Volume V, Number 2 - Spring 2011

Inventing Franco

Inventing Franco

June 13th, 2012  |  Published in Government/Press Relations, Spanish History, Volume VI

A look at Catholic American perceptions of Francisco Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

On October 3, 1936, roughly thirty thousand American Catholic subscribers read the following in the Jesuit weekly journal, America: “Spurred on by hopes of relief from General Franco’s advancing Nationalist forces, the gallant little band in the Alcazar continued to hold out in what … must go down as one of the bravest defences [sic] in all history.”[1] In July of that year, a group of army officers that included General Francisco Franco had led a rebellion against Spain’s left-leaning republican government. The coordinated revolt had placed the rebels, also known as the nationalists, in control of a large swath of northern Spain as well as a smaller enclave in the south that included Seville and the Andalusian port of Cádiz. Loyalist forces, mostly consisting of militia groups recruited from the left-wing trade unions, controlled the rest of Spain, including the key population centers of Madrid, Barcelona, and Valencia. Although the strongly Catholic-conservative Basque provinces in the north of Spain might have been expected to side with the right-wing rebels, they remained loyal to the republican government under which they enjoyed limited regional autonomy.[2] Toledo, just seventy kilometers south of Madrid, would have also been firmly in republican hands in the fall of 1936 had it not been for Colonel José Moscardó. With a force of around 1,100 Spanish nationalists that included a few cadets, Moscardó had barricaded himself inside the Alcázar, an ancient fortress overlooking Toledo that had been converted into a military academy.[3]

As America’s enthusiastic coverage of the defense of the fortress showed, the Alcázar’s symbolic impact was not lost on American Catholics. Though Americans may not generally remember the defense of the Alcázar as one of history’s bravest, Catholics paid attention to what military historian Antony Beevor has called “the most potent source of nationalist propaganda” during the Spanish Civil War. Moscardó’s forces were beset by republican militia for two months, holding out even as the republicans dynamited parts of the fortress. The international press was following events in Toledo closely, and when General Franco’s Army of Africa relieved the siege, Franco made the most of the opportunity to enhance his political standing. Franco and Moscardó appeared together before the press as heroes of the Alcázar. This propaganda success solidified Franco’s position as the leader of the military rebellion.[4] For many American Catholics, it also went a long way toward cementing his status as a Christian hero.

American observers saw the Spanish Civil War from a variety of perspectives, and American Catholics were far from united in their sympathy for the Francoists. Those Catholics who vocally supported the nationalists were nevertheless at odds with the majority of Americans who favored the Spanish republicans, and therefore garnered a great deal of opprobrium from their fellow citizens.[5] American liberals interpreted Catholic sympathies for Franco as a sign that the Catholic Church approved of fascism, because it was well known that Franco enjoyed the active support of Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany from the outset of the war.[6]

Historians sympathetic to the Spanish Republic have echoed these criticisms in the years since the war. For example, in a paper on Boston Catholics’ reactions to the war, Donald F. Crosby laments that Catholics in the United States were wrong about Spain, that Franco’s anti-communist propaganda seduced them, and that they mistook Soviet military aid to the republicans as evidence that the Spanish Republic was under communist control.[7] Leo V. Kanawada has even gone so far as to argue that Catholic pressure prevented the Roosevelt administration from lifting the American embargo on Spain, a measure that would have aided the embattled Republic and conceivably altered the outcome of the war in favor of the republicans.[8] Crosby and Kanawada assume that American Catholics supported Franco solely for his anti-communism and without regard for the positive character of his own ideology. They contend that American Catholics acquired an acute fear of communism in the 1930s as a result of anti-clerical persecution in Russia and Mexico, and that they opposed American aid to the Spanish loyalists for this reason.[9] As Crosby puts it, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, the fear that Soviet-style religious persecution would spread to Spain “drove [Catholic Americans] openly into the Nationalist camp.”[10]

Crosby and Kanawada’s condemnation of American Catholics’ shortsightedness reflects a naïve assessment of both the Spanish nationalists and the republicans. Historians have long recognized that Franco’s coalition of rebels, insofar as it did incorporate fascistic elements such as the Falangistas, was nevertheless distinct from Italian Fascism and Nazism. Gabriel Jackson, a distinguished historian of the Spanish Civil War, notes for instance that Franco governed in a “military, personal, arbitrary, and non-ideological manner” more reminiscent of other Hispanic dictators than of Hitler or Mussolini.[11] Jackson’s observation suggests that Franco should be considered on his own terms, rather than simply being lumped in with the other fascist dictators. More recently, Antony Beevor has used Soviet records to show that the republican government fell prey to the manipulations of Stalin’s Spanish agents to a much greater extent than previously imagined.[12] By lending credibility, albeit belatedly, to American Catholic allegations that communists had co-opted the republican government, Beevor debunks the assumption that American Catholics mistakenly opposed a democratic regime in favor of a fascist one.

Crosby and Kanawada’s second assumption, that American Catholics supported Franco because they feared communism, deserves to be similarly revisited. In playing up Catholic fears of communism, Crosby and Kanawada implicitly reject any possibility that Catholics might have actually seen something attractive in the Spanish nationalist movement. Adopting a similar position, intellectual historian Jay P. Corrin states the same assumption more explicitly: “Once the generals revolted, all Catholic aspirations for the creation of a new Christian order in Spain disappeared, and the defining issue now became the battle against Bolshevism.”[13] According to Corrin’s interpretation, the nature of Franco’s ideology was insignificant; all that mattered to American Catholics was that he stood against communism.

