At 8:45AM, on March 16, 1978, Aldo Moro—president of Italy’s ruling Christian Democratic party and five time Prime Minister, the King of Italian politics— left church to meet with party members ahead of Italy’s most important legislative session in 20 years. But as his driver turned onto Via Mario Fani,
Aldo Moro was pinD white Fiat 128 ahead of him had just slammed on its brakes, causing a pileup with Moro’s blue 130 and the Alfetta behind, occupied by two policemen and a bodyguard. In the blink of an eye, another white 128 blitzed in behind the pileup to pin the cars in place.
Then came the shooters: four gunmen dressed in airline uniforms appeared on the street, firing over a hundred rounds. Moro’s detail didn’t even have the chance to shoot back. They kept their guns in the trunk.
As quick as it began, it was over: five dead and Moro, wounded but alive, was hauled into a van painted like a police vehicle.
55 days later, his body was found in the trunk of a red Renault 4.
I: WHY ALDO MORO?
Forty eight hours after the lightning kidnapping on Via Fani, a journalist at il Messaggerro, a Roman newspaper, received a call, alerting him to the presence of a package at Largo Argentina, a site of ancient temple ruins in Rome.
There he found a large orange envelope, and in it, this image: of Aldo Moro beneath a flag emblazoned, “Brigate Rosse,” the“Red Brigades.” The Brigades were a far-left terrorist group responsible for a series of kidnappings, bombings, shootings, and stabbings across Italy, all aimed at destabilizing politics and instigatin g communist revolution.
How kidnapping Aldo Moro — a man who, while he was a political kingpin, held no formal office beyond a seat in Italy’s Parliament — would light the fuse of revolution… we’re not exactly sure. In fact, the Red Brigades themselves didn’t seem to have much of an idea!
Because in that same package containing the photo of Moro, the kidnappers included a press release, wherein they…well, basically just went on a barely comprehensible rant. An excerpt, translated, of course. Thanks to Jiang Zemin for lending me his glasses. Don’t miss that video. ahem
“Let it be clear therefore that with the capture of Aldo Moro, and the trial to which he will be subjected by a People's Court, we do not intend to “close the game” nor even flaunt a “symbol,” but to develop a slogan on which all the Offensive Resistance Movement is already being measured, making it stronger, more mature, more incisive and organized.”
In other words, we know this won’t instigate a revolution, but, “Hey, pretty impressive, right?”
And in a way, it actually was impressive, and terrifying.
You see, Italy in the 1970s and early 80s was not exactly what you might expect, if you’ve seen Call Me By Your Name — full of whimsy, sunshine, and aperol spritz. Of course, that all happened, but at this time Italy was in the midst of a decade-plus low-grade civil war, known as “The Years of Lead,” involving frequent terrorist attacks from the left, via groups like Red Brigades, and from the right. Think something like Ireland’s troubles, but…more about Cold War ideologies.
So Italy was an absolute mess. But while a few bombings—such as the massacres at Piazza Fontana, Piazza Loggia, Italicus Express, and others—had been catastrophic, no attack had yet struck so close to the heart of the government, so surgically and successfully dispatched a security detail like Moro’s. This was unlike anything the Red Brigades had yet pulled off — of all times, in 1978, after a couple years in decline and with their leader Renato Curcio captured and on trial in Turin.
So why now? And why Moro?
Recall on the morning of the kidnapping, Moro “left church to meet with party members ahead of Italy’s most important legislative session in 20 years.” Because on March 16, 1978, Italy’s Parliament was set to hold a vote of confidence to approve a new government of Christian Democrats.
But Moro’s party only held 262 of the 316 seats required for a majority. And this is what was so historic; the center-right Christian Democrats were about to form a government with the support of the Communist Party of Italy.
Of course, being the President of the Christian Democrats, Moro was always a boogeyman for radicals like the Red Brigades, but it was this deal that finally pushed them over the edge. This was a big problem. Wait a second, you’d think that a bunch of Communist terrorists would be big fans of this — after all they’d want the Communist party to succeed!
However, importantly, the Communists wouldn’t be in the government. They were just promising to approve the Christian Democrats’ government, in an attempt to moderate their image and prove that they could work within the rules and processes of Italian liberal democracy.
