In a few months, some who had voted for the resolution had second thoughts. The Spanish "civil war," they feared, was being used by Hitler and Mussolini as a testing ground for the great war that lay ahead. Tens of thousands of Italian soldiers fought for Franco, and the Fascist press celebrated the fall of Malaga as a national victory. The Nazis made no attempt to disguise the airplanes that bombed Bilbao. A number of isolationist progressives came to believe the threat to democratic government more compelling than the doctrines of neutrality. Senator Nye, to the discomfiture of the pacifists, introduced a resolution to repeal the embargo on arms to the Loyalists. Both Secretaries Ickes and Morgenthau supported Nye, and fifteen prominent scientists, including Arthur Compton and Harold Urey, pleaded with the President to lift the embargo to "save the world from a fascist gulf." In January, 1938, sixty members of Congress ostentatiously sent greetings to the Spanish Cortes. For many American intellectuals, the Spanish war was the crucial event of the decade, for it signified an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of democracy and fascism. Placards on college bulletin boards announced: "We dance that Spain may live." A few did more than that. Two or three thousand American volunteers fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and other Loyalist units; most who went died there, including Ring Lardner's son James, who lost his life in the Ebro campaign."
For a brief time in the spring of 1938, it appeared that Roosevelt would lift the embargo, but the American ambassador to Great Britain, Joseph Kennedy, warned him that such a move might spread the Spanish war to the rest of the world. Hull insisted that such action would destroy the work of the Nonintervention Committee. The President also had to reckon with the state of American opinion. Most of the country was indifferent; one poll found the remarkably high figure of 66 per cent of respondents neutral or with no opinion. Pro-Loyalist intellectuals were a negligible political force compared to the large bloc of pro-Franco Catholics. Although Catholic laymen like Kathleen Norris and George Schuster were anti-Franco, and most Catholics did not regard themselves as Franco supporters, the Catholic press and hierarchy were almost uniformly pro-Franco, and polls revealed that the proportion of Catholics who backed Franco was more than four times as great as the proportion of Protestants."
Ickes has recorded that Roosevelt told him that to raise the embargo "would mean the loss of every Catholic vote next fall and that the Democratic Members of Congress were jittery about it and didn't want it done." So the cat was out of the bag, Ickes complained, the "mangiest, scabbiest cat ever."
Although it has been argued that the neutrality laws handcuffed Roosevelt in his efforts to check the aggressors, Congress can scarcely be assigned sole responsibility for American policy toward Spain. Ironically, it was Senator Nye, the symbol of congressional isolationism, who led the move to lift the embargo, while Roosevelt, who had originally opposed such legislation, upheld it. The President's Spanish policy had unfortunate consequences. It helped sustain Neville Chamberlain's disastrous policy of appeasement which permitted Germany and Italy to supply Franco while the democracies enforced "nonintervention" against themselves. "My own impression," wrote Ambassador Claude Bowers in July, 1937, "is that with every surrender beginning long ago with China, followed by Abyssinia and then Spain, the fascist powers, with vanity inflamed, will turn without delay to some other country such as Czechoslovakia-and that with every surrender the prospects of a European war grow darker."