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NATO IN ITAly - 70 years of history


italy and nato

Why did a country so far away from the Atlantic Ocean become a member of the North Atlantic Alliance? What role did Italy have in securing NATO's Southern Flank during the Cold War? See how NATO photographers depicted daily life in Italy during the 1950s and find out how the city of La Spezia got involved in anti-submarine warfare.



Count Carlo Sforza, speaking at the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, Washington, D.C., 4 April 1949.

In Italy, NATO membership was the result of lengthy domestic debates and longstanding dissensions engrained within the population and different political factions. However, the desire for peace and security was palpable and the path toward NATO membership was considered to be the most viable option for the country. For the drafters of the North Atlantic Treaty, Italy's privileged position in the Mediterranean region made it a valuable strategic partner that could help secure the defence of NATO's Southern Flank. 

Furthermore, concerns over its highly popular Communist Party made it an absolute priority to integrate into a family of like-minded countries determined to protect democratic values, individual rights and freedom. During the Cold War, Italy had a steady influence on NATO and contributed in many different ways, including through the hosting of commands and research hubs and, perhaps more importantly, through its people.


Italian political parties sent mixed signals on NATO membership, changing opinion over short periods of time, with the exception of the Communist Party that consistently campaigned against the future Alliance. The Italian Communist Party had played a pivotal role in the Resistance during the Second World War and was the second largest political party in the post-war period. For a while, it was the biggest Communist Party in Western Europe. Aside Italy's strategic position in the Mediterranean, the power of the Communist Party was the main reason for American involvement in Italy. The United States did not want to lose a strategically placed European country to the Soviet Union. War-torn Italy became a recipient of American aid in the form of the European Recovery Program, better known as the Marshall Plan, to build up the economy. France also had an interest in seeing Italy become a member of the Alliance since it would help secure North Africa and protect the Po Valley. Italy would be stabilised within a stable NATO…

003_e1-countries-it2-NBDMU3 Count Carlo Sforza

The April 1948 elections secured a victory for the Christian Democrats, led by Alcide De Gasperi, who eventually agreed to lead his country towards NATO membership. This decision was reinforced by the country's fear of insecurity and instability and its desire to play a role on the world scene. Moreover, the staunch anti-fascist Count Carlo Sforza, Italian Foreign Minister from February 1947 to July 1951, had economic cooperation as one of his major goals. NATO was a first step towards the integration of Italy into the Western European community. Count Sforza signed the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949 in Washington D.C., and also led his country into the Council of Europe (May 1949) and then the European Coal and Steel Community in April 1951. Meet the other signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty


Getting to know you... 

While 12 founding member countries had come together at the Departmental Auditorium in Washington D.C. to sign the North Atlantic Treaty, their citizens did not know each other, nor did they know what this new Alliance was or how it functioned.

To get acquainted with each other, NATO's Office of Information and Press created a series of films on each of the members in the 1950s that were shown in cinemas.

Photographers were sent to each of the member countries to draw up a portrait through scenes of daily life, be it in factories, on the streets, in shops or elsewhere.


While members got to know each other, NATO tried to explain itself –role, objectives and activities- to people in the street. It created the "Caravan of Peace", a bus whose first destination was Italy. It was an immediate success. From February to August 1952, over 1.5 million visitors flocked to the exhibition in Naples, Rome, Bologna, Milan, Bari, Genoa, Turin, Florence and Venice. The NATO bus undertook other tours of Italy. In 1955, the "Mostra della Comunità Atlantica" opened in Frascati in July and toured 26 other towns by early October; in 1957, the mobile exhibition started in Sicily and finished in Empoli, Tuscany. Between February and December, it was shown for 187 days in 88 towns to approximately 800,000 people.

More on NATO's travelling exhibitions

NATO's 10th anniversary was also an opportunity to communicate with the public. In Naples, a big exhibit was set up in one of the main squares to reach out to people of all ages and backgrounds.



When NATO had reached its 10th anniversary, Italy's economy was booming. In parallel, the Korean War (1950-1952) had created the necessity to build up Italy's treaty-limited armed forces. Furthermore, while there was a call for greater military production, Italy was modernising its industry. So after having integrated Western European institutions, regained internal political stability and reinforced its economy, Italy was developing a strong military force to help deter the Soviet Union.


In May 1951, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), General Dwight Eisenhower, proposed the appointment of Admiral Robert B. Carney (United States) to head the Southern Command that would have its headquarters in Italy. The idea was to defend southern member countries, to protect the vital sea lines of communication for Europe, and to serve as a barrier against Soviet expansionism towards Africa. As a consequence, Naples was an obvious choice. Carney's area of responsibility would extend from the Western Mediterranean (except the Balearic Islands and Malta) to a line in the Adriatic from Trieste (Italy) to Cape Matapan, and to the Tunisian waters. On the morning of 21 June 1951, the Admiral raised his flag on the USS Mount Olympus, at anchor in the Bay of Naples. The first Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) headquarters was afloat until another temporary facility in an apartment building was found in Naples and opened on 1 September 1951. On the 5th anniversary of the Alliance, 4 April 1954, a new complex was officially inaugurated as the permanent headquarters of AFSOUTH.



At the AFSOUTH compound, as in many other NATO commands, there was a nursery and a school for the children of the expatriate employees.


