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Italian Elections - 1948

Italy, in addition to having the strongest Communist Party in Western Europe, was not a very resolute ally of the United States. During the Italian election of 1948, when the communists had threatened to take over the country through the ballot box, the US intervened covertly to support democratic parties. Less than a year after the National Security Act of 1947 was enacted, the Truman administration, confronted with the threat of communists coming to power in the Italian elections, decided to use the CIA to channel support to the non-communist parties opposing them. The CIA general counsel at the time, Lawrence Houston, had opined several months earlier that the appropriations committees had not had this kind of activity in mind when they approved the Agency's appropriation and thus would need to be informed of and approvethe expenditure of appropriated funds for such purposes.

There was also realization within the administration that Congress would have to be approached with respect to this new kind of activity. Although personally unenthusiastic about this new mission on the grounds it would detract from the Agency's other functions, DCI Hillenkoetter appeared in April 1948 before the HASC subcommittee to describe whatwould be necessary to support "any possible action in connection with the Italian election." In all likelihood, he made the same presentation to the leaders of the SASC, HAC and SAC.

American intelligence analysts were more concerned about Soviet use of local Communist parties to subvert pro-Western governments than they were about the possibility of armed aggression by the USSR or one of its Communist allies. As the Office of Reports and Estimates [ORE] expressed it in September 1947, "The USSR is unlikely to resort to open military aggression in present circumstances. Its policy is to avoid war, to build up its war potential, and to extend its influence and control by political, economic, and psychological methods."

US analysts also highlighted the Communist threat in France and Italy. Both countries had emerged from the war with widespread devastation and strong Communist parties sharing power in coalition governments. After the French and Italian prime ministers expelled the Communist ministers from their governments in the spring of 1947, ORE predicted that : "The Kremlin apparently proposes for countries such as France and Italy: (1) intensive agitation against their present governments and against non-Communist liberals; and (2) the development of highly-disciplined Communist cores which, at the proper moment, could assume control. Such a program is well-adapted to the current situation in France where, [now] relieved of governmental responsibility, the Communists are in a position to threaten (by propaganda, subversion, and trade-union agitation) the stability of the present Government. Where Communism is less powerful, the Kremlin desires to concentrate on gaining control of trade unions and other liberal organizations."

ORE warned in September 1947 that "the sudden overthrow of the De Gasperi government [in Italy] by Communist-sponsored armed force, following [the December 1947] withdrawal of Allied troops," was "within the realm of possibility" because of the Italian Army's weakness. But the analysts thought that outcome was unlikely. They wrote that "the USSR is unwilling to support directly such a step because it might involve war with the US" and because the potential failure of the much anticipated European Recovery Program (better known today as the Marshall Plan) could deliver Italy into the hands of the Communists in the April 1948 elections. ORE worried more that a Communist-inspired general strike could paralyze the important north Italian industrial area; such an event could "defeat the operation of the European recovery program and eventually throw not only Italy into the Soviet orbit, but possibly France as well."

A Special Evaluation published on 13 October 1947 concluded that Moscow's establishment of the Communist Information Bureau in September 1947 " suggests strongly that the USSR recognizes that it has reached a point of diminishing returns in the attempts of the Communist parties of Western Europe to rise to power through parliamentary means and that, consequently, it intends to revert to subversive activities, such as strikes and sabotage, in an effort to undermine the stability of Western European governments. This move likewise tends to substantiate the contention that the USSR considers international subversive and revolutionary action, rather than military aggression, as the primary instrument for obtaining its worldwide objectives."

The National Security Act of 1947 created the National Security Council under the chairmanship of the President. In his retirement President Truman denied any responsibility for "cloak and dagger operations" but it was during his Presidency that covert intelligence operations in support of foreign policy objectives was undertaken on an ever broadening scale. That Italy was seen by the NSC as the most troubled spot in the anti-Communist war is indicated by the fact that the very first resolution was devoted to Italy. NSC 1/1, a top-secret report issued on 17 November 1947, was entitled "The Position of the United States with Respect to Italy".

NSC 1/1 noted that "The Italian Government, ideologically inclined toward Western democracy, is weak and is being subjected to continuous attack by a strong Communist Party.' It stated that the United States should "actively combat communist propaganda in Italy by aneffective information program and by all other practical means..." A plan was quickly drawn up to furnish political aid. The use of both overt and covert psychological warfare operations quickly became a critical part of this plan.

Directive NSC 4-A, approved on 22 December 1947, ordered a broad range of covert activities to prevent a Communist victory in the coming Italian election. NSC 4/a - the "Report to the National Security Council by the Executive Secretary on Psychological Operations - stated that while the State Department would oversee "informationalactivities," CIA would be charged with executing "covert psychologicaloperations." NSC 4-A, the top-secret document as US covert action in Western Europe, was particularly sensitive. There were only three copies, one of which CIA Director Hillenkoetter had 'closely guarded in the Director's office, where members of his own staff who did not "need to know" could gain no access to it'. A second copy was with George F. Kennan at the State Department. The 'reason for so great secrecy was altogether clear', the official CIA history records, for 'there were citizens of this country at that time who would have been aghast if they had learned of NSC 4-A'.

Until February 1948, Czechoslovakia had been a pluralistic, democratic state, mindful of Soviet national security concerns but linked economically and intellectually to the West. Then, in the space of seven days, it was abruptly transformed into a Communist dictatorship, a shattering development because it suggested a replay of events that had led to the last world war.

NSC Document 1/3 dated 8 March 1948 was entitled "Position of the USA towards Italy in light ofparticipation of the Communists in government by legal means". It recommended that the US should as a matter of priority take "further measures designed to prevent the Communists from winning participation in the government". This document stated that a victory of the Popular Front (PCI and the PSI) would jeopardize the interests of the US in the Mediterranean area. This could have serious repercussions in the rest of Europe and the Middle East. According to the document, the interests of US security were immediately and seriously threatened by the possibility of a victory of the Popular Front, dominated by the PCI.

In the Italian election of 1948, the Communists had threatened to take over the country through the ballot box, and the US intervened covertly to support democratic parties. In total, the Truman Administration spent between ten and twenty million dollars on anti-communist propaganda and other "improvised covert operations" [in current money, at least ten times that amount.] This was in addition to the millions ofdollars received by the Italian Government under the Marshall Plan. Operations in Italy to weaken the Communists were a success.

The unexpectedly severe defeat of the Italian Communists in the April 1948 national election considerably eased the concerns of ORE's analysts. Noting that the election results had "vastly improved the morale and confidence of the anti-Communists in both Italy and France," the analysts predicted that "for the immediate future, Communist activities in Western Europe are likely to be directed toward rebuilding the popular front rather than an early or determined bid for power." Nevertheless, "the Communists are not expected to relax their efforts to prevent recovery in Europe. . . . Strikes and industrial sabotage . . . therefore can be expected."

In discussing the successful covert support of democracy in Italy in 1948, Tim Weiner's 2007 Legacy of Ashes belittles the prospects of a communist takeover, and implies that CIA's achievement had little real effect other than to encourage more such operations.

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:25 ZULU