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Normalizing Ties with Franco: “I don’t have to like the son of a bitch, do I?”

For many people, Spain in the 1930s and 40s was a country of despair, where the dreams of democracy and freedom were brutally crushed during the Spanish Civil War. Its leader, Generalissimo Francisco Franco, had proclaimed Spain’s neutrality during World War II, yet still provided war materiel and assistance to the Axis Powers. Franco then carried out a disastrous economic policy, which stressed self-sufficiency through state price controls. After the end of the war, the Spanish economy was in shambles and Spain was increasingly isolated, as Mexico and others pushed to have it excluded from the newly created United Nations. Shortly thereafter, in December 1946, the UN recommended that all members withdraw their ambassadors from Madrid. The U.S. then excluded Spain from the Marshall Plan as long as the dictatorship remained.  

By 1950, concern in the West was growing over the rise of Communism and the global influence of the USSR. To counter that, the Truman Administration bit the bullet and moved towards normalizing relations with the Iberian nation, beginning with the re-establishment of ambassadorships between the two sides. That was followed by the exchange of military bases in Spain for U.S. aid, a plan developed on a notepad one evening. The Americans needed the bases for re-fueling aircraft monitoring the Soviets, while the Spanish needed the aid to rebuild its economy.

However, as William B. Dunham, who served as a Country Specialist on Spanish Affairs from 1945 to 1954, points out, negotiating with Spain angered many on the left, who saw Franco as as despot, while any delays in improving ties were seen by many on the right as a ploy by Communist sympathizers. As the man in the middle, Dunham was subject to constant investigations at a time when McCarthyism was on the rise. The following is an excerpt from Dunham’s memoir “How Did You Get Here from There?” written in 1996.

Read about when the U.S. re-established ties with Cuba in 1977 and how it accidentally dropped four nuclear bombs over Spain. Go here for other Moments on McCarthyism.


“We all shared a deep aversion to Franco”

DUNHAM: In the fall of 1950, lifting the ban on ambassadors to Spain was due to come to a vote in the [UN] General Assembly. The in-fighting still raged within the State Department and was finally settled by Secretary [of State Dean] Acheson (pictured) with the backing of President [Harry S] Truman:  The U.S. would vote for ending the ban. There was intense interest in how the U.S. would vote and I was deluged with visitors:  representatives of other UN members came calling as did people from business and industry and members of the press, all trying to find out in one way or another what we were going to do. But we weren’t telling.

One day, I remember, a highly prominent columnist, a nasty bit of business named Joe Alsop [from the New York Herald Tribune], charged into my office and demanded that I tell him how the U.S. would vote. When I declined, he raged on:  Did I know who he was? Did I know I was obliged to tell him? A splendid performance, but to no avail. At last, amidst much controversy, the vote was taken, the reversal was passed, and we were launched on a new chapter in our relations with Spain.

While we all shared a deep aversion to Franco, the reasons for seeking to normalize U.S. relations with Spain rested on compelling geopolitical and military factors. The Navy was seeking a base outside the Mediterranean and Spain’s southern Atlantic coast offered an ideal location at Rota. The Air Force needed bases in Spain to permit long range reconnaissance aircraft to fly from the U.S., refuel in Spain, proceed on to Turkey and Iran in order to keep an eye on what the Soviets were doing just to the north, return to refuel in Spain, and then continue on back to the U.S.

At the same time, we also had an interest in building up the Spanish economy, which was in shambles, in order to preempt any Soviet efforts to take advantage of that situation by infiltrating Spain for its own political purposes.

How best to proceed in developing our relations with Spain posed a perplexing dilemma for us. Even though the ambassadorial question had been resolved, that was a technicality compared to the widespread repugnance toward Spain. At this same time, the end of the ’40s, great new programs were being launched to rebuild Western Europe, after the devastation World War II had wreaked, and to meet the growing threat posed by the Soviets.

The Marshall Plan, which was designed to rebuild European economies, was going forward full tilt and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was building. Thus, constructing a special U.S. military, economic, and something of a political relationship with Spain at the same time could cause serious questions among our Western European allies. Why were we interested in building this well-protected redoubt south of the Pyrenees “outside” Western Europe?

