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from issue no. 04 - 2008


In search of national solidarity

The first visit to the United States of Giorgio Napolitano, in the days of the Moro kidnapping. A reconstruction by Joseph La Palombara

Interview with Joseph La Palombara by Giovanni Cubeddu

Napolitano during the visit to the US in April 1978

Napolitano during the visit to the US in April 1978

A visit made exactly thirty years ago. “In recent days Napolitano had been to Yale, New York and Washington. At Yale, apart from numerous encounters with university professors and students, the communist leader has occasion to exchange ideas and assessments not only with Professor Joseph La Palombara, but also with renowned economists such as James Tobin and respected scholars of political science such as Robert A. Dahl. On the same day he gave a speech at the Lehrman Institute in New York, and another to the Council on Foreign Relations, which were followed by brief but intense discussion. Both at the Lehrman and the Council highly qualified representatives of the economic, university and media worlds were present. In Washington companion Napolitano led a seminar on Italy and the Italian Communist Party (PCI) organized by Johns Hopkins University and the Center of Strategic and International Studies of Georgetown University and gave a long interview on one of the public service television channels. He also, finally, attended a lunch in his honor given by the Italian ambassador to the United States, to which various representatives of the press of the American capital had been invited”.
Thus Alberto Jacoviello, l’Unità correspondent in Washington at the time, introduced the reader to an interview with Giorgio Napolitano, a leading figure in the PCI, member of the executive and head of its economics department. In sober style, but with the adjectives well considered (dutifully Jacoviello sent the text to the interviewee and got back corrections) it aimed to stress the importance given to the event. The visit was, in fact, sui generis. Even if other members of the Party had previously been able to give small talks in America, Napolitano was the first leader of the PCI admitted as such into the United States – that is not simply as member of a parliamentary, regional or municipal delegation – thanks to an entry visa granted in evident exception to the ideological and restrictive laws (initiated with the Smith Act of 1940, and continued with the McCarran Act of 1950), that forbade the giving of visas to those who constituted a “threat” to the country, and the Communists came under that category. In a visit lasting from 4 to 19 April 1978, Napolitano made himself bearer of the hope that the Americans would gain a better understanding of the PCI, the progress it had made, its particular approach to Euro-communism, and accept, finally, the Italian anomaly and the Historical Compromise. However, more than two weeks before he finally landed in America, Aldo Moro had been kidnapped. Napolitano was to write the following May, in Rinascita (in an article entitled The PCI explained to the Americans), as a sort of final comment on his trip to the United States: “It is in any case a fact that has kindled interest [in the PCI, ed.], that channels of communication and assessment have been opened. We must follow them, even if the way forward will not be simple”.
Napolitano’s American interlocutors were academics and figures with politico-cultural interests. Not one member of Congress or the administration: that was the line not to cross. On 7 November 1977 the communist leader had received a letter of confirmation from Princeton University of the invitation to give lectures at the university and stressing the backing of Professor Peter Lange of Harvard, where two years earlier Napolitano had been unable to go, instead, because of... refusal of a visa. Significantly the letter asked the Italian guest to deal with those topics which piqued American curiosity: “State participation in the economy”, “planning, monetary, fiscal, economic policy”; and then, clearly, “an international or domestic theme of particular importance for Italy and Europe”. All key arguments, authentic tests, at bottom, to demonstrate the potential compatibility with the West and NATO of the advance that saw the PCI by then “destined” to govern, especially after the excellent 34.4% gained in the political elections of 1976.
The framework to those years was the new season inaugurated by the Helsinki Agreement of 1975, the detente between the two blocs, the SALT initiatives for USA-USSR disarmament, the appearance on the scene of the idea of Euro-communism. But it is also true that the three articles signed by Berlinguer appearing in Rinascita from 28 September to 12 October 1973, proposing the “historical compromise”, had been prompted by the 11 September of that year: Pinochet’s military coup in Chile and the assassination of Salvador Allende.
Giorgio Napolitano landed in the United States with that baggage of knowledge. His visit was also the crowning achievement of that “policy of contacts” under way for some time between the embassy in Rome and various members of the PCI in secret (even with agents under diplomatic cover), classified, and public level (but with great care). The shift foreseen with the election of Jimmy Carter to the White House, that was supposed to produce a revision in American policy towards communism, was late in coming, and indeed understanding Carter’s new line had not been easy.

