Anatomy of an Anticommunist Fabrication: The Death of Oliver Law

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Oliver Law (far left) was the first African American to command white American troops.

Exactly 111 years ago, on October 23, 1900, who has now become known as the famous African American Communist who led the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Oliver Law was born. Since his death during the Spanish Civil War, many written accounts on the nature of his death have been published – most of which were anti-communist by and large. There’s only one written account that’s been able to truly look back and tell the true story of what happened to Oliver Law – one in which comes, not from an anti-communist background, but of quite the contrary.

The following article was originally written in 2008 by Grover Furr, English Professor at Montclair State University: 

By Grover Furr

Abstract: For four days during 1937 Oliver Law, a member of the Communist Party USA, was the Commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion of volunteers defending the Spanish Republic against the fascist forces of General Francisco Franco. Law was the first Black American appointed as commander of white troops in battle. William Herrick, a Lincoln Battalion veteran who became a fierce anticommunist, is the sole source of a story that Law was killed by his own men. In anticommunist circles this story continues to circulate as truth. The present article traces it to its origins, examines its evolution overtime, and proves that Herrick lied.

“The history of the Spanish civil war is consumed by mythology and legend, so much so that it is extremely difficult to separate fact from fiction”

Peter N. Carroll, The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, p. vii.

Moe Fishman, executive secretary and treasurer of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (VALB) for more than half a century, died on August 6 2007. His passing was met with an outpouring of positive appreciation even from some normally anticommunist sources, including one in The New York Times. [1] The tributes to Moe and through him to the Lincoln vets generally will serve to remind us that the effort of the International Brigades to support Republican Spain during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) has long drawn the admiration of many people who have never been communists or even, in other respects, pro-communist.

The capitalist nations of Western Europe and the United States opposed helping the Spanish Republic in any way and in fact embargoed such help, while secretly aiding the very fascists they would soon have to fight. Meanwhile the Brigades, including their American component, were organized by the Communist International led by the Soviet Union and, in a very direct way, by Joseph Stalin. The only country, aside from Mexico, to help the Spanish Republic, the Soviet Union provided a huge amount of aid in both materiel and men.

None of this could have happened without strong support from Stalin, whose statement of support, printed in the October 16 1936 issue of Pravda (and on page two of The New York Times the same day) reads:

Madrid. To the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Spain. To Comrade José Diaz.

The workers of the Soviet Union are only doing their duty by promising their strongest support to the revolutionary masses of Spain. They recognize that the liberation of Spain from the oppression of the fascist reactionaries is not just the private cause of the Spanish people but is the concern of the whole of advanced and progressive humanity.

Brotherly greetings!

J. Stalin

Beginning with the Cold War, the communist movement, and especially Stalin himself, have been virtually demonized on almost all sides. Soviet communist leaders like Nikita S. Khrushchev and later Mikhail Gorbachev, joined the followers of Leon Trotsky, ordinary capitalists, and the crypto-, neo-, and fascist Far Right in claiming Stalin was as bad as, if not worse than, Hitler himself.

Anarchists and Trotskyists attack “Stalin” – a crude synecdoche for the Soviet leadership and the USSR generally – for preventing a social revolution in Spain that was, or so they say, virtually in process, because they could not control it. Meanwhile overt pro-capitalists oppose Soviet aid for the opposite reason. Under the guise of supporting Spanish independence the communists were maneuvering to bring about a Bolshevik-style revolution.

Some writers, like former communist-turned-neoconservative Ronald Radosh, make both claims at the same time. The “logic” that unites this seemingly illogical agreement is this: all agree that Stalin was a monster. It then follows that anything the communist movement was doing was really in pursuit of monstrous aims.

For this historical paradigm the Spanish Civil War presents a problem. If as alleged by anticommunists the communist movement and Stalin were really the sworn enemies of freedom, how could they have done something as “good” as fighting for democracy in Spain, while the “good” Western “democracies” of the “Free World” worked for the defeat of Spanish democracy and the victory of fascism?

Rather than attempt to discover the truth anticommunist historians have tried to prove that the communists were “really” up to no good. The result has been falsehood, and there are many anticommunist lies about the International Brigades that masquerade as fact. This essay is an examination of one of them.

Oliver Law was the first Black American appointed as commander of white troops in battle. Law was appointed on July 5, 1937 as commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion (henceforth ALB [2]), part of the XVth International Brigade fighting for the Republic of Spain against the rebellion led by General Francisco Franco. According to eyewitness accounts of men under his command, Law died a hero’s death leading a charge against Francoist forces on Mosquito Hill at the Battle of Brunete on July 9, 1937.

In 1969 a story of how Law died was published that diametrically contradicts this account. In that year Cecil B. Eby, an historian at the University of Michigan, wrote the following passage in his history of the ALB, Between the Bullet and the Lie.

The morning of July 9 dawned hotter than any of the preceding… Among the Lincolns, Nelson led the left wing, Law the right… After advancing perhaps a hundred yards, Oliver Law’s group ran into another ambush. “Over there!” yelled a volunteer, pointing to a clump of undergrowth on their left flank. Law turned his head to see and dropped with a bullet in the belly. There are two irreconcilable accounts of the aftermath. The “official” version argues that Jerry Weinberg, Law’s runner, pulled him behind a tree. Law ordered him to take off his boots (an anti-Texan gesture?) and his Sam Browne, then lapsed into a coma from which he did not recover. Half and hour elapsed before he could be evacuated. … Subsequently Law was buried near the river under the inscription “Here lies the first Negro commander of white Americans” or, according to a variant report, under his surname and approximate age. The “anti-official” version claims that a Negro machine-gunner swooped forward and performed a joyous dance of death around the / body. Others spat and urinated on it. Law’s body was left where it had fallen and was bloated by the sun into a horrible balloon.

The note at this point expands this “anti-official version”:

Some veterans aver that the bullet that killed Oliver Law was fired by a disgruntled Lincoln who was convinced, after two previous ambushes, that Law had to be removed from command before he got all of them killed. This former volunteer is still living but is “not available” for an interview.” (Eby 1969, 134-5 & note p. 135)

Eby’s concluding sentence in his account of Law’s death gives us the starting point for our present investigation.

Because both versions are sworn to, the truth, in this instance, seems to consist of whatever one wishes to believe.

In his review for The New York Times Hugh Thomas, historian of the Spanish Civil War, and – not incidentally – Conservative Member of Parliament, wrote of it: “I doubt whether there need by another study of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.” [3] Eby’s book became the basic anticommunist reference on the ALB (we will cite the pro-communist histories below).

In 2007 Eby published Comrades and Commissars: The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War, a revised and updated his history of the ALB. In it his account of Law’s death reverses the order of these two versions.:

…Law went down with a bullet in the belly. He died within a few hours. There are two irreconcilable accounts of what followed, one that claims he was shot by one of his men, disturbed by his poor leadership – Law had already led his men into several ambushes – and the other in complete denial of this.

Eby concludes as he did in 1969

Because both versions have been sworn to, the “truth” depends on whom one prefers to believe. [4] In so much of Spanish civil war history, truth took second place to politics.

This article will, first, investigate the evidence supporting what Eby calls “both versions” of how Oliver Law was killed.

Is the evidence for each of these diametrically opposite accounts so evenly balanced that no conclusion is possible? Eby implies as much by his statements, repeated thirty-eight years apart, that “the truth . . . seems to consist of whatever one wishes to believe”; “. . .the ‘truth’ depends upon whom one prefers to believe.” We will also consider Eby’s statement that “truth took second place to politics.”

Did Oliver Law, first Black commander of American troops, die a hero in an heroic anti-Fascist struggle led by the international Communist movement? Was his appointment one more example of communist dedication to fighting racism, to multi-racial unity, a small foreshadowing of that just society of equality to which the Communist International aspired and whose ideal attracted so many millions of people in the 20th century?

Or was Law’s appointment and death a few days later evidence of communist cynicism? Was Law incompetent, given command because Communist Party leaders put the importance of having a docile, obedient black commander above all else, including the appointment of a more capable black commander? Was Law killed not by the fascist enemy but by his own men, infuriated that he had betrayed them by leading them into ambush after ambush? Did Law’s death at the hands of these men represent, in miniature, the rejection and bankruptcy of the communist cause in the war, the communist “betrayal” of Spain and of the volunteers who went there?

Eby’s 1969 account represents the first appearance in the history of the ALB of the story of Law’s supposed death at the hand of the men under his command. Though he cited no names, Eby clearly implies multiple sources:

Some veterans aver that the bullet that killed Oliver Law was fired by a disgruntled Lincoln. . . [Emphasis added]

In his 1969 book first Eby presents what he calls the “official” account – that Law died a hero’s death, and gives the “anti-official” account afterwards. This 1969 “anti-official” account is of a Negro machine-gunner rejoicing at Law’s death, while other Lincolns “spat” and “urinated” on Law’s body and left it to bloat in the sun. This is a story of some of Law’s men expressing their hatred of Law, but not of killing him. That story is relegated to lesser, footnote status.

