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The Italian Communists and the Us

In response to:

Italia Nostra from the March 9, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

In his thoughtful and generous review of my book Mission Italy: On the Front Lines of the Cold War [NYR, March 9] Adrian Lyttelton raises a number of important historical issues on which I would like to comment.

To begin with, Professor Lyttelton believes my book does less than justice to the Western evolution of the Italian Communist Party (PCI) between 1975 and 1979. He correctly recalls Enrico Berlinguer’s occasional criticisms of the Soviet Union and Berlinguer’s support for Italian membership in NATO. But as is documented in my book, Berlinguer and other PCI leaders during my years in Rome consistently affirmed their fidelity to Marxism-Leninism, praised the achievements of the Soviet Revolution of 1917, and advocated foreign policies favoring Soviet aims and threatening Western interests. They even joined the Soviet propaganda campaign insinuating that the United States was behind the Red Brigades and the murder of Aldo Moro. The PCI also sought to close or severely limit the use of US naval and air bases in Italy and opposed NATO-recommended budget increases for the Italian armed forces.

Perhaps most importantly, the PCI opposed the stationing of cruise missiles in Italy in 1979, which was an essential part of NATO’s decision to deploy Theatre Nuclear Forces to counterbalance the Soviet nuclear buildup threatening Europe. Mikhail Gorbachev declared in his memoirs that the TNF deployment was critical in convincing him to end the arms race and terminate the cold war. Had the PCI entered the Italian government, an outcome Professor Lyttelton suggests I should have encouraged, Italy’s cruise missile deployment would never have occurred.

Professor Lyttelton appears to agree with those Italians who felt “it would have been more important to strengthen the Italian political system by internal reform than to keep the PCI out of power.” But the PCI opposed most of the reforms Italy urgently needed in the late 1970s, such as privatization of its inefficient state enterprises and reform of its rigid labor laws, its inflationary wage indexation system, and its overly generous pensions. When Fiat decided in 1980 to dismiss workers responsible for violence and absenteeism in its factories, Berlinguer stood in front of Fiat’s Mirafiori plant and encouraged the workers to occupy the factory.

Professor Lyttelton doubts that the US statement of January 12, 1978, confirming our opposition to Communist participation in the Italian government had “a decisive influence” on the Italian political situation. He points out that the day before the statement the Christian Democrats (DC) had already decided to include the PCI only in the parliamentary majority, without Cabinet posts. But I had been recalled to Washington several days before the DC meeting and Italian political leaders well understood that a US statement of concern about the growth of Communist influence would be forthcoming. Moreover, it was by no means certain that the DC decision to bring the PCI into the parliamentary majority was the last step in the PCI advance to power. Many saw it as a transitional step to their subsequent entry into the government with important ministerial positions. Two months later when Aldo Moro was kidnapped by the Red Brigades, Berlinguer demanded his party’s inclusion in a “government of democratic unity,” and the Rome correspondent of The New York Times reported new “pressure on the Christian Democrats to bring the Communists into a national emergency government.” History never discloses its alternatives, but without our statement of January 12, the Moro crisis could well have produced a coalition government with the Communists.

As Professor Lyttelton explains, President Carter, even before I arrived in Rome, approved a policy that expressed a clear preference for a non-Communist government in Italy, combined with a commitment to respect the free choice of the Italian people, to open communications with the PCI, and to terminate the covert CIA financing of political leaders and other activities that had provoked widespread resentment against the US. The January 12 statement was necessary because Italians on the left and right were either misrepresenting or misinterpreting our policy as one of acquiescence to Communist entry into the government. When no less a figure than DC leader Amintore Fanfani told me in December 1977 of his plan to become prime minister in a government with the Communists, I became convinced of the need to clarify the US position. I did not want Fanfani or any other Italian leader to say in future years that US ambiguity on Communist entry had encouraged him to take a step with such important implications for Western security and Italian democracy.

Finally, Professor Lyttelton raises the legitimate question of whether the US statement constituted improper interference in the domestic affairs of an Allied country. We did not think so, and I believe for good reason. The presidential decision memorandum of February 1977 stated that “we will not interfere in Italy’s domestic affairs by such actions as dictating to the Italians how they should vote, seeking to manipulate political events in Italy, or financing political parties and personalities.” At the same time, the memorandum added that “we should find an early opportunity to make public” our clear preference that our Allies be governed by non-Communist political parties.

It was axiomatic that Italy as a sovereign country was free to choose whatever government it wished. But the United States, also as a sovereign country, had the right to express an opinion as to the kind of Allies it wished to have. To fail to do so would have ignored the facts of interdependence among NATO allies in security as well as economic affairs.

Richard N. Gardner

Adrian Lyttelton replies:

Ambassador Gardner’s letter raises some difficult questions. I agree that Berlinguer continued to insist that the PCI was part of the international Communist movement. As for his praise for the historic achievement of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, to deny that would have been political suicide. However, in his account of Berlinguer’s intervention in the sixtieth anniversary celebrations in Moscow in 1977 Gardner mentions only those parts of Berlinguer’s speech that reaffirmed his appreciation of the historic importance of the revolution. He ignores those passages in which Berlinguer insisted on the necessity for political democracy and liberty as the foundation for any socialist society. This is the most salient example of the omissions that make Gardner’s account one-sided. It can be questioned whether such a position was consistent with a continued belief in “Marxism-Leninism”; certainly the Soviets did not think so.

Berlinguer’s vision of foreign policy was undoubtedly not easily compatible with an orthodox view of American interests. However, I don’t think that the participation of the PCI in the government majority represented only a danger for American interests. The PCI’s public acceptance of NATO, at a time of severe internal crisis, was an important guarantee of Italy’s stability as a member of the Western Alliance. Similarly, Gardner’s alarm about Communist control of regional and city governments (p. 124) seems misplaced. Such responsibilities were in fact important in strengthening the trend within the PCI toward a pragmatic reformism.

Ambassador Gardner makes a good point when he writes “it was by no means certain that the DC decision to bring the PCI into the parliamentary majority was the last step in the PCI advance to power.” Indeed the terms of Gardner’s statement of January 12, 1978, which actually called for Communist influence to be “reduced” (p. 151), may well have had an important effect in blocking any such further advance. But was this entirely fortunate for Italy? The leader of the Republican Party, Ugo La Malfa, no friend of the Communists in the past, did not think so. One further step could have been taken without actually including members of the PCI in the government. This would have been the inclusion of non-party experts elected on the Communist list in Parliament as indipendenti di sinistra, as Andreotti suggested at the beginning of 1979. Would this have been a fatal step for Italian democracy or participation in the Alliance?

The question of “interference” is very difficult to adjudicate. One can accept that the US government had a legitimate right to make its views clearly known. But in the eyes of many Italians the timing and terms of the announcement, in the context of the US’s economic and strategic superiority and prestige, did constitute an objective interference with the course of Italian politics.

Unfortunately, this question is not a thing of the past. The fact that, during the recent Italian election campaign, the State Department saw fit to issue a warning to US tourists traveling in Italy on March 21, and, in response to criticism, has issued a similar warning for France (where street violence has been far more serious) only five days later, is another depressing proof that the United States uses different criteria for the two nations. But, as I said in my review, the main responsibility for this must lie in the readiness of many Italians to invoke US intervention at the expense of their country’s dignity and sovereignty.

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