“’Is this a manageable problem?’”

We wallowed in this dilemma for quite a while and every time I ran into the Secretary, he would say, “Well, Bill, when are we going to do something about Spain?” Whenever we brought a sticky issue to him, he would often ask, “Is this a manageable problem?” And woe unto anyone who had to admit it wasn’t.

So, on one such occasion, when Acheson seemed in a receptive mood, I used his own test on him: “Soon,” I replied, “but it’s not a manageable problem just yet.”

He laughed at this bit of impertinence and said, “Okay, okay, touché!”

Then, one evening sitting on the back porch, it suddenly hit me:  Make a bases-for-aid horse trade with Spain. So I got a pad and pencil and wrote out a proposal then and there. It turned into a pretty top secret affair before I was done so I had to sleep with it that night. Next day I took it in, got it typed, showed it to my boss, and we took it up to our boss, George Perkins, the Assistant Secretary for European Affairs.

His reaction was, “We better take this up to the Secretary right away.”

His reaction, in turn, was, “So we’ve finally figured out what to do about Spain. Good! I’ll take it to the President as soon as I can get in to see him.”

That happened soon enough — that same day much to my surprise. When Acheson returned he told us they had had a long discussion and Truman finally said, “Well, OK, Dean, if you say so.”

Then he added in his exceedingly plain spoken way, “But I don’t have to like the son of a bitch, do I?”

Unfortunately, this remark found its way into The New York Times later, but didn’t seem to cause any reaction amongst the Spaniards.

Things then happened very quickly:  a high level meeting between the Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the next thing we knew the JCS Chairman [General of the Army Omar Bradley] was off to Madrid for a highly secret confab with his opposite number over there. We were, at last, launched on another step in trying to normalize our relations with Spain.

The bases/aid negotiations involved, on the U.S. side, a wide variety of U.S. departments and agencies in addition to the State and Defense Departments, and many sections within each of them.

In a situation such as this, the desk officer in the State Department is responsible, like a quarterback, to keep all those who have a part (however small) in the negotiations fully informed and involved, as necessary; to make sure that each and every one of them understands at all times what is going on and why; to make sure they also understand how their particular interest fits into the whole; and to keep everyone moving in the same direction. The desk officer is responsible for all communications with the negotiators — all instructions regarding the negotiations go through the desk officer who is responsible for drafting them and then clearing them with all concerned.

The risk of “going native”

We were extraordinarily fortunate in having Ambassador Lincoln MacVeagh chosen as the one to be responsible for the negotiations with Spain. He and I, working together on the Azores negotiations [negotiations between the U.S. and Portugal for the renewal of U.S. base rights], and visiting back and forth between Lisbon and Washington, had become good friends. We were thus very much in sync when the time came for him to move over from Lisbon to Madrid to take on the bases-for-aid negotiations.

One of the hazards in diplomacy is that one can eventually become too involved, too sympathetic toward the country where you are posted until you are perceived as having gone “native.” This becomes a particular hazard for those who are not accustomed to serving in a diplomatic/negotiating capacity abroad and can cause difficulties in the negotiations when they become too sympathetic toward the interests of the other side, too willing to give in on one thing or another in order to gain agreement.

As was to be expected, such difficulties eventually arose with some of the military officers involved in the negotiations, causing occasional stress and strain and even ill-feelings between those in Madrid and those in Washington. Therefore, having a veteran diplomat as the ambassador in charge of the negotiations was a vital safeguard….

The aid-for-bases negotiations were extremely complex and lasted for over three years. Arrangements for the naval base at Rota went smoothly with no serious problems.

Not so negotiations for air bases. These included a considerable number of detailed and complicated subsidiary technical agreements and great care had to be exercised to make sure that any commitments made in them were fully approved in Washington and didn’t contain even the slightest implications regarding the defense of the bases and thus of Spain. In addition, the overall agreement covering all base arrangements had to provide precise terms and conditions governing the use of the several air bases.

From time to time, as questions arose about these matters, we had to consult higher authority, including the Secretary at times. On other occasions he sent for us….

