When We Loved Mussolini

Benito Mussolini and US Secretary of State Henry Stimson, Rome, July 1931
New York Times Co./Getty Images
Benito Mussolini and US Secretary of State Henry Stimson, Rome, July 1931

In the early 1960s, in the full flush of postwar Atlanticism, Gian Giacomo Migone, the scion of a cosmopolitan family of Italian diplomats, arrived at Harvard to study history. As a liberal Catholic, a follower of John F. Kennedy, and a fan of Pope John XXIII, Migone was escaping the conservatism and neofascism of the postwar Italian universities. He came to the United States in search of the promise of democracy and new developments in scholarship. What he found was something more complicated. It was the heyday of the civil rights struggle and he and other foreign students ventured South to witness the dying days of Jim Crow. Yet it was not America’s present that would unsettle him but its past and, in particular, America’s recent history in relation to his own country.

In 1965, the theme of Ernest May’s legendary seminar at Harvard on American foreign relations was the 1920s, and Migone was given the task of exploring US policy toward Italy. This was a ticklish assignment in a double sense. The 1920s were a decade commonly identified with American isolationism, a period in which the US was not credited with actually having had a foreign policy. And Italy in the 1920s meant Mussolini’s regime. The question was how the Republican administrations of Harding, Coolidge, and Hoover, committed to their nationalist program of “normalcy” and modernization, had engaged with the first effort to build a fascist dictatorship in Europe. As the Vietnam War escalated in the background, it was an assignment that would shake the young Migone’s naive assumptions about the alignment of Western power with democracy.

Published in Italian in 1980, after many years of pioneering research in American and Italian archives, Migone’s book established him in Italy as an authority among left-liberal scholars of the fascist era and launched a career that would lead by way of the University of Torino to a seat in the Italian Senate. Still, in an age before the Internet and Google Translate, Migone’s scholarship remained largely unknown to an Anglophone readership. Like other classic works of European international history of the 1960s and 1970s, many of which were centered on the United States—in German one thinks of Andreas Hillgruber’s Hitlers Strategie, Michael Geyer’s Aufrüstung oder Sicherheit, and Werner Link’s Die amerikanische Stabilisierungspolitik in Deutschland—this European interpretation of American power was mostly ignored in America’s own historiography. We owe thanks to Cambridge University Press and Molly Tambor, herself a historian of postwar Italy, for finally bringing us this highly readable translation.

Antifascism was the founding myth of the Italian republic after 1945. But not only did a resentful minority of Italians cling to the memory of Mussolini, as Migone discovered in…

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