The Western Communists and the European Military Build-Up, 1949-50: A Preventive Strategy

Matteo Lodevole. Cold War History. Volume 10, Issue 2. May 2010.


This article documents the reaction of the French and Italian Communists to the initial phase of the European military build-up. It shows how actions, which were aimed at hampering Western remilitarization, were more militant than has commonly been acknowledged. This argument is illustrated via an analysis of the plan of action implemented by the Western Communists against the link between European industrial power and its prospective military might in 1949-50. The Communists’ ‘direct action’ aimed to sabotage arms production of French and Italian heavy industry and to block the delivery of war materials from the United States. Recently declassified non-diplomatic documents shed new light on the operational level and on the instruments used by both the PCF and the PCI. It is demonstrated that the Communist strategy was a preventive one. Although extremely provocative, it aimed to avoid war in Europe.

Western Europe was for a long time the focus of Communist hopes and fears. Although the hopes resting on the prospect of Socialist revolutions had been reduced to ashes already in the 1920s, ‘some bright embers could still be seen among the ashes: particularly in France and Italy after World War II’. Historical research investigating the militant activities of the French and Italian Communists has usually focused on the wave of strikes launched by these parties in 1947 and 1948—that is, following the announcement of the Marshall Plan and the creation of the Cominform. The recent declassification of Soviet documents has allowed new studies to greatly enrich our knowledge of this period. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the years 1949-50. The literature is in fact surprisingly silent on the question as to how the Communist ’embers’ in Western Europe responded to the creation of the Western military alliances. Indeed, the direct action taken by the workers’ anti-war movement to hamper the West European initial military build-up has not yet been sufficiently documented. Many histories of the French and Italian Communist Parties (PCF and PCI) conclude their analysis at 1947-48. Other works, although offering comprehensive accounts, discuss the Communist reaction to the creation of the Western military alliances only perfunctorily. Finally, although we now know much more about the Soviet attitude toward to the possibility of war in these years, the attitude of the PCF and the PCI remains obscure. Turning one’s attention to military history accounts proves to be no great help. Such accounts usually focus on the West’s views and neglect to examine the Communist response to the initial phase of the Brussels Pact and NATO. Moreover, the partial access we now have to NATO’s internal documents is not much use when working on the period before the Korean War. Until June 1950, NATO was barely more than an agreement on paper and the United States did not increase military expenditures for the fiscal year 1949. In order to understand the motives behind the Western Communists’ behaviour, one should therefore look at the military policies of each single European country and especially at the military agreements following the Brussels Pact, which only later received the support of specific American agencies. This kind of examination, however, yields information which only indirectly refers to the Communist view and our knowledge remains patchy. In the absence of new documentation, the understanding of the activities of the PCF and the PCI in the late 1940s and early 1950s has remained at the level of what is regarded as common knowledge that the two parties channelled all their energies to the implementation of the ‘Struggle for Peace’. The campaign for peace—which was started by the Wroclaw Congress of intellectuals in August 1948 and which reached its peak in Western Europe, with the collection of signatures called for by the Stockholm Appeal against atomic weapons in March 1950—certainly played a key role in Communist strategies. The dimensions of this propaganda effort have led the classic account, as well as one of the very few book-length studies of this topic, to even emphasize that the Communists actually undertook an effort towards ‘peaceful coexistence’ and how this translated into a shift towards more moderate and flexible forms of struggle. Nevertheless, the view of those who have defined the peace campaign as just a political strategy and dismissed it as a simple exercise in propaganda appears to be contradicted by the archival material presented here. This approach does not give sufficient attention to significant changes in outlook and behaviour which had already begun to be manifested within the Western parties at the beginning of 1949. The present work challenges such a view and aims at demonstrating that, before the Korean War, the Communist activities in France, Italy, and possibly in Western Europe, were much more militant than is commonly acknowledged. In Western Europe, the ‘Struggle for Peace’ consisted of a twofold strategy combining propaganda with the more militant anti-war movement—the latter being the focus of this work. The Communist action took the shape of a preventive strategy against the threat of capitalist expansion and the possibility of a new war. This strategy, aiming at hampering the European military potential, assumed a very provocative tone which, in Western eyes, confirmed the belief in a Communist threat. However, the documents do not support the thesis that the Communist action was based on a preordained plan which aimed at revolution or offensive warfare. Rather, the Communist plan seems ultimately to have been reactive. The purpose of the Communist effort was in fact to limit the West’s military capability and reduce the danger of a new war. Ultimately, this paper wants to challenge the conclusion that the Cold War was fought only between Washington and Moscow. This is done by focusing on a specific aspect of it. The objects of analysis are the mass mobilization initiated by the Western parties, the instruments they used, and how they dealt with operational matters. This is therefore an investigation on how the Cold War came into being at the sub-state level and on how events can be looked at from the bottom up, rather than from the top down as is usually done by diplomatic historians. By studying a variety of European archival sources one can learn enough to fill the gap in the literature and shed new light on the Communist response to the formation of the Western military bloc in the crucial months between the beginning of 1949 and the unleashing of the Korean War in June 1950.

