Kaeten Mistry. The United States, Italy and the Origins of Cold War: Waging Political Warfare, 1945–1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 308 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-03508-9.
Reviewed by Andrew N. Buchanan
Published on H-Socialisms (December, 2014)
Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)
Postwar Political Warfare in Italy
In The United States, Italy and the Origins of Cold War: Waging Political Warfare 1945-1950, Kaeten Mistry sets out to complicate the writing of American diplomatic history, challenging the simplistic notion that foreign policy emanates entirely from the upper echelons of the government, and is cleanly executed by obedient underlings in a chain of command stretching from Washington to embassies and military headquarters overseas. In its place, Mistry offers a picture of American policy emerging from conflicts and collaborations among shifting networks of actors that include individuals and bureaucratic factions in Washington; “mid-level” American and local officials in Italy; and leaders of nongovernmental organizations such as political parties, trade unions, aid organizations, and the Catholic Church. American policymakers constantly interact with “local” figures, and their understanding is shaped and modified by these relationships even as they seek to shape the actions of their Italian interlocutors. Mistry does not ignore those in the top ranks of the administration—he devotes particular attention to the intellectual framework of “political warfare” established by George Kennan—but their contribution is shaped and modified by this complex coterie of lower level actors.
Mistry situates his account of the complexities of policy making within an exhaustive—and, one is tempted to say, exhausting—account of American efforts to block the possibility of a Communist electoral victory in the May 1948 Italian election. This effort generated a “series of marriages of convenience” between American officials and Italian politicians that found their “common bond” in the desire to derail the Italian Communist Party’s (PCI) electoral challenge (pp. 5, 14). For the Americans, this Cold War imperative was informed by the emerging notions of political warfare—that is, of waging “war short of actual war”—championed by George Kennan and his newly formed Policy Planning Staff (p. 95). In Italy, Kennan’s efforts to conceptualize ways of asserting a muscular foreign policy while avoiding a direct military confrontation with the Soviet Union opened the door to a series of techniques, ranging from material and propaganda support to favored local actors, through the promotion of splits and realignments within local party and trade union organizations, to the supply of weapons to covert rightist forces, that would form the toolkit of subsequent American covert operations. The 1948 Italian campaign, as Kennan himself pointed out, would thus mark the “inauguration of organized political warfare” (p. 8).
American policy towards Italy unfolded in the context of a pervasive ideological mindset that viewed Italians as naturally childlike, inherently feckless, and highly impressionable. Kennan self-consciously viewed himself as a “man of the north,” and stressed the virtues of rationality over the alleged emotionalism of the “Latin mind”; other policymakers were even more blunt, with the State Department’s Walter Dowling working to articulate a policy that even the “dumbest wop” could appreciate (pp. 102, 42). Nevertheless, while American policymakers might bemoan the inability of “Latins” to match up to their own stern Anglo-Saxon virtues, the discourse that infantilized Italians and emphasized the necessity of paternal American leadership served to provide robust justification for political warfare both in Italy and, in the context of the deepening Cold War, throughout much of the colonial world.
During 1946, Washington’s emerging political warfare effort in Italy coalesced around support for Alcide De Gasperi, the centrist leader of the Christian Democrats (DC). This was an archetypal marriage of convenience: while De Gasperi clearly needed and valued American backing, he was no mere patsy, becoming adept at leveraging his own importance to the Americans to advance his own factional interests. De Gasperi’s emergence as Washington’s primary interlocutor was, as Mistry shows in some detail, by no means predetermined, with the Italian leader only gradually achieving predominance in the often chaotic world of DC politics. Washington’s relationship with De Gasperi took firm shape with the arrival in Rome in February 1947 of the new American ambassador, James Dunn. Dunn was a staunch conservative, whose pro-Franco and pro-Vichy views had earned him the public opprobrium of leading liberals. He was also an old Italy hand, having represented the State Department during the military occupation of the peninsular. This background, combined with good personal connections in Washington, made Dunn the ideal pointman for the developing political warfare effort.
