FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America

FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America

by Dominic Tierney, Gilbert M. Joseph, Emily S. Rosenberg

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What was the relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt, architect of America’s rise to global power, and the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War, which inspired passion and sacrifice, and shaped the road to world war? While many historians have portrayed the Spanish Civil War as one of Roosevelt’s most isolationist episodes, Dominic Tierney


What was the relationship between President Franklin D. Roosevelt, architect of America’s rise to global power, and the 1936–39 Spanish Civil War, which inspired passion and sacrifice, and shaped the road to world war? While many historians have portrayed the Spanish Civil War as one of Roosevelt’s most isolationist episodes, Dominic Tierney argues that it marked the president’s first attempt to challenge fascist aggression in Europe. Drawing on newly discovered archival documents, Tierney describes the evolution of Roosevelt’s thinking about the Spanish Civil War in relation to America’s broader geopolitical interests, as well as the fierce controversy in the United States over Spanish policy.

Between 1936 and 1939, Roosevelt’s perceptions of the Spanish Civil War were transformed. Initially indifferent toward which side won, FDR became an increasingly committed supporter of the leftist government. He believed that German and Italian intervention in Spain was part of a broader program of fascist aggression, and he worried that the Spanish Civil War would inspire fascist revolutions in Latin America. In response, Roosevelt tried to send food to Spain as well as illegal covert aid to the Spanish government, and to mediate a compromise solution to the civil war. However unsuccessful these initiatives proved in the end, they represented an important stage in Roosevelt’s emerging strategy to aid democracy in Europe.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
FDR and the Spanish Civil War is an important, well documented study. It will not only prompt a rethinking of how the Spanish Civil War shaped and reflected Franklin D. Roosevelt’s policies; it will become the standard book on the subject.”—Warren F. Kimball, author of The Juggler: Franklin Roosevelt as Wartime Statesman

“Based on exhaustive research, this highly readable book is an important contribution to an important subject. Dominic Tierney subtly analyzes FDR’s juggling of international and electoral pressures to explain the contradictions and dramatic changes in his passage from isolationism to bitter regret about American abandonment of the Spanish Republic.”—Paul Preston, author of The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge

Soledad Fox
“[N]uanced. . . . Tierney provides a long overdue update on this subject. . . . Even for most readers who know the outcome of this story, Tierney’s account manages to be suspenseful.”
David A. Messenger
“Tierney makes a solid and important argument about the Spanish war as an important experience in the development of US foreign policy on the continent prior to the Second World War.”
J. Simon Rofe
“Tierney makes a valuable and timely contribution to the literature on the era of Roosevelt by providing a focused and dedicated study on the thirty-second president and the Spanish Civil War . . . . [T]his is a most impressive book.”

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
American Encounters/Global Interactions
Product dimensions:
6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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By Dominic Tierney

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4076-8

Chapter One

The American Sphinx and the Spanish War

In early 1939 the American ambassador to Spain, Claude G. Bowers, walked into the White House to brief President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the outcome of the Spanish Civil War, which had just been decisively won by the rebel general Francisco Franco. As Bowers was shown into the president's office, he was surprised to find a somber figure. Usually FDR would throw back his head and make a joke before discussing any serious issues. But Roosevelt hardly smiled, and before Bowers had even sat down, the president offered this summary of American policy in the Spanish Civil War: "We have made a mistake. You have been right all along."

The story of how Roosevelt reached this conclusion is a fascinating and important one, and it is a story that is untold. What was the relationship between FDR, described recently as the most important figure of the twentieth century, and the Spanish Civil War, often viewed as the "last great cause," a vortex of passion, sacrifice, idealism, cynicism, and tragedy, and an event that shaped the road to the Second World War? How did Roosevelt perceive the Spanish Civil War? In what ways did the conflict in Spain change the president's thinking about the fascist threat to Europe and the United States? Did Roosevelt shape the U.S. government's response to the Spanish Civil War? What does the case tell us about FDR's impact on policy making more generally?