Archival Sources

The issue of access to and the value of Cold War archives is certainly a matter of primary concern to historians. In order to understand the Communist response to the initial phase of the military build-up in Western Europe, the present work has made use of a variety of French and Italian primary sources. The most interesting material comes from the French National Archives (Centre d’Accueil et de Recherche des Archives Nationales, CARAN), which, as has been pointed out, has recently made a number of files available to facilitate the study of the Cold War period. The successful application for a number of exceptions (dérogations), to overcome the restrictive 60-year rule to which presidential papers in France are subjected, has allowed this author to conduct a thorough examination of the papers of Vincent Auriol, President of the Republic between 1947 and 1954. Of outmost importance among these papers are the reports received by Auriol from the French intelligence service and in particular from the Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionage (SDECE). These documents offer a deep insight into Communist activities in Western Europe, and at last illuminate the cursory summary made of them by Auriol himself in his memoirs. This confirms the conviction that an adequate account of the intelligence dimension can greatly increase our historical knowledge and should therefore be given its proper space in studies of the Cold War. Although the object of this paper is not intelligence history, the extensive use made of intelligence material to explain Communist behaviour necessitates some further elaboration. Indeed, whether the documents at our disposal are factually accurate and whether they are the result of balanced interpretation is an issue of critical importance. In fact, a question could well be raised as to the validity of intelligence reports as evidence of the real as opposed to the perceived activities of the Communists. More particularly, as far as French intelligence is concerned, it has been said that intelligence bulletins, ‘when one finds them’, can be ‘decidedly unhelpful, because they usually adopt a smorgasbord approach, simply listing snippets of information without prioritising it’. Of course, intelligence estimates can be subject to error—at least to the extent to which they depend on analysis and assessments, sometimes mixed with fear or wishful thinking. This is why the French intelligence reports are here discussed not only alongside other documents coming from different French sources but also compared with Italian documents. The papers available in the archives of both the French and the Italian Communist parties (opened in the mid-1990s), as well as those of the trade unions, have been extremely useful to this author in his effort to contextualize and give substance to the otherwise dry and excessively detailed descriptions contained in the intelligence operational files. On the other hand, the latter have shed light on the actual meaning of the somewhat vague directives given by the Party leadership and have led to an increased understanding of how and which of these recommendations were put into practice. Moreover, thanks to a number of Soviet documents now published, it has been possible to further verify the accuracy of the information gathered in the European archives. These documents offer, in fact, a much clearer picture of the activities of the Italian Communist Party and trade unions. Finally, the minutes of the Cominform conferences, now also published, provide the necessary framework for this research. The information acquired through these various sources has been subjected to the labour-intensive and difficult business of putting it all together into one comprehensive picture. The nature of historical research does not allow one to state that the result is the most reliable and complete description of events. However, the risk of confusing the Communist intentions with their real actions has been overcome by basing this research on a multi-archival and multinational approach, as called for by the new historiography of the early Cold War.

The General Plan for ‘Direct Action’ of the PCF and the PCI in Historical Context

In 1949, the PCF and the PCI strategy assumed a militant character, directed against the initial phase of the Western military build-up. Historians debate whether in the early Cold War the Communists had a uniform approach to Western Europe. Some scholars present the Communist strategy as being unified, with no internal inconsistencies, and, ultimately, aggressive. Others maintain that it was often contradictory and ambiguous. Finally, there are those who maintain that, although the Communist strategy was initially coherent, it took a more ‘tortuous path’ at the end of 1950. The documents examined allow us to add new elements to the debate and to shed new light on the activities of the Communist Movement in Western Europe—that is, in the ‘enemy’s territory’. The Communist-directed ‘peace movement’ had the advantage of working across political rather than territorial frontiers and therefore was in a position to exert political pressure on the governments of the Western countries. In Western Europe, the peace campaign was complemented by more direct action, specifically aimed at sabotaging the initial phase of the European remilitarization process, and thus, it was believed, reducing the danger of war. The documents show how the French and Italian heavy industries and refineries were the targets chosen by the Communist parties and trade unions in their attempts to weaken Western military-industrial potential. The production of war materiel, and therefore the re-conversion towards a war industry, was part of a process of armament standardization which was based on the Anglo-American model defined by the Brussels Pact. Following a number of agreements in the second half of 1948, this process was extended also to Italy which, initially, had not been included among the signatory countries. The European governments eventually requested military aid from the United States in the form of arms supplies and military credits in order to bring their armaments into alignment with the Anglo-American model and to increase their military effectiveness. The Western Communist parties concluded that the European factories were being used as industrial bases to produce armaments in preparation for a new war. Hindering the development of the means of production, especially those devoted to arms industries, was not only intended to prevent the resurrection of national war industries, but also to weaken the international role of these countries as members of the Western bloc. As stated by the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) General Secretary, Benoît Frachon, in the columns of the Cominform journal, the main aim of the struggle for peace in the French factories was ‘to obtain a general reorientation in the foreign policy of the government and, ultimately, prevent a new war in Europe’. We can now begin to have a much deeper understanding of the operational level of the Communist preventive strategy and, in particular, of the role played by instruments of policy such as the trade unions and the industrial proletariat. The re-conversion of national factories into producers of armaments and the landing of American equipment and spare parts for the manufacturing of armaments in Europe became the major targets of the sabotage activities of the anti-war movement. This direct action was implemented through a major mass mobilization of Communist forces, involving not only strikes and work stoppages, but also the slowing down of arms production, and acts of sabotage against military communication lines and the loading and unloading of American arms. The Communists’ main means of action were the front organizations and, in particular, the trade unions in the key sections of industry: aircraft factories, transport, metal production, mines and ports. The importance of these labour categories in the Communist strategies was therefore greater than the social struggle conducted by the Communist parties in the West. American intelligence acknowledged:

In the Communist arsenal of weapons, there is none so important as the use they make of the trade union and labour movements to further their ends in non-Communist countries. Penetration, infiltration and the seizure of control of trade unions, especially those in the strategic industries, such as coal, communications, transport, maritime, steel and engineering trades, and government service, represent the most fundamental precept of … [their] revolutionary strategy. Since Lenin’s time, the trade union represents the major medium through which the Communists work.

In the last years of Stalin’s rule, the objective of the Communist labour strategies was not ‘revolution’ but preventing the formation of the Western military bloc, or at least hindering its military capabilities. It would not be correct to present Communist policy as a unified strategy aimed at the revolutionary conquest and Bolshevization of Europe. The Communist strategy never seemed to be directed at a violent seizure of power in Western Europe. In the late 1940s, the Communist aim was to put pressure on the West European governments, not to bring the class war in individual countries to the point of revolution.

