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Fueling Fascism: The Secret History of How Texaco Supplied Oil to Fascists in Spain

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While thousands of Americans fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War, some chose to back Franco’s fascist regime. The most notable was the CEO of the American oil giant Texaco. He violated U.S. law by selling Franco’s regime discounted oil on credit. Also in violation of U.S. law, the oil was transported to Spain on U.S. ships. For more on this remarkable story, we’re joined by Adam Hochschild, the author of the sweeping new history book, “Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Our guest is Adam Hochschild. His book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Adam, I’d like to ask about Torkild Rieber, the CEO of Texaco at the time of the Spanish Civil War. As you point out in the book, he made a deal with Franco’s regime. So could you talk about that deal and what the implications of that deal came to be?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Well, Nermeen, he was a remarkable man who had a remarkable effect on this period—and is almost unnoticed by historians, went completely unnoticed by the foreign correspondents of the period. Here were all these correspondents. Nearly a thousand journalists reported from Spain at one time or another during the war.

AMY GOODMAN: Including Ernest Hemingway.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Including Ernest Hemingway and everybody else you can think of. The big story for them was the bombing of Madrid. And here they were, the first European capital under heavy, sustained aerial bombardment. They looked up at those aircraft in the sky, which had been sent by Hitler, and they never stopped to think, “Whose fuel is powering those planes?” Because nationalist Spain had no oil wells. Hitler and Mussolini were sending a lot of help, but they were oil importers and not exporters, and it would have been very difficult or expensive for them to send oil to Franco.

As it happened, Franco had no problem, because Torkild Rieber, the CEO of Texaco, major American oil company, was a fascist sympathizer, who decided to back Franco, violated U.S. law by selling him oil on credit, which was against the law when you were selling anything to a country at war, violated U.S. law further by transporting the oil to Spain on American ships. The ships would—full of fuel, would leave the Texaco pipeline terminal at Port Arthur, Texas, ostensibly bound for Amsterdam or Rotterdam or Antwerp. At sea, their captains would open sealed orders redirecting them to ports in nationalist Spain. This violated U.S. law and—because that oil was not supposed to be transported on American ships when it went to a country at war. Furthermore, without telling Texaco shareholders or, as far as we can tell, even his own board of directors, Rieber gave Franco the oil at a huge discount.

And finally, he did something else which has come to light only in recent years, which was this. Being a multinational oil company, Texaco had installations, tank farms, agents, offices in ports all over the world. Rieber sent out orders to all of these places saying, “Send in immediately, as you get it, any information about oil shipments going to the Spanish Republic.” This was then collated, put together by the Texaco staff and swiftly forwarded to the nationalists, where it was to be used by bomber pilots and submarine captains looking for targets. Over the course of the war, 29 oil tankers carrying oil to the Spanish Republic were sunk, captured or damaged. And in one or two cases, we can directly tie that to information supplied by Texaco. So, even though we think of General Franco’s allies as being primarily in Rome and Berlin, there was one at Texaco headquarters in the Chrysler Building in New York City who gave him a lot of help.

AMY GOODMAN: Was he ever prosecuted?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: He got a little bit of a wrist slap from the Justice Department during the war, a $22,000 fine for selling goods on credit to a country at war. He could have been prosecuted much more severely, should have been, but President Roosevelt was very wary of getting drawn into the Spanish conflict in any way. He knew there was very strong isolationist feeling in this country. And he decided not to do anything more. And a lot of this stuff he didn’t know about—the business about the intelligence information, for example—and it’s only come out in recent years.

AMY GOODMAN: And this is very interesting about Torkild Rieber, the CEO of Texaco, in light of Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money, about Fred Koch, the father of the Koch brothers, who made his fortune partly on providing an oil—building an oil refinery that was personally approved by Adolf Hitler.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: That’s right. And he also, Koch Sr., built oil installations in the Soviet Union long before the United States recognized the Soviet Union. Oil companies have always made their own foreign policy, and it’s time we recognize that.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about FDR? Can you talk more about what happened to these Americans—thousands of them go to fight in the Spanish Civil War—and what this label meant in the United States—they were called, officially, “premature anti-fascists”?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: That’s right. FDR, you know, he was a good man. He was a good president. He was certainly someone who himself hated fascism. But he was a shrewd politician, and he knew that he had no constituency in the United States for heavy involvement in the Spanish Civil War. It’s also believed, although nobody has ever been able to prove it because it’s one of these things that was never written down, that he promised the hierarchy of the Catholic Church before the 1936 election that he would stay neutral on Spain. The church was very pro-Franco, because the Spanish Republic was very anti-clerical, and mobs had killed clergy and burned a lot of churches. So, he stayed hands-off.

