Spain’s Civil-International War, 80 Years Later: Lessons for US Foreign Policy

November 1, 2016
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Franklin D. Roosevelt at his home in Hyde Park, New York, delivering a national radio address, 24 December, 1943. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.

Franklin D. Roosevelt at his home in Hyde Park, New York, delivering a national radio address, 24 December, 1943. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain.

In the aftermath of the Great War, President Woodrow Wilson’s dream was to make the world “safe for democracy”. Not exactly for democracy in itself as a system of government, but rather for its implicit association with the free market. Economic penetration was conceived as an indispensable path to progress for the capitalist system (through the widening of markets, the exportation of goods and the exploitation of resources overseas). And therein lies the origins of the idea for a League of Nations: as a global fence avant la lettre, in the face of the threat that the Bolshevik Revolution posed for capitalism starting in October 1917. Challenged by the idealism that this historical event represented against the established order, it was only fitting to counterbalance with another kind of idealism: an idealism equipped with ideas such as peace, collective security, international cooperation based on public diplomacy, self-determination, freedom, democracy… and what better way to do this than through spreading the idea that democracy (presented as inseparable from the free market, always presented in the container of the term “democracy” in American foreign policy since Wilson up until today) would bring prosperity and peace. The 1917-1919 biennium is absolutely key; the contemporary era begins there.

Instead of the traditional European balance of power, the Wilsonian conception would try to insert a moral component into its expansion as a new world power; a sort of “democratic empire” built through legitimacy and based on unlimited economic penetration, rather than militaristic intervention. This moral component would be reinforced two decades later with the introduction of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which, in the eyes of many, legitimized the United States as a great ideological and even moral paradigm in an age of extremes and totalitarianism.

To act as a ‘democratic empire’ is in itself a contradiction, and sooner or later this always becomes clear when the inevitable dilemma occurs: to choose between the defense of imperial interests, and the defense of democracy. Spanish Democracy would pay the high cost of 40 years of dictatorship for this latent contradiction in 1930s Western Democracies.

It was the fall of 1936, exactly 80 years ago, and the origins of a new world disaster were already clearly budding on Spanish soil. The world’s attention was focused on Spain, a country in the midst of a raging war that had turned both civil and international. Those were the days of the Republican Defense of Madrid, the fight for control of the Spanish capital that dominated international headlines day after day. It was a complex situation sparked by a semi-failed coup d’état, with General Franco (supported by Mussolini and Hitler) acting as one of the prominent leaders of the rebels.

Some of the most prominent intellectuals of the time (such as Ernest Hemingway, André Malraux, Ilya Ehrenburg and Pablo Neruda, just to name a few) were present, bearing witness to a city under siege that was receiving bombings daily. Nearly 35,000 people from more than 50 countries volunteered for the International Brigades, including approximately 2,500 men from the US forming the Abraham Lincoln Battalion. Fighting as part of the troops loyal to the government, these brigades represented another form of solidarity with the Spanish Republic (George Orwell, Gustav Regler, Luigi Longo, and David Alfaro Siqueiros were among the best known brigadistas).

It was the epic of the time, characterized by an adrenaline rush derived from an awareness of death’s proximity and a sense of heroism from the defense of what has often been called ‘the last great cause’, and serves as a continuous source of inspiration for movies, books, and art exhibitions. It was a time when it appeared reasonable to romantically prioritize the greater good over personal gain, regardless of the cost – an idealistic conception of existence that would gradually die off during the twentieth century, surrendering to a new ideology: the exclusive truth of Margaret Thatcher’s TINA (‘There Is No Alternative’). Neoliberalism, despite verbally denying ideologies, does indeed constitute an ideology in itself, and has been zealously followed by the US since the Reagan Administration as well as by the member states of the European Union, particularly after the Berlin Wall came down.

The rebellion against the democratically elected Government of the Republic left the country divided – a division that, in many respects, remains deeply rooted in Spanish society up to this day. However, the Spanish Civil-International War was much more than a simple Spanish Civil War. It would indelibly mark the lives of various generations all around the world, and, as Albert Camus said, “It was in Spain where my generation learned that one can be right and be beaten, that force can destroy soul, and that sometimes courage does not get rewarded”. The conscience of the illustrated men and women of the time came into contradiction with the actions of their contemporary policy-making elites, which, for the sake of realpolitik, put into practice actions based on shortsighted interests, prejudices, and fears, rather than looking out for public interest with a minimum of medium-term vision.

When the rebellion took place in Spain in the summer of 1936, international order was already fatally wounded. The first hit it took was when militarist Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, a crisis resolved neither by the League of Nations nor by the United States. The latter would pay on its own territory for the appeasement put on stage as a result of Japanese imperialism. Washington, with its absence from the League (despite the ‘father’ of the organization having been former President Wilson), also contributed to the weakness of the post-Great War international order since its very beginnings. Once Fascist Italy invaded Abyssinia (the last African country that resisted colonization) in 1935, tolerance was the only response that Western Powers offered. At this point, it became clear that the international order established at Versailles after the Great War of 1914-1918 had effectively died. Both Japan and Italy were member states of the League at the time they committed their acts of aggression. Meanwhile, Hitler kept learning the lesson of impunity.

