A cold war still simmering


New Hampshire: A modest attempt to honor local veterans of the Spanish Civil War ignites charges of communist sympathies.

March 01, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

CONCORD, N.H. - It wasn't supposed to be that big a deal.

The plaque honoring a dozen New Hampshire volunteers who fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War was going to hang in a nondescript corner of the State House, over a garbage can and next to a phone booth.

It was going to join a bunch of other unusual but overlooked plaques in the old granite building that honor, among others, the author of the American Civil War song "Tenting on the Old Camp Ground" and the founder of New Hampshire's Old Home Week.

But then this is New Hampshire, where there's never a bad time for a good old-fashioned ideological brawl.

Never mind that the Spanish Civil War - which pitted a left-leaning, democratically elected government backed by the Soviet Union against rebels led by Gen. Francisco Franco and backed by Hitler and Mussolini - ended 62 years ago. When a group gathered a few weeks ago to dedicate the new plaque, they might as well have burned the American flag or sung a hymn to Ho Chi Minh.

A crowd of vigilant patriots gathered at the dedication to protest the plaque, calling it an insidious attempt to paint the state Capitol red, since the men it honored had fought on the same Loyalist side in the civil war as the Soviets.

"We are surrounded by Communists," said Theresa Dizillo, 59, who showed up at the ceremony with a mop to "mop out any communism infiltrators." "They are coming to the State House-that's pretty close. We know the government is full of them."

Thus was launched a two-week-long debate that featured invective colorful even by New Hampshire standards. As in chilly winters past, the Granite State had the fires of the Cold War to keep its blood boiling.

It all started a year ago, when state Sen. Burt Cohen, a Democrat, won approval from a legislative panel to commission a California artist for a $1,500 plaque commemorating the dozen New Hampshirites who joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, as the U.S. volunteers called themselves.

Similar plaques already hang in Seattle and Madison, Wis., and another one is planned for the Florida State House.

No one made any fuss about the plaque until the morning of its Feb. 9 unveiling, when the Union Leader, the state's largest paper and its conservative conscience, issued a call to arms.

"Now that the Soviet Union no longer exists and the United States is not on the brink of nuclear war, too many Americans dismiss communism as just another political system in a morally relative world," the paper declared.

The summons worked. Republican lawmakers and other protesters turned out to heckle those at the unveiling ceremony, who included descendants of the volunteers.

One protester, state Rep. Ralph Rosen, a Republican and World War II fighter pilot, called the plaque's instigator "Comrade Cohen."

"That was really unnecessary," returned Rep. Ray Buckley, a Manchester Democrat.

"Be quiet or leave," Republican Rep. Tony Soltani countered.

"Sieg Heil!" Buckley said. "Jeez!"

Republican legislative leaders ordered the temporary removal of the plaque and scheduled a hearing. In the interim, the battle raged in the State House hallways and on newspaper opinion pages.

Supporters of the plaque argued that the American brigade was fighting for democracy and against Hitler and Mussolini - exactly as the United States did a few years later in World War II, when it, too, was allied with the Soviet Union. They noted that as many as a third of the 2,800 U.S. volunteers died in the brutal three-year civil war, which Franco's rebels, aided by German airstrikes, won in 1939 and which was memorialized by Ernest Hemingway's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and Picasso's "Guernica."

"They were fighting fascism before it was cool," said Cohen, 50.

The attempt to deny the volunteers their memorial smacked of latter-day McCarthyism, plaque supporters said.

"Regarding those who showed up ... to protest the Lincoln Brigade plaque: How sad that New Hampshire is home to so many that aspire to sit at the right hand of Hitler," Pittsfield resident Bill Miskoe wrote in a letter to the Concord Monitor.

"It must be truly frustrating to try to find a life by militantly opposing a political system that self-destructed 10 years ago."

The plaque's opponents noted that many of the American volunteers in the brigade were members of the Communist Party and that they broke U.S. laws against travel to Spain during the war.

"They were fighting evil under the wrong terms at the wrong time," Soltani said.

And they argued that the bronze plaque's design - a raised fist and a star covering a globe - recalled symbols used by Communist movements around the world and would be a violent affront to New Hampshire veterans of the Vietnam and Korean wars, not to mention an unwelcome influence on the schoolchildren who visited the State House.

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