Josť Antonio de Aguirre y Lecube in New YorkEscuchar artículo - Artikulua entzun

Gloria Totoricagüena

Many Basques in the diaspora who have not had the pleasure to study Basque Country history do not realize that the previous Basque Government dates to October 1, 1936. Because the Spanish parliament, the Cortes, did not grant their final vote of approval until then, the first Basque Government was an administration in the midst of crisis as the Spanish Civil War had begun months earlier in July. The government and its ministers were soon to be the Basque Government-in-exile. The Basques’ first President, José Antonio de Aguirre y Lecube would be required to organize and administer from abroad, until his death nearly 25 years later. Aguirre’s years in New York resulted from the Nazi occupation of France, which forced a move of the Basque headquarters from Paris to New York from 1941 to 1946. Here, I will briefly discuss those years in New York.

As early as August 1937, the recently autonomous Basque Government sent officials to France to construct a framework for a government-in-exile and to begin the urgent organization for immediate care for thousands of refugees pouring into Iparralde. President Aguirre and other Basque officials also established an office of the Basque Government in Barcelona in order to maintain communications with the government of the Spanish Republic. When Barcelona fell, Aguirre also fled, eventually establishing his location in Paris as the headquarters of the Basque Government-in-exile. This was the home of the Basque administration until the outbreak of WWII. When President Aguirre was caught behind Hitler’s troop lines in May of 1940 during a visit to his family in Belgium, he went underground and lived incognito right in Berlin until he could guarantee safe passage for himself and his family to South America. After obtaining a false passport from the Panamanian consulate in Antwerp, Belgium he managed to travel from Berlin to Göteburg, Sweden and, with his wife Maria Zabala and their two children, boarded the cargo ship Vasaholm to Rio de Janeiro, where they arrived in August 1941. They continued on to Uruguay where he was able to safely reveal his true identity. The United States State Department received and approved a petition asking for a special visa for President Aguirre in 1941, and from South America the Aguirre Zabala family traveled to New York, where they were given permanent resident visas and arrangements were made for a special lecturer’s position at Columbia University in Manhattan.

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Josť Antonio de Aguirre y Lecube.

Professor José Antonio de Aguirre (who had earned a law degree from the University of Deusto) was officially invited to serve as a lecturer by Columbia University professors Carlton J. H. Hayes and Joseph P. Chamberlain. Hayes was a personal friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later an Ambassador to Spain. A recent Basque transplant to New York, Manuel María de Ynchausti had worked with Hayes in 1939 in an attempt to have the renowned Basque anthropologist, José Miguel de Barandiarán, granted exile and given a position at Columbia, but the endeavor was unsuccessful. Ynchausti and his family had come to New York on their way to the Philippines, where their family fortune had been earned, planning a short stay just long enough to establish a committee and a New York office of the International League of Friends of the Basques. However, WWII intervened and the Ynchaustis stayed for eight years in White Plains, New York from 1939 to 1947. His friendship with Hayes likely influenced the invitation for Aguirre, as did his willingness to make donations to the university.

In a letter written September 23, 1941, Ynchausti pledged to pay Aguirre’s salary through anonymous donations to Columbia University, with the understanding that the funds were to be utilized specifically for Dr. Aguirre’s salary for lecturing and giving courses at the prestigious university, but without Aguirre knowing that Ynchausti was funding the position. In an Ynchausti letter to Columbia Provost Frank D. Fackenthal written December 29, 1942 he states, “Because Dr. Aguirre does not know that I provide for the payment of his salary at Columbia University, I have not talked with him about the matter…” In a letter dated March 7, 1944 Ynchausti wrote to the Clerk of Trustees, “What is true is that President Aguirre believes that his salary is paid by Columbia University, and I want him to remain in this belief, as I have not the intention to disclose that I am the one who is paying his salary, since the first day he was appointed Lecturer in the History Department (Letters are a part of the private personnel files of Columbia University Special Collections, housed at Columbia University).”