By contrast, Eby’s 2007 account reverses the order of these versions while suppressing one of them altogether. Here the story that Law was killed by one of his men is promoted from a footnote to the main text. It is the only story of Law’s death that Eby recounts at all. The story of Law’s heroic death in battle is suppressed completely. We are just told that another story exists that stands “in complete denial” of the first. The word “denial” suggests that the story that Law had been killed by his own men came first, since obviously one cannot “deny” a story that does not already exist.

In fact, it is the other way around: the “Law killed by Lincolns” story stands in “denial” to the story of Law’s heroic death as a respected commander. In his 2007 book Eby gives no details of this story at all. In effect, the “official version” of 1969 – Law dying as a hero in battle – disappears, to be replaced by what was in 1969 the “anti-official” version, relegated there to a mere footnote.

Any reader who notices this will naturally wonder what new evidence justified the “promotion” of the one story and the “demotion” to the vanishing point of the other. The answer, as we shall see, is: Less than none.

The wording of Eby’s 1969 account (“some veterans”) has given rise to speculation among historians of the ALB as to who these sources could be. In an interview Eby has admitted that he has only one source for this story: William Herrick. Herrick, who fought in the Lincoln Battalion under the name William Harvey, [5] was the most outspoken of a small group of Lincoln veterans who became intensely disillusioned with the American Communist Party’s, and the Soviet Union’s, roles in the Spanish Civil War. Eby and Herrick met in Spain in 1967. The two men remained good friends until Herrick’s death in 2004.

Herrick’s version of Law’s death presents a number of interesting problems. For one thing, Herrick wrote it first in 1969 in fictional form, in his novel ¡Hermanos! He did not write it down in non-fictional form until 1983; for publication until 1998. But Herrick told the story orally many times.

Herrick’s 1969 fictional version of Law’s death is strikingly different from Eby’s account of the same year for which Herrick was – we now know – the only source. At the same time, Herrick’s fictional version is very similar to another fictional version published a decade earlier. In 1959 Bernard Wolfe published a novel titled The Great Prince Died. A former “secretary” to Leon Trotsky [6] Wolfe luridly depicts the killing of an incompetent black officer by his fellow Lincolns. Wolfe’s account of “Sheridan Justice”, the character obviously based on Oliver Law, is closely similar to Herrick’s 1969 fictional story of his “Law” character, named “Cromwell Webster.” [7]

At the back of the 1975 reprint of Wolfe’s novel (retitled Trotsky Dead) we find the following note:

The Sheridan Justice incident is not an invention. Such an ill-equipped American black, by name Oliver Law, was promoted to an important command in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion in Spain, and was killed in an insane orgy by some of his overpressed comrades. He was later glorified in publications of the Friends of the Lincoln Brigade for his “heroic death in action,” but the true story of his end is known to more / than a few veterans of the Spanish fighting. It was told to me by William Herrick, himself a veteran of the civil war, and subsequently recorded by him in his excellent novel about the Spanish tragedy, Hermanos (New York, 1969). (Wolfe, TD 365-6)

Herrick told Alan Wald “that HERMANOS is a novel, a work of art – not thinly veiled history or autobiography or documentary.” [8] However, Wolfe is very explicit that Herrick had told him that “Webster” was Oliver Law, and that not only the fictional character Sheridan Justice, but also the real person Oliver Law had been killed in the way Herrick and he, Wolfe, had described in their novels.

If we had only Wolfe’s and Herrick’s fictional accounts, we might naturally think that Herrick had imagined the grisly story of Law’s murder by a group of his own men. But this paragraph of Wolfe’s is printed at the end of the 1975 reprint edition of his novel together with many other notes of an historical, non-fictional nature. Thanks to this note we can be certain that in the 1950s Herrick was telling a version of Law’s death very different from the account he gave Eby between 1967 and 1969, when it appeared in Eby’s book, and he was telling it not as fiction, but as what had really happened.

To Wolfe, and in his own novel, Herrick described Law as encircled by a number of the men in his command, brutally taunted, gut-shot, and left to die slowly and painfully as the men looked on. In Eby’s 1969 account, which he acknowledges he got from Herrick, a group of men participate in celebrating Law’s death and in desecrating his corpse. But this “group action” takes place after Law is killed, while the murder itself is done by only one of the soldiers. In Eby’s 2007 account the “group action” has vanished and the killing of Law “by one of his men” is, for Eby, the canonical account, the only version of Law’s death in his book.

Herrick recounted his version of Law’s death in print twice. In the July 22, 1986 edition of the Village Voice Paul Berman published the transcript of a polemically anti-communist interview with Herrick.

. . .No one who reads ¡Hermanos! Is likely to forget the killing of an officer in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion by his own men. . .Is any of this real? Was an officer killed that way?

His name was Oliver Law.

That’s rather surprising. In one history sympathetic to the Communists in Spain, Law is said to have died in full military glory, leading a charged. . .. Oliver Law was black. For many years he has been celebrated as the first black American known to have commanded a mostly white military unit. Why was he killed?

First of all, he was terribly incompetent, and secondly he was very, very frightened. He was in a panic, a paralysis. There were a lot of good black soldiers in the battalion. If they wanted to have a black commander of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, they could have chosen one of those guys. We didn’t know at that time why the Party chose this particular guy; maybe someone knows now. It’s an example of Party patronizing of blacks.

But on what basis do you believe he was killed by his own men?

This friend of mine and I spent some time with a couple of fellows from the battalion, shooting the breeze, playing cards, drinking wine, and all that. He and another friend of mine, a black guy who happened to be an extremely good soldier, should have been the commander, began to tell me. And it turned out that Law had led the battalion, at least the part under his command, into a number of ambushes. And they felt they could no longer abide him, he would just destroy the rest of them. So they got into battle position and at one point there he was, he hove into sight somehow, and there were a group of them, and they all looked at each other, they nodded, and he was shot. And it was a pretty nasty thing because he bloated up, they danced around him, he was in a coma. Somebody said they pissed on him. Later on they refused to bury him. He lay there for days. (p. 24)

This version is inconsistent with all the previous ones: Herrick’s and Wolfe’s fictional accounts, and Eby’s 1969 version (as well as his 2007 version), though more consistent with the fictional versions since both Wolfe’s and Herrick’s novels describe a “group action” as Herrick does here.

One important incongruity is Herrick’s statement that “they got into battle formation.” Clearly this “group action” could not have taken place either in or just prior to a battle, when the whole unit would have been present. Nor could the men have “danced around him.”

Herrick makes it clear that his is a hearsay account. He claims he learned about it at second hand, from the men directly involved. Herrick never claimed he witnessed Law’s death. Indeed, he could not have done: Herrick was wounded on February 23, 1937, and never returned to combat. He spent the rest of his time in Spain in hospitals or recovering from his wound.

So there are two distinct stories in play. The first is that of the “drinking party”. The second is the story of Law’s death that Herrick claimed to have heard at this party from the mouths of those who claimed they had killed Law. To this point no one has remarked on the significance of the fact that Herrick was telling two stories, not one.

The second and last time Herrick related this story in print was in his memoir Jumping the Line, published in 1998. His account of Law’s murder in the Village Voice interview had created a sensation. ALB veterans and others had picketed the Voice for publishing Herrick’s hostile account of Law, and the duel of accusations and counter-accusations continued in the pages of the paper for weeks. It had become a story that any historian of the ALB had to grapple with.

In The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a sympathetic yet critical history published in 1994, Peter Carroll went to some lengths to check all the versions of Law’s death he could find. He naturally paid special attention to Herrick’s account. Carroll concluded that Herrick’s account was false. (Carroll, Odyssey 138-9) This is the context for Herrick’s final version of 1998, which follows:

Daily we met in a room on an Albacete side street rented by [Hy] Stone. . . One morning, Doug [Roach], Joe [Gordon], and I arrived at the room. . . and only Hy Stone was there. .. Doug had his bottle of manzanilla brandy with him . . . He was now rarely without the bottle, yet he never slurred his words, never showed symptoms of drunkenness, was always himself, spoke quietly, tersely. Suddenly that morning he began to talk about Oliver Law, he just seemed to have to get it out, and when he stopped for a sip, Joe picked it up. Thus, they alternated in telling me that awful tale of woe, how they’d killed Oliver Law at Mosquito (Mesquite, really) Crest. Life or death, Joe said.

As my friends told me this harrowing tale, I could feel their hurt,. . . As I laced my nerves with the sharp brandy, Hy Stone, who lost his second brother to the war in one of the ambushes / Law led them into, said, I thought we agreed not to tell anyone. Joe then asked me to promise to keep their secret.

