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from issue no. 06/07 - 2004

Memories of Reagan

Giulio Andreotti

When he visited Rome as Governor of California, Ronald Reagan came up with something new. He had got the State Department to prepare file cards on ongoing international problems and when conversation turned to those points he consulted them diligently and followed their contents closely. If he didn’t have a pertinent card, he declared he had no information and put the matter aside. An attitude of responsibility that I have almost never seen among the many foreign figures I have met.
The funeral of Ronald Reagan, who died on 5 June 2004

The funeral of Ronald Reagan, who died on 5 June 2004

But there was more (and this was also the case in group meetings): if he had no information on a matter he didn’t improvise notions for dealing with it: he simply had it removed from the agenda, claiming he was unprepared. A real masterstroke of humility and wisdom that he kept up even as president. If he didn’t have information he said so immediately, not altogether liking to leave the going to his aides no matter how authoritative. Indeed, he veered away from the topic and told – obviously for the purpose of distraction - amusing jokes, from a not too wide repertoire since I heard some of them repeated two and more times. Behind them lay a vein of derision of the diplomatic corps and of the State Department itself. Two examples.
«An ambassador, short-sighted but not wearing glasses out of vanity, covered in decorations and impeccable in dress uniform, with lots of gold braid, comes into the reception room where the orchestra is already playing. He approaches what he takes to be a woman in a red dress and asks her for the honor of a dance. “I can’t,” comes the reply, “I’m the apostolic nuncio and in any case they’re playing the national anthem”».
Another piece from the repertoire. «Two people in a balloon have lost their bearings in the sky over Washington and are drifting aimlessly. At last, seeing a small crowd on a balcony, they drop down and they shout: “Where are we?” The answer comes: “You’re in flight”. It was the balcony of the State Department».
An odd thing happened to me in the Oval Room at the White House. The meeting had been put forward and I’d dressed in a great hurry. Worse, on that occasion there hadn’t been the half-day break in a town on the outskirts, with a pleasant drive in a carriage, cheered by citizens dressed as colonials, that as a rule enables visitors to get over jetlag. So, after the ritual greetings, Reagan invited me with great amusement to zip up my pants. Obviously I felt pretty bad.
Many years later I was reminded of that breach of etiquette when a friend listed the three points to check to find out whether you’re getting old: difficulty in remembering surnames, pants not done up properly - and one cannot remember the third.
Getting back to Reagan, he was particularly cordial and smiling in Venice during the G7 summit in June 1987. Not being able to bring along his limo as presidents of the United States are wont to do, the Americans demanded that the motor launch be manned by their security men. No problem, but after two unsuccessful attempts at berthing at the island of San Giorgio a local boatman took over and everything went as it should.
Ronald Reagan and Giulio Andreotti

Ronald Reagan and Giulio Andreotti

The president was enthusiastic about Venice and made no mystery of it, urging that sessions be crammed in so he could enjoy the canals and little squares. He was very pleased with the gift of a model of the Statue of Liberty, the work of the Veneto sculptor Gianni Visentin. I wondered whether the gift was for him as president or for him as person: a distinction (it was explained to me) deriving from the rigid rule that US presidents can only receive gifts worth a few dollars.
But the occasion when my dealings with Reagan really took off was during a G7 summit. The highly technical discussion on matters of international finance dragged on for a long time and we were all pretty tired when Ronald Reagan came out with a muttered «What we need here is a Caprilli jump». Nobody (including the interpreters) understood the crack and I came in explaining that Caprilli was an Italian equestrian who had devised a new method for jumping fences. Reagan turned to me with a smile for big occasions and for the rest of the session he showed nothing but goodwill towards me.
At the following meeting I took him a photo of Caprilli and he was again enthusiastic.
Among other meetings with Reagan, let me mention two. The first took place in a historic context. From the Kremlin Gorbacev had offered the possibility of an opening on which the international political-diplomatic world looked with cautious scepticism. President Reagan agreed to a meeting in Geneva but wanted first to consult in collegiate fashion with friendly governments (not only the NATO countries), setting up a meeting in New York.
Bad luck had it that a few days before the date the Achille Lauro was hijacked by of a group of Palestinians. It was a time of great strain and the solution of letting them land in Syria seemed providential (President Assad, reached in Czechoslovakia where he was on a visit, immediately gave us his permission), but the Americans were against it since they were planning a boarding attack, which then turned out to be unfeasible. However the Egyptians found a solution, suggested by Abu Abbas, an emissary of Arafat, who had gone down there to offer his services. I must add that the suggestion of turning to Arafat had been made to Rinaldo Petrignani, the Italian ambassador in Washington, by the State Department. The criminal had been guaranteed immunity but it was not known that during the forced cruise an American passenger, Mr. Leon Klinghoffer, had been murdered. When it became known, a US plane tailed the Egyptian one that was taking the bunch to Tunis and forced it to land in Sigonella, abruptly demanding the handing-over both of the hi-jackers and of the intermediary whose complicity they suspected. Out of a proper sense of principle the Italians refused and there was considerable risk of a fire-fight with the Americans.
On 7 October 1985 a Palestinian squad took command of the cruise ship Achille Lauro when it lay offshore Egypt with 454 people on board. Above, the Achille Lauro escorted as it leaves Port Said