In reality, the American Catholic press debated the character of Franco’s ideology extensively, demonstrating that the nature of any future nationalist regime in Spain, and particularly its relationship to the Church, was of great concern to Catholics in the United States. While Franco’s anticommunist credentials were never questioned, these debates reveal that American Catholic support for Franco was largely contingent on the belief that the Spanish nationalist movement was distinct from other forms of fascism. American Catholics were looking not only for a strong bulwark against communism in Spain, but also for a Christian hero. They hoped for a leader who would bring order to Spain and restore the Catholic social values that five years of secular republican rule had eroded. Through a process of contestation that played out in the Catholic press, many Catholic Americans came to define Franco not a fascist and not merely an anti-communist, but rather as the hero after whom they had been seeking.

The seeds of Catholic opposition to the Spanish Republic, both in Spain and in the United States, can be traced back to the Republic’s earliest days and to the measures Manuel Azaña’s republican government took to limit the power and privileges of the Catholic Church. The new republican constitution provided for an end to all state subsidies for the Church. It arranged for the Catholic monastic orders to be dissolved and for Catholic schools to be replaced with a secular ones.[14] These attempts to secularize Spanish society reignited the political conflict between liberals and Catholic conservatives that had been simmering since the early nineteenth century, and which had already boiled over into civil war once in the 1830s.[15] As Richard William Steele pointed out in his 1958 study of American Catholics during the Spanish Civil War, the republicans’ “handling of the Church … served to alienate the allegiance of groups potentially friendly to the new regime.”[16] The anti-clerical provisions in the republican constitution effectively guaranteed that the Republic would face opposition in the future from Catholics.[17]

The hostility of the new Spanish government to the traditional privileges of the Church was hardly lost on Catholic observers in the United States. As an article published in The Catholic Historical Review in 1932 demonstrated, American Catholic intellectuals were aware of the threat to the Spanish Church’s power. The essay, by Marie R. Madden, criticized the new republican constitution bitterly, not least for its express disavowal of any state religion and its provisions for “dissolving all religious Orders and confiscating their property.” Madden warned, presciently, that the anti-clerical articles of the constitution could incite another civil war.[18] Her strident tone also made it clear that if such a war came, American Catholic intellectuals would likely oppose the republicans. Although Catholic support for Franco was not predetermined, the perception that the republicans were anti-Catholic left American Catholic observers hopeful for a Spanish leader who would reverse the anticlerical reforms instituted under the republic and restore to the Spanish Church its former privileges.

If the Republic’s stance against Church privilege was not enough to enflame resentment among Catholics in the United States, reports of anti-clerical violence leading up to the military rebellion of July 1936 provided ample additional reasons for American Catholics to dislike the republican forces in Spain.[19] The Jesuit weekly America cited “the prolonged inability of the Leftist regime to maintain order” as a major factor behind the military rising.[20] The diocesan Register of Denver declared that the rebellion of the army was a response to “months of horror, in which more than 150 Catholic churches were destroyed.”[21] This disorder and violence, combined with the anti-clerical measures in Spain’s republican constitution, predisposed American Catholics against the Spanish Republic from the outset of the war.

In the months following the military uprising, Catholic newspapers in the United States regularly carried stories of atrocities against the clergy in republican territory, where anti-clerical violence quickly came to be associated with communism. For example, a front-page headline in The Register at the end of August 1936 ran, “Five Bishops are Murdered by Spain Reds.”[22] Unfortunately for the Spanish Republic’s reputation abroad, the respective news outlets of the Vatican and the American bishops “continued to pour forth stories of anti-Catholic perfidy in Spain long after the sorrowful events in the republican zone had ended.”[23] Diocesan newspapers such as The Register and the Boston Pilot faithfully reprinted these stories, bombarding their Catholic readers with depictions of the Spanish republicans as barbarous atheists and fueling the perception that the Spanish Church was in need of a savior.

If Catholics in the United Sates were alarmed by the destruction of churches and slaughter of clergy members in republican-controlled territory, it did not mean that they automatically preferred a nationalist victory. To American Catholic commentators, it appeared initially that a victory for either side would have undesirable consequences. One such observer was George N. Shuster, the Managing Editor of the influential lay Catholic weekly journal, The Commonweal. Shuster voiced the same criticisms of the republican government as other Catholic publications. He alleged that the “revolutionary turmoil” in republican Spain, including the mass killings of clergy and monarchists, was the product of communist “connivance from Moscow.”[24] Clearly, Shuster was no friend to the Spanish republicans. However, in an article entitled “Murder in Madrid” from August 28th, 1936, Shuster concluded that there was no “reason for stridently applauding the present rebels,” since fascism would “not liberate creative Catholic social energies.”[25] The threat of communism was not Shuster’s only worry. He also feared that the nationalists could not be trusted to restore Catholic values to Spanish society.

Other prominent Catholic publications voiced similar concerns. In the same month that Shuster published “Murder in Madrid,” The Register of Denver warned that “the assistance of foreign governments” to the Spanish belligerents was likely to “precipitate another European conflict,” and that the result would “be either a Fascist or Communist dictatorship.”[26] The assistance that Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were providing to the rebels undoubtedly contributed to the fear among American Catholics that the nationalist movement might itself embrace fascism.

The Jesuits writing for America also expressed ambivalence toward the nationalist cause and concern over the form of government that might result from a rebel victory. America’s editor, Father Francis X. Talbot, S.J., asserted that “the nature and the policies of the government … established after a victory of the Right army … could not possibly lead to greater disasters than those already perpetrated by the Red Government.” He cautioned, however, that “opposition to the present Communistic Government in Spain” did not entail “approval of a future Fascist Government.”[27] From these remarks, it appears that Talbot initially regarded the rebels in Spain as the lesser of two evils, preferring a fascist victory only slightly, and only because it would stave off communism.

