Communist-led partisans: Nato wanted to keep Italy secure for profit

Proof of US-inspired terror

Toby Abse reviews: Paolo Bolognesi (ed) Alto tradimento Castelvecchi, Rome, 2016, €18.50

Alto tradimento (‘High treason’) is an extremely important and thoroughly researched book, but one that has not received anything like the degree of attention it deserves.

Given the weakness of the genuine left in Italy, this was inevitable, for its contents are unwelcome to the bulk of mainstream opinion, even though it provides documentary proof of the role of far-right businessman Licio Gelli in financing the August 1980 Bologna bombing. That gave the book some resonance in the city itself, where the association of relatives of those killed has a continuing public presence (the association’s president, Paolo Bolognesi, edited the book). The Italian establishment has no desire whatsoever to admit the existence of the cold war programme of disinformation and psychological warfare, known as the ‘strategy of tension’, or its very direct links with the United States from the mid-1960s onwards.

This book is not a work written by professional historians - its five principal authors are four journalists and a magistrate - but it emphasises aspects of the history of cold-war Italy largely ignored by professional historians, including even leftwing ones like Paul Ginsbourg. Nor is it a Marxist analysis - indeed it is essentially empirical, investigative journalism, written by authors on the centre-left - but it presents a really damning portrait of Italy’s state apparatus and American policy in the 1964-81 period. Whilst some of its findings have appeared in print before (although not, I would stress, the two damning documents in Gelli’s own hand, indicating how $15 million was to be divided up amongst those involved in organising and covering up the Bologna bombing), nobody, as far as I am aware, has put the pieces of the jigsaw together quite so effectively. Inevitably, there are moments when the authors have to rely on intelligent guesswork, and some chapters occasionally wander away from the main arguments, but these are quite minor blemishes.

The stark picture presented challenges the dominant consensus. Whilst there is now a belated general acceptance of the role played by neo-fascists in the major bombings directed against civilian targets in the 1969-74 period (Piazza Fontana in December 1969, Piazza della Loggia in May 1974 and the Italicus train bombing in August 1974),1 there is far less willingness to accept that such terrorism was made possible by an astonishing continuity amongst its leading organising personnel over decades. Contrary to much establishment mythology, it was never a matter of a few isolated, murderous fanatics acting on their own initiative. All the major actions had some links, whether direct or indirect, with far-right leaders like Stefano Delle Chiaie of AvanguardiaNazionale (AN), or Pino Rauti of Ordine Nuovo (ON).2 This applies even to allegedly spontaneous groups like the Nuclei Armati Revoluzionari that emerged in 1977 and chose to present itself as owing nothing to the stragista (massacre-based) strategy and tactics of AN or ON.

Moreover, the authors make it clear that the concept of the strage di stato (state-sponsored massacre), first put forward by the far left in the immediate aftermath of the Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan in 1969, could be applied to all the major neo-fascist bombings. They were all assisted by state officials, who either deliberately ignored reliable warnings about probable attacks or helped the culprits, whether in planning the crime itself or by derailing subsequent investigations by magistrates (at least some of whom wanted to get at the truth). Once again, as in the matter of neo-fascist culpability, the belated acknowledgements by the Italian authorities of some degree of state involvement are totally inadequate and in many cases misleading, since they centre around the relatively reassuring notion of deviant elements within the secret services - in effect a few rotten apples with neo-fascist sympathies who got out of control on occasion. In reality, the pro-fascist elements, such as Federico Umberto D’Amato in the ministry of the interior, were the dominant group in both the civil and military intelligence services.

This is not to suggest that every policeman, every carabiniere, every intelligence officer and every magistrate was to a greater or lesser extent implicated - if they had been, there would have been no need for such elaborate cover-ups and false trails.3 Nor would there have been any need to get some culprits out of the country (to Franco’s Spain, assorted Latin American dictatorships, apartheid South Africa and so forth) or to spring others from jail. However, it is no accident that so many neo-fascist killers either never ended up in court, let alone jail, or were acquitted on appeal, often on fairly ludicrous grounds (and of course double jeopardy rules made it impossible to impose any penalty on any previously acquitted defendant, regardless of how much damning evidence - whether genuinely new or previously deliberately suppressed - subsequently emerged). Equally, it was not coincidental that a number of magistrates, and even the occasional indiscreet intelligence officer, like Renato Rocca in June 1968, met violent ends. This doubtless acted as a warning to many state officials, who may not have had any personal sympathy for fascism or terrorism, that it was much wiser to turn a blind eye or present a deaf ear if they came across any of the plotters’ nefarious activities.

Keep out the reds

The authors make it clear that complicity in neo-fascist terrorism was not confined to figures in the superficially respectable and parliamentary neo-fascist party, the MSI, but extended into the very heart of Italy’s ruling party during the cold war years: the Democrazia Christiana (DC - Christian Democracy).

This has to be understood in the context of Nato and American foreign policy. The secret groupings within the Italian state apparatus arose out of networks set up by the Americans in the immediate post-war period - initially, perhaps, as a defence against a possible Soviet invasion or an insurrection inspired by the Partito Comunista Italiano (PCI), but by the mid-1960s their purpose was essentially to prevent a leftwing government with PCI participation coming to power via the structures of parliamentary democracy. The DC politicians who colluded with fascist terrorists or coup-plotters did so not because of some hidden personal ideological sympathy with fascism, but because they were the figures in the party with the closest links to the American military and the American intelligence services.