Following the creation of the Brussels Pact and NATO, the Western Communists became convinced that the ruling circles of the capitalist countries were ‘openly pursuing a policy of aggression, a policy of preparing and unleashing a new world war’. This understanding of the international situation caused a shift in the strategy, which now gave priority to the creation of a ‘mass movement for the defence of peace’. We now know that this movement arose as a result of the resolution entitled ‘On a Peace Congress’, passed by the Soviet Party on 6 January 1949. The resolution urged that the Communist mass-mobilization plans in the West should assume a much more militant character. On 15 April 1949, an editorial in the Cominform journal, ‘For a Lasting Peace, for People Democracy!’, stated that, with the signing of the Atlantic Alliance and the renewed American military commitment towards Europe, the struggle for peace was ‘entering a new stage’. The Cominform Secretariat meeting of 14-16 June 1949 resolved that the Communist parties now had the task of strengthening their resistance against Anglo-American expansionism ‘with all the resources at their disposal’. In November, the third Cominform conference reinforced these pronouncements by saying that ‘it is not enough to want peace, one must actively fight for it, bringing into action all the forces and factors opposed to the preparation and unleashing of war’. In a situation in which the danger of a new conflict was intensifying, the Communist parties had the responsibility ‘of using every means of the struggle’ to ensure peace. As appears, the Western parties did not receive much more than general directives. There is no doubt that the close link between Moscow and the West European Communist parties required the parties to subordinate their interests to those of the Soviet Union. The Soviet Party also used the Cominform to exert its power over these parties. However, describing relations between the Soviet and the Western parties as a one-way command structure in which the Kremlin made all the decisions and the parties implemented them, seems rather extreme. Thanks to the study carried out on Soviet documents by Jonathan Haslam, we know that: ‘the implementation of the general line laid down from above inevitably allowed for different tactical approaches to a given question that could carry with them serious implications for the direction of policy as a whole’. The Kremlin seems to have played the role of an instigator, while it was the task of the Western parties to deal with the tactical implementation of the recommendations received. The Communist parties could, at least to a certain extent, choose their own methods of struggle, knowing the national and political specifics of their countries much better than the Kremlin. Added to that, the leaders of trade unions could also take initiatives regarding the activities of the anti-war movement. On the other hand, it has to be acknowledged that all the Party and trade union activities were eventually reported by the PCF and PCI representatives to the organs of the Cominform and there evaluated and commented upon. Moreover, the specific period and geographical area examined leads this study to emphasize the similarities among Communist organizations and their capacity to engage in co-ordinated forms of struggle. In his memoirs, the President of the French Republic, Vincent Auriol, notes that at the beginning of 1949 the PCF leadership examined ways of co-ordinating these activities with those of the Italian Communists. The documents analysed leave no doubt as to the fact that the PCF and the PCI followed the same line of action. The traditional conception that the revolutionary past and tradition of the French Communists made it remarkably more militant than the Italian Communists do not seem to be supported by this archival evidence. The plan of action implemented by the Communist movement in response to the Western military threat will be discussed below by following the two main phases of the Communist preventive strategy. The first, lasting throughout 1949, was mainly directed against the manufacturing of war materiel in the heavy industries of the countries of Western Europe. The second, starting from the very beginning of 1950, was concentrated in the main European ports and aimed at preventing the loading and unloading of arms coming from the United States.

Sabotaging heavy industry, the plan of industrial re-conversion, and the production of war materiel in the countries of Western Europe, February 1949-January 1950

It has been said by leading historian Odd Arne Westad that more attention should be paid to the way the military-technological and economic policies on both sides contributed to the development of the Cold War. Here, attention needs to be focused on the impact that the growing industrial-military power in the West had on Communist policies in the late 1940s. The first phase of the strategy to weaken the West was directed against the economic potential of the West European countries which were soon to be put at the service of the arms industry. The economic disparity in favour of the West has been said to be one of the main sources of the Communist concern ‘should a military conflict break out for any reason and evolve into a war of attrition’. The close link between Western military and industrial power was further stressed by Suslov at the November 1949 Cominform conference, when he referred to ‘the unrestrained economic, political, and military expansion which the United States is carrying out in all the continents, endeavouring to seize the military-strategic materials and other resources needed for war preparation’. The emphasis on the importance of heavy industry was also a central theme addressed by Stalin in his Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR, published in 1952. Here, Stalin defined ‘wars and militarization of the national economy’ as one of the ‘basic economic laws of modern capitalism’. Hindering European heavy industry was certainly a way to strike a blow against the capitalist world. The Western Communists took into account the formulations and the outlook expressed by Moscow on the importance of the relation between economic and military considerations for the understanding of the international situation. During a PCF Executive Bureau meeting at the beginning of January 1949, Thorez explained that, in order to support the Soviet line, the objective of the PCF was to produce a general financial and economic crisis in the capitalist countries of Europe. However, more immediate for both the PCF and the PCI was the relation between the Western bloc expansion and the political isolation they were suffering at home. The peace propaganda and the anti-war movement were therefore aimed not just at the military-industrial potential of these countries, but also at garnering the widest political consensus among the workers by playing upon the widespread feelings against war. For this purpose, they stirred up a new militancy amongst the Party members.

