It is said, cold-bloodedly, that JFK died in the most romantic and, based on what was to come for the remainder of the 1960s, fortunate way possible.
For his death bathed his image in golden lights that did not cling to him while he lived, and allowed him to miss the consequences of many of his actions, particularly with regard to his hawkish stance on Vietnam. Had Oswald missed or Kennedy dodged the fatal head shot, it could have been JFK who was the subject of the New Left chant directed toward his successor–“Hey, Hey, LBJ, How Many Kids Did You Kill Today?”
The same fortunate circumstances applied to Bob Merriman, an American Communist killed while serving as a brigade commander on the Loyalist side during the Spanish Civil War in 1938.
Fortunately for his martyred reputation, the pro-Stalinist Merriman died a year before the embarrassment and betrayal inflicted on his comrades by Josef Stalin in 1939 the when the dictator signed a military partnership with the leader of the enemy Merriman died fighting against, Adolf Hitler.
As a result, many who joined the Party believing it was authentically anti-fascist, now equated Stalin with Hitler and forever left the Party. Others, who robotically stayed the course, jeered at the defectors. One Party member revealed a power hunger that crossed ideological lines by, upon hearing the news that Hitler had conquered France in 1940, gushed, “We’ve taken Paris!”
But regarding those who forever left the Party over the Pact, Arthur Koestler, a Communist journalist who faithfully peddled the Soviet Party line and was imprisoned by the Spanish fascists funded by the Nazi dictator Stalin was now cutting deals with, best exampled the shock and disillusionment of fellow Party members by his reactions:
“I remained in that state of suspended animation until the day when the swastika was hoisted on Moscow airport in honor of Ribbentrop’s arrival and the Red Army band broke into the Horst Wessel Song. That was the end, from then onward I no longer cared whether Hitler’s allies called me a counter-revolutionary.”
But in 1938, the year of Merriman’s death, the Soviet Union could on the surface convey the impression that, unlike the appeasement-minded British government, and the firmly isolationist America, they were the only country willing to stand up to Hitler (the reality, however, was that the 1939 Pact was the culmination of Stalin’s almost decades-long attempt to establish friendly relations with Hitler) by funding the legally-elected Loyalist government against a Hitler-backed military rebellion.
Adding to this romantic martyrdom portrait was that Merriman was obviously brave, as witnessed by his fellow front-line soldiers. They reported how he once led a charge despite being wounded. Even Spanish anti-communist soldiers on the Loyalist side praised the pro-Soviet Merriman’s courage. For example, Sandor Voros gushed about Merriman’s courage and physical appearance and charisma. To him, the “tall and broad-shoulder” Merriman “was one of those rare men who radiate strength and inspire confidence by their very appearance.”
Even the fervently anti-Stalinist George Orwell, who witnessed the Stalinist secret police in the Soviet-controlled Loyalist government hunt down his fellow front-line soldiers on trumped-up charges of being fascist spies, learned that, in at least one instance, one of those arrested was murdered by his Communist captors, grudgingly admitted that those like Merriman were proof that “’good party men’ make the best soldiers.”
Merriman’s bravery affected literary history. Ernest Hemingway, who, as a journalist covering the Loyalist soldiers at the front personally witnessed Merriman’s courage, was so impressed by it that the writer based his heroic and martyred character Robert Jordan on Merriman in his 1940 work, For Whom The Bell Tolls.
But although his bravery was powered by being a “good party man”–before embarking on his first battle, Merriman wrote in his diary, “Long Live Communism! Long Live the Soviet Union!”–Merriman was the kind of knee-jerk dogmatist who denied and/or defended every zig and zag of Soviet brutality committed in both Russia and Spain.
The closest the Communists had to an all-American “Joe College” type, Merriman, a former lumberjack who played football at the University of Nevada and served in the ROTC, was in the Soviet Union on a graduate school fellowship at the height of Stalin’s state-enforced famine targeting those peasants for refusing to turn over their crops to or hiding food from the Soviet secret police in order to feed their families.
Despite contact with peasants, Merriman hewed to his Stalinist faith by denying the “deliberate lines” of Stalin’s starvation policies, which resulted in the deaths of almost 15 million peasants, spread by alleged fascist propaganda in American newspapers.
Such dogged refusals were also exampled by his often heated conversations with the Moscow-based American journalist Milly Bennet. Not only did she see for herself the brutalized peasants, but she also witnessed what the fellow-traveling poet W.H. Auden euphemistically called a “necessary murder;” as when Stalin’s secret police arrested her Russian husband for the crime of homosexuality. She later learned that he had been given a virtual death sentence by being imprisoned in a Siberian Gulag.
But she could not make a dent in Merriman’s glowing belief that Stalin was leading the country into a “humane” and progressive future.
During one of their heated arguments, she demanded, “How can you find any value in what you see out there with those peasants? Why, for Christ sake, they aren’t any better off now under these Soviets than they were under the tsars.”
Merriman naively waved these criticisms away, saying, “This country is in the middle of the most massive change of any country on earth right now. And, I’m telling you, I have seen Russian peasants working their way into what is, without question, a new and improved life.”
Merriman carried this knee-jerk Stalinism with him into the Spanish Civil War. Because of his ROTC and Army Reserve experience, Merriman was put in charge of the Communist-dominated International Brigades.
But his service for Stalin was not confined to combat. It also involved peddling easily invalidated propaganda that justified every brutal act committed by the Communists.
For not only did Merriman know about Stalin’s murderous Purge Trials (he recorded being told about them in his diary), but he also defended Stalin’s attempts to import them into Spain. In his diary, he defended the need for the arrests Orwell witnessed and condemned (and, as a member of the targeted group, an anti-Stalinist but pro-Loyalist military unit was himself slated for the certain death of such arrests; he was barely able to escape Spain with his life).
With his “ends-justifying-the-means” defenses of every brutal act committed by Stalin, Merriman was the truest of believers as evidenced by his thoughts recorded in the privacy of his diary. As such, Merriman was a typical Stalinist, who didn’t mind violence if it was committed by his side.