In the annals of cold war history Italy is rarely seen as a crucial locale.  In his stimulating new book, The United States, Italy,...

In the annals of cold war history Italy is rarely seen as a crucial locale.  In his stimulating new book, The United States, Italy, and the Origins of Cold War: Waging Political Warfare (Cambridge University Press, 2014), Kaeten Mistry reveals how events in Italy proved surprisingly crucial in defining a conflict that dominated much of the twentieth century.  For the United States, it marked the first intervention in the postwar era to influence events abroad through political warfare, the use of all measures ‘short of war’ in foreign affairs.  Drawing particular attention to the Italian election of 18 April 1948, he explains how the campaign for the first national election of the newfound Italian republic marked a critical defeat for communism in the early cold war.  The United States utilized a range of overt and covert methods against Marxist political and social power.  Political warfare seemingly outlined a way to tackle communist strength more widely.

Analyzing American political warfare efforts against the Italian left allows Mistry to advance a number of important arguments.  He shows how U.S. efforts were largely improvised and many key decisions ad hoc.  While officials in Washington like George F. Kennan worked to institutionalize political warfare, Italian actors and a host of non-governmental organizations played a crucial role in the defeat of the Italian left, even if they did not always share the same agenda as American officials.  Mistry emphasizes Italian agency, explaining how Christian Democrat Prime Minister Alcide De Gasperi pursued his own agenda to protect national sovereignty.  The Vatican had its own objectives, as did trade unions, citizen groups, and multinational corporations.  Other actors held a less rigid view of the Cold War than their American counterparts.  In short, political warfare was more than an American story yet U.S. officials and commentators lined up to praise the election campaign as a distinctly American success.  Mistry argues that this ‘perception of success’ contributed to an expanded use of political warfare, as U.S efforts turned to subverting communist power in Eastern Europe and, later, the Global South.

The work is a refreshing reminder of how foreign policy is rarely under the control of elite figures in Washington.  Rather, it is subject to negotiation with various foreign and non-governmental actors.  When viewed in this light, Mistry’s work is a useful reminder that governments will almost always invite trouble when they assume the ‘success’ of their efforts to shape events abroad, overlooking the role and motives of other peoples and groups, to make the case for intervention elsewhere.  Enjoy.

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