Roosevelt and the Lessons from the Spanish Civil War

December 15, 2019
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Roosevelt with Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas and other dignitaries in Brazil, 1936. Public Domain.

Roosevelt with Brazilian President Getúlio Vargas and other dignitaries in Brazil, 1936. Public Domain.

Why was the United States so reluctant to support the Spanish Republic? What prompted Roosevelt’s reactionary attitude to the struggle of Spanish democracy against fascism? Isolationism and FDR’s fear of losing the Catholic vote played a role—but they are not the whole story.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt has long been an iconic figure for progressives around the world. His name is associated with the defeat of Fascism in World War II and the creation of the US welfare state. Even now, more than eighty years later, the reformist experience of the New Deal continues to inspire generations of younger militants, witness the growing popularity of the Green New Deal.

And yet for any Spaniard with some historical knowledge, there is one aspect of Roosevelt’s political career that is particularly uncomfortable. No matter how you look at it, the Roosevelt administration made a crucial contribution to the victory of Spanish fascism. When the war broke out in July 1936, Washington adopted a “moral embargo” against selling arms to Spain that was legalized in January 1937. The embargo would remain in place until the end of the war in April 1939. The apparent contrast between Roosevelt’s complicity with Franco’s victory and the heroic generosity of the Lincoln Brigade volunteers could not be greater.

What prompted Roosevelt’s reactionary attitude to the Spanish Republic’s struggle for its survival against Fascist aggression? Scholars usually point to three main reasons: the popularity of isolationism in American politics, Roosevelt’s fear of alienating Catholic voters, and the American adherence to the policy of the British Foreign Office, especially on European issues. Although these reasons carried weight in the Spanish policy of the Roosevelt Administration, they need to be nuanced.

To be sure, isolationism was an important factor in the moral embargo and its subsequent legalization. Yet the main proponents of isolationism—especially Republican Senator Gerald P. Nye of North Dakota—did not take long to come out supporting Spanish democracy, even calling for the re-establishment of the arms trade with Republican Spain. And while the Catholic hierarchy was very committed to defending the Francoist cause in the United States, according to the polls at that time they never managed to convince most of American Catholics. Finally, although it is true that in the first two years Washington diplomats were always considering British reactions to America’s policy toward Spain as a decisive factor, this changed after the Munich Agreement of September 1938.

In fact, we can only understand the US position on the Spanish war if we take two additional factors into account. First, we have to acknowledge that in the 1930s the US State Department practiced its own version of “appeasement.” That is, it applied a policy of non-confrontation with Nazi Germany and rapprochement with Mussolini in order to separate him from Hitler—all based, as in the case of Paris and London, on a strong anti-Communist sentiment that was fairly widespread among the US elites.

The second factor is the US relationship with Latin America. Indeed, a key pillar of American diplomacy at the time was the so-called Good Neighbor Policy toward its southern neighbors, which sought to improve inter-American relations through greater respect for the formal sovereignty of the Latin American republics. At first, the embargo against Spain aligned with the Good Neighbor Policy. For one, it could be justified as an example of non-intervention in the affairs of another country. More implicitly, it could also be understood as a gesture of alignment with the pro-Franco sentiment of most Latin American governments.

Yet in the autumn of 1937 an important change took place, as Getúlio Vargas’ coup d’état in Brazil prompted widespread alarm about Fascist penetration in the Western Hemisphere. Franco’s military victory in Spain now began to be perceived in Washington as a potential danger for Latin America. After all, a victorious Franco could end up acting as an effective bridge between Hitler’s expansionist aspirations and the former Spanish colonies in the New World.

This is why, from the autumn of 1937 until the beginning of 1939, the Roosevelt Administration made some gestures that showed a desire to thwart a total Francoist military victory. Of those, the most important was the purchase of several tons of Spanish silver by the US Treasury Department. The rise of anti-Francoist sentiment in the White House was also decisive in the conflict with Mexico over that country’s nationalization of its oil industry in March 1938. The US desire to prevent the emergence of a “Mexican Franco” paved the way for the adoption of a friendly and peaceful approach to the oil conflict. At the same time, the lessons learned from the Spanish conflict and its application to the Mexican case would prove relevant to the transformation of US strategic thought —particularly when it came to balancing the defense of US economic interests with national security concerns. Despite oil companies’ interest in a more heavy-handed approach, Roosevelt did not want to provoke a Mexican civil war that could serve as an excuse to attract Nazi aviation on its own southern border.

The influence of the Spanish war on American strategic thought was clear from the US adoption of the “Fifth Column” concept. The United States was also highly alert to possible attempts to reproduce in Latin America the same intervention strategy that Hitler and Mussolini had successfully applied in Spain. For the Axis powers, encouraging a revolt of reactionary and discontented military and, once the conflict broke out, providing aviation support and infantry troops of Fascist “volunteers” could prove to be a very cheap, discreet, and efficient way of winning new allies without having to assume the costs and risks of a full-fledged military invasion.

At the same time, warning the US population about a likely replay of “the Spanish type of war” in Latin America became conveniently allowed Roosevelt to educate the country about the dangers of Fascism and provide a non-traumatic path from “continental isolationism” toward US participation in the next world war. Ultimately, a broad national consensus emerged that any Hitler attempt to intervene in Latin America should be met with a declaration of war. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor eclipsed the debate over the dangers of Fascist penetration in Latin America, the truth is that in 1940 a majority of the population considered such an intervention quite likely.

Still, the United States never revoked the embargo against the Spanish Republic. To make matters worse, the Cold War would prompt a sad historical irony. Some of the later US-sponsored interventions in Latin America would prove to be disturbingly similar to Hitler and Mussolini’s “Spanish model”: support for local reactionary militaries in overthrowing a democratic government by invoking the ghost of communism and social revolution.

Andreu Espasa de la Fuente holds a doctorate from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and teaches at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. His most recent book is Estados Unidos en la Guerra Civil Española (2017).

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One Response to “ Roosevelt and the Lessons from the Spanish Civil War ”

  1. MARGARITA ASENCIO-LOPEZ on March 2, 2020 at 1:25 pm

    I think most US political leaders in the 30’s feared so-called “Commies” in Spain than fascists and Nazis. At least, these did not oppose capitalism.

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