“Negrín was right.” An interview with Gabriel Jackson

August 31, 2010

[Editor’s note: this is an extended version of the interview published in the print issue of the September Volunteer. See here for 10-minute video excerpt.]

“Se nos ha ido Gabriel Jackson”—“Gabriel Jackson Has Left Us.” The March 25 headline in La Vanguardia, Catalonia’s newspaper of record, almost looked like an obituary. But it wasn’t: Gabe Jackson, who turned 89 this year, is alive and well. And yet the article in question, by Francesc de Carreras, a professor of Constitutional Law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, was a lament about a deeply felt loss. After twenty-six years in Barcelona, one of the world’s most prominent historians of twentieth-century Spain was moving back to the United States. “It’s impossible,” the article said, “to imagine someone more down-to-earth—someone kinder, more educated, discreet, tolerant, austere, always ready to lend a hand to the weak, incapable of flattering those in power.”

Few foreign scholars command the respect and authority that Gabriel Jackson enjoys in Spain. In the English-speaking world, Jackson is best known as the author of two classic scholarly accounts of twentieth-century Spanish history: The Spanish Republic and the Civil War (1965) and A Concise History of the Spanish Civil War (1974). In Spain, however, Jackson is an all-round public intellectual, known not only for his regular contributions to the op-ed page of El País or his frequent review essays in La Revista de Libros (the Madrid equivalent of the Times Literary Supplement) but also, until a couple of years ago, for his performances as semiprofessional classical flutist. The prestigious academic publisher Crítica has been reissuing his complete works in Spanish translation as a separate series (the “Biblioteca Gabriel Jackson”), which in addition to his Civil War work include the panoramic Civilization and Barbarity in Twentieth-Century Europe and Jackson’s 1969 memoir, Historian´s Quest. Jackson has also been a long-time ALBA Board member.

Negrín Was Right

For the past decade, Jackson has been working on a major biography of Juan Negrín, the Republic’s Prime Minister during much of the Civil War. Negrín was an accomplished scientist and Socialist politician—as well as a polyglot and bon vivant—whose insistence on winning the war above all else, acceptance of Soviet aid, and refusal to surrender to Franco even when there seemed little hope for a Republican victory earned him the contempt, if not hatred, of many on the Right and Left: the Nationalist supporters of General Franco, of course, but also the more violent factions within Anarchism, the revolutionary anti-Stalinist Left, and those factions of the deeply divided Spanish Socialist Party which sympathized with Largo Caballero, Besteiro, or Prieto. Not surprisingly, Negrín has been one of the most reviled figures of twentieth-century Spanish politics. Jackson tirelessly scoured through thousands of previously unseen archival materials to produce the most balanced and comprehensive account yet of the man’s life and significance. A year after the publication of the Spanish translation, his Juan Negrín: Physiologist, Socialist, and Spanish Republican War Leader has just come out with Sussex University Press.

His work on Negrín has strengthened Jackson’s conviction that the Prime Minister was justified in his refusal to surrender, and that the continued refusal on the part of the Western democracies to support the Spanish Republic was not only immoral and contrary to international law, but a huge political mistake. “Negrín’s policy of resistance and constant diplomatic effort was the right one—he visited Paris secretly a number of times during the war, to get the French to realize that they themselves were going to be the next victims. I am also convinced that if England and France had supported the Republic and stood up to Hitler, history would have taken a different course. Look at Hitler’s reactions when occasionally there was a moment of resistance—for instance in May 1938, when Chamberlain threatened the Nazi government with British action if the Heinlein Party in Czechoslovakia physically attacked their Czech neighbors. Hitler drew back immediately, and Heinlein shut his mouth. If the democratic countries had aided the Republic so that Franco would not have had the complete victory that he did, we need not have had a Second World War, or it would not have occurred in the terribly disastrous fashion that it did. The combined failure of courage and foresight on the part of the democratic powers was critical for Hitler´s successful Blitzkrieg in 1939-40.”

