restricted access La sfida nucleare: La politica estera italiana e le armi atomiche 1945–1991 (review)
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Reviewed by
Leopoldo Nuti, La sfida nucleare: La politica estera italiana e le armi atomiche 1945–1991. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2007. 425 pp.

In March 1958, General Lauris Norstad, the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), sent General Nino Pasti, Italy’s representative to the Atlantic Council, on a mission to Rome. Pasti was to convey to Italy’s defense minister documents concerning the possible deployment of new intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), known as Jupiters, on Italian soil. As Leopoldo Nuti describes in this impressively researched study of Italy’s policy toward [End Page 152] nuclear weapons, the deployment was supposed to proceed “as quietly as possible” (p. 175). Some two decades later, retired General Pasti, now a member of the Italian Senate, became an outspoken critic of NATO’s decision to deploy a new generation of “Euromissiles,” the Pershing II IRBMs and cruise missiles. Some of the latter were destined for the Comiso base in Sicily. Although Nuti, a professor of the history of international relations at the University of Rome, mentions Pasti only in his first incarnation as a NATO official, the story he tells of Italy’s approach to nuclear weapons follows Pasti’s trajectory. Decisions on nuclear weapons shifted from a highly secretive domain, dominated by government officials from the center-right Christian Democratic Party and its allies, to one that involved widespread public debate—in parliament and in the piazza—and included representatives from across the political spectrum. (Pasti represented the independent left, although his views on disarmament were often close to those of the Soviet Union.)

Nuti has undertaken prodigious research, drawing on extensive primary materials from Italy, the United States, Britain, France, and Germany, and logging many hours in numerous archives throughout Europe and North America. His detailed account of relations between Italy and its NATO allies is unlikely to be surpassed. He provides valuable background information on the postwar status of Italy as it sought to revive its international standing following defeat and occupation. One element of this was the question of nuclear weapons. Italy played a prominent role in the development of nuclear physics, but its own physicists—the ones who had not fled the country in the wake of the fascist regime’s anti-Jewish laws—avoided military-related research. Thus early postwar Italian nuclear policy was dominated by military officials and politicians with little understanding of the meaning of the nuclear revolution. On the one hand, the invention of nuclear weapons seemed to reinforce the views of Giulio Douhet, the Italian theorist of air power in the 1920s, who predicted that the threat of mass aerial bombardment of civilian population centers would provide a deterrent to war (pp. 30–31). On the other, military planners gave serious attention to using nuclear weapons, including weapons vastly more powerful than the bombs that flattened Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to destroy Alpine passes in the unlikely event of a Soviet invasion through Austria or Yugoslavia (pp. 83–84). It is not surprising, then, that the civilian head of the National Committee for Nuclear Research accused military commanders of “absolute incompetence” in the nuclear sphere and recommended that they consult with scientists (pp. 90–91).

In the 1950s the United States introduced into Italy and other European countries so-called tactical nuclear weapons and nuclear-armed air defense systems (Nike-Hercules), which, if used in war, would have destroyed what they were supposed to defend. Italian politicians were not so much concerned about that prospect. In Nuti’s account, they saw Italy’s embrace of nuclear weapons as a way to raise the country’s status, sometimes in cooperation but other times in competition with the country’s European allies. Italy’s defense minister worked with his French and West German counterparts in the wake of the 1956 Suez Crisis and perceptions of U.S. unreliability to plan for collaboration among the three countries on “modern” military technology—primarily missiles and nuclear weapons. Nuti quotes a French summary of a [End Page 153] meeting at which West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer told French Prime Minister Guy Mollet that “we must unite against the Americans” and demand...