In the early 1970s, the Administration of US President Richard Nixon was concerned about the future of Spain. They were concerned about the poor health of General Franco and they thought that his death could bring instability to a country that they needed to maintain their military bases and their companies. The Mediterranean had become a disputed area with the Communists and the Americans had a firm ally in Spain.
Nixon's concern made him have all the diplomatic machinery to strengthen ties with the protagonists of the late Franco regime and even organize secret missions to obtain information.
The vicissitudes of this relationship between the United States and Spain were recorded in the recording system that the president had installed in the Oval Office of the White House and in the audio diary of a member of his staff. These audios are in the Nixon Presidential Library and have been transcribed and translated in full for the first time for the elaboration of X King, a podcast about the life of King Juan Carlos that is broadcast on Spotify.
EL PAÍS now publishes them in full.
The secret mission
Richard Nixon returned from his visit to Madrid in October 1970 with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the welcome from the people of Madrid had surprised him: the citizens had taken to the streets and applauded him non-stop on the journey that had taken him in an open car with the dictator from the airport to the Palacio del Pardo, on the outskirts of the capital. The reception may have been even greater than that given to President Eisenhower in 1959, Franco told him. He had also had a fruitful meeting with Vice President Luis Carrero Blanco and had met Prince Juan Carlos, who had made a very good impression on him because of his knowledge of English.
Instead, the encounter with Franco had caused her concern. He admired the dictator for his deep convictions and his leadership, but the caudillo had fallen asleep in the car and had not been very talkative. Nor at the dinner afterward, whose silence was corrected by Foreign Minister Gregorio López Bravo, one of the few who spoke English.
Franco's health seemed worse than reports said. That left too many questions about the future of Spain in the air. The man Franco appointed to succeed him was Juan Carlos de Borbón, but he still seemed too green to replace him. A second person was also needed to take over the reins of the Government and avoid, above all, instability in the country. Admiral Carrero and Minister López Bravo seemed the best placed in the race for power. What were Franco's plans?
On January 26, 1971, Bob The Brush Haldeman, nicknamed for his brush hair, stood in front of the tape recorder after an intense day of work. Nixon's chief of staff had taken up this habit since the early days of his term, two days before the president was sworn in before Judge Earl Warren on January 20, 1969. Recording his voice helped him organize his ideas. , review the president's agenda and remember what happened at each meeting of the staff. That Tuesday in early 1971, Haldeman recorded the visit of the Princes of Spain. He did not say much about what happened that day, but he did state that the visit had been important to Nixon.
The meeting was important, but not very enlightening. Nixon met with Prince Juan Carlos in the Oval Office, but the Prince didn't seem very comfortable. The presence of Ambassador Argüelles prevented him from expressing his plans for the future calmly. The meeting did not clear up many doubts about what would happen after Franco's death. Nixon tried to convince the Prince of the need to maintain a balance between freedom and order and asked the Prince not to be "overly concerned with presenting a too liberal or reformist image, but with underlining his youth, dynamism and friendliness." That was enough to send the message that things would change when he was in command. Today we know the content of these interviews from some documents and studies on the subject. There was still about 20 days to go before microphones were installed at the White House.
Nixon and his National Security adviser, Henry Kissinger, confirmed in Washington the good impression they had made of Juan Carlos at the Madrid meeting, but they still thought he was green "to run the fort." They needed information and the only one who could tell them what was going to happen in Spain was Franco himself.
On February 6, 1971, Bob Haldeman returned to face the tape recorder and thus summed up his concerns and Nixon's plans.
It was not only a question of asking the dictator to explain what the future of Spain would be, but of making him see that the best thing would be to hand over power while still alive before his health deteriorated and thus avoid the instability that the United States feared. They had to move quickly, appoint a strong Prime Minister and hand over a new head of state, Juan Carlos, to power. "If not," said Haldeman, "there will be anarchy in Spain."
How to reach Franco and convey Nixon's message to him without generating a lot of noise? Who could talk face to face with General Franco to tell him about his death? Probably just another general.
