Roberto Ferragina (Historian)

Come gli Stati Uniti aiutarono l'Italia a combattere per il proprio futuro dopo la seconda guerra mondiale

Mar 04, 2019 4664 ITA ENG

Italy and the US experienced a multifaceted relationship from 1943 to 1955. After the war the US played a historic role in assisting Italy with rebuilding and planning its future. Threatening this effort, both within and beyond Italy’s borders, were communism and the Italian Communist Political Party (PCI). 

During the rebuilding of Italy the US participated in many aspects of Italians’ daily lives. A great deal of political, military, social, and economic involvement by the US occurred between 1943 and 1955. To be clear from the start, here at We the Italians we have been, are and always will be grateful to the United States for many reasons, and one of these is the subject of this long and interesting interview with Roberto Ferragina, a business consultant in the New York metropolitan region, who wrote his Master's thesis in History on this subject.

Roberto, once the war was over how did the US assist Italians above and beyond the assistance from other nations?

First we must look at the condition of Italy after the war. Approximately 400,000 soldiers, sailors, and airmen lost their lives. Approximately 1.2 million homes were destroyed, mostly in cities of 50,000 or more people. Many Italians were also faced with inadequate food supplies.

Germany had forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of Italians and transported them to Germany as foreign workers. After the war it was primarily the US Army, along with the assistance of allied armies, who managed these displaced Italians: they were provided necessities and handed over to the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA), an agency founded in Washington DC in 1943. The agency spent 10 billion dollars between 1945 and 1947 for postwar needs and emergencies. By September of 1945, 700,000 Italians had been liberated, cared for, repatriated, and provided some assistance by the UNRRA.

Assistance in aiding the recovery of Italy had begun during President Roosevelt’s administration. For example, Roosevelt introduced an Italian credit system to cover Amlire, American Lire currency, spent by American troops. Assistance continued under President Truman who endorsed the progression of funds for the Italian recovery. Truman recognized the strength and size of the PCI and its supporters. In order to block this communist threat from growing within Italy, Truman supported programs to assist the Italian nation, its people, and the Christian Democratic Political Party (DC).

In addition, at the Potsdam Conference, President Truman pushed for Italy’s entry into the United Nations. Russia was not presenting any aid packages for Italy. The Soviets did not see any real interests in strongly aligning themselves with a war-torn Italy. They did not share a common boundary with Italy, and allied troops, predominantly US and British, were still on Italian soil. After all, Italy was situated in a geographic position well suited for the Allies.

The Truman Doctrine, announced in March of 1947, provided military and economic aid to several nations. Regarding Italy, the doctrine provided assistance in pursuit of anti-communist containment. The Truman Doctrine was well received and supported throughout Italy: some estimates indicate roughly 60 percent of Italians supported it.

If Russia was not actively and fully engaged with postwar Italy why would there be a communist threat?

The Italian Communist Party (PCI) was the largest communist party in western Europe, immediately following the war. Although the PCI network had been established, Moscow did not appear ready or willing to interfere in Italian affairs. Italy was too deeply entrenched ideologically and geographically within western Europe. There was also the financial burden of reconstruction and the political unrest within Italy as well as the relationship between the US and the Italian people which had existed prior to the Second World War through immigration and commerce.  

How did the US influence the Italian postwar elections?

After the US had committed so much in dollars and lives to defeat Fascism, it was not going to lose the peace to a communist Italy. The information to assist in educating Italians regarding democracy was financed by the United States Information Services (USIS) Coordinating Committee. Numerous booklets were distributed freely in the Italian language. The booklet topics included “elections in the US, how the US Government works, the Constitution and other fundamental US documents.” Various other departments of the US Information Service would assist in this effort: the Book Division, the Radio and Motion Picture Divisions, the News and Features Division, and the Special Projects Division complied with the same objective.   

The US had advocated and encouraged the Italian people to establish a free government of their own, and was pleased when the monarchy was discredited and eventually abolished in 1946 by a popular referendum. On February 11th, 1946, four months prior to elections, the US State Department issued a statement encouraging Italian voters to participate in their Constituent Assembly elections. In that statement Italy was reminded of the pledge the US made prior to the landing of American soldiers on Italian soil to rid Italy of Fascism, Nazi oppression, and to establish a free Government.

