Spain, Relations with

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SPAIN, RELATIONS WITH. Due to the imperial rivalry between Great Britain and Spain in the New World, American relations with Spain date back to before the Revolution. Upon gaining its independence, the new nation inherited an antagonistic relationship with Spain that persisted throughout the nineteenth century, culminating in the Spanish-American War in 1898. With the territorial rivalry between the United States and the Spanish empire settled in the former's favor by that conflict, the twentieth century saw the relationship increasingly dominated by American interests in Europe rather than Spanish interests in the Western Hemisphere.

Prior to the Declaration of Independence, the American view of Spain was essentially that of the British empire: Spain was not only a territorial rival in the New World, but a religious and ideological one as well. As Protestant Britain developed into a constitutional monarchy, Americans saw Catholic Spain as despotic and interpreted the decline of Spanish power and wealth in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the result of the wicked and deceitful nature of Spain (the so-called "Black Legend").

Americans saw evidence of Spain's duplicity in its reaction to the American war of independence, when in fact Spain's policy was the result of conflicting interests. Torn between its desire to exact revenge upon Britain for loss of colonial territory earlier in the 1700s and its fear that overt support for a colonial independence movement might undermine its own position in Latin America, Spain equivocated. Unlike France, Spain resisted American pleas for recognition and alliance but did covertly supply money to the revolutionaries and declared war on Britain in 1779 in hopes of regaining Gibraltar. As spoils of war, Spain recovered Florida (lost to Britain in 1763), and the United States expanded its territory westward to the Mississippi River, thus setting the stage for future tensions.

Territorial Tensions

For nearly forty years after independence, Spanish-American relations were dominated by these territorial gains, because the new republic shared borders with the old empire in both the south and west. With British strength in Canada rendering northern expansion impractical, American territorial growth would come at the expense of the Spanish. From the American perspective, loosely governed Spanish Florida was a refuge for hostile Native Americans and disreputable characters of all kinds, while Spanish control over navigation of the Mississippi River (New Orleans, its point of access to the Gulf of Mexico, was entirely in Spanish hands) threatened to choke off the economic development of the west.

In the aftermath of Jay's Treaty in November 1794 and the subsequent improvement in British-American relations, Spain's fear of a British-American alliance against it led to the first formal Spanish-American agreement, Pinckney's Treaty (1795). The pact was a clear diplomatic victory for the United States. The Spanish accepted the American claim regarding the Florida border, gave up their claims to territory east of the Mississippi, and conceded American rights on the Mississippi.

Pinckney's Treaty reflected the declining power of Spain in North America, a fact that later led Spain to turn over control of the Louisiana territory to France in 1800 in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. Ironically the transfer led just three years later to the purchase of Louisiana by the United States, precisely the result Spain sought to avoid by turning over the territory to its stronger ally.

The Louisiana Purchase, far from ending the Spanish-American rivalry, merely pushed it farther west. The two powers began to argue again over the proper border between them. The United States adopted the most expansive definition of Louisiana (encompassing not only Texas but West Florida) and sought to acquire the rest of the Florida territories from Spain. President James Monroe (aided by the aggressive military actions of Gen. Andrew Jackson) finally wrested the territory from Spain in return for a definitive settlement of the western border of the Spanish and American territories.

In the midst of protracted negotiations between Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and Luis de Onís, the Spanish minister, Monroe ordered Jackson to suppress the Seminoles in Florida, whom the United States blamed for attacks on Americans. Jackson seized the opportunity to take on not only the Seminoles but the Spanish. Whether Jackson acted with or without permission remains somewhat controversial, but his actions had the un-deniable effect of improving the American negotiating position. The resulting agreement, the Adams-Onís or Transcontinental Treaty (signed in 1819, ratified 1821), ceded the Floridas to the United States. It also defined the western border between the United States and Spanish Mexico, affirming the Spanish claim to Texas as well as the U.S. claim to the Pacific Northwest.

The subsequent revolts against Spanish rule by Mexico and other Latin American colonies served not only to give rise to one of the most famous of American foreign policies, the Monroe Doctrine, but also to diminish the territorial clashes between Spain and the United States for more than seven decades. President Monroe's statement in 1823 calling for European noninterference was ostensibly a reaction to potential Spanish efforts to regain control of its colonies, but it became a permanent policy toward the hemisphere. The ultimate success of the independence movements in Latin America removed the main cause of Spanish-American enmity.

There was, however, one exception: Cuba. The island remained under Spanish control and had long been desired by the United States. Enthusiasm for the annexation of Cuba reached its height with the Ostend Manifesto in 1854, when three American diplomats in Europe recommended that the United States seize Cuba if Spain refused to sell it, but the idea got mired in the domestic debate over slavery and never gained widespread support.

After the Civil War, a Cuban rebellion (1868–1878) against Spanish rule gave the United States the opportunity to intervene and obtain the island, but the national mood was not conducive to military adventure. When Cubans again rebelled in 1895, however, the American public took a keen interest in events there, an interest both reflected and stoked by the popular press. Advocates of an assertive foreign policy, like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Theodore Roosevelt, argued that growing American economic power needed to be protected by a more assertive diplomacy backed by a more powerful military. Cuba represented an opportunity for the United States to show its growing power. Idealists believed that self-determination required American intervention to end one of the last—and, they argued, one of the most brutal—vestiges of colonialism in the New World. In short, a number of factors converged to revive Spanish-American enmity.

