Political Radical: The Northwesterner Who Fought in The Spanish Civil War


Robert L. Reed, a Texan who came to the Pacific Northwest via the Spanish Civil War of 1936-39, was proud to be a political radical.  He had no regrets about his youthful communist affiliation.  Despite his pacifism, Reed knew that joining the International Brigades in 1936 to fight against Franco fascism was the right decision.

The Spanish Civil War was precipitated by a clique of generals in league with Monarchists, Catholic rightists, and the Falange Party which rebelled against the popularly elected government of the Spanish Republic.  As fighting spread, world-wide opinion galvanized.  “Volunteers” were recruited from the democracies to fight against the rebels, while Fascist governments in Germany and Italy sent troops and heavy armaments to help Franco and company.

Approximately 3,300 Americans joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, and more than 1,600 of them did not return.   Seattle’s Bob Reed, an American, found himself in the Mackenzie-Papineau Canadian Battalion.  Despite seeing action in almost every battle, he escaped without serious injury.   He later became involved with “VALB and Friends” – “Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.”  In 1944 there were about 250 surviving VALB vets nationwide; eight in the Pacific Northwest.

Bob Reed almost drowned in Mediterranean waters.  His transport to Spain was sunk at night by an Italian ship, taking 53 comrades to their deaths.  Reed pulled off his clothes, grabbed his passport, and waved down a Spanish fisherman.  After drying out, he underwent military training near Valencia.  The International Brigades were meant to be “shock troops” – thrown into the maw of battle with light arms.  As a result, they suffered heavy losses.

In November 1938, the League of Nations negotiated a withdrawal of the Internationals.  Reed remembers the delirious reception they received while parading through the streets of Barcelona.  And in the tough canyons of New York City, Reed recalls the warm greetings they received from strangers.  Later, the spread of red-baiting and Joe McCarthyism kept Reed and compatriots from holding jobs.

Bob Reed worked as a carpenter and laborer.   When his wife Mildred was offered a job in 1961 as director of the Seattle Day Nursery, Reed came to the Pacific Northwest.  At age 47 he entered the University of Washington, earning a degree in social work.

The Spanish Civil War reminds us of Ernest Hemingway’s epic, For Whom the Bell Tolls, the poetry and plays of Garcia Lorca, and Picasso’s great anti-war painting, “Guernica.” Seattleite Bob Reed and his former comrades-in-arms keep the memory alive of those bittersweet days through “VALB and Friends,” – Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester
Junius Rochester, whose family has shaped the city for many generations, is an award-winning Northwest historian and author of numerous books about Seattle and other places.


  1. One theory of the leftward swing of Seattle politics is that lefty radicals are attracted to the place, thanks to the General Strike, the WTO riots, Communist sympathizer Anna Louise Strong, The Seattle Seven, and Kshama Sawant. During the 1930s, the Commonwealth Federation was quite pink. These people and events were catnip for media, and so word got around.

  2. Thanks Junius for a generous encomium to the memory of Bob and Mildred Reed. I had the honor and pleasure of knowing them and other courageous Lincoln Brigade veterans like Al Chisholm, Frank Alexander, Abe Osheroff, John Givens, and Adolph Ross. They took personal risks and stood up early to the burgeoning fascist menace of their day. It would behoove us today to take heed of their example as threats from the extreme right are painfully evident in our tumultuous time.


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