To better understand the weakness and decline of this international order, a look at the ambiguous classification of “failed or semi-failed States” is also important. The recent cases of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and especially Syria, remind us that this ambiguous generalization remains today a dangerous practice, regardless of whether the purposes are different or not. Such categorization often reflects the (more or less conscious) will to put distance between oneself and dangerous scenarios, a phenomenon in which a certain superiority complex often plays a role. This can have a fatal consequence: self-deception, in the sense that it becomes “unimaginable” that terrible situations happening elsewhere could also happen in one’s own backyard. Back in the 1930s, the major powers represented in the League of Nations claimed that neither Manchuria nor Abyssinia were “organized states”, but rather a sort of “failed state”. This was their justification for not aligning with both assaulted nations and for not defending sovereignty as guaranteed in the Covenant of the League. (Note that the Covenant defended neither democracy nor any particular type of regime, but rather the sovereignty of the member states of the League of Nations.) Racial and colonial visions were also implicit in this interpretation.

Mexico was the only state to act according to its responsibilities regarding both International Law and regional (Inter-American) agreements. President Lázaro Cárdenas and his diplomats were also the only ones who interpreted the Spanish conflict under its very essence: a conflict where the act of aggression of external states (Italy, Germany and Portugal) against the legitimate government of an internationally recognized state inextricably implied the application of Article 10 of the Covenant of the League of Nations (concerning the maintenance of territorial integrity and political independence against any external aggression), as well as Article 16 (which stipulated that, in the case that a member state of the League were to initiate war against any other member, it would be considered an act of aggression against all the states represented in the League – and Italy was still in Geneva). Regarding the US and the rest of Latin America, action in defense of the Spanish Republic was also in accordance with the agreements reached at The Havana Convention of 1928 related to security in the Americas, as the Mexican Government remarked in Geneva and also to the US Government.

For Western Powers, China was a type of anarchy that had nothing to do with the concept of nation-state. In the Italo-Ethiopian case, the British Minister of State, Anthony Eden, tried to convince those present in Geneva that Abyssinia could no longer be regarded as a sovereign territory. Therefore, each country would be open to the possibility of recognizing Italian sovereignty over Ethiopia, coming to the delight of two future Axis powers (Japan and Italy).

Shortly after the Italo-Ethiopian War, when the (international) aggression and subsequent (international) conflict began in Spain in 1936, an application of this characterization to Spain was also attempted, in order to justify the non-application of International Law precepts. It had no success whatsoever, driving the prejudiced (UK) and frightened (France) European democracies to abandon their Spanish counterpart by setting up the non-intervention agreement, which was signed outside the framework of the League of Nations and without any basis in International Law of the time. Its praxis was tantamount to denying a sovereign state its inherent right to self-defense. It was a specific variable applied to the Spanish case within the continuum of appeasement/non-intervention/appeasement – a dialectic that, along with the aggressor’s willingness, would kill the collective security system conceived as a new world order after the traumatic experience of the Great War.

This time, Japanese and Italian satisfaction (derived from the conflicts of Manchuria and Abyssinia) was extended to the other future Axis power: Germany. This meant the definitive death of the League of Nations. The Spanish Minister of State and main Spanish figure at Geneva, Julio Álvarez del Vayo, described the non-intervention agreement as a “legal monstrosity” in front of the Assembly of the League in the fall of 1936. He also claimed that “Spain’s bloodied fields are already, in fact, the battlefields of the Second World War”. This was also the conception put forth by the Spanish Prime Minister, Juan Negrín, whose tenaciously invoked resistance responded to the conviction that another war all around Europe was imminent. In that general conflict, the Spanish Republic would logically form common ground with its counterpart regimes, and therefore natural allies: the Western democracies. Unfortunately for the world’s sake, Negrín was not wrong. Nevertheless, exactly five months would separate Spain’s fate from that of the rest of Europe.

The Roosevelt Administration in the US, in fear of hurting public approval ratings and following the British Government’s lead, pursued a policy of neutrality, despite FDR’s ultimate preference for the Spanish Democratic Government. The American President had to deal with fierce opposition from Capitol Hill, considerably limiting his ability to enact change. With regards to Spain, he did not act according to his inaugural lemma: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. FDR’s strong determination to launch the New Deal would save liberal democracy, a system which at the time was facing its deepest crisis due to its ties with capitalism – something that is often forgotten by present day neoliberal apologists. However, the American President lacked that same determination in Foreign Policy matters. In February 1939, Roosevelt regretted his lack of determination in helping Spanish Democracy. By then he was convinced of the fact that another world war was inevitable. This awareness would be an important element for the future US fight against the Axis… although it was too late for the Spanish Republic.

Despite the democratic betrayal to democracy that was carried out in Spain, neither London nor Paris could avoid another total war on their own soil. Washington would also pay a high cost for its calculated isolation/neutrality.

Self-deception did not work.

David Jorge is Professor of Contemporary History at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and the author of a recent book on the failure of the League of Nations on the path to World War II: “Inseguridad colectiva: La Sociedad de Naciones, la Guerra de España y el fin de la paz mundial” (2016).

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