Joseph Hansen

Roosevelt and Spain

(February 1943)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.4 No.2, February 1943, pp.46-50.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The North African events have brought Spain once more into the limelight. Spain is a potential battleground. In the chancellories a question mark stands over the fascist regime entrenched in Spain. Will Franco cast his lot with the Allies or with the Axis?

The efforts of Roosevelt and Churchill to bind the fascist Franco to their camp – whether successful or not – show that the fundamental line of cleavage cannot be the question of democracy but must be something else.

Roosevelt’s role in Spain during the civil war and after is hardly mentioned in the so-called American White Paper. And no wonder! His role in Spain is especially embarrassing to the petty-bourgeois liberals who advocate that the working class should give political support to the Roosevelt administration in its conduct of the war. The world bourgeoisie favored Franco and the preservation of capitalist property relations in Spain, the! Axis more or less openly and directly, the Allies indirectly and with lip service to democracy. The reformist parties – including the Stalinists – to one degree or another gave political support to the bourgeoisie, dealing blows at every opportunity to the struggle of the working class against fascism. Only the Trotskyists were consistent defenders of democracy.

On July 17, 1936, General Franco began a fascist rebellion against the legally constituted bourgeois republican government of Spain. Although Franco’s plot had been engineered with the connivance of leading figures in the government and the direct assistance of Hitler and Mussolini, it was in danger of immediate collapse. The navy as a whole rejected Franco; the defections in the army were more than counterbalanced by the heroic actions of the peasants and the working class; the bulk of Franco’s adherents were in North Africa without means of reaching Spain.

Quick action was imperative on the part of Franco’s backers, for with the funds at its disposal, with international law on its side, the navy in its hands, the merchant fleets of the world able to reach Spanish Loyalist ports, the Spanish government – if it carried out the will of the masses – would be able to stamp down the fascist rebellion in short order.

The world bourgeoisie feared that the Spanish working class would soon conclude that the Loyalist government was incapable of carrying out the will of the masses and that it would likewise discover that democracy could be defended successfully only through the establishment of a workers’ and farmers’ government which would abolish private ownership of the means of production. The Loyalist government in such a situation would by itself prove incapable of putting down the workers. As the capitalists saw it – and in this they saw correctly – only fascism could save capitalism in Spain.

The fascist powers did not hesitate. Italy and Germany ferried Franco’s troops from North Africa by the thousands in giant air transports; they rushed arms and munitions to Franco. The Loyalist government began with four planes to Franco’s one; within seven weeks Franco had 20 planes to the government’s one, and among Franco’s acquisitions were planes from the Douglas plants in the United States. In addition to this, Hitler and Mussolini sent tens of thousands of their own troops to aid Franco.

Portugal, a totalitarian satellite of Great Britain, opened her borders to gun running for the benefit of Franco. The November 1936 issue of Current History (published by the New York Times Company) explained:

“The Salazar dictatorship is without much support from the masses. The recent mutiny of sailors on. battleships shows that the Portuguese masses are waiting for a victory of the Spanish Left to rise against their own fascists. Defeat of the rebel forces would spell the present Government’s doom.”

Not the question of fascism or democracy disturbed Britain’s rulers, but the question of profits. The Nation of September 19, 1936, quoted Winston Churchill as having said of the Loyalist government that

“... no constitutional and parliamentary regime is legally or morally entitled to the obedience of all classes when it is actually being subverted and devoured from day to day by communism ... constitutional government ... must prove itself capable of ... protecting life, freedom, and property.”

The Nation added, “Churchill appears to be saying that he favors democracy only as long as it preserves capitalism.” This correct estimate of Churchill did not prevent the Nation from becoming his ardent supporter when the Second World War broke out.

The British government permitted commercial airplanes to join Franco’s armies. The British likewise closed Gibraltar harbor to warships of the Spanish government, preventing them from attacking Algeciras and thus greatly aiding Franco in the transport of troops from North Africa.

The slogan of democracy versus fascism in the case of Spain was disregarded just as completely by the “democratic” France of Leon Blum. French officials in Morocco contributed many hundreds of thousands of francs to Franco and aided him with instructions, military and strategic advice. Arms for Franco went from France through Switzerland. Arms for the Spanish government were refused shipment even though they had been ordered months before the rebellion broke out. Most criminal of all, on August 1, 1936, Blum’s government initiated the Nonintervention Pact among 27 nations, which effectively barred the Spanish government from securing arms on the world market while Hitler and Mussolini sent supplies and men to Franco’s fascist armies.