Doug, it appeared to me, was suffering from guilt. Joe, it is true, was not; still, he had to get it off his chest, both of them had to. . .. Hy Stone, despite himself, confirmed the story. (pp. 208-9)

In the early 1940s, when I became reacquainted and then close friends with Mickey Mickenberg, he told me about the fragging of Oliver Law in the same details as related by Joe and Doug. He also added two details they had not mentioned: who it was that actually put a bullet into Law’s gut (does it matter now?), and that Law lay dead for a couple of days, no one wanting to bury him. Strangely, and for the life of me, I can’t now remember whether Mickey was a participant. Unconsciously, am I protecting him? If he wasn’t, then either Joe or Doug told him, since they were close friends of his. Mickey also told me that when he was in Madrid shortly after the close of the Brunete offensive, he ran into Bob Gladnick and told him about it. Gladnick has confirmed that.

On April 22, 1983 – I marked the date – when I visited Randall Pete Smith, who called himself a closet anti-Communist (we had become sort of sub rosa friends), then the official historian of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (sic), he told me Nelson had done an in-house investigation of Law’s death, and two vets had confirmed my version, and that Nelson finally said, yes, Law was a mistake, but no one pissed on him as he lay dying, as I had reported. It would be nice to believe that.

An officer’s runner who was alongside Law when he was hit has said it never happened, he was there. I wonder if he had a criminologist with him at the front to examine Law’s body in order to determine where the bullet came from. Since he was so close to Law, I wonder if he can tell us who, as Law lay dying, expropriated his handsome John Brown belt and shiny, custom-made Spanish boots. (pp. 212-3)

In this story Herrick both gives and withholds details. Herrick refers to “that awful tale”. . .”this harrowing tale”. But he doesn’t retell it, so the reader doesn’t know which “tale” Herrick means. He gives no additional information about how Law was killed or what happened afterwards. It is still a “group action”, about “how they’d killed Oliver Law.”

But there’s no question any longer of one man shooting Law and the rest “dancing” around his body, “rejoicing”, “pissing” on him, leaving his body to bloat in the sun, etc. “They” – the group – killed Law. For other details we will have to refer to some earlier, known version of the “tale.” But which one?

There are important new details here. For one thing, Law was killed at Mosquito Crest. This is the same place where other witnesses, who angrily reject Herrick’s version, saw Law was shot while leading the charge against the fascist forces. By conceding that Law was shot in battle, Herrick tacitly but definitively withdrew his earlier account of Law’s death in “an insane orgy” (Wolfe’s words), taunted by his killers while he slowly died.

He was also tacitly altering his Village Voice account in which the fighters were in “battle position” but in which nothing is said about fighting actually going on. The 1998 account leaves no room for a detail Herrick had obviously told Eby for his 1969 work, that “a Negro machine-gunner” – this could only have been Doug Roach – who allegedly “swooped forward and performed a joyous dance of death around the body.” Other accounts of the battle of Mosquito Ridge leave no possibility that anybody was “dancing” around Law’s body or anywhere else.

Herrick does reveal the names of three of the alleged participants in Law’s murder. By 1998 all were dead. Doug Roach had died in 1938. Joe Gordon was killed during World War II. But Hy Stone lived long enough to be interviewed about Herrick’s story by Peter Carroll in 1990.

Herrick alleges other details. He says that Mickey Mickenberg [9] knew the same details of the story as Herrick had been told, and also knew the identity of the man who had actually shot Law. Though Herrick does not reveal the name of Law’s alleged murderer in his memoir he told Cecil Eby that it was Hy Stone. Herrick also affirms that Bob Gladnick learned the same story of Law’s death from Joe Gordon. This gives us additional information.

Mickenberg, who like Herrick had broken sharply with the Communist Party some time after returning home, died in 1960. [10] Bob Gladnick, also dead by 1998, had written about Law to Cecil Eby in the 1960s, and had written a letter to the Village Voice in 1986 in support of Herrick’s interview. But neither in his correspondence with Eby – long letters, full of negative material about the Lincolns – nor in his Village Voice letter did Gladnick ever confirm Herrick’s claim that he too had heard the story of Law’s death from Joe Gordon or from anybody. That is not quite proof that he did not hear it. But it is very suggestive.

In his letters to Eby Gladnick seems determined to lay out as much “dirt” on the Lincolns and the Communist Party as he can remember. In his Voiceletter Gladnick praises the paper for printing Berman’s interview with Herrick. But instead of confirming Herrick’s tale about Law, Gladnick praises the anarchists and says the Russian military advisers were anti-Semitic (Gladnick spoke Russian and so had been assigned to a Russian unit).

The Oliver Law story would have been more damning than anything Gladnick did relate. It would have helped his friend Herrick, while not incriminating himself at all. Therefore, it is more than curious that he did not mention it – unless he had never heard of it.

The “officer’s runner” Herrick referred to must be Harry Fisher, whose account we will examine shortly. Fisher called Herrick’s story a lie. Rather than come to the defense of his own story, though, Herrick backs away from it:

I wonder if he [the runner, i.e. Fisher] had a criminologist with him at the front to examine Law’s body in order to determine where the bullet came from.

In the course of his correspondence with Herrick Peter Carroll told him of David Smith’s account. Smith was the medic who had put a bandage on Law’s chest or abdomen – the front of his body – to stop the bleeding. Herrick’s response was that no one could know who shot the bullet.

So when confronted with eyewitness accounts of Law’s death by gunfire at the battle on Mosquito Ridge Herrick acknowledged that the reality behind his story might be no more than this: Maybe one of the Lincolns had shot Law. Since Law was shot in the front – a detail Herrick did not dispute – this would have had to happen as Law turned around to lead the charge. This was not the “tale” Herrick never stopped insisting he had been told.

Herrick’s remarks in both of these instances are very significant. He did not in the least retract his claim that he had heard the “tale” – Herrick’s own word for it – of Law’s assassination by other Lincolns. But Herrick tacitly acknowledged that the “tale” was false. By reducing the question of how Law was killed to one of where the bullet that killed Law had come from, Herrick was tacitly conceding that the story he had told Wolfe of the “group action”, the torment of the mortally wounded Law by his men, the celebration of his death, violation of Law’s corpse, did not conform to the facts.

Variations in Herrick’s “tale” 

In addition to the Voice interview, Herrick was interviewed on the subject of Oliver Law’s death by Cecil Eby and Peter Carroll. Herrick related to Eby the story of the killing of Law many times. Eby insists there were no changes in Herrick’s story over the years. Eby is definite that Herrick told him it was Hy Stone who had admitted shooting Law. That was why Eby wanted to interview Stone, and regrets never having been able to do so. Aside from Stone, only Roach and Gordon were present at the “drinking party” (Eby’s words). Herrick also told Eby that Doug Roach said he had pissed on Law’s body.

Carroll interviewed Herrick concerning Law’s death in 1990 and exchanged many letters in which Herrick repeated the story as he had related it in these interviews. In an interview with Carroll on August 23, 1990 Herrick added that, though he could not be certain, Mickenberg might have been present – Herrick wrote the same thing in his 1998 account; see above – and that it had been Joe Gordon who pissed on Law’s body.

Herrick told Carroll that Joe Cobert knew about this story too, but was not certain whether Cobert had been present at the “group action” when Law was killed. According to Eby, Herrick had not named Cobert during the many times he had repeated the “tale” to him.

For some reason Herrick did not tell Carroll that Hy Stone had admitted being the one who had shot Law. This is a curious omission since, according to Eby, Herrick had been very definite about this when speaking with him.

Aside from Herrick himself only two of these men – Hy Stone and Joe Cobert – were still alive in 1990. When interviewed by Carroll on November 28, 1990 Stone denied everything Herrick had said. “Of course not.” “I was not there” (in the room with Herrick and the others at Albacete). “He’s crazy.” “Never saw him in Spain.”

Carroll interviewed Joe Cobert on January 20, 1991. Cobert denied being in any hotel in Albacete with Herrick and the rest. Cobert told Carroll he had “a feeling he [Herrick] would make anything up to discredit us.”

The results of our inquiry to this point are as follows:

  • “Herrick’s story” is really two stories: the “tale” of Law’s death; and story of the “drinking party.”
  • The question is no longer whether the gruesome story of Law’s murder is true. Faced with eyewitness accounts to Law’s death Herrick himself backed down from the “tale” as he claims he was told it. The “tale” changed and, finally, shrank almost, but not quite, to disappearing.
  • Both Mickenberg and Gladnick, who Herrick claimed could confirm the” tale”, died without mentioning it.
  • The question resolves down to this: Did Herrick really hear any version of this story at all? Did the “drinking party” ever take place?

Hy Stone, the one person Herrick claimed was also present and who remained alive to be questioned about it, denied any knowledge of it. Joe Cobert, whom Herrick sometimes identified as a participant in the “drinking party”, also denied it. The other men Herrick claimed were present – Doug Roach and Joe Gordon – were both long since dead. There are no other accounts of this “drinking party” at all.

So what did happen? If we had only Cecil Eby’s recent account, we’d have no idea. As we’ve seen, Eby briefly summarizes the Herrick version, and then simply says “the other [version is] in complete denial of this.” By implication, Eby seems to say, there is more evidence for the Herrick version. Or at best both versions have equal evidence but, for some reason, Eby prefers Herrick’s, since it is the only one he bothers to describe.

