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Aldo Moro case and Sukarno age: a lesson for limited sovereignty countries


Aldo Moro case and Sukarno age: a lesson for limited sovereignty countries

Pierre Chiartano

A country to pretend! The behind the scene history of the Cold War can help many countries understand their present better, helping that past to pass away. That could be the case of Italy and Indonesia, among others. The similar – mutatis mutandi – political path of the two main actors and political leaders of that period, Indonesian President Sukarno and Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro, can shed light over those years. A story that can explain better the inexplicable of the past, the difficulty of the present and the chances for the future. Both Sukarno and Aldo Moro had to deal both with the presence of strong communist parties in their parliament. They both tried to find a way to engage the communists in a period of “friend or foe” choices. Both Sukarno and Moro wanted pursue national interests in the age of “limited sovereignty”. They both failed, unfortunately, even if in different times — for Sukarno, 1965 was the year of political defeat, while for Moro, 1978 was the year of his death at the hands of the Italian terrorist group called Brigate Rosse (Red Brigades). Let’s start the story from the official reports.

Only in December 2017 did the Italian parliamentary commission on Aldo Moro’s kidnapping and killing outline what really happened 40 years ago: the Cold War framework, the complex Italian political situation, the relations among terrorism, deep state, international and national intelligence agencies, Atlantic and Communist orthodox sectors, real politik and limited sovereignty of Italy. It was March 16, 1978 when the Italian parliament had to launch the first government with the external support of PCI (Italian Communist Party). It was the first step before reaching the so-called “Compromesso Storico” (Historic Deal, in Italian) a way that Aldo Moro, a prominent Italian statesman of the Christian Democratic Party (DC), and Enrico Berlinguer, general secretary of PCI, found to achieve national interest in the middle of the ideological confrontation between Washington and Moscow. Italy was a NATO member, but in its parliament there was the strongest Communist party in the West, actually an “enemy”. The Italian military ranks were constantly under scrutiny about loyalty: to NATO, or to the Italian parliament. At the end of World War II, the Paris Peace Treaty (1947) downgraded Italy’s role to “defeated nation”. Article 16 of the Treaty provided that Rome could not have an independent Economic, Foreign and Security policy. The World War II winner nations as the USA, UK and France had direction about these issues.

Italy’s history of the last 60 years has been a continuous endeavor to avoid sovereignty restrictions and gain room for national interest, where Washington, London and Paris played different roles, not only because of their different political weight, but because of their different perceptions of “danger” and “benefit” about the Italian policy, especially in the Mediterranean basin. It was not just a difficult situation to deal with — it was a mine field to cross, almost blindfolded.

Nowadays, after half a century, hundreds of files from the US Department of State and from Kew Gardens (British Foreign Office) have been unveiled thanks to FOIAs (Freedom of Information Acts) and fading secret labels, so the truth is starting to emerge.  The plan to control the “defeated” Italy was played over different fields, according to World War II winner countries’ interests, then allied. And it could be a lesson to all countries complaining about foreign interference in their domestic affairs. Nobody gets democracy and independence for free. Nor there is an instant coffee receipt if not to let people know the “truth”.

The USA was fully engaged in Cold War strategic aims. Washington wanted to be sure about NATO’s loyalty and as usual to sell goods and services. Americans thought that Rome could play a stabilizing role in North Africa and the Middle East because Italy gave up any “colonialist” attitude, and could help to downsize the French and British colonialist approach still active till the Suez crisis (1956). London and Paris had a different attitude — they immediately perceived the Italian state’s energy company (ENI) activism in Iraq and Algeria, for instance, as endangering their interests. France got a weak “winner” status because of Vichy. Britain was a shade of the past Empire, but it didn’t give up its political arrogance and its will to defend its interests by any means. Italy was the fragile player in the field because the Paris Peace Treaty (1947) prescribed that Rome had no right to have its own Economic, Foreign and Security policy. End stop.  In this way, a “deep state” was growing inside “democratic” institutions. On one side there was the Atlantic treaty supporters, full anti-communists that looked at any deal with PCI suspiciously; on the other the Soviet Union’s friends –there was even a member of the Parliament that was actually a Soviet GRU (Foreign military intelligence) officer — that for different reasons saw any deal with the Christian Democracy (DC) party as a betrayal of the “socialist revolution” that had just been suspended in Italy, because the Yalta agreement put Italy inside the Western hemisphere.

Just eighteen hours of flight eastward, Indonesia faced a similar doom.

The era of Liberal Democracy (Demokrasi Liberal) in Indonesia began in Summer 1950 following the failure of the federal United States of Indonesia less than a year after its launching and terminated with the enforcement of the martial law. President Sukarno tried another political endeavor to stabilize the country: the Guided Democracy on July 5th 1957. That period was characterized by political instability with short-lasting governments like it happened in Italy and like Winston Churchill predicted as a tool to control “under scrutiny-countries” — like Italy was after World War II. The problem for Sukarno as well as for Italy was a sound parliamentary presence of the communist party. The strongest in Asia for Indonesia, the strongest in the West for Italy. Mutatis mutandi it was a parallel destiny. The “danger” was the typical one of the Cold War era: communism and Soviet penetration in strategic areas. The outcome was as well typical: a suspended, apparent, blocked democracy and limited sovereignty.

