George Watt was born Israel Kwatt, a year before the Great War, on November 5, 1913. Living in East Harlem in his youth, he came from a firmly leftist upbringing. His parents were both proud working-class socialists. His father was a silversmith, jeweler, and general metalworker. Though ethnically Jewish, his mother and father were atheists, despite the religious orthodoxy of his grandparents. His paternal grandfather had been a proud socialist as well, being one of the leaders of the first textile strike in their Polish hometown of Lotz. Strikes were illegal under the Czar, so he was arrested, put in chains, and ordered to march back to his native village as an example to the others.
Watt had joined the Young Communist League in high school, successfully protesting the school's attempt to raise the meal costs. He attended Brooklyn college in 1931, before transferring to Cooper Union to study Engineering between 1933-1935. He dropped out to become a full time student organizer for the Communist National Student League. It was at that point he changed his name to obscure his Jewish roots, though much later in life he said he regretted that.
He recruited others for the war before joining himself. He fought for most of the war and suffered several, luckily non-fatal, injuries. All the while, he continued to write to his wife and many of those letters are preserved in the Tamiment archives.
At the Aragon Offensive, a bullet went clean through his arm and grazed his chest, leaving a lasting scar he would go on to proudly show his children. During the Battle Of Gandesa (1938), the Lincoln battalion and its British counterpart defended a hilltop against the Nationalists. They were surrounded, and communication had gone silent. Countless died. A few, Watt included, escaped by swimming, naked except for berets with their ID cards hidden in them, down the frigid, rapid, and rocky Ebro river. Six drowned, but eight survived. They briefly met Ernest Hemingway and Herbert Mathews, before rejoining the rest of their brigade.
Watt was once again wounded while serving at Fuentes de Ebro. While recovering, he gave a flag bearing the words “American Students Union” to the Federal Union of Spanish Students in a gesture of international solidarity. He served at the Ebro Offensive, and during his last 7 months in Spain served as the political commissar of the Lincoln Battalion. One can cynically note none of his actions as a Comintern political commissar were recorded. That being said, as a commisar he was said to have been "dearly loved", while other commisars were not described so kindly. He was described as "ever youthful", and would fight while wounded instead of recovering.
During the Ebro retreats, he and his unit were saved by Ralph Wilkinson Wardlaw and another rifleman. The two riflemen were in the rearguard and covered the unit's retreat, laying down their lives in the process.
Upon returning, he and his wife Ruth had a son, Daniel Watt. Sadly, Ruth died unexpectedly soon after he was born. George remarried, this time to Margaret, a very close friend of the couple (all three were involved in leftist organizing together).
Margaret loved and treated Daniel like her own son, and it was reciprocated. Eventually, he learned the truth when Ruth's mother screamed at him that "Margie" was not his real mother. Daniel was upset at first, but still accepted Margie as his mother. If not by blood then by the ties that bind.
When Daniel was barely two years old, George went on to become a sergeant in the US Air Force during WWII. It was initially very difficult because the U.S government was at first unwilling to allow Spanish Civil War veterans to join, then unwilling to send them into action, for being “prematurely anti-fascist”. They later changed this policy as they needed more men. Decades later, he wrote a memoir about his experience being shot down in Belgium on his 30th birthday, parachuting out of the plane before making his way back home, then traveling through Franco’s Spain, called “The Comet Connection: Escape from Hitler's Europe” in 1990.
His whole family, partially representing the Communist Party in alliance with the NAACP, the Labor Party, and the local unions, was involved in protesting the lynching of Charles, Alphonzo, Richard, and Joseph Ferguson, unarmed Black WWII veterans in full uniform, who were shot by a white police officer for attempting to order coffee in a whites only establishment. Sadly, despite all they did, those pigs responsible were never held accountable. This was the psyche that embodied his family, he never stopped instilling his revolutionary spirit in his children, always encouraging them to fight injustice whenever and wherever they could. His family always sang leftist songs together.
Throughout his life, he would covertly disappear for weeks to months at a time, carrying out the orders of the communist party. Throughout the Cold War, the FBI wiretapped him. While they never got any conclusive evidence, he later recounted how he helped the Communist party set up underground systems for when the US government would inevitably crack down on them. Gene Dennis, the executive secretary of the Communist party, tasked him with finding places the leadership could hide in Mexico should the time come. So under the pretense of a family vacation, Watt got in contact with a comrade who had been living there, preparing for this very eventuality, and built a secret network of operatives. The plan was that when the leaders were arrested, some chosen reserve leaders would flee and run the party from underground.
