103. Airgram From the Embassy in Italy to the Department of State1



  • The July Rumors of an Italian Coup d’Etat


The spate of press comment following a gloom-and-doom article on the Italian political situation, published in Hamburg’s Die Welt on June 23, together with the clamorous activity of the Italian extreme right and extreme left during the recent governmental crisis, were followed by rumors in early July that a coup d’etat was imminent. The background of these rumors, and the degree to which such speculation could be realistic, is discussed in this airgram.

The Die Welt article, apparently written by its resident Rome correspondent, Friedrich Meichsner, was first picked up in Italy by the Florence daily newspaper La Nazione (independent conservative) on June 24. From the La Nazione summary, it appeared that the Die Welt article foresaw the inevitable coming to power of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), if present trends in Italy continued. The German newspaper article apparently also discounted the feasibility of a sharp turn to the right, which would only result in a Communist victory in the end. The only solution, according to La Nazione’s account of the Die Welt story, was a continuation of the center-left policy of social reform, but under the guidance of other, more competent hands than those of then-incumbent center-left government, and Die Welt urged that European encouragement and economic support be given any Italian effort in such a direction. The Die Welt article saw the Italian President, conservative Christian Democrat Antonio Segni, as the only man able to step into the breach, and called for “concrete and appropriate” steps, within and outside of Italy, to save the country.

This apparent call for a Gaullist solution to Italy’s current difficulties was widely and very unfavorably reported in a broad range of the Italian press from the conservative to the Communist end of the political spectrum. Thus, while objecting to the exhortatory message in [Page 209] the Die Welt article, the Italian press gave it heavy play. Within three days of the publication of the Die Welt piece and the Nazione playback, quite sensational reflections of the original article and of the Italian interest therein were appearing in the local press. For example, on June 26, the Christian Democrat daily of Rome Il Popolo picked up the following from the Koelner Stadt-Anzieger:

“A state of alarm rule in Italy. Even in Government circles, there is a frightening pessimism with regard to domestic political developments. Inflation, corruption, and criminality in progressive increase erode the faith of Italians in their country. Extreme right-wing groups are already preparing for a coup d’etat, with the support of military officers in active service.”

Similarly bleak assessments of Italy’s current course were reproduced from the French press, together with an alleged comparison of the Italian situation with conditions in the Fourth Republic in 1958 attributed to De Gaulle himself. At the same time, while the four-party negotiations for a new coalition accord seemed to hang on dead center, it was made known that President Segni had received (on July 13) the President of the Senate, Cesare Merzagora, next in succession to the President of the Republic, for the second time during the crisis, and that the President had also received General Aldo Rossi, the Chief of Staff of the Italian Armed Forces (on July 14), and Prime Minister-designate Aldo Moro (on July 15). In the circumstances, these meetings encouraged further speculation in increasingly dramatic and even ominous overtones.

Finally, more contemplative articles as well as potboilers appeared in several weekly reviews (L’Espresso, Folla, Epoca), keeping the subject alive and playing upon the earlier rumors that a coup d’etat was imminent.

The Situation Behind the Rumors

Behind the recent crisis and the talk of a coup d’etat lies a postwar Italian history of tremendous efforts to raise a democratic seedling in the stony ground left by the Fascist era and the disillusionment and violence of the war. This postwar struggle to create a viable democratic political and economic system has been further complicated by the persistent efforts of the parties of the extreme right and left to discredit the democratic system and the men dedicated to its service. Despite the progress of the postwar years, and the Italian “economic miracle,” the failure of the governing parties to come to grips with many remaining economic and social problems has led to a small but consistent increase in the electoral strength of the Communists, a steady attrition of Christian Democrat (DC) strength, and seemingly growing public impatience with shortcomings which have perhaps in part represented inherent national failures, but which have been understandably [Page 210] laid at the political door of the center parties so long in power in Italy.

The impatience of the public with the present government by party bureaucracies, or “partitocrazia,” has found expression recently not only on the right and left extremes, but also by more respectable elements such as Randolfo Pacciardi (see Rome’s A-1581 of May 14, 1964),2 erstwhile leader of the Republican Party (PRI) and well known anti-Fascist, who now rejects the present system and has called for the creation of a “Second Republic” in terms which could also describe a Gaullist solution.