The task for a leader that loved his country and wanted pursue national interests was very complex. It was like walking through a mine field blindfolded. It was so for Moro as well for Sukarno. They both had to rely on communists, believing that political engaging could bring them toward a smoother declination of the “ideology”. Was it a wishful thinking? Perhaps so. Surely there were not too many choices other than a civil war. About Italy’s “problem”, the concerns were expressed mostly by London and, after Richard Nixon took office, by his national security adviser Henry Kissinger. For Indonesia, the perception of “danger” was strongly voiced since the beginning of the Eisenhower administration. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles said at one key meeting that Sukarno was “dangerous, untrustworthy and by character susceptible to the Communist way of thinking.” And so, in early 1958, the United States began to secretly supply and support dissident military groups in Indonesia’s outer islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi. Indonesia was a quite typical Cold War intelligence operation. Publicly, the United States maintained normal diplomatic relations with Sukarno’s government in Jakarta. Meanwhile, the US Administration secretly intervened in military actions against him. Hundreds of US Department of state files and papers clearly show this approach by Washington. Thanks to the FOIAs and US historians, now we can have a clear picture of that period.

Howard P. Jones, American ambassador to Indonesia appointed from February 1958 to April 1965, tried to mend the Indonesia-USA relations after the shot  down and capture of an American pilot, Allen Pope, who was bombing military targets in support of the rebels of PRRI/Permesta that attempted an uprising in Sumatra and Celebes (Sulawesi). Jones referred to him as “paid soldier of fortune”. There is ample evidence that the United States encouraged and supported the rebellion, until it was clear that it was failing. CIA mounted covert operations in Indonesia. “After the covert operation in support of the Indonesian rebels failed in 1958, we just backed off,” former CIA Director William E. Colby said in an interview. Then, the USA switched policy betting on the regular army to overthrow Sukarno. By 1959, when it became clear that the rebels would fail, Eisenhower shifted course. Instead of backing the rebels, he decided to throw U.S. support to the regular Indonesian army that had been fighting them–in hopes that military leaders would provide a counterweight to Sukarno and Indonesia’s Communist Party. An attitude that we can find even in Italy just few years later. Rome was stormed by concerns about the so called “rattling of sabers” with the exposing of the so-called “Piano Solo”,  an envisaged plot for a coup by Italian Army general De Lorenzo in 1964, just a few months after the first center-left government led by Moro with the support of Socialist party took office. The exposure of the coupe plan seemed like a leak intended to warn the DC party not to step forward in that political direction. The first Italian center-left party was blessed by US president John F. Kennedy. But in December 5th 1963, when Moro finally launched the government, the body of the murdered US president meant a steep turn in Washington’s attitude against any “appeasement” with communists. Even Nikita Krushev was politically toppled in October 1963. Suddenly there was no more room for dialogue.

To counterbalance the power of the military, Sukarno started to rely on the support of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI). In 1960, he declared his government to be based on Nasakom, a union of the three ideological strands present in Indonesian society: nasionalisme (nationalism), agama (religions), and komunisme (communism). Accordingly, Sukarno started to incorporate more communists into his government, while developing a strong relationship with the PKI chairman as happened few years later between Moro and Enrico Berlinguer (Secretary of PCI, Italian communist party).

In 1965, a mysterious flurry of attempted coups unfolded,  setting the political environment to make a change in Indonesia, and pushing Sukarno out of power. As it happened in Italy in 1964 and then in 1970 with the so called “Piano Solo” and “Golpe Borghese” both were aborted – the latter at the last minute. In Italy, the outcome was different. Leaks of coup plans arrived to the media; they have been intended as a warning to stop the DC’s endeavors to bring the communists into the government. However Moro, who was a NATO committed supporter and even established the NATO Stay Behind organization, missed the meaning of that message. Maybe he believed that the status of strong ally put him in a safe position. That wasn’t true. Now hundreds of documents of the UK Foreign Office from Kew Gardens archives show the will of the British government to stop Aldo Moro policy, pushing other allies as the USA, France and Germany to take the decision to do something “resolute”, even a military coup, to stop the communists from taking power in Italy. Several times Germany and the USA under Gerald Ford and then Jimmy Carter tried to slow down this project. Carter was clear about the issue: “nothing illegal” could be allowed in Italy. The USA could only show publicly its dislike about see PCI embarked in a government with DC. Furthermore, in 1977 Carter told the US ambassador in Italy, Richard Gardner, to put under strict control Hugh Montgomery, the CIA resident in Rome. The Cold War machine was too trained, focused, funded and motivated, and it was not easy to switch off the “gear” even for the White House. There is even another reality emerging from Kew Garden papers. London perceived the Italian energy policy as “very dangerous” for British interests, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. So the UK pushing on “communist danger” in Italy could have take two pigeons with one stone. Moro was pursuing the same unpleasant – for the British – Middle Eastern policy that Enrico Mattei did in the past as president of ENI (Italian state energy company) before he was killed by a bomb causing the crash of his airplane in 1962. They were both marginalizing British post-colonial influence over a large sectors of “dominions” with a more democratic approach in politics and economy. Something unbearable for the British attitude of political arrogance.

The dead of Mattei in 1962 and then the execution of Moro at the hands of Red Brigades in 1978 solved a lot of problems.  As well it did  Gen. Suharto’s taking control of Indonesia, gradually easing Sukarno from power in 1967. Suharto remained Indonesia’s president till 1998. Of course both countries’ histories tell about limited sovereignty and even the public debate has not yet faced the issue. Why? Maybe because the wounds of the Cold War age are still painful. Some actors are still in power. New challenges are on the stage. But without a serious debate about that past it is hard to build a future. And two countries pleased by God to be a Paradise, often risk to turn as Hell.

Pierre Chiartano is the Contributing Editor of Blitz.

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Blitz’s Editorial Board is responsible for the stories published under this byline. This includes editorials, news stories, letters to the editor, and multimedia features on

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