On 7 October 1985 a Palestinian squad took command of the cruise ship Achille Lauro when it lay offshore Egypt with 454 people on board. Above, the Achille Lauro escorted as it leaves Port Said

Those were hours of painful uncertainty. Reagan, with the help of Mike Leeden, phoned Craxi during the night and got his half assent to blocking the Palestinians. I had to be more cautious towards an analogous phone request from George Schultz (Secretary of State) – above all because the Egyptians would not let the Achille Lauro go if we held on to their plane and broke the agreement we made together. The plane was flown from Sigonella to Rome and from there, on the say-so of the magistrates, it was allowed to leave but without the hi-jackers, who were regularly put on trial. We learnt afterwards that the mediator Abu Abbas had been complicit and he too was tried and convicted, but in his absence. He ended up underground in Baghdad and died shortly before the fall of Saddam Hussein.
The killing of Leon Klinghoffer caused an uproar in the United States and Italy was accused in a violent press and television campaign of complicity.
In that situation Craxi and I could not keep the appointment in New York, and the French had already stepped back with a refusal.
By good luck there was on the scene an influential American, a wise man and a true man of peace: General Vernon Walters, an old friend of mine, who as US military attaché in Rome, had several times accompanied me on my visits to the States. He was at that moment ambassador to the United Nations. I phoned him to ask his advice and a few hours later he called me back wondering whether Craxi was willing to receive an envoy from Reagan. Obviously. He arrived the following day bringing a very friendly letter; and everything was settled.
We went to New York and it was indeed a historic moment. Reagan had been alone on previous days and when he came to the meeting he took a piece of paper out of pocket. We noticed that Schultz and the others, who didn’t know its contents, were quite apprehensive. It was not one of the file cards prepared by the officials. In an uneven voice Reagan read it out to us. He did not know if Gorbacev was or could be in earnest about the great opening, but nobody before his own conscience and before history should have the responsibility of verifying it.
Washington 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbacev signing the arms reduction treaty

Washington 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbacev signing the arms reduction treaty

The Geneva meeting went very well and was the start of a period in international politics constructive beyond any possible expectation; with a decisive moment – in the developments – linked to an Italian initiative.
The obstacle to agreement on the reduction of nuclear arsenals lay in the possibility of inspection. For the Americans the Russian inspectors were objectionable spies, while for the Soviets it was a capitalist interference that the armed forces couldn’t absolutely accept.
In the wake of the meetings and of the international initiatives of Professor Zichichi, that had been taking place for years at Erice with the participation of international nuclear physicists of the highest reputation (Americans and even Soviets always present), an ad hoc meeting was called in Rome at Villa Madama. In three days we had the protocol for reciprocal inspection without warning, and the governments accepted it.
When later, and after an agreement had been stipulated, there was inspection in Italy by the Bulgarians, it was an entirely normal piece of routine administration.

The meeting with Reagan in Los Angeles in 1984 took place in quite another context. He had courteously arranged it for the closing days of Olympic Games, unfortunately politically burdened by the polemical absence of the Soviets and of all the satellite countries, with the exception of Romania, hailed with World Series applause for so doing.
Shortly before leaving for the United States I had made an inter-governmental visit to Tripoli and, speaking with Ghadaffi about his “Green Book”, I spoke of the passage which says that no man is free if he doesn’t own the tent (or house) in which he lives and the means of transport he uses to travel. I praised the liberal tone of the principle and the Colonel was gratified that I had read his book, differently from many who judged him with preconceived hostility. Out of this came the idea of delivering a copy, through me, to President Reagan. Which I regularly did, even if the looks of the president’s aides expressed amazement rather than pleasure. Twenty years were to pass before Ghadaffi re-entered the ambit of Anglo-American acceptance. Better late than never.
Reagan remains, however, the American president of dialogue and the reduction of weapons.
Peace be on his soul.

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