As for aid, the Spanish Government was, of course, very interested in military assistance, something we had to keep to a minimum for obvious political reasons. We weren’t about to help build up Franco’s military forces; some small amount of military aid was possible, but that was all.

“Anyone so engaged was regarded as a Fascist”

For our part, we were most interested in aid that would contribute to rebuilding the Spanish economy. Jack [Millar – FSO], E.J. [Beigel – Economist] and I sat down and began by reviewing the terms and conditions of the agreements that were being negotiated under the Marshall Plan at that time. Eventually, we cobbled together what we thought was an economic program that could help to build a stable economy, using not just dollars but also technical assistance….

Participating in negotiations as politically controversial as the ones with Spain were in those days was not without its own hazards. There were those in Congress, in organizations like the Lincoln Brigade [volunteer organization to combat fascism] and other groups adamantly opposed to any dealings with Spain, who mounted continuing campaigns against any agreements with “Franco Spain.”

Anyone so engaged was regarded as a Fascist.

On the other hand, there were those in the Congress and other groups outside government who saw business benefits they could reap once these agreements were completed and they regarded as a Communist or a Communist “sympathizer” anyone they thought was driving too hard a bargain….

As a consequence of this pervasive atmosphere in Washington, I was regarded, as the highly visible quarterback behind the scenes, as the bête noir, the evil spirit of the negotiations, by both sides!

Where all the charges, hints, rumors came from, I never knew (though I had my suspicions), but I was under almost non-stop investigation by the security people in the State Department as well as by the FBI. My friends in the State Department who were forever being questioned about me grew highly entertained by all this fuss and made a practice of letting me know whenever they had another interview.

I still remember one inquiry that vividly illustrates the hyper-sensitivity that infected our security people in those days as [Wisconsin Senator Joseph] McCarthy began his witch hunt. My wife had been invited by a close friend of ours, with whom she regularly played chamber music, to join her in playing with a group one evening; she knew those in the group but not the person at whose home they would be playing. So off they went for a fine evening of music-making. But that was not the end of it.

One day who should come tap tapping at our front door but an FBI agent. I had taken a couple of days off to paint the dining room so invited him in, gave him a chair, explaining that I couldn’t stop in the midst of the job, but we could go on talking all the same.

It seems the FBI had somehow heard about the chamber music evening and it turned out, so the FBI man assured me, that the husband of the hostess that evening was known to be a subscriber to The Daily Worker. In the FBI’s world, anyone visiting his house therefore took on guilt-by-association with a Communist, or at the least a fellow-traveler as the phrase had it in those paranoid days. And, of course, since it was my wife who was there, I was automatically infected with that guilt-by-association as well!

I told him how my wife happened to be there that evening even though she and her friend didn’t know their hostess much less her husband. They had gone as they often did to join a group simply to play chamber music. As bizarre and absurd as this incident seems, and ludicrous in retrospect, it was nevertheless worrisome at the time. We couldn’t help but recognize the detail these people were going into whenever my name came up. Nothing came of this particular affair, but the inquiries of my friends in the Department continued unabated.

The ad hominem attack is an ancient political device, of course, and it was in constant use all during the negotiations. At one point when they were coming down to their most difficult and delicate point, I finally asked my friends to relay a challenge from me to the next agent who came along: “Why don’t you have guts enough to come in and talk to me directly instead of sneaking around behind my back all the time?”

Well did that ever hit a nerve.

Before I knew it there was an FBI agent at my door. We did a little venting of ill-feelings on my part and explaining of required procedures on his part and then talked about why these constant charges were being made.

I told him what was going on, the many opposing forces and special interests that were represented behind them, and finally asked him, “Did it ever occur to all of you that all of us are trying to do the best we can for Uncle Sam and that charges like these coming from all sides, from the far right to the far left, must demonstrate that we’re doing a pretty good job for the U.S.?”

Whether this encounter did any good I don’t know, but the steady flow of investigations soon began to wane, aided, I suspect, by Senator McCarthy’s witch hunts that were just beginning and soon occupied all the security types full-time chasing after the far more prominent people McCarthy was attacking.