Embargo on Arms to Spain Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The United States adopted a noninterventionist approach in dealing with the Spanish Civil War.

Summary of Event

As the Great Depression of the 1930’s deepened and economic hardship increased, most people in the United States, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, placed major emphasis on domestic problems. In 1935, the U.S. government passed a neutrality law that provided for a mandatory embargo of U.S. arms shipments to all belligerents. Neutrality acts Despite most Americans’ desires, however, international events were developing in a way that eventually would frustrate any hopes of noninvolvement. In Europe, Adolf Hitler had begun his career in Germany and Benito Mussolini was elaborating the fascist system that he had established for Italy in 1922. As the decade unfolded, it had become apparent that these nations were on the move, dissatisfied with the results of World War I and dedicated to changing the status quo. The two main champions of the Treaty of Versailles, the settlement that had concluded the war, were England and France, both of which, because of numerous factors such as internal economic problems, were willing to accept limited expansion on the part of both Germany and Italy as the best means of preserving peace. [kw]Embargo on Arms to Spain (Jan. 6, 1937) [kw]Arms to Spain, Embargo on (Jan. 6, 1937) [kw]Spain, Embargo on Arms to (Jan. 6, 1937) Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) Arms embargo;Spanish Civil War Isolationism, U.S. [g]United States;Jan. 6, 1937: Embargo on Arms to Spain[09390] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Jan. 6, 1937: Embargo on Arms to Spain[09390] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Jan. 6, 1937: Embargo on Arms to Spain[09390] Azaña y Díaz, Manuel Franco, Francisco Hull, Cordell Roosevelt, Franklin D. [p]Roosevelt, Franklin D.;Spanish Civil War

It was in such a historical setting that the Spanish Civil War began in 1936. Seldom has an event represented the culmination of so many complex and long-range forces as did the decision of General Francisco Franco and his Nationalist forces to revolt against the Spanish Republic, led by President Manuel Azaña y Díaz, in July, 1936. Spain had become a republic in April, 1931, and was torn by dissension from the very beginning. In broad terms, by 1936, the Spanish Republic had come to represent the liberal, anticlerical forces of the nation and was dedicated to agrarian reform and disestablishment of the Roman Catholic Church, against which more than one act of violence had been directed by Republican sympathizers. However, large segments of the population, represented by the army and monarchists on the right and by the Anarcho-Syndicalists on the left, rejected this Republican government and by spring, 1936, civil disorder was widespread.

The immediate reaction of England and France to the civil war was the fear that it might spread into a general European conflict. To avoid this threat, France sponsored a British-authored plan for the establishment of a Non-Intervention Committee to see that the struggle in Spain remained localized. This solution soon developed into a farce, as Germany, Italy, and Russia—all members of the committee—began extending aid to different parties of the civil war. That England and France were unwilling to acknowledge or to prevent this aid can be explained by several factors: concerns that a leftist revolutionary Spain might open the door to social revolution and Soviet involvement in Western Europe, a desire not to permit relations with fascist Italy to deteriorate further, and the haunting fear of a local war leading to a general European conflagration.

In the United States, events had once more demonstrated the futility of trying to legislate for all contingencies in international affairs. The Neutrality Act in force at that time made no mention of civil wars, and the Spanish Republic (Loyalists) immediately requested military aid from the United States. Even before England and France decided on their Non-Intervention Committee, President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull had agreed that noninvolvement would be the best course for the United States to follow. Supporting this decision, the Department of State was strictly neutralist, as were William Bullitt, Bullitt, William the ambassador to France, and Joseph P. Kennedy Kennedy, Joseph P. in London, two heavy contributors to Roosevelt’s electoral campaign. Urging support for the Loyalists was Ambassador Claude Bowers Bowers, Claude in Madrid, who warned that a fascist state in Spain could have a fascist “domino effect” in Latin America. Bowers’s input into policy formulation was largely ignored by Roosevelt and Hull. The administration announced that, although not legally binding, the arms embargo should be considered as extending to the Spanish situation.

