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Mission Italy: On the Front Lines of the Cold War

Mission Italy: On the Front Lines of the Cold War

by Richard N. Gardner, Zbigniew Brzezinski (Foreword by)

This compelling memoir of Richard N. Gardner's years as ambassador to Italy from 1977 to 1981 offers fascinating insights into the foreign policy of the Carter administration as well as into a critical turning point in Italy's history. This turbulent period was marked by the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the failed attempt of the Italian Communist Party to


This compelling memoir of Richard N. Gardner's years as ambassador to Italy from 1977 to 1981 offers fascinating insights into the foreign policy of the Carter administration as well as into a critical turning point in Italy's history. This turbulent period was marked by the kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro, the failed attempt of the Italian Communist Party to take power, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the seizure of American hostages in Tehran. It was also the time of Italy's historic decision to deploy U.S. cruise missiles, which Mikhail Gorbachev identified as a decisive factor in his decision to shift Soviet foreign policy toward genuine disarmament and peaceful cooperation based on the free choice of political systems. Drawing on hitherto classified material, Gardner shows how wise diplomacy under president Jimmy Carter's leadership played a part in the defeat of communism in Italy and in the eventual collapse of the Soviet empire. His riveting diplomatic narrative is filled with fascinating portraits of American and Italian leaders as well as revealing details of policy differences inside the Carter Administration and between Washington and Gardner's Rome Embassy. The result is a major contribution to our understanding of crisis diplomacy and of the victory of the Western alliance in the Cold War. Balanced, scrupulous, and compelling, Gardner's memoir will be invaluable reading for all those interested in the inner workings of U.S. foreign policy, diplomacy, and European politics.

Editorial Reviews

former president Jimmy Carter
Richard Gardner's book about his time as ambassador to Italy during my administration is a dramatic, accurate account of one of the most difficult and successful diplomatic missions in the history of the Cold War.
Francesco Cossiga
An exemplary and fascinating story not only of an American intellectual and scholar in Italy, but also of one of the most complex periods in the political life of our country and of Europe.
Giuliano Amato
Richard Gardner's account of those years, nourished by his personal records and by previously unpublished documents, helps us to better understand the greatness and smallness of Italian leaders of those times and the role played by the United States on the delicate boundary between an unavoidable active interest and an interference it wished to avoid. Portraits and analyses are presented with great effectiveness.
Arthur Schlesinger
Richard Gardner's memoir of a crucial time in U.S. relations with Italy is both an enthralling story and a significant contribution to the history of the Cold War.
Henry Graff
I feel I have traveled at Gardner's side through a stirring period of history. That he is able to assemble such detailed recollections has my special admiration and, take my word for it, there is no account of American diplomacy like his.
Zbigniew Brzezinski
Mission Italy is a scrupulously honest and thoroughly documented narrative of a critical episode in the history of the Cold War. Rich in anecdotes and revealing details, it can serve as a guidebook for students of diplomacy and aspiring diplomats.
Douglas Brinkley
A much-needed addition to the catalogue of scholarly work on the foreign policy of president Jimmy Carter.
Relations Internationales - Irwin Wall
To understand Italian politics fully in that crucial period of Italian history it is indispensable to read . . . Ambassador Gardner’s critically important memoir.
The New York Review Of Books - Adrian Lyttleton
Gardner had the true diplomatic ability to say even unpalatable things in a polite fashion. If he disappointed many hopes, he left Italian-American relations in a much healthier state than he found them, and that is no small praise for an ambassador.
Ralph Buultjens
An excellent guide for teaching the practice of diplomacy and a most valuable source book on international relations during the Cold War. Rare is the book that combines instruction with real experience and presents both in such a readable format.
Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
Richard Gardner's memoir of a crucial time in U.S. relations with Italy is both an enthralling story and a significant contribution to the history of the Cold War.
Political Studies Review
This is an engaging and highly readable book which throws light upon U.S. foreign policy during the Carter administration.
Journal Of Contemporary European Studies
This is a fascinating book that says a lot about American diplomacy and attitudes towards Italian politics. 2007
Relations Internationales
To understand Italian politics fully in that crucial period of Italian history it is indispensable to read . . . Ambassador Gardner’s critically important memoir.
— Irwin Wall
The New York Review Of Books
Gardner had the true diplomatic ability to say even unpalatable things in a polite fashion. If he disappointed many hopes, he left Italian-American relations in a much healthier state than he found them, and that is no small praise for an ambassador.
— Adrian Lyttleton
New York Law Journal
[Gardner's] latest book proves him an able historian as well as an accomplished diplomat. . . . [I feel] gratitude that so important an epoch in American and European history has been recorded so authoritatively and so interestingly. . . . A book worth reading and worth remembering.
Foreign Affairs
Mission Italy tells in great detail the story of the four years of Gardner's service as ambassador to Rome during the Carter administration. It provides vignettes of "the almost Machiavellian Italian political context," many of which point to the considerable role played by the U.S. embassy in Italian political life during the Cold War. U.S. policy at the time was driven by one imperative: Italy, a crucial member of NATO, could not let the Communist Party enter into the government until it had disavowed its anti-American positions. Gardner describes the warnings he delivered, the Washington policy texts he helped draft, tensions with the State Department's less rigid line, and the times he read the riot act to Italian leaders. He succeeded in keeping the Italian Communists out of power, thanks largely to the revulsion caused by the Red Brigades' terrorism and to the divisions between social democrats and hard-line Leninists within the Communist Party itself. Still, Gardner considers the decision by the Italian government to accept theater nuclear forces for NATO in 1979 "a major factor in the unraveling of Communism and the ending of the Cold War." Italy's political system accounts for the incredible influence of the U.S. embassy; a similar attempt at using a form of power that was not really very soft would have been inconceivable not only in Paris or London but also in Bonn.

