The Ambassador in Spain ( Bowers ), Then in France, to the Acting Secretary of State

No. 1230

Sir: I have the honor to report as follows with respect to the present civil war in Spain:

I. The Russian Phase

In the beginning of the rebellion the Communists were of no great importance. All references in the press to “Communists” must be viewed in the light of the fact that the most conservative liberal is habitually described by the Fascists as communistic. When some years ago an attempt was made in the New York Legislature to expel four Socialists just elected to that body, Chief Justice Hughes and Elihu Root both denounced the proposed expulsion. Under the Insurgent interpretation of the word in Spain both Root and Hughes would, by virtue of their liberality, be denounced as Communists.

When the rebellion broke there were no Communists or even Socialists in the Government. The Communists took their stand with the Government, and so far as I have been able to learn, they have acted as a party within the law. The Syndicalists, who are the most bitter enemies of Communism, and the Anarchists quite as hostile, indulged in rioting and outrages and posed in places as “Communists”, and where they did not so pose, the propagandists of the Fascists dubbed them Communists.

In the midst of the darkness that enveloped the Government, when the two democracies of Europe were actually aligning themselves by their policy against the Government, the Russian Ambassador reached Madrid to present his credentials. It was the first gesture of friendship [Page 564] for the recently elected Government after the beginning of the war and the Ambassador was given a great ovation. But the democratic republicans and the moderate socialists joined in this ovation for perfectly natural reasons. The press, however, gave the impression that every one who cheered the Ambassador was necessarily a Communist.

That the actual Communists resent the activities of the criminal Syndicalists and Anarchists is evident in the fact that the Russian Ambassador told his callers, including Wendelin, that these had to be brought within the law.

The second phase of the Communist puzzle came with the adoption of the non-intervention pact. This made it impossible for the Government to buy arms to put down an insurrection. It was resented by all who stand merely for a democratic republic—by Azaña and Barrio, as an unfriendly act on the part of the two Democracies. Thus did the two democracies compel all who stand for liberalism and democracy, but who have no sympathy with Communism, to welcome the support of Russia.

When after two months of flagrant violations of the non-intervention pact by Germany, Italy, and Portugal, Spain made her protest and presented her proof, and the non-intervention committee began to play with the situation as in the case of Abyssinia, and Russia demanded the rigid enforcement of the pact on all the signatory powers, Russia associated herself again in the popular mind as the one reliable friend of Spain.

Up to this time no one had seen a Russian plane, a Russian tank, or any Russian war material. I carefully questioned from twelve to fifteen war correspondents on this point and not one had seen anything of the sort. I am convinced that Russia observed the pact until the moment she formally announced that she would not be bound “to any greater degree than any other signatory of the pact.”

Having served notice she began to send such material as she could to Spain. There is no doubt that she has since then sent in planes and other implements of war, keeping pace with Italy and Germany. It had become clear that if Germany and Italy were to be permitted to arm Franco’s army, and no nation was to be allowed to sell war material to the Government, the Government would be defeated. Consequently when Russia began to send material all supporters of the Government from the most conservative democratic republicans to the extremists were most grateful. Just as the drowning man does not scorn the rescuer who pulls him from the water because of his religion, the supporters of the Government did not refuse the support of Russia because it is Communistic.

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The most disturbing and puzzling thing to me, however, is that the newspapers and the radio station in Madrid indulge constantly in communistic propaganda. Azaña’s paper, Politica is as bad as the others—which means of course that Azaña no longer dominates its policy. It seems incredible that the different parties in the Frente Popular do not have their own papers, and the only explanation I can offer is that Communism must thoroughly permeate the members of the typographical unions and that these being alone able to print them have taken them over.

To what extent Communism has grown among the masses of the people as a result of the war it is impossible to determine now. The ruthlessness of the insurgents, the slaughter of women and children, the policy of terrorism has created a bitter resentment among the masses, and I am convinced that Communism has grown greatly, if temporarily, as an expression of this resentment.