The Italy watchers
Joseph La Palombara began to interest himself in Italy in the immediate post-war period. His first articles on the country date back to the ’fifties and, as political expert, he influenced many Italy watchers among the succeeding generations of academics. The Faculty of Political Science of Yale University is currently being refurbished, and part is located in an annex known, from the building’s appearance, as “The diner”. At the entrance there is a portrait of La Palombara, a traditional gesture of respect from the Faculty towards its famous emeriti. It should be said for the painter that the shrewdness and sense of humour that the canvas catches are true to life, as I can testify. Professor La Palombara’s CV is very full, and includes innumerable visits to Italy and two years (1980-81) in charge of the Cultural section of the US embassy on Via Veneto in Rome. He was among the organizers of that first symbolic visit and eyewitness of its beginning.
We start from the memory of the small group which with him picked on Napolitano as the ideal guide to the ways of Euro-communism for American academics: “Professor Stanley Hoffmann of Harvard, our lamented colleague Nick Wahl, who was then teaching at Princeton University, and Professor Zbigniew Brzezinski, teaching at Columbia University at the time but also adviser on National Security to President Jimmy Carter”. In truth, an attempt at opening up to the “Euro-communists” had already been set in motion before the presidential elections of 1976. “There was a letter from Wahl, signed by Hoffmann and by me and delivered to the White House”, La Palombara goes on. “We wanted to find out whether the Executive was disposed to adopt a softer interpretation of the famous Smith Act, and make exceptions for a limited number of European Euro-communists that we considered important.” But the result was, as we know, negative. Helmut Sonnenfeldt, adviser to the State Department run by Kissinger, had the task of blocking everything. “The Secretary of State opposed it strongly. When I met him at a reception in Washington, and “complained”, pointing out that it was absolutely necessary to recognize the Euro-communist tendency, his reply was in line with his politics and personality: ‘There’ll be enough time to invite them over when they gain power!’ In fact, I wasn’t at all telling him I was sure that the PCI would reached the government – even if at bottom we expected the “overhauling” of the Christian Democrats (DC) – but Kissinger’s answer had the merit of extreme clarity: while he remained at the State Department, we wouldn’t be able to get that type of invitation to move a foot forward”.
The first attempts at contact between the staff of the political office of the US embassy in Rome and leaders of the PCI went back, in fact, from what is known, to 1969. As also the ned”.

Enrico Berlinguer, Secretary of the PCI, shaking hands with Aldo Moro, President of the DC, on 20 May 1977; in the photo, Giorgio Napolitano 
is to the left of the Secretary of the PCI

Enrico Berlinguer, Secretary of the PCI, shaking hands with Aldo Moro, President of the DC, on 20 May 1977; in the photo, Giorgio Napolitano is to the left of the Secretary of the PCI