The evidence shows that the president played an increasingly central role in his country's decision making in the Spanish Civil War. Over time Roosevelt's beliefs about Spain were transformed. His initial disinterest in which side won gave way to a position of partisanship for the leftist government, and he tried both legal and illegal means to aid the Spanish Republic. These changing perceptions of Spain influenced Roosevelt's views about the nature of wider fascist aggression, with consequences for the coming world war, and they created an enduring guilt over the failure of a cause in which Roosevelt had come to believe.

The story of American diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War is rich in dramatic detail. The cast included the great leaders of the age-men like Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Stalin-together with figures such as Ernest Hemingway and Eleanor Roosevelt. The episodes were often striking. Thousands of Americans traveled to Spain to fight as volunteers for the Spanish Republic. At the same time, Texaco Oil Company provided Franco with all the oil he needed, on credit, for the duration of the war. Congress engaged in a "race with a freighter" to introduce an arms embargo before a ship packed with weapons could sail from New York harbor to Spain. America's leading isolationist senator, Gerald P. Nye, became the major voice arguing in favor of selling arms to the Spanish Republic. And in an intriguing incident, President Roosevelt sent his alcoholic brother-in-law to Paris as a secret emissary to arrange the illegal shipment of aircraft to the Spanish Republic.

Roosevelt has long provoked fascination. Enigmatic and mercurial, he has been described by many writers as a sphinx. Roosevelt's early political success and easy confidence, his battle against debilitating polio, his continued drive in the face of adversity, and then his ultimate triumph seem to be almost a metaphor for the country he helped to rescue from the Great Depression. Born in 1882 into a genteel and affluent family, this optimistic patrician leader sought from an early age to emulate his cousin Theodore Roosevelt. But in the end FDR would far surpass TR in achievements, inaugurating the New Deal age of government activism, and guiding the United States as it made the transition from isolationism to globalism through the defeat of Germany, Italy, and Japan.

ON THE NIGHT of 17 July 1936 a group of rebel Spanish generals initiated a coup d'état. The generals planned to overthrow the Spanish Republic-then enjoying its five-year anniversary-and replace it with an authoritarian regime. The "Nationalist" rebels, soon under the leadership of General Francisco Franco, were defeated by "Loyalist" Republican forces in the key cities of Madrid and Barcelona, and a war of attrition resulted. The major European states formally agreed not to sell weapons to either side in Spain, but two parties to the agreement-Germany and Italy-nevertheless sent large quantities of men and arms to the Nationalists, while a third-the USSR-sent substantially less aid to the Spanish Republic. With influxes of foreign support arriving at critical moments, the Nationalists steadily overran Loyalist territory until Barcelona and Madrid were captured in the spring of 1939 and the war ended.

By any standards the Spanish Civil War was an enormously important conflict. It altered the course of European and therefore world politics. It gripped the attention of people who knew nothing of Spain but felt in their hearts that the Spanish Civil War was their struggle. It aroused passion and butchery, and spurred great art and mendacious propaganda. And today it probably captures the imagination of people more than any other event between the two world wars. Quite simply, the issues at stake in the Spanish Civil War-democracy against fascism, Christianity against communism, the future of Spain and Europe-were vast in scale and significance.

The Spanish Civil War was the first major conflict in Western Europe since 1918. As well as costing the lives of over 500,000 Spaniards, the war strengthened the relationship between Germany and Italy, and provided the fascist dictators with an apparent new ally in General Franco. The Germans used the conflict to test weapons and tactics that later proved highly effective against Poland in 1939 and the western democracies in 1940. Even though the United States was physically removed from the conflict, the Spanish Civil War affected most of the key strands of American diplomacy. Events in Spain seemed likely to spark a full-scale European war in which the United States might ultimately become entangled. The conflict offered further evidence of aggressive fascist intent, and for some American officials it demonstrated Moscow's revolutionary threat. The Spanish Civil War deeply divided the Latin American countries that the United States was attempting to court in the 1930s with its "good neighbor" policy. Crucially, the conflict occurred during Roosevelt's period of awakening to foreign affairs, 1936-39. No longer were domestic recovery and the New Deal the priority. Instead FDR pronounced that events in Europe were his greatest concern.