Ynchausti paid $1125 quarterly to the University, communicating and sending his donations -payable to the university- directly to the President, Dr. Nicholas Murray Butler. Because Aguirre’s lectureship was so well received by students, faculty, and intellectuals in the community, Ynchausti continued these contributions from 1941 until June 1946 when Aguirre returned to the Basque Government offices in Paris. Ynchausti even helped President Aguirre translate his lectures into English, and did everything possible to facilitate the work of the Basque Delegation and its representatives. Columbia University repeated their annual invitation to Aguirre to remain as a lecturer and the institution’s president exclaimed in several letters to Aguirre how pleased they were with his work at the university. In a 1943 letter from Provost Fackenthal to Ynchausti, he asked if Aguirre could possibly stay to continue his teachings, “he has been a great addition to our group and we hope very much that he can continue with us.” Aguirre taught Advanced Research in the Modern History of Western Continental Europe, and Advanced Research in Latin American History.

Aguirre’s course lectures highlighted concepts of democracy, such as freedom, justice, civil rights, peace, representativeness, and tolerance. He focused especially on Christian democracy and promoted a new European political system based on peoples and common European values, a precursor of the European Common Market and of today’s European Union. In March 1943, the Council of Europe in America was inaugurated in New York with Aguirre as a member. Aguirre had worked as a lawyer in labor law and had influenced many changes for a safer work place and fixed hour workdays in the Basque Country. He promoted a social Christian democratic society as he perceived the Basque society to be. In addition to his myriad duties and responsibilities as President of the Basque Government and as full-time professor at Columbia, Aguirre published numerous works in the United States and in the international press.

Aguirre wrote his book describing his flee from the Nazis and miraculous journey through Europe to South America and eventually New York, which was published in May 1942. The New York Times Book Review of November 19, 1944 favorably reviewed José Antonio de Aguirre’s book Escape Via Berlin, published by Macmillan and priced at three dollars. In 1943, Aguirre published, “The Coordination of Europe’s Nationalities,” in Post War European Federation. He also wrote an unfinished History of the Basque Country, with more than 600 pages completed. Aguirre worked non-stop to meet with Catholic Church officials to explain that the Basque people were not anti-Catholic as the Franco propaganda painted them, and tirelessly wrote to, and personally met with, United States government officials of the Roosevelt administration. With his wife, he also celebrated the birth of their third child, Iñaki, in New York. He attended Centro Vasco-Americano functions of the New York Basque community and met personally with many New York Basques such as intellectual and activist Mario de Salegi, who visited with Lehendakari Aguirre several times to discuss policy for the Basque Government-in-exile.

Irene Renteria Aguirre, of Brooklyn, New York whose parents had migrated from Bakio, Bizkaia, was hired as the personal secretary to the President. She worked for eight years in the Basque Delegation in New York, and also as the private secretary to the Lehendakari. Her knowledge of Basque, Spanish, English, and business management, coupled with her understanding and experience of New York and United States politics and protocol made her indispensable and a much-desired expert for the Basque Government. While she worked days at the Delegation, she put herself through university at nights. Irene Renteria Aguirre was one of the first women admitted to the all-male Baruch College, and she earned a degree in Foreign Commerce. Irene met her future husband, Andoni Aguirre, while working in this position in the Basque Delegation.

Andoni Aguirre (no relation to the Lehendakari José Antonio Aguirre) arrived in New York in 1945. He was born and raised in the Philippines and educated in the Basque Country in Lecaroz, Nafarroa. His parents were in the mahogany exporting business, as were the Ynchaustis now in White Plains. When WWII began, Andoni’s father, Martín, made arrangements to evacuate his family just immediately before the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. Martín Aguirre also was responsible for the safe evacuation of the President of the Philippines and U.S. General Douglas MacArthur. Andoni Aguirre was hired by the Basque Government as a commercial attaché for the Delegation.