Carter and Brzezinski come on the scene
November 1976, the election of Jimmy Carter. In December Cyrus Vance and Zbigniew Brzezinski were respectively nominated Secretary of State and National Security Adviser. The idea of sending invitations to the more “moderate” and interesting European Communists or Socialists (such as the Spaniard Carrillo, the Portuguese Soares, and Napolitano) took on new life. “Before making a formal request to the administration, however, we took soundings. Cyrus Vance I knew from earlier, as member of the governing board of Yale University. “Zbig” Brzezinski, who was now National Security Adviser, would already be able to tell us if the idea was ok.” Was President Carter also informed? “Yes, because Brzezinski was certainly not able, on his own, to change the visa policy for communist leaders. And, moreover, preparatory work needed to be done on the American Congress, and our trade unions, AFL-CIO, always ferociously anti-communist. In short, it wasn’t enough for Brzezinski to knock on the door of the Oval Office, especially after the Italian elections of 1976”.
Much has been said and written on the real or supposed difference between the hard and traditional opposition to international communism of the Nixon-Kissinger period (even given the clamorous gestures of dialogue with Moscow) and the approach, that was expected to be more understanding, of the Carter presidency. For La Palombara the truth lies in this episode: “I hosted at Yale a Soviet figure, the director of the Institute for the Study of the State, Mr. Arbatov, shortly after the presidential election of 1976. Before leaving again for Washington Arbatov said to me: ‘It will be wonderful to find in the capital a quite different policy towards us than the previous one’. I asked on what he was basing his expectation. “Kissinger is no longer there, Brzezinski is much better disposed and is beginning to open up towards the Communists in Europe...’. ‘With all due respect,’ I answered, ‘you must understand that it will be very difficult to change policy, President Carter can’t do it alone, Congress comes in here’. And him: ‘Sufficient for the president to say that policy changes and the congressmen must go along with him...’. I replied: ‘Maybe in your Institute you haven’t fully grasped the dynamics of our system: it’s not like that’. While Arbatov went on insisting that now there was Brzezinski, I closed the conversation with: ‘Listen, you have to realize that in place of a German – who surely does not love the Soviet system, and maybe not even the Russians – we now have a Pole!’”.

Non-interference, non-indifference
In March 1977 Vance and Michael Blumenthal (head of the Treasury) drafted a memorandum for Carter on the policy to adopt towards Italy and the PCI. It set out the line of what is known as “non-interference, non-indifference” about the choices that the Rome government would make on eventual power sharing with the Communist Party. Simplifying, the notion was that democracy of a western type would be maintained and the burden would be on the Communists in primis to show themselves up to the task, and therefore they had to evolve (among other things the memorandum mentioned the problem of the concession of visas to members of the Party). Moreover, shortly before Napolitano’s arrival in America the State Department’s notorious declaration of 12 January 1978 became public. It stated there was to be no backing for governments even “in coalition” with the PCI. La Palombara explains: “The American ambassador of the period, Dick Gardner, claimed at the time – and he then wrote as much in his memoirs – that the declaration was written by him, after meeting both Brzezinski and Carter in Washington. Gardner stated he had done so to counteract in Italy and Europe a wrong impression of the so-called “openness” to the Communists. A concern shared by Secretary of State Vance... Imagine then if President Carter would have wanted to take such a risk with Congress, where anti-Communism is in the very DNA of the typical American congressman”. La Palombara continues: “In my view, Washington lacked the ability to understand that, even with the Communists in coalition, Andreotti would have had the capacity to govern tranquilly and manage the relationship with the PCI, keeping it at bay. If you’ll allow me, there was in truth reason to weigh up another aspect of Andreotti, that for which some people in Washington found it indigestible that Italy had a non-trivial role to play in the Mediterranean and with the Arab world”.
One thing is sure, the declaration of January 1978 did not facilitate the dialogue, nor the possibility for Giorgio Napolitano of building bridges of understanding. “When we thought of inviting Napolitano it was because few could have enlightened my countrymen on the PCI like him, who was not of Soviet cut and whose supporters did not go around with bombs in their pockets. Seen and experienced close to, ex post facto he revealed himself to be the ideal figure for the purpose”, sums up La Palombara.