Elections were held on June 2nd and 3rd, 1946 in relative peace. They represented the first free elections the Italian people participated in twenty-five years. They also represented the first free elections for Italian women, ever. Over 20,000,000 Italians voted, in long lines, for hours and in the heat of the summer. The overall victory for the Republic over the Monarchy was made by a narrow margin, 12.7 million votes in favor of the abolition while 10.7 million voted in favor of retaining the Monarchy. 

The threat of communist victory in Italy was real, especially after the elections of 1946. For example, the PCI secured 4,350,000 votes, 19% of the vote. As far as raw numbers were concerned, Communists and Socialists within Italy held a large portion of the overall population. By 1947 the PCI had grown to approximately two and a quarter million, a number which greatly concerned the US.

The task of the US was to demonstrate why it was in the Italians’ best interest to support the DC. American officials feared a communist ruling coalition resulting in the 1948 national elections. It was apparent that the DC was the party most closely aligned to the political and economic principles of the US. These elections were critical in a world where two spheres of influence existed, the USSR and the USA. The objective for the US was to solidify the Italian system within the North Atlantic Alliance, into the Western camp.

Specifically how did the US sway Italians into voting for the D.C.?

In order to counter the spread of communism in Italy the US assisted the DC with financial donations, advertising, promoting its beliefs, and in registering Italians to vote. In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assisted in disbursing money to non-communist campaigns, especially the moderates. The money was used in print campaigns, radio, theatre, posters, pamphlets, and more. The US promoted its core values and principles heavily. The Christian Democrats and Socialists alone received approximately one million dollars from the CIA.

The Office of War Information (OWI) had engaged in this activity until it was abolished in 1945. Although the OWI was originally set up to assist American soldiers and Allies in the fight against the Axis powers, toward the end of the war its attention was shifted to creating a pro American environment and impression of the US in Europe.

This shift was also true for the Voice of America (VOA). Many of Italy’s citizens enjoyed American entertainers, especially entertainers of Italian heritage. VOA was a radio broadcast network of the US government which assisted these entertainers in reaching out with a message to their fans. The VOA appealed to Italians knowing they were direct targets for communist sympathizers. The VOA would, for example, broadcast messages from Hollywood elites such as Frank Sinatra. The VOA would also broadcast letters from Italian Americans warning of the dangers of communism. 

The VOA also established programs to inform Europeans of the wealth and productivity which could be found in the US. The overall purpose of the VOA and the OWI in postwar Europe was to help Europeans better understand and value the American way of life. In the end these efforts proved beneficial to the anti-communist cause as the Christian Democrats were ultimately elected in Italy.

For the average American it had appeared that Western democracy had been victorious in the Italian elections of 1948, and it had. The US valued Italy’s Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi’s anti-Fascist past and dedication to the liberal Christian Democratic tradition.

In 1947 the US Government invited De Gasperi to discuss economic concerns as well as questions regarding the peace treaty. On January 3rd of that year, three days prior to his meeting in Washington, De Gasperi told a New York Times reporter, the meeting “means that we have a friend [with the US].” De Gasperi met with President Truman and received assurances of assistance.

What other forms of government assistance or legislation did the US provide for Italy?

The US enacted the Smith-Mundt Act in January of 1948. The act authorized the use of magazines, films, embassy libraries, government-sponsored lectures, and the Voice of America to promote America’s foreign policy.

Another tool which the US utilized to promote its domestic institutions and global ambitions to Italians was the US Information Agency (USIA). This agency, proposed by the Eisenhower administration and launched in 1953 as an additional weapon against communism, administered the “embassy libraries, cultural centers, and American Houses” as well as supervised “book translations, exhibits, and English-language courses.”

Which forms of the American culture were exported to spread democracy and fight communism in Italy?

By the late 1950s and early 1960s various forms of American culture were exported to many Italian and European cities, to demonstrate American culture firsthand to the people. For example, orchestras and soloists from American cities performed concerts while American baseball teams traveled through Italian cities. Other examples included art exhibits, American dance and ballet, and photographic collections.

American GIs stationed in Italy were cultural ambassadors as well.  They used their “r and r” (rest and recreation) at dance halls and night clubs, and exposed Italians to American forms of dancing and popular music. Swing dancing and be-bop, in particular, gained popularity and had widespread radio play across the country.

What role did the Vatican play in the effort to combat communism in postwar Italy?