Alongside Talbot’s editorial, an article by a contributing writer, Lawrence K. Patterson, S.J., titled “Right and Left Battle for Spain” echoed and elaborated upon Talbot’s sentiments. While affirming the view that a rebel victory was necessary to halt the advance of communism, Patterson cautioned that “the triumphant Right” could be expected to “establish a military dictatorship along the lines of Italian Fascism.” According to Patterson, such a regime would not address the exploitation and “social misery” of the working class. It would only “re-impose upon the Spanish masses the yoke of ruthless capitalism.” In Patterson’s view, the nationalists were a necessary evil, worth supporting only because they constituted a temporary bulwark against communism. To decisively eliminate the threat of communism, Spanish society had to “be reorganized on a truly Christian, corporative and distributist basis.”[28] Patterson’s misgivings about the ability of a fascist regime to alleviate Spain’s social strife echoed George Shuster’s remark in The Commonweal that fascism would impede “Catholic social energies.” Taken together, the remarks of these men suggest that the character of the regime the rebels were planning to institute in Spain was of the utmost concern to Catholics in the United States. While Shuster and Patterson disagreed over whether the nationalists were worthy of Catholic support, both men based their positions on the dual assessment that secular governance was what was wrong with Spain, and that only a government based on Christian principles would be able to remedy the country’s ills.

From the positions of leading American Catholic periodicals at the beginning of the war, it is clear that the Catholic press in the United States initially regarded the Spanish rebels with skepticism. The military rebellion was closely linked with the fascist and Nazi ideologies of its Italian and German benefactors. Some of the contributors to these papers favored a nationalist victory because they felt it was the only alternative to communism. Their support for the nationalists was tentative, however, and it was tempered by the fear that a fascist regime would do little more than a communist one to reverse the Spanish Republic’s legacy of secularization.

Yet within the first few months of the war, a great many Catholics suddenly came to see General Franco as a positive alternative to existing forms of fascism. Their earlier concern that the nationalists would turn a blind eye to the poor without resurrecting the privileges of the Church gave way to the conviction that Franco was exactly the kind of “Christian, corporative” leader for which commentators such as Patterson were looking. In the August 22, 1936 edition of America, Father Talbot responded to a press statement from General Franco outlining the nationalists’ objectives by calling Franco “the man of the hour in Spain’s struggle against Communism.” Talbot continued that, “In the event of victory it is the aim of the Insurgents to unite the warring classes by granting to the workers long-needed social reforms, to property owners assurance against unjust molestation, [and] to the Church complete freedom of worship.”[29] At this point, Franco was neither the hero of the Alcázar nor the official leader of the rebellion. He was however the commander of the Army of Africa, the most powerful element of the nationalist army.[30] Talbot was convinced that Franco spoke for the nationalists, and he liked what he heard. For Talbot, “the calmness of this little document [Franco’s statement] coming from a soldier in the stress of bitter warfare, its appeal to union rather than class passions, its sane realism offer[ed] the first gleam of hope that Spain may yet be able to solve her own internal problems.”[31] Within weeks of the outbreak of war, Talbot’s optimistic assessment of Franco had overcome his initial skepticism of the nationalist movement. He had begun to view Franco not as the lesser of two evils but as the man who would bring a fair and favorable resolution to the conflict.

Despite their initial misgivings about the nationalists, the editors of The Register came to share Father Talbot’s assessment of Franco by the middle of October 1936. Having previously voiced alarm at the apparent internationalization of the conflict, The Register’s chief focus shifted to the anti-clerical atrocities of the Spanish Left, where it remained through the fall of that year. For instance, on September 20, 1936, in a typical account of the activities of a “Red mob” The Register described how a priest in Barcelona was murdered, his “skull split with an axe.”[32] Hitler and Mussolini’s aid to Franco was of little concern at this point. In light of the barbarous conditions in the republican zone, it took only Franco’s “assurance that … a dictatorship, if adopted, would be … temporary,” to convince the Register that he was worth supporting.[33] Based on this sudden change in tone, it is clear that Franco was becoming more palatable even to those Catholics who were skeptical of his intentions. In the eyes of The Register, the imperative of saving the Spanish Church from reds justified a temporary dictatorship under the avowedly moderate Franco.

As the war progressed, the pro-Franco sentiments of the American Catholic press were reinforced by the official positions of the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican extended diplomatic recognition to Franco’s government in the fall of 1937 when the civil war was barely a year old.[34] Pope Pius XI made no secret of his personal preference for a nationalist victory in Spain, and in May 1938 he went so far as to bestow his personal blessing on Franco.[35] For their part, the American Catholic bishops followed the Vatican’s lead, expressing support for Franco with what historian J. David Valaik has described as “considerable unanimity.”[36] In particular, the American Church leaders supported the nationalist cause through the National Catholic Welfare Conference. This was an organ of the American bishops that disseminated pro-nationalist reports through its News Bureau, and assisted with the political campaign to uphold the American embargo against Spain.[37]

Public statements of prominent Church figures such as Cardinal William O’Connell of the Archdiocese of Boston and the popular radio priest Father Charles Coughlin also stressed that the American Catholic leadership was strongly behind the nationalists. In the spring of 1937, O’Connell was one of the most vocal opponents of a plan to bring to the United States five hundred Basque refugee children who were fleeing Franco’s army. The plan was widely criticized by Catholic leaders as a communist propaganda ploy.[38] O’Connell publicly confirmed his support for Franco in March 1938, stating that the aid from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy that Franco was receiving in no way made Franco himself a fascist.[39] In January 1939, Father Coughlin exhorted thousands of Catholic radio listeners to write their representatives and express support for the embargo. Coughlin maintained that the Spanish republicans were in fact communists who were responsible for the destruction of churches and the murders of thousands of clergy members. According to Coughlin, Catholics needed to throw their support behind the nationalists, because Franco was saving Spain from communism.[40]