This was the product of a new movement, happening in Spain, France, and Italy, known as “eurocommunism” — which sought to distance European communist parties from the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union. And if this could work in Italy—if the party could improve its image, win broader approval, and next time call on the Christian Democrats to support their government—eurocommunism might just work… anywhere, because Italy had the largest Communist party in the western world. Italy was the proving ground for a more democratic, more moderate vision of communism.
And that was anathema to the Red Brigades who believed the path to progress could only be paved with guillotines, gulags, and guerilla terrorism—and barring those, it certainly wasn’t a trek made hand-in-hand with the Christian Democrats! This historic compromise had to be stopped — and that meant taking out the architect: Aldo Moro. It was Moro who’d called upon his party to work with the Communists, who’d spent the long nights meeting with them to iron out the agreement, who’d staked on this plan his career, his reputation, and, ultimately, his life.
But it wasn’t as though the gunmen on Via Fani had just shot Moro then and there. No, they kidnapped and held him for fifty-five days before finally executing him. So what happened over those fifty five long days and nights? And why wasn’t the government able to rescue him?
II: FIFTY-FIVE DAYS
Well, while the left-of-the-left sure hated him, Moro may have had as many enemies to his right…even in his own party.
So, let’s talk about the police who, obviously, failed to find and rescue Moro—which many cite as evidence of right-wing conspiracy against him.
Now, to be fair, Rome is a huge, famously complex and messy city home to millions. So it was definitely a bigger challenge than, say, finding a gunman in Stockholm. Speaking of which…I’m cold, so I’m gonna put on Olof Palme’s hat. Go check out our video on the unsolved murder of Sweden’s Prime Minister, after this one.
Where was I? The police search! So, it was a big ask, but we’ll talk about those conspiracy theories in a minute. First, here’s what they did do.
Besides the dozens arrested and brought in for questioning—all of whom were useless—it wasn’t until April 18, about a month into the ordeal that they thought they hit a breakthrough. Another press release shared with il Messaggero announced that Moro had been executed “by suicide” and that his body could be found in a lake in the mountains east of Rome. But the statement proved to be a forgery — the lake was completely frozen over. Just about the only real achievement of the whole investigation happened that same day, when police discovered a Red Brigades hideout in Rome. In it, a license plate of one of the white Fiat 128s involved in the ambush.
That, however, is about all they dug up during the fifty-five days. Signor Moro’s only real shot at freedom was negotiation, and he knew it. Because it wasn’t just the Brigades that were sending messages to the outside world. Moro wrote dozens of letters to his family, to the Pope, and to the government, pleading for help in his release. Now, it may sound strange that his captors would let him get away with this, and, yeah, it kind of is. But, while the letters were written by Moro, there’s no doubt about that, whether the sentiments expressed were truly his…we’ll never know.
On March 29, Moro’s first letter was released publicly by his kidnappers. In it, he implored that, “The sacrifice of innocents in the name of an abstract principle of legality is inadmissible.” He continued, noting that every other country in the world, except for West Germany and Israel, was open to negotiations with terrorists, suggesting that the Italian government had not only the power but the political precedent to secure his release via negotiation.
In later letters, the proposal—reinforced by continued press releases from the Brigades—would become clearer: Moro for 13 imprisoned Red Brigades terrorists…including Renato Curcio — the group’s leader currently on trial in Turin.
However, while the Socialist Party leader Bettino Craxi attempted to forge a middle path—drawing up a list of Red Brigades criminals guilty of more minor crimes like robbery and assault, that the government might be willing to give up. The terrorists rejected the deal. It was the big fish or nothing, and the government—Moro’s own party—wasn’t interested.
In their view, which was shared by the Communist party, to negotiate with the terrorists would validate the group as a legitimate interlocutor with the government and reward their terrorism, incentivizing further attacks. In fact, Moro alluded in his first letter to the kidnapping of Peter Lorenz, a regional official in West Germany, for whom the government made an exception to its no-negotiation policy. Unfortunately, the terrorists released in exchange for Lorenz did later return to attack West Germany: in effect, proving the government’s point.