General Vernon Walters was the United States military attaché in Paris. He had been to Africa and Italy during World War II, was fluent in Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, and despite not having gone to college, he had been an interpreter for several presidents. He knew Spain well. He had been on Eisenhower's trip, also on Nixon's last, and had friends among the Spanish military. Some of them had warned him about the Foreign Minister, López Bravo, who they considered someone to be maneuverable and closer to France and Europe than to the US.
The assignment the president had given him in Washington a few days earlier was not easy. The first difficulty was to reach the dictator without the help of the Spanish Embassy and without the knowledge of the Foreign Minister, López Bravo. The second was to speak to Franco directly about his death.
It was Carrero Blanco who facilitated Walters the secret interview with Franco, although López Bravo ends up finding out and manages to be present. At five in the afternoon on February 24, 1971, the American general chatted with Franco about his death. He spoke about her with absolute coldness, according to Walters years later in his book Silent Missions (1978). According to Walters, Franco told him that Spain would travel "some distance on the path desired by the United States, but not all, since Spain was not America, nor England nor France." Franco added that "the Armed Forces would never let things get out of control and expressed his confidence in the Prince's ability to master the situation after his death."
That's what Walters wrote in the book. Years later, in August 2000, the US general gave a more detailed version of the conversation with Franco in an interview with the newspaper ABC. According to Walters, Franco said: “I have created certain institutions, nobody thinks that they will work. You are wrong. The Prince will be King, because there is no alternative. Spain will go far in the way that you, the English and the French want: democracy, pornography, drugs, what do I know? There will be great follies but none of them will be fatal for Spain ”. "How can you be so sure, General?" Asked Walters. "Because I'm going to leave something that I didn't find when I took office 40 years ago:" Franco replied, "the middle class."
Just days before Walters' trip to Spain, in late February 1971, the Technical Division of the US Secret Service installed nine microphones in the White House. Seven of them were placed in the Oval Office, five at the president's table, and two near the fireplace. The other two were installed in the Cabinet room. The president's and Lincoln Ward's phone lines were also tapped. The tape recorders, an open-coil Sony TC.800, were hidden in a basement closet in the White House. On February 16, they began recording everything that happened in the most important office in the world.
During his years as Eisenhower's vice president, Nixon had learned that it is international relations that makes a leader go down in history. The tapes would help him keep track of his entire presidency but also underpin his vision as a geostrategist. All that is recorded there would be his political legacy.
He was not wrong about the latter, although perhaps he did not expect then that what would really matter would be all the conversations he had in the Oval Office about him. Watergate case. That scandal erupted in January 1972. The raid on the Democratic Party offices in the Watergate complex went from a simple theft of documents to a larger story that uncovered how the Nixon Administration had used the entire intelligence machinery of the State against opponents and activists.
The discovery of the conversations recorded in the Oval Office and the attempts to obstruct the investigation that they revealed forced him to resign on August 8, 1974.
Watergate sometimes makes one forget that the Nixon tapes are a unique opportunity to peek into something that normally remains forbidden: the functioning of power. The recordings allow us to see how and why some of the decisions that move the world are made and the human factor behind many of them. They are above all a window into the history of the 20th century. Some tapes are still classified, others have never been analyzed. There are more than 3,000 hours recorded in which they talk about China, the last blows of the Vietnam War, the intrahistories of the Cold War with the USSR … And, of course, Spain.
Nixon had decided that the outcome of the Franco regime and the dictator's succession deserved a more in-depth analysis than his predecessors had given him. The White House already had an idea of what was likely to happen after Franco thanks to General Walters' trip, but it wanted to make its mark and ensure an orderly transition for the country aligned with its interests. At the beginning of the seventies the bustle of trips of high positions to Spain began.
On April 6, 1971, at 5:20 PM, Elliot Richardson received the call from the White House operator. Nixon wanted to speak to his Secretary for Education and Welfare – the equivalent of a minister in Europe – to wish him luck on his trip to Europe and ask him to convey his affection to everyone he meets. Also to the Spanish.
