The Magazine

Remember the Maine

Not much love lost between the United States and Spain.

Feb 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 21 • By MARK FALCOFF
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When asked about American influence--which is to say, the spread of American customs and ideas in their country--Spaniards registered the highest rate of rejection: 76 percent, some 4 points higher than France, and 6 percent higher than Germany. When asked whether it was President Bush or the United States that they particularly disliked, Spaniards registered the highest percentage who responded with "both." In other surveys where respondents are invited to freely characterize Americans, the three words most often used are "greedy," "arrogant," and "violent." In other words, Spaniards by and large dislike the United States not merely for what it does, but what it is.

Of course, every European country has its reasons for disliking the United States. The Germans harbor a suppressed nationalism which cannot be openly confessed given their recent history. The French resent the loss of their cultural, linguistic, and political influence, particularly in areas where they once exercised unquestioned sway. The British are still smarting over our abandonment of them at Suez in 1956, and no doubt feel strongly (and perhaps justifiably) about their inability to play an independent global role. The Italians are still angry at us for the Marshall Plan (no good deed goes unpunished) and are irritated that our foreign policies allegedly threaten what is left of their dolce vita.

Every country has its narrative of what Washington did wrong, a story which becomes increasingly bitter as the European project reveals itself increasingly incapable of rivaling the power of the United States. To be sure, neither the Clinton nor Bush administration (nor, for that matter, their predecessors) is blameless for this state of affairs, but the point is that it would probably exist even if all of them had governed with perfect wisdom.

As in most European countries, in Spain, dislike of the United States is a sentiment found on both sides of the political spectrum. This is a point developed in some detail by Alessandro Seregni in El Anti-Americanismo Español. Although happy to take American aid, Generalissimo Franco regarded the United States with contempt. For him it was a society lacking in proper hierarchies and awash in vulgar and meaningless consumption--not to mention under the control of Freemasonry, the all-purpose bugaboo for reactionary Catholics in the 1930s and '40s. Moreover, for Franco, as for many Spaniards raised in a military or naval environment, the loss of Cuba and the Philippines in 1898 remained an open wound, and although happy to jail, torture, exile (and occasionally execute) his own Communists, the Caudillo pointedly maintained full relations with Cuba's Fidel Castro as a means of exacting revenge for his country's humiliation at the hands of the United States.

The left has an even longer bill of particulars, starting with the bases agreement with Franco in 1953, which supposedly rescued him financially in a moment of extreme crisis. The photograph of President Eisenhower (unwisely) embracing the dictator after his unprecedented state visit in 1959 has been reproduced in the Spanish press thousands, perhaps even scores of thousands, of times; its subliminal message has been absorbed by several generations, including one or two not even born at the time. Secretary of State Alexander Haig's unfortunate comment at the time of a failed military coup against the country's nascent democracy in 1982 ("an internal Spanish affair") has been trotted out endlessly, even though it had no impact whatsoever on the course of actual events. The same could be said of the Eisenhower visit.

One could even argue that the kind of stabilization plan which the United States and the World Bank demanded of Franco in the late 1950s laid the groundwork for the growth of a middle class and the successful transition to democracy a generation later--even if this was not Washington's conscious intention, an argument admittedly not likely to impress many on the Spanish left. Quite apart from our real or imagined diplomatic and political missteps, for Spanish "progressives" the United States represents a model of individualism and the uninhibited pursuit of wealth, which offends their egalitarian sensibilities. (Not that it stops many of them from indulging in an orgy of consumerism of their own, as anyone who has ever visited a Spanish shopping mall on a Saturday can attest.)