Roosevelt and Hull had many reasons for this action. This seemed an opportunity whereby the United States could act in unity with England and France to preserve the peace by promoting noninterference in Spain and at the same time serve the cause of noninvolvement, the dominant attitude of Congress, the American people, and the administration. It would permit continuance of the policy of complete disengagement from situations involving foreign wars. This initial decision met with almost universal approval by the American people. Unfortunately, the unofficial embargo proved inadequate to the situation. The desire for profit led one entrepreneur to export more than $2.7 million worth of aircraft equipment to the Loyalists despite the disapproval of President Roosevelt, and it appeared that others were eager to follow this example. This situation forced the administration into requesting from Congress a special amendment to the existing Neutrality Act that would legalize the embargo on arms to Spain. Passed on January 6, 1937, by overwhelming majorities in both houses, the joint resolution soon became the focal point for a vigorous national debate, as the tide of battle turned decidedly in favor of the Axis-supported Nationalists under Franco.


On January 9, 1937, The Nation, a liberal weekly, printed an editorial condemning the embargo resolution as “pro-fascist neutrality.” This particular line of reasoning was soon adopted by the elite segment of the American public, representing in most cases the liberal, professional, and well-educated classes. Ranged on the other side of the controversy were many who felt the embargo was a good assurance of U.S. noninvolvement and a minority who were anxious for a Franco victory. Numerous U.S. public opinion polls during the period indicated that most Americans favored the Loyalists in the civil war, but an even larger majority favored noninvolvement. Of those groups most vigorous in support of retaining the embargo, an especially large number were Roman Catholics.

During 1937 and 1938, the debate on the wisdom of the administration’s policy continued. Liberal weeklies such as The Nation and The New Republic consistently debated the question with Catholic periodicals. A concerted lobbying campaign was undertaken in the spring of 1938 to end the arms embargo. Twenty-eight hundred volunteers from the United States went to Spain to aid the Republic, most serving in the Lincoln and Washington Brigades. Some were African Americans, such as Abraham Lincoln Brigade commander Oliver Law. About nine hundred Americans, including Law, died in Spain for the Republican cause. The embargo was never lifted, however, and by March, 1939, Franco was in complete control of Spain.

Many different theories have been advanced to explain why President Roosevelt decided not to initiate a change in the embargo policy toward Spain. Some scholars have asserted that Roosevelt retained the embargo because he feared the alienation of Roman Catholic Democrats, a bulwark of the party. Others have pointed to a divided cabinet and Roosevelt’s ignorance about Spanish affairs. Still others have emphasized that the president desired to cooperate with the noninvolvement policy of France and England. U.S. military aid to one side in the Spanish Civil War would have flouted the international Non-Intervention Committee and placed the United States in the company of Germany, Italy, and Russia. Some scholars have asserted that retention of the embargo was simply another reflection of the predominant attitude of isolationism that controlled U.S. opinion during the 1930’s. The policy clearly was not isolationist, however, but noninterventionist, as the seriousness with which the issue was debated indicated a lively concern about how best to respond to a very nasty and complicated civil war. To adopt neutrality was to choose among a range of possible responses. Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) Arms embargo;Spanish Civil War Isolationism, U.S.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Alpert, Michael. A New International History of the Spanish Civil War. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Well-researched analysis of foreign policy formulation in the era of the Spanish Civil War. Includes map, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bolloten, Burnett. The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Comprehensive and extensively documented study draws on previously unavailable materials from the Spanish archives. Includes maps, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Falcoff, Mark, and F. Pike, eds. The Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939: American Hemispheric Perspectives. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982. Collection of scholarly analyses of reactions to the Spanish Civil War in the United States and major Latin American nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forrest, Andrew. The Spanish Civil War. New York: Routledge, 2000. Brief text designed for undergraduates covers all aspects of the war, including the roles of foreign powers and the noninterventionist stance of the United States. Features illustrations, selected bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Little, Douglas. Malevolent Neutrality: The United States, Great Britain, and the Origins of the Spanish Civil War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985. Provides an in-depth, critical evaluation of motivations underlying U.S. foreign policy objectives during the Spanish Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Hugh. The Spanish Civil War. Rev. ed. 1977. Reprint. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Updated, expanded version of a highly readable seminal study of the war and its impacts on both individual lives and nations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Traina, Richard. American Diplomacy and the Spanish Civil War. 1968. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. Standard work on U.S. policy concerning the war remains indispensable to any research on the subject.

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