Whatever his reasoning, Eby tacitly redefines or repositions Herrick’s as the “canonical” account. But the truth is just the other way around. While there is no evidence whatever to support Herrick’s story of Law killed by his own men, there is a great deal of evidence to support what Eby in 1969 called “the official version” – that Oliver Law died heroically leading his men into battle at Brunete on July 9, 1937. What follows is an examination of that evidence.

Dave Smith

The Nation published Smith’s first-hand account of Law’s death in 1998, which is as follows:

John Hess’s review contained an accurate description of Commander Oliver Law. I knew him at Jarama, where I was a machine gunner. In June 1937, I was recovering at Dr. Pike’s front-line emergency hospital and was temporarily assigned as his medical assistant sergeant in charge of organization. At Brunete, I was at the front lines to search for medic John Musso, a wonderful guy whom I had not seen for some time. A short distance in front of me, Commander Law was leading the men in the offensive at Mosquito Hill. He fell backwards and I rushed to his aid. He had been shot close to the heart. We tried to stem the bleeding, but the exit wound in his back was enormous and we were unable to save him. . . . (Smith 1998, p. 35)

Peter Carroll interviewed Smith on several occasions. On May 3, 1998 Carroll’s notes say Smith described “small entry wound on [Law's] chest. Then after cutting open shirt, finds larger exit wound in back.”

Mel Anderson, another Lincoln, was interviewed by Carroll on January 3, 1991. Anderson said he had been in a machine gun company at Brunete, and was directly behind Law. Anderson witnessed Law’s being shot, and said it was “ridiculous” to think he could have been fragged by one of his own men. “The fire was tremendous.”

It might be objected that these accounts were taken down long after the event. Memory changes things. Even more important, people have been known to “remember” differently, even to fabricate experiences they never had and then come to believe them.

All things considered, an account written down at the time of or as near in time to the event as possible is the best evidence. No human account can ever be free of bias and one-sidedness, of course. But an account taken down near in time to the event it records will, at least, not reflect the biases of a later period. Memory, a creative and recreative faculty, and not at all like a photograph that, at worst, may “fade,” will have had less time to alter what the senses originally perceived.

In a letter to Peter Carroll of April 11, 1991 Herrick stated:

I got my version from primary sources, Gordon, Roach, Stone, and later Mickey Mickenberg. And I received my version within a month after the event. It’s either I’m a liar or Stone is a liar. Take your pick.

In these last two sentences Herrick states in his own words more or less what Eby wrote in both 1969 and 2007: the “truth” depends on what you prefer to believe.

In fact, the truth – whatever it is – does not depend at all on what people believe. There’d be no point in writing history if everyone could establish his or her own “truth” simply by “believing.” Anticommunist thought of both Right and pseudo-Left converge at this point, for both ignore or deny objective reality. Herrick’s “reality” is of his own creation, as we’ve already seen and will see again.

We will return to Hy Stone’s account later. At present let’s consider Herrick’s statements concerning his evidence: that he relied on “primary sources”; that his version was “received. . . within a month after the event.” There is less here than first appears.

We’ve seen that, by 1998 at latest, Herrick has backed off any claim that the “tale” of the “group action” which, he claims, was told him at the drinking party in the room at Albacete, was actually true. But no one can be a “primary source” for an event that never took place. That means that the men Herrick claimed had told him the “tale” of Law’s murder were not “primary sources” at all.

Herrick claimed to Carroll that his “version”‘s credibility was enhanced by the fact that it was “received . . . within a month after the event.” But there is no single “version” of Herrick’s story. Rather there are multiple, contradictory versions.

Another problem is that we have no evidence of this. Herrick did not record this “drinking party” and the “tale” supposedly told during it “within a month after the event.” The earliest account we have of this “tale” is Wolfe’s, published in 1959, who says he got it from Herrick. This was 22 years after Law’s death at Brunete in 1937. Moreover, it’s fictional.

Herrick himself did not record it for publication until the Berman interview in 1986. Even then he referred to it only in very general terms. Herrick did write it down for Victor Berch in 1983, though not until the 1990s did he write it down for publication, and it did not appear in print until Jumping the Line was published in 1998. Furthermore, all these versions are significantly different from one another.

However we do have an account of Law’s death written down within less than three weeks “after the event.” This is a letter to his family from Harry Fisher, dated July 29, 1937. What follows is the relevant part of that letter:

On July 9, we went over again. It so happened that the fascists had attacked too. We were about a thousand meters apart, each on a high hill, with a valley between us. The Gods must have laughed when they saw us charge each other at the same time. Once again Law was up in front urging us on. Then the fascists started running back. They were retreating. Law would not drop for cover. True, he was exhausted as we all were. We had no food or water that day and it was hot. He wanted to keep the fascists on the run and take the high hill. “Come on, comrades, they are running,” he shouted. “Let’s keep them running.” All the time he was under machine-gun fire. Finally he was hit. Two comrades brought him in spite of the machine guns. His wound was dressed. As he was being carried on a stretcher to the ambulance, he clenched his fist and said, “Carry on boys.” Then he died. (Fisher, letter of July 29, 1937, p. 187)

The authority of this document in establishing the actual facts about Law’s death cannot be impugned. There is no other account, either corroborative or contradictory, written down any time near the event. It is entirely consistent with Dave Smith’s account, written to The Nation in 1998. To an historian it is of greater authority than Smith’s account precisely because it was recorded by an eyewitness so close in time to the event.

This letter was published in 1996. Eby cites the Nelson book in his appendix on “basic sources” (p. 447) and again in his bibliography. Why didn’t Eby use Fisher’s letter? Did his long friendship with Herrick, plus his fervent anticommunism, lead Eby to neglect an historian’s commitment to objectivity, to “letting the chips fall where they may”?

In both 1969 and 2007 Eby’s conclusion is essentially the same.

Between the Bullet and the Lie, 1969:

Because both versions are sworn to, the truth, in this instance, seems to consist of whatever one wishes to believe.

Comrades and Commissars, 2007:

Because both versions have been sworn to, the “truth” depends on whom one prefers to believe.

Of course the truth never depends on what anyone “wishes to believe.” But Eby’s statements are logically and historically incorrect as well.

What Eby in 1969 called “the official version” is an eyewitness account of Law’s heroic death leading his men into battle. However, Herrick’s account, what Eby calls the “anti-official version”, is by Eby’s own admission, hearsay. It is not a “sworn” account of Law’s death. Rather, it’s Herrick’s account of what he claims he heard others say during a drinking bout in a room a month or so after Law’s death.

Eby is wrong. It is not true that there are two versions of Law’s death, each one “sworn to,” therefore of equal historical status. A “sworn” eyewitness account is precisely what we do not have from Herrick. The only thing Herrick could “swear” to was that he heard the story. Herrick did not, and could not, “swear” that what he allegedly heard had actually occurred.

Did Herrick’s “drinking bout” ever take place?

All we have is Herrick’s word that this “drinking bout” ever happened at all. The only living participant aside from himself whom Herrick named – to Eby, to Carroll, and in his 1998 book – was Hy Stone. Stone denied being at any such party, denied having seen Herrick in Spain at all, and called Herrick “crazy.”

What Herrick “swore” to was that he had been told a “tale.” All the stories about Law’s death at the hands of his men go back to Herrick. There is no record that anybody else ever related, or even heard about, this story independent of Herrick.

Herrick claimed he heard this story during the drinking bout in Albacete. But all the accounts of this “drinking party” can be traced to Herrick too. No one ever heard of this drinking bout except from him. No one claims to have ever heard any of the other alleged participants – Joe Gordon, Doug Roach, Hy Stone, Joe Cobert, Mickey Mickenberg – speak of it.

Did Herrick imagine this drinking bout? It’s a legitimate question. People do fabricate things, make them up. Sometimes they imagine an event, and later imagine that the event really occurred. This story has the earmarks of fiction. The earliest accounts of this “drinking party” – Wolfe’s, in The Great Prince Died and Herrick’s, in ¡Hermanos! - are explicitly fictional. Both the “tale” told at this party and the participants, changed over time in Herrick’s varying retellings.

Other evidence

Nor is it only a matter of Hy Stone – the one who, according to Herrick, confessed to shooting Law – denying, not just that he shot Law, but even being present. We have testimony from those who knew Joe Gordon and Doug Roach very well who deny they could ever have said what Herrick claimed. These accounts are second-hand, “hearsay” – but no more so than Herrick’s story of Law’s murder.

Two weeks after Berman’s interview of Herrick had appeared the Village Voice (Sept. 2 1986, p.4) published a letter from Joe Gordon’s sister. In it she states, incorrectly, that her brother had not been at Brunete. She was mistaken; in fact he had been there. But here is the central point of her letter:

Joe talked to me quite often about his love and respect for Oliver Law.

