H-Diplo Article Review 1067 on "The Deployment of US Military Assistance to Spain in the 1950s"

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H-Diplo Article Review 1067

21 October 2021

Pablo León-Aguinaga and Lorenzo Delgado Gómez-Escalonilla.  “The Deployment of US Military Assistance to Spain in the 1950s:  Limited Modernisation and Strategic Dependence.”  Cold War History 21:1 (2021): 55-70.  DOI:  https://doi.org/10.1080/14682745.2018.1492554.

Editor:  Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Seth Offenbach | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by David A. Messenger, University of South Alabama

Spain’s 1953 military assistance agreement with the United States marked an official end to the isolation the dictatorial regime of General Francisco Franco had experienced since the conclusion of the Second World War due to its pre-war and wartime ties to the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler in Germany.  Western countries had refused to sell military equipment to Spain, and Spain’s efforts to rebuild an outdated military largely failed, meaning that World War II-era material was still dominant.  The diplomacy that led to the re-welcoming of Spain into the Western alliance was shaped by the Cold War.  However, few historians have gone beyond 1953 to examine the results on Spain’s military and to assess Spain’s contribution to the western forces of the Cold War era.[1] Pablo León-Aguinaga and Lorenzo Delgado Gómez-Escalonilla focus on the period from 1953-1961 and make just such an assessment in this important article.

As the 1950s emerged, Spain’s military had two main tasks: to provide space for the required military training of Spanish young men and to combat internal political enemies and a small number of guerrilla fighters who emerged from France across the Pyrenees to challenge, in very limited ways, the legitimacy of the Franco regime (56).  However, the military was unable to defend Spain’s airspace or water, and the American military predicted that if a war broke out in Europe, Spain would only be able to hold the line at the Pyrenees for two weeks (58).  The outbreak of the Korean War and the dispatch of a new American Ambassador to Madrid in 1951 moved the process forward, and indeed, Spanish military officers began to attend military schools in the United States as early as 1951.  The result of this was the 1953 agreement mentioned previously.  But how did that agreement change Spain’s military capabilities?

The $465 million agreement between Spain and the United States allowed that $350 million be spent on the military in return for the right of the United States to use Spanish territory as necessary for its strategic needs (59).  León-Aguinaga and Gómez-Escalonilla emphasize that the first phase of spending involved the training of Spanish officers, with the priority given to Air Force and Naval personnel.  Many hundreds of such officers were sent to facilities in the United States to train.  Part two of the program was the sending of military equipment, but this process was slowed down due to American recognition that the Spanish military could not handle the most advanced equipment, which greatly disappointed Spanish officials who imagined a complete overhaul of their military as a result of this partnership (64).  The United States Air Force General August Kissner, who was in charge of the Military Assistance Advisory Group in Spain, argued that equipment deliveries would only increase once training was successful, for Spain’s military required “a moral force which it currently lacks” (64).

The authors’ main conclusion is that the American emphasis on training, as opposed to the Spanish desire for better equipment, brought the new allies to an unsatisfactory relationship at the height of the Cold War tensions of the 1950s.  It went beyond simply getting officers trained in the United States, however, for in that regard traditional Spanish anti-Americanism and cultural differences negatively influenced the training process (63).  Moreover, the largest problem was that Spanish officers, upon their return to Spain, recognized the great deficiencies of the Spanish military in comparison with the United States, and a decline in morale amongst these supposed leaders was very evident.  To the Americans, the organization and structure of the Spanish military seemed deficient, and needed to be addressed before any discussion of new material developed.  The Americans, from their perspective, did not trust the Spanish military as they began to work alongside it (64).  When the Moroccan Liberation Army attacked Spanish territories in the Ifni and Western Sahara following Morocco’s independence in 1956, American officials sought to limit Spain’s use of American weapons there and Spain turned to France to purchase new material for the war that lasted from October 1957 through June 1958 (66).  The distrust between Spain and the United States grew as a result.

The authors worked in archives from the United States, France, as well as Spain, thus providing an excellent example of multi-national research to understand the nature of this difficult and at times challenging relationship.  While most scholars have focused their attention on the 1953 agreement, and even ended their histories of Francoist isolation following the Second World War with the agreement of 1953, considering how the alliance was actually built and  the expectations and assumptions that each side brought to the project, as the authors do here, is very informative, not only for scholars of Spanish foreign policy under Franco but also for those examining how diplomatic and strategic history in the Cold War era played out.

Historians often look at the 1953 military and economic assistance agreement between Franco’s Spain and the United States as a consequence of the growing Cold War and its strategic significance in Europe as well as the re-opening of Spain to western nations.[2] While these analyses remain largely correct, Pablo León-Aguinaga and Lorenzo Delgado Gómez-Escalonilla do a great service by showing  us how difficult it was to build a real alliance when the perceptions and desires of each side were not aligned other than in recognizing a common Communist threat to their strategic positions. Spain’s belief that an alliance with the United States would immediately bring material benefits conflicted with American conceptions of modernization that meant training and reorganization were essential first steps for Spain’s military to take.  President Dwight Eisenhower’s famous 1959 visit to Madrid was not one to celebrate the new alliance, but rather one which was meant to ease growing tensions (68).  The trop led to a much better relationship that emerged over the course of the 1960s and, at the same time, to Spain’s increased efforts to work with other allies, especially through a Spanish-French relationship that served to somewhat counter-balance Spain’s reliance on the United States in military affairs.  The importance of the difficulties encountered in the 1950s outlined and interpreted in this article is a significant point that adds to our understanding of the Western Alliance built at the time.


David A. Messenger is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at the University of South Alabama in Mobile, Alabama.  He is the author of L’Espagne Republicaine: French Policy and Spanish Republicanism in Liberated France (Sussex Academic Press, 2008), Hunting Nazis in Franco’s Spain (Louisiana State University Press, 2014) and War and Public Memory: Case Studies in Twentieth Century Europe (University of Alabama Press, 2020).  He also is co-editor, with Katrin Paehler, of A Nazi Past: Recasting German Identity in Postwar Europe (University of Kentucky Press, 2015).  His primary focus has been on questions of justice and reconstruction in the foreign policies of the victorious countries of the Second World War towards the dictatorship of Franco’s Spain in the 1940s.  More broadly, he is interested in human rights in international politics and the memory of war and violence in contemporary European societies and especially Spain.


[1] See, for example, Wayne H. Bowen, Truman, Franco’s Spain and the Cold War (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2017); Ángel Viñas, En las garras del águila: los pactos con Estados Unidos de Francisco Franco a Felipe González, 1945-1995 (Barcelona: Crítica, 2003); Boris N. Lietke, Embracing a Dictatorship: US Relations with Spain , 1945-53 (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998); Arturo Jarque Íñiguez, Queremos esas bases: El acercamiento de Estados Unidos a la España de Franco (Alcala de Henares: Universidad de Alcala de Henares, 1998).

[2] See, for example, Jill Edwards, “Spain, Drumbeat and NATO: Incorporating Franco’s Spain in Western Defence” in Beatrice Heuser and Robert O’Neill, eds., Securing Peace in Europe, 1945-62: Thoughts for a Post-Cold War Era (Houndsmills: Palgave Macmilan, 1992), 159-172.