Product Details

Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.12(w) x 9.24(h) x 1.02(d)

Read an Excerpt


On the Front Lines of the Cold War
By Richard N. Gardner


Copyright © 2005 Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7425-3998-9

Chapter One

The Road to Rome

A Phone Call After Christmas

The telephone call came the day after Christmas while Danielle and I, and our two children, Nina and Tony, were taking a winter vacation in the Bahamas. The voice spoke in a familiar southern accent and in the happy tone of someone anticipating the pleasure he is about to give. "Dick, I want you to be my ambassador to Italy." I did not hesitate in telling President-elect Jimmy Carter that I would be pleased and honored to accept.

Since the day of that telephone call, December 26, 1976, I have been asked countless times in the United States how it was that a professor of international law at Columbia University was given the opportunity to be the U.S. ambassador to Italy and what this experience was like. Most Americans know little of Italian history, even of events just a quarter of a century ago. The most frequent comments I receive at New York dinner parties go something like this: "Ambassador to Italy? What fun you must have had. How much did you contribute to the Democratic Party to get that assignment?" Or: "You're lucky you weren't sent to a really difficult country in Africa or the Middle East.You served in a place where it doesn't much matter what an American ambassador does."

Such people, influenced by an American tourist's impressions of Italy today, seem not entirely convinced when I tell them that at the time of my appointment Italy was described by the national security adviser to the president as "potentially the gravest political problem we now have in Europe." They seem equally incredulous when I add that as ambassador I witnessed five Italian governments in four years, an effort by the largest Communist party in Western Europe to enter the government, the most serious epidemic of terrorism yet suffered by a Western democratic nation, the kidnapping and murder of Italy's most important political leader, Italy's historic decision to deploy U.S. cruise missiles, and the difficult effort of Italy as president of the European Community to lead a unified European response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the taking of American hostages in Iran. They also find it hard to believe, in a time when so many major U.S. embassies in Europe are awarded to multimillionaire party contributors, that my total financial contribution to President Carter's campaign was the magnificent sum of $1,000.

