Events

The Nuclear Challenge: Italian Foreign Policy and Atomic Weapons, 1945-1991

February 17, 2009 // 3:00pm4:30pm
Event Co-sponsors: 
History and Public Policy Program
Cold War International History Project
International Security Studies
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For much of the Cold War, the Italian government viewed the nuclear issue as a way of opening the door into the inner circle of European security decision-makers. Leopoldo Nuti, Director of the Machiavelli Center for Cold War Studies, explained that Italian prestige, much more than security concerns, drove the government to allow the deployment of NATO nuclear weapons on Italian soil throughout the Cold War.

In a presentation based upon his recent book The Nuclear Challenge: Italian Foreign Policy and Atomic Weapons, 1945-1991, Nuti discussed the process by which the Italian government used its position in NATO to advance its own national agenda. Most Italian nuclear physicists in the post-war years focused primarily on peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Once U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower made nuclear weapons the central pillar in ensuring Western security in 1953, Italian foreign policy began to account for nuclear weapons.

The Italian government saw the burgeoning primacy of nuclear weapons as an opportunity to play a significant role in the NATO alliance, akin to that played by the other European nuclear powers. Their policy solution, according to Nuti, was multilateralism--inserting Italy into the center of NATO nuclear strategy by hosting alliance weapons on Italian soil. This strategy remained a common element in Italian nuclear policy from NATO's early deployment of Honest John and Corporal missiles, to the 1958 deployment of Jupiter missiles in Italy, and through the deployment of Ground Launched Cruise Missiles (GLCMs) twenty years later.

Nuti went on to detail several corollaries to Italian multilateralism which also remained constant throughout the Cold War, including the Italian government's desire to maintain a low-profile for the deployments and its unwillingness to make substantial financial contributions to pay for them. The overarching goal throughout the Cold War, Nuti explained, was not to use NATO nuclear weapons to guarantee Italian security, but to use them to insert Italy into NATO's and Europe's inner security policy circles with minimal impact on Italian coffers.

Expanding on Leopoldo Nuti's presentation, James Miller, professorial lecturer in history at Georgetown University and chair of the West European Program at the Department of State's Foreign Service Institute, discussed how the combination of a strong Italian Communist Party and Italian yearning for international prestige affected Italy's nuclear policy throughout the Cold War. As an example of this interplay, Miller pointed out that Italy's opposition to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was that signing it would permanently exclude Italy from Europe's club of nuclear ‘have's.' Italy eventually signed the treaty despite widespread public opposition in large measure due to the strong influence of the Italian Communist Party.

Finally, Richard Gardner, professor of law and international organization at Columbia Law School, and U.S. Ambassador to Italy from 1977-1981 discussed how Italy's 1979 decision to accept NATO GLCMs was essential to the implementation of NATO's "dual-track decision" to deploy intermediate range nuclear forces in Europe while simultaneously negotiating with the Soviet Union to remove this class of weapons entirely from both NATO and Warsaw Pact arsenals.

According to Gardner, Germany refused to host U.S. Pershing II missiles unless another continental European ally accepted intermediate missiles as well. The Italian Communist Party's poor showing in the 1979 elections placed them—for the first time after a protracted spell of cooperation in the 1970s—in the opposition, which gave more conservative elements of the Italian government the ability to push the deployment through parliament. This deployment satisfied Germany's requirements, leading to the successful implementation of the dual-track decision, and the eventual negotiation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Drafted by Tim McDonnell, HAPP/WES
Christian Ostermann, Director, HAPP/WES

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Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Leopoldo Nuti // Co-Director, Nuclear Proliferation International History Project; Public Policy Scholar
  • Evan Pikulski // Program Assistant