The revelation that Britain and NATO considered staging a coup in Italy in 1976 to prevent the Communist Party (PCI) from forming a government fits with what is already known about a whole series of actions by the state intended to destabilise that country and maintain the status quo. These merged with the aims of a long-term operation throughout Western Europe put together by the US and Britain at the end of World War II.
In Italy, the operation went under the codename Gladio and was a secret NATO "stay-behind" operation after 1945, ostensibly intended to counter a Warsaw Pact invasion of Western Europe. Arms caches were hidden, escape routes prepared, and loyal members recruited, mainly hard line anti-Communists, including many ex-Nazis or former fascists, whether in Italy or in other European countries. As the fantasy of a Soviet invasion faded, locally-recruited forces turned their attention to internal subversion against the left.
In the 1970s, with PCI electoral support growing, the Italian ruling class turned to the “Strategy of Tension”, in which Gladio would be deeply involved. This involved bombings, assassinations and military plotting against democratic institutions. In October 1990, the right-wing Prime minister Giulio Andreotti finally acknowledged the existence of Gladio and spoke of a "structure of information, response and safeguard", with arms caches and reserve officers.
In 2000, an Italian parliamentary commission concluded that the “strategy of tension” had been supported by the United States to "stop the PCI … from reaching executive power in the country". The report, stated that "those massacres, those bombs, those military actions had been organised or promoted or supported by men inside Italian state institutions and, as has been discovered more recently, by men linked to the structures of United States intelligence”.
The report claimed that US intelligence agents were informed in advance about several rightwing terrorist bombings, including the December 1969 Piazza Fontana bombing in Milan and the Piazza della Loggia bombing in Brescia five years later, but did nothing to alert the Italian authorities or to prevent the attacks from taking place.
In 1976, after years of corrupt Christian Democratic-party led rule in Italy, the PCI and its allies seemed to be heading for electoral victory. The PCI was led by the moderate Enrico Berlinguer, who had turned the party into a party prepared to make what he called an “historic compromise” to win political power. This was coded language for the abandonment of any semblance of revolutionary perspective in favour of accepting the legitimacy of capitalist rule.
Nevertheless, the prospect of a victory for the PCI was too much for Britain and the US to stomach. A secret Foreign Office memo dated 6 May 1976, entitled “Italy And The Communists: Options For The West”, unearthed in the National Archives by an Italian researcher, suggested one course might be "action in support of a coup d'etat or other subversive action". The memo admits: "By its nature, a coup d'etat could lead to unpredictable developments." But it added that, in theory at least, "it could be promoted. In one way or another, the force of the right could be counted on, with the support of the police and the army". In the event, the PCI finished second in the election.
Just to remind ourselves, the coup plotting in 1976 took place under a Labour government, which itself was clinging to power during a period of social and economic upheaval throughout Europe as the post-war boom collapsed. The lack of political stability brought forward plans for a military coup in Britain itself, as well as internal plots against prime minister Harold Wilson. The period we have entered in 2008 bears a number of similarities to that of 30 years ago and you can be sure that the modern versions of Gladio are at it as we write.
AWTW Communications editor