206. Memorandum of Conversation1


  • Meeting between President Nixon and Prime Minister Colombo


  • President Nixon
  • Prime Minister Colombo
  • Mr. Boniver (Prime Minister’s Interpreter)
  • Mr. Neil A. Seidenman (State Department)

The President said to the Prime Minister that since his last visit in Rome2 he had followed with interest the problems he has had to face. It seems so natural in our times that most countries have about one crisis per day, but the Prime Minister has been doing very well. The Prime Minister replied appreciatively that in a sense this was really the way things had to be done.

The President asked about the present political situation in Italy, remarking that one reads so many “horror stories” in the press about what is happening between the democratic forces and the opposition elements.

The Prime Minister replied that one can read “horror stories” in the Italian press as well. On the Italian political scene, a four-party coalition has been re-built, consisting of the two Socialist parties, the Republican Party, and the DC. This is a coalition that has its problems and at times is difficult to hold together. But there is really no alternative to this formula. Specifically with regard to the DC party, the press often exaggerates the significance of what appears to be a new stance taken by DC left-wing factions. Within the DC, however, the fact is that the majority rules out any cooperation with the Communists. Furthermore, the left-wing factions themselves at no time have actually asserted a desire to bring the Communists into the government. To be sure, the Communists pose a problem as the most powerful of the opposition parties. And nowadays they have become especially dangerous in that they are seeking to project an image of respectability, donning the cloak of a party of democratic opposition. The DC, therefore, must make a consistent effort to maintain among the voters the distinction between what the coalition stands for and what the Communists really are. And [Page 695] it is important to avoid overstepping to the right or to the left. For example, in Italy, if circumstances seem to strengthen the parties on the right, particularly with reference to the Neo Fascists, the Communists will take advantage of this and try to drum up a common front against Fascism. Hence, the effort must be to continue and preserve the policy of democratic solidarity of the parties that stand against Fascism, maintaining the strength of the democratic parties and keeping the rightist parties in their appropriate historical place.

The President then asked if there was any validity of accounts to the effect that the Communists were growing in strength, to the extent that Italy might be threatened with political disaster.

Prime Minister Colombo replied that the strength of the Communists is a fact of life. But their coming into the government is most unlikely. The DC would never accept cooperation with the Communists.

President Nixon asked the Prime Minister if Italy’s link to NATO was harmful with reference to the popularity of the government, from a purely pragmatic political standpoint. The President expressed his conviction that the strength, independence, and progress of Italy is indispensable to the future of Europe, the Mediterranean area, and to the world. Italy has been at the forefront of efforts toward European integration, which the President said he is in agreement with and indeed applauds. All of this is fully recognized. But does Italy’s stand in this regard hurt the government’s popularity; would it not fare better by adopting a more neutral stance?

Prime Minister Colombo replied that in all of its policy statements, each of the coalitions, including the present one, has reiterated two fundamental points of firm commitment: 1) faithful adherence to the alliance, and 2) the building of Europe. The President inquired further as to whether this constituted a position of popular strength in Italy. We are aware of the things that have been done and are grateful for them. But with the survival in Italy of the Prime Minister’s government and party constituting such an important issue, do these things help or harm? The President illustrated his point by referring to a comment made to him by a friend from the Philippines, which of course enjoys a special relationship with the United States. This particular leader told the President that the secret of political success in the Philippines is to “give Hell” to the United States, while in reality no one wants to get rid of the U.S. The President also recalled the warm welcome he has always received in his visits to Italy. But he is aware that in many parts of the world, to speak against the U.S. is politically useful.

Prime Minister Colombo said that there is little doubt that Italy’s position of friendship with the U.S. does not make it popular with the Communists or among the extreme left parties. But the President asked [Page 696] if the GOI’s position was harmful to its image with the majority of the people.

The Prime Minister replied that it was not. This policy, of course, must be implemented with the appropriate sophistication and “nuance.” Some issues require a subtle approach. For example, the Mediterranean policy, particularly with reference to the problem of the Middle East. Were the Italian Government not to give a very definite impression that it maintains the hope of negotiations and that it is working to bring about fruitful negotiations in that area, then its position would diminish in popularity even among those friendly to Italy’s links with the U.S. and the NATO. Another example of “current interest” in this regard; Italy extended diplomatic recognition to Communist China last year,3 while preserving the position it has adopted to date on the Important Question, within the U.N. However, in the event that the GOI fails to find a solution to this problem within the next year or so, it will have troubles, for its position will come in for criticism even on the part of those who support Italian foreign policy formulas. Still another subject of utmost importance is Southeast Asia. The Prime Minister assured the President that his policy of gradual disengagement there has been helpful to the GOI.

The President replied that he could at this time convey to the Prime Minister, confidentially, that the program in Southeast Asia is going well, that in South Vietnam and Laos we are buying time so that they can take over more and more of their own defense, and that should he and the Prime Minister come together again next year at this time, this issue may no longer exist. We, of course, cannot say publically, the President went on, exactly what our pullout program is. We must hold on to the “negotiating stick” regarding the problem of the prisoners of war, and for other reasons. But the program will lead to the time when South Vietnam will be able to survive as a strong and independent country.