Additionally, both ideological and political leadership problems have beset the democratic Italian parties in recent years, particularly the DC, due to differing political interpretations of the significance of the growing left-wing vote, and consequent steps necessary to recoup at least part of it into the democratic area. A major complication was added when the Socialists (PSI) led by Pietro Nenni after long and difficult efforts, moved far enough away from the influence of the Italian Communists to be accepted, after bitter factional leadership struggles within the DC, into the controversial Italian center-left government experiment of the past few years. The immediate significance, quickly made apparent, was that instead of just one major governing political party torn by internal strife, Italy became the proud owner of two. And, despite the encouraging note struck by the reform-oriented program of the first Moro Government, internal party problems and the pressure of the serious economic situation combined to saddle a most unimpressive record on the first center-left government, which fell on June 27.

Seldom was there a time like this one in postwar Italian history when so many diverse elements could agree, rightly or wrongly, that the record of democratic government in Italy had left much to be desired. Any external call for a Gaullist solution was certain to receive attention in view of the internal situation which set the stage for it. Against this kind of background, we can examine the coup rumors and try to evaluate them.

Factors Militating Against a Coup

The practical factors operating against a coup were more impressive, however, than the psychological factors which suggested the possibility of a coup to Die Welt.

As far as concerns a coup from the right, there is a long Italian military tradition of refraining from extra-legal action to influence or control the government. Additionally, there is a deeply rooted anti-Fascist [Page 211] sentiment in Italy which would make popular support extremely unlikely in the absence of careful preparation of public opinion by respectable leadership elements. Such preparation would have to take place in circumstances much more discouraging to democratic opinion than the situation existing at the end of June. And any attempt by rightist elements to seize power in Italy without the overwhelming support of public opinion could not be successful under present conditions without widespread violence and possibly outright civil war.

On the left, the leadership of the strong and well-organized Italian Communist Party (PCI) is well aware that a Communist coup de main would unify domestic and foreign opposition and thus probably turn the attempt into a disaster similar to the abortive Greek Communist postwar attempt under “General Markos”; which vicarious lesson Togliatti has publicly cited for the benefit of Party militants. The current status of readiness, the political reliability, and the heavier weapons made available in recent years to the Italian Carabinieri underline Togliatti’s point. PCI caution would militate against taking the initiative for a coup d’etat unless reaction from Italy’s allies were unlikely, and unless reaction at home could be quickly and quietly controlled.

However, Italian reaction to a coup from the right without overwhelming popular support would hand over to the PCI a broad range of democratic anti-Fascist elements of the public. The PCI would then either have to join hands with any spontaneous reaction, to meet force with force, or abandon a popular cause in circumstances which would destroy whatever image the PCI has in Italy as a defender of freedom, an inflexibly anti-Fascist force, vanguard and protector of the working class, etc. The bold action the PCI has mounted on previous occasions, when moving with the mainstream of public opinion, leaves little doubt as to the likely PCI decision in such a situation. While unlikely to resort to a coup which the public would oppose, the PCI would almost certainly take to the barricades, with popular support and approval, in reaction to any coup from the right.

In short, there is no power vacuum or dangerous imbalance of power in Italy. On the contrary, there is a relatively stable balance of forces. A coup from the left would have little chance of success, and it is all too clear that an attempted coup from the right would be likely to lead to violence or civil war which might present the unwelcome alternatives of Communism or, as a large segment of the population would see it, “Fascism”. The situation in Italy does not favor adventure. On the contrary, democratic leadership elements know from past experience that they would have to react quickly to any ill-considered move on the political right, or be prepared to witness a popular reaction ready-made for Communist exploitation.

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A Gaullist Formula

One possible course, toward a Gaullist solution which might avoid the instability almost certain to follow any coup de main, was outlined in an article by Livio Pesce, carried in the Epoca issue of July 12, following a line of thought generally attributed to Randolfo Pacciardi. This possible course would have to be initiated by the President (as suggested in fact by Die Welt), and would carefully exploit the framework of the Italian Constitution, thus presenting the natural opposition with the alternatives of acquiescence, or acceptance of the onus and consequent political isolation which would stem from resorting first to the threat of force.

At a point of “insoluble” crisis, as Epoca puts it, the President could appoint (under Article 92 of the Constitution) a Prime Minister and Cabinet without reference to the party politicians; a Government of “national unity” composed of “personalities of authority, sensible and patriotic, ready to work with the President hellip; for the good of the nation.” This of course would be entirely constitutional. But Article 94 says that “the Government must have the confidence of both Chambers [of the Parliament].”3 As Epoca resolved the problem, the President would have to carry Parliament with him by “a solemn and dramatic appeal to the parties and to the nation; an appeal to the people for the salvation of the country.” A combination of an appeal from the President, the image projected by his Prime Minister-designate, and the lack of acceptable non-violent alternatives would then have to carry the day and also provide the political consensus for an orderly transition to whatever new forms were envisaged as the next step.