The Spanish Civil War has often been called "the last great cause." For people around the world the conflict in Spain represented a fundamental clash of values and ideals. "There was something pure about the Spanish war. The enthusiasm it engendered was a springtime that briefly loosened the wintry grip of a world grown old and weary and cynical. As did no other event of our time, it caught the conscience of a generation." The "crusade" mentality toward Spain was especially pronounced among intellectuals and artists. Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, and George Orwell all drew creative inspiration from events on the Iberian Peninsula.

The "last great cause" slogan is associated with the left's interpretation of the Spanish Civil War as a fight between fascism and democracy. Many on the left believed that if Hitler and Mussolini were not stopped in Spain, Paris and London would be next, followed by Washington. The Nationalists and their fascist patrons had demonstrated their barbarity by carrying out repeated atrocities, including the bombing of undefended cities such as Guernica. The Loyalists, in sharp contrast, had issued a rallying cry to the global progressive community, and tens of thousands answered the call. Volunteers traveled from around the world to fight for the Spanish Republic in the international brigades, motivated mainly by ideology and idealism rather than material gain. Viewed from this perspective, liberals, socialists, and communists idealized the Loyalist war effort as a just and true cause around which to rally.

But for other observers, the great cause in Spain was General Franco's fight for Christianity and against Bolshevism. The truth is that the left in Spain did not have a monopoly on idealism, and the right did not have a monopoly on cynicism and brutality. Many who fought for the Spanish Republic did not believe in liberalism or even democracy, and the thousands of priests and other religious figures who died in the Republican zone attest to the excesses of revolutionary justice. The Loyalists' main ally, the Soviet Union, often manipulated the conflict for narrow self-interest.

The Spanish Civil War became widely viewed as a war of opposites, whether it was religion against atheism, the rich against the poor, or fascism against democracy: a war in which people tried purposefully to ignore the gray areas and maintain a black-and-white image of la causa. The belief that the Spanish Civil War was a titanic struggle quickly crossed the Atlantic and took root in the western hemisphere. The United States is usually described as having been "isolationist" in the 1930s, but the Spanish Civil War had an intense impact on thousands, perhaps millions, of Americans. It created a bitter domestic controversy over American foreign policy on a scale not witnessed since the rejection of the Versailles Treaty in 1920. Herbert Matthews, who covered the Spanish Civil War for the New York Times, wrote: "No event in the outside world, before or since, aroused Americans in time to such religious controversy and such burning emotions."

In 1936 the United States introduced an embargo on arms sales to both sides in the Spanish Civil War and announced strict nonintervention in the conflict. This policy was initially uncontroversial, but by 1939 the embargo issue had produced a political storm. Franco could do without American weapons because the Nationalists received massive military assistance from Germany and Italy. In contrast, the Spanish Republic did need arms; thus its war effort was disproportionately impaired by the American embargo. The United States was one of the world's major suppliers of aircraft, the weapon which the Spanish Republic needed most of all. In battles where the Nationalists lacked air supremacy, the Republic could hold its own. But in 1938 the Nationalist air ace Joaquin Garcia-Morato declared, "the sky was ours," and as a result, the Republican front collapsed.

American liberals, socialists, communists, the Protestant clergy, and a large number of intellectuals could see before their eyes that their government's policy was contributing to the slow strangulation of the Spanish Republic and the victory of fascism. They campaigned for the lifting of the arms embargo, holding hundreds of rallies and sending petitions with thousands of names to Washington. In contrast, the American Catholic hierarchy saw in Spain a very different war, fought between Christianity and communism, and they strongly opposed lifting the embargo. As the Spanish controversy intensified, for every anti-embargo petition there was a pro-embargo petition. In 1939 "Lift the Embargo Week" was followed by "Keep the Embargo Week." The divide between liberals and Catholics over Spain was especially significant because these two groups were the pillars of Roosevelt's New Deal coalition. Thus the Spanish Civil War debate in the United States was also an ideational civil war within the Democratic Party. Americans did not just campaign politically; they also campaigned militarily. Over 2,600 Americans traveled to Spain to fight in the Loyalist international brigades, of whom 900 were killed. A few U.S. citizens also fought for Franco. It would be hard to imagine this happening today: thousands of Americans risking the censure of their own government, and putting their lives at risk, to fight in a country with which they have no ethnic or nationalist ties, but instead feel a powerful idealistic or ideological motivation to act.