While the sentiments of the American Catholic bishops and the diocesan press were with Franco and the nationalists, the same cannot be said for the opinions of Catholic Americans in general. At the height of the public controversy over American non-intervention in Spain, a Gallup poll indicated that many Catholics in the United States were even sympathetic to the republicans. The results of the poll were disseminated in Time and The New Republic early in 1939. They showed that only thirty-eight percent of American Catholics supported Franco. Thirty-three percent remained uncommitted to either side, while the remainder presumably favored the Republic. While these poll results indicated that Catholics were more likely than other Americans to support the nationalists, they also demonstrated that Catholic American opinions of the Spanish Civil War were far from homogeneous.[41] As J. David Valaik has suggested, the discrepancy between the views of the Church leadership and of ordinary Catholic Americans can partly be attributed to the influence of secular sources. In the absence of a daily Catholic newspaper to compete with the mainstream press, Catholics were undoubtedly influenced by secular newspapers as well as Catholic media.[42]

Secular influences do not fully account for the range of Catholic American opinions on Spain. Even the Catholic press was not unanimous in its support for Franco. The editors of the left wing Catholic Worker, Peter Maurin and William Callahan, announced their position on the Spanish Civil War in December 1936 by reprinting an article from the French Catholic monthly Espirit, under the heading, “Spanish Catholic Flays Both Sides.” In contrast to those Catholic publications that overcame their skepticism toward the nationalists in the opening months of the war, The Catholic Worker called on American Catholics to avoid taking sides. While acknowledging the excesses of the republicans, the article was quick to point out that the Spanish army had revolted against a legitimately constituted, democratic government. The rebels could therefore hardly be said to be on the side of righteousness.[43] In July 1937, the editors unapologetically maintained their refusal to support “a resolution endorsing … General Franco” despite the criticism of Father Coughlin and the Brooklyn Tablet.[44] An article in September 1938 reiterated the paper’s opposition to Franco. The article noted “Franco’s sympathies” for German Nazism, and predicted that in the event of a nationalist victory, Spain would “become … a totalitarian state.”[45] The influence of The Catholic Worker helps account for the diversity of opinions among ordinary Catholic Americans. With a circulation of at least 75,000, The Catholic Worker reached many more readers than did diocesan weeklies such as The Register or the Brooklyn Tablet.[46]

George Shuster at The Commonweal joined Maurin and Callahan at The Catholic Worker in their refusal to back Franco. Shuster’s journal not only declined to endorse Franco and the nationalists, but also began to make apologies for the republican government. America and The Register were apt to hold the government responsible for atrocities in the republican zone. The Commonweal held however, that a communist minority was acting against the wishes of the republican government, and “that a number of dastardly murders – of persons who had been guaranteed protection by the government – [could] be attributed to them.”[47] The Commonweal refused to conclude that these killings were sanctioned by the republican regime. It even went so far as to print the remarks of Manuel de Irujo, the Catholic minister without portfolio who represented the Basque provinces in the cabinet of republican leader Largo Caballero. Irujo emphatically stated that the republican government did not sanction anti-clerical violence. Otherwise, he and the devoutly Catholic Basques would never have supported the Republic.[48] Unlike commentators writing in America and in the American diocesan press, who made no distinction between the government and the perpetrators of anti-clerical violence in the republican zone of Spain, Irujo asserted that such violence occurred despite the wishes of the government. By publishing Irujo’s remarks, The Commonweal provided left-leaning Catholics who were shocked by the violence against the Spanish Church but who also disliked the nationalists with a rationale for supporting the republicans.

The Commonweal’s refusal to support Franco, combined with its willingness to publish material in defense of the Spanish republicans, set the stage for an editorial face-off in the spring of 1937 with America, in which competing visions of Francisco Franco would play a central role. An article in the March 5, 1937 edition of The Commonweal by Barbara Barclay Carter touched off the controversy, as Carter’s criticisms of the nationalist movement provoked America’s Father Talbot to print a stern rebuke of both Carter and The Commonweal.[49] The ensuing published exchange between The Commonweal’s Managing Editor, George N. Shuster, and Father Talbot revealed that the fundamental issue at stake between those Catholics who backed Franco and those who did not was whether Franco truly was a fascist.

Shuster launched his initial counter-attack on April 2 with an editorial entitled “Some Reflections on Spain,” in which he defended Carter’s assessment of the Spanish nationalists and offered some observations of his own about Franco. Shuster pointed out that both sides in Spain were guilty of atrocities, noting that rebel troops had executed priests in the Basque country even as the nationalists claimed to be saving Spain for Christianity. He contended that those Catholic Americans who supported Franco had missed the significance of Hitler and Mussolini’s aid to the nationalists. “To those who believe that General Franco will inaugurate a beneficent and progressive social order,” wrote Shuster, “I shall reply very simply that yesterday was not my natal morn.” In Shuster’s view, Franco’s willingness to accept assistance from the fascist powers indicated that Franco was planning a fascist regime of his own.[50] Thus, Shuster’s argument against Catholic support for Franco proceeded directly from the view that Franco was more alike than unlike his German and Italian allies.

