After 30 years of rule by the Christian Democrat party (DC), the country seemed ready for change. However the only party strong enough to beat them was the Partito Comunista Italiana (PCI), led by the moderate Enrico Berlinguer. In 1976, there was a strong chance the PCI would beat the Christian Democrats into second place.
A secret Foreign Office memo dated 6 May 1976, entitled Italy And The Communists: Options For The West, floated one possible course of action as "action in support of a coup d'etat or other subversive action". The authors admitted: "By its nature, a coup d'etat could lead to unpredictable developments." But they added that, in theory at least, "it could be promoted. In one way or another, the force of the right could be counted on, with the support of the police and the army". The idea of a coup to remove the PCI or stop it coming to power "could be considered attractive" – but the idea was rejected as "unrealistic".
The growth of Italian communism had worried politicians in the West. In January 1976, Kissinger told Willy Brandt, the former West German Chancellor, of his "strong anxiety" for the developing situation. The "political nature" of Nato, Kissinger said, would change if communists seized power of a Nato country. The rest of the alliance shared his worries. For all its reformism, Berlinguer's PCI was still close to Moscow. The biggest fear was about what would happen to Nato's nuclear security if the PCI came to power. "To put it crudely," as the Ministry of Defence put it, "sensitive documents could end up in Moscow."I
n the event it was academic: the PCI finished second in the election, with 34.3 per cent of the vote to the DC's 38.7 per cent