In 1951 in “Dennis vs. United States”, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeals of the Communists convicted in the Smith Act trials. George, along with many who were close to him, including Gil Green, Gus Hall, and Gene Dennis, jumped bail and escaped. George, having fought behind enemy lines in two wars, helped sneak them away into Mexico, then hid there for months. When trying to escort his charges to the safety of the Soviet Union, they were captured in a motel by Mexico City by the Mexican secret police. Gus was extradited to the US, but George remained in hiding in Mexico City, unsure of who the leak was. He was convinced it was a mole deep within the party leadership, which would explain why nobody was willing to blow their cover testifying against him.
Margaret went to a safe contact and got in touch, and within three months the Communist Party had arranged his safe return to the US. When he finally got back, his little boy Daniel was already a teenager attending the Bronx High School of Science. George then became an underground organizer in western Pennsylvania, specifically near Pittsburgh, where the bosses were particularly brutal in suppressing working-class organizing. His placement there was partially a punishment for failing to get Gus Hall to safety. During this time he worked with numerous unions and covert Communists, often sending messages in code to help the labor movement.
In this atmosphere he grew suspicious of redecorating going on in an apartment next door, but by then it was too late. The FBI came in guns drawn and arrested him November 4, 1953, just one day before his 40th birthday. His bail was set at $25,000. His lawyers argued it should be released due to his heroism escaping from behind Nazi lines. The prosecution riposted that because he was so good at escaping, the bail should in fact be doubled. Eventually, the bail was reduced to $10,000, which his family financed with a second mortgage.
When the trial came after two years of waiting, the prosecution sought to prove that being a Communist was inherently violent, citing the Communist Manifesto as well as the writings of Lenin and Stalin, all without context. The defense countered with the revisionist party line that the path to socialism in advanced capitalist states was peaceful, as opposed to the violence necessary to overthrow the feudal system in Russia. Eventually, he was convicted with the testimony of a paid informant (“stool pigeon” was the term that was used) and supposed longtime family friend, Alexander Wright. George was deeply shaken by this betrayal. This was especially painful considering George served as the party’s “security officer”, identifying FBI agents and informants. Despite this, those on trial continued all the way in general good spirits, with the customary Communist optimism.
In 1958 he split with the party, following his initial disbelief but final acceptance of Khrushchev's denunciation of Stalin and his revulsion with the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Though the hard-liners had insisted on following Soviet leadership after the revelations, George had initially tried to democratize the party and steer it away from Soviet goals. It was around this time the indictment was finally overturned.
Having spent nearly all his life as a member of the Communist Party, a professional revolutionary, so to speak, he had no employable skills to speak of. At the unconventional age of 46, he became apprenticed as a journeyman printer by his friends in the industry. Soon after, he went back to Brooklyn College, taking night courses to complete the bachelor’s degree he’d abandoned so long ago. He went on to graduate in social work, working as an administrator of the Community Mental Health Center in Brooklyn from 1968-1982. He died July, 1994 at the age of 80 due to cancer, survived by his sons, Steven and Daniel, his wife, 4 grandchildren, and 4 great-grandchildren.
Watt, George, "The Comet Connection: Escape from Hitler's Europe" (1990). History in General. 2.
George Watt, “A Young American Decides to Fight Fascism in Spain,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 1, 2020, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1558.
Hemingway, Ernest. “Hemingway Reports Spain.” The New Republic, The New Republic, 27 Apr. 1938, newrepublic.com/article/89502/hemingway-spain-spanish-civil-war.
Richardson, R. Dan. Comintern Army: The International Brigades and the Spanish Civil War. The University Press of Kentucky, 2015. Open WorldCat, http://qut.eblib.com.au/patron/FullRecord.aspx?p=1915885.
Watt, Daniel. History Lessons: A Memoir of Growing up in an American Communist Family. 2017. Open WorldCat, https://www.overdrive.com/search?q=F1143121-6BCF-4F6C-A07D-ADC1EB417AD6.
No Attributed Author, (1953, November 5) 3 SEIZED AS RED LEADERS. The New York Times, pp. 36.https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1953/11/05/93407082.pdf?pdf_redirect=true&ip=0
No Attributed Author, (1994, July 9) George Watt, 80, Hospital Executive, The New York Times, pp. 11.https://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/09/obituaries/george-watt-80-hospital-executive.html
“The Commissar and The Good Fight - by Saul Wellman.” The Volunteer, 16 Sept. 2018, albavolunteer.org/2015/12/blast-from-the-past-revisited/.
“Commisars I've Known (and Admired) - by Milt Wolff.” The Volunteer, 10 Dec. 2015, [Originally published in The Volunteer, Volume 7, No. 3, November 1985.], https://albavolunteer.org/2015/12/blast-from-the-past-revisited-commissars-i-have-known/