September 19, 2019 | 69° F

U. professor reflects on work in Franco Spain


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Photo by Amy Rowe |

Professor Michael Rockland speaks about his day he spent with Martin Luther King Jr.


Michael Rockland, a professor in the University’s Department of American Studies, has spent a day with Martin Luther King Jr., swam in the Mediterranean with a U.S. ambassador and served in foreign office in Argentina and Spain.

In his new book “An American Diplomat in Franco Spain,” which was made available in English last week, Rockland details his time as cultural attaché in the U.S. embassy in Spain and provides firsthand accounts of historic events he witnessed.

“Cultural attachés, their business is basically to get people in other countries to like the United States, especially culturally,” he said. “You’re kind of like an American Studies professor at an embassy, in a way.”

The professor recalled his time in Spain, recounting a full day he spent hanging out with Martin Luther King, Jr. when the pastor came to Madrid for a day of rest before he left to Amsterdam for an international Baptist convention.

“I had the opportunity to spend the whole day with [King] on a first name basis,” he said, “Two guys hanging out in Madrid is what it was like.”

Though King is a monumental icon in American culture, Rockland said he knew him as a human being and meeting him was comical, recalling a time when King answered his hotel room door while only wearing his underwear after having just woken up from a nap.

“Sometimes I’m disappointed when I walk into classrooms,” he said. “I’m glad he has a national holiday and I think he deserves it, but he’s so cleaned up, if you will.”

Rockland said he helped to arrange a short press conference and took King on a tour of Madrid, including lunch in a bodega below street level at the Plaza Mayor.

Rockland was also witness to a U.S. military catastrophe that caught the U.S. embassy in Spain completely off guard, he said.

In an attempt to send a message to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, a wing of bombers would leave the United States every six hours to replace another wing flying over the Soviet border, he said. Each bomber carried four hydrogen bombs, which are 75 times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski, Rockland said.

One of the bombers crashed into a refueling tanker over the coast of Spain on January 17, 1966, Rockland said. Three of the unarmed bombs fell onto a small Spanish town, with one falling into the Mediterranean Sea. Two of the three bombs that landed over the town split open and forced the inhabitants to evacuate because of plutonium contamination.

To prove to the locals that the town was not contaminated, Rockland said he and the U.S. ambassador swam in to the Mediterranean several miles north of where the bomb landed.

Throughout the book, Rockland discusses meeting with the Kennedys, living next door to an exiled Nazi and being invited to government functions in Francisco Franco’s fascist Spain.

Rockland came to the University shortly after his time in Vietnam during the war.

Allan Isaac, an associate professor of American studies at the University, said Rockland brings a unique and exciting view to the University.

“He brings an intimate view of historical eras and figures,” Isaac said. “[It is] an intimacy that complicates and humanizes them.”

Isaac said Rockland was one of the founding members of the American studies department when it began at Douglass College.

“He offers one of the many exciting approaches to the study of American culture offered by our diverse faculty and curriculum,” he said.

Adam Scaramutz, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said he was surprised to learn that a former U.S. diplomat was now a professor at the University.

“I’m shocked that he works here,” he said. “To see someone with his experience and hear his stories makes Rutgers worthwhile.”


By Adam Uzialko

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