Richardson was an experienced politician who already knew the Spanish because he had participated in the negotiations to renew the bases in 1969. On his trip he was going to meet Prince Juan Carlos, who had invited him to an education congress in Madrid. The Prince sought to make a political profile and had found in that act a way to stand out in a country that still did not know him very well and that did not clearly see him as Franco's successor.
Richardson got to be in four different ministries in his career. He also became Attorney General but had to resign due to pressure from Nixon to stop the Watergate investigation.
Nixon knows Spain quite well and is able to distinguish the politicians who aspire to the presidency of the Government. The first name that arises in a conversation with his advisers on May 19, 1971 is Carrero Blanco, whom the American president admires, but believes that Franco will probably choose López Bravo.
The following audio, from June 11, 1971, may be the first document in which Franco's Parkinson's is discussed. The dictator's illness was a secret affair in Spain although, day after day, the Spaniards became aware of the dictator's deterioration in health.
For the Americans it was a vital matter to know how Franco was. The US ambassador to Spain, Robert C. Hill, was quite explicit in his account of that day: "He has recently started to have seizures where he retches, his digestion fails and he begins to vomit."
Nixon and his staff they supported the dictator with the frequent presence of diplomats and the military in acts of the regime. During the conversation, Hill mentioned Admiral Moorer's presence alongside Franco at the recent Victory Parade. It was a victory for the regime that was able to boast of the support of a figure of that rank as a way to gain legitimacy. Neither the opposition in Spain nor many Americans welcomed this collusion. One of the most critical is the newspaper The New York Times. The Nixon Administration is remembered for being openly hostile to the media. The secret recordings of the Oval Office confirm the anger towards the press of some of its members.
Hill was already leaving his post. He had his sights set on his political career and needed to leave his diplomatic post in order to stand in an election. The ambassador, a hard-wing conservative, before arriving at the Embassy in Madrid had fought in more complicated positions in what was known at the time as the “backyard” of the United States: he was ambassador to El Salvador, Costa Rica and Mexico. He never spoke Spanish well.
The ambassador change process is sensitive and not entirely clean. The name of Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney did not appear on the recordings but he was one of the first choices for the Serrano Street Embassy. His appointment came thanks to a generous contribution to the Nixon presidential campaign, $ 250,000. As revealed by The Washington Post Many years later, thanks also to the Oval Office tapes, auctioning for diplomatic posts was common in Nixon's time in the White House.
Cornelius V. Whitney was a millionaire, athlete, businessman, and member of one of the wealthiest families in the country. His mother was Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, a sculptor and philanthropist who led a bohemian life in Europe and left a huge statue of Christopher Columbus made by herself in Huelva. In the Andalusian city she is known as Miss Whitney and she even has an avenue in her name. There is no certainty in this audio that Nixon and Haldeman are referring to Cornelius, but the story fits the character. If so, Cornelius was left without the position because of his indiscretion, because the Spanish did not want him, and also because Nixon and Haldeman doubted that he could pass the Senate confirmation hearings.
Spiro Agnew will go down in history as one of the worst politicians to ever enter the White House. He is still the only vice president who has had to resign due to a corruption scandal and it was not even because of Watergate but because of a previous one. The resignations of Agnew and later that of Nixon led to the most unexpected presidency in the country's history, that of Gerald Ford. He is the only president who has reached that position without first going to the polls.
Anyway, when Agnew arrived at the White House, nobody expected much of him. He was there because he was the son of a Greek immigrant and to get Nixon voters he couldn't reach.
Agnew's mission was simple. Go to Spain, talk to each other, put on the best smile, leave the United States well and return. That's what he and Nixon talked about on June 22, 1971 at 3:42 p.m. The conversation records that Agnew doesn't know much about the country's affairs; it does not know, for example, that Juan Carlos has already been named successor to Franco with the title of king. Nixon explained to him personally what was the political situation that he was going to find in Madrid and who would be his most important interlocutors. From that visit, photos and records have remained in the NO-DO. Agnew met with Franco, Carrero, and Juan Carlos and got his own impression of the moves to gain power in Spain after Franco.