Father Talbot quickly rebutted Shuster’s claims in an editorial published on April 10. Talbot charged that Shuster had allowed his preoccupation with Mussolini and Hitler to blind him to the fact that Franco was really different from his fascist benefactors. “Franco never was a Fascist,” wrote Talbot, “and I judge that he never will be.”[51] This statement represented something of a hardening of Talbot’s position, as only two months previously, America had acknowledged that “the type of government which General Franco [had] in mind [was] a kind of Fascism.”[52] Talbot had apparently come to the conclusion by April 1937 that Franco’s blend of Catholicism and fascism was distinct enough from Italian Fascism or German Nazism to merit being called something else.

Shuster’s next salvo appeared in the April 23 edition of The Commonweal. He began with the pronouncement that neither he, nor Father Talbot, knew very much about Spain.[53] Shuster was concerned however, by Father Talbot’s willingness to identify Catholicism with fascism. Whether or not Franco called himself a fascist, he was prosecuting his military campaign, “With the help of swarms of Moors, 150,000 Italians and as many Germans as can be packed into Bremen.” In Shuster’s view, Franco’s reliance on Muslim soldiers of the Army of Africa undermined the claim that he was fighting for Christianity. Catholic support for Franco, Shuster reasoned, would only deepen resentment toward the Church, since Franco could not be trusted to improve the situation of the working classes in Spain. When Franco won the war with the help of his fascist allies, the Church too would be seen to have allied itself with fascism.[54] Here again, Shuster based his opposition to Franco on the Spanish general’s close association with Nazis and Italian fascists, throwing in Franco’s reliance on Muslim troops for good measure.

A close reading of Father Talbot’s response to Shuster’s indictment of the Spanish nationalist leader is key to understanding the way in which Franco’s Catholic American supporters constructed their view of the general. On the surface, Talbot reneged on his earlier insistence that Franco could “never” be a fascist. In response to Shuster’s badgering, Talbot admitted that Franco’s victory might entail the “establishment of a form of Spanish Fascism.” He quickly added, however, that “collaboration with Fascism [was] possible for the Catholic Church.”[55] While secular, liberal publications such as The Nation and the New Republic were quick to interpret such remarks as evidence that American Catholic leaders were broadly sympathetic to totalitarianism, the context within which Talbot wrote suggests that Franco’s Catholic American supporters entertained a more nuanced view.[56] Talbot was doubtlessly aware of Franco’s authoritarian tendencies. Alongside his editorial, America carried the news that Franco had consolidated military and political power within the nationalist zone into a single party with himself at its head.[57] Despite this, Talbot seems to have perceived a distinction between “Spanish Fascism” and the Nazism of Franco’s German backers. In fact, America continued to criticize Nazi efforts “to discredit the Catholic Church” in the very same issue in which Talbot called on Spanish Catholics to collaborate with Franco.[58] Given Father Talbot’s vacillation over whether to call Franco a fascist, and his decision to settle finally on the qualified descriptor, “Spanish Fascism,” to denote a future Francoist regime, it is likely that Talbot continued to perceive a fundamental differences between Franco, Hitler, and Mussolini, even as he applied the term fascism to Franco.

While his guarded admission of Franco’s fascistic inclinations may have appeared to be a concession to Shuster, in the long run Father Talbot won the struggle to define Franco for readers of American and The Commonweal. Whatever the inconsistencies in Talbot’s thought, a great many American Catholics indirectly registered their approval of his position by cancelling their subscriptions to The Commonweal. In the wake of the editorial debate between Talbot and Shuster, The Commonweal lost a quarter of its subscribers. Shuster resigned as Managing Editor, and the journal subsequently adopted a more favorable stance toward Franco.[59] When, after a change in ownership in 1938, The Commonweal returned to Shuster’s previous position, the mainstream Catholic press proved just as hostile as it had been a year previously. This time, The Commonweal suggested that in light of Franco’s alliance with Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, and his continued aerial bombardment of civilians, the best “policy for Americans [was] to maintain… a sanity of judgment toward both sides is Spain.”[60] Just as Shuster had, the new editors drew opprobrium from other Catholics for criticizing Franco. The Denver Catholic Register responded that, in calling for neutrality, the editors at The Commonweal had ignored “Franco’s proof that his air bombings [were] directed at military objectives,” and “his repudiation of Fascism.”[61] The radio priest Father Coughlin also expressed disappointment with The Commonweal’s position, going so far as to compare the passive neutrality of the editors with that of Pontius Pilate.[62] By abetting the Spanish republican enemies of Christianity, Coughlin insinuated, the new editors of The Commonweal had betrayed the putative savior of the Spanish Catholic Church.

By the summer of 1938, American Catholic opinion of Franco had solidified into two opposing viewpoints. Some Catholics, represented in print by The Catholic Worker and the new editors of The Commonweal, continued to withhold their support from the nationalist cause on the grounds that Franco was a fascist. Conversely, those represented by Catholic newspapers under diocesan control, such as the Boston Pilot and The Register of Denver, joined America in supporting Franco and insisting that he was not a fascist.[63] The “ultraconservative” but influential diocesan weekly, the Brooklyn Tablet, even fondly compared Franco with George Washington.[64] The fashioning of a Christian hero was complete.