The traditional stupidity of Bourbonism is illustrated in the case of my own servants. Three and a half years ago they were all reactionaries, monarchists, devotees of the Church. In the elections of November, 1933, they all voted Right. When the Rights took power they at once repealed or ignored all the laws enacted by the Azaña regime in the interest of labor and the peasants. One day I overheard a conversation between the butler and another servant and heard him say that “this man Azaña is the only man who is interested in us.” I have never mentioned politics to any of my servants, but my curiosity was aroused and I observed their trend. In the elections of last February I think that almost all of them voted with the Azaña Party. Since the rebellion their bitterness has increased and I notice that where six months ago they were all hostile to and contemptuous of Communism, they are delighted now with Russia’s attitude. This war is making Communists. If a Fascist State is established or a military dictatorship, pledged to the repeal of labor and agrarian laws, takes power, I am convinced that the communism will spread rapidly. Meanwhile we must not lose sight of the fact that only a dozen Communists were elected to the Cortes last February out of more than 470 members. They had put forth their utmost strength, and this was the best they could do. That measures the real Communist sentiment in Spain at the beginning of the war.

II. The Status of the War on November 18th

The present status of the war may easily be changed before this reaches the Department, with the ending of the battle for Madrid. At this time the insurgents hold the territory they have held from [Page 566] the beginning, with the addition of San Sebastián and Iran which they took two months ago. Their territory is mostly in the purely agricultural sections, and while they hold many famous towns like Segovia, these towns are small. I should not say that because they hold this territory that the people within it are predominantly against the Government. I cannot say that in view of the fact that in a large part of this territory the majority for the Government in the February elections was decisive. The unarmed peasants confronted by soldiers emerging armed from the barracks in these quarters were helpless to resist.

The Government holds Asturias and the province of Bilbao, the fourth largest center of population in Spain, and the second most important industrial section; Barcelona the largest city with more than a million inhabitants and Catalan the most important province; Valencia, the third largest city, and the whole of the Mediterranean country from Barcelona to Malaga. At this moment it still holds Madrid—which means that at this moment the greater part of the population of Spain is held by the Government.

The battle of Madrid is of the utmost importance, not from the viewpoint of military strategy, but because of the moral effect and the psychological effect. Just as the insurgents had no doubt they would triumph in five days, or before the first of August, they were positive two weeks ago that they would take Madrid within three days. The stubborn resistance of Madrid has clearly interfered with their general plans. In my opinion if they fail to take Madrid they are through. It is absolutely necessary for them to triumph there to go on. If they do triumph, the future will be determined by the effect in the large territory still held by the Government.

The fight in Madrid on the part of the insurgents is being made almost entirely by the Moors and the Foreign Legion. Reenforcements of Moors have been brought over from Morocco because of the decimation of these Moors by the Government artillery a week ago. It is understood that all the professional Moorish soldiers that can possibly be spared from Morocco have been brought over, and that the last who came were untrained tribesmen. It is significant that the insurgents are not in position to augment their forces to any important extent from among the Spaniards. Thus, man-power may determine the event if the war continues long, unless Italy and Germany send soldiers from their armies.

In case of the prolongation of the war, man-power and money will decide the issue unless a European conflict is precipitated through the active intervention of the Fascist States. In both man-power and money the Government at this time has the advantage.

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III. The Shelling of the Telephone Building in Madrid

The indiscriminate bombing of the center of Madrid and the residential sections resulting in the killing of many women and children, and the dropping of incendiary bombs resulting in disastrous fires, indicates the utterly ruthless character of the war. We are particularly concerned with the fact that the building of the Telephone Company has been deliberately shelled.

From the beginning of the war I am convinced that Colonel Behn and the Company have acted with perfect propriety. They have maintained the service throughout the whole of Spain. In Government territory they have served the Government forces to the extent of giving them such service as they have required; but in rebel territory they have done precisely the same thing.

But because the Telephone Building is the tallest and most impressive in Madrid, I understand that for a time, at least, the military commanders in Madrid used the tower for the purpose of directing artillery fire. I assume that it was impossible for the Company to prevent this use of the tower. If it was used for only a day or so for the purpose, it has continued to be used by war correspondents and Colonel Fuqua for observation purposes and it is reasonable to assume that the rebels through glasses have known of the presence of people in the tower. Under the circumstances, assuming that the insurgents were convinced that those in the tower were military men, I suppose that it was legitimate under the rules of war to attempt to drive them out by shelling.

If there is any feeling against the Company on the part of the insurgents, I cannot discover a single act on the Company’s part to justify the feeling. The action of Cardenas, reported to you by telegraph,1 in trying what seemed to be a bald attempt to blackmail Colonel Behn into contributing to the war chest of the rebels may possibly, but not probably, be responsible for the shelling of the building. It will be recalled that Cardenas’ crude attempt took the form of a threat. I am persuaded, however, that the shelling was due to the feeling that the tower was being used by military officers to direct artillery fire.

