July 4, 1938 – Banner flown above Coney Island appealing for government aid and relief to Americans fighting in the Spanish Civil War[i]
The 1930’s was a period of great difficulty for an America which was struggling with the Great Depression and the after effects of World War I. Given the events which had lead to this period of hardship, most Americans believed that the United States should remain firmly non-interventionist in world politics. This belief was threatened by the advent of the Spanish Civil War and the popular support for the war. The government’s reaction to the Spanish Civil War is interesting, because it shows a shift in thought which would become increasingly important as the Spanish Civil War gave way to World War II. The government was torn between supporting the idealistic cause of the Spanish Civil War and preserving American non-interventionism. In particular, FDR supported the cause of the Republic which had been ousted by Francisco Franco’s fascist forces, and yet, his hands were often tied due to the conflicting interests, forces, and beliefs in the government and the public. America’s complicated relationship with the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 represents a difficult time for American foreign policy. While America had intervened in foreign wars before, it had normally only occurred after the U.S. citizens had been personally affected in some way. The Spanish Civil War represents the beginning of a movement in America which would allow for foreign intervention based purely on ideological motivations.
During the beginning of his presidency, FDR’s primary focus was on domestic policy. This should be no surprise given the hardships America had been facing during the Great Depression. Historian Dominic Tierney argues that the Spanish Civil War represents FDR’s awakening to foreign policy and the importance of foreign affairs to domestic security.[ii] When studying the Government’s response to the Spanish Civil War, it is most important to study FDR’s beliefs and changing attitudes, because it is well known that “no modern president has wielded his personal influence more effectively than FDR.”[iii] FDR’s feelings and approach to the Spanish Civil War would change over the course of 1936-1939; however, his forceful leadership style would assert itself in the end through several illegal attempts to give aid to the Loyalist side of the civil war (See the following section “FDR’s Reactions to the Spanish Civil War, 1938-1939”).
From 1936-1937, FDR shared a common belief in non-interventionism with most Americans. He believed America should be a “model global citizen” setting an example as a “promoter of free trade and disarmament, and, much more cautiously, as a defender of international order.”[iv] He was steadfastly set against involving America in another war and would avoid it at all costs, “I’ve seen war… I hate war.”[v] However, FDR was not an isolationist. He saw and believed in the benefits of working with other countries on economic issues and affairs. However, he believed that it was America’s interests which he must by necessity always put first. His early dedication to non-interventionism is apparent through several key decisions which he supported or made before and during his time as president.
League of Nations: During the 1932 Presidential Campaign, FDR argued that America should not become a member of the League of Nations despite having argued the exact opposite years earlier.[vi] FDR had learned from Woodrow Wilson’s failure. He knew that one must “carefully nurture domestic support for international policies,” and, therefore, he did not seek to change America’s foreign policy of the 1920’s in the beginning of his presidency. He understood that a nation facing severe depression and problems at home would not support a measure which would more deeply involve and commit the United States to foreign affairs.
London Economic Conference: FDR believed in the “economic and political nationalism” which had pervaded the previous presidencies. At the London Economic Conference of 1933, FDR did not support “international efforts to stabilize currencies because of what he perceived as domestic economic necessity.”[vii] In a statement to Senator Tom Connally, he stated “We have to get our own economic house in order before we can do anything in the foreign field.”[viii]
Stimson Doctrine: FDR supported the Stimson Doctrine stated the United States’ refusal “to recognize international territorial changes brought about by force, notably Japan’s conquest of Manchuria.”[ix] The Hoover-Stimson Doctrine was not strictly non-interventionist as it did proclaim very adamantly the United States’ position on a foreign affair; however, it did demonstrate FDR’s early wariness of the “threat posed by Germany and Italy to world peace.”[x] FDR was not willing to commit troops to stopping this encroachment of territory, but he did recognize the threat such an action would pose should it not be condemned.