No one factor alone can account for the sentiments of those American Catholics who found Franco worthy of their support. Certainly for some, the fear of communism was an overriding concern, so much so that the suspiciously fascistic character of the nationalist movement could be overlooked. American Catholics perceived that the Church was besieged by communism around the globe. In particular, they looked upon the secular tendencies of the left-leaning Mexican government of Lázaro Cárdenas with fear and scorn. America protested the alleged “butchery of Catholics in Mexico”[65] and maligned the Cárdenas administration, describing it as “compulsory Sex-Socialistic.”[66] As George N. Shuster later recalled, for many American Catholics in the 1930s “the world outside the United States was either Communist or Fascist and … they had opted for Fascism.”[67]

Fear of communism, however, does not account for the enthusiasm that some American Catholics showed for Francisco Franco. Even Shuster at The Commonweal agreed that communism was behind the anti-clerical violence in Spain, but he still saw no reason to automatically prefer a nationalist victory.[68] As his editorial debate with Father Talbot suggested, Catholics who rejected Franco did so because they saw no advantage in the triumph of fascism over communism. They believed that the right-wing dictatorship that would follow Franco’s victory was as undesirable as any communist regime that might result from his defeat. Franco’s American Catholic supporters held the opposite view. Those who embraced Franco either insisted that that he was not a fascist, or that “Spanish Fascism” would take on a more palatable form than the Italian or German varieties.[69]

American Catholics who supported Franco saw him as a Christian hero, or as Father Coughlin put it, “a rebel for Christ.”[70] In a sense, they believed Franco was an antidote to the liberal secularism of the Spanish Republic as well as an alternative to the totalitarian extremes of fascism and communism. This meant that Franco was fighting not only against communism, but also for Christianity. The view that the nationalists were not fascists but rather good Christians was expounded frequently in the American Catholic press. America and The Register both expressed approval in the fall of 1937 when the Spanish bishops published a joint pastoral letter justifying the military rebellion and praising the nationalists.[71] Also, in August 1937, The Register printed the following quote from the Archbishop of Toledo, Cardinal Gomá y Tomás: “The so called Fascists of Spain are men who have preserved the Christian and Catholic feeling of their race, and, as good Catholics are not subjecting the Church to servitude.”[72] The opinion of Cardinal Gomá and the Catholics of the Denver diocese that published The Register was that far from being a fascist, Franco was a Christian traditionalist who was reestablishing the primacy of the Catholic Church in Spain.

Admittedly, Father Talbot at America seems to have been unable to make up his mind as to whether Franco should be called a fascist. For instance, on January 23, 1937, Talbot declared, “If General Franco is victorious, the Spanish Republic will be perpetuated and democracy will be guaranteed.”[73] Yet less than a month later Talbot admitted that Franco was planning to institute “a kind of Fascism.”[74] Then, in April of that year in his rebuttal to George N. Shuster, he again asserted, “Franco never was a Fascist.”[75] In the final analysis, it may be impossible to ascertain exactly what Father Talbot meant by “Fascist.” This difficulty reflects not only Talbot’s incoherence, but also that the meaning of fascism, as well as its relationship to traditional institutions such as the Catholic Church, was as yet unsettled at the time Talbot was writing. That said, Talbot’s suggestion that the Catholic Church could collaborate with “Spanish Fascism” and his continued willingness to print pro-Franco pieces in America suggest that he did not place Franco in the same category of fascism as Hitler and Mussolini. Evidently, Talbot agreed with The Register that there was something attractive in Franco’s movement, regardless of what it was called.

According to Rev. Dr. Joseph F. Thorning, an “observer” in Spain whose remarks were published in The Register, “Life in Franco’s Spain [was] absolutely normal,” and, “Prices of … bread and meat, [were] lower than when the war started.” Thorning concluded that Franco’s eventual “victory would be of permanent worth to Christian … civilization.”[76] The Register reiterated this view in April 1938, claiming that Franco was establishing “no Fascist government dominated by foreign powers but a truly Spanish corporative state,” and comparing Franco’s regime with the avowedly Catholic Salazar dictatorship in Portugal.[77] That Thorning’s observations found their way to print suggests that at least some American Catholics backed Franco because they believed he would replace the secularist Spanish Republic with a regime modeled after Catholic social principles.

To an extent, American Catholics believed what they wanted to believe about Franco. This meant that some of his worst atrocities were simply dismissed as “well-engineered propaganda.” For example, both The Register and America voiced incredulity at the widespread reports in the spring of 1937 that the nationalists’ German allies had bombed the Basque holy city of Guernica. Citing the “report of journalists who visited the town and found no evidence” that Guernica had been subjected to aerial bombardment, they preferred to believe, as The Register put it, “that the town was fired by … Red agents.”[78] Convinced that Franco was planning a regime based on Christian principals, The Register was able to ignore evidence that Franco was in league with the fascist powers and that he was capable of atrocities on a par with those of the republicans.

Whatever Franco’s relationship to Hitler and Mussolini was, it may have been his willingness to renounce fascism in the waning days of World War II that prevented his regime from being toppled by the victorious Allies.[79] Aside from granting the Axis powers access to Spanish ports and territorial waters and allowing a division of Spanish volunteers to fight with the German army in Russia, Franco maintained strict neutrality in World War II.[80] In this sense at least, history partially proved correct those who denied that he was beholden to Hitler and Mussolini.

Among those American Catholics who held such views, no one overwhelming reason can be discerned for their nationalist sympathies. While Catholic publications frequently spoke of the fear that anti-clerical communists might gain permanent control of Spain, Soviet intervention in Spain and the threat of communism should not be construed as the only possible motive for American Catholics to have backed Franco. Like their brethren in Spain, Catholics in the United States disliked the Spanish Republic from its inception because of its secular tendencies. The perceived failure of the republican government to check anti-clerical violence either before or after the outbreak of the war only reinforced this sentiment. Accordingly, debate within the American Catholic community over whether Franco was worthy of support hinged not on fear of communism, but rather on what sort of regime Franco intended to install in place of the discredited Republic. Upon the outbreak of the war, the opinion that a victory of either side would result in either a communist or a fascist dictatorship was common in the American Catholic press. Many Catholic Americans, taking their cues from the Catholic Worker, held to this view throughout the war.