Roosevelt and Neutrality

Those who took Roosevelt’s public declarations in favor of democracy at face value imagined that he would rush to the defense of democracy in Spain, help crush the fascist revolt, thereby dealing Franco’s supporters, Hitler and Mussolini, a setback and prove to the oppressed masses of the world that in Roosevelt they had their true champion.

Roosevelt took an opposite course.

On August 31, 1935, Roosevelt had signed the Neutrality Act which was publicized as a means of keeping America out of war by maintaining a hands-off attitude in the event hostilities opened among nations. Neutrality, however, is a political weapon which in certain cases can prove as effective as open belligerency.

Exactly 35 days after signing the Neutrality Act, Roosevelt utilized it to create an overwhelming advantage for fascist Italy in her invasion of Ethiopia. He proclaimed an arms embargo upon both “belligerents.” Italy was armed to the teeth with modern implements of war. Ethiopia had only spears and primitive rifles with which to defend herself against tanks, bombers and field artillery. The Neutrality Act thus enabled Roosevelt to declaim that he was doing everything possible to keep America out of war while actually he joined Britain in her policy of appeasement, i.e., temporarily satisfying Mussolini with Ethiopia, Hitler with Czechoslovakia, etc., and Japan with the closing of the Burma Road.

The Neutrality Act of 1935, however, carried no provisions concerning civil war. This was not accidental. Under international law every legally constituted government has the right to purchase arms wherever it can obtain them. In instances of civil war in the Latin American countries where the majority of the population has sought to free the nation of an unbearable dictator who ruled by virtue of the support of foreign imperialism, reactionary governments have been granted arms and funds in generous amounts to put down the people.

In the Spanish civil war the situation was reversed. Here the reactionaries were in the unfavorable position of illegality. The civil war, moreover, if allowed to continue its course would inevitably lead to their defeat and the establishment of socialism. Already peasants were taking over the big estates; the workers were establishing workers’ control and in many instances actually taking over the industries. The investments of British and American capital were endangered, not to speak of the effect a workers’ and farmers’ government in Spain would have in strengthening the working class throughout the world.

Roosevelt worked hand in glove with London and Paris in putting down democracy in Spain, as can be gathered from the following note which he wrote to Volume 5 of The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt:

“The civil war in Spain broke out in. July, 1936, at a time when the Congress was not in session. No provision had been made in the neutrality legislation of 1935 for Civil warfare. No legal means existed, therefore, by which the Government could prohibit the export of arms to Spain. However, the Government soon made its policy clear and definitely discouraged such exports.

On August 7th the acting Secretary of State sent the following instructions to all our representatives in Spain:

“In conformity with its well-established policy of non-interference with internal affairs in other countries either in time of peace or in the event of civil strife, this Government will, of course, scrupulously refrain from any interference whatsoever in the unfortunate Spanish situation. We believe that American citizens, both at home and abroad, are patriotically observing this well-recognized policy.”

“At home the Department of State sought to discourage exports of arms to Spain as a violation of the spirit of our neutrality policy, even though express legislation had not been enacted. For several months American munitions manufacturers respected this policy. In December, 1936, however, an application was made to export a quantity of airplanes and war materials. The license, unfortunately, had to be granted; under the law; but the Government’s disapproval of the conduct of the exporter was set forth in the foregoing statement.” (p.634.)

The one license granted was for only $2,700,000 worth of second-hand airplanes and parts.

Roosevelt’s note proves that he and the State Department were working together like parts of a well-oiled machine. In fixing responsibility for this policy of “neutrality,” it should be noted that Congress was not in session; no law preventing the shipment of arms stood on the books; Roosevelt acted on his own initiative.

There can be no doubt that Roosevelt succeeded in carrying out this policy despite widespread protest and resentment on the part of the majority of the American workers who were eager to defend democracy in Spain against the fascists. In a note to Volume 6, page 191, of his Public Papers, Roosevelt reveals:

“This policy of discouragement of shipments continued in the absence of the Congress until the beginning of 1937. The American exporters of arms and munitions, with very few exceptions, conformed to this policy of their government. The fact is that throughout this period only one shipment of arms from the United States directly to Spain actually reached that country.”

The Liberal Supporters of Roosevelt

The petty-bourgeois liberals, not without a view to the role cast for them in the fast approaching Second World War, endeavored to keep the skirts of bourgeois democracy as clean as possible. This was difficult since the “neutrality” policy of the Roosevelt administration so obviously favored the cause of the fascist General Franco. Hence they limited themselves in the main to attempts at whitewashing Roosevelt’s personal role.

