The Oilman Who Loved Dictators Or How Texaco Supported Fascism
By Adam Hochschild
[This piece has been adapted from Adam Hochschild’s new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.]
“Merchants have no country,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1814. “The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.” The former president was ruing the way New England traders and shipowners, fearing the loss of lucrative transatlantic commerce, failed to rally to their country in the War of 1812.
Today, with the places from which “merchants” draw their gains spread across the planet, corporations are even less likely to feel loyalty to any country in particular. Some of them have found it profitable to reincorporate in tax havens overseas. Giant multinationals, sometimes with annual earnings greater than the combined total gross national products of several dozen of the world’s poorer countries, are often more powerful than national governments, while their CEOs wield the kind of political clout many prime ministers and presidents only dream of.
No corporations have been more aggressive in forging their own foreign policies than the big oil companies. With operations spanning the world, they — and not the governments who weakly try to tax or regulate them — largely decide whom they do business with and how.
In its quest for oil in the anarchic Niger Delta, according to journalist Steve Coll, ExxonMobil, for example, gave boats to the Nigerian navy, and recruited and supplied part of the country’s army, while local police sported the company’s red flying horse logo on their uniforms. Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money, on how the brothers and oil magnates Charles and David Koch spent hundreds of billions of dollars to buy the Republican Party and America’s democratic politics, offers a vivid account of the way their father Fred launched the energy business they would inherit.
It was a classic case of not letting “attachments” stand in the way of gain. Fred happily set up oil installations for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin before the United States recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, and then helped Adolf Hitler build one of Nazi Germany’s largest oil refineries that would later supply fuel to its air force, the Luftwaffe.
His unsavory tale is now part of the historical record, thanks to Mayer. That of another American oil tycoon of the 1930s, who quietly lent a helping hand to a different grim dictator, has, however, gone almost unnoticed. In our world where the big oil outfits have become powerful forces and his company, Texaco, became part of the oil giant Chevron, it’s an instructive tale. He helped determine the course of a war that would shape our world for decades to come.
Flying the Skull and Crossbones Atop an Empire of Oil
From its beginning in 1936 until it ended early in 1939, some 400,000 deaths later, the Spanish Civil War would rivet the world’s attention. For those who no longer remember, here’s a thumbnail sketch of what happened. A group of right-wing army officers calling themselves Nationalists, with a ruthless young general named Francisco Franco emerging as their leader, went into revolt against the elected government of the Spanish Republic.
They fought with a brutality that would soon become far more common and global. Newspapers around the world reported on the deadly aid that Franco received from Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Squadrons of aircraft on loan from Adolf Hitler infamously bombed the town of Guernica into ruins and leveled whole blocks of Madrid and Barcelona, killing thousands of civilians, something that was shockingly new at the time.
By war’s end, Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini had dispatched 80,000 Italian troops to fight for the Nationalists. Hitler and Mussolini would supply them with weaponry ranging from the latest tanks and artillery to submarines. Totally ignored by the world’s press, however, would be one of Franco’s crucial allies, a man who lived neither in Berlin nor Rome. With a globe on his desk and roll-down maps on the wall of his elegantly wainscotted office, he could be found high in the iconic Chrysler Building in the heart of New York City.
Not one of the hundreds of foreign correspondents who chronicled the bombing of Madrid looked up at the ominous V-shaped formations of Hitler’s bombers and wondered: Whose fuel is powering those aircraft? The oilman who supplied that fuel would, in fact, prove to be the best American friend a Fascist dictator could have. He would provide the Nationalists not only with oil, but with an astonishing hidden subsidy of money, a generous and elastic line of credit, and a stream of strategic intelligence.
Torkild Rieber was a barrel-chested, square-jawed figure whose presence dominated any occasion. At elegant gathering spots, like New York’s 21 Club, where a hamburger-and-egg dish on the menu was named after him, he captivated listeners with tales of his rugged past. Born in Norway, he had gone to sea at 15 as a deckhand on a full-rigged clipper ship that took six months to make its way from Europe around Cape Horn to San Francisco.
For the next two years, he signed on with ships carrying indentured laborers from Calcutta, India, to the sugar plantations of the British West Indies. In his deep, gravelly voice, Rieber would tell stories for the rest of his life about climbing to a yardarm to furl sails far above a rolling, pitching deck, and riding out Atlantic hurricanes with a shipload of desperately seasick Indian laborers. On shore years later, however, his dress of choice wasn’t a sailor’s. He liked to wear a tuxedo when he went out to dinner at “21” and elsewhere because, as he said, “that’s the way the Brits ran the colony in Calcutta.”
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