France and Italy appeared to be the perfect targets for weakening the military-industrial potential of the imperialist camp and, in particular, for hindering the initial phase of the process of European rearmament. In March 1949, the American Ambassador in France, Jefferson Caffre, wrote: ‘Today France is considered by Stalin as the key country to gain or to destroy since he knows that without France Western Europe cannot organize or defend itself and that Italy and France are the only Western European countries with strong Communist Parties’. The statement of the American Ambassador, pruned of its emphatic tone, was echoed a few months later by Jacques Duclos at the Central Committee of the PCF: ‘We must not lose sight of the fact that, by the admission even of the American imperialists, France is considered the cornerstone of what they call the Western defence. We have to make the best of this situation and mobilise the widest masses of people in the defence of peace’. In order to achieve this goal, the ‘major weapon’ of the PCF was not, as has been argued, public petition. The PCF faced this new stage of the struggle by organizing a network of militants to sabotage the conversion of industrial plants into factories producing armaments. The CGT played a key role in this new plan of action, and certainly did not ‘lose its position as the central agent for implementing the PCF’s Cold War line’. Rather, the CGT was immediately charged with organizing the activities of the workers in the factories where the first conversions towards armaments production were being implemented. It was in February 1949 that American intelligence learned of the first ‘major demobilisation of workers to sabotage production … in connection with the recently initiated rearmament program’. Not only had the French to align their armaments to correspond to the Anglo-American model, they also had to increase their military effectiveness, in compliance with the Brussels Pact agreements. In order to comply with the Brussels Pact, the French government requested military aid from the United States in the form of arms supplies and military credits. At this point, the government was forced to face the issue of the politicization of the arms factories. Many of the most important aircraft factories, including the SNECMA and the Kellermann factories, were apparently dominated by a Communist ‘dictatorship’ of workers ready to obstruct government plans. The problem was so serious that the Minister for National Defence, Paul Ramadier, claimed that the government had to ‘either renounce arms production, or take exceptionally tough measures against those saboteurs who declared themselves not to be willing to work for war’. The Communist threat was perceived by the government more as an internal coup supported by the Soviets than as an outright Russian onslaught against Western Europe. From the spring of 1949, the Party instructed its militants to allow no relaxation in the struggle for peace. In March, the metalworkers’ federation, affiliated to the CGT, held a national conference with the aim of organizing action by the affiliated unions against the production of war materiel in the metal-producing factories. The local leaders of the metalworkers’ federation had the task of explaining to the workers the relation between peace and workers’ demands and the role of the trade unions in sabotage activities. The CGT also brought to the attention of the workers in the aircraft factories an order placed by the French government for 3000 British ‘Vampire’ planes. The supply of the Vampire was part of the process of armament standardization as laid down by the Anglo-American model, which had been defined by the Brussels Pact. As it happens the order for the British planes had not only provoked disagreement between Paris and London as to the form of payment, it had also given the British military leadership the opportunity to criticize Communist infiltration in the French ministries and armed forces. The PCF emphasized, on this occasion, the fact that the acquisition of the Vampires had caused the production of the old French aircraft Languedoc to be suspended, since its patent had been bought by the Americans. The CGT noted that national production was being interrupted in order to meet British requirements and that French arms factories were becoming ‘outposts’ of the American and British firms ‘too far from any potential front line’. The Party and the trade unions directed militant activities against the main sites where the military re-conversion programme was taking place. The Panhard factories were starting the production of armoured cars and tracker vehicles after receiving funding from the United States. In the North, in Trith-Saint-Léger, ‘Ugiferval N. R50-55’ steel was being used for the manufacturing of shells and armour plating. In Denain, steel sheets of armour plating and prototypes for ‘artillery 75’ were being produced, while in Feignies the manufacturing of shells was begun. Local trade union committees had to assume a leading role in the ‘action against war’ in order to respond to this situation. A few notable successes had already been achieved. In the Brandt factories in Saint-Joseph de Portricq, Loire inférieure, which specialized in the manufacture of equipment and spare parts, a manager proclaimed that, as soon as it was confirmed that the factory had received an order for 40,000 artillery missiles, the workers would be invited to refuse to produce such ‘machines of death’. Another leader of the CGT metalworkers’ federation urged all the workers in the Société Nationale de Constructions Aéronautiques du Centre (SNCAC) factories in Colombes to obstruct the production of war materials. The PCF Secretariat praised these activities, saying that the united and co-ordinated action of the labour forces was a political event of primary importance. At the Cominform congress in November, Fajon emphasized how, in the past few months, the PCF had been ‘calling on the working class for concrete action against the warmongers—for example, for a struggle in the war factories against production of armaments, for transforming these enterprises into places where civilian goods are made’. After the Cominform meeting, the PCF Executive Bureau emphasized the fact that, following the recent mass strikes, the fight against the war had finally reached a new stage of concrete action against the maintenance and production of war materiel. In fact, despite the opposition of the right-wing trade unions, the action against the production and transport of war materiel was developing via a series of initiatives. Throughout 1949, the PCF organized a number of mobile groups of militants that could be moved in rapidly when sabotage activities against the transport and maintenance of war materiel were implemented. The former Air and Armament Minister, Charles Tillon, visited the arsenals in Cherbourg, Brest and Toulon in order to assist with the creation of these committees, which were designed to provoke stoppages in the armaments industry. Tillon sternly criticized the Foreign Minister Robert Schuman for his visit to the Messerschmidt factories in Germany, where the production of the aircraft ‘for the new war’ would soon be started. The metalworkers played a special role in the fight against war and in the sabotage of production. The industrial labour force was explicitly called on by the PCF Executive Bureau to provoke rotating work stoppages as often as possible in all the factories where production of arms had started. The PCF leader and General Secretary of the Metalworkers Federation, Ambroise Croizat, organized an agitation campaign against war in the industrial region of St Etienne. Special importance was given to his visits to the Arsenal of Roanne and to the Manufacture d’Armes de St Etienne. During a meeting with the most important labour leaders of this area, Croizat stressed the importance of the fight against war production: ‘It is intolerable that the dockers and the rail-workers refuse to transport war materiel, when the metalworkers still manufacture such materiel!’ In order to respond to this lack of co-ordination, Croizat drew up some directives for future work:

The greatest unity of trade union action at factory level; a strict implementation of trade union directives on the part of the CGT leadership; support of the action started by an industrial plant by both the local CGT and Party section; complete effectiveness of the fight against war production by blocking at all costs the transport of war materiel; intensification of the propaganda within the population.

