William Blum

Italy, 1947-1948: Free elections, Hollywood-style

“Those who do not believe in the ideology of the United States, shall not be allowed to stay in the United States,” declared the American Attorney General, Tom Clark, in January 1948. 1

In March, the Justice Department, over which Clark presided, determined that Italians who did not believe in the ideology of the United States would not be allowed to emigrate to, or even enter, the United States.

This was but one tactic in a remarkable American campaign to ensure that Italians who did not believe in the ideology of the United States would not be allowed to form a government of a differing ideology in Italy in their election of 1948.

Two years earlier, the Italian Communist Party (PCI), one of the largest in the world, and the Socialist Party (PSI) had together garnered more votes and more seats in the Constituent Assembly election than the Christian Democrats. But the two parties of the left had run separate candidates and thus had to be content with some ministerial posts in a coalition cabinet under a Christian Democrat premier. The results, nonetheless, spoke plainly enough to put the fear of Marx into the Truman administration.

For the 1948 election, scheduled for 18 April, the PCI and PSI united to form the Popular Democratic Front (FDP) and in February won municipal elections in Pescara with a 10 percent increase in their vote over 1946. The Christian Democrats ran a poor second. The prospect of the left winning control of the Italian government loomed larger than ever before. It was at this point that the US began to train its big economic and political guns upon the Italian people. All the good ol’ Yankee know-how, all the Madison Avenue savvy in the art of swaying public opinion, all the Hollywood razzmatazz would be brought to bear on the “target market”.

Pressing domestic needs in Italy, such as agricultural and economic reform, the absence of which produced abysmal extremes of wealth and poverty, were not to be the issues of the day. The lines of battle would be drawn around the question of “democracy” vs. “communism” (the idea of “capitalism” remaining discreetly to one side). The fact that the Communists had been the single most active anti-fascist group in Italy during the war, undergoing ruthless persecution, while the Christian Democrat government of 1948 and other electoral opponents on the right were riddled through with collaborators, monarchists and plain unreconstructed fascists … this too would be ignored; indeed, turned around. It was now a matter of Communist “dictatorship” vs. their adversaries’ love of “freedom”: this was presumed a priori. As one example, a group of American congressmen visited Italy in summer 1947 and casually and arbitrarily concluded that “The country is under great pressure from within and without to veer to the left and adopt a totalitarian-collective national organization.” 2

To make any of this at all credible, the whole picture had to be pushed and squeezed into the frame of The American Way of Life vs. The Soviet Way of Life, a specious proposition which must have come as somewhat of a shock to leftists who regarded themselves as Italian and neither Russian nor American.

In February 1948, after non-Communist ministers in Czechoslovakia had boycotted cabinet meetings over a dispute concerning police hiring practices, the Communist government dissolved the coalition cabinet and took sole power. The Voice of America pointed to this event repeatedly, as a warning to the Italian people of the fate awaiting them if Italy “went Communist” (and used as well by anti-communists for decades afterward as a prime example of communist duplicity). Yet, by all appearances, the Italian Christian Democrat government and the American government had conspired the previous year in an even more blatant usurpation of power.

In January 1947, when Italian Premier Alcide de Gasperi visited Washington at the United States’ invitation, his overriding concern was to plead for crucial financial assistance for his war-torn, impoverished country. American officials may have had a different priority. Three days after returning to Italy, de Gasperi unexpectedly dissolved his cabinet, which included several Communists and Socialists. The press reported that many people in Italy believed that de Gasperi’s action was related to his visit to the United States and was aimed at decreasing leftist, principally Communist, influence in the government. After two weeks of tortuous delay, the formation of a center or center-right government sought by de Gasperi proved infeasible; the new cabinet still included Communists and Socialists although the left had lost key positions, notably the ministries of foreign affairs and finance.