Over time FDR’s policies toward international issues became increasingly inconsistent and contradictory to these original stances.[xi] As the Thirties progressed and the fear of fascist Germany and Italy increased, it became clear that the time would soon come when the United States might once again have to involve itself in international politics. However, FDR was not willing to believe that that time was the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
At the start of the Spanish Civil War, it was not immediately clear what kind of impact the war would have on international politics. Before the outbreak of civil war, Spain was relatively low on the list of important foreign powers.[xii] While FDR had been concerned enough about the country to have ambassador Claude Bowers do a study of “the status of democracy in the country,” he was not overly worried about Spain becoming a threat.[xiii] At the beginning of the conflict, FDR did as much intelligence gathering as possible depending on a variety of official and unofficial sources. A report of large numbers of Italians aiding the Fascist revolutionaries was worrisome; however, much of the information which FDR received was unclear and sometimes contradictory.[xiv] Nevertheless, it was understood from the beginning that the “Spanish Civil War was not merely an Iberian tragedy; it was also a major international crisis.”[xv] While documents from the time show FDR’s support for the Loyalists,[xvi] there were several key things which prevented him from becoming involved in the conflict so early. The first major issue was a general wish to keep the United States out of war. While he might personally support the goals and aims of the Loyalists, he was not willing to risk the wrath of the American public in order to involve them in such a conflict which had no immediate influence on American prosperity. Second, FDR saw a shared policy of non-interventionism in Spain as an “opportunity to collaborate” with Britain.[xvii] FDR also did not see the heavy Soviet intervention and influence on the side of the Loyalists as a threat. He was much more concerned with the steadily growing influence of fascism.[xviii] FDR did not believe that anything good would come of Franco and his revolutionary forces taking power.
The first policy reaction of the U.S. to the beginning of civil war in Spain was to institute a ‘moral embargo’ of arms to both sides of the conflict (This embargo would later become law in 1937).[xix] Secretary of State Cordell Hull believed that an arms embargo was the best course of action for America, because it was necessary for the European nations to act first in this conflict.[xx] It was not the job of the U.S. to intervene in this European conflict. While FDR and others may have been sympathetic to the Loyalist cause, there were many reasons for other American politicians to doubt and question U.S. intervention and aid on their side of the war. Irwin B. Laughlin, an ambassador to Spain, had earlier remarked that the monarchy had fallen in Spain because of “widespread Bolshevistic influences.”[xxi] Many Americans were concerned with the leftist nature of the Republic, and questioned its commitment to true democratic principles particularly sighting brutal killings carried about by Republicans during the early months of the war.[xxii] Even the men who were sympathetic to the Loyalist cause often supported non-intervention. The ambassador to Spain at the onset of the war, Claude Bowers, encouraged “strict American neutrality.”[xxiii] “Bowers favored the Spanish Republic far more resolutely than Roosevelt did, consistently perceiving the fight as one between fascism and democracy. But Bowers also thought that the Spanish Civil War was a European rather than an American problem.”[xxiv] While Roosevelt personally favored the side of the Loyalists, he was torn between many political factions including Congress, American Liberals, and American Catholics.[xxv] While Liberals saw the war as a great cause for democracy, American Catholics saw it as a fight between the Atheist Communists and the Christian Fascists. This would prove to be a huge problem for FDR as Liberals and Catholics formed two of his largest voting demographics, and yet they were diametrically opposed. Despite his personal beliefs, FDR was adamant during this beginning period that the U.S. must stay out of the fight. In a comment to Bowers, he stated: “You are absolutely right… about what you say of our complete neutrality in regard to Spain’s own internal affairs.” Tierney stresses that FDR was not forced into an arms embargo against Spain.[xxvi] From the beginning, FDR believed the non-intervention was the best policy to take.
