The Italian Job: Operation GLADIO

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In the final years of World War Two, Partigiani – the Italian resistance fighters who were largely left leaning, openly socialist, or communist – liberated Northern Italy. This struggle, known as the Italian Civil War (8 September 1943 – 25 April 1945), ensured that the once vilified Marxist political ideologies would become central to post-war republican Italy.

An Italian partisan in Florence, 14 August 1944. TR2282

An Italian partisan in Florence three days after the Liberation of Florence orchestrated by the Italian Resistance, 14 August 1944. (Captain Tanner, British War Office official photographer/Wikimedia Commons)

In the context of the Cold War and the Truman Doctrine, the popularity of communism and socialism in Italy represented an expansion of Soviet influence, and thus an existential threat to the United States. One of the first covert actions approved by President Harry Truman was ordered out of fear of a communist victory in the April 1948 Italian elections. In addition to overt diplomatic support for Italy’s government, the National Security Council recommended that a covert program be implemented to “actively combat Communist propaganda in Italy by an effective U.S. information program and by all other practicable means, including the use of unvouchered funds” (NSC 1/1). This covert action was the precursor to NATO’s formal clandestine operation in Italy known as Operation GLADIO (1948-1990).

Operation GLADIO included a combination of propaganda, political action, and paramilitary action. Starting with the 1948 general elections, the CIA funneled money to political parties that opposed the Italian Communist Party (PCI) and Italian Socialist Party (PSI) in every election for 24 years. This aid was largely to help cover the costs of campaigning, posters, and pamphlets. The CIA also forged letters discrediting party leaders on the left. The paramilitary aspect of Operation GLADIO was to train anti-communist clandestine networks, which often recruited former fascist hardliners. The most direct political action took place in 1964 when Operation GLADIO supported a silent coup in which the socialist ministers were forced out of government.

Operation GLADIO is inextricably tied to Italy’s “Years of Lead” (1960s-1980s), the period of Italian history in which extremist groups on the left and right committed domestic terrorism and targeted killings. Among these were the neo-fascist groups Ordine Nuovo and Rosa dei Venti, which carried out multiple bombings. Both of these groups allegedly had GLADIO-trained operatives among them carrying out bombing operations. GLADIO-trained operatives have also allegedly carried out “false flag” operations. Consider the case of the 1972 Paetano terrorist attack. The communist group Red Brigades was originally blamed until, in 1984, Vincenzo Vinciguerra – a fascist terrorist who claimed to have been supported by the GLADIO network – confessed. It is suspected that the Red Brigades’ assassination of Christian Democrat Prime Minister Aldo Moro in 1978 was also a “false flag” – the evidence being an alleged threat to Moro from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the involvement of the Banda della Magliana, an Italian criminal organization tied to GLADIO and the 1980 Bologna Massacre.

Stragedibologna-2

The ruins of the Central Railway Station of Bologna after the Bologna Massacre, 2 August 1980 (Beppe Briguglio, Patrizia Pulga, Medardo Pedrini, Marco Vaccari/Wikimedia Commons)

Ultimately GLADIO was successful in ensuring that a socialist or communist government never held power in Italy until 1996. The strategy of tension employed by GLADIO’s intervention was effective in allowing the US to influence Italian politics by creating instability through polarization. However, the operation caused the deaths of many innocent Italians and arguably denied the country its right to national self-determination. Additionally, Italy’s politics remain highly unstable and volatile to this day. In terms of upholding the principles on which the United States was founded and preserving the long-term stability of a democratic Italy, this operation was a failure.

Il 25 aprile a Milano

Italian Liberation Day Celebration in Milan 25 April 2007 (Paolo Bellesia/Wikimedia Commons)

The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect those of the Glimpse from the Globe staff and editorial board. 

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About Author

Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon earned a BA in International Relations from the University of Southern California on a Trustee (full tuition, merit) scholarship. In 2012, he researched Arctic politics and ecological security in Sweden, Finland and Russia. His particular interest is in the relationship between climate science and policy making. Additionally, in 2013, he researched post-genocide democratization challenges in Rwanda and presented the findings at the University of Minnesota. As a student, he served as Glimpse from the Globe’s Media and Content Manager and was a member of the USC Varsity Sailing Team for 3 years. Alessandro is currently serving a Princeton in Asia Fellowship to work as a journalist for The Phnom Penh Post. He can be followed on Twitter @alemzs.

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