From this point until May, when de Gasperi’s deputy, Ivan Lombardo, led a mission to Washington to renew the request for aid, promised loans were “frozen” by the United States for reasons not very clear. On several occasions during this period the Italian left asserted their belief that the aid was being held up pending the ouster of leftists from the cabinet. The New York Times was moved to note that, “Some observers here feel that a further Leftward swing in Italy would retard aid.” As matters turned out, the day Lombardo arrived in Washington, de Gasperi again dissolved his entire cabinet and suggested that the new cabinet would manage without the benefit of leftist members. This was indeed what occurred, and over the ensuing few months, exceedingly generous American financial aid flowed into Italy, in addition to the cancelation of the nation’s $1 billion debt to the United States. 3

At the very same time, France, which was also heavily dependent upon American financial aid, ousted all its Communist ministers as well. In this case there was an immediate rationale: the refusal of the Communist ministers to support Premier Ramadier in a vote of confidence over a wage freeze. Despite this, the ouster was regarded as a “surprise” and considered “bold” in France, and opinion was widespread that American loans were being used, or would be used, to force France to align with the US. Said Ramadier: “A little of our independence is departing from us with each loan we obtain.” 4

As the last month of the 1948 election campaign began, Time magazine pronounced the possible leftist victory to be “the brink of catastrophe”. 5

“It was primarily this fear,” William Colby, former Director of the CIA, has written, “that had led to the formation of the Office of Policy Coordination, which gave the CIA the capability to undertake covert political, propaganda, and paramilitary operations in the first place.” 6  But covert operations, as far as is known, played a relatively minor role in the American campaign to break the back of the Italian left. It was the very overtness of the endeavor, without any apparent embarrassment, that stamps the whole thing with such uniqueness and arrogance – one might say swagger. The fortunes of the FDP slid downhill with surprising acceleration in the face of an awesome mobilization of resources such as the following: 7

In his historic speech of 12 March 1947, which came to be known as “The Truman Doctrine”, the president had proclaimed:

I believe it must be the policy of the United States to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures. I believe that we must assist free peoples to work out their own destinies in their own way. 13

It scarcely needs to be emphasized how hypocritical this promise proved to be, but the voices which spoke out in the United States against their government’s crusade in Italy were few and barely audible above the roar. The Italian-American Committee for Free Elections in Italy held a rally to denounce the propaganda blitz, declaring that “Thousands of Americans of Italian origin feel deeply humiliated by the continuous flow of suggestions, advice and pressure put on the Italians, as though they were unable to decide for themselves whom to elect.” 14

The Progressive Party also went on record, stating: “As Americans we repudiate our Government’s threat to cut off food from Italy unless the election results please us. Hungry children must not go unfed because their parents do not vote as ordered from abroad.” 15 The party’s candidate for president in 1948 was Henry Wallace, the former vice-president who was an outspoken advocate of genuine detente with the Soviet Union. History did not provide the opportunity to observe what the reaction would have been – amongst those who saw nothing wrong with what the United States was doing in Italy – if a similar campaign had been launched by the Soviet Union or the Italian left in the United States on behalf of Wallace.

Though some Italians must have been convinced at times that Stalin himself was the FDP’s principal candidate, the actual Soviet intervention in the election hardly merited a single headline. The American press engaged in speculation that the Russians were pouring substantial sums of money into the Communist Party’s coffers. However, a survey carried out by the Italian bureau of the United Press revealed that the anti-Communist parties spent 7 1/2 times as much as the FDP on all forms of propaganda, the Christian Democrats alone spending four times as much. 16 As for other Soviet actions, Howard K. Smith presented this observation:

The Russians tried to respond with a few feeble gestures for a while – some Italian war prisoners were released; some newsprint was sent to Italy and offered to all parties for their campaign. But there was no way of resisting what amounted to a tidal wave.

There is evidence that the Russians found the show getting too rough for them and actually became apprehensive of what the American and British reaction to a Communist victory at the polls might be. (Russia’s concern about conflict with the West was also expressed within a month of the Italian elections in one of the celebrated Cominform letters to Tito, accusing the Yugoslavs of trying to involve the Soviets with the Western powers when “it should have been known … that the U.S.S.R. after such a heavy war could not start a new one”.) 17

The evidence Smith was alluding to was the Soviet rejection of the Trieste proposal. By its timing, reported the New York Times, “the unexpected procedure caused some observers to conclude that the Russians had thrown the Italian Communist Party overboard.” 18 The party’s newspaper had a difficult time dealing with the story. Washington did as well, for it undermined the fundamental premise of the Italian campaign: that the Italian Communist Party and the Soviet Union were indistinguishable as to ends and means; that if you buy the one, you get the other as well. Thus the suggestion was put forth that perhaps the Soviet rejection was only a tactic to demonstrate that the US could not keep its promise on Trieste. But the Soviet announcement had not been accompanied by any such propaganda message, and it would not explain why the Russians had waited several weeks until near the crucial end to deliver its body blow to their Italian comrades. In any event, the United States could only come out smelling a lot sweeter than the Russians.    