The President of the United States Jimmy Carter with Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti at the White House, Washington, 26 July 1977

The President of the United States Jimmy Carter with Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti at the White House, Washington, 26 July 1977

“A real communist in our midst”
So on 4 April 1978 the tour in America began. The Historical Compromise could work, national solidarity was in no way a danger to the interests of the United States: that was the message that Napolitano was to deliver. But how would he address his audience? “Neither Wahl nor Hoffmann, nor me neither, were one hundred percent sure about what he might say. We were moreover slightly embarrassed because the vista – as happened with Carrillo and the other Euro-communists – was granted for a specific and limited time, and above all was dependent on the necessity that we informed on – if not hour by hour, then day by day – his whereabouts on American soil. It was a requirement somewhat in conflict with the dignity that everybody justly thinks they deserve: one can’t check on what time in the morning someone gets up, eats or goes to bed... But that’s what happened with him. The passage for the concession of the visa, we know, had been tortuous”.
The grapevine went into action. The schedule included halts at the universities of Princeton, Harvard, Yale, the Lehrman Institute, the Council on Foreign Relations, Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. The reports La Palombara received from university colleagues on Napolitano’s first steps proved altogether positive. “First of all because of the flood of students and teachers who came to the meetings, even if only to see ‘a real communist in our midst’: with the Smith Act in force it was very difficult for the man in the street to meet a live one!”.
At Yale Napolitano was finally guest of La Palombara. “He was planned to talk in the main hall of the faculty of Political Science. I had granted it out of courtesy, because I didn’t expect more than forty or fifty students and a few colleagues. Instead there were people was who had to stand outside, such was the crowd.” Napolitano spoke off the cuff and, when he’d finished his introduction, replied to questions of all sorts for an hour and a half. All aimed at clarifying what conduct might be expected from the PCI in government. La Palombara recalls: “Napolitano was then forced to gently correct the apocalyptic statements of the audience claiming this would be the first time the Communists had been in power in Europe! He explained European history of the second post-war period with simplicity, with his ability, quite refined, to deal with sharp or polemical questions. To the usual better “prepared” student who asked: ‘What do you say about the conduct of the PCI during the Korean war?’, he calmly set out the historical context and explained the complex reasons which made it nearly impossible for the PCI to distance itself from Moscow at that period. I later confessed to Napolitano that his moderation had sincerely struck me, given the frequency with which that lacks in Americans political debate.” And he? “He confessed he felt ‘all the responsibility of coming there’, to my country, to feeling ‘like a species of commando’ in the United States, that he knew how important it was also for the future of his Party, in those moments”. As in the other universities already visited, at Yale Napolitano again focussed on the topic of the opening to the Left in Italy, on the agreement between all the parties in the constitutional span, often returning to the immediate post-war period when the PCI was in the government. He explained that there was a shared view of the problems of the country and that “national solidarity” would not dent the traditional Italian foreign policy.

At the Council on Foreign Relations
In La Palombara’s view there was a moment in which the visit to the States achieved a peak result: the meeting on 14 April at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. The audience consisted of big lawyers, bankers and businessmen with international interests. “I can testify to the astonishment of some members of the Council, who were expecting God knows what from this Italian ‘Communist’ disembarked in Manhattan”, the university professor comments. “After my introduction Napolitano stood up and gave a lecture on the Italian and international economy, on all the real ongoing problems, in fluent English.” Napolitano made clear to the Council that “Italy could not allow itself the luxury of opposition between PCI and DC”, he pointed to the “programmatic agreement” in force since July 1977 “which did not include the cooperation [of the PCI, ed.] in the sphere of foreign policy”, but immediately afterwards mentioned the unitary motions voted in Parliament by the PCI and DC in the autumn of 1977 on the strengthening of the European Community, on the common effort to be made for detente, armaments reduction, and the full actuation of the Helsinki Agreement. He went on to explain that “the PCI no longer opposed NATO as in the ’sixties”, and concluded his introduction with: “The shared purpose is that of overcoming the crisis, and of creating greater stability in Italy”. “In the following question and answer session”, La Palombara resumes, “his performance was again effective, so much so that one of the leaders of the Council asked me at the end whether Napolitano was indeed expressing the party line. There I had to dodge, because I didn’t dare say no, nor claim that it was the line officially accepted by the politburo of the PCI... Certainly Napolitano tended to put the stress on those aspects of the PCI in which the clash with the DC and the West was softened, that is he illustrated the solution guaranteed by Andreotti, in which the PCI would give its parliamentary backing without entering the government. But it was a solution that aroused concern in Washington, where some people were asking what were the underlying, ‘hidden’, concessions for the PCI to accept such a formula. Andreotti asked the Americans to trust him, since they were skeptical precisely about that point, which he instead knew how to handle. My fellow countrymen did not understand and didn’t trust”.