The directives guiding the strategy of weakening the production of arms in France seemed to correspond perfectly with the line of action pursued by the Italian Communists.

The PCI leader, Palmiro Togliatti, had been saying for a long time that Italy, as well as France, had a key role in the aggressive plans of the Western bloc. The geo-strategic importance of Italy was its position at the centre of the Mediterranean, which could be used as a bridgehead for launching an attack against the countries of new democracy and the Soviet Union. In the light of the similarities between the French and the Italian situations, it is surprising that, as noted by Italian scholar Silvio Pons, the issue of the struggle for peace was not explicitly brought up in conversation during the meeting between Stalin and Togliatti in December 1949. The fact that the issue was not brought up during that conversation might be one of the reasons why Italian historiography has tended to emphasize the role of propaganda and domestic issues in PCI activities in the period 1949-52. However, if, during this phase, the PCI was concerned with the collection of signatures, their authenticity, and other legal activities, this was only one side of the story. Although during his meeting with Togliatti Stalin did not directly refer to the struggle for peace, he insisted on ‘the importance of extralegal action’. The documents here examined permit the reconstruction of the involvement of the Italian Communists in the struggle for peace and the framing of their activities in the overall strategies implemented by the Communist movement in Western Europe.

The PCI organized a mass mobilization of workers as a reaction to the parliamentary vote in favour of Italian adhesion to the Atlantic Pact. At the beginning of 1949, the organizational work already carried out by the PCI against the Marshall Plan was channelled against NATO. A number of strikes and other sabotage activities were launched in factories that had a particular role in Italian heavy industry, namely large chemical and mechanical factories and iron and steel foundries. These stoppages, mainly in the Milan area, were followed by similar strikes in Liguria, where many of the Italian military shipyards and engineering factories were located. On 11 March the workers of the Galileo and Pignone assembly plant stopped working as a sign of protest against NATO; the following day, the strike spread to all the factories in Sesto San Giovanni (Milan) and eventually to some of the most important Italian factories, such as Falk, Radaelli, OM, Pirelli, Geloso, Breda, Alfa Romeo and Montecatini. The same kind of disturbances occurred in the South, especially in the shipyards in Palermo, Sicily. On 12 March, thousands of people protested in front of the Foreign Affairs Ministry building in Rome. In the same city, a delegation representing more than 200,000 factory workers in the engineering industry requested that parliament call for a national referendum against Italian involvement in NATO. In early 1949, the PCI directly addressed the issue of the re-conversion of Italian industry towards armaments production. Luigi Longo had actually discussed the problem of the production of war materiel in May 1948 during a meeting of the PCI Executive Bureau. He had considered the probable reaction of the national audience and had concluded that, at that time, the position of the Party towards the production of war materiel could not be one of complete refusal since ‘it would not be understood nor would it be justifiable from a political point of view’. We also know from Soviet documents that, in these same months, the Soviet Embassy had expressed interest in the Italian military situation. The Embassy had requested the PCI to provide detailed information on the withdrawal operations of the American troops and, specifically, on the armaments, especially tanks, supposedly left for the Italian army. With the Italian participation in, and support for, NATO the PCI could take a more defined position on these issues. At the Central Committee meeting of March 1949, the head of the Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavoro (CGIL) Organization Department, Agostino Novella, described the labour struggle at home in the context of the international situation. He said that foreign monopolistic groups were using the Italian factories as industrial bases for the preparation of a new war. In compliance with these interests, the dominant Italian industrial groups were creating obstacles to the formation of workers’ opposition in these factories. This had resulted ‘in the impossibility for the workers to organise and protest against the conversion towards war production that has already started in some factories’. Novella concluded his speech by saying that the labour struggle and the fight for peace were inextricably linked and that the main contribution the trade unions could make to the fight for peace was their staunch opposition to war production. The Central Committee therefore invited all the front organizations to take an active role in the fight against war and, in particular, in the fight against the enemy’s infiltration in Italy which, the PCI said, would inevitably result in the country being drawn into a new military conflict. The closest possible collaboration with socialist, social democratic, and even Catholic workers was to be sought in order to achieve these aims. The pressing need for such close collaboration was endorsed by D’Onofrio at the Cominform conference in November: the PCI had to succeed in convincing its Socialist allies ‘that the danger of war is real and make them recognize the need to adopt the strongest and most militant forms of struggle’. More militant forms of action were, for him, the only way to weaken the enemy’s camp. D’Onofrio said, in fact, that the PCI considered that ‘the World Committee of the Partisans for Peace must engage in more than propaganda’. A few weeks after the Cominform conference, Togliatti stressed the role that the CGIL had to play in blocking the industrial re-conversion to an armaments industry. Trade union and Party secretaries had to meet in order to organize and co-ordinate the agitation at a local town and regional level. The protest against the production of war materiel had to be kept, at first, at a propaganda level by putting the constructive plan of the CGIL against the government plans for armaments production. This stage would eventually be followed by a more intense level of unrest. The ultimate aim would be to organize effective work stoppages. It appears that the anti-war movement in both countries channelled its efforts against refineries and heavy industry in order to weaken their military-industrial potential. Despite the renewed wave of militant actions, such as sabotage, strikes, and international working-class solidarity, the organization of the newly formed NATO moved steadily forward. However, the ‘great crescendo’ in Communist action did not ‘begin to subside once the treaty was signed’, as has been argued. More than ‘a few rumbles’ remained to mark what appeared to be a new phase of Communist efforts to check the further growth of Western military potential, beginning at the very start of 1950.