All this is familiar and required little imagination in view of recent French history. However, it does not fit present circumstances in Italy.

Second Thoughts After the Crisis

A new look at the alarmist speculation was taken by several commentators after the crisis had passed, once the new four-party accords were achieved on July 18, on the basis of which the second Moro government was subsequently formed. Pietro Nenni, in an Avanti editorial, maintained that the alternative to the new center-left government would have been an emergency government, of “disinterested servants of the state,” which in reality would have been a government of the right, with a Fascist-agrarian-industrialist content. Ugo La Malfa in La Voce Repubblicana noted (on July 27) that after the center-left had been re-constituted, it became easy to read assessments which dismissed [Page 213] lightly the earlier talk of a coup. But, La Malfa observed, the maneuvers and counter-maneuvers in the dramatic atmosphere of the crisis were well designed to draw the DC to the right, toward a reactionary adventure. The extreme right-wing satirical weekly Il Borghese apparently felt that a Gaullist formula had been within reach, and the July 23 issue strongly criticized President Segni for “betraying” the country’s faith in him by re-designating Aldo Moro to form a (second) center-left government, and for failing to remove the Communist threat in Italy as De Gaulle did in France in 1958.

Other heads saw the matter differently, once the crisis was resolved. Giovanni Spadolini, of Bologna’s conservative Resto del Carlino, owned by the same financial group that controls La Nazione, which started the original flurry of articles, criticized Nenni for his statement that the alternative to a new center-left government had been an authoritarian reactionary government which was ready to be launched. According to Spadolini, there had been too much talk of authoritarian solutions. Italy “is neither Bolivia nor Santo Domingo.” President Segni had no choice but to call on Moro to form a government, and in the event of failure by Moro Segni would have had to explore alternate democratic solutions before, as a last resort, calling elections. Spadolini expressed full confidence in President Segni as “the supreme guarantee of constitutional and democratic legality,” and dismissed the criticisms from the right and left as “absurd and senseless.” From the other side of the political spectrum, moderately left-wing (left-Radical) l’Espresso joined Spadolini in rejecting Nenni’s pessimistic view and the rumors of a possible coup, saying flatly (on August 2) that “the hypothesis of a coup d’etat had no possibility of realization;” that the far right continues to hopefully cultivate the idea, but that their hopes are not soundly based in the realities of Italian circumstances.

Summary and Conclusions

The Embassy believes that Spadolini and l’Espresso are clearly the better Monday morning quarterbacks in their assessments of the situation as it was and is, and we agree that there is little likelihood of a coup d’etat in Italy at this stage of its post-war history. This is not to deny that cries of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the system in Italy have become louder in recent years as a result of the failure of a succession of post-war governments to move quickly towards reducing inefficiency and corruption in government, to meet the pace of increasing Italian expectations, and to contain the increasing electoral voting threat on the left. Talk of a “Second Republic” has been stimulated mildly by the Pacciardi movement, but the situation is not as yet such as to create a consensus prepared to reject a system which has served many diverse elements well during the post-war years. In these [Page 214] circumstances, the tradition and reliability of the armed forces, the strong anti-Fascist popular sentiment, the balance of forces of political elements with the country, the caution and lack of capability of the PCI to mount a quick and clean-cut coup, and the absence of a “strong man” to attract the popular imagination constitute formidable obstacles to any illegal seizure of power. If public disillusionment continues to grow, as it will in the long run if the ability of democratic parties to govern and improve economic conditions is not firmly asserted, conditions favorable to a Gaullist solution could develop. In the absence of the necessary conditioning of broad segments of the public which would be essential not only to a Gaullist solution, but also to a coup from the left or the right, there remains only the more remote possibility of an ill-conceived attempt, without the elements of success, but which could lead to violence with political consequences. There has been no evidence of any militant dissatisfaction from any quarter both strong enough and rash enough to stake all on such a forlorn hope.

For the Chargé d’Affaires Ad Interim:
Alan W. Ford
First Secretary
  1. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1964-66, POL 1 IT. Limited Official Use. Drafted by Barnsdale. Repeated to Bonn, Brussels for the Embassy and BUSEC, London, Luxembourg, Paris for the Embassy and USRO, and The Hague.
  2. Not printed. (Ibid., POL 12 IT)
  3. Brackets in the source text.