Still, Moro pressed on, drafting letter after letter, each more desperate than the last, pleading, begging for help from the men he’d spent years working with, the party he’d spent his life building. Toward the end, he grew bitter, understandably, writing his wife that the party could have saved him if they wanted to.
On May 1, informed by his kidnappers that he was sentenced to die and seeing clearly that no help was coming from the men he thought his friends, Moro offered his final address to them, writing, “All I have to do is note my complete incompatibility with the Christian Democracy party. I renounce all positions, I resign from the Christian Democrats. I ask the President of the Chamber to transfer me from the [CD] group to the mixed group.”
On May 5, Aldo Moro wrote his wife, Eleanora, “Dear Norina, they have told me that they are going to kill me in a little while…I kiss you for the last time.”
Four days later, on May 9, a Moro family friend, Franco Tritto, received a phone call. “We fulfill the President's last wishes by communicating to the family where they can find the body of the Honorable Aldo Moro. On via Caetani, there is a red Renault 4 there. The first license plate number is 5.”
His execution had been…grisly, and it spoke to the amateurish capabilities of the kidnappers. In his body were found bullets from multiple guns, not because he’d been executed by some kind of firing squad. No, Moro had been carried down to an underground parking garage, hidden in a basket, until he was allowed to climb into the trunk of the car. Whether he believed his kidnappers when they told him he was just being moved somewhere else, or he had already resigned himself to his fate, we can never know. But as he laid there, perhaps contemplating this very question, two shots rang out. The pistol wielded by Mario Moretti—the chief of the kidnapping operation—had jammed. He asked his associate for his Skorpion machine gun. Moro may yet have been alive. Then a few bursts of gunfire. Aldo Moro, after 55 days of fruitless pleading with his countrymen and colleagues, 55 days of witless police searches, 55 days imprisoned by a bunch of fanatical fools, was dead.
He was found just as promised by the terrorists: in the trunk of a red Renault 4 on via Caetani. The detail they declined to mention? The car was parked here, halfway between the headquarters of the Christian Democrats and Communist Party. The symbolism was lost on nobody.
Per his own wishes expressed in a letter and those of his family, members of his party were barred from his funeral and burial. His wife, siblings, and children never forgave the Christian Democrats their betrayal.
III: A HORRIBLE PLOT
Because, according to his family, Moro’s death wasn’t the result of unfortunate negligence or mistaken judgment: a miscalculation by the government that Moro would be released unharmed, like many of the Red Brigades’ previous kidnapping victims. No, over a series of trials, parliamentary inquiries, and statements to the press, Moro’s family repeatedly suggested that the Christian Democrats, possibly with the encouragement of international forces, had either conspired to kill Moro, or deliberately stood aside, hoping the Red Brigades would murder him.
No one in the Moro family ever laid out a complete theory of what happened, but they are far from alone in believing in some kind of conspiracy. Over the past four and a half decades, a host of politicians, journalists, scholars, and amateur sleuths have attempted to get behind the curtain of Moro’s killing.
If the blame lies, as Moro’s family alleges, with the CD, perhaps the most compelling of these theories is the story of Propaganda Due, or P2.
P2 was a secret society, originally established under the freemasons in 1970 but later expelled: a shadowy cabal straight out of a cheap thriller movie that counted among its members key elements of the Italian political elite, including prominent Christian Democracy leaders and CD-appointed bureaucrats. What was P2 all about? What belief bound all these influential people together? Simple: a commitment to anti-Communism and maintaining Italy’s “stability.”
And we mean “secret society.” Nobody outside P2 really knew it existed at all until a few years after Moro’s death, when a parliamentary commission revealed it. The scale of its influence in the highest levels of Italian society was cause for immediate alarm. And as it turned out, over half of the members of the crisis committee that had directed the failed rescue operations in the Moro Affair were members of P2. Moreover, the Italian security services had been comprehensively reorganized less than a year before Moro’s assassination, and the director of the new military intelligence bureau, Giuseppe Santovito…was also a member. Perhaps the reorganization and new leadership weren’t coincidental. They would, after all, explain the security services’ conspicuous incompetence in Moro’s rescue. Moro wanted to open politics to the Communists, P2 opposed his move, and at the critical moment, its members had the power to botch his rescue and leave Moro to his fate. At least, that’s one theory.