The relationship between Dunn and De Gasperi was at the heart of the American effort to secure the defeat of the PCI in the 1948 election. Prompted by Dunn and by his key aide, embassy economic attaché Henry Tasca, De Gasperi purged the remaining members of the PCI from his coalition government in May 1947. Mistry suggests that De Gasperi’s action was attributable more to internal factional considerations than to direct American pressure, but the result of the purge was to remove the remaining obstacle to the large-scale inflow of American aid. At the same time, the State Department used its developing intimacy with the American trade union movement to open another key “gateway” to covert political action (p. 115). American trade union leaders like Jay Lovestone and Irving Brown utilized contacts with European unions and political parties as conduits for “unvouchered” State Department funds, using this money to promote both a centrist split from the Italian Socialist Party in January 1947, and an ongoing attempt to form a new and ostensibly “apolitical” trade union federation (pp. 116, 45-46, 160-161).
These measures helped to prepare an exceptionally intense American intervention into Italian politics in the weeks prior the May election. Officially authorized by NSC 1/3 in March 1948, this National Security Council directive put a “rubber-stamp” on the rapid expansion of a political intervention already initiated on an “impromptu” basis by officials “in the field”: yet again, Mistry emphasizes, policy emerged from the interplay between Washington and its officials in Italy, rather than emanating simply from the top down (p. 141). In addition to covert funding channeled to the DC, Washington sponsored a major get-out-the-vote effort featuring prominent Italian Americans, including Frank Sinatra and Joe Di Maggio. Ambassador Dunn launched a remarkable whistle-stop tour of his own, traveling the country to celebrate the arrival of shipments of U.S. aid. His message was unambiguous, suggesting that only the DC could secure the continued flow of American aid and of the modernity and cultural authority that it embodied.
The 1948 election campaign, influenced to an indeterminate but by no means insignificant degree by this American intervention, culminated in a resounding defeat for the PCI. Over the next two years, Italy completed its journey from the “nadir of fascism” to integration as a “core member of the western world” (p. 174). American officials were duly impressed with the apparent efficacy of their political warfare campaign, and in 1952 the Central Intelligence Agency was reorganized through a merger with the Office of Policy Coordination—itself nominally a branch of the CIA operating under the direction of an Advisory Committee that included George Kennan as State Department delegate—in order to place such activity at the center of its mission. Mistry argues convincingly, however, that in their rush to claim authorship of an apparently successful intervention, American policymakers distorted and misunderstood the lessons of their experience in Italy. In particular, they tended to emphasize prescient decision making in Washington, and to overlook the critical role of mid-level actors, including the “informed American officials on the ground” who had the contacts and the ability necessary to forge relationships with “credible local elites and transnational groups” (p. 205). Without this critical link, marriages of convenience with astute local leaders keen on pursuing their own interests could quickly become unmanageable—a lesson, Mistry points out, that would have to be painfully relearned in both Vietnam and Iraq. Thus, even as it became a “trope in the organization of political warfare,” the real experience of the Italian election campaign was distorted and misunderstood (p. 204).
Kaeten Mistry tells this complex and multifaceted story with confidence and clarity, if at times with a little too much detail. It is a story that needs telling, countering the top-down narratives favored by Washington policymakers and historians alike. In Mistry’s hands, policy making is a chaotic and often contradictory process involving significant “mid-level” input and negotiation with local actors complete with their own agendas and motivations. Rather than advancing forcefully and along clear lines, policy might only attain coherence with hindsight.