Shortly after the creation of AFSOUTH, in July 1951, Headquarters Allied Land Forces Southern Europe (LANDSOUTH) was established in Verona and Headquarters Allied Air Forces Southern Europe (AIRSOUTH) in Florence in August 1951 (they moved to Vicenza in December of the same year). The NATO commands in Italy would soon be backed by commands in Greece and Turkey, once these two countries joined the Alliance in February 1952.


While he was Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1954 to 1957, Gaetano Martino was tasked, together with Lester B. Pearson from Canada and Mr. Halvard Lange from Norway, to "advise the Council on ways and means to improve and extend NATO cooperation in non-military fields and to develop greater unity within the Atlantic Community". The report they produced focused on the need for stronger political consultation between member countries on all aspects of relations between the East and West.

A former physician and an internationally renowned Professor of Human Physiology, Gaetano Martino was a member of many Italian and foreign academies and scientific societies. A Dean of the University of Messina (1943-1957) and the University of Rome (1966-1967), and a leading advocate of European unity, he devoted a significant part of his work to the issue of university education as a tool to encourage the teaching and dissemination of a sense of European awareness. While he was Minister of Foreign Affairs, Martino continued this quest by promoting a stronger European integration and internationalism for Italy. In 1955, he obtained the Italian acceptance to the United Nations and a year later, on behalf of Italy, he signed the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community.


Manlio Brosio became NATO"s fourth Secretary General (1964-1971) and dealt with many internal tensions during his tenure. He had seen Italy celebrate NATO"s 10th anniversary in full splendour, but the period leading up to the 20th anniversary in 1969 was far more challenging. The unity of the Alliance was shaken, partly due to Article 13 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which stipulates that any Party can withdraw from the Alliance after the Treaty has been in force for 20 years. Brosio also needed to steer the Alliance through France"s withdrawal from the integrated military structure in 1966; the ensuing move of the Organization from France to Belgium; and the tensions between Greece and Turkey. He skilfully managed Alliance affairs in his discreet yet deliberate diplomatic manner, preserving cooperation and unity among all members.

NATO"s Secretary General is supported by a Deputy Secretary General. From 1958 onwards, most Deputy Secretaries General were Italian. There was Alberico Casardi (1958-1962), Guido Colonna di Paliano (1962-1964), Paolo Pansa Cedronio (1971-1978), Rinaldo Petrignani (1978-1981), Eric da Rin (1981-1985) and Marcello Guidi (1985-1989). After the end of the Cold War, four more Italians served as Deputy Secretary General: Amedeo de Franchis (1989-1994), Sergio Balanzino (1994-2001), Alessandro Minuto Rizzo (2001-2007) and Claudio Bisogniero (2007-2012).



In addition to contributing to NATO"s general defence and deterrence efforts during the Cold War, as well as participating in NATO-led exercises and training, Italy contributed through three other specific channels: it participated in the NADGE, NATO"s new air defence system; and it hosted an anti-submarine centre in La Spezia, as well as the NATO Defense College in Rome.

Air defence was becoming ever more challenging with modern aircraft capable of reaching supersonic speeds. In order to pick up enemy aircraft and report their presence to control centres in good time, NATO ensured a barrier of radar stations were installed and connected across Europe to identify, intercept and, if necessary, destroy enemy aircraft. Italy was one of the contributors to this modern air defence system called the NATO Air Defence Ground Environment, or NADGE.

Read more on the NADGE

Italy also hosted the NATO Defense College in Rome when it had to move from Paris in 1966 because of France"s withdrawal from the NATO integrated military structure. The need for a NATO Defense College was first voiced by SACEUR General Eisenhower in 1951. At the time, he expressed the need "to develop individuals, both on the military and civilian side, who will have a thorough grasp of the many complicated factors which are involved in the problem of creating an adequate defence posture for the North Atlantic Treaty area". The North Atlantic Council quickly recognised this need and approved General Eisenhower"s proposal. On 19 November 1951, the NATO Defense College opened its doors to the members of Course 1 in the «Artillerie» Wing of the Ecole Militaire in Paris, France. The NATO Defense College was transferred to Rome on 12 September 1966, where it continues to fulfil its role as a major hub for education, outreach and research on transatlantic security issues.


In the mid-1950s, NATO found itself in an arms race on submarine technology, so it set up a collaborative research centre for anti-submarine warfare in La Spezia, Italy. The Anti-Submarine Warfare Research Centre was inaugurated on 2 May 1959. Its mission was to study and help solve basic problems in anti-submarine warfare and "to provide technical advice and assistance to SACLANT [the Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic] and to other NATO Commanders and participating nations in the field of anti-submarine warfare" and to "be in all respects responsive through SACLANT to the requirements of naval forces in this field".

It changed names several times over the years, but its experimentation-based research was – and still is – internationally recognised. For instance, in the 1970s, it began experimenting with towed hydrophone arrays. The use of multiple hydrophones allowed sailors to detect the faint acoustic signatures of submarines despite ocean ambient noise, and to identify the direction of the threat. More generally, the Centre in La Spezia monitored and analysed oceanographic measurements in selected waters, helping to meet the threat of the Soviet submarine fleet.

Nine Allies contributed to the Centre"s work: Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. Eminent scientists from these countries provided advice and recommendations to SACLANT concerning the Centre's programme and progress. Today, the Centre continues to conduct research in core areas of interest for NATO.

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