Following the 1937 Congressional act which created an arms embargo of Spain, Congress also passed the Neutrality Act of 1937. This act gave the President the power to establish arms embargoes in any country which was in a state of war including a civil war, established the “cash and carry” clause, and restricted American citizen travel on ships of belligerent nations.[xxvii] The arms embargo and the Neutrality Act of 1937 show the strong non-interventionist spirit of the United States in 1936-1937. Given this information, “several commentators concluded that the President must have been coerced into nonintervention policy. Yet Roosevelt saw no important conflict in 1936-37 between his moderate sympathy for the Loyalists and his support for the American embargo.”[xxviii]
However as time progressed and the support for the Loyalist cause began to grow in America, many liberal thinkers who supported non-interventionism found these beliefs conflicting with their desire to support the cause. Senator Gerald Nye who was a strong supporter of isolationism was one such liberal who found himself deeply troubled by this conflict, and eventually led the movement to lift the arms embargo to Spain.[xxix] It is during this time that one can see FDR becoming more contradictory in his policies concerning the Spanish Civil War. See the following section “The Abraham Lincoln Brigade” for examples of how he began to support the actions of those who were volunteering to fight and aid the Loyalists. Following these actions, FDR began to think about expanding the arms embargo to Germany, Italy, and the Soviets as the great extent of their involvement in the conflict became clearer.[xxx] FDR recognized the extent to which the Loyalists were struggling when they were not receiving as much aid as Franco’s forces. In the end an extension of the embargo became politically infeasible as the reaction to it in Europe was almost universally negative.[xxxi]
FDR’s Quarantine Speech delivered in October 1937 clearly showed Roosevelt’s disapproval of the happenings in Europe. This speech was aimed at Spain, Japan (which was experiencing similar problems), and the European countries which were openly aiding both sides of the Spanish conflict. While he never specified what the Quarantine Policy would entail, FDR stated: “Without a declaration of war and without warning or justification of any kind, civilians, including vast numbers of women and children, are being ruthlessly murdered with bombs from the air. In times of so-called peace, ships are being attacked and sunk by submarines without cause or notice. Nations are fomenting and taking sides in civil warfare in nations that have never done them any harm.”[xxxii] He then essentially stated that all nations which participate in such activities should be “quarantined.” This speech is not a departure from the previous non-interventionist policy. It merely serves as a statement to the European countries that they better watch their actions, because they will not be tolerated for much longer. From 1936-1937, Roosevelt maintained support for the Republican government of Spain; however due to other influences he could not always act on that. Eleanor Roosevelt stated: “In the case of the Spanish Civil War, for instance, we had to remain neutral, though Franklin knew quite well he wanted the democratic government to be successful. But he also knew he could not get Congress to go along with him.”[xxxiii]
Beginning in 1938, one can see a much more noticeable shit in FDR’s attitude toward the Spanish Civil War and the support of the Loyalists. As the war progressed, FDR began to focus less on “viewing Spain as a potential spark or catalyst for wider European conflict, toward focusing on the danger of German and Italian intervention.”[xxxiv] There were three primary reasons why Roosevelt began to believe that a fascist Spain posed a greater risk with the more aggressive German and Italian governments:
1. Following the Munich Conference, Roosevelt began to realize that Hitler had a much more aggressive foreign policy than was originally evident to him in 1936-1937.[xxxv] This was significant to the stability of Europe and the future peace of America because it was very likely that a fascist Spain would ally with Italy and Germany. “In this case France would face a war on three fronts, and British Gibraltar would also be threatened.”[xxxvi]
2. Roosevelt was concerned that a fascist Spain would lead to pro-fascist subversion in Latin America.[xxxvii] This was a real possibility given that Germany and Italy had sent large reinforcements to Spain in order to help Franco’s forces. For this reason, Roosevelt was wary because “many in the Government considered Berlin’s penetration of Latin America to be the most direct threat to American security.”[xxxviii]
3. The last primary reason FDR had for his mounting support of the Spanish Republic was the brutal way in which Franco conducted war.[xxxix] February 20, 2938, Bowers noted that: “Word has just reached us that an enormous shipment from Germany of 1000kg bombs is on its way. If so thought to mean an utterly ruthless bombing of Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid.”[xl]
Compounding all of these fears was what FDR considered to be Neville Chamberlain’s imminent failure to contain the threat in Europe. “In FDR’s eyes the British were failing to fulfill the role traditionally assigned to them by American statesmen: that of protector of global order.”[xli] Due to this series of escalating concerns regarding the stability of Europe and its perceived ability to hold out against an onslaught of fascist power, FDR began to consider more active aid to the Spanish Loyalists was necessary. However given the Neutrality Act of 1937, FDR would be breaking the law if he sought to give direct aid or arms to a country under embargo. For these reasons, FDR resolved that he would find a way around these complications and attempt to send aid to the failing Spanish Republic illegally.