In Italy, on the other hand, memories of the terrorism and political uncertainties of the late 1970s are very much alive. But so, unfortunately, are a number of myths, such as the belief that Aldo Moro wanted to consummate the compromesso storico, letting the Italian Communist Party into the government alongside the Christian Democrats, and that therefore the United States conspired in his kidnapping and murder, or at least failed to do what it could to save him.

It is difficult for those who did not experience these events at first hand to realize what was at stake in Italy a quarter of a century ago. Had a still unreformed Italian Communist Party achieved its goal of becoming a full partner in the Italian government, Italy's democracy and market economy could well have been at risk, as well as the West's ability to hold the line against powerful Soviet military and political pressures in Europe and elsewhere. Moreover, such an outcome would almost certainly have doomed NATO's successful effort to deploy the cruise missiles, which contributed in a major way, as I shall argue later, to Gorbachev's more enlightened foreign policy and as a consequence to the collapse of Communism and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It is my hope that this book, based as it is on my personal recollections of the events of 1977-1981, recollections supported by precise documentary evidence from the period, will help today's readers to make informed judgments on these propositions and enable them to understand the challenge an American ambassador faced at the height of the Cold War and at a turning point in Italian history.

The Italian Challenge

Italy presented a particularly complex and difficult challenge for American diplomacy in the second half of the 1970s. It continued to be, for historical reasons, a chronically weak and unstable governmental system. Centuries of foreign occupation, and the more recent experience of twenty years of Fascism, had left a residue of deep popular suspicion of government. Local allegiances-a "city-state" mentality-still outweighed for many Italians the sense of belonging to a nation-state. Perhaps most important, the power vacuum left by the collapse of Benito Mussolini's Fascist regime left the political scene dominated by two large political parties, the Christian Democrats (DC) and the Communists (PCI), the former supported by the Catholic Church and aligned with the United States, the latter aligned with the Soviet Union and skillfully exploiting its role in the anti-Fascist "resistance." Squeezed in between were the Socialists (PSI) and three small pro-Western centrist parties, the Social Democrats (PSDI), the Republicans (PRI), and the Liberals (PLI). On the extreme right a small but surprisingly resilient party, the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), continued to carry the banner of Mussolini's Fascist philosophy.

Since the Communists and neo-Fascists were both denied a role in government by reason of the PCI's international alignment and the MSI's unsavory past, postwar governments had to be formed by the Christian Democrats in shifting alliances with the small centrist parties and later with the Socialists. These governments lasted less than one year on the average, and the constant changing of personalities in key ministries made continuity of policy difficult. Moreover, Christian Democratic prime ministers had little executive authority and could only govern by laborious negotiations with their coalition partners-and often with factions within their own party. For the U.S. Embassy, doing business effectively required a sophisticated mastery of this complex political system, which Italians called a "partitocrazia" or "party-ocracy."

A central preoccupation of the United States in postwar Italy was to use its influence to keep the Italian Communists out of power. But in the 1960s and 1970s, American influence significantly declined. The assassinations of President Kennedy, of Robert Kennedy, and of Martin Luther King Jr.; the Vietnam War with its accompanying political protest and civil disorder; and President Nixon's resignation in the Watergate scandal all severely tarnished the image and prestige of the United States. Revelations that the Lockheed Corporation had bribed Italian government officials to help sell aircraft to the Italian armed forces made matters worse. But most serious of all was the widespread perception in Italy that the U.S. Embassy in Rome from 1969 to 1976 during the Nixon and Ford administrations had tried to fight Italian Communism by working with some of the most reactionary elements in Italian political life, sometimes helping them with covert financing. The continued Communist electoral gains during this period showed clearly that combating Italian Communism from the right was a losing strategy.