Meanwhile, the American Catholic bishops and most of the Catholic press latched on to the image of Franco they helped to create: Franco as a Christian hero. They argued that Franco’s reliance on Hitler and Mussolini for military aid did not indicate that he shared their ideology. They called him “the man of the hour” and a Spanish George Washington, praising him for “his love of religion and his devotion to real social justice.”[81] The hero of the Alcázar became the savior of the Spanish Church. To them, he was the man who would protect Spain’s Christian values from secular liberalism as well as communism. While the idealistic view of Franco invented in the American Catholic press turned out to be largely false, it was perhaps no more naïve of American Catholics to find a hero in Franco than it was of American liberals to identify the Spanish Republic with a noble stand against fascism.



America LV-LVII.

The Catholic Worker IV-VI.

The Commonweal XXIV-XXVIII.

The Denver Catholic Register XXXI-XXXIII.

The New Republic LXXXXVII (February 1, 1939).

The Register (Denver) XII-XIV.

Time XXXIII (January 23, 1939).


Beevor, Antony. The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939. New York: Penguin,


Corrin, Jay P. Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy. Notre Dame: University

of Notre Dame Press, 2002.

Crosby, Donald F. “Boston’s Catholics and the Spanish Civil War.” The New England Quarterly

44, no. 1 (Mar., 1971): 82-100.

Day, Dorothy. The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day. San Francisco:

HarperSanFrancisco, 1996.

Jackson, Gabriel. The Spanish Republic and the Civil War: 1931-1936. Princeton: Princeton

University Press, 1965.

Kanawada, Leo V. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Diplomacy and American Catholics, Italians, and

Jews. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982.

Madden, Marie R. “Status of the Church and Catholic Action in Contemporary Spain.” The

Catholic Historical Review 18, no. 1 (April 1932): 19-59.

Roberts, Nancy L. Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker. Albany: SUNY Press, 1984.

Shuster, George N. On the Side of Truth. Edited by Vincent P. Lannie. Notre Dame: University

of Notre Dame Press, 1974.

Steele, Richard William. “American Catholic Reaction to the Spanish Civil War: 1936-1939.”

MA thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1958.

Taylor, F. Jay. The United States and the Spanish Civil War: 1936-1939. New York: Bookman

Associates, 1956.

Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Harper Colophon, 1963.

Tierney, Dominic. FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle

that Divided America. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Traina, Richard P. American Diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War. Bloomington: Indiana

University Press, 1968.

Valaik, J. David. “Catholics, Neutrality, and the Spanish Embargo, 1937-1939.” The Journal of

American History 54, no. 1 (June 1967): 73-85.

—. “American Catholic Dissenters and the Spanish Civil War.” The Catholic Historical Review

53, no. 4 (January 1968): 537-555.

Wentz, F. K. “American Catholic Periodicals React to Nazism.” Church History 31, no. 4

(December 1962): 400-420.

[1] America LV (October 3, 1936): 615; For America’s Circulation figures, see F. K. Wentz, “American Catholic Periodicals React to Nazism,” Church History 31, no. 4 (December 1962): 400.

[2] Antony Beevor, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 (New York: Penguin, 2006), 78, 104.

[3] Beevor, 77. 123.

[4] Beevor, 121-123.

[5] Until the final months of the war, most Americans who were polled about the war did not express a preference for either side. In general, however, the sentiments of those Americans who took sides in the Spanish Civil War favored the republicans. See Richard P. Traina, American Diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968), 106-107.

[6] For the American liberal response to Catholic support for Franco, see Richard William Steele, “American Catholic Reaction to the Spanish Civil War: 1936-1939” (MA thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1958), 55.

[7] Donald F. Crosby, “Boston’s Catholics and the Spanish Civil War,” The New England Quarterly 44, no. 1 (March 1971): 99-100; J. David Valaik, “American Catholic Dissenters and the Spanish Civil War,” The Catholic Historical Review 53, no. 4 (January 1968): 555.

[8] Leo V. Kanawada, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Diplomacy and American Catholics, Italians, and Jews (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1982), 70-71. Dominic Tierney has maintained otherwise however. In FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007), he argues that Catholic opposition to lifting the embargo coincided with FDR’s own preference.

[9] Kanawada, 49

[10] Crosby, 100.

[11] Gabriel Jackson, The Spanish Republic and the Civil War: 1931-1936 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1965), 420.

[12] Beevor, 292-293.

[13] Jay P. Corrin, Catholic Intellectuals and the Challenge of Democracy (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2002), 315.

[14] For a complete discussion of the articles in the Spanish Constitution of 1931 considered hostile to the Church, see Jackson, 48-60.

[15] Hugh Thomas, The Spanish Civil War (New York: Harper Colophon, 1963), 12-13.

[16] Steele, 3.

[17] Thomas, 47.

[18] Marie R. Madden, “Status of the Church and Catholic Action in Contemporary Spain,” The Catholic Historical Review 18, no. 1 (April 1932): 58-59.

[19] J. David Valaik, “American Catholic Dissenters,” 537.

[20] Editorial, America LV (August 1, 1936): 399.

[21] The Register, 2 August 1936, 2.

[22] The Register, 30 August 1936, 1.

[23] Crosby, 85.

[24] The Commonweal XXIV (September 4, 1936): 435.

[25] “Murder in Madrid,” The Commonweal XXIV (August 28, 1936): 414.

[26] The Register, 16 August 1936, 1-2.

[27] “Perils of a Communist Victory in Spain.” America LV (August 8, 1936): 420.

[28] Lawrence K. Patterson, S.J., “Right and Left Battle for Spain: A Christian State Alone Can Bring Security,” America LV (August 8, 1936): 412-413.

[29] Editorial, America LV (August 22, 1936): 458.