IV. The Condemnation of José Primo de Rivera

After imprisonment for more than four months, José Primo de Rivera, head of the Fascists, has been tried by court martial on the charge of initiating the rebellion and sentenced to death. His brother was given a life sentence.

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My impression is that this trial was precipitated by the action of Germany and Italy in prematurely according recognition of Franco. It is common knowledge that Azaña has a personal liking for the young Fascist. Just before the rebellion when feeling was running high against the Fascists because of the disturbances in Madrid, Azaña sent for Primo, who is impetuous and prone to expose himself without discretion, and asked him to leave the country for a short time. When he refused, Azaña had him arrested and confined. At the time, Primo’s friends said that Azaña had probably saved his life.

The remarkable thing has been that he has not been brought to trial since the rebellion. This has been ascribed in part to the protection of Azaña and in part to the claim that the insurgents have the son of Largo Caballero and had threatened to kill him if Primo was executed. At any rate, he has been living in the prison at Alicante. The Government group in charge there made it clear to Jay Allen, whom I know personally, a distinguished journalist, that Primo was not their prisoner but the prisoner of Madrid. Allen got the impression that the people in Alicante were in favor of his execution but were unable to act because of the position of Madrid.

In prison young Primo has continued his indiscretions, openly in the presence of his captors, assuming a defiant and contemptuous attitude. When Allen interviewed him in prison he, who liked the young man, as everyone does who knows him, cut the interview short because of the astounding indiscretions of Primo.

The question of commutation of sentence has been put up to the Government. If Largo Caballero refuses to intervene he will know that he is thus turning his own son over to the firing squad.

Primo’s chances have not been brightened by the fact that everywhere the insurgents are in control his picture is prominently displayed, and by the premature recognition of the Burgos people by Germany and Italy. I think it scarcely an exaggeration to say that he is the victim of his friends.

V. Italy and Germany in Morocco

The fact that the Italians are from all accounts, and very minute accounts in British papers, in complete domination in the Balearic Islands, and the Germans rather powerful in the Canary Islands cannot easily be disassociated from the idea that both Germany and Italy, particularly the latter, have an understanding with Franco. I enclose an article from the Manchester Guardian 2 written in London regarding what is said to be going on in Morocco. It is said that the [Page 569] pro-Italian and pro-German attitude there is distinctly anti-British and anti-French.

The press has had scarcely anything to say about the Pan-Arabic Congress in Tetuan. I assume that our representative there has informed the Department, but the interpretation of the British may not be without value. It will be observed that General Franco appointed a delegate in the person of General Belgleder, who is pro-Nazi, having been Spanish Military Attaché in Berlin and having kept up his contacts there since leaving. Also that during the Congress he was attended by German officers. The Italian delegate was an Arab, thought an Italian subject. He has launched a Pan-Arabic movement with propaganda which essentially is anti-British. The organizers of this movement have close contacts with the Italian and German Consulates.

I invite attention to the statement that the Moroccans are said to have been promised independence or a status similar to that of Egypt.

The possible international complications involving the control of the Mediterranean are apparent.

VI. Ruthlessness and Public Opinion

In the beginning of the rebellion I described General Franco as a man of keen intelligence and common sense, with a saving sense of humor and with humane instincts. I enclose an editorial from the London News-Chronicle 3 which expressed the same views, and which now retracts them. It expresses the amendment I am forced to make on my estimate of the man because of the reckless indiscriminate bombing and shelling of the residential and business sections of Madrid, unless it should develop that Franco, while ostensibly the head of the army, is unable to control this phase of the fight. The greater part of the bombers are Italians from the Italian army and the methods employed are quite similar to those used in Abyssinia. Certainly there is nothing in Franco’s manner, appearance, or background to harmonize with this war on the non-combatant population of a large city. But it is currently reported that the former King, Alfonso, has protested against this policy to Franco. If he is responsible it can only come from the fact that in his humiliation over his failure to take Madrid in a few days, he has permitted his resentment to get the better of his judgment. Or that, like the Government, he is embarrassed by his associates and is forced to yield to the Fascists on this point.

Respectfully yours,

Claude G. Bowers
  1. Not printed.
  2. November 18, 1936; not reprinted.
  3. November 18, 1936; not reprinted.