Despite the efforts of American liberals, the arms embargo remained in place throughout the war. President Harry Truman, the U.S. secretary of the interior Harold Ickes, and the journalist Herbert Matthews all eventually concluded that the embargo had played a major role in the Loyalist defeat. Many politicians in the United States came to perceive Roosevelt's nonintervention policy as a disastrous mistake, one that aided the fascist powers, undermined the cause of democracy in Europe, and encouraged the wider conflict in the Second World War. The assistant secretary of state Sumner Welles believed in 1944 that "the position adopted by [the U.S.] government with regard to the Civil War in Spain ... constitutes the greatest error in the foreign policy of this country during the past twelve years." Historians have tended to concur, arguing that the Spanish embargo was one of FDR's cardinal blunders. Robert Dallek, for example, has stated that FDR's policies in Spain encouraged the aggression that he wished to prevent. In common with Roosevelt's treatment of Jewish refugees, and Japanese-Americans in the Second World War, the Spanish embargo was one of the president's "unnecessary and destructive compromises of legal and moral principle." Allen Guttmann has argued that if the president had lifted the Spanish embargo, then "World War II might well have been avoided."

It is difficult to assess this counterfactual, but the Spanish Civil War certainly helped set the stage for the larger struggle to come. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history did not repeat itself, but the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War rhymed. The conflict in Spain ended in April 1939, only five months before Hitler invaded Poland. Germany and Italy first fought together in Spain, against a coalition of antifascists ranging from liberal democrats to communists-similar alliances, in fact, to those at the height of the Second World War in 1942. The new brutal methods of warfare in Spain, especially the orchestrated bombing of civilians, foreshadowed the slaughter of 1939-45. Furthermore, Roosevelt's first active challenge to fascist aggression in Europe came in 1938, when he tried and failed to block General Franco's victory in Spain.

Since 1939 the conflict in Spain has remained in the collective memory of both Europe and the United States. In 1984 Ronald Reagan remarked that Americans who fought for the contra rebels in Nicaragua were in a long tradition of foreign volunteers stretching back to the "Communist brigade of Americans in the Spanish Civil War." Reagan added-incorrectly-that the American volunteers in Spain had been "in the opinion of most Americans, fighting on the wrong side." From a different perspective, Alfred Kazin, the American literary critic, called the Spanish Civil War "the wound that will not heal," and declared: "the destroyers of the Spanish Republic would always be my enemies." In 2001 a proposal to erect a memorial to the New Hampshire citizens who had joined the Loyalist international brigades produced a heated controversy over the nature of the struggle in Spain. The question of whether the American volunteers had been antifascists fighting for democracy or rather Stalin's communist stooges was still alive sixty years after the event.

The Spanish Civil War ought to be remembered because there are instructive comparisons to be made between the 1930s and the post-cold war world. The Roosevelt era represents the most recent historical period in which the ambiguity displayed in the 1990s about the American world role and the location of its enemies was historically evident. Seyom Brown has commented that "it is striking to realize the extent to which the foreign policies of FDR, the last pre-cold war president, prefigured the foreign policies of Bill Clinton, the first post-cold war president." One lesson from American policy in the Spanish Civil War is that arms embargoes are not neutral in their effects on civil war participants and therefore represent a form of intervention. This lesson has not been fully understood. In the early 1990s a un arms embargo applied to all the sides fighting in Yugoslavia represented an unintended but highly effective intervention against one side-the Bosnian Muslims. Since the Croats and the Serbs had better access to weapons already present in Yugoslavia, the embargo meant that the Bosnian Muslims were unable to purchase arms to defend themselves. (Continues...)

Excerpted from FDR AND THE SPANISH CIVIL WAR by Dominic Tierney Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Dominic Tierney is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Swarthmore College. He is a coauthor (with Dominic D. P. Johnson) of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics.

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