[30] Beevor, 79, 95.

[31] Editorial, America LV (August 22, 1936): 459.

[32] The Register, 20 September 1936, 1.

[33] The Register, 11 October 1936, 1.

[34] America LVII (September 11, 1937): 530.

[35] Taylor, 143.

[36] J. David Valaik, “Catholics, Neutrality, and the Spanish Embargo, 1937-1939,” The Journal of American History 54, no. 1 (June 1967): 74.

[37] Crosby, 85; Valaik, “Catholics, Neutrality, and the Spanish Embargo,” 79.

[38] Crosby, 96.

[39] Crosby, 84.

[40] Valaik, “Catholics, Neutrality, and the Spanish Embargo,” 81.

[41] Time XXXIII (January 23, 1939): 36; “A Telegram to the President,” The New Republic LXXXXVII (February 1, 1939): 357.

[42] Valaik, “Catholics, Neutrality, and the Spanish Embargo,” 84; For a discussion of how the influence of the Catholic hierarchy was constrained by the lack of a daily, see Steele, 38.

[43] “Spanish Catholic Flays Both Sides,” The Catholic Worker, December 1936, 1, 8.

[44] “Catholic Worker Answers Attack,” The Catholic Worker, July 1937, 1.

[45] Luigi Sturzo, “Cost of War in Spain,” The Catholic Worker, September 1938, 7.

[46] Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, claimed in The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of Dorothy Day (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996) that The Catholic Worker’s circulation in 1936 was 150,000 (see p. 182); However, according to Nancy L. Roberts, Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker (Albany: SUNY Press, 1984), many copies ended up in “bundle orders to Churches and other organizations” (see p. 179); In view of this consideration, F. Jay Taylor’s figure of 75,000 seems a more reasonable estimate of the paper’s actual readership (Taylor, 55); F. K. Wentz puts the Brooklyn Tablet’s circulation at around 50,000 (Wentz, 400).

[47] The Commonweal XXV (November 20, 1936): 88.

[48] The Commonweal XXV (January 29, 1937): 387.

[49] George N. Shuster, On the Side of Truth. ed. Vincent P. Lannie. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1974), 222; America LVI (March 13, 1937), 530-531.

[50] George N. Shuster, “Some Reflections on Spain,” The Commonweal XXV (April 2, 1937): 625-627.

[51] [Father Francis X. Talbot, S.J.], “In Answer to Some Reflections on the Spanish Situation,” America LVII (April 10, 1937): 9-10.

[52] “Fascism and Communism in Spain,” America LVI (February 13, 1937): 445.

[53] Shuster later said that he “liked Father Talbot very much as a poet … but had never seen a trace of an endowment [in him] to discuss political affairs” (Shuster, 224).

[54] George N. Shuster, “Some Further Reflections,” The Commonweal XXV (April 23, 1937): 716-717.

[55] [Father Francis X. Talbot, S.J.], “Further Reflections on the Spanish Situation: A brief finale on the position of Catholics,” America LVII (May 1, 1937): 76-77.

[56] See Steele, 56.

[57] America LVII (May 1, 1937): 88.

[58] Gerard Donnelly, S.J., “A Priest in the Nazi Court: Portrait of a man accused of high treason,” America LVII (May 1, 1937): 77.

[59] Shuster, 152; In Shuster’s absence, The Commonweal took to printing blatant nationalist propaganda, such as the pro-Franco reporter Nena Belmonte’s “Life in Nationalist Spain,” in which Belmonte asserted that Franco’s Spain was “one of the most comfortable and safe places to live in during this period of worldwide upheaval.” See The Commonweal XXVI (October 15, 1937): 567-568.

[60] The Commonweal XXVIII (June 24, 1938): 229-230.

[61] C. J. McNeill, “The Commonweal’s Impartiality on Spain,” The Denver Catholic Register, 30 June 1938, 4.

[62] Valaik, “American Catholic Dissenters and the Spanish Civil War,” 552-553.

[63] For a discussion of the Boston Pilot’s approbation of Franco, see Crosby, 88.

[64] Shuster, 151; F. K. Wentz has estimated that at the time, The Tablet had around 50,000 readers, a rather large circulation for a diocesan newspaper (Wentz, 400).

[65] “The Knights and Mexico,” America LV (September 5, 1936): 517.

[66] Thomas S. Hunter, “Mexican Facts American Duties: A Summary of Conditions Below Our Border,” America LV (September 12, 1936): 532.

[67] Shuster, 224.

[68] “Murder in Madrid,” The Commonweal XXIV (Aug 28, 1936): 414.

[69] [Father Francis X. Talbot, S.J.], “Further Reflections on the Spanish Situation: A brief finale on the position of Catholics,” America LVII (May 1, 1937): 77.

[70] Quoted in Valaik, “Catholics, Neutrality, and the Spanish Embargo,” 81.

[71] The Register, 5 September 1937, 1; America LVII (September 11, 1937): 530.

[72] The Register, 29 August 1937, 1.

[73] Editorial, America LVI (January 23, 1937): 362.

[74] “Fascism and Communism in Spain,” America LVI (February 13, 1937): 445.

[75] [Father Francis X. Talbot, S.J.], “In Answer to Some Reflections on the Spanish Situation,” America LVII (April 10, 1937): 9-10.

[76] The Register, 15 August 1937, 1-2.

[77] The Register, 17 April 1938, 1.

[78] The Register, 30 May 1937, 1; America LVII (May 15, 1937): 135.

[79] Beevor, 418.

[80] Beevor, 414-416.

[81] Editorial, America LV (August 22, 1936): 458; Shuster, 151; The Register, 8 May 1938, 1.

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