Fuelling the war machine

Illustration by Emily Taylor

It has long been known that American oil giant Texaco (now a subsidiary of Chevron) provided assistance to Francisco Franco’s Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War, but new research has revealed this support to have been much more extensive than previously thought.

In the mid-1930s, Texaco was growing rapidly under the helm of the brash Norwegian émigré Torkild Rieber. An admirer of Hitler who specialized at making deals with strongmen, Rieber fit Texaco’s rough image as one the most aggressive oil companies in the world.

Texaco had struck a deal to supply the democratically-elected Spanish Republic with oil in 1935. But when civil war broke out the following year Rieber switched sides and rapidly began selling oil exclusively to Franco’s forces at a steep discount – a decision taken without the consent of the board or its shareholders.

With the Nationalist forces facing a severe cash crunch, Rieber extended them extremely generous lines of credit and began using Texaco’s own tankers to deliver the oil. These actions violated American neutrality laws that forbade the transportation of goods and the extension of credit to countries at war.

This surprising level of support offered by Rieber has been known for decades, but Spanish scholar Guillem Martínez Molinos recently uncovered a series of damning documents in government archives that point to even greater cooperation between the two.

As detailed in Adam Hochschild’s book Spain in Our Hearts, Rieber tasked Texaco employees stationed around the world to report on any oil shipments they spotted being sent by other oil firms to supply the Republican side. Over 50 messages were rapidly relayed to Franco’s troops throughout the course of the war, directly resulting in the sinking of at least two ships. In total, 29 oil tankers attempting to supply the Republicans were either captured, sunk or damaged during the war.

“I don’t know of any parallel where a private corporation has supplied a vast amount of intelligence information to a warring government secretly,” Hochschild told Fresh Air's Terry Gross in an interview last year.

Rieber was eventually fired by Texaco in 1940, but only because of his ties to the Nazi regime. Franco quickly hired him as his main American buyer for the Spanish government.

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