When the battleship Maine suffered an explosion and sank on 15 February 1898, most Americans were more than eager to pin the blame on Spain, in defiance of all logic. (Spain ardently hoped to keep the United States out of the conflict, not to give it a pretext for intervention.) On 25 April Congress declared that a state of war had existed between the United States and Spain since 21 April, despite the fact that the Spanish had already agreed to most of the American demands.

In a matter of months, the fighting was over, and Spain had suffered a tremendous defeat, losing the last major remnants of its once worldwide empire. The Treaty of Paris (December 1898) gave Cuba its ostensible independence (in fact, it would become an American protectorate) and gave to the United States the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. Spain ceased to be an imperial world power, and the United States became one.

Reversal of Fortune

This reversal of the two nations' positions initially led to a diminishment of the importance of Spanish-American relations. Early in the new century, Americans were focused on events in Asia and the Western Hemisphere, precisely the areas from which Spain had been expelled. When World War I broke out in 1914, both nations declared their neutrality. While Spain's caution led it to maintain that stance throughout the war, in 1917 the expanding interests of the United States drew it into the conflict and tentatively into European power politics, thus setting the scene for the next stage in Spanish-American relations.

Just as the American Revolution posed a dilemma for the Spanish, so too did the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 for the Americans. The rebellion of Francisco Franco and his generals against the Spanish republican government was a microcosm of the ideological ferment of interwar Europe. Franco received assistance from Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, and the Republicans received assistance from the Soviet Union. Most democracies, including the United States, observed a formal neutrality that had the effect of dooming the Spanish government to defeat.

Franco remained technically neutral throughout World War II, but he favored the Axis when it seemed in command early on and tipped back toward the Allies as the war drew to a close. American policy during the war was to buy Spain's neutrality by overpaying the Spanish for goods with military significance (such as tungsten) in order to keep the Spanish nonbelligerent and the supplies out of German hands.

U.S. policy toward Spain grew harsher with the success of D-Day in 1944 and the growing likelihood of a German defeat. Citing the role played by the Axis powers in Franco's rise to power, in early 1945 Franklin Roosevelt declared that the United States could not have normal relations with his government. The United States joined its allies in barring Spain from the United Nations and recalled its chiefs of mission from Madrid.

Franco blunted American pressure to yield power to a more democratic regime by appealing to growing concern about the Soviet Union. While his quasi-fascist regime remained an international pariah, American leaders gradually reached the conclusion that Franco was preferable to a potential communist government in Spain. The United States did not include Spain in either its economic or military plans for western Europe (the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), but after the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, Spain's potential military value in a European war against the Soviets overrode the Truman administration's ideological aversion to Franco.

The rehabilitation of Franco culminated in the Pact of Madrid, signed in September 1953. While Spain remained outside NATO, the agreement (which gave the United States air and naval bases in Spain) effectively allied the two nations during the remainder of the Cold War. The death of Franco in November 1975 and the subsequent return to democratic government in Spain removed whatever residual cloud remained over Spanish-American relations. Spain's acceptance into NATO in 1982 and the European Community in 1986 further solidified the normalization of relations. At the close of the twentieth century, Spanish-American relations resembled those of the United States with other European nations and had lost the distinctive quality of years past.


Beaulac, Willard L. Franco: Silent Ally in World War II. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1986.

Cortada, James. Two Nations Over Time: Spain and the United States, 1775–1977. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Edwards, Jill. Anglo-American Relations and the Franco Question 1945–1955. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Hayes, Carleton J. H. The United States and Spain: An Interpretation. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1951.

Little, Douglas. Malevolent Neutrality: The United States, Great Britain, and the Origins of the Spanish Civil War. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1985.

Rubottom, Richard R., and J. Carter Murphy. Spain and the United States: Since World War II. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Whitaker, Arthur P. Spain and Defense of the West: Ally and Liability. New York: Harper, 1961. Reprint, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980.

———. The Spanish-American Frontier, 1783–1795. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1927. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1969.

Mark S.Byrnes

See alsoSpanish-American War .

Spain, relations with

views updated May 18 2018

Spain, relations with. Recurrent quarrels with France ensured that the English were normally aligned with Spain in the early Tudor period. This changed under Elizabeth I for reasons of religion, the queen of Scots' claim to the English throne, growing English interest in the success of the Dutch revolt against Spain, and the struggle for trade in the New World. An outright confrontation from 1585 led to its first great climax, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, in 1588. Spanish efforts to injure England continued for some time, and the English were slow to recognize the decline of Spain in relation to the rise of France and the Dutch. Good sense finally prevailed with Charles II's commercial treaty of 1667. Spain was again frequently numbered among England's enemies in the next century, partly as an ally of France, partly for reasons of empire and trade, and also because of the British possession of Gibraltar seized during the War of the Spanish Succession. Wellington, however, found many invaluable allies during the Peninsular War against Napoleon (1808–14). In the 1830s, Britain and France successfully backed professedly liberal monarchists against the absolutist Carlists and the Holy Alliance. Yet Britain and France were as much rivals as allies, with the former suffering defeat over the Spanish marriages in 1846. Neither power, however, secured lasting advantage given Spain's recurrent political instability. This reached its climax in the devastating Civil War of 1936–9 when the British government—anxious to localize the conflict—opted for non-intervention to the great dismay of those who saw this conflict primarily in terms of the struggle against fascism in Europe.

C. J. Bartlett

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