The President made reference to the Middle East. He said it could be assumed that this issue would be delved into at greater length between Secretary Rogers and Foreign Minister Moro,4 as it is a question of great interest to Italy. And indeed it constitutes a very serious problem. The Arabs and the Israelis may go on hating each other for another 1,000 years, just as they have for the last 5,000 years. But the President said he believed that with a renewal of the cease-fire, in March, we should not worry too much about the day-to-day statements and coun[Page 697]terstatements by Premier Golda Meir and by President Sadat. After all, if there is a new outbreak of fighting in the Middle East, there will be no winner. Therefore, each side has a considerable stake and must seek peace. And now there is hope of bringing about the re-opening of the Suez Canal.

The President again stressed his concern, from an historical viewpoint, about the internal political situation in Italy, which could affect the future of Europe and the Mediterranean area. If Italy is able to continue its economic progress and its government’s orientation to the West and hold down the Communists, this will be a source of strength and stabilization. In the U.S. there is the saying, “As Maine goes, so goes the country!” This is no longer true, but it parallels our feeling that as Italy goes, so goes Europe. What happens in Italy can affect Spain, Greece, all of North Africa, and other countries of Europe. It seems that now, more than ever since the time of the Roman Empire, it is valid to say that what happens in Rome affects Europe. The President said that many of his friends and visitors—from Spain, etc.—have stated to him that what happens in Italy is very important. For this reason, we want to cooperate in any way possible.

The Prime Minister stated that there is definite awareness in his country of Italy’s responsibility in this regard, and that he in particular feels the heat of it. He said that he was absolutely certain, however [moreover], that were he to propose a policy involving a loosening of Italy’s connection with the Atlantic Alliance, he would make more enemies than friends.

The President said that this would seem to indicate that, as is often the case, the enemies are louder, while friends are more numerous.

The Prime Minister said that this is so. He hastened to stress that he was referring only to foreign policy in this regard, and not to some of Italy’s domestic issues. He went on to emphasize that Italy’s position in the Mediterranean, and the effect of Italian policies on the Mediterranean area and Europe make him very much aware of his responsibility on this level, to the extent that if he did not enjoy majority support for this policy, he would not stay in office for another day.

The President asked Prime Minister Colombo what the major problems were that he is facing internally; in the social, economic, or political area. While he has kept abreast of developments generally, he said he wished to hear directly from the Prime Minister in this regard, as he himself saw the situation in his authority.

The Prime Minister said the economic situation in Italy was very much improved.

The President said that our concern about textiles was directed against Japanese textiles, not Italian textiles.

[Page 698]

The President said he is a free trader and does not want to have quotas imposed on shoe imports. This was a delicate position for him to take. He asked that the Prime Minister not reveal publicly what he had just said about shoes.

The President said that if trade obstacles by the EC remain or are raised there would be negative reactions by U.S. trade interests, especially in the agricultural sector.

The President said we should all be sensitive to actions in the trade field so as not to trigger counter actions.

The President does not want to take action that would lead to retaliation.

The Prime Minister said he was grateful to the President for the position he had taken on the Mills Bill5 and he realized that it was difficult to take such a position.

The Prime Minister said that shoes and textiles created a very delicate problem in Italy.

The Prime Minister said that the tendencies in agriculture are always protectionist, and against liberalization.

The Prime Minister said that the EC’s agricultural policy was too costly and that it would benefit all to modify their agricultural policies.

The President asked the Prime Minister if he could take the leadership in the EC on this issue.

The Prime Minister replied that he had done this and that as a result he is not very popular among farmers.

The Prime Minister said there must be sympathy and mutual understanding on trade issues and that there must be efforts in the EC to overcome problems with U.S.

The Prime Minister said Italy’s partners in the EC had suggested that nothing be done to change the EC policies on meat, eggs, and ham but “let’s liberalize citrus fruit first.”

The Prime Minister said it would be a grave error to trigger a negative spirit of protectionist measures.

The Prime Minister said he has no doubt but that European integration is a very serious problem for the USSR. The President emphatically agreed, saying that while the Soviets have problems in other areas, such as Vietnam, the Middle East, and possibly China over the [Page 699] long haul, the prime area of concern is still Europe and unification is very definitely contrary to Soviet objectives.

Meeting adjourned at 12 Noon.6

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Special Files, President’s Office Files, Memos for the President. Secret; Eyes Only. Colombo visited Washington February 18–20.
  2. See Document 197.
  3. See Document 199.
  4. Rogers and Moro and their delegations were also meeting at this time. A memorandum of conversation is in the National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 923, VIP Visits, Italy PM Colombo Visit.
  5. H.R. 14879, introduced by Wilbur Mills (D–AR), Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, imposed quotas on imports of textiles and footwear. The President had reluctantly supported the textiles provisions. A bill including the Mills proposals passed the House on November 19 but died in the Senate.
  6. Following their private discussion, the President and Prime Minister joined the meeting of Secretary Rogers and Foreign Minister Moro. The President met for a second time with the Italian delegation on February 20. According to a memorandum of conversation of this meeting, the President stated: “We support the efforts of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister toward ensuring a strong and unified [Christian Democratic] party. It is clear to us that the case of Chile illustrated how the bad can win when the good are divided. The Prime Minister’s party, therefore, represents the best hope for the future of Italy. But only if it is unified so as not to allow a minority to come in and monopolize power.” (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Box 923, VIP Visits, Italy PM Colombo Visit)