By late July 1936, the bloodshed between the Leftist Republicans and the Rightist Nationalists flowed in profusion. Great Britain, Italy, and France, and every other country with diplomats and citizens still abroad in Spain worked feverishly to bring their people to safety. More than 30 rescue vessels huddled San Sebastian, a harbor city in northeast Spain near the border of France.
Washington had alerted the officers of the battleship Oklahoma to sail to the Bay of Biscay and rescue its citizens. By the end of the month, Secretary of State Cordell Hull stated that approximately 1,000 Americans had been safely evacuated, but there were about 500 who had yet to leave.
U.S. Ambassador Claude G. Bowers, who was one of those 500, was expected to be in San Sebastian. He was not, nor could he be contacted. Weeks before the civil war broke out in earnest on July 17, Bowers, along with his senior staff, had already left the capital city of Madrid for the harbor city.
Wendelin and FuquaFacing the sweltering summer heat of Madrid and a country embroiled in violence, a young diplomat had been placed in charge of the U.S. Embassy. Third Secretary Eric C. Wendelin was the direct contact between the embassy and Washington. As the civil strife worsened, Wendelin worked to protect himself, his family, and any U.S. citizens seeking refuge. Luckily, at his side was the highly experienced (if not overly qualified) military attaché, Col. Stephen Fuqua. Fuqua had served in the Spanish-American War and World War I. In a city in chaos, Fuqua maintained order within the embassy.
The Embassy HotelAs the days progressed and the violence worsened, more U.S. citizens poured into the embassy. For all intents and purposes, the embassy had become a hotel, and all those who stayed there were more employees than guests.
Always seeking order, Fuqua administered responsibilities; regulated the hours for meal times, bedtimes, and visitations; and orchestrated activities to keep everyone occupied, a way of keeping chaos at bay. Mrs. Wendelin commandeered the embassy’s kitchen and assigned several to cooking duties. Wendelin and Fuqua had wisely kept all the jugs and bathtubs full in case the water was disconnected.
The embassy was hardly a fortress, and with firefights taking place in the streets of Madrid, the scores of Americans were vulnerable.
Hoping to StayFortunately, the U.S. Embassy in Madrid was in the center of the “safety zone.” Bowers, who was now working from Saint-Jean-de-Luz, France, just a few miles east of Fuenterrabia, hoped the embassy would remain open and contended to Hull that Wendelin and Fuqua should “use their own judgment” to consider whether to evacuate Madrid. He was concerned, as was Hull and Wendelin, that evacuation “not only from Madrid but from Spain” might be viewed by the Republicans or the Nationalists as a politically motivated decision, especially if done in concert with the German and Italian embassies.
Making the CallAs noble and courageous as those desires were, Hull believed differently, and probably correctly, given that the multi-week battle would extend into a multi-year siege. It was during this week in history, on Nov. 23, 1936, that Hull ordered Wendelin to evacuate to Valencia, effectively closing the U.S. Embassy in Madrid.
Wendelin obeyed the order and made arrangements with officials in Valencia to send vehicles for transport of “some 50 people and their baggage.” The timing of the evacuation was apparently well-timed as the “German and Italian Embassies were taken over yesterday by authorities,” Wendelin informed Hull. “Madrid press is full of hostile commentaries regarding this incident alleging that German and Italian Embassies were centers for rebel espionage activities and … contained considerable quantities of arms and ammunition.”
The American diplomats had prudently made it their “policy not to give asylum to Spaniards” in the Madrid embassy, and for this reason the local authorities agreed to keep guards at the gates of the building. While in Valencia, Wendelin informed Hull that 28 Americans, four Puerto Ricans, and 10 Filipinos remained at the embassy, along with the guards and Spanish employees and their families. Outside of the embassy, there were still 81 Americans in the city. Thanks to Wendelin’s efforts and strict policy, those in the embassy remained secure, while those Americans remaining without still had a place to go.