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A View from America: Our Brilliant Socialist Friend Bettino Craxi

Twenty Years after his death, an observer from the U.S. embassy in Rome during the '70s and '80s remembers the Italian Leader

America’s most serious long-term concerns about Italy? The Italian economy and her crucial role in the Cold War. Craxi influenced major decisions brilliantly. 

The turmoil of the twenty years since the death of Bettino Craxi, seismic events in both Italy and the United States, have left little time and attention for any laborious re-assessment of the Craxi years.  The exhaustive 2006 biography by a close collaborator, Massimo Pini, was richly detailed but contained few surprises for cynics for whom Pini was too close to his subject to have a balanced view.

This extended period of relative silence may be a good thing, allowing for a distanced view that can take account of large long-term values.  

I can offer only a footnote to the literature.  In my time at the American embassy in Rome I had few encounters with Craxi and no extended conversations.  But I was close to some members of the brilliant coterie of young people who surrounded Craxi, both in the party and on the party daily Avanti! under Ugo Intini.  And I watched over the years how Craxi influenced, in often surprising ways, the flow of some of the major American concerns in Europe.

President Ronald Reagan with Italian Premier Bettino Craxi at the White House in 1983

One starts with the obvious fact that Socialists made Washington nervous in the context of post-war Europe.  More comfortable with some of their old conservative, especially Christian Democratic, friends in several European countries, American diplomacy often failed to keep a close eye on how these long-time connections actually related to Western interests in the 1960s and ‘70s.  That nervousness was increased in Italy by the off-and-on flirtations of some Socialist Party leaders with the idea of cooperation, even eventual coalition, with the mammoth Italian Communist Party. PSI leaders before Craxi, that is.

Any bridges to the PCI were burned to the ground by Craxi’s harsh and, at the time, unusual criticism of the absence of any truly democratic aura in Botteghe Oscure.  He respectfully put the svolta di Salerno and Togliatti’s support of the constitution in their historical place, but found no real democracy in the “democratic centralism” of the party of Enrico Berlinguer.

Washington therefore, had no reason to fear a slide to the left by Craxi, but it learned this only slowly. So, what were America’s most serious long-term concerns about Italy?  Said simply, they were the health of the Italian economy and Italy’s crucial role in the Cold War.  

The first concern, as viewed from Washington, focused on one point of neuralgia.  The prevailing belief in the 1970s and early ‘80s was that the insidious effect of the scala mobile was destined to defeat any effort at economic reform and leach away any foreseeable major economic improvements.  It was also the prevailing view that no political leader in Italy would ever have the courage to take action against the scala mobile.  Yet that is exactly what Craxi, as Prime Minister, did, not as a result of any outside pressure, but because of his own clear vision of what the country’s economic health required.

A Socialist is not a Communist: PSI leader Bettino Craxi with PCI leader Enrico Berlinguer

Craxi’s role in the Cold War went well beyond his refusal to embrace the PCI.  And, again, his performance of that role was a surprise to Washington. Some time before 1981 the Rome embassy had asserted to Washington that Craxi’s Socialists had abandoned any “ambiguity” about NATO.  But the coming challenge was to be far greater, and require a long view and great daring.

When the Soviets enormously increased the accuracy of their medium-range missiles pointed at Europe, it so multiplied the potential effectiveness of these weapons that the upgrade was absolutely equivalent to the deployment of a new set of more powerful missiles.  The NATO response was two-pronged: an offer to negotiate a draw-down, and a threat to deploy a new fleet of missiles, pointed east, on west European soil. We now know that the Soviets, for whom this was the last great effort to divide the Alliance, were counting on the rambunctious democracies of the West to resist having a flock of missiles planted in their front yards.  Central to this confrontation was, of course, Germany. At this point, the Germans took an interesting position, one that seemed to confirm the Soviet hopes about the fragility of Western Alliance. They said that the missiles could be deployed on German soil only if they were also deployed on that of at least one other major continental ally. Tough words those. France was, at this time, outside the military structure of NATO.  Spain was not yet a member. The Germans privately made clear that countries such as Holland, Belgium, and Portugal did not meet their definition of “major”, i.e., big. And Britain was not continental.  

That left only one possibility.  Our old Italian political friends shuddered, and began weaving the twisty language of a diplomatic head cold (the excuse for not attending an Embassy reception).  But Bettino Craxi, not yet in office, declared his flat support for the missile deployment on Italian soil. (He, of course, like all of us, hoped the Soviets would back down and come to the negotiating table, which they did.  But that was well into the future.) When he became Prime Minister, he was as good as his word. It is only in reading memoirs and analyses out of Moscow that one realizes what a turning point that was in East-West relations.

August 1983, Two socialists at the helm of Italy’s: Premier Bettino Craxi and the President of the Republic Sandro Pertini

The word “contradictions” appears atop this little historical footnote because in both these two cases, the crucial positive role played by Bettino Craxi is not what one had, over the years, expected from European Socialists.

But there is another contradiction in Craxi’s relation to the U.S., one that is largely a question of style, but is also high politics. It had been the unfortunate style of many Italian politicos, especially the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, to want to be seen as being close to the Americans.  Certain of them could be found at every Embassy social event, where they would endlessly buttonhole Embassy officials, and also be sure to be photographed with them. They were always thirsty to get their close-to-the-Americans card punched regularly.  Many of us found this a little unseemly.  

The grand exception was Craxi.  Both in office and out, he did everything that was correct — attended essential meetings, accepted to visit Washington to meet the President, and had his aides work closely with us on serious business — but made a conscious effort to keep his distance.  Thus, he deserves full personal credit for the accomplishments noted above.

The symbol of his style came when an American ambassador desperately wanted a private get-together.  He was embarrassed to admit that he had never had a lunch with Craxi a quattr’occhi.  His invitations to Craxi to such quiet socializing at the Villa Taverna, the ambassadorial residence in Rome, which would have been just the two of them and a dozen photographers, were always regretted with the usual excuses.  The ambassador kept pushing (and Craxi’s staff probably also pushed him a little) until Craxi finally relented and agreed to meet for lunch at a restaurant he specified near Montecitorio.

When the Americans arrived, they understood Craxi’s arrangements.  The lunch would be served in a private room, and the restaurant was uniquely situated near the apex of a triangular bloc.  The ambassador was to enter through the front door, which could not be seen from the street that ran past the back door, where Bettino Craxi entered.  We never admitted to the ambassador how much we applauded Craxi’s style.

Bettino Craxi in Hammamet: illustration by Antonella Martino

Twenty years ago, Bettino Craxi died in exile at Hammamet, a victim of the massive assault by politicized magistrates that went under the name of Tangetopoli.  There were many other victims, but no other party leader admitted openly what he had done to finance his party.  Craxi then, with the nation watching him on television, accused, correctly, the other party leaders who had done the same, lashed at the Milan magistrates who destroyed selectively.  Craxi faced this final battle with an arrogant pride that offended many.  

As we Americans look at our genuine long-term interests in Italy, we should, with the qualifications and distancing that Craxi himself would find proper, pay him tribute.

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