We have already discussed Harry Fisher’s eyewitness account of Law’s death. But Fisher also knew Doug Roach, and he denies in the strongest terms any possibility that Roach could have disliked Oliver Law, much less celebrated his death.

“What??? Doug Roach telling Law he’s not fit to be commander? Telling him to resign his command? Suggesting that if he doesn’t have the – what? guts? – to resign, it’s a sign that he’s still a slave? An Uncle Tom? This makes no sense at all – and it’s a deliberate lie. I know because I was there.

Doug Roach’s machine gun was to the right of my infantry squad, about thirty feet away. I had become very friendly with Roach, and two others in that group, Zalon and Sid Crotto, spending hours with them every day. One day we were talking when a fellow came over and announced, “Oliver Law has just been made commander of the Lincolns!” This was exciting news – we knew it was the first time a black man had been made commander and we were proud – proud of Law, and proud of ourselves for being part of it all. It would be no different today. Young leftists are delighted when steps are taken “in the right direction.” Doug Roach let out a whoop. The expression on his face was one of sheer joy. He had no doubts about Law. He was proud, extremely proud. . . .

And Herrick claims to have gotten this story from Doug Roach??? How convenient for him to “quote” someone long dead! And why didn’t he ask me about it, since I was there with Doug when he heard the news, since I was a good friend of Doug’s, and since I knew and was with Oliver Law in battle. It sickens me that the names of so many good people are being denigrated with such falsehoods. (Draft letter to Eby 2-3)

According to Herrick, Roach’s reaction to Law was very hostile:

When Oliver Law was appointed battalion adjutant, Doug and Oscar Hunter, another Negro, scribbled up some picket signs demanding equal rights for whites, much to the delight and laughter of our comrades, who’d said nothing for fear of being called racists. Sound familiar? Doug seemed to take Oliver’s difficulty personally. He even went one day back to battalion h.q., cornered Law, and asked him to resign his command. (JtL 178-9)

Is this “hearsay” again? Or did Herrick invent it? He doesn’t tell us. He does not claim to have witnessed any of this. Nor does he reveal how he heard this story. So we may be pardoned if we set it down to “hearsay” too. By contrast, Harry Fisher personally witnessed Roach’s delighted reaction at Law’s appointment as battalion commander.

One serious problem with the credibility of Herrick’s memoir is that he cites rumor, falsehoods, and his own (alleged) experiences indiscriminately. This practice inevitably casts a shadow of doubt on everything he wrote. One example is apposite here. Herrick states:

Law, they said, had been a sergeant in the American army. A patent lie. He’d been a buck private, and not for very long before he’d been discharged. (JtL 178)

Herrick does not tell us how he “knows” any of this. In fact it is false. According to his military service record Oliver Law served three full years in Co. D, 24th Infantry, from August 19, 1920 to August 18, 1923, as a Private. [11]

Harry Fisher also wrote about Law, but at first hand:

Nor surprisingly, Oliver was one of the 3,000 Americans who volunteered to fight in Spain. He got there some months before I did, and quickly earned a reputation for being both a good soldier and a trusted comrade. One of the first people I ran into when I got to the front in April of 1937 was Charlie Nusser who introduced me to Oliver and had only good things to say about him. The three of us would often sit around, throwing the bull. I remember Oliver talking about a wonderful woman back home, and how much he missed her. I still remember thinking how lucky he was to have someone waiting for him.

It came as no surprise to any of us when Oliver was named battalion commander. Well liked, highly respected, and one of the few volunteers with any real military training, there could have been no better choice. We liked him, / we had confidence in him and – not a small consideration – we were proud to be making history as the first predominantly white American military unit to be commanded by a black man.

But it was a brief period of command – only four days of actual battle, four days until Oliver was killed. For two of those days we had the fascists on the run, Oliver leading us as we chased them from the town of Villanueva de la Cañada. Those were heady days for us.

On July 29, 1937, the last days of the Brunete campaign, I wrote home:. . . (Fisher, Legacy MS 159-60. [12])

Herrick’s “tale” – further details

Herrick’s “tale” – his own term, we recall – about Law is embedded in other stories about Law. “Rumors” is a more accurate word, since it’s reasonably clear that Herrick is reporting what he heard from others, not what he himself witnessed. These stories form the “context” for Herrick’s “tale”.

We can’t examine all of Herrick’s rumors about Law in detail here. But there’s good reason to doubt all of them. We’ll outline some evidence here.

Herrick gives a hearsay account of a meeting about Oliver Law with Steve Nelson, years later.

Steve Nelson, a topnotch battalion commissar . . . admitted in old age that it was he who made the decision to push Law ahead. He even went so far as to say it had been a mistake. He could say that because he was no longer a Party man, so far as we know, when he said it. (JtL, p.179)

On April 22, 1983 – I marked the date – when I visited Randall Pete Smith, who called himself a closet anti-Communist (we had become / sort of sub rosa friends), then the official historian of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade (sic), he told me Nelson had done an in-house investigation of Law’s death, and two vets had confirmed my version, and that Nelson finally said, Yes, Law was a mistake, but no one pissed on him as he lay dying, as I had reported. It would be nice to believe that. (p.213)

The status of this story isn’t clear either. Herrick did not talk to Nelson about Law. Did Randall Pete Smith hear Nelson say “Law was a mistake”? Had he read the report?

Nor does Herrick tell us what he means by “two vets had confirmed my version.” “My version” of what? Of how Law had been killed by his own men? If so, which of Herrick’s different “versions” did they “confirm”? And just who were these “two vets”? This remark of Herrick’s is so vague that “confirms” nothing.

The Stone brothers

In his introduction to Jumping the Line Paul Berman says he consulted Arthur Landis’s The Abraham Lincoln Brigade (1967) in an attempt to verify Herrick’s account (xix). If Berman did in fact read Landis’ book he would have found another detail that casts further doubt on Herrick’s story: that of the three Stone brothers.

In Herrick’s “drinking party” story Hy Stone had participated in the killing of Oliver Law because he had “lost his second brother to the war in one of the ambushes Law led them into.” (Herrick, JtL 208-9) But Herrick, like Eby and Berman, certainly knew this was all wrong.

Sam and Joe Stone were killed in the same battle as was Law. As we have noted, Eby cited the passage in Edwin Rolfe’s 1939 book The Lincoln Battalion that describes Law’s death. In describing the battle at Mesquite Crest Rolfe wrote:

Sam and Joe Stone died while their brother, Hy, fought on. Later, crazed by grief when he heard the news, he attempted to leap the rampart and attack the Fascists single-handed. His companions held him back only after they overpowered him. (p.96; the battle is identified as Mesquite Crest on p. 94)

Some time after the publication of Herrick’s book Harry Fisher expanded upon this story in a draft letter to Cecil Eby:

Herrick may not realize it, but in telling this story about Hy Stone and the death of one of his brothers, he proved that he is a liar. Here’s how Hy Stone was in the Lincoln Battalion, but his brothers were in the Washington. The two Stone brothers were in the same action that the Lincolns were, but about two miles away from us. Both Stone brothers were killed at about the same time that Oliver Law was killed, and the brothers and Law were not anywhere near each other. Indeed, they had never met, being in different battalions. Evidently, Herrick, in formulating this particular lie, made the assumption that the three Stone brothers were all together, in the Lincoln Battalion. But they weren’t. If further proof is required, please take a look at Landis’ book, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. The story of how Joe and Sam Stone were killed is told in it in some detail, based on an eyewitness account by Harold Smith. [13] So this is just another of Herrick’s lies. I know it and he knows it. I wonder what his reaction would be if you confronted him with it? (Fisher letter to Eby, p. 7)

There’s a lot of evidence that Hy Stone’s two brothers, Joe and Sam, were in the Washington, not the Lincoln, battalion, and were killed in the same engagement and at about the same time as was Law. According to his eye-witness account recorded by Landis in 1965 Harold Smith states explicitly that both brothers were in the Washingtons, as was Smith himself. Smith saw Sam Stone fighting early on, and later saw Joe Stone dead.

This means that neither brother could have been killed in any “ambush” for which Oliver Law was responsible, since Law commanded the Lincolns, not the Washingtons, and the two units were about a mile apart.

All this is consistent with Hy Stone’s denial to Peter Carroll that he was present at the drinking party; that he was involved in the “group action” to kill Law or that he himself was the person who killed Law, as Herrick alleged to Eby but, apparently, to no one else. Hy Stone simply could not have blamed Law for the deaths of his brothers, as Herrick claimed. This means that Herrick could not have heard what he claimed at the “drinking party.”

The Burial of Oliver Law

Eby’s 1969 account, taken from Herrick, says that “Law’s body was left where it had fallen and was bloated by the sun into a horrible balloon.” Herrick himself told Berman in 1986 that “Later on they refused to bury him. He lay there for days.” Herrick’s account in his 1998 memoir simply refers to “that awful tale of woe” as though the details of the story were well-known and needed no summary. Though he did not explicitly mention Law’s burial here, neither did he retract his earlier versions.