The New Republic did this by blaming the British. The November 25, 1936 issue declares:

“Prime Minister Baldwin may yet be held chiefly responsible by historians not only for the trouble in Spain, but for the failure to put out a fire which kindled a world conflagration.”

Not a word appears in this article concerning the role of Roosevelt.

In an article, Is the State Department Favoring Franco?, the Nation of March 13, 1937 likewise tried to exonerate Roosevelt:

“Very convincing evidence is available that President Roosevelt and Secretary Hull are opposed to fascism ... But the Administration’s deeds do violence to the President’s convictions ... It would be wise for him to eject from the State Department and our consular service the fascist-minded reactionaries who are obstructing his foreign policy.”

So far as we are aware, Roosevelt has not acted to this day on the Nation’s good advice. He has ejected none of the “fascist-minded reactionaries” for “obstructing” his policies. Not because no one informed him of the Nation’s discoveries but because, as we have seen from Roosevelt’s own words, the State Department was acting in strict accordance with Roosevelt’s own views on the civil war in Spain.

Responsibility for preventing arms from reaching the Loyalists rested so clearly upon the shoulders of Roosevelt that his carefully nurtured reputation for liberalism was endangered. Among the American working class the Loyalist cause was extremely popular. Like the majority of workers the world over, they wanted the defeat of fascism. Why couldn’t arms be sold to the Spanish government? Weren’t arms and munitions being sold to Japan, Italy and Germany?

Congress came promptly to Roosevelt’s rescue. In a note to Volume 6, page 191 et seq., Roosevelt writes:

“As soon as the new Congress convened, it adopted Public Resolution No.1, on January 8, 1937, as its first legislative act, specifically prohibiting the export of arms, ammunition, and implements of war to Spain. This provided a statutory basis for the policy which had been carried out up to that point by the executive branch of the government.”

The haste with which Congress leaped to the aid of fascism in Spain, when placed beside its refusal to pass such elementary democratic measures in the United States as anti-lynch legislation or even anti-poll tax legislation which would extend the franchise to ten million Negroes and poor whites now barred from the ballot box, indicates that it too, along with the State Department and Roosevelt, must be placed in the Nation’s category of “fascist-minded reactionaries.”

Roosevelt and Congress went still further in indicating their real attitude toward democracy and fascism. During 1937 the Neutrality Act expired. Congress promptly renewed it and added the provision that it should apply to cases of civil war as well as to cases of war between nations. Roosevelt signed this act on May 1, 1937, and then issued Proclamation No.2236, “making the arms embargo provisions of the Act applicable to the civil war then in progress in Spain.” Thus almost a year after the Franco rebellion broke out, the Roosevelt government reaffirmed its foreign policy which favored Franco.

Roosevelt’s Demagogy

Meanwhile Great Britain and France’s “International Committee for the Application of the Agreement Regarding Nonintervention in Spain” had effectively blocked all sources of arms to Loyalist Spain except the veriest trickle. The 27 nations collaborating in this agreement included Portugal, Italy and Germany. Thus the “democratic” nations formed a united front with the fascists to put down the workers in Spain. Patrols were set up in key ports to examine ships bound for Spain and finally these patrols were extended to key Spanish ports to examine and report such ships as managed to slip through the blockade with contraband arms for the Loyalist government. England sent “observers” to watch the Portuguese border. Meanwhile the flood of war materials continued to pour from Italy and Germany through Portugal and those ports held by the fascists. Despite all the heroic sacrifices of the Spanish people, Franco pushed forward.

In the United States, now that legislation had been passed barring shipments of arms to Spain so that foreign policy no longer rested upon the decree of one man, the liberals felt freer to criticize the government’s policy and to demand aid to Spain. They were thus able to ride the wave of popular sympathy for the Loyalist cause without the danger that their agitation would arouse such mass sentiment as might previously have compelled Roosevelt to place arms in the hands of the defenders of Spanish democracy, thus endangering capitalist property relations in Spain.

Roosevelt likewise hid behind the legislative wall which he and Congress had erected between the arms factories of the United States and the battlefields where democracy was being wiped out in Spain. In the note to Volume 6 cited above (p.191, et seq., Roosevelt writes:

“There was considerable agitation during this period on the part of a small group of people urging that the embargo be lifted by me so that arms might be furnished to those people in Spain who were resisting Fascist aggression. In the first place, the joint resolution of the Congress of January 8, 1937, was still in effect. It had not been repealed, in the opinion of legal experts, by the resolution of May 1, 1937, under which I had issued the proclamation.”