Not surprisingly in a work of this complexity, Mistry’s book is not without its weaknesses. It is striking, for example, that while delving deeply into the details of factional struggles within the DC, Mistry is entirely silent on parallel divisions within the PCI, and, more importantly, on the complexities of the relationship between party leaders and Moscow. Clearly, since the DC and not the PCI was Washington’s prime interlocutor, the details of the divisions within the former are going to loom larger in this narrative. But to ignore the latter entirely plays into a rather traditional view of postwar pro-Moscow Communism as a monolithic block. Perhaps this was not Mistry’s intention, but a few words on this score would have gone a long way to correcting this impression. Moreover, the lack of nuance on this issue reinforces that fact that Mistry does not seem to offer a clear cut verdict of his own on the efficacy of American political warfare in 1948—a judgment, I hasten to add, that need not imply approval. Was the American intervention responsible, as its proponents believed, for swinging the election against the PCI? Or did the electoral defeat of Italian Communism stem from more directly Italian factors, including the PCI’s perceived subservience to Moscow? Mistry rightly points out that American policymakers drew the erroneous conclusion that an Italian-style intervention could be repeated elsewhere, regardless of local conditions; but were they right in thinking that such an intervention had been decisive in Italy itself? Mistry argues that the “perception” of American success is more important than the “prosaic and ineffectual question” of whether that perception was accurate (p. 5). Perhaps. But that hardly negates the importance of making some judgment, however qualified, on the actuality, or otherwise, of American success.
In a work buoyed by complexity, one significant division amongst American agents—that between the State Department-led political warfare campaign and the CIA’s own covert operation in Italy—is left largely unexplored. Mistry is at pains to distance his narrative from the standard CIA-centric version of events, criticizing other scholars for viewing the American intervention in the 1948 election “through the narrow prism of Agency activities” (p. 179). In fact, he suggests, the CIA was largely “bypassed” by events in Italy (p. 7). It is entirely plausible that the CIA’s own mythmaking has accorded it the lead role, and that the broader political warfare operation has, as Mistry alleges, been deliberately downplayed. The problem is that it is impossible for the reader to make a judgment on this question since, in his desire to avoid the CIA’s narrow prism, Mistry almost entirely excludes the Agency’s work from his account—except to assert that they were not as important as they thought they were. In a work characterized by its meticulous attention to detail, this is an odd omission, the more so since it touches directly on a critical point of differentiation between Mistry and historians who have gone before him.
Finally, Mistry asserts on numerous occasions that for American policymakers Italy was simply not a “core” foreign policy priority (pp. 20, 25, 30, 52, 105). He is hardly alone in this judgment; in fact, this diminution of the weight and significance of events in Italy is a standard element in the vast majority of histories of American involvement in the European theater during World War Two and in postwar Western Europe. The problem, of course, is that Mistry’s own account demonstrates precisely that Italy was important, even critical, to American planners in the early years of the Cold War. Mistry attempts to square the circle by arguing that following George Marshall’s speech at Harvard in June 1947 at which he laid out the essentials of what would become the European Recovery Program, Italy suddenly became a “cornerstone for the US government’s broad plan” (p. 59). Such a leap is scarcely plausible. Might it not be more accurate, particularly given the evident strength of the PCI, to see Italy as occupying a pivotal place in the thinking of American policymakers from (at least) the 1943 Salerno landings onwards? Mistry might be right to suggest that, in terms of “economic and strategic priorities, Italy ranked below Britain, France, and Germany” (p. 62). In terms of politics, however, Britain, France, and Germany all lacked the Trojan Horse-like capacity to unhinge American hegemony in Western Europe from within. This potential became shockingly evident to American leaders when their troops arrived in Naples in October 1943 to find a city already liberated by a popular uprising of its own citizens; from that moment on, Italy was never far from the minds of American policymakers. The notion of Italy’s unimportance—until it suddenly becomes very important—is thus the flipside of the elite notions of Italian incompetence and childishness that Mistry himself charts so well.
These criticisms aside—and Mistry cannot be fairly faulted for buying into the standard trope of Italy’s relative unimportance—this is a fine book both in its detailed explication of the conduct of America’s political warfare in postwar Italy and, perhaps more importantly, in its entirely convincing challenge to traditional assumptions of top-down policymaking.
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Andrew N. Buchanan. Review of Kaeten Mistry, The United States, Italy and the Origins of Cold War: Waging Political Warfare, 1945–1950.
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