The Cold War and Spain’s Transition to Democracy

The Bisagra Decade: The 1950s in Spain

During the Cold War, Spain, under Franco’s rule, became an ally of capitalist countries, particularly the United States. This marked a shift away from the regime’s initial fascist origins and its support for communism.

Key Events:

  • 1950: Spain began to join international organizations.
  • 1953:
    • An agreement between the US and Spain allowed for the construction of four American military bases in exchange for economic aid.
    • The Vatican Concordat solidified the alliance between the Franco regime and the Catholic Church.
  • 1955: Spain was admitted to the United Nations.

Despite growing opposition and protests from workers and universities, the regime maintained its repressive stance.

  • 1957: The government became dominated by Catholic integrists from Opus Dei, a radical religious sect, and Carrero Blanco, a prominent figure in the Falange.
  • 1959:
    • The Stabilization Plan ended autarky (a policy of national self-sufficiency and limited imports). The Spanish economy opened up to foreign trade and investment to improve its economic situation.
    • A photograph of Eisenhower and Franco embracing symbolized the US president’s recognition of Spain as a dictatorship and their shared opposition to communism.

Transition to Democracy

Two days after Franco’s death on November 22, 1975, Juan Carlos I became King of Spain. He was proclaimed king through the Francoist Cortes. Carlos Arias Navarro, a Franco loyalist, continued as Prime Minister with the support of the”bunker” a group of Francoists resistant to reform.

Following a trip to the United States, King Juan Carlos decided to remove Arias Navarro from office. He asked Adolfo Suárez to form a new government. Suárez decreed an amnesty, began legalizing political parties (except for the Communist Party of Spain), and presented a Law for Political Reform to the Francoist Cortes. This law, aimed at establishing a democratic system with universal suffrage, was approved by the Cortes and in a referendum on December 15, 1976.

1977 was marked by numerous terrorist attacks by ETA, GRAPO, and the far-right, as well as growing protests. The legalization of the Communist Party of Spain sparked protests from the military.

The general election of June 15, 1977, resulted in a victory for the Union of the Democratic Center (UCD), led by Adolfo Suárez. Following the election, all major political forces united to approve the Moncloa Pacts in October 1977. These pacts established a policy of consensus, leading to the re-establishment of the Catalan Generalitat, the approval of pre-autonomy for the Basque Country, and a broad amnesty.

ETA continued its attacks, now targeting the armed forces. On December 6, 1978, a referendum was held to approve a new constitution.

The Constitution of 1978

  • Established a parliamentary monarchy.
  • Included an extensive declaration of individual, collective, and social rights.
  • Guaranteed private property and a market economy.
  • Established a separation of powers (executive, legislative, judicial).
  • Created a bicameral parliament (Congress and Senate).
  • The President is elected and controls public policy and administration.
  • Introduced universal suffrage for men and women.
  • Allowed for autonomous governments.
  • Shared similarities with the Constitution of 1931.


The mid-20th century saw a surge in the decolonization movement, fueled by:

  1. The Bandung Conference (1955): Held in Indonesia and convened by Jawaharlal Nehru, this conference aimed to decolonize 29 countries in Asia and Africa. It promoted racial equality, condemned colonialism, and affirmed the right of nations to peaceful coexistence.
  2. The United Nations: From 1960 onwards, the UN condemned all acts that promoted or incited colonialism.

Key figures in the decolonization movement included Sukarno and Nehru.

The Cold War

1. Great Tension (1947-1956)

US President Harry Truman established the Truman Doctrine, a policy aimed at containing the spread of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. The doctrine offered support to countries threatened by communist expansion. In response, the Soviets implemented the Zhdanov Doctrine, which sought to counter US imperialism in Western Europe and offered assistance to countries resisting US influence.

2. Peaceful Coexistence (1956-1976)

During this period, the US and the Soviet Union prioritized dialogue over conflict. The Soviets expanded their nuclear capabilities, while new US leaders adopted a more pacifist approach. Key US leaders included John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, while Soviet leaders included Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev.

3. The Resurgence of the Cold War (1977-1985)

Tensions escalated due to the arms race, particularly the focus on nuclear weapons. The USSR aimed for military supremacy, deploying SS-20 missiles with nuclear warheads that directly threatened Western Europe. The Soviets also increased foreign interventions, including the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and involvement in African conflicts. Under President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989), the US increased military spending, initiated the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), known as”Star Wars” and intervened in low-intensity conflicts in the Third World.

4. The End of the Cold War

In the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev introduced reforms to ease tensions and enhance dialogue with the US. He declared unilateral Soviet disarmament and granted greater autonomy to Soviet republics. In the US, a growing public deficit hindered the costly nuclear arms race. Consequently, the US and the Soviet Union signed several disarmament and arms reduction agreements. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cold War ended, ushering in a new international order with the US as the sole superpower.

Capitalist Bloc

  • Led by the United States.
  • Included most of Western Europe and Japan.
  • Characterized by parliamentary democracy and a capitalist economy.
  • Formed the military alliance NATO.
  • Implemented the Marshall Plan for economic recovery in Europe.

Communist Bloc

  • Led by the former Soviet Union.
  • Included Central and Eastern Europe, often referred to as”People’s Democracies”
  • Prioritized state interests and a planned economy over individual freedoms and rights.
  • Established the Warsaw Pact as a military alliance.

Key Cold War Concepts

Truman Doctrine (Doctrine of Containment)

  • A US foreign policy created by President Harry Truman to prevent the spread of communism.
  • Offered support to countries facing the threat of communist takeover.

Zhdanov Doctrine

  • A Soviet foreign policy adopted in response to the Truman Doctrine.
  • Opposed the expansion of US influence and offered assistance to countries resisting US pressure.

Berlin Wall

  • Following World War II, Germany was divided into West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (German Democratic Republic).
  • In 1961, the communist government of East Germany erected the Berlin Wall to prevent its citizens from fleeing to West Berlin.
  • The wall divided Berlin until 1989 and became a potent symbol of the Cold War.