President Aguirre and the Basque Delegation in New York dealt with many diverse petitions and requests and accepted all of the political issues that the Centro Vasco-Americano wanted to avoid. They created lists of financial supporters in the United States with the intention of sending aid for the Spanish Civil War victims, and continuing the attempt to educate the United States media and opinion makers in regards to overthrowing the military dictatorship of Franco. They responded to Basques from various regions of the world asking for Basque Government assistance in obtaining special visas to enter the United States, and simultaneously directed the many other delegations’ projects. Aguirre met often both formally and informally with leaders and members of the New York Centro Vasco-Americano to explain the current political and economic circumstances in Euskal Herria and to update Basques in regards to the Basque refugees in Iparralde, and other countries which had received exiles.

As the United States was drawn into the Second World War, Franco’s identification with Hitler and Mussolini prompted United States government support for the exiled Basque government. However, the Basques’ republican ties to anarchists, socialists, and communists during the Spanish Civil War made them the target of interest to the U.S. Office of Security Services, OSS, intelligence. Beginning in 1942, there were investigations of Basque Government-in-exile officials and other Basque immigrants in the United States, including Basque immigrants in the New York area, and those in the western States of California, Nevada, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and Utah as well as of the Basque Centers and the political activities carried out in each community (Ordaz Romay, 1996:230). Obtaining United States governmental endorsement for the Basque cause was the priority objective for President Aguirre, and he was determined that there could be no perceived connections to communism or revolutionaries. Aguirre was a well-known admirer of Ghandi. Eventually, Basques were hired as FBI agents who helped investigate the possibility of a proposal by Government-in-exile Delegates José María Lasarte Arana, Telesforo Monzón Ortiz de Uruela, and Antón de Irala that Basques in the South American countries could be organized into counter-espionage units to aid the United States with its World War II effort. The Basque Delegations in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia also aided with espionage. In an FBI intercepted letter from Lehendakari Aguirre to another Basque in Havana, the Basque president illustrated his fears about a possible agreement between Franco and the western democracies, and he suggested that Basques everywhere must present an image of political unity with other republicans, even at the cost of sacrificing the Basque nationalist goals (Hoover, FBI Bureau File 10-14311-3, 1942).

Initial FBI investigations regarding the Basque Government delegates focused on the possible services which the Organization of Basque Intelligence -with its ample networks in South America and Europe utilized to aid Basque exiles- could use to facilitate United States intelligence gathering. From the United States legal attaché in Buenos Aires, a communication to Director J. Edgar Hoover depicts the level of entanglement between the FBI and the Organization of Basque Intelligence. It looks as though the FBI was spying on its own spies from the Organization of Basque Intelligence. The letter lists the categories of information that could be obtained regarding Argentine Basques’ nationalist and/or communist activities, political ideologies, as well as religious affiliations (Totoricagüena 2003:87 “Identity”).

It is clear that the Basque Government-in-exile collaborated with the Unites States State Department during Aguirre’s stay in New York and afterwards as well. Aguirre took a leave of absence from his lecturing position in 1942 and wrote in his letter to Columbia University, “Beside the cultural character of my journey, I shall also fulfill a confidential mission that an agency of the U.S. Government has entrusted to me.” In March 1945 he again asked for a leave of absence, “on an urgent mission related to France and other countries with the knowledge and special approval of the American authorities” (Totoricagüena 2003 “New York Basques”).

Aguirre’s official resignation from his lectureship at Columbia went into effect in June 1946. His letter of resignation stated:

“My duty lies with my Basque people’s cause of freedom and with the cause of Iberian freedom. … Only those of us who come to these lands of freedom exiled by tyranny can appreciate the deep human understanding to be found in America and the hope it symbolizes for all…. Someday, perhaps soon, we Basque shall return again to our freed country and once again open the Basque University which General Franco closed in his systematic persecution of our culture.”

He then asked for help from Columbia University for pedagogical direction, books, and cultural assistance for a future education system for the Basque Country.