Upon returning, Agnew recounted her vision of what had happened. He stressed that Juan Carlos was in a hurry to gain power, but believed that Franco would last until the end. Agnew, Nixon and the others seem to admire the dictator and Carrero Blanco at all times.
You can seldom see what happens after a meeting like the one Nixon and Agnew had held days earlier. A simple hallway comment, a cursing joke about Vice President Agnew, which reveals something more about the personality of this politician. Murray Chotiner told the president. The advisor, one of Nixon's seniors, recounted Agnew's troubles at the gala dinner. Apparently, the American vice president was concerned about the toast and who to give the drink to first. It was not very clear who the head of state in Spain was.
Agnew's passage through Madrid was widely reported by the Spanish press. Such a visit served to give the country an international profile that until then it lacked. The vice president was one more way of saying that Spain existed and that it was important. And that, somehow, was also Nixon's goal: to show that Spain, although it was not a democracy and enjoyed a system of freedoms, was also an important piece on the global board.
The fifth finger
With Hill out and Vanderbilt ruled out for the US Embassy in Spain, Nixon opted for a military veteran. Horacio Rivero was the first Latino to become a four-star admiral. He had had a key responsibility in the Cuban missile crisis and was aware of Spain's problems. His last position before arriving in Madrid had been that of NATO commander for the Mediterranean fleet.
Born in Puerto Rico, Rivero had an important advantage over his predecessor: he did speak Spanish. Perhaps that is why when he sat down with Nixon on December 5, 1972, he already had a very clear idea of what was happening in Spain, despite having only been at the Embassy for a few weeks. The conversation is known to researchers, is one of the best preserved and has been studied in depth by historian Charles Powell in the book The american friend. Now it can be heard and read at the same time.
In conversation, Nixon and Rivero seem comfortable. They move in a territory that both enjoy, international politics. They jump from China to the Cold War and from there to the Arab countries without a solution of continuity. Nixon shows that, deep down, he understands the world well. In a few sentences he explains the complex balance that defines the time. Two giants like the USSR and the United States can compete and be opposite, but no one is going to bet on a direct confrontation because that would be the end.
Americans were not afraid that Spain would wake up one communist day, something that had worried Eisenhower and had prompted him to open relations with the Franco regime. Now Spain is something else. The technocrats who lead the country, men like López Bravo or Carrero Blanco, want to contribute more to the relationship with the US They propose some avenues of collaboration such as intermediation with Arab countries. The Franco regime never recognized Israel, which only established diplomatic relations in the eighties, and relied on the Maghreb countries when it was marginalized by the international community on issues as varied as joining the UN or the historic claim on Gibraltar. Nixon asked Rivero to stay open to that possibility.
The Spain Rivero came to was a growing country and Nixon saw potential for it to be much more. Italy, Germany, France and the United Kingdom must have, in his opinion, a new addition among the greats of Europe. Spain would be the "fifth finger" to complete that hand. The idea was shared by the Spanish technocrats. They had been looking at the United States for years, also because they had found governments on the other side of the Atlantic more receptive than those of their neighbors on the continent. They were clear that the future would necessarily involve the country's integration into European dynamics.
It was more difficult for European countries to accept the Spanish system, a dictatorship that lasted until the late 1970s. Nixon believed that these were solvable problems, that one could not always be remembering a Civil War that had already passed several decades and that had more to do with the childhood of the protagonists of politics than with the present.
Rivero's conclusion ended up being a correct prediction. Spain had taken a leap forward, its economy was not that of the most advanced countries but its evolution was good and some state structures had been created so that the anarchy of which Haldeman spoke would not occur.
Gregorio López Bravo was a somewhat atypical politician for what was popular in the early 1970s. He was tall, handsome, and above all spoke English that allowed him to be a good contact for American politicians.
