FRESH AIR: Nearly 80 years ago, about 2,800 Americans volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War. The war began in July 1936, when Gen. Francisco Franco led a fascist military coup against the the country’s newly elected democratic government. It lasted until Franco’s victory in 1939. Journalist Adam Hochschild tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross that “it was by far the largest number of Americans before or since who’ve ever joined somebody else’s civil war.”
Hochschild chronicles Americans’ involvement in the war in his new book, Spain in Our Hearts. He says that the majority of Americans in Spain (including writer Ernest Hemingway, who reported on the conflict) were sympathetic to the Republican forces who fought against Franco’s Nationalists.
“I think they were primarily people who were deeply alarmed by the menace of fascism,” Hochschild says. “People at the time really saw fascism not just as evil but as an aggressive evil that seemed to be spreading. … By 1936, [Adolf] Hitler was already talking very loudly about his desire to expand to the east. [Italian dictator Benito] Mussolini, in 1935, … [invaded] Ethiopia, acquiring himself a colony.” But Hochschild points out that not all Americans opposed Franco’s regime. For instance, Torkild Rieber, CEO of Texaco, helped Franco by providing his military with a steady and guaranteed supply of oil.
“[Rieber] violated American law in a couple of ways,” Hochschild says. “U.S. neutrality legislation was pretty strict and said that if you were selling anything to a country at war the oil couldn’t travel on American ships, but he shipped it on Texaco tankers.” “I think in many ways it was the first battle of World War II,” Hochschild says. “After all, where else in the world at this point did you have Americans in uniform who were being bombed by Nazi planes four years before the U.S. entered World War II?” MORE