Harvard. Napolitano stayed at the university from 9 to 12 April; here he answers a question from a student

Harvard. Napolitano stayed at the university from 9 to 12 April; here he answers a question from a student

So-called “left-wing terrorism”
One topic unfortunately kept coming up in every discussion that Napolitano had to face during his stay: terrorism in Italy. Someone even confronted the Italian guest with the famous article, printed in Il Manifesto two days before his arrival in America, signed by Rossana Rossanda, in the Album di famiglia: it was Professor Mike Ledeen. “A thing of the kind could never happen here at Yale. The episode took place during a breakfast in Washington given by various study centers. I know Professor Ledeen well, as President Napolitano knows him, given Ledeen’s numerous visits to Italy, some of them during the two years I worked at the embassy in Rome. On the PCI- Red Brigade links Napolitano couldn’t be shifted: he denied and specified vigorously that if anyone ever went over the line the ‘companions’ at territorial level would never let them remain in the Party. Indeed they should be immediately ejected.” Napolitano’s round of talks took place in the middle of the fifty-fives days of the kidnapping of Aldo Moro. La Palombara recalls the first reactions of his colleagues and those of his guest: “For us American ‘Italy watchers’ it was a shock, we didn’t understand what was going on. Like every morning Moro had gone to church, then the ambush... I was very pessimist about the outcome of the kidnapping, Napolitano was less so, or at least wanted to make out so. I had gained experience of Italy travelling it during the ‘Years of lead’, I’ve always been a student of your country, but to see that Red Brigade deviation was truly unexpected. I thought I knew the Italian Left pretty well, and the phenomenon of the BR shocked me. I remember Napolitano pronouncing in by no means tender fashion against ‘so-called left-wing terrorism’, well aware that for Italian democracy and the Left, still in the process of formation, it represented a terribly negative shift”. In those moments La Palombara shared the perception with Napolitano that an abyss was then opening between Catholics and Communists in the positive development of reciprocal political relations in Italy: “Of course, because the Moro case was a tragic event that was knowingly made to happen – I borrow the title of a book written by Giorgio himself – In midstream. All the speeches given by Napolitano in the United States were inspired by the desire to clarify and to underpin the DC-PCI coalition, exactly what the terrorist deviation wanted to destroy. How do you think that Napolitano could feel, during those days of his first stay in America? I must add that the idea of blocking the shift towards dialogue between Catholics and Communists was shared and anticipated by many of my countrymen. Much more so than in Italy, where indeed the kidnapping of the president of the DC was not, in the immediate moment, taken as an event that closed definitively the period of dialogue. That has always made me respect your country and the democratic nature of the Italians very much. In comparison with Italy we Americans are not so ‘intelligent’, we have the tendency to exaggerate in describing situations, we are inclined to cut off, to polarize. Instead you Italians, precisely in the ‘Years of lead’, demonstrated a capacity for patriotic and democratic solidarity that I think admirable, and impressive”.

