Buried Traumas

Franco’s Crypt
Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936
Jeremy Treglown
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27, 352 pp.

In February 1971, President Richard Nixon dispatched General Vernon Walters to pose a delicate question to Francisco Franco, who had ruled Spain since 1939. Walters, a gifted linguist and experienced soldier-diplomat, had accompanied Nixon on his official visit to Madrid the year before. This time he was supposed to ask Franco, seventy-eight years old and rumored to be ailing, what was going to happen after his death. Franco guessed Walters’s purpose immediately and assured him that plans for a smooth transition were in place. Prince Juan Carlos, whom he had carefully groomed to be his successor, would become king and ensure that there would not be a return to the political violence that had plagued Spanish public life throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Franco would be gone, but the regime that he had so carefully constructed would remain. America’s strategic interests in the western Mediterranean were secure.

Increasingly frail and out of touch, Franco lived another four years, finally succumbing to a combination of maladies in November 1975. As planned, Juan Carlos became king. However, contrary to what Franco had expected and desired, the young monarch presided over a relatively swift and remarkably peaceful transition to parliamentary democracy. Together with the similar and simultaneous establishment of democratic governments in Portugal and Greece, Spain’s transformation from dictatorship to democracy was a historic accomplishment, which was...

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About the Author

James J. Sheehan, professor emeritus of history at Stanford University, is the author of Where Have All the Soldiers Gone?: The Transformation of Modern Europe, among other books.