A Jewish New Yorker in Spain

In March of this year Jackson closed the Barcelona chapter of his life, moving to Oregon to live to in closer proximity to his daughter and grandchildren. The decision to leave Spain wasn’t an easy one, and neither was the move itself, which included the emotionally difficult but intellectually satisfying donation of more than a thousand books to several great libraries where he had worked—and been very well treated. And yet he had barely dropped his suitcases on the West Coast when he boarded another plane for a Midwestern lecture tour. In early April he visited Oberlin College, where we spoke.

What moves a Jewish New Yorker to dedicate his life to the study of Spanish history? “There is really no family connection, I have no Spanish relatives,. What first drew me to Spain, like so many of my generation, was the outbreak of the Civil War in the summer of 1936. Although I was only fifteen, I was an avid newspaper reader and quite politically conscious already. I clearly remember the heated dinner table discussions on Spain between my father, who was a Socialist, and my Communist older brother. Then in the summer of 1942, after graduating from Harvard College, I got to spend two months in Mexico on a fellowship. I was supposed to have entered military service like all boys my age, but was given a six-month break to recover from an automobile accident. Now of course Mexico City in 1942 was full of Spanish Republican exiles. It was meeting and speaking with them that further opened my eyes to the history of Spain and Latin America.” Together with two Princeton students, Jackson stayed at the home of an exiled Republican physician. In the apartment upstairs lived the widow of President Manuel Azaña, who had died in France in 1939. “She often came down to have coffee and cigarettes; we played dominos after lunch.”

After spending World War II as a cartographer in the Pacific, Jackson considered a career as a college teacher, an ambition further strengthened by a three-year stint at the Putney School in Vermont. What he really longed for, though, was Europe. “I was jealous of my many friends who spent the war in the European theater and had had a chance to really learn to speak French and German. All I had done was to spend four years making maps of tropical islands. Europe drew me because I wanted to become bilingual, too. And although I was attracted to history as a subject, in reality my deepest personal interest has always been classical music. I had read biographies of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven much more than I had read biographies of political figures.” Entering in a European doctoral program required a Master’s degree, which Jackson earned at Stanford in 1950 with a thesis on the educational program during the first two years of the Second Spanish Republic.

In 1950, Jackson and his wife, who studied French literature, began their doctoral studies at the University of Toulouse in Southern France. Two years later, Jackson had finished a dissertation on the work of Joaquín Costa, the turn-of-the-century regenerationist. The fall of 1952 found the Jacksons reluctantly back in the States: “We would have happily stayed in France if it had been possible in the 1950s for Americans to get jobs in the French teaching system.”

The years in Toulouse were useful in more than one respect. “I did learn French and Spanish quite thoroughly, although I’m sorry to say I have always spoken them with a pretty horrible accent. But you have to remember that at the time we lived in Toulouse, a third or a half of the city’s population were Spanish refugees. I made a great many friends among Spanish fellow students and their parents. In later years these connections proved crucial. When I went to Spain to research the Republic, I carried letters from my refugee friends vouching that I could be trusted. That allowed me to speak to people and hear the unvarnished truth—despite the fact that I was an American and that the U.S. government supported Franco.”

On Roy Cohn’s List

The first decade back in the States was a difficult one, professionally speaking. Jackson quickly found he was haunted by his reputation as a leftist troublemaker. “In 1948, when I was teaching at the Putney School I was paid a visit by two agents from the FBI. Although they did not accuse me directly of being a Communist or a subversive, they wanted me to tell them everything about my college classmates’ political activities. I told them that I had not considered that to be any of my business. Apparently this was enough to be branded non-cooperative—which I was, of course: I was strongly opposed to these kinds of interrogation, treating people’s leftist political opinion as ‘evidence’ of ‘disloyalty,’ etc. From that moment on, however, my not having cooperated with the FBI followed me whenever I went looking for jobs. In the mid-1950s, for instance, I had a very favorable interview for a job in Spanish and Latin American history at Dartmouth College. When we were finished, one of the interviewers took me aside quietly and said: Listen, I am very sorry to have to say this, but we know you’re on Roy Cohn’s list—Cohn was McCarthy’s chief field investigator—and you’re not going to get an offer from Dartmouth. I figured I might as well let you know right away.

