Among the postwar American ambassadors to the Italian Republic, Richard Gardner was certainly the most highly qualified. A professor of international law at Columbia, he was the author of a highly regarded study, Sterling-Dollar Diplomacy. He had already served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Kennedy administration, and he had been an adviser on foreign policy to Jimmy Carter during his campaign for the presidency. He was also deeply involved personally with Italy; he was married to Danielle Luzzatto, whose Venetian Jewish parents had gone into exile after the Fascist Racial Laws of 1938. He had made a number of influential Italian friends, including Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Fiat, and two of Italy’s leading journalists, Ugo Stille and Arrigo Levi, who wrote for two main newspapers, the Corriere della Sera and La Stampa.
After the Nixon and Kissinger years, the election of Carter in 1976 aroused strong hopes on the left in Italy that the US would take a more flexible line toward the Italian Communist Party (PCI), whose possible participation in government had become a critical issue in Italian politics. The Communists had won a third of the vote in 1976, yet the US had remained inflexibly opposed to any such idea. Expectations that the US position might change were increased by Gardner’s reputation as an intellectual with a good knowledge of Italian politics and the Italian economy, and by support for a new opening to the Communist Party in American journals such as Foreign Policy. The debate intensified during Gardner’s first year in Rome, with the official launching of “Eurocommunism” in March 1977, when a conference of the Italian, French, and Spanish parties issued a statement saying that they were committed to pursuing European, not Soviet, interests, including human rights, in foreign and domestic policy.
These changes on the left were matched by the suspicion on the right, both in the US and in Italy, that the Carter administration was intent on relaxing demands that the PCI be kept out of Italian government. Shortly after Gardner’s arrival early in 1977, the columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, masters of calculated disinformation, accused Gardner of an “overly solicitous treatment of the Communists and the Italian left,” which had, according to them, deeply upset the ruling Christian Democrats. The Italian press seized on this article as proof that Gardner was a pro-Communist, at odds with Carter’s strongly anti-Communist national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. But as Gardner explains in his book, the common perception that he was a “dove” while Brzezinski was a “hawk” was an “optical illusion.” In fact, they were old friends, and shared a “visceral anti-Communism”; Gardner had been invited to be a member of the Trilateral Commission when Brzezinski was its director, and Jimmy Carter joined the organization soon afterward. Although Gardner initially had good relations with Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, whom he had helped recruit for the Carter campaign, he was seen as closer to Brzezinski. Where Italy and Eurocommunism were concerned, Gardner and Brzezinski were the dominant influence; Vance had little interest in either. In his memoirs Eurocommunism is not mentioned at all.
While still in Washington, Gardner with Brzezinski’s support had drawn up a strong statement to be issued before his arrival in Rome and which marked a break with the practices of previous American administrations. Written in March 1977, it said: “We will not interfere in Italy’s domestic affairs by such actions as dictating to Italians how they should vote, seeking to manipulate political events in Italy, or financing Italian political parties or personalities.” The statement, however, went on:
We prefer that our friends and allies be governed by political parties with strong democratic traditions, values, and practices. Naturally, we are concerned about the willingness and ability of Communist parties, which do not share these traditions, values, and practices, to cooperate with us and other members of the Western community on fundamental political, economic and security issues.
Much to Gardner’s annoyance, Vance had held up the statement, because the election of the mayor of Paris was imminent and he was concerned that it “would be resented as interference in French internal affairs.” When the statement was issued in April, it had been considerably watered down; Gardner objected particularly strongly to a passage that expressed concern about the United States’ ability to work with governments that were “dominated” by parties alien to the “fundamental democratic principles and common interests” of the West. The word “dominated” could be held to imply that Communist participation in a coalition government under Christian Democrat leadership would be acceptable if the Communists were not dominant. Gardner interpreted the revision as another concession to French susceptibilities. These incidents were highly revealing of the different way in which France and Italy were viewed in the United States, where a policy of “non-interference” in Italy would be construed as unacceptable interference in France.
But the responsibility for the different interpretations of “interference” lay mainly with Italian politicians. The Christian Democrats (DC) and other anti-Communist parties had successfully solicited financial assistance from the United States, while the PCI had received regular and substantial subsidies from the Soviet Union. Ironically, the US leaders were less worried about the future participation of the much more orthodox French Communist Party in government than they were about the PCI. FranĂ§ois Mitterrand and the French Socialists could reliably be expected to keep the Communist Party under control, and in fact Mitterrand eventually succeeded in both bringing the Communists into the government and undermining their power. The weakness of the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) meant that the Communists were unquestionably the dominant force on the Italian left.
