Eighteen years in, Franco’s had become a near-model regime for Buckley. “He is not an oppressive dictator,” the 1957 letter continued. “He is only as oppressive as it is necessary to be to maintain total power, and that, it happens, is not very oppressive, for the people, by and large, are content.” After Franco’s death, in 1975, Buckley would double down on this argument in an aside from an article on Pinochet, writing that Franco “believed in just as much repression as was necessary.” For Buckley, the grotesque slaughter that gave birth to the regime and continued well into its first decade—along with the mass imprisonment and executions that were its hallmarks throughout—were an acceptable, even necessary, feature of Franco’s political project. Politics was conditional on how much one could get away with. If the argument seemed sordid, Buckley took care to infuse it with world-historical, even metaphysical, resonance. “He saved the day,” Buckley wrote of Franco, “but he did not, like Cincinnatus, thereupon return to his plow.” Cincinnatus is the paragon of the benevolent dictator, who rules briefly and virtuously in order to accomplish a specific task, such as winning a war. In Franco, Buckley had found his contemporary analog.
Buckley was hardly the first U.S. conservative to hold Francoist sympathies. But he stuck by the aging dictator long after many of his peers had withdrawn their support—or at least hushed it up. By the mid-1950s, it was no longer in good taste in America to openly support fascism. Memories of Franco’s ties to Hitler still circulated, and Buckley wasn’t tone deaf. He knew that outright support for Franco would alienate him and the National Review. So he tempered his praise of Nacionalcatolicismo—“National Catholicism,” a common shorthand for Francoism—with criticisms of the regime’s centralized economy. Spain’s inability to spur economic productivity, Buckley complained, was rooted in the regime’s lack of capitalism.
For anyone paying attention, however, his objections were at best belated. On February 25, 1957, months before Buckley’s letter was published, Franco famously reshuffled his cabinet to include Opus Dei “technocrats,” brought in to further cut public spending, appeal to international investors, and thereby liberalize the Spanish economy. By October, Francoism was well on its way to becoming a kind of ideal regime for Buckley: a laboratory for capitalist development under a Catholic dictatorship. In Spain, Catholicism and capitalism were married at last.
For Buckley, then, behind Spain’s trajectory was a kind of roadmap to installing capitalist markets and Catholic churches simultaneously, and by way of dictatorship. Thanks to Kissinger and other postwar right-wing diplomats, it would be a roadmap that would guide U.S. imperial excursions during the second half of the twentieth century. It resulted in the likes of Pinochet’s Chile, Fujimori’s Peru, and Banzer’s Bolivia.