After three years at Goddard College, five at Wellesley—where he became close friends with the exiled Spanish poet Jorge Guillén—and three at Knox College in Illinois, Jackson had almost given up on a tenured position when he finally landed a job at the University of California at San Diego, in 1965. Princeton had just published his The Spanish Republic and the Civil War.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of Jackson’s first book. In the United States, it helped put twentieth-century Spanish history back on the academic map, earning him the 1966 Herbert Baxter Adams Prize of the American Historical Association. Its appearance did not go unnoticed in Spain, either. “I’ve been told it made a considerable scandal among regime circles—especially the appendix, which gave estimated numbers of victims of Nationalist repression. Together with Herbert Southworth’s La cruzada de Francisco Franco and Hugh Thomas’s book, which had come out in 1961, it motivated the Spanish government to initiate a whole new line of research to defend the Francoist record in the war.”

Stanley Payne

Jackson is the only one among prominent American scholars of Spain who was born early enough to consciously live the Civil War. His most well-known colleague, Stanley Payne, is from 1934. Payne, who specialized in the study of Spanish fascism, has long been Jackson’s ideological counterpart. Although the work of both was censored by the Franco regime, with Spanish translations initially published in Paris and smuggled into the country, Payne’s position has always been much less sympathetic to the Republic. Like Jackson, Payne is a well-known public figure in Spain, publishing prolifically and often interviewed in the media. In recent years, Payne has stirred up controversy by promoting the work of Pío Moa, a popularizing historian and Franco apologist, and by criticizing the current government’s support for the so-called recovery of historical memory. Jackson is sanguine: “Look, it’s perfectly obvious, and perfectly acceptable, that I am generally on the democratic Left, and Payne is generally on the democratic Right. Our different interpretations of Spanish history flow from that fact. But we have always remained friendly and on speaking terms with each other, without taking part in the slugfests of insults that occur a good deal in relation to the Spanish Civil War. The same is true for other scholars. I haven’t seen Juan Linz in many years, for instance, but when I was doing research in Spain in 1960-61, we’d have long nightly conversations walking in the streets of Madrid. We, too, were perfectly well aware of the fact that we occupied different political positions and were not going to interpret things the same way. Yet he was always very helpful. Of course, what Payne, Linz, and myself have in common is that none of us were direct victims; we had not been tortured or imprisoned.”


The Spanish Right, including Payne and Moa, has long charged liberal historians of the Civil War (Jackson, Preston, Graham) with a lack of objectivity. Jackson: “Is real objectivity, in the sense of emotional neutrality, possible? Well, maybe in some areas. I once took a course at Harvard College—not one of the ones I particularly enjoyed—about the economic development of the West. There were a number of lectures on the rise of the dairy industry in Wisconsin. I consider that to be a subject that can be dealt with without any emotions or any statement of personal beliefs in advance of the discussion. The Spanish Civil War, which can be honestly interpreted in such different ways, is a different kind of subject entirely. Here it’s impossible—and in fact not desirable—to try to conceal one’s emotions or political views. My idea of objectivity is that you don’t hide your emotions or pretend not to have them, but that you are honest and open about them from the outset. As an historian you have not only have to account for your sources, but also explain why you have the sympathies you have. The rest is up to the reader.”

Doing research in the 1950s and 60s, Jackson, as a foreign historian, enjoyed certain privileges over his Spanish colleagues. “Eisenhower was president, and I belonged to the first generation of Fulbright students. The thought process of Francoist officials was that if I was an American with a government scholarship under a Republican president, I must be okay—if not conservative, then at least neutral. Realizing this early on, I simply asked questions and kept my mouth shut about my own opinions.”