And we should remember, though, that it was not a matter of should the U.S. send military aid to the Spanish Republic. That’s not what they were asking for. They weren’t asking for the United States to send in the battleships or anything. They were simply asking for the right to purchase arms from the Western democracies, from the United States, Britain and France. And Republican Spain had the money to do so, because they had the world’s fourth-largest gold reserves. And all of the major democracies—the U.S., Britain and France—essentially shut their doors and said no arms purchases. The only place that would sell them arms was Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

So, this was Roosevelt’s policy throughout his presidency. In early 1939, just before the war ended, he said in a Cabinet meeting, “We’ve made a grave mistake.” He realized at that point, you know, that fascism was continuing to rise and expand in Europe. And—

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think that the defeat of—if Franco had been defeated, that that could have preempted the rise of Mussolini and Hitler?

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: I don’t think so, because Mussolini and Hitler were both already entrenched in power at the time that the Spanish Civil War began. And I think Hitler always, above all, was interested in expanding eastward. He had his sights set on showing Russia who was boss, on taking over Eastern Europe, on grabbing the Balkan and Caspian oil fields. Whatever happened in Spain wouldn’t have prevented him from doing that.

But I do think that if the Spanish Republic had won the war, Spain, A, would not have had to have lived under a very harsh dictatorship for 36 years—36 years of no free press, no free education, no elections, a dictatorship, routine torture. The Spanish people would have been spared that. And had the Republic won the civil war, Hitler would not have had a de facto ally in Spain in World War II. During World War II, General Franco gave Hitler a base on Spain’s Atlantic coast, where there were 21 German attack submarines that attacked convoys in the North Atlantic. Lots of American sailors lost their lives as a result of that. He supplied Hitler with a steady stream of strategic minerals. And he encouraged 45,000 volunteers to join Hitler’s army.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, another issue that I want to ask you about that you raise in your book has to do with what you say is the failure of a number of foreign correspondents who were covering the war. You say that they weren’t asking the right questions, that they omitted a lot of information, and that one of the exceptions to that was Virginia Cowles, who’s not as well known as a number of other reporters who were covering the war—Martha Gellhorn, Ernest Hemingway, etc.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: Right. Cowles, I think, was the best journalist writing in English from Spain, almost totally forgotten today, unjustly so, because her book about that time is still a very lively read today. She was also working there at a time when it was very hard for women to work as foreign correspondents. She played the role of the helpless feminine ingénue, traipsing in in high heels and getting people to carry her suitcases and pretending that she didn’t really know what was going on. But she noticed everything. She wrote beautifully. And she was one of the very few—and she was, incidentally, 26 years old when she got to Spain, had never gone to college.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to a clip of the documentary Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War, featuring an actor reading the words Virginia Cowles wrote soon after the bombing of Guernica in 1937.

VIRGINIA COWLES: [read by an actor] When I arrived, a press officer asked if I had been subjected to the Guernica propaganda, declaring that everyone knew that Guernica was not bombed by the whites, but burned by the reds.

Guernica was a lonely chaos of timber and brick. One old man was inside an apartment house that had four sides to it, but an interior that was only a sea of bricks. I asked him if he had been in Guernica during the destruction. He nodded his head and declared that the sky had been black with planes. “Aviones,” he said, “italianos y alemanes.” The press officer turned pale. “Guernica was burned,” he contradicted. The old man stuck to his point, insisting that after a four-hour bombardment, there was little left to burn. The press officer moved me away. “He’s a red,” he said.

When later in the day we ran into two staff officers, he brought the subject up. “Guernica is full of reds,” he said. “They all try to tell us it was bombed, not burned.” “Of course, it was bombed,” said one of the officers. “We bombed it and bombed it and bombed it. And bueno, why not?” The press officer never mentioned Guernica again.

AMY GOODMAN: That was from Into the Fire: American Women in the Spanish Civil War, featuring an actor reading the words of Virginia Cowles. Virginia Cowles, Martha Gellhorn—women—were leading reporters then.

ADAM HOCHSCHILD: They were. Very few besides those two. Josephine Herbst, the novelist, was also in Spain at that time. One of my favorite characters in this book was a young woman who was not a correspondent but was a 19-year-old honeymooner who found herself in Spain two months after the war began, Lois Orr of Louisville, Kentucky, who lived through a part of that experience that seldom gets written about, which is the social revolution that took place in Spain’s northeast in the first eight or 10 months of the war, where workers took over factories, waiters took over restaurants, peasants took over these huge estates, railway locomotive engineers took over the transportation system. It was an extraordinary moment. The foreign correspondents largely ignored it, although Virginia Cowles at least noticed that the hotel where she was staying seemed to be being run by its busboys and elevator operators. Lois Orr observed the whole thing, wrote about it in a remarkable series of letters home.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re going to continue this conversation after the show and post it online at democracynow.org, including asking you your thoughts on Donald Trump and his comments about fascism. Spain in Our Hearts is the name of Adam Hochschild’s new book. He teaches at the Graduate School of Journalism at University of California, Berkeley. Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.

And that does it for our broadcast. We’re beginning our 100-city tour next week. Go to democracynow.org.

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