The two key men in this web were Giulio Andreotti and Francesco Cossiga. As the ageing Licio Gelli said in a very late interview in May 2014, “The highest level of political maturity in Italy was with Cossiga and Andreotti. [They] had systems of political control that Berlusconi did not succeed in repeating” (p63). But the DC politician in whom the Americans had least confidence in the 1970s was Aldo Moro. One of the contributors to this book - Claudio Nunziata - draws on a document from Moro’s personal archive that has only recently been made available to researchers, dealing with a meeting in August 1975 between Moro and an American delegation led by president Gerald Ford and secretary of state Henry Kissinger. This transcript makes it quite clear that there was a very marked divergence of views between Moro and the Americans about the PCI’s possible evolution towards a more social democratic stance.

The same author also quotes a document from the British archive about a meeting between Guy Millard, the British ambassador in Rome, and the American ambassador, John Volpe, during which Millard said of Moro: “Sometimes he seems rather ambiguous about the historic compromise”; and Volpe responded: “He is too inclined to regard it as inevitable” (p124).4 Whilst none of the authors in this volume make an explicit reference to American involvement in Moro’s kidnapping or death, it seems to be implied by various more general remarks on pp123-29 about American discussion of a hypothetical coup or other subversive actions in Italy during the relevant period (1976-79).

There is rather more detail in Giorgio Gazzotta’s chapter about earlier plans to assassinate other leading DC politicians. The first instance concerns plots against Mariano Rumor in 1971-72, in which American involvement is suggested (p182). Although initial plans to kill Rumor in his villa were abandoned because of the repeated refusals of Vincenzo Vinciguerra5 to carry out the murder, a serious attempt was made in May 1972. However, the terrorist who was willing to obey orders - Gianfranco Bertoli - proved to be a very inaccurate bomb-thrower, killing four people in front of the Milanese police station at a ceremony in which Rumor was participating, but leaving Rumor himself unharmed. Bertoli, who claimed to be an anarchist, was in fact on the Italian secret service payroll.6 Rumor was minister of the interior at the time of the assassination attempt and subsequently became prime minister, replacing Andreotti and forming a ‘centre-left’ administration - something which the plotters had forecast and sought to prevent.

The plot against Rumor was not the most dramatic action envisaged. There was also a plan to assassinate an even higher-ranking DC politician, Giovanni Leone - no less than the president of the Italian Republic - in June 1974. This plot failed due to the killing of Giancarlo Esposti, the chosen assassin, by the carabinieri in what seems to have been an episode of rivalry within the Italian secret services (pp186-87). A telegram from John Volpe, the American ambassador in Rome, quoted by Gazzotta, indicates that Volpe had some advance knowledge of the action planned against Leone (p186).

If the authors manage to show direct US links to the attempts to assassinate Rumor and Leone, they are not quite as successful in terms of the key bombing (as opposed to the general ‘strategy of tension’). But in relation to Piazza Fontana in December 1969, they hit the nail on the head. Gazzotta shows that Italian military intelligence knew as early as 1972 that the explosives used in the Piazza Fontana bombing came from an American base in Germany (p169). However, in the case of the Bologna railway station, the authors are a little less convincing. Whilst they provide abundant and clear proof that Gelli paid out the $15 million that financed both the commission and the cover-up of the Bologna bombing of August 1980, their claim that the American secret service ultimately financed the whole operation is based on hearsay.

Whilst the authors make no comparison with US interference in the internal affairs of countries other than Italy, the ultimate impression left on any reader aware of the American record in Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere is that the old neo-fascist chant of the 1970s - Cile, Cile, Argentina, Italia come America Latina (‘Chile, Chile, Argentina, Italy and Latin America’) - was only too accurate. Nor could one get a clearer empirical confirmation that Nato, far from protecting the peoples of western Europe against any alleged Russian threat, is primarily an instrument designed to ensure their subjugation to American imperialism, and block any advance towards democratic socialism.


1. Although the absurd attempt to deny such a role in relation to the Bologna railway station bombing of August 1980 continues at full pelt. A recent book by Valerio Cutonilli and Rosario Priore - I segreti di Bologna (Milan 2016) - has revived an old allegation that it was the work of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

2. Pino Rauti was a major figure in the history of post-war neo-fascism in Italy. Whilst he split from the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI) to found Ordine Nuovo in 1956, he re-entered the MSI in 1969 and even had a brief period as party leader after the death of Giorgio Almirante. Rauti was never convicted of terrorism-related offences.

3. In January 1981, the military intelligence service, SISMI, placed explosives on a train to Bologna, along with French and German newspapers and plane tickets to France and Germany, in an attempt to blame the 1980 bombing on foreign terrorists.

4. Here I am retranslating Nunziata’s Italian, rather than quoting the English original. Unsatisfactory as this method is, Nunziata’s citations of British documents are probably taken second-hand from published Italian sources.

5. Vinciguerra was very unusual amongst the neo-fascist terrorists discussed in this book in that he was disgusted by his comrades’ willingness to be manipulated by the security services. His later willingness to reveal all he knew about state or American involvement in neo-fascist terrorism was not a product of any repentance, but of his fascist beliefs.

6. The similarities with the Milanese Piazza Fontana bombing of December 1969 are obvious: once again an allegedly anarchist attack was to serve as a pretext for a rightwing coup to ‘restore order’.