The leader of the PCI, Enrico Berlinguer, however, was well aware that a left-wing coalition dominated by his party would not be acceptable either to Italy’s allies or to large parts of Italian society. The prospect of such a coalition gaining power, even in a fair election, would risk provoking a violent reaction, and very probably a “Chilean solution” in the form of a military coup. Recognizing this, Berlinguer as early as 1973 committed the PCI to the policy of a “historic compromise” with the Christian Democrats as the only basis on which the Communists could exercise a share of governing power. Why did this strategy fail to reassure American policymakers, even under the more tolerant Carter administration? One answer is that the Christian Democrats, though they were still Italy’s largest party, were faction-ridden, discredited by scandals and ineffective governance, and suffering from low political morale. They were seen as incapable of providing the strong leadership needed to contain the far more determined, united, and confident Communists.
In some ways, this view of the Christian Democrats underestimated their power. The most important leaders, the secretary of the party, Aldo Moro, and the prime minister, Giulio Andreotti, were both masters of the tactics of accommodation, attrition, and delay, even though their personalities and political styles were markedly different. Andreotti was an expert in secret political deals and maneuvers, and ready to adjust his political position according to the needs of the moment, while Moro pursued a more consistent policy behind a smokescreen of ambiguity. The ability of the Christian Democrats to wear down their political partners had already been made clear during the center-left coalitions of the 1960s. In the brief period before the cold war, when Italy was ruled by the “anti-Fascist coalition” containing both the PSI and the PCI, the Christian Democrats had been very successful in neutralizing Communist influence. In spite of all the economic and social upheavals of the decade starting in 1968, these well-tried tactics were once more to prove effective.
That this was so was certainly not owing just to the political skills of Moro and Andreotti. Much more fundamental was the deeply rooted conservatism of large parts of Italian society. The Communists had succeeded in making converts among the middle classes, who were fed up with corruption and clerical influence, and impressed by the PCI’s administrative competence. But in the crucial general elections of 1976 the Christian Democrats narrowly beat the PCI, when many voters who had previously abandoned them for the minor parties of the center and the right returned to the DC because they feared a Communist victory. Still, the large gains made by the PCI, and the refusal of the Socialists to enter a coalition if the Communists opposed their doing so, meant that the Christian Democrats could no longer form a government without the PCI’s acquiescence. The difficulty was solved for the moment by a characteristically subtle Italian political formula, probably invented by Aldo Moro. The PCI would declare that its position was that of “no non-confidence.” This avoided openly recognizing the Communists as participants in the majority. In practice, this meant that the PCI would abstain in the vote of confidence for the new Andreotti government.
The stirring title of Gardner’s memoirâ€”Mission Italy: On the Front Lines of the Cold Warâ€”does not do justice to the book itself, although it does point to a tendency of the author to see his ambassadorship largely as part of a successful campaign against the Communist enemy. The conception of Italy as “on the front lines of the cold war” was not, by the time Gardner arrived as ambassador, shared by the leaders of the Soviet Union. They had perhaps entertained hopes that the oil shock of 1973 had opened the way to the long-awaited “crisis of capitalism,” and that, for a combination of economic and political reasons, Italy, the “weakest link” in the capitalist chain, at least among the larger European nations, might be vulnerable to some form of revolution. Moreover, major financial scandals involving leading members of the governing Christian Democrats, the constant feuding between the different factions of the party, and the disillusionment of the Socialist Party with the results of an earlier center-left coalition, all combined to make Italy’s political system seem uniquely ill-equipped to deal with the consequences of the post-1973 economic crisis. Following an earlier wave of terrorism from the neofascist extreme right, and rumors of intended military coups, the revolutionary Red Brigades had by the early 1970s begun to exploit the resulting climate of fear as well as the discontent of a minority of the student movement of 1968, who were disillusioned by their failure to achieve their radical objectives. From 1974 onward, the Red Brigades and other extremist groups launched what was to become an even more destructive campaign of terrorism from the left.
As Western Europe’s most powerful Communist Party, which was every day gaining in support, the PCI should, in the eyes of the Soviets, have been able to exploit this situation if its leaders had still been true to the cause of international revolution. But in 1973 Berlinguer had made it clear that he was firmly committed to a democratic and nonviolent road to power. By 1977, Soviet disapproval of the PCI had turned to disgust and openly expressed anger. The Eurocommunist heresy had taken root in Spain and France as well as Italy, and threatened to cause a new and damaging schism in the international Communist movement. The refusal of the major Western European Communist parties to obey the directives of Moscow, exemplified by Berlinguer’s acceptance of NATO, and his defense of the rights of Soviet dissenters, set a dangerous example for Communists in Eastern Europe. Any possible gain from Communist participation in the Italian government, thereby weakening the Western Alliance, seemed in Soviet eyes to have been outweighed during 1977 and 1978 by their fears that a success for Eurocommunism would have a far more destabilizing impact on the shaky foundations of their own satellite regimes.