As an historian Eby should have studied the evidence concerning Law’s burial as part of his evaluation of the various accounts of Law’s death. But Eby failed to do this, just as in the case of the Stone brothers’ deaths. Here we’ll do the job Eby should have done.

The earliest account of Law’s burial I can find is in Steve Nelson’s 1953 book The Volunteers. Here is the whole of Nelson’s account of the attack and Law’s death:

I went over with the left wing, Oliver, with the right; for a second time, the adjutant had disappeared. The attack stalled in an / olive field, below the lower ridge which we had left. There I learned that Oliver was wounded. “Where is he? Is it bad?” “In the belly. . .. The stretcher-bearers took him right away. He didn’t want to go; he kept telling ‘em not to waste time with him. He was hangin’ onto his belly with both hands.” An hour or two later, the stretcher-bearers returned, and one of them reported: “He’s gone . . .. We got him back about a mile, and he says, ‘I don’t hear the fire any more – are we far away?’ ‘Oh, sure,’ we told him, ‘we’re a long distance away.’ He kept asking for water. Pretty soon he says, ‘No use luggin’ me, boys, I’m finished. Put me down.’ “He says, “Tell the comrades to keep up the fight.’ “So we buried him there. We put up his helmet with his name. We put on he was about 34 years old. Do you think that’s right? About 34? The stretcher bearer said violently, “God damn it, he was a good man!” (Nelson 150-1)

In 1965 Arthur Landis interviewed Harry Fisher, who gave the following account of Law’s burial:

They buried him there, so the story goes. They made him a makeshift plaque, and on it they hung his helmet. The plaque gave his name, the fact that he was thirty-four years old, and that he had been the first-known Negro commander of any American military unit.” (Landis ALB 207 & note 68 p. 622)

Nelson’s account (1953) and Fisher’s (1965) completely contradict Herrick’s “tale” of Law’s body being left unburied. Though neither claims to be eyewitnesses to Law’s burial, Nelson claims to have learned of it the same day it happened.

Neither Nelson nor Fisher mention Joe Gordon or Doug Roach as being at Law’s burial. In fact they could not have been there, if they were on the front lines while Law was dying and being buried a mile or so behind the lines by the stretcher-bearers who were trying to get him to medical help. This detail in itself should have been enough for any objective historian to disqualify Herrick’s “tale” as an accurate account of the burial of Oliver Law.

Boots and Belt”

Here is part of the “tale” as Herrick told it to Eby in the 1960s:

The “official” version argues that Jerry Weinberg, Law’s runner, pulled him behind a tree. Law ordered him to take off his boots (an anti-Texan gesture?) and his Sam Browne, then lapsed into a coma from which he did not recover. (Eby, B&L 134)

My determined search has failed to find any “official” version that gives this detail. What follows is the “boots and belt” story in the various “unofficial” versions, Herrick’s “tale” as it evolved.

Bernard Wolfe’s 1959 novel barely mentions Law’s boots:

Another [of the killers] got out a jackknife and slashed the shiny boots. (Great Prince 199; Trotsky Dead 209)

In his novel ¡Hermanos! Herrick has a more elaborate version:

One man stripped him of his Cordovan boots, Sam Browne belt, and binoculars. (328)

By 1983 Herrick was composing a yet more colorful account of the “boots and belt” story:

His runner didn’t wait for him to die – he stripped Law of his Sam Browne belt and his boots. (The boots were famous, it seems. Law had had them made to order in Albacete, and of course it was a privilege which rankled in the minds of men / who were almost, one could say, professional rank-and-filers.) (Herrick, Statement 5-6)

This is the detail Eby had said in 1969 was part of the “official version” but which we couldn’t find. But by 1983 Herrick was telling it as part of his “unofficial version” – his own “tale.” In both versions, though, the person who took the belt and boots is the same: “his runner”, who was Jerry Weinberg.

There’s nothing about the “boots and belt” in the Berman interview of 1986. But the story returns for a final encore in 1998 in Jumping the Line:

An officer’s runner who was alongside Law when he was hit has said it never happened, he was there. I wonder if he had a criminologist with him at the front to examine Law’s body in order to determine where the bullet came from. Since he was so close to Law, I wonder if he can tell us who, as Law lay dying, expropriated his handsome John Brown belt and shiny, custom-made Spanish boots. (213)

Let’s sum up how this “boots and belt” story has been transmogrified.

  1. The “boots and belt” story makes its first appearance is in Herrick’s novel of 1969.
  2. Despite what Eby wrote in 1969 it does not exist in any “official version.” We must assume that Eby got this detail from Herrick. That is, the detail was fictional from the beginning.
  3. Eby’s 1969 book has now established a bogus “official version” according to which Law himself ordered his runner, Jerry Weinberg, to take off his boots and “Sam Browne” (belt).In 1983 Herrick’s first “non-fiction, non-official” version has “[h]is runner” “stripping” the dying Law of belt and boots. The runner – no one has ever claimed this was anybody but Jerry Weinberg – is thereby made into a despicable looter of his dying commander.
  4. But at least the identity of the “looter” is known. In 1998 Herrick is challenging the “officer’s runner” – Harry Fisher – to identify who took them!

The subtlety in all this is this: there is no evidence Law ever wore any “boots and belt.” It is all fiction, all Herrick from beginning to end. With Eby’s help Herrick has created a story about a black commander who has, at first, “boots” and a belt, and then “shiny boots” (Wolfe), “Cordovan boots” then “famous . . . made to order” boots, “a privilege which rankled in the minds of . . . professional rank-and-filers”), and finally (Cordoba is in Spain, so. . .) “shiny, custom-made Spanish boots.”

From a commander who was not barefoot – soldiers normally wear boots, after all – to a privileged, pampered elitist whose expensive footwear becomes emblematic of the hypocrisy and corruption of the communists generally. Pretty good!

And the belt? It changes from a “Sam Browne” military-style belt [14] to “his handsome John Brown belt.” What is a “John Brown belt” anyway? More important: Where did the “handsome” come from? From the same place, evidently, that the rest of the “boots and belt” story came from: wholly from Herrick’s imagination.

Herrick’s First “Non-Fiction” Version

On October 26, 1983 Herrick sent an account of Oliver Law, including the “drinking party” story of Law’s murder, to Victor Berch for the ALB archives. Though broadly similar to Herrick’s two published accounts (the Paul Berman Village Voice interview in 1986 and in Herrick’s memoir Jumping the Line in 1998) it contains a few additional details that can be checked against other facts we know.

* Along with the men named in the two published accounts Herrick also mentions the name of Joe Cobert [15]. In communications with Peter Carroll during the early 1990s Herrick also named Cobert, who was still alive and whom Carroll was able to interview. As we have seen, Cobert denied the truth of Herrick’s story.

* Herrick acknowledges telling the story to Bernard Wolfe for his book The Great Prince Died. He says he told Wolfe to speak to Mickenberg, who confirmed the story of Law’s murder “in much the same terms I did.”

But in 1975 Wolfe named only Herrick as the source of his story, and never mentioned Mickenberg at all. We should recall that Herrick had also said Bob Gladnick could verify his “tale” of Law’s murder but that, in his letter to the Village Voice in support of Herrick’s interview Gladnick did not mention it.

The fact that Wolfe and Gladnick did not verify his story doesn’t prove they could not have done so. But it is suggestive when we consider that the only two witnesses to the “drinking party” whom Herrick named and were still alive to be questioned, Cobert and Hy Stone, said that Herrick was lying.

No one Herrick named as a person who could confirm either the “tale” of Law’s murder or even that the “drinking party” in Albacete took place ever did so. No one other than Herrick claims even that this “drinking party” ever happened.

* Herrick says that Doug Roach was an “intimate friend” of Mickey Mickenberg. This is disproven by the following account from D.P. “Pat” Stephens, [16] a Canadian volunteer who fought in the ALB:

At this time, it was decided by the political department to send some of the Lincoln boys home for propaganda purposes. One of those chosen was Doug Roach. . .

The morning Doug was to leave, he came and asked me to take a walk with him outside the dugout; he had something to tell me. He informed me that he was a member of Security Services and had been sent into my group to spy on me and Mickenberg. He asked me to be very careful of what I said and if possible to get Mickey out of my unit. He was suspected of being a Trotskyite, and my friendship with him was suspect. He advised me to warn Mickey and not to associate with him too closely.. . . I took his warning under advisement and became less friendly with Mickey. (Stephens 54)

There’s no reason to doubt that Herrick was friends with Mickenberg. But Herrick says that Roach was Mickenberg’s “intimate friend,” and we know he was not. So Stephens’ account suggests that for this very reason Roach could not have trusted Herrick himself.

Herrick states that Roach should have been chosen commander instead of Law because of his sterling qualities, and then says:

He was, also, of course a stubborn rank-and-filer. . .. He had contempt for the big brass and nowhere will anyone find stricter caste rule than in the Communist Party. Doug could not be bought.