Blocking the Delivery and Unloading of Military Supplies in European Ports, January-June 1950

From around the end of 1949 and the beginning of 1950 the struggle for peace in Western Europe was focused on the sabotage of the delivery of arms, spare parts, and various items of military equipment from the United States, which were arriving at major European ports. In Communist eyes, this was part of the overall American plan, denounced by Suslov at the third Cominform conference in November 1949, of ‘enmeshing the entire globe in a network of naval and air bases and preparing bridgeheads for a new war’. The mass mobilization strategy was felt to be of even greater importance at this time when the Communists had to give prior commitment to the struggle for peace, counter American expansionism and prevent a new war in Europe. The trade unions occupied ‘a place of honour’ in the struggle for peace against the warmongers. Togliatti praised, in particular, the labour unrest started in French ports on the occasion of the unloading of war materiel which were to be sent to the French troops in Indochina. For the French Communists there was, in fact, another major dimension to the Cold War: the Empire.

From the end of 1949 French overseas interests in Indochina were integrated into the overall strategies of the Cold War. The process was set in motion by the victory of the Chinese Communists, which made the maintenance of French power in Indochina an important factor in the defence of the West. Since the beginning of 1950, items of American military equipment had begun pouring into France at an unprecedented rate and in staggering quantities. New documents from the French National Archives show that the Communists responded to this new challenge by integrating the fight against the war in Indochina into the overall struggle for peace in Europe. The PCF leader, Fajon, presented the position taken by the Party in regard to the situation in Indochina at the Cominform conference of November 1949. The PCF supported the immediate cessation of the war and expressed solidarity with the national liberation movement of the Vietnamese people. The PCF delegate said that the continuation of the colonial war had become so unpopular in France that sailors in many ports were refusing to load ships bound for Indochina. Thanks to the work already done by the PCF in the army and navy, this movement had spread to several French ports: Dunkirk, Bordeaux, La Rochelle, Marseilles, and Bastia. Finally, Fajon listed some of the key tasks of the fighters for peace in France: strengthening practical anti-war activities, organizing collective action by workers against arms production, and the collective action carried out by the soldiers in both France and Indochina against the ongoing war in Vietnam. The sabotaging of the loading and unloading of American war materiel for Indochina became one of the main activities of the Communist militants and of all the ‘peace-loving people’. The Secretary General of the CGT, Benoît Frachon, stated that the workers affiliated with the CGT had to be exemplary in their fight against the warmongers and the war in Vietnam. He pointed out that the American imperialists could not continue the war in Asia without the help of the French workers. It was, in fact, the French seamen, dockers and rail workers who unloaded and transported the American arms. Frachon called on the working class not to limit its action to verbal protest, but to show, by concrete action, its firm opposition to war. The close link between the struggle for peace and action against war was further discussed by the PCF Central Committee of December 1949. On this occasion, the PCF stressed the primary importance of more ‘concrete actions’ being taken. The refusal of the dockers in Marseille to load and unload war materiel was held up as an example for all peace fighters. The Communists had to organize their action in every factory where war production was being implemented and start the battle for renewed conversion towards peace-time production. Soldiers and marines also had to be involved in these sabotage activities to prevent preparation for war. Other concrete mass action involved the boycott of films, magazines, radio, books and any organization in favour of war. In order to achieve a rapid end to the hostilities in Vietnam, these activities had to be developed by specific categories of workers, such as dockers, soldiers and marines, as well as youth and women’s organizations. The PCF leaders focused their organizational work in the main French ports. Only a few days after the Central Committee meeting, Laurent Casanova organized an agitation campaign against the war in Vietnam in order to stir up all the workers that were ‘friends of peace’ to join the effort already started by the dockers to block the loading and the unloading of American arms in a number of ports, namely Nantes, La Rochelle, Saint-Nazaire, Brest, Rouen, Le Havre, Marseille, and Toulon. All categories of workers employed in ports, arsenals, ships, and transport companies were invited to join the partisans for peace and provoke short, but frequent, stoppages to protest against the war in Vietnam and the landing of American arms in France. In January 1950, Casanova met with the local leaders of the French Seamen and Dockers Federation in order to discuss how the local federations could help intensify the activities of the peace fighters in the country’s main ports. The message was that the PCF would not tolerate any weakness in the trade union activities against war. This action in the ports was combined with the CGT’s continued efforts to mobilize factory workers against the production of armaments. During a speech at the Fédération de la Seine in March 1950, Thorez claimed that if the PCF wanted to conduct an ‘effective and concrete action’ against the preparation of a new war, it was necessary to attack ‘the roots of the American war machine’. Party militants had to work hard in order to delay, for as long as possible, the transport to, and instalment of, American war materiel at their final destination. Thorez envisaged co-ordinated action. This had to be directed not only against the transport of arms, but primarily against the unloading in French ports of war materiel eventually destined for Indochina. In order to gain and maintain consistent mass participation in the fight against the unloading and transport of arms, the PCF denounced the argument of ‘defensive armament’ employed by Western countries, and insisted that their attitude towards the Vietnamese people was aggressive. At the PCF Central Committee meeting of May 1950, Etienne Fajon summarized the situation in relation to future action. He confirmed the vital importance of the Congress of the Partisans for Peace, the fight against the warmongers and the destruction of all atomic weapons. The activities of the dockers and railway workers against the unloading and transport of American arms in France were one of the best means of supporting Soviet declarations which proposed the reduction of all the great powers’ armies by a third. It was reported that, in Cherbourg, ‘the only port in France where a large number of dockers was under the influence of traitorous’ social democrats, it had been necessary to employ 500 policemen and 2000 ground troops in order for a single ship to be unloaded—a strong demonstration of the power of the French workers. The vessel in question was the American ship Importer, which had arrived at Cherbourg on 13 April 1950 with a cargo of arms and ammunition. Moreover, Fajon stressed once again that the battle against the unloading of American arms went hand in hand with the refusal to load and transport war materiel to Vietnam, which was thought to be the American base for a future war against the ‘new China’. The Party supported, with equal strength, the fight for the independence of the Vietnamese people. Fajon concluded by remarking that ‘the maintaining of the morale and the material wellbeing of the brave peace fighters in ports, train stations, and factories represents an important task for the Party, the trade unions, and the other democratic organizations’. The struggle for peace in the French ports was mirrored by the same kind of activities in Italy.