Roosevelt does not offer an explanation for not sending arms in the crucial period before this legislation was passed by Congress.

Roosevelt’s note stating that agitation for arms to the Loyalists concerned only a “small group of people” was written in 1941, two years after the fall of Loyalist Spain. In 1938, however, Roosevelt held a somewhat different view. Included in his Public Papers are stenographic records of his press interviews, including sections that were then “off the record,” that is, sections in which Roosevelt explained certain things to the reporters without giving them permission to quote him directly. In the interview of April 21, 1938, for instance, he remarked:

“Senator Borah came down to lunch with me and he has been a good deal disturbed – a good many of us have – by the fact that this country has split up and become so emotional over the Spanish situation.”

Because of his concern over public sentiment, Roosevelt explained – off the record – to the members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, that the Neutrality Act really helped the cause of the Loyalists. He referred to his talk with Borah:

“I pointed out that, when the Spanish Revolution broke out, and after it had been going for a comparatively short time, they began to kill a lot of people. In other words, from that point of view, it was war ... Both sides, both the Spanish Government and Franco, had navies of approximately the same size; they were about equal. Therefore, we figured, that by declaring that there was a war, therefore, the Neutrality Act applied and therefore there would be an embargo placed by us on the shipment of planes or munitions or guns or anything else. In that way we would not be favoring either side. For several months that resulted in a fairly strict neutrality. We would not help one side more than the other. Very few shipments of planes or guns went out of this country and got through into Spain on either side.”

Roosevelt then explained that Franco got control of the sea, hence lifting the embargo would have given Franco preference. The truth of course is that the Spanish navy as a whole remained loyal and could well have brought arms from America if Roosevelt had not intervened. Later, when Franco’s fleet gained in relative power, Roosevelt could have denied arms to the fascists on the perfectly legal grounds that they were in rebellion against the lawfully constituted government, while at the same time aiding the Loyalist government to obtain arms either through ships of other nations or through American bottoms or, if other nations refused and he didn’t want to involve the American flag, by registering American vessels under the Panamanian flag as was later done when Roosevelt wished to send arms to the United Nations. The fifty out-dated destroyers which Roosevelt later contributed to the British navy also could have helped the Loyalist cause considerably.

The weakness of Roosevelt’s argument was so apparent that in the very same off-the-record interview, without a pause, he gave another and contradictory explanation of the Neutrality Act:

“Now as a, matter of fact, the situation is this: we have also read about this terrible, inhuman bombing of the civilian population of Barcelona. We have also read – and while I have no Information on the subject, it probably is true – that American-made bombs have been dropped on Barcelona by Franco airplanes. That is possible. If those bombs were of American manufacture, they were bombs that were sold by American manufacturers to Germany, that is to say, either to the German Government, which is a perfectly legal thing to do or to German companies, which Is also perfectly legal, and they were shipped to Germany and re-shipped down to Franco’s forces.”

Roosevelt then explained that shipments of arms to France were likewise legal and that “in all probability” a “good many of these shipments have all gone to the Barcelona Government, so the net effect of what we have been doing in the past year and a half has been as close to carrying out an actual neutrality – not helping one side against the other – as we can possibly do under the existing law.”

Compared with the flow of arms to the fascists, the arms which might have got across the French border were insignificant. Leon Blum’s government was the first to call for “non-intervention” and enforced it so stringently that ambulance corps en route to the Loyalists protested because the search for arms at the border extended even down to examination of their medical supplies.

Roosevelt’s strongest argument in favor of the Neutrality Act was that it would help to keep America out of war. This argument especially appealed to his petty-bourgeois supporters. The remarks of the September 9, 1936 New Republic are typical:

“At present Premier Blum’s policy of shipping arms to neither side is the soundest and wisest possible, on the assumption that all the powers can be brought to respect it. No development in any one country, no matter how disastrous, is worth a European war.”

Events have since tested the soundness of this argument.