The moment was therefore ripe for a new American approach to the Italian problem, one that could combat Communist influence from a political position that the Italians would perceive as solidly rooted in the progressive American political tradition of Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy. The election victory of President Carter provided this opportunity, and the challenge to Carter's ambassador was to make the most of it. The building of trust with the non-Communist democratic forces in Italy, including not only Christian Democrats but also those on the center left, would be the key to success. This important element of trust, in turn, would be critically determined by the way Italians perceived the ambassador's political background and personal behavior and, in this particular case, also that of his wife.

Law and Diplomacy

Happiness was once famously described by President Kennedy as "the exercise of one's vital powers in a life affording them scope." As a teenager, I had already envisaged a role for myself in American diplomacy, especially after reading the memoir of a junior foreign service officer entitled Envoy Unextraordinary. Fortunately, my parents were typical of many American families of the 1930s and 1940s: they not only encouraged ambition in their children but were prepared to make every sacrifice to give them all the education that could speed them on their way. I therefore had the benefit of ten years of university studies that helped prepare me for a career in foreign affairs-four years at Harvard College majoring in international economics, three years at Yale Law School with a focus on international law, and three years writing a thesis for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Oxford on the origins of the postwar international economic institutions-the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.

Writing that thesis, which was subsequently published by the Oxford University Press as Sterling-Dollar Diplomacy, proved to be a decisive experience, introducing me as it did to a remarkable generation of American and British officials who shaped the postwar world and contributed to the launching of the Marshall Plan. As a result, I became a fervent believer in the Transatlantic Alliance and in U.S. leadership in the building of multilateral institutions for peacekeeping, economic development, and human rights.

During a long winter holiday from Oxford in 1951-1952, I spent many days at the Sixth United Nations General Assembly session in Paris and was inspired by Eleanor Roosevelt, who was serving at that time as the head of the U.S. delegation. This extraordinary woman granted me an interview, and my resulting article was promptly published by the New York Times Sunday Magazine, leading to an invitation to spend a weekend with Mrs. Roosevelt at her home in Hyde Park. It was an unusual experience for a twenty-five-year-old and naturally reinforced my desire to find a role in U.S. diplomacy. I proceeded to write a number of articles on the United Nations and on international economic issues and began a career as a practicing lawyer and teacher of international law at Columbia Law School.

In John F. Kennedy's 1960 presidential campaign, I was invited to prepare position papers on foreign policy in a group organized by Adlai Stevenson and George Ball, which opened the way after Kennedy's election to my appointment as deputy assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs. It was a dream assignment for someone with an interest in multilateral diplomacy, for it gave me a total immersion at the UN in peacekeeping operations in the Congo and Middle East, in economic assistance to developing countries, in population policy, and in UN efforts to implement labor standards and human rights. When my four-year leave of absence from Columbia expired, I happily returned to teaching law, but in the back of my mind there was always the thought of yet another four-year government assignment.

How to Marry a Country

That it was destined to be the U.S. Embassy in Rome was hardly a foregone conclusion, but it was always out there as a possibility. Italy had become an important part of my life after my marriage in New York in 1956 to Danielle Luzzatto, of Italian descent, whose family had lived in the Veneto since the beginning of the 1500s. When, in November of 1938, Benito Mussolini enacted racial laws depriving Italian Jews of their basic rights of citizenship, Danielle's parents, Bruno and Resy Luzzatto, decided immediately to take her and her brother, Francis, out of the country. They crossed the border into Switzerland in March 1939, made their way to Paris, and then settled in Tarascon in Ariege and later in Marseilles, after France surrendered to Hitler's invading armies. There they remained for nearly two years while waiting impatiently for visas to either Argentina, Brazil, or the United States. Finally, their American visas were granted, and they departed for the United States from Lisbon in late March of 1941 aboard a small Portuguese ship, the Serpa Pinto.

The Luzzatto family quickly found a home in wartime Washington and became devoted American citizens. Bruno, trained as an engineer and economist, worked in President Roosevelt's Board of Economic Warfare, helping with a small group of gifted Italian émigrés in the identification of Italian bombing targets for the American Air Force. He went on to work in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), in Marshall Plan missions in Paris and Rome, and in the World Bank in Washington and Brazil. Danielle went to Sidwell Friends School in Washington and to Bryn Mawr College. After graduation, she came to New York to begin a career as an actress.