A naval engineer by training, he rose through the regime to become foreign minister in 1969, the same year that Richard Nixon became president. His presence in Washington was frequent and the Americans saw him as a possible candidate to lead the country.
Franco finally chose Carrero Blanco for the post of Prime Minister. López Bravo would once again be in the list to preside over the country years later, when King Juan Carlos changed the Government and wanted to change the president he inherited from Franco. Nor was he lucky on that occasion and the King opted for Adolfo Suárez.
López Bravo is a character little studied. For the bunker he was a moderate, a reformer. Supernumerary of Opus, he belonged to the family of technocrats, those who since the 1960s had been introduced to the regime to carry out a policy based more on economics than on ideology.
For the Democrats, he was still someone close to Franco, someone with very conservative ideas, in a line similar to that represented by Carrero Blanco himself. The admiral was not a member of Opus, but he was someone close to the congregation since his wife's infidelity. Since then he embraced Catholicism even more, he became a faithful of daily mass. In 1973 he was assassinated by ETA in an attack on the door of his church.
López Bravo was a person with a very high concept of himself, something that is evident even to Ambassador Hill, who had even said about him that "it would be the future of Spain if he did not look so much in the mirror."
The minister knew how to listen to important people. That becomes obvious in the last conversation, the one he has on April 11, 1973, in the Oval Office with Nixon. The president of the United States, who enjoyed analyzing foreign policy, lectures López Bravo about the European Communities and the future of Spain, reminding him on several occasions that the war ended more than three decades ago and that it is time to remove it from the dialogue when talking about Spain. López Bravo agrees with everything and emphasizes that he, in those days, was just a child.
Only a couple of months later he was removed as foreign minister. To understand its role in this story and the importance it was given in the United States, it is worth seeing the edition of The New York Times the day after his removal, June 11. The newspaper dedicates a column and a photograph to him, leaving in just a few lines the rest of the changes in the Government.
López Bravo was always in a bad position. It was a designer piece of furniture in the regime and one too old for the Transition. In 1978 he ended his political career being a member of the Popular Alliance and not going to vote in Congress for the Constitution, according to the press of the time so as not to signify. After years retired from politics, he died in a plane crash on February 19, 1985.
Two days before López Bravo's dismissal, on June 9, 1973, Admiral Carrero Blanco had taken office as Prime Minister. As the conversations show, he was the man Americans preferred to lead the end of the regime. Someone who guaranteed the stability that the United States so desired.
Hence, the theories that speak of conspiracies and the participation of the United States in the assassination of Carrero at the hands of ETA, on December 20, 1973, do not make much sense.
It would have been very interesting to hear, in any case, the conversations of the Nixon Administration about Carrero's death, but the Oval Office recorders had stopped working months earlier, in July 1973, when a White House aide revealed their existence. during the investigation of the Watergate scandal.
How to distill 3,000 hours of recordings
The Nixon tapes contain more than 3,000 hours of conversations captured by the recording system that was installed in the White House between February 1971 and July 1973. It is a material that is available in the Nixon Presidential Library in California and to which they can Access researchers and anyone who wants it. Many of them are accessible on-line. The difficulty is not in the finding but in the poor quality of many of the audios. For now, only a small part of all of them has been transcribed, around 5%.
What the authors of the podcast XRey They did was resort to the indexes of the library and search there everything related to Spain, Juan Carlos, Franco and Carrero Blanco and other keywords. After the audios were extracted, the sound technicians improved the sound quality somewhat. After that cleaning, the next thing was to turn to experts who had already done the previous transcription work. The main one was Michael W. Cotten, assistant professor of history at Temple College in Texas, who had already contributed to the reference book on tapes. The Nixon tapesby Douglas Brinkley and Luke A. Nichter.
After Cotten's work, a few more gaps were filled in, with the help of an audio speed adjustment, the time shifter, a tool that made it easier for them to hear complicated conversations in the Oval Office.
Faith of errors
In an earlier version it was said that Nixon resigned on August 8, 1973 when in reality the resignation occurred in 1974.