Roosevelt Knew War Was Inevitable

The real views of Roosevelt, however, the fundamental views from which his policies both domestic and foreign flowed, did not accord with such illusions. In the introduction, signed July 10, 1941, to Volume 8 of his Public Papers and Addresses, he writes:

“In 1939 there started another general war, for which Germany had been preparing since 1933, and for which Italy and Japan had been preparing for years before. It is a war which had been definitely and unmistakably foreseeable since 1936, when the Nazis marched into the Rhineland.” (p.xxiii)

It is important to note that Roosevelt specifies 1936, the same year Franco’s rebellion broke out in Spain (the march into the Rhineland occurred in March, four months prior to Franco’s plot), since this fact indicates Roosevelt consciously took into consideration the “unmistakably foreseeable” coming war between “democracy” and fascism in calculating his policy in the Spanish civil war. He continues:

“This trend of affairs which became worse and worse after the conquest of Ethiopia and the Japanese aggression against China, called forth repeated official warnings throughout the world. Here in the United States, it was clear to this administration and to a great many of our citizens in public and private life, that events in Europe and Asia were heading quickly and inevitably toward war.” (p.xxvi)

These words of Roosevelt provide an illuminating contrast to his public declarations in which he denied the inevitability of war. As late as October 30, 1940, for instance, in a campaign speech at Boston for third term re-election, he told the public:

“And while I am talking to you, fathers and mothers, I give you one more assurance. I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again, and again. Your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.”

No other conclusion is possible: in preparation for the war of “democracy” against fascism Roosevelt stabbed Spanish democracy in the back. As the Marxists have warned thousands of times, when the question of private property becomes involved, the capitalists in every instance choose fascism.

When the Loyalist fleet had dwindled to relative insignificance, the London Non-intervention Committee deemed it time to increase aid to Franco, especially in view of the unexpectedly protracted and stubborn resistance of Madrid. On July 9, 1937, the Committee decided to grant belligerent rights to “the two parties in Spain” after withdrawals of foreign nationals had been made from both sides in Spain. The withdrawals were designed to halt the tide of workers from “democratic” countries who were joining the Loyalist cause. As a first step, the “democratic” nations began refusing passports to those suspected of wanting to travel to Spain to defend democracy. The granting of belligerent rights to “both parties” in effect constituted recognition of Franco as a sovereign power, with all the rights of a sovereign power, including the right to obtain arms where available and to blockade Loyalist ports.

The next act in this sordid and bloody drama occurred on February 27, 1939, when Great Britain and France, following the example already set by fascist Italy and nazi Germany in 1936, recognized Franco’s government as the legal government of Spain.

On March 28, 1939, Madrid, the capital of Spain, surrendered.

Three days later/, on April 1, Roosevelt’s administration likewise recognized Franco’s government. On the same day, Roosevelt lifted the arms embargo on Spain. In his own words, as recorded in the note to Volume 6 referred to above:

“The embargo remained effective until April 1, 1939, when I issued a proclamation stating that in my judgment, ‘the state of civil strife in Spain described in the joint resolution of January 8, 1937,’ had ceased to exist.”

The fascist butcher was thus free to purchase arms in America and to ship them in American bottoms if he pleased, in order to mop up what isolated centers of resistance might still exist in Spain.

With the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939, Roosevelt found that the Neutrality Act which had served his foreign policy in the case of Ethiopia and Spain had now become an obstacle. He therefore called an extraordinary session of Congress and asked it to repeal the arms embargo. This is the same champion of democracy who found it impossible to help democracy in Spain because the Neutrality Act stood in his way.

Roosevelt’s Overtures to Franco

Since Franco came to power, both Washington and London have done their utmost to draw him into their orbit. Great Britain on March 18, 1940, granted him a ten-year loan of two million pounds sterling. From America have gone huge shipments of foodstuffs.

In his public declarations Franco praises the Axis. He has sent troops to join Hitler’s armies in the invasion of the Soviet Union. On December 8, 1942, when the whole world was speculating on his probable moves, he broadcast an address complimenting both Mussolini and Hitler and declaring that the real issue at stake in the war is fascism or communism and that he chooses fascism.

Nevertheless, neither Washington nor London seem greatly alarmed by Franco’s declarations. They count upon the fact that Franco owes them just as great a debt as he owes the Axis. Without the collaboration of the “democratic” nations he could never have come to power. In 1936 when he began his rebellion, Franco mentioned three governments as friendly to his cause, Germany, Italy and – England. Writing in the New Republic of March 3, 1937, Ludwig Lore reported:

“Remarks in the House of Commons during the last few weeks by Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden justify the suspicion that the Foreign Office has a hard and fast understanding with Franco and his associates on economic as well as political questions of the moment, and that the latter have given firm guarantees regarding the undisturbed control by British capital of Spain’s British-owned ore and sulphur mines.”

As we can see from the record, both Washington and London are not interested in protesting against Franco’s speeches praising fascism. If the specter of socialism rises from the blood-soaked battlefields of the Second World War, the rulers of the “democracies” will unite with the fascists to attempt to put it down just as they united to put down democracy in Spain.


Last updated on: 20.2.2006