It was there that we met in the fall of 1955. Although born on different sides of the Atlantic, we found we had much in common. Like our parents, we were conservative in matters of personal behavior yet liberal in politics and were influenced profoundly by the ideas of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. As the fortunate products of excellent schools and universities, we were also hardworking, ambitious, idealistic, and eager to play a role in government if the opportunity arose. I have often reflected on the irony that I owed my good fortune in meeting Danielle to one of modern history's most disgraceful personalities, Benito Mussolini, who brought so much misfortune to his own country and to the world.

Danielle and I began our honeymoon in Rome and Venice, meeting Danielle's extended Italian family. When I joined the Columbia Law School faculty as a full-time professor in 1957, we were blessed with long summers of freedom, and for twenty years we passed these summers in Italy. After the birth of our two children, Nina in 1960 and Tony in 1963, we spent summer months in Cortina D'Ampezzo in the Dolomites and later in Punta Ala, the lovely seaside resort in Tuscany. For good measure, we spent a sabbatical year in Italy in 1967-1968, when I served as visiting professor at the University of Rome. Nina and Tony grew up speaking fluent Italian, and during my sabbatical year I took Italian lessons to keep up with them. By the time the call from Jimmy Carter came, I had come to know Italy well both from personal observation and through the eyes of friends in the Italian worlds of politics, diplomacy, business, scholarship, and journalism.

Our sabbatical year in Rome was particularly important. It was during that year that I first met Gianni and Umberto Agnelli, which led to my doing legal work for FIAT in the United States and to assisting the Avvocato with some of his speeches before U.S. foreign policy groups. Thanks to my book on the Bretton Woods organizations and GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade), I found a warm welcome at the Bank of Italy and became friends with Governor Guido Carli and his deputy Rinaldo Ossola, benefiting from their insights into the Italian economy and the international financial system. And in summers at Punta Ala, situated on Italy's Tyrrhenian coast near the island of Elba, I benefited from the wisdom of Aurelio Peccei, the founder of the Club of Rome, with whom I shared a deep interest in international environmental problems.

For my understanding of the difficult Italian political scene, I owed much to the brilliant Italian diplomat Egidio Ortona, who served as Italy's ambassador to the UN and as Italy's ambassador to Washington, and to several Italian journalists, diverse personalities who certainly did not share a uniform political view. First and foremost was Ugo Stille, an old friend of Bruno and Resy, who served in the United States for many years as correspondent of the Corriere della Sera. During our sabbatical year in Rome and in later visits, I enjoyed the often cynical but always astute observations of Luigi Barzini, whose book The Italians delighted American readers as much as it infuriated many of his countrymen. I also formed a close friendship with Arrigo Levi, whose brilliant television commentaries during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia made a lasting impression. It was also during our sabbatical year in Rome that Danielle was introduced to Vittorio de Sica and obtained his agreement to let her organize the first showing in the United States of The Garden of the Finzi Contini, his poignant film based on Giorgio Bassani's best-selling novel of the Italian Jewish community of Ferrara under Fascism. Danielle arranged a series of benefit showings of the film to raise money for the restoration of the synagogues of the Venetian ghetto, and we were delighted when it won the Academy Award as the best foreign film of the year.


Excerpted from MISSION ITALY by Richard N. Gardner Copyright ©2005 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

Jimmy Carter
Richard Gardner's book about his time as ambassador to Italy during my administration is a dramatic, accurate account of one of the most difficult and successful diplomatic missions in the history of the Cold War.

Meet the Author

Richard N. Gardner is professor of law and international organization at Columbia Law School and counsel to the global law firm of Morgan Lewis. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Italy from 1977 to 1981 and as U.S. Ambassador to Spain from 1993 to 1997.

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