Simply put FDR’s new goals in Spain “were no longer focused on preventing the Spanish Civil War from engendering a wider European conflict…neither did he simply desire to promote nonintervention in Spain…instead Roosevelt sought to block a victory by Franco, if necessary through some form of American intervention.”[xlii] This dramatic shift in approach to the foreign policy concerning Spain is representative of the America’s complicated relationship with the conflict in that country. Whether it was because FDR was not yet accustomed handling international affairs or because it was during a transition period when America was coming out of its non-interventionist stage, the Spanish Civil War represented a complicated time in America’s political history. Pro-Loyalist groups were calling for a lift of the embargo of Spain which Catholic groups were calling for its continued existence.[xliii] This created an increasingly difficult political atmosphere in which FDR and Congress had to operate. As more and more attention was drawn to the issue overseas FDR and Congress were put under a public microscope. There was even a news leak which proclaimed that FDR was supporting a full repeal of the arms embargo; however, this would later prove to be false.[xliv] While Roosevelt was increasingly more Pro-Loyalist, he was still in favor of the embargo based on its intrinsic value. It is at this point in the historical documents that the records become unclear, but Tierney asserts that given various pieces of corroborating evidence FDR actually attempted to supply the Spanish Republic with covert and illegal aid. Drawing from sources at the Roosevelt Presidential Library, Princeton University, Harvard University, and Russian archives, he asserts that FDR “informed the Mexican and Spanish ambassadors that US arms could be sent to Spain via France in defiance of the embargo.”[xlv]
There were two separate schemes, one which would have provided covert aid[xlvi] and one which would have provided aircraft;[xlvii] however, the plans were not successfully carried through. Due to a series of information leaks, the French frontier being lost to the Fascists, and the growing knowledge of the State Department, Roosevelt and his co-conspirators were forced to withdrawal their plans to send illegal aid to the Spanish Republic. While the attempt was a failure in the end, Tierney is careful to explain that this deviation from non-interventionist policies was still congruent with many of FDR’s beliefs, “By 1938 Roosevelt was increasingly worried by the impact of a victory by Franco on European and Latin American security, and shipping planes to Spain would be a tangible means of preventing or at least delaying this outcome… the president never allowed his bureaucracy to control policy.”[xlviii] Roosevelt was hindered by the political atmosphere of the United States at the time and the deep contentions which ran through the country. For this reason, he had to attempt to find alternative methods to resolving what he believed to be a major crisis.
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade[xlix]
The Abraham Lincoln Brigade is an interesting twist in America’s relationship with the Spanish Civil War. While the government was reticent to take any overt action in the conflict, many Americans came to consider the Spanish Civil War to be of utmost importance. One must examine the attitudes of the time in order to fully appreciate why the war of a foreign country became a rallying point for Americans of all backgrounds. When the Spanish Civil War began, America was in the depths of the Great Depression. FDR had already been in office three years, but despite the New Deal many Americans were still struggling to make ends meet. The American Communist movement was at its height because of the “troubled social and political conditions of the late 1930s: the grimness of the depression still lingering for millions of the unemployed, despite the reforms of the New Deal; the violent struggles to organize industrial labor unions; the rosy reports of full employment and increased productivity in Russia; [and] the disillusionment of many American intellectuals with capitalism and their growing interest in Marxism.” [l] Communism offered impoverished workers and the unemployed the glimpse of a better life where property was based on need and shared equally. In a country that had lost hope, this promise had allowed Communism to take root in the larger cities especially where there was a high concentration of unionized workers. Two of the primary goals of Communism were to spread its influence and to stop the growth of fascism. In fact it was the Communists who first organized the sending of an American group of volunteers to Spain to help fight the war. In addition, “the Spanish Civil War vividly aroused the American people to the compelling pattern of European affairs. It was not merely a tragedy to be mourned from afar; it was an experience that touched the lives and hearts of millions of Americans.” Armed with an idealistic fervor, the volunteers began to sign-up in great numbers in order to join the fight in the Spanish Civil War.[li]