The Vatican played a critical role in assisting both the spread of democracy in Italy and the US led struggle against communism. Pope Pius XII was seen by many Italians as a courageous man for remaining in Rome during the war while Rome was under Nazi control. Many in Italy were worried about the possibility of an Italian nation under communist control in which the Vatican would be under the influence of the PCI or even worse, Moscow. The US government was also concerned about this, kept close relations with the Vatican after the conflict, and was extremely pleased when the Vatican spoke out against communism and in favor of democracy. In fact, during the crucial election of 1948 the Vatican made every effort to assist the Christian Democrats in defeating the communists.  

Please describe the importance of the Marshall Plan relative to rebuilding Italy and promoting postwar democracy.

The Marshall Plan was presented by the US, officially by Secretary of State George C. Marshall, in 1947. The 20 billion dollar relief plan was enacted in the spring of 1948. By the end of the war the US had spent billions in grants and loans to European nations: those to Italy exceeded $513 million dollars by mid-1947. Most of the loans were allocated and utilized for emergencies and essential needs. Most European nations knew it would be very difficult to repay the loans.

The US knew it had to develop a plan which would result in the rebuilding of Europe’s infrastructure and prevent western Europe from falling into the hands of the communists.

The Marshall Plan elevated Italy’s status, wealth, and stature in the world. It assisted Italy in aspiring to be one of the most advanced nations on the globe. Italy announced on June 1947 that it had reviewed and approved the Marshall Plan. Italy had serious domestic problems at the time. On one occasion, for example, several requests were made at a 2,000 person Columbus Day dinner held at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. That event, held in October, included Ambassador Alberto Tarchiani, who described the “dark winter” ahead and discussed Italy’s monetary problems as well as the short wheat crop.

As Marshall Plan aid reached Europe in 1948 the Italian government utilized it in various ways. In the first year, for example, funds were allocated for struggling industries as well as the import of grain and coal, both of which were in great demand. Italy then requested a large portion of the aid for investment in national sectors of its economy which it deemed essential. These included engineering, agriculture, transportation networks, and energy.

A critical goal of the Marshall Plan was to counter the spread of communism. In Italy, the way to achieve this was to raise Italy’s standard of living, thereby enhancing the popularity of the DC. In essence, it was difficult to promote communism in Italy with massive aid arriving from the US while at the same time the Soviet Union refused to allow its satellite nation states to participate in the plan altogether.

How did the American business sector affect Postwar Italy in combatting communist?

The American managerial and business models were regarded among many Italians as the most successful and profitable in the world. The Americans were happy and willing to share them; after all, this produced additional business and profits for US firms.     

Growth and prosperity did result in part to Italians adopting American business practices during postwar recovery. The results, while mixed when reviewing managerial philosophies, were impressive when one looks at economic growth. For example, in the decade from 1950 to 1960 the Italian economy had grown at a rate of approximately six percent per year. This was one and a half percent greater than the western European average. During this same time Italy’s imports more than doubled and its global exports nearly trebled.

As northern Italy progressed during the postwar years, how did the US deal with southern Italy?

The severity of Italy’s southern unemployment situation was one in which northern Italy could not handle alone. As the north was progressing forward the south lacked the factories, the wealth, and the infrastructure which the north had. In addition, the mafia’s influence was entrenched in the south. This combined with massive unemployment and a significant illiteracy rate created a breeding ground for communist sympathizers.

In order to combat the overpopulation and unemployment of southern Italy the US focused on a plan of emigration. Most of the Italian emigrants relocated to Argentina or the US. By doing so some of southern Italy’s economic constraints were alleviated, thus decreasing the threat of communist sympathizers feeding on the poor, unemployed, and helpless.

Did the US implement any educational programs during the postwar years in Italy?

Yes. There was one American program in particular which affected the European educational system with tremendous results: the Fulbright Program. The program was enacted by President Truman and his State Department. It was basically an academic exchange program which issued scholarships. Written by, named after, and proposed by Congressman, and later Senator, J. William Fulbright in 1945, the program was officially enacted in August of 1946.

By the end of the 1940s Italy had Fulbright programs in place: they allowed the academically inclined within Italy to explore and be informed about the American system. It also assisted in stimulating the intellectual minds of America’s allies.        

