RN Herter Committee Northern Italy Fields
RN and members of the Herter Committee stand in front of rice fields in northern Italy.

By Chris Barber

On Monday, July 30, 1947, then Congressman Richard Nixon was chosen, to his pleased astonishment, by Speaker Joe Martin to be one of nineteen members representing a committee headed by Congressman Christian Herter to go to Europe and prepare a report based on the feasibility and efficacy of Secretary of State, General George C. Marshall’s proposed post-war foreign aid plan.

Though an unexpected honor, it was one that a younger Nixon would nonetheless take full advantage of– a thrust for his young career, and especially to his foreign policy resume. Furthermore, it was a journey that would impact, to a large extent, the development of his presidential geopolitical strategy and his position in regards to Soviet Russia and Communism, over two decades later.

Prior to his departure to post-war Europe, constituents in Nixon’s congressional district generally resented the idea of committing the United States to what they suggested would be an inflationary foreign policy. Nixon heeded their concerns of a Truman foreign policy pledging military and economic aid to countries threatened by Soviet expansion, yet he maintained an unbiased level-headedness when he stepped foot on European soil.

The committee arrived at a Continent “tottering on the brink of starvation and chaos.” Post-war Europe, afflicted from the ravages of war and suffering from its worst drought in 100 years, was in dire need of assistance. Likewise, the threatening Communist sphere, externally and more so internally, endangered the democratic backbone of Western Europe.

RN Queen Mary 1947RN on the Queen Mary en route to Europe.

In his typed report on the condition of the various European countries the Committee observed, RN identified a prevailing theme throughout–that democratic leadership was close to non-existent and Communist leadership at the forefront of political shaping.

RN found Italy, the country he was assigned, particularly on the brink of an undesirable social alteration:

Italy was a battleground particularly in the industrial north, the physical destruction heavy. But the great difficulty in Italy at the present time is not so much the physical destruction of the war, but the fact that the Communists have chosen this country as the scene of one of their most clever and well-financed operations against the forces of democracy.

After speaking to Communist leaders in Italy, most notably Giuseppe Di Vittoria of the Italian Labor Federation, RN learned that the phraseology used by them were identical to those used by Communists in England and France. In other words, as Nixon intimated in his notes, “this indicates definitely then the Communists throughout the world owe their loyalty not to the countries in which they live but to Russia.” RN provides more evidence of Soviet supported Communist tactics in Trieste, a free city-state situated in the northeast portion of Italy on the western coast of the Adriatic Sea. Attention should be given to his account of an American Lt. Oaks, who, with his 12 men, stood firm against a Yugoslavian Communist force of 2,000 attempting to force the people of Trieste into submission. Lt. Oaks’ conduct made a lasting impression on RN:

Lt. Oaks TriesteA portion of RN’s typed report, compiled at the conclusion of the Herter Committee trip, recounting Lt. Oak’s bravery in the face of Communist aggression.

Below is the rest of RN’s final report on the contentious occurrences at Trieste during the Herter Committee’s visit:

Reflecting in his memoirs 40 years later on his involvement with the Herter Committee, RN recalled learning four things that contributed to what so far appeared to be the resounding success of the Communist Party. He concluded that Communist leaders were strong and vigorous, and worked incredibly hard with that spirit. He observed that these leaders understood and took advantage of the power of Nationalistic fervor, and that they furthermore had the fortune of access to Soviet money. Finally, RN identified the leading cause of Communist success–the leadership classes’ capitulation to Communism.

Through these conclusions, RN developed the basis of how U.S. leaders ought to approach Communist leaders, which would be particularly helpful in his future dealings with Soviet, Chinese, Romanian, and other states helpful to his grand strategy.

From just the brief exposure, I could see that the only thing the Communists would respect–and deal with seriously–was power at least equal to theirs and backed up by willingness to use it. I made a penciled note in Trieste that is as true today as it was thirty years ago: “One basic rule with Russians–never bluff unless you are prepared to carry through, because they will test you every time.’’ RN, The Memoirs of Richard Nixon