Stalin himself had drawn attention to Communist activities in Italian ports and shipyards during his meeting with Togliatti in December 1949. The Soviet leader asked whether it was possible to commission the construction of a number of ships in Italian shipyards. Togliatti replied that the Americans would not allow a commission of this kind. The Italian government had, in fact, already refused a similar request from the Soviet Union at the end of 1948. Following the meeting, the PCI Central Committee discussed questions related to the organization of peace committees at a local level and the preparation for the struggle against the unloading and transport of American arms that had started pouring into Europe. The PCI leader, Pietro Secchia, pointed out that the Communist strategy had to be increasingly characterized by high levels of mass mobilization, strikes and demonstrations. These had to replace the stage characterized by propaganda and the collection of signatures. On 5 January 1950 a strike was called in a shipyard in Porto Marghera, one of the main Italian industrial ports; it was stopped after only 40 days, following a massive police intervention. A number of general strikes were launched in March in Veneto, Emilia, Tuscany and other Italian regions. After a riot during a strike at the Fonderie Riunite (United Foundries) in Modena, in which the police were involved, a general strike was called for the whole of Italy. Communist and Socialist MPs went to Modena, where the CGIL committed itself to pursuing a line of national unity in defence of peace, human life and freedom. During the first three months of 1950 there followed four more general strikes and dozens of partial strikes in protest against the increasing preparations for war and the counter-attacks against workers and the peace movement. The PCI Executive Bureau meeting in February 1950 discussed what further action to take against the unloading and transport of arms in Italy. The Southern part of the country, and Sicily in particular, were the weakest areas in terms of the organization of peace fighters. In the three major ports in the South—Taranto, Bari, and Naples—the Party could not count on the majority of the dockers supporting them and feared a successful counter-attack by the police. In Central Italy the situation was more under control. In the port of Livorno all of the dockers were against the unloading of arms and also there were Party activists working amongst the huge numbers of unemployed in Livorno. In Tuscany, the general situation was promising, with regard to both the dockers and the transport workers. In Milan, the Communist militants were concentrating on the transport workers, but it was still uncertain how these transport workers would respond to a call for mobilization. It was, therefore, planned to expand the call to other categories of workers. During a new PCI Executive Bureau meeting in April, Emilio Sereni admitted there was a general sense of weakness and unwillingness in the preparation of the campaign against the unloading of arms. He said that the masses did not realize that the unloading of arms was the first step towards war. The Party knew that effective demonstrations had to be organized everywhere in order to counter the arrival of the first ship loaded with a cargo of arms. This ship docked in Naples on 12 April 1950, carrying several tons of arms. The port was blocked by both the police and the army, who were equipped with machine guns, gas and bombs. A general strike was launched during the night, when the arms were being unloaded; public transportation stopped and the workers demonstrated in the streets and fought with the police. When, the following day, news of this spread across the country, there was labour unrest in all the major cities. PCI leader Pietro Secchia had monitored the activities of the peace fighters against the landing of American ships in Italian ports since the beginning of the year. He had also contributed to the struggle for peace by inciting the militants to hold a number of mass rallies throughout the country. At the PCI Executive meeting on 4 May 1950, Secchia once again took up the themes that the Cominform Secretariat had discussed a few days earlier. The struggle for peace had to assume the central place in the activities of the Party. The opposition to the unloading of arms maintained by the dockers and transport workers in the Italian ports was praised as the most significant contribution to the fight against the warmongers. This struggle against the unloading of arms signalled, for Secchia, the great superiority of militant forms of action in comparison to propaganda and the collection of signatures. However, he admitted that the response of the workers was not yet satisfactory. The definitive defeat of the Communist mass mobilization strategies in Italy coincided with the outbreak of the Korean War. Thanks to the outbreak of the war, the Italian government was able to develop a counter-offensive, and thus to thwart Communist action. The evidence shows that the strategy aimed at weakening European military potential, implemented under the banner of the Struggle for Peace, went well beyond a simple exercise in propaganda. Even if the sabotage activities turned out to be unsuccessful—and the intensity they reached might have been exaggerated by Communist reports for self-celebratory reasons—the analysis of these events offers a rich opportunity for reflection. In fact, this evidence sheds light on a number of points, in particular on the operational level and the instruments implemented by the anti-war movement directed by the Western parties as well as on their ultimate purposes. From this, some conclusions can be attempted on the activities adopted by the Communist Movement in this specific timeframe and geographic area.


The documents analysed here confirm the explanation given by Taubman as to the overall purpose of the Communist movement in this period: observing Western military preparations, the Communists must have reached the ominous conclusion that their enemies were determined on an aggressive attitude towards the Communist world. For the Western Communists this translated into a further expansion of the ‘capitalist forces’ within the countries joining the military alliances. Unable to know exactly whether these preparations were meant to promote political expansion, to exert coercive power and military pressure, or to create the actual basis for an attack in the future, the Communists decided to respond before it was too late. In Western Europe, their response took the shape of a strategy aimed at weakening European military potential, that is, of a preventive strategy.