A “too” Catholic DC
In January 1979 the period of national solidarity formally closed. “Unfortunately, unfortunately”, comments Professor La Palombara. We ask him what weight in America – in the years in which Napolitano made his visit – had that feeling, deep if not open, of “mistrust” towards the DC, an allied party, but perhaps “too” Catholic. “The ‘Church’ factor counted enormously in Atlantic relations. Even if you go and look at the structure of the CIA, the Catholic presence was very heavy... And the there’s another fundamental consideration: in the immediate post-war period the Americans had understood that in a country like Italy, without the presence of the DC and the interventions – sometimes debatable – of the Church, the situation would have been more difficult. Not only in Italy but in Europe. It was fortunate for Italy to have at that crucial moment a government leader like Alcide De Gasperi, who had not only the acumen but also the guts not to allow the government to jump on the bandwagon of the PCI that represented a problem in international equilibrium because of the USSR. Perhaps we in the West even exaggerated the “communist danger”, I can even admit it, we can even debate it... However, from the moment of De Gasperi’s first visit to the United States in 1947, admiration was born for the political abilities of the DC, although there was no lack of criticism for individual figures. However, let me answer your question in this way, what counted was Realpolitik. Kissinger, for example, was certainly not a Catholic, but he guaranteed very strong unconditional support for the DC, since he considered it a factor in his own strategic design. And before him, naturally, other Secretaries of State like James Byrnes, John Foster Dulles and the unforgettable George Marshall – the plan that bears his name was, in my opinion, the greatest success in the history of United States foreign policy. The Americans certainly had no clear grasp of the inner balances of Italian politics, but those who were ‘pro DC’ did not have a conditional attitude – the ‘vote holding your nose’ advice of Indro Montanelli – except perhaps some intellectuals and some of my colleagues. Though not loving the party, I have always considered it, out of realism, necessary to avoid American policy towards Italy during the Cold War from becoming the business of the Sixth Fleet”.

Zbigniew Brzezinski with John Paul II, in an audience granted to the Trilateral Commission in 1983, Vatican City. 
Cardinal Wojtyla had met Brzezinski at Harvard in 1976

Zbigniew Brzezinski with John Paul II, in an audience granted to the Trilateral Commission in 1983, Vatican City. Cardinal Wojtyla had met Brzezinski at Harvard in 1976

The “transition” paid for by Italy
One question we cannot fail to ask the professor: whether it is true that Italian politics may have paid for a certain American confusion in the phase of transition between Kissinger and Brzezinski that framed Napolitano’s visit. This is what he says: “It was also intellectuals and academics like us who contributed to the confusion. Like my colleague Peter Lange – notorious for his judgment that the Italian Communists were ‘pro American’, – we were all led to think that Carter would go down the same road as Kennedy. And that Kennedy’s opening to the center-left with the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) would continue with Carter by including the PCI. We did not agree in thinking that the PCI would get to the control room, but the success of the new Carter-Brzezinski pairing let one assume a change of direction. Thus, not even the Soviet official I mentioned before was altogether wrong in hoping, but was misled by circumstances. Even the Italians played their part in the comedy, or drama, of misunderstandings. Lange himself knew that every Italian political leader wanted a blessing from the United States, and that was also true for the Italian Communists, though with certain interesting exceptions. The PCI’s wish to interpret the shift in American policy under Carter-Brzezinski is comprehensible, the expectations were enormous”. But the answer that the Italian Communists were looking for did not arrive. Indeed, “Ambassador Gardner gave out the famous declaration of January 1978 against governments in coalition with the PCI”, explains La Palombara. “The future was not to contradict Gardner. Italy after 1978 has not been the same”.

For a policy less inclined to fear
On 19 April 1978 Napolitano returned to Rome. Did you Italy watchers draw up a balance-sheet? “His visit gave strong impetus to the policy of opening up and gave backing to a policy less inclined to fear. He had made an impression with his unforced, unshowy charisma, far removed from the figure of the great orator – to make a comparison with the present, he was not a Barack Obama. One began to appreciate Giorgio Napolitano along the road, following his arguments, watching him manage the question and answer tussle, so sacred to us Americans. He set out humbly and won the goodwill of the public. There was no need for me and my American colleagues to hold a debriefing for us see everything the visit had achieved. It was the basis for further developments.

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