U.S. Bases: Hangover in History


History hangs on most Spaniards in ways Americans can hardly understand. That difference is at the heart of the repeated failure of Spanish and U.S. officials to negotiate a new treaty allowing the United States to keep its military bases in Spain after May, 1988.

After the seventh round of talks ended in failure early this month, an American spokesman insisted that U.S. negotiators understood the problems posed for Spain by a treaty dating back to the days of late dictator Francisco Franco. But when pressed by journalists to amplify this understanding, the American protested, “Look, you’re talking about something that happened just two years after I was born.” Americans do not like to look back.

When Spaniards look back, many see the original treaty as a great victory for Franco. According to a story repeated by British historian Raymond Carr, Franco, after the 1953 treaty was signed, turned to friends and said, “At long last I have won the Spanish war.” Spaniards still seethe over a news photo of President Dwight D. Eisenhower embracing Franco in Madrid six years after the treaty-signing. While they greeted each other, a Spanish band played “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” It was a sore and dispiriting blow to democratic Spaniards--the general who defeated Adolf Hitler putting his arms around the general who seized power with Hitler’s help.


Despite this anger, a renewal of the treaty will probably be worked out in the next few months. Spain and the United States, after all, are still friendly allies. But U.S. negotiators are going to have to give up far more than they intended at the beginning. The Americans may have to quit altogether their air base at Torrejon, outside Madrid. There can be no new base treaty unless it looks, in a significant way, like a rejection of the past.

Spanish Defense Minister Narcis Serra, in a recent speech, said that the treaty “still bears the stigma of its origin.” To understand that stigma, it is necessary to understand the position of Franco after World War II. Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictators who had helped Franco defeat the Spanish Republic during the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, were dead--disgraced and despised. Franco had kept Spain out of the war, but he could not really profess neutrality. He was a spiritual ally of Hitler and had even sent the “Blue Division”--a Spanish volunteer unit--to fight alongside the Nazis in their futile siege of Leningrad.

Franco, after World War II, was a pariah. The United Nations refused him admission. So did the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Marshall Plan offered him no aid. Spain suffered in impoverished misery. Some democratic opponents believed that isolation and misery would soon bring the dictator down if he did not get help from elsewhere. They may have been wrong, but there is no doubt that Franco was then at the nadir of his long reign.

The Cold War and U.S. obsession with the Soviet threat revived Franco’s stature when the American military decided that it needed bases in Spain. “I don’t like Franco and I never will,” President Harry S. Truman told Adm. Forrest Sherman, the chief of naval operations, “but I won’t let my personal feelings override the convictions of you military men.”

Despite objections from both Britain and France, negotiations began that culminated in the signing of a treaty that provided the United States with three air bases, a naval base and nine other military installations. In exchange, Spain received economic and military aid totaling more than $2 billion in the next two decades.

Angel Vinas, the respected and influential Spanish historian, has written that the treaty was the keystone for the most important success of Franco’s foreign policy during his reign of almost four decades. By breaking the international quarantine that isolated him, Franco, according to Vinas, won acceptance by most Western governments, strengthened his legitimacy internally while crippling the will and strength of Spanish exiles trying to challenge his regime.


Vinas also believes that Franco’s feeble negotiating position produced a faulty treaty; Spain had less control over the activities of the foreign forces on its soil than most sovereign nations would allow in a similar agreement.

After Franco’s death in 1975, Spain, led by King Juan Carlos I and able, young politicians of both the right and left, turned itself into a democracy. It was one of the most astounding and peaceful political transformations in world history. Although not much was said about it at first, the 1953 treaty did not fit the new Spain.

In a 1986 referendum, Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, trying to persuade Spaniards to vote in favor of keeping Spain in NATO, promised to reduce the American military presence in Spain if they did so. After the pro-NATO vote, U.S. officials believed that Gonzalez’s Socialist Workers Party government, to keep his promise, needed only a few cosmetic changes and an overall reduction in the number of troops. The Americans did not understand the depth of the bitterness.

“The agreement on the bases is a remnant of the past that has to be adjusted,” said a former Spanish Foreign Ministry official who has dealt often with American diplomats. “I think this is a concept which confuses the American Embassy. They say, ‘We understand, we understand,’ but they don’t.”

The U.S. government, although it may not realize it, is straining history as well by pressuring European allies to pressure Spain to keep all the bases. Spain’s entry into the European Community in 1986, a powerfully symbolic act, was looked on as a master achievement of the new democratic Spain. For many years, Spain had been the butt of European insults--a country so poor and undemocratic that it really did not belong.

People joked that Europe ended at the Pyrenees, the mountain range separating France from Spain. Spaniards felt that history, especially Franco’s history, had deprived them of a proper place in Europe. Joining the Common Market was seen by many Spaniards as an emotional and romantic moment in history. It is a stinging rebuke to tell Spaniards now--as some European governments are doing--that they are not acting like good Europeans.


This European campaign may temper Spanish moods somewhat, but not enough for them to forget the original sin of the treaty. If negotiators fail to reach an agreement by next May 14, the United States, according to provisions of the current treaty, is required to dismantle its bases.

That deadline could be extended. But an agreement may depend on U.S. agreement to remove all 76 F-16 jet fighters from Spain and to close the jets’ base at Torrejon. Spain does not want to throw out all 12,500 American military personnel, but it does want to teach the United States a lesson in history.