The preventive character of this strategy shows that the Communists did not ‘neglect’ the question as to how to prevent Western rearmament, as has been argued. The use of non-diplomatic papers has been crucial in addressing the question as to how the Western Communists put their strategy into practice—and, in so doing discuss the operational level of the strategy. Their plan of action was ‘contingent’, in that it was responding to a specific situation, but not ‘erratic’. The Communist strategy was developed against specific targets. At first it was implemented through acts of sabotage against the factories where the first re-conversions towards the arms industry were taking place. From the beginning of 1950, its main activities consisted of attempting to block the deliveries of American military supplies landing at the major European ports. The PCF and the PCI applied to the national circumstances the general directives received from the Soviet Party and the Cominform. The trade unions and the other front organizations were the main means of action. The comparison between the French and the Italian case has shown a number of similarities between the two parties as well as a rather uniform approach to operational matters. However, in the absence of specific Soviet documentation on this topic it is impossible to answer the question as to whether these activities were part of a more general plan directed by Moscow.

Paradoxical as it might seem, the ultimate aim of the extremely provocative strategy to weaken European military potential was to prevent war in Europe and to hamper the growing advance of the capitalist bloc. This is not to say that ideology was not important. Ideology may have played a fundamental role in determining Communist policies. In the case of the Western Communists, there was constant reference to Communist doctrine in the years 1944-47. However, this changed with the foundation of the Cominform and the launching of the Struggle for Peace, and the latter became their absolute priority. Stalin removed any doubt as to the final objective of the peace campaign by stating that ‘the aim of this movement is not to overthrow capitalism and establish Socialism. It confines itself to the democratic aim of preserving peace’—that is, avoiding war, and specifically, the ‘particular war’ in Europe. The concept of ‘peaceful coexistence’ should be understood exactly in this way: neither a genuine détente, nor a cloak hiding aggressive intentions—but, rather, a pragmatic instrument to avoid war or military pressure. This strategy was, therefore, ultimately reactive.

Naturally, ‘action and reaction’ dynamics between East and West during the Cold War should be analysed case by case, since the attempt to establish a universal pattern risks being misleading. In this specific time and place, the documents consulted suggest that the Communist plan of action was a reaction to the Western military threat. It might appear obvious to conclude that this plan was defensive. However, one of the most distinguished scholars in this field has contended that there was no softening of the Communist line before Stalin’s death in March 1953, and that Communist policies became, if anything, more rigid and aggressive. This view has been challenged by a number of different interpretations, especially within the revisionist school.

It is helpful to contextualize the strategy to weaken European military potential implemented by the Western Communist parties within what has been said about the general Communist line during this period, in order to understand its actual character. It seems possible to confirm that the strategy to weaken European military potential was ‘adapted’ to the circumstances produced by the creation of the military alliances. It was, in fact, a contingent, and arguably short-term, plan of action. However, sabotage, strikes, and militant forms of mass mobilization hardly fall within the definition of ‘restrained’ policies. Nor is it easy to define the strategy to weaken European military potential as a ‘movement towards retrenchment’. It was only from the end of 1951 that sabotage connected with the Struggle for Peace in France and Italy would start fading away. Until that time, activities continued to be implemented that, although reactive and defensive, were certainly not cautious and cannot be described as other than extremely provocative. In fact, we do not see any ‘reduction of confrontation’ or relaxation in the months immediately before the Korean War in Western Europe. Rather, the Struggle for Peace seems to have replaced the similar situation of tension just terminating at that very moment in Berlin. As the case of the Berlin Blockade, it was a ‘test of strength’, aimed at halting what was perceived as the Western offensive. However, at no point was an escalation to a more ‘revolutionary’ behaviour envisaged. This evidence does not suggest in any way a Communist plan of advance; rather the opposite. Although extremely provocative, the above-mentioned plan of action seems more likely to have been a defensive means of intimidation.

The strategy to weaken European military potential was ambivalent, contradictory and extremely provocative, as with other Communist wars of nerves. The expression ‘defensively militant’ certainly describes it well; an alternative might be ‘passive-aggressive’. In definitive terms, the strategy to weaken European military potential was a ‘resistance movement’: aggressive and defensive at the same time. Thorez suggested exactly this image on his return from a meeting with Stalin in November 1947. Criticizing the overly militant forms of labour unrest at the time, he warned: ‘It is necessary to go back to the 1944 strategy: waiting for the enemy in the shade and preparing to launch the plan of attack only when ready’. In 1949, the Communist militants had come out of the shade and were fighting in the open. The strategy to weaken European military potential had proved to be not only ineffective but also counterproductive.

There is no doubt that the Communist attempts to put the West on the defensive by sabotaging the initial phase of the military build-up and by threatening Western governments with militant forms of mass mobilization resulted in the West becoming convinced of the Communists’ aggressive intentions. The ultimate result of this overall Western perception of the Communist position can be found embodied in the text of the NSC 68 of April 1950. In fact it is true that the documents analysed for this work leave no doubt as to the fact that the Communists constantly overplayed their hand and challenged the West. As argued by Haslam: ‘Direct and persistent interference in the internal affairs of other states remains one of the most provocative and least advisable ways of conducting international relations’. On the other hand, the same documents confirm that Western rearmament was one of those cases in which ‘the American initiatives intensified [Communist] distrust’. This chain of events, and of reciprocal mistrust, produced the Cold War as we know it, resulted ‘at least in part from the unintended consequences of more than one party to the dispute’. Each side regarded the other as an opportunistic aggressor, and each, therefore, mistook defensive initiatives for aggressive ones. These conclusions are in line with the ultimate aim of this work, which is to set itself within the framework of the ‘new Cold War history’. That is to say, its ultimate aim is to set aside the question ‘who was to blame for the Cold War’, and to focus instead on issues such as ‘how best to understand motives on both sides, and especially on how best to use the new archival sources to get to these motives’.