Francisco Franco’s death in 1975 opened the path for newly-throned King Juan Carlos to become Spain’s head of state. His first independent action was to fire Prime Minister Carlos Arias Navarro. This came as a shock to citizens, diplomats, and Spanish government officials. Because the Juan Carlos had outwardly supported the Franco regime, while privately meeting with liberal leaders, Spaniards had little idea of his core beliefs or how he would govern.
Foreign service officer Steven Wagenseil was posted in Madrid during this tumultuous period. He discusses the activity and chaos that followed the new king’s dismissal of the prime minister through the lens of the embassy’s Fourth of July party. Wagenseil watched as Spanish government administrators attempted to position themselves well with higher-ranked officials and moved about the party wondering what would result from the king’s hasty and controversial action.
Wagenseil’s service as a political officer in Spain was one of his first positions; he was later the Deputy Chief of Mission in Lesotho followed by a position as the Consul General in Strasbourg. Steven Wagenseil was interviewed by Peter Eicher, beginning on January 15, 2008.
Drafted by Jamie Smith
Read Steven Wagenseil’s full oral history HERE.
“The king fired the prime minister he had inherited, and Madrid was abuzz because nobody knew what was going to happen.”
The King’s First Move as Head of State: When Franco died the King ascended to the throne, as it were; under the arrangement he took the throne and became Head of State.
King Juan Carlos inherited the government, the prime minister and the cabinet that Franco left behind, in sort of an uneasy relationship. Nobody knew what to make of Juan Carlos at the time because he had the reputation of being a good looking young prince who was out of a job. He had an income, he had a castle or two and he had a beautiful young bride whose brother was the [exiled] king of Greece. He had no particular training or job skills in serving the Spanish military, theoretically.
The beginning of July, the second of July, the king fired the prime minister he had inherited, and Madrid was abuzz because nobody knew what was going to happen. This was the king’s first independent action. Everything else had been sort of scripted and this was unscripted.
Political Posturing at the Fourth of July Party: As it happened, that occurred the morning of the day that the embassy held its Fourth of July reception. The Fourth of July celebration in 1976 was on a Sunday and the embassy reception was on Friday.
You know how it is with Fourth of July receptions. You invite 350 of your closest friends and maybe 200 come. This time, everybody came, [and] everybody came with more people. It was a madhouse. We sort of suspected that was going to happen when we heard the news that morning. The reception at the ambassador’s residence was just packed. It wasn’t an amorphous mass of people. It was a lumpy mass because there were clusters of people in different corners of the room, with this or that political personality sort of holding court, and people trying to woo his favor — so that if he became chosen as the next prime minister, he would remember them and say, “Oh, yes.”
What Will Happen Next?: One man, who had been interior minister or something under the last Franco government, had been very much talked about as a possibility to become the next prime minister. When he arrived he sort of walked into the room like Louis XVI, or something. He expected sort of everybody to bow down to him and the crowd to part and so forth. He got a lot of attention. There were clumps of people going to see him. You could see sort of runners going from one group to another.
It was fascinating sociology at work. The buzz was, “Who is going to be prime minister? What is the government going to do? What is Juan Carlos going to do? Is Juan Carlos taking charge or is he just shuffling the deck a bit? Is it going to be some rightist clique that grabs the reins of power and keeps the hardline or what?” Of course, there was a lot of nervousness about civil war breaking out again. If the army isn’t happy are they going to do something? Is there going to be a coup? That was always the question; is there going to be a coup?
In the end the king chose as his Prime Minister Alfonso Suarez, who nobody had really ever heard of. He had been the director of the national television network, a competent manager, sort of upper level middle bureaucrat, faceless kind of person and in my opinion, turned out to be a perfect choice to run the government as it found its footing within the democratic structure.
TABLE OF CONTENTS HIGHLIGHTS
Eleventh grade at Le Collège Cévenol in France 1964
Post-graduate year at Gresham’s School in England 1966
BA in French, Yale University 1970
Foreign Service Work 1974-2002
Madrid, Spain—Special Assistant to the Ambassador 1976-1977
Madrid, Spain—Officer of Political/Military Affairs 1977-1978
Dakar, Senegal—Political Officer 1985-1988
Maseru, Lesotho—Deputy Chief of Mission 1990-1992
Strasbourg, France—Consul General 1995-1998