willie McGee case in Jackson, Mississippi, touring the south before the Freedom Marchers were organized, helping save the lives of the Martinsville Seven and raising $2,000,000 in bail money for Smith Act victims and helping to save the XVth Brigade's commissar Steve Nelson from literal death in a Pittsburgh dungeon. Nelson was held under a Pennsylvania "sedition" act frame-up and had been sentenced to 20 years by a judge who was an outspoken admirer of Benito Mussolini.

But the attack on the veterans surfaced again in 1953 when a governmental agency, created to forward the Cold War at home and which was the brainchild of the late Senator Pat McCarran (decorated by Franco for his sterling aid to the dictator) started to hear charges against VALB that had been voiced before.

This was the Subversive Activities Control Board, a creature of the McCarran Act that was passed over President Harry Truman's veto in 1950. The allegation-advanced by six deserters from the Brigade and other professional witnesses-was that the Lincoln Battalion and its successor, The Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, were subversive organizations probably under the domination of and certainly doing the work of the U.S. Communist Party. This particular fight went on throughout most of 1954 and in 1955 SACB ordered the organization to register as a Communist front, which it promptly refused to do.

Individual veterans were also persecuted under the Smith Act which was allegedly designed to punish-not overt attempts to overthrow the government by force and violence, not teaching and/or advocating the overthrow, but conspiring to teach and advocate... Any lawyer will tell you it is far easier to "prove" conspiracy than it is to prove a man or an organization committed an overt act-when he or it didn't.

Lincoln victims spent many years in jail for committing so nebulous a crime. They included:

• Robert Thompson, captain in Spain where he was wounded twice, soldier in the South Pacific in World War II where he was decorated (like Herman Bottcher) with the Distinguished Service Cross by General Clark Eichelberger for service "above and beyond the call of duty." To make the cheese more binding, jail officials in New York were suspected of inspiring a physical attack on Thompson by a Yugoslav fascist inmate who had reason to believe he would be dealt with more lightly under the immigration laws. He fractured Thompson's skull with an iron pipe. After he recovered from that - and he very nearly didn't - and was sent to Federal prison for seven years, the Veterans Administration attempted to take away his 100 percent disability pension (malaria and a new attack of an apparently arrested case of tuberculosis). Once he was safely dead, much too young, our august government attempted to deny his widow his pension and prevent his burial in Arlington National Cemetery. In each instance, it took a nationwide campaign to redress these grievances.

• Irving Weissman, twice wounded in Spain, three years in the Army of the United States, holder of six battle stars and veteran of the invasions of Anzio, Salerno and southern France. (Five years under Pennsylvania's "sedition" act, reversed by a higher court.)

• John Gates, Lieutenant-Colonel in Spain (political commissar of the XVth International Brigade), paratrooper in World War It. (Five years.) Gates later had a change of heart about his political affiliations but has never denounced and/or renounced his pride in his record in Spain.

• Saul Wellman, officer in Spain, wounded at Bastogne, eight months in hospital and rated 100 percent disabled. This was later reduced to 50-percent disability and once he was convicted (1954) the Veterans Administration not only stopped his pension but billed him in the sum of $9,581.85 for the benefits it had already paid him! (Conviction reversed by a higher court.)

These four men - and Steve Nelson (also convicted under the Smith Act) - were among the handful of VALB men who became Communist Party functionaries, but there were many others who were similarly charged and similarly imprisoned. For it is really very easy to convict people who have committed no crime if you make use of that classic diagnosis-by-parallel beloved of the John Birch Society and American Legion brass hats, and both the government and the many witch-hunting committees throughout the land have used it regularly: "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck."

(11) Milton Woolf, statement (13th September 1954)

We have listened to the petitioner (then U.S. Attorney General Herbert J. Brownell) and to the petitioner's witnesses, and from their lips we have heard all the old tales and lies of the defeated Axis, once more resurrected, as the petitioner attempted to rewrite history to fit the fancy of this hearing. Perhaps what happens to those now present and involved in this hearing in the years to come is of little importance. But what is important is that the petitioner, representing the administration now in power, an administration which has entered into a military alliance with Franco Spain, is determined to rewrite history in such a fashion as to accommodate that alliance and its purposes. And perhaps the panel sitting here as a result of the efforts of Senator McCarran, who is the evil genius of the military alliance... and at the same time the author of the Act under which we are being heard, can do little, under these circumstances, but serve the same ends as does counsel for the petitioner. While what has been happening in this hearing has been obscured by a conspiracy of silence, it has served to set the stage for such events as took place in the historical closing days of the 83rd Congress, and in the forging of closer links with the remnants of resurgent fascism throughout the world.

(12) Alvah Bessie, The Spanish Civil War (1975)

Of the 1,300 American volunteers who returned from Spain, we lost another 400 in World War II, and it is said we won more combat decorations than any other comparable group of men has ever earned. This may be true but there never has been a group to compare to us, in the sense that we and our comrades of the other brigades were the first and only spontaneously gathered international volunteer army in the history of the world.

Of the men mentioned in this narrative, many have died since 1939, and some of them, like Aaron, cannot be forgotten. One turned up at a party at Vincent Sheean's New York house early in 1939. He was hilariously funny that night and the next morning we read that he had hanged himself: Ernst Toller, the anti-Nazi dramatist and poet. He had been unable to adjust himself to what he saw as a life in exile and which need not have been one at all-had he only waited....

Edwin Rolfe, poet and author of the first history of the Lincoln Battalion, whose eloquent volume of poems, First Love, expressed what all of us have always felt about Spain, was in Hollywood, blacklisted and unemployable when he was taken by a heart attack on 25 May 1954. Two wars (for he was in the AUS also) were too much for so physically frail a man and unemployability added final insult to the injury.

Ernest Hemingway committed suicide on 2 July 1961. He had apparently felt that he was through-both as a writer and a man. His dedication to the cause of the Spanish Republic was never questioned, even though the VALB men attacked his novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls, as a piece of romantic nonsense when it was not slanderous of many Spanish leaders we all revered, and scarcely representative of what the war was all about.