Foreign scholars had access to archives and documents that were barred to Spaniards. “Still, one of the places that I could not get into when I was researching my book on the Republic and the Civil War, around 1961, was the military archive. But I did have several interviews there.” Jackson chuckles: “I remember one of those meetings with the officer in charge of the archive. I was facing that famous mural of Franco as a kind of a medieval Christian warrior, which was painted over the archive’s entrance. The officer was chatting away, defending the coup, and complaining about us foreign academics. You foreigners, he said, you have no idea how many Communists came from outside during the war. I noticed there was a pile of documents on his desk, facing him. I tried my best to read them upside down. The one right on top seemed particularly interesting, because it appeared to be about the International Brigades. Like other researchers, I had been using the general figure of 40,000 international volunteers. You people just don’t understand, the officer said again, there were many, many more than that. And yet, when I was finally able to make out what was in the document on top of the pile in front of him, I saw that it, too, used the number of 40,000…”

Lincoln Brigaders

“I started meeting Abraham Lincoln Brigaders right after World War II. Among my long-time friends were Bill Sussman, Irving Weissman, and Abe Osheroff, all wonderful human beings, with whom I kept in touch right up to the time of their deaths. They were a feisty bunch, of course. Although I never had an actual fight with Bill Sussman, I was very much of aware of his disappointment in a novel that I wrote, in which the hero is a Spanish Anarchist, an illegal immigrant from Mexico to the United States. My evident sympathy for a certain kind of truly idealistic Anarchist was not something that Sussman appreciated. And yet Sussman was perfectly frank with me about his own problems with the Communist Party, as was Abe Osheroff.”

Jackson is a kind man. As an historian, he is a fundamentally sympathetic and forgiving student of human affairs. Yet there are limits: “For Franco I’ve never had the personal sympathy I’ve had for others who joined the military assault on the Republic. José Antonio Primo de Rivera, for example, the founder of Spanish fascism, meant to be a decent human being, although he was quite naïve about some political matters. I do hope I have recognized the real abilities of Franco—I don’t treat him as anybody’s fool. I think he deserves a certain amount of credit, for instance, for being the only dictator—that I know of—who took the trouble to be concerned with what would happen after he died. I think many Spaniards today take an overly negative view of the ‘Transition’ of the years 1976-79.  It is certainly true that the people had to accept the dictator’s decision, made in 1967,  that he would be succeeded by a Bourbon prince. But that Bourbon prince brought a larger measure of political liberty and civil peace to Spain than it had ever known, with the exception of the first two years of the Republic (1931-1933). And I am only one of many intellectuals who were asked by east European colleagues whether the Spanish transition might help them achieve a better post-Soviet future.”

What does Jackson think about the calls for “recovery of historical memory” that have polarized Spanish media and politics for the past ten years? “The emotional force of the historical memory movement, it seems to me, is very easily understandable. After all, for sixty or seventy years people have been unable to speak about the most intimate sufferings in their lives. So when there finally is enough political liberty for them to dare to speak frankly, it comes out with enormous force. I have always thought— not just in relation to the Spanish Civil War, but also Stalinism, Hitlerism, many a bloody dictatorship in Africa, Asia, or Latin America—that you can’t put something really behind you until you have recognized its truth. It is no use trying to neglect it or bury it. It seems to me a colossal mistake on the part of Spanish conservatives to say That’s far past, let’s not rake the old coals. There can be no real closure while the Right continues to say that the call for historical memory is an attack on the existing constitutional democracy.”

Both Cheeks

Jackson, who holds double passports, will miss living in Spain. His life-long connection with the country is emotional as much as it is scholarly and intellectual. “Personal relationships with Spaniards have always been very important to me, even more so after I retired from UC San Diego. I have had more deep adult personal friendships in Spain than in the United States, especially after moving to Barcelona in the1980s. It’s strange: I felt at home in Spain as soon as I got there. There was something so recognizable to the hospitality of the families that I knew in both Madrid and Barcelona. Later I have naturally wondered about that. At one point I realized that my Spanish hosts, the parents of fellow student friends that I met in Spain, simply reminded me of my own East European Jewish aunts and uncles in New York. There was something about the style of invitation and the interpersonal behavior that simply reminded me of my own cultural background. Apparently there are cultural traits—though it’s often hard to define them precisely—that can last for centuries, even though the official religion, the language spoken, and the education system have changed completely. So yes, I will miss living there. What I will miss most? I like kissing people on both cheeks.”