As Stephens points out, this was not true. Roach was not a simple rank-and-filer but a security officer. Moreover, he was chosen to return home early to do propaganda to gain support and raise money for the ALB. Herrick did not know any of this. Roach had told Stephens, but not Herrick. This suggests that Roach didn’t trust Herrick. Roach was right not to, as this study has shown.

Harry Fisher, who fought side by side with Roach, as Herrick did not (Herrick, wounded in February 1937, did no fighting thereafter), contradicts Herrick’s account of Roach in every detail (Draft letter to Eby 2-3). Clearly, Herrick did not know Roach nearly as well as he claimed he did.

Herrick makes other assertions to Berch – about the Stone brothers and Law’s body remaining unburied – that we have already considered. But a few more details in this 1983 account demand our attention.

Officer’s insignia on his eyes”

In his novel ¡Hermanos! Herrick’s description of the murder of “Cromwell Webster” included the following detail:

Another [of his killers] unpinned the gold bars from his shoulders and placed them on his half-blind dying eyes. (328)

This detail is absent from Herrick’s two published accounts of Law’s murder. But it is present in this “non-fictional” account to Berch:

Doug Roach stripped Law’s officer’s insignia from his uniform and placed them on Law’s dying eyes, . . . (Statement, 6)

This detail blurs the line between the fiction of ¡Hermanos! and the “fact” of one of Herrick’s versions of Law’s murder. So, in a somewhat different way, does the following detail.

Indian whoop”

In Bernard Wolfe’s fictional account of “Sheridan Justice” we read:

This was when the men began to do a wild Indian war dance around him. They danced. Yes.

They danced. They shuffled around in a circle, flapping their hands over their mouths to make those yipping Indian sounds, leaping into the air, crouching, always making the battle cries.

(Wolfe, Great Prince 199; identical passage in Trotsky Dead 208)

Herrick’s account in his novel ¡Hermanos! of 1969 contains the passage “They yipped, they danced.” The “dancing” remains in Herrick’s 1986 Village Voiceinterview, but not the “yipping” or “Indian sounds.” In Herrick’s 1983 letter to Berch the dancing is gone but Roach “did an Indian warwhoop.”(6) In Eby’s 1969 version “[t]he ‘anti-official’ version claims that a Negro machine-gunner swooped forward and performed a joyous dance of death around the body.” In Herrick’s final “version” (1998) none of these elements remain.

So it’s not true, as Herrick told Alan Wald, that there are two distinct versions, the fictional and the non-fictional. In fact, there are many categories of versions: the explicitly fictional (Wolfe, Herrick in ¡Hermanos!); the supposedly “non-fictional” but not-for-publication (version to Eby, letter to Berch); the supposedly “non-fictional” for-publication (Village Voice interview); the supposedly “non-fictional” “minimal” version (Jumping the Line). There’s no consistency among the supposedly non-fictional versions.

Credibility of Herrick’s memoir

In the introduction to Jumping the Line Paul Berman called Herrick an “unstoppable truth-teller” (JtL xxii). As we have discovered, nothing could be further from the truth.

Not a single element of Herrick’s “tale” about Oliver Law is true. Not Law “leading his men into ambushes.” Not the “tale” – rather, multiple “tales” – about his death. Not the “boots and belt.” Not the “insignia on the eyes.” Not the “Indian war whoop.” Not the “pissing on the body.” Not the non-burial.

Not even the story about the “drinking party.” According to the existing evidence, none of this ever took place. It is all Herrick’s fiction.

Shortly after Herrick died his friend Dennis Sullivan wrote a warm homage to him in which, however, he took pains to note Herrick’s troubled relationship with the truth.

. . . when Bill decided to write about his life, he quickly learned the distinction between autobiography and memoir. Autobiography requires firm dates and names and facts to be in order; he didn’t want to do that and so he turned to the memoir for latitude; this is what I remember in our one or two conversations on the subject.

But even the memoir’s latitude soon closed in on him, for he told me it was difficult remembering things as they were; the mind seemed to play tricks. Did what you remember take place as it did, or as you wanted it to take place, or was it all only what memory interprets to be past reality. Like the endless mirrors in a barbershop thing. Where do you stop? Which of the images is right? (Contemporary Justice Review 7,4. June 2005, p. 150; emphasis added.)

Herrick’s own attitude towards historical truth is stated very clearly:

There are lies and there are truths, and some day after we are all dead, some history professor will write the definitive history of the war and get it all wrong. Is it really possible to get at historical truth? (Herrick JtL 120; emphasis added.)

Towards the end Herrick returns to this question at somewhat greater length.

How much of the above is true? I have related it from what I incorporated into my life as I lived it, so it is true because I believe it to be true. We write our own histories, we believe our own histories. In any event, we believe what we wish to believe. I have tried to be honest. (Who would say otherwise about himself? Would Iago admit he was a villain?) Time recalled is tricky, and when you have devoted a great part of the last forty years to writing fiction, it is trickier still. I have found writing a memoir more difficult than writing a novel. (Herrick JtL 272; emphasis added.)

These are not the statements of an “unstoppable truth-teller”, someone concerned to establish the truth of historical statements. Herrick’s comparison of himself to Iago is not without significance either.

Herrick claimed George Orwell as a model. But Orwell spends most of Homage to Catalonia detailing what he himself did. Moreover, the events he recorded were still recent. Whatever Orwell’s biases, lapses of memory, and – perhaps – falsifications, they were the result of the passage of months, not of decades.

Orwell too has something to say about truth, memory and interpretation in the final chapter of Homage:

And I hope the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe that on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact, and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same things when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war. (Orwell Chapter 14, emphasis added)

As Herrick admitted himself his memoir shows little concern with historical truth. It would be more accurate to say that Herrick told a story that was “true for him.”

This is a good example of the denial of objective reality common to anticommunists of Right and the pseudo-Left. Right-wingers often act as though propaganda, “the Big Lie”, and in general what people can be made to believe, is what counts while the truth is of little importance. As one of President George W. Bush’s aides coolly informed writer Ron Suskind:

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” . . . “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” (Suskind, “Without A Doubt”, NYT 10.17.2004)

This differs in rhetoric but not in result from Postmodernist denials of objective reality often derided by the Right but in fact very similar to their own. By contrast Lenin affirmed that the recognition of material reality as defined by science, as the only basis for rational thought, sharply divides Marxist from bourgeois thought.

Why did Herrick fail to obtain written confirmation of his “tale” from Wolfe and/or Gladnick, who were friendly with him, yet challenge Carroll to get such confirmation from Cobert and Hy Stone, who called him a liar? There are only two possible explanations:

  • He did ask them, and they did have independent knowledge of his “tale”, but for some reason they refused to confirm this in writing.
  • He did not ask them, because he knew they could not confirm it.

Since both Wolfe and Gladnick were friendly to Herrick and shared his intense anticommunism, it’s unlikely they would have refused. Even if they had, Herrick could have told that to Carroll, or put it into his memoir. The most likely explanation is that Herrick knew neither Wolfe, nor Gladnick, nor anybody else, could confirm this story.

The best he could do was to tell Carroll: “It’s either I’m a liar or Stone is a liar. Take your pick.” Herrick’s anticommunist friends and readers would “believe” Herrick, and others would not. Objectivity, with its insurmountable problems for Herrick’s story, vanishes to be replaced by “opinion.” We’re back to Eby’s remark: the truth “consists of whatever one wishes to believe.” Most important: a good rip-snorting anticommunist story is preserved even though it is false.

Conclusion

Did Herrick deliberately lie? There’s probably enough evidence to establish that in court. His various “versions” are so changeable, mutually contradictory, and false, that the whole could usefully and accurately be termed lies.

Some of those I’ve interviewed are convinced Herrick believed, or came to believe, what he wrote about Oliver Law. That doesn’t mean that it “happened” in the historical sense. Rather these “tales” are a creation in the sense that his novels were.

Herrick’s novels, memoir, articles, and interviews were – to use a slippery term from the commercial mass media – “based on a true story.” That story, the reality – the “truth” – of which no one can ever deny, was his immense disillusion with the Communist Party and the communist movement.

These two stories – the “tale” of Law’s murder and the “drinking party” story – served their purpose for Herrick himself. That is all he should ever have asked of them. Herrick translated them from the realm of fiction, of “felt” history, to that of purported historical fact, in order to besmirch the reputations of Oliver Law, the Lincolns, and the communist movement. Unquestionably that’s what he aimed to do, and he did it.

Tricked out as fact, and with the help of other bitter anticommunists, these stories serve as Herrick’s, and their, revenge. But no one should ever again confuse them with historical truth.

Acknowledgement

My thanks; to Peter Carroll and Tony Greiner for their correspondence; to Cecil Eby for his interviews; to Elayne Gardstein, Special Collections Librarian at Adelphi University; to Gail Malmgreen, Associate Head for Archival Collections Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, NYU; and to Alan Wald for alerting me to Herrick’s “Statement.”

Works Cited

Anderson, Mel. Interviewed by Peter Carroll January 3, 1991. Courtesy of Peter Carroll.