When the Broadway show had ended its engagement in Italy, the Christian Democrats stood as the clear winner with 48 percent of the vote. The leftist coalition had been humiliated with a totally unexpected polling of but 31 percent. It had been a crusade of the kind which Aneurin Bevan had ascribed to the Tories: “The whole art of Conservative politics in the 20th century,” the British Labour leader wrote, “is being deployed to enable wealth to persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power.”


  1. Addressing the Cathedral Club of Brooklyn, 15 January 1948; cited in David Caute, The Great Fear: The Anti-Communist Purge Under Truman and Eisenhower (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1979), p. 15.
  2. Robert T. Holt and Robert W. van de Velde, Strategic Psychological Operations and American Foreign Policy (University of Chicago Press, 1960) p. 169.
  3. Dissolving the cabinet: New York Times, 21 January 1947, p. 5; 26 January, p. 31; 3 February, p. 1; 5 May, p. 13; 13 May; 14 May; 29 May, p.3; 2 June, p. 24.
  4. New York Times, 5 May 1947, p. 1; 11 May, IV, p. 5; 14 May, pp. 14 and 24; 17 May, p. 8; 18 May, IV, p. 4; 20 May, p. 2; Howard K. Smith, The State of Europe (London, 1950), p. 151 (includes Ramadier quote; similar quote in New York Times, 20 May).
  5. Time, 22 March 1948, p. 35.
  6. William Colby, Honorable Men: My Life in the CIA (New York, 1978), p. 109.
  7. Except where otherwise indicated, the items in the succeeding list are derived from the following: a) New York Times, 16 March to 18 April 1948, passim; b) Howard K. Smith, pp. 198-219; c) William E. Daugherty and Morris Janowitz, A Psychological Warfare Casebook (Johns Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1958), pp. 319-26; d) Holt and van de Velde, pp. 159-205; e) E. Edda Martinez and Edward A. Suchman, “Letters from America and the 1948 Elections in Italy”, The Public Opinion Quarterly (Princeton University), Spring 1950, pp. 111-25.
  8. Cited in Smith, p. 202, no date of issue given.
  9. Tom Braden, “I’m Glad the CIA is ‘Immoral’”, Saturday Evening Post, 20 May 1967; Braden had been a high-ranking CIA officer.
  10. Miles Copeland, Without Cloak and Dagger (New York, 1974), pp. 235-6; also published as The Real Spy World.
  11. CIA memorandum to the Forty Committee (National Security Council), presented to the Select Committee on Intelligence, US House of Representatives (The Pike Committee) during closed hearings held in 1975. The bulk of the committee’s report which contained this memorandum was leaked to the press in February 1976 and first appeared in book form as CIA – The Pike Report (Nottingham, England, 1977). The memorandum appears on pp. 204-5 of this book. (See also: Notes: Iraq.
  12. Stephen Goode, The CIA (Franklin Watts, Inc., New York, 1982), p. 45; William R. Corson,* The Armies of Ignorance: The Rise of the American Intelligence Empire* (The Dial Press, New York, 1977) pp. 298-9. Corson had an extensive career in military intelligence and was Staff Secretary of the President’s Special Group Joint DOD-CIA Committee on Counterinsurgency R & D.
  13. Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman, 1947 (U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, 1963) pp. 178-9.
  14. New York Times, 8 April 1948.
  15. Ibid., 12 April 1948.
  16. Smith, p. 200.
  17. Ibid., p. 202.
  18. New York Times, 15 April 1948.

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U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II

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Essays on the American Empire

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A Cold War Memoir