Almost all of the international brigades which fought in the Spanish Civil War were organized by the Communist International (Comintern); however, not all of the men who fought in these brigades were Communist themselves.[lii] In 1936 the Comintern sanctioned the recruitment and formation of a military unit which would be sent to Spain to help fight the Civil War.[liii] The Communists were interested in the outcome of the war, because they saw fascism –radical right politics – as a threat to their political programs and success. Therefore, Fascist General Franco Francisco and his troops were condemned as they began to take over parts of Spain in 1936. The Spanish Civil War became a beacon of hope for the Communists’ fight against Fascism. “Communist recruiters not only sought to enlist many American liberals but also often discouraged party members from volunteering and argued that it was more important for them to stay home and work for Communist party (CP) programs in the United States.”[liv] Communist leaders encouraged all non-fascists to join in the fight for Spanish liberty. They did not see their cause as being solely Communist. To them the fight was “to defend what seemed to them to be the cause of western civilization itself.”[lv] The men who fought in these units were on average in their twenties and lived in a city were union politics were prominent. These men included workers, students, writers, liberals, leftists, and even some Catholics.[lvi] While many of these volunteers had been exposed to Communism before, most were new recruits who had signed up solely to fight for Spain: “a hatred of fascism [was] not the exclusive property of industrial workers, of course, and many men who had never stood on a picket line made their way to Spain.”[lvii] This group of like-minded men, despite their political affiliations, was willing to believe that the end of the western civilization would come swiftly should Hitler and Mussolini continue to spread their influence and power.[lviii] With the help of the American Communist party, most volunteers took passenger liners to France where they would then travel over the Pyrenees and on into Italy.[lix]
The actions of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade caused many problems for the United States Government. While FDR might have regretted not intervening in the Spanish Civil War earlier, he was forced to consider the men of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to be politically dangerous to the Union. In 1937 the State Department issued a statement which read, “the enlistment of American citizens in either of the opposing sides in Spain is unpatriotically inconsistent with the American Government’s policy of the most scrupulous non-intervention in Spanish internal affairs.”[lx] However, despite this statement FDR was willing to support those volunteers who were going to help the Republic. Not only did he stop the State Department from prosecuting those who had volunteered to go overseas, but he also allowed for medical workers to obtain passports.[lxi] Roosevelt even went out of his way to threaten to revoke the licenses of pilots who were going to fight with the fascists and became increasingly upset with Texaco, a pro-fascist oil company.[lxii]
When the volunteers returned from the conflict, they faced a harsh reception. Especially following WWII and the beginning of the Cold War and Red Scare, the government became increasingly wary of anyone who had been associated with the Communist Party. America’s complicated relationship with the Spanish Civil War continued following the end of the war as the remaining Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade continued to be put on trial for their actions during the Cold War.
It had been long predicted that a fascist victory in Spain would lead to World War II, and this opinion was quickly proved correct when WWII began in September of 1939, just six months after the Republicans defeat.[lxiii] “The relationship between the two conflicts was complex, and the Spanish Civil War was not a straightforward prelude to the larger battle.”[lxiv] It was said that Roosevelt would come to regret his decision to not take a part in the Civil War. Following the defeat of the Republican forces, FDR said to Ambassador Bowers: “We have made a mistake. You have been right all along.”[lxv] The actions of the United States in regards to the Spanish Civil War had not actually ensured neutrality from the beginning.[lxvi] The Loyalists were disproportionally affected by the Neutrality Acts. In 1937 Franco stated: “President Roosevelt behaved in the manner of a true gentleman. His neutrality legislation, stopping export of war materials to either side – the quick manner in which it was passed and carried into effect – is a gesture we Nationalists shall never forget.”[lxvii] The Republic had been disproportionately affected by the Neutrality Act, because they did not have the support which Franco possessed. Hitler and Mussolini kept Franco supplied with more than enough artillery and money to keep the conflict going; however, the Republicans only had minimal support from the Soviet Union which was not able to give them enough supplies. While FDR’s perception and beliefs about the Spanish Civil War had changed remarkably over the four year period, it was an inarguable point that even he knew his attempts at changing or circumventing the non-interventionist policy had been a failure.[lxviii] When FDR had attempted to finally aid the Republic, it was already fast disintegrating. Given the constantly shifting and adapting U.S. policy concerning the Spanish Civil War, the ever changing and conflicting public opinion, and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade’s attempts to act contrary to government policies, America’s relationship with the Spanish Civil War is a deeply complicated affair which warrants a much deeper exploration.