Berman, Paul. Replies. Village Voice August 19, 1986, pp. 4,6.

Carroll, Peter N. The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Americans in the Spanish Civil War. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.

Carroll, Peter, and Harry Fisher. “An exchange on The Odyssey and Oliver Law.” The Volunteer vol. 17, No. 1 Spring 1995, pp. 15-16.

Carroll, Peter. Emails May 2007.

Cobert, Joe. Interviewed by Peter Carroll January 20, 1991. Courtesy of Peter Carroll.

Eby, Cecil. Between the Bullet and the Lie. American Volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. NY: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969

Eby, Cecil. Email to Harry Fisher June 30, 2002.

Eby, Cecil. Letters to Bob Gladnick of November 28, 1967; December 4, 1967; January 6, 1967. Spanish Civil War Collection, University Archives and Special Collections, Adelphi University Libraries, Garden City, NY.

Eby, Cecil. Telephone interviews May 3 and May 7, 2007.

Eby, Cecil. Comrades and Commissars. The Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War. University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 2007.

Fisher, Harry. “Legacy” (unpublished draft), 1996 ff.

Fisher, Harry. “To Lie In Madrid” (letter). Village Voice August 19, 1986 p. 4.

Fisher, Harry. Comrades. 1996

Fisher, Harry. Draft letter to Cecil Eby concerning Oliver Law. n.d. (1999-2002)

Fisher, Harry. Draft review of Ronald Radosh et al., Spain Betrayed. Ca. 2002.

Fisher, Harry. Letter of July 29, 1937. In Nelson, Cary, ed. Madrid 1937: letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War. Routledge, 1996, pp. 187-8.

Fisher, Wendy. Unpublished Letter, ca. 2001.

Furr, Grover. “Anatomy of a Fraudulent Scholarly Work: Ronald Radosh’s Spain Betrayed,” Cultural Logic 2003, http://clogic.eserver.org/2003/furr.html

Furr, Grover. “Fraudulent Anti-Communist Scholarship From A “Respectable” Conservative Source: Prof. Paul Johnson” (2004), athttp://chss.montclair.edu/english/furr/pol/pauljohnsonfraud.html

Gitlin, Todd. Letter. The Nation November 30, 1998, pp. 2, 35.

Gladnick, Bob. Letter. Village Voice August 19, 1986, p. 4.

Gladnick, Bob. Letters to Cecil Eby of November 20, 1967; November 24, 1967; January 30, 1968; n.d. (late 1966-early 1967). Spanish Civil War Collection, University Archives and Special Collections, Adelphi University Libraries, Garden City, NY.

Greiner, Tony. Emails May 2007.

Hannant, Larry. “A Canadian in the Lincolns” (review of D.P. Stephens, A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War: An Armenian-Canadian in the Lincoln Battalion. St. John’s, Nfld, 2001). The Volunteer vol. 22, No. 2 June 2003, pp. 15, 21.

Herrick, William. ¡Hermanos!. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1969.

Herrick, William. “Spanish Betrayals. A Lincoln Vet Remembers.” Interview with Paul Berman. Village Voice July 22, 1986 pp. 23-25.

Herrick, William. Jumping the Line. U. Wisconsin Press, 1998.

Herrick, William. Letter to Peter Carroll April 11, 1991. Courtesy of Peter Carroll.

Herrick, William. “Oliver Law. Statement by William Herrick (Bill Harvey.” Sent to Victor Berch October 26, 1983. Vertical File: William Herrick, Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives, Tamiment Library, New York University.

Hess, John L. “Hess Replies” (reply to letters). The Nation November 30, 1998, pp. 35-36.

Hess, John L. “War and Remembrance” (review of Herrick, Jumping the Line; Fisher, Comrades; + 2 other books). The Nation November 2, 1998 pp. 27-29.

Hourihan, Martin. Interviewed by Sandor Voros. Villa Paz (Spain), August 26, 1937. Spanish Civil War Collection, University Archives and Special Collections, Adelphi University Libraries, Garden City, NY.

Kailin, Clarence. “A turncoat’s memoir” (review of Herrick, Jumping the Line). The Volunteer vol. 20, 2 Spring 1998 pp.22-23

Klehr, Harvey, Haynes, J. E and Firsov, F.I. The Secret World of American Communism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Landis, Arthur H. Death in the olive groves: American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939. NY: Paragon House, 1989.

Landis, Arthur H. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. NY: Citadel, 1967.

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. New York: Harcourt, 1952.

Radosh, Ronald. “Homage to Decency.” (rev. of Herrick, Jumping the Line).Wall Street Journal. New York, April 30, 1998, p. 1.

Rolfe, Edwin. The Lincoln Battalion. NY: VALB, 1939.

Rosenstone, Robert A. Crusade of the Left: the Lincoln battalion in the Spanish Civil War. NY: Pegasus, 1969.

Schwartz, Stephen. “The Spanish Civil War in Historical Context.” Critique Nos. 32-33 (2001), pp. 1-14.

Smith, Dave. Letter. The Nation November 30, 1998, p. 35.

Smith, David. Interviewed by Peter Carroll May 3, 1998. Courtesy of Peter Carroll.

Smorodin, Abe. “The Boys of Williamsburg.” The Volunteer, vol. 22, No. 2, Spring 2000, p. 6.

Smorodin, Rose. “The Spanish Civil War, Cont.”; Paul Berman, reply. Village Voice September 2, 1986, p. 4.

Stephens, D.P. (Pat). A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War: An Armenian-Canadian in the Lincoln Battalion. Ed. and intro. Rick Rennie. St. John’s: Canadian Committee on Labour History, Memorial University of Newfoundland, 2000.

Stone, Hy. Interviewed by Peter Carroll November 28, 1990. Courtesy of Peter Carroll.

Sullivan, Dennis. “Editor’s Note.” Contemporary Justice Review 7, No. 2 (June 2004), 147-151.

Wald, Alan. Email. May 18, 2007.

Wolfe, Bernard. The Great Prince Died. New York: Scribner, 1959.

Wolfe, Bernard. Trotsky Dead. Wollstonecraft, 1975.

Notes

[1]  Douglas Martin, “Moe Fishman Dies at 92; Fought in Lincoln Brigade.” The New York Times, August 12 2007. [^]

[2] During the Spanish Civil War the main American volunteer unit was called the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. After the SCW the term “Abraham Lincoln Brigade” was adopted for the organization of American veterans regardless of unit. Similarly, after the Civil War Union veterans were represented by the Grand Army of the Potomac, the name of the post-war organization. [^]

[3] Review of Eby and Rosenstone, NYT January 18, 1970, p.240. [^]

[4 There is a footnote at this point in Eby's text, which we will consider at the end of the present essay. [^]

[5] His family name at birth was Horvitz. See Jumping the Line, p. 4. [^]

[6] A photograph of the author as a young man standing beside a seated Trotsky appears on the back cover of the 1975 reprint Trotsky Dead. The same photograph accompanies the review of The Great Prince Died by Seldon Rodman in The New York Times Book Review March 29, 1959, p. BR5. [^]

[7] Bernard Wolfe, The Great Prince Died, pp. 197-200; Wolfe, Trotsky Dead, p.. 207-210. Cf. Herrick, ¡Hermanos!, pp. 321-329. [^]

[8] Alan Wald Email to me 05.18.2007. [^]

[9] This was the name Morris Maken was known by in Spain. A number of Americans tried to disguise their identities, as travel to and from Spain was illegal and reprisals could be expected on return home. Maken discovered that his birth name had in fact been Mickenberg, and adopted this name when he went to Spain. [^]

[10] According to Herrick, JtL 266. [^]

[11] “Law Army Service Record, National Personnel Records Center,” Form 13164, military service number 6 211 426. This is a reconstructed record. In 1973 a fire destroyed much of the military records held at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO. While many records have been successfully reconstructed, they may only be partial. Therefore it’s possible that Law actually served a second tour of duty, as Harry Fisher believed. My thanks to Tony Greiner for this information. [^]

[12] At this point Fisher quotes part of the letter in which he gives his eyewitness account of Law’s death in battle. We have discussed this letter above. [^]

[13] Harold Smith’s eyewitness account is published in Arthur H. Landis, The Abraham Lincoln Brigade (N.Y.: Citadel Press, 1967), pp. 203-5; a shorter version is also in Landis, Death in the olive groves: American volunteers in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939 (NY: Paragon House, 1989) pp. 46-47. Smith was in the Washington battalion. He saw Sam Stone at the beginning of the battle, and saw Joe Stone’s body among others around an olive tree after the battle. [^]

[14] For the “Sam Browne” military belt see http://www.diggerhistory.info/pages-uniforms/sam_browne.htm [^]

[15] Herrick misspells Cobert’s name as “Colbert.” My thanks to Peter Carroll for clearing that up. [^]

[16] Stephens worked well with the communists in Spain. But upon returning from Spain he became apolitical. He died in 1987. [^]

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