Sebastiaan Faber, Professor of Hispanic Studies at Oberlin College, is Chair of ALBA’s Board of Governors.


12 Responses to “ “Negrín was right.” An interview with Gabriel Jackson ”

  1. Mim Jackson on December 12, 2010 at 12:11 am

    Thanks–marvelous interview. I’m very proud of my uncle.

  2. Naomi Sacks on December 12, 2010 at 1:15 pm

    Terrific interview! Gabe Jackson, your wisdom is much appreciated!

  3. Jon Halvorsen on December 18, 2010 at 10:04 pm

    It’s a pleasure to read this enlightening interview with such an admirable man and scholar.

  4. Antonio Aguado on January 2, 2011 at 3:07 am

    Fantastic interview about an extraordinary person as Gabriel Jackson, who has done a brilliant job in Spain, letting us known the real history of what happen at the Spanish Civil War, and after during franco´s fascist regimen.
    Very important and significative, all what he said about Juan Negrín.

  5. Carlos Álvarez on January 3, 2011 at 3:32 am

    Muchas gracias Gabriel, por todos tus trabajos sobre nuestra historia y toda tu ayuda para el documental Ciudadano Negrín.

  6. Pamella Jung on January 19, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    A wonder-full interview Gabe Jackso! On a different note, from this UCSD retiree, who had the pleasure and honor of working with you when you were Chair of the Department of History, it was touching to see that you made a contribution to the International Center in remembrance of Paul Saltman. I assist Paul’s wife and also dear friend now with her paperwork etc. When I saw the acknowledgement letter to her this morning, just had to somehow write to thank you on her behalf for your thoughtfulness, and send you my most fond regards after all the many years. Am still in touch with Sam Baron and Lynn Harris. I hope this reaches you. Pam

  7. Lynn (Pearcy) Harris on January 20, 2011 at 9:38 pm

    Pam Jung forwarded your interview to me. It was great! It brought me back to the years you served the Academic Senate at UCSD (I was Lynn Pearcy then). I have always had such respect for you. You really have not changed much in all those years. It was great to see and hear you again. Thanks, Lynn

  8. Jordi Prats on July 1, 2011 at 12:56 am

    I met Gabe Jackson while he was at Knox College for three years. He was an excellent faculty member. When he came to Barcelona, Knox had a program at the Universitat Central of Barcelona and he came to give lectures to our students. Everybody admired him and all his excellent publications. He could prove everything he wrote and was considered a very serious resercher. He always felt at home in Barcelona and I remember his interviews in catalan which he had to learn fast. I was very happy to continue our friendship after leaving Knox and later on going and leaving in Barcelona. A great historian!.

  9. Susan Wolfe Rocha on June 13, 2012 at 8:06 am

    A wonderful interview! Did you happen to know my uncle Edwin Rolfe?

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  12. Sandra Robertson on July 28, 2015 at 7:04 pm

    I’m a former student and colleague of Gabe Jackson, and I last visited him in his Barcelona flat in April of 2008. At that time we talked about his work on Juan Negrín and the Negrín family. He later sent me the English version of his study, “Juan Negrín: Spanish Republican War Leader,” published by Sussex Academic Press in 2010. Since then I have been searching for him to thank him, and am grateful to find a bit of news here. Can anyone please tell me how I can get in touch with him? I have a phone number for his daughter in Ashland, OR, but it has been disconnected. I am much obliged if anyone can help me. Sandra Robertson — sandra@sandiego.edu — Thank you!