An effect of American programs, both governmental as well as academic, resulted in the increase of the use and demand for the English language. As Italians experienced American films, American products, and American tourists in their country, the curiosity and necessity to learn and speak English rapidly grew. By the 1950s, studying the English language was often required by most schools.

During postwar Italy, how did the US affect or influence the military stability of the Italian armed forces and protect the Italian peninsula?

Specifically, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) affected the military stability of Italy while maintaining the strength of the US and its capitalistic principles. Set in place in 1949, NATO was basically a military shield protecting all member nations. Italy had sought out membership in NATO principally under the leadership of the DC leader De Gasperi who knew that as the world divided into two spheres of influence entry into NATO would protect Italy militarily. 

As a member of NATO Italy was basically affiliated with the foreign policy of the US. This meant billions of US dollars invested in building and maintaining NATO military installations on the Italian peninsula with thousands of US soldiers stationed at the bases.

Fiat, the Italian automotive manufacturer in Torino, received American contracts for ground-support jet aircrafts. The contract was not only beneficial to Fiat, the local Torino economy, and Italy, but also to the US. NATO military installations also affected the Italian people with an increased feeling of safety. The bases also protected the Vatican, thus the world’s capital for Catholicism.

What influence did Hollywood have on the Italian populace and culture in postwar Italy?

After the Second World War, Hollywood remained the most powerful movie producing entity in the world. The Truman administration used the Marshall Plan as leverage regarding Hollywood and the exportation of movies. His administration made it known that if a country accepted money under the plan they should be willing to import an abundance of American movies. Demand for American films in Italy was strong and as soon as the war ended American films performed very well. In 1946 alone, 87 percent of box-office receipts in Italy resulted primarily from American films.

The influence Hollywood had on the Italian society cannot be emphasized enough. Of all European nations after the war, Italy was Hollywood’s number one market, excluding Britain, for exporting films. Approximately six hundred American movies were exported per year to Italy between 1945 and 1949. By 1951 American films occupied sixty five percent of Italy’s screen time.

Through Hollywood films, Italians were exposed to American subconscious branding on the screen. They saw heroes, villains, and icons wearing blue jeans, smoking Marlboro cigarettes and drinking Coca Cola on the screen. There were overall images of grandeur such as large Cadillacs and impressive homes with wraparound porches. All of these things left an impression and impact on Italians that America and Americans were special, modern, full of opportunity, and open to risk. Even on the Via Veneto in Rome American newspapers and magazines were for sale, featuring ads and images of American products.

The Hollywood factor assisted in combating communism, both directly and indirectly. The US government used Hollywood films as a medium to “advertise” democracy during the 1948 elections. Even though Italy had a strong communist party, many of its members openly and happily watched Hollywood films. The truth of the matter was that communism could not compete with Hollywood in Italy.

Hollywood’s strength lured some of Italy’s most talented actors to the US. Even as Italy’s film industry reemerged in the late 1940s several Italian leading actors, such as Alida Valli, Valentina Cortese and Rossano Brazzi, could not resist the call from Hollywood. However, this did not prevent Italy from producing quality films during that period. 

How do you respond to those who believe the US aggressively interfered with the Italian political system during the postwar years?

Well, the Christian Democrats earned the support and confidence of many Italians in part because of American direct interference and assistance. While some individuals focus on this and attack the US for interfering in a democratic process, one needs to be reminded that the communists also interfered in the Italian elections. The Cominform did contribute to the elections as well and a communist victory would have altered the nation and the European landscape as well as the entire global picture in the Cold War. Italy, after all, was the gateway to the Mediterranean, a vital military post protecting Mediterranean oil, and the home to the Vatican. With such enormous elements at stake, it was the US which shouldered the majority of the responsibility and financial burden of rebuilding and protecting Italy.   

The nation and people of Italy, while enjoying the investments of the US, went from German influence and occupation in their nation to Allied intervention to then immense US investments and political involvement. Because of this, national pride, solidarity, and a general feeling of sovereignty diminished among the Italian people. They had lost so much and had ceded all decisions to a dictator, then a German occupier, and then were exposed to the “American way” of doing things. However, the overall picture from 1943 to 1955 is one of economic improvement and financial investment in the Italian infrastructure, ports, military, and academia. Italy was transformed from a monarchy to a democratic republic. This democratic republic, the nation of Italy, was and is free from communist rule primarily to the credit of the US.

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