Nelson, Cary, and Jefferson Hendricks. Madrid 1937: Letters of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade from the Spanish Civil War. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives. Home page at http://www.alba-valb.org/.
Landis, Arthur H. Abraham Lincoln Brigade. New York: Citadel Press, 1967.
United States. Subversive Activities Control Board. Herbert Brownell, Jr., Attorney General of the United States, Petitioner v. Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Respondent. Washington: GPO, 1955.
Bessie, Alvah and Albert Prago, Ed. Our Fight: Writings by Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Spain 1936-1939. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1987.
Preston, Paul. The Spanish Civil War: Reaction, Revolution, and Revenge. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006.
United States. House of Representatives Committee on Un-American Activities. Hearing on U.S. Communist Party Assistance to Foreign Communist Parties (Abraham Lincoln Brigade). Eighty-Eighth Session of Congress. Washington: GPO, 1963.
[i] NYtimes.com. Image. New York University and ALBA/VALB Photographic Collection. April 30, 2008. <http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/24/arts/design/24fasc.html?_r=1&oref=slogin>
[ii] Tierney, Dominic. FDR and the Spanish Civil War. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. p. 12
[iii] P. 11
[iv] P. 26
[v] P. 26
[vi] P. 27
[vii] P. 27
[viii] P. 27
[ix] P. 28
[xi] P. 29
[xii] P. 33
[xiii] P. 33
[xiv] P. 33
[xv] P. 34
[xvi] P. 34
[xvii] P. 36
[xviii] P. 36
[xix] Tierney, Dominic. “Franklin D. Roosevelt and Covert Aid to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-39.” Journal of Contemporary History. 39.3 (2004):299-313. p. 301
[xx] Tierney, FDR and the Spanish Civil War. p. 40
[xxi] P. 41
[xxii] P. 41
[xxiii] P. 42
[xxiv] P. 53
[xxv] P. 62-63
[xxvi] P. 45
[xxvii] P. 52
[xxviii] P. 53
[xxix] P. 61
[xxx] P. 69
[xxxi] P. 71
[xxxii] Roosevelt, Franklin D. “Quarantine Speech.” History Department at the University of San Diego. April 30, 2008. <http://history.sandiego.edu/GEN/text/us/fdr1937.html>
[xxxiii] Tierney, FDR and the Spanish Civil War, p. 73
[xxxiv] P. 75
[xxxv] P. 80
[xxxvi] P. 80
[xxxvii] P. 80
[xxxviii] P. 80
[xxxix] P. 84
[xl] P. 85
[xli] P. 87
[xlii] P. 88
[xliii] P. 91
[xliv] P. 93
[xlv] Tierney, “Frankin D. Roosevelt and Covert Aid to the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939” p. 300
[xlvi] Tierney, FDR and the Spanish Civil War p. 104
[xlvii] P. 108
[xlviii] P. 113
[l] Rosenstone, Robert A. “The Men of the Abraham Lincoln Battalion.” The Journal of American History. 54.2 (1967):327-338. p. 329
[li] Tierney, FDR and the Spanish Civil War. P. 58
[lii]Rosenstone p. 327
[liii] Carroll, Peter N. Ed. The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.
[liv] Rosenstone p.327-8
[lv] P. 327
[lvi] P. 329
[lvii] P. 332
[lviii] P. 330
[lix] Lawson, Don. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1989. p. 7
[lx] Tierney, FDR and the Spanish Civil War p. 66
[lxi] P. 67
[lxiii] Lawson p. 133
[lxiv] Tierney. FDR and the Spanish Civil War. P. 135
[lxv] p. I
[lxvi] P. 57
[lxvii] P. 39
[lxviii] P. 160