CIA Fights Spread of Communism; Fears Italy Would Fall under Soviet Union in Late '40S

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Kelly, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In the late 1940s, the growth of communism in Europe was a cardinal concern for American policymakers. The early years of the Cold War generated serious challenges for all levels of the United States government, particularly within the intelligence community and its centerpiece, the newly created Central Intelligence Agency.

One of the earliest crises of this period was the danger that beleaguered Italy - so recently liberated from fascist rule - would fall under the dominion of the Soviet Union in the same way many Eastern European nations already had. As the threat of a communist-controlled Italy grew, the CIA would receive one of its first missions of the Cold War.

The situation was deemed an emergency. The Soviets were surreptitiously giving financial and organizational assistance to the Italian communists, who were known to be allies of Moscow. U.S. officials feared that if KGB subversion went unchecked, Moscow would soon be able to make any nation turn communist just by making a telephone call to well-placed allies.

Tension escalated in the months drawing closer to the Italian national elections scheduled for April 1948. There was fear that the Italian communists - with Soviet backing - would take power through the ballot box and then impose totalitarian rule. Finally, on Dec. 14, 1947, the National Security Council gave top-secret orders to the CIA to execute covert psychological operations designed to counter Soviet and Soviet-inspired activities in the upcoming elections.

Origins of crisis

In 1943, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was removed from power, and the fascist government that had ruled Italy for more than 20 years ceased to exist.

After World War II ended, Italy was in shambles. Ninety percent of Italian port facilities were destroyed or damaged, and there was heavy destruction to the housing, transportation and industrial sectors.

Thousands of Italians were homeless, and millions were living in crowded and unsanitary conditions. Agricultural production fell dramatically, and hunger spread. These dire conditions made Italy ripe for the emergence of a Soviet-inspired movement. The Italian Communist Party was capable of exploiting the country's desperate circumstances if the victorious Allied Powers did not step in to help. Allied aid for postwar reconstruction - led by the United States under the Marshall Plan - soon came to Italy.

Meanwhile, a coalition of political parties united to govern Italy during its transition and to cleanse the country of Mussolini's fascism. One important leader in the governing alliance was Alcide De Gasperi, head of the Christian Democracy political party and a leading figure among Italian Catholics. Eventually becoming prime minister of Italy from 1945 to 1953, Mr. De Gasperi was indispensable in calming intense ideological strife.

American policymakers knew that support for Mr. De Gasperi was crucial to building a democratic Italy, but Mr. De Gasperi also knew that his efforts to revive the Italian economy were being obstructed by the communists and other Marxist politicians in the governing coalition. At last, in May 1947, Mr. De Gasperi dissolved his Cabinet and formed a new one excluding Marxist parties but welcoming many others of numerous persuasions.

Still, U.S. planners worried about the future. James C. Dunn, the U.S. ambassador to Italy, reported to Secretary of State George C. Marshall that should the present effort to govern Italy without the communists fail, the future of democracy in Italy may be most seriously endangered.

'Scared to death'

The National Security Council determined that a communist takeover in Italy would be disastrous for the United States and Western Europe. It would cut off the United States from allies such as Greece and Turkey, hinder communication with Mediterranean allies, and put allies in the Middle East in danger of Soviet domination. …