In 1946, Aguirre returned to Europe and in Paris he participated in the creation of the International League of Friends of the Basques. It attracted more than 50,000 members including religious leaders such as Cardinals Verdìer and Griffin, intellectuals, artists, politicians, and writers. Aguirre participated at The Hague Congress where European leaders discussed the idea of a united and federated Europe, and Aguirre promoted his idea of a European union of peoples. The Basque Government-in-exile also promoted the massive general strikes in the Basque Country of 1947 and of 1951. Following these events, the offices of the Basque Government on Marceau Avenue in Paris were confiscated by the French government and given to the Spanish government in June 1951. In 1954, Francois Mitterand, then the Minister of Interior, banned Radio Euskadi from the airwaves.

Though Aguirre had worked with New York Basque delegates and in particular delegate Jesús de Galindez to convince the United Nations to block Spain’s entrance as a result of its dictatorship, Spain was eventually admitted to the United Nations in 1955. The Basque nationalist leaders had hoped to work alongside the Western democracies to overthrow Franco’s regime and return the autonomous Basque Government-in-exile to its homeland. The Basque Government-in-exile wanted to aid the Allies in any way possible in order to win their favor and help with evicting Franco and reinstalling a democratic representative form of government. To appease the United States, they even expelled representatives of the Communist party from the coalition Basque Government-in-exile. Zirakzadeh (1991:147-148) points out that after 1947, the Basque Government generally even avoided supporting labor union mobilizations. Self-restraint by the Basques in Paris, London, Buenos Aires, Mexico and New York ended not in their vindication or convincing the Western powers that Franco had to be overthrown. Instead, the United States eventually saw the Franco regime as a reliable ally in the fight against communism, and even worse- the United States formally recognized Spain and began giving it economic aid.

Though the Basque Government-in-exile was unsuccessful in many of its international political endeavors, nevertheless, historians Javier Tusell and Alicia Alted argue the significance of the exilic governments and that “the post-1977 negotiations for the Statutes of Autonomy for Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia reflected the historical legitimacy these statutes had acquired during the Republican period—a legitimacy that was preserved throughout the Franco period by the exiled officials of these regions”(Tusell and Alted 1991:160). Aguirre’s time spent in New York contributed to this legitimacy with his impact on the United States government, the United Nations, the Catholic Church, academics, intellectuals, and several other non-governmental organizations. After his early death from a heart attack in Paris in March 1960, José Antonio Aguirre’s body was taken to Donibane Lohitzun-St. Jean-de-Luz in Lapurdi and was buried there.

Sources:

Aguirre, José Antonio. Veinte años de gestión del Gobierno Vasco (1936-1956). Durango: Leopoldo Zugaza.

Artís-Genner, Avelli. 1975. La Diáspora Republicana. Barcelona: Editorial Euros, S.A.

Ordaz Romay, Mari Ángeles. 1996. “El FBI y los Vascos del Exílio de 1939 en Estados Unidos”, in Escobedo Mansilla et al, Emigración y Redes Sociales de los Vascos en América. Vitoria-Gasteiz: Universidad del Pais Vasco.

San Sebastián, Koldo. 1991. The Basque Archives: Vascos en Estados Unidos (1939\-1943). Donostia-San Sebastián: Editorial Txertoa.

Totoricagüena, Gloria.2003. New York Basques: A Cosmopolitan Experience. Serie Urazandi. Vitoria-Gasteiz: Gobierno Vasco.

2004. Identity, Culture, and Politics in the Basque Diaspora. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

The Basque Diaspora: Migration and Transnationalism. Reno: Center for Basque Studies. Textbook Series. Forthcoming 2004.

Tusell, Javier, and Alicia Alted. 1991. “The Government of the Spanish Republic in Exile: (1939-1977)”, in Governments-in-Exile in Contemporary World Politics. Edited by Yossi Shain. London: Routledge. Pp. 145-165.

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