But maybe Moro’s death was even bigger than P2. Maybe Moro was onto something when he wrote a letter to his wife from captivity, blaming American and German influence for his party’s betrayal. It wouldn’t be his first run-in with Washington. In 1974, just as he was beginning to consider the “historic compromise,” Moro met with then-American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. In some reports of the meeting, Kissinger told Moro that such a compromise would be a red line for the Americans. Moro, his family claimed, was so shaken by the meeting that he almost quit politics entirely. Just two years later, Moro attended a summit in Puerto Rico alongside American, French, German, and British leaders, where he was excluded from a secret meeting in which the other four countries agreed to basically embargo Italy if the Communists entered the government with the Christian Democrats. When the secret meeting became…not so secret, Moro released a statement expressing his dismay, but it didn’t change any minds.
This was all par for the course for America—both in terms of its Italy policy and broader Cold War perspective: until 1968, they’d been funding the Christian Democrats to help keep them in power, and just a few years later the Lockheed corporation was caught buying off Christian Democrats so they would vote for a major aircraft purchase. Again, there’s a straightforward motive for killing Moro: to keep the CD loyal, toeing the anti-Communist line.
But these theories lack a… je ne sais quoi. Let’s get weirder, with the Mossad: Israel’s top-tier intelligence agency. In 1975, Mossad agents made contact with the Red Brigades, offering the Brigaders assistance and warning them about two informants who had penetrated their ranks.
Now, you may be wondering: why on Earth would the Mossad offer assistance to the far left of Italy’s far left, a bunch of communists who 100% hated Israel? Well, the Mossad knew that an Italy where the Communist party had real influence in government would be far more sympathetic to Arabs in the Middle East. An armed leftist group opposed to participating in Italian democracy would kill a lot of birds with one stone—it would divide the left, but it would also destabilize Italy, making Israel the reliable Mediterranean ally for the United States. Oh, and Moro was basically the first European leader to acknowledge the existence of Palestinians. 
Except…the Mossad’s contacts with the Red Brigades never amounted to much, and there’s certainly no evidence that they were involved with Moro’s kidnapping and murder. It’s pure speculation.
In fact, there’s no concrete evidence that any of these players—P2, the US, or Israel—had a direct hand in any of the events that transpired. In the case of P2, for example, there’s a kind of chicken and egg problem. These guys were already conservative, already anti-communist, and already influential in Italian politics. Was P2 really such a potent organization, or just an expression of already existing political sentiment? For their part, the Red Brigade leaders who partook in the kidnapping have taken offense at the very notion they would work with such forces. In the words of Mario Moretti, the architect of the operation, “One thing that I will never succeed in making the Italian bourgeoisie believe is that the Moro kidnapping was exclusively ours, organized by about twenty mere workers. The Italian bourgeoisie will never acknowledge this truth; it will always search for the hidden instigator or the foreign agency that never existed.”
Nothing connects these external players to that fateful Thursday morning on via Mario Fani or the fifty-five painful days that followed. But there are circumstantial matters, oddities and associations that have dogged those who defend the official version of events, certainly to a greater extent than, say, the assassinations of Shinzo Abe, Olof Palme, or even JFK. The Italian people remain skeptical of the official story. Why?
Well, consider the broader context. Italy was immersed in violence, paranoia, and profound social unrest. Not unlike The Red Brigades, far-right militants were pursuing a “strategy of tension,” instigating and provoking maximum violence and chaos in the hopes that Italian democracy would collapse, and they had friends in the Italian police and maybe the United States government. Meanwhile, P2 did count among its members high political officials and wealthy financiers—in essence, it _was _a political conspiracy, even if its actual influence has been exaggerated since its discovery. And of course, various foreign intelligence agencies, including Mossad, were engaging in covert attempts to influence Italian politics. Even the Red Brigades, for their part, had received assistance from abroad: funds and weapons from Palestinian militants as well as the Czechoslovakian secret police—including probably the machine gun used to finish off Moro. In other words, if you had a conspiratorial political axe to grind in the 1970s, well, all roads led to Rome.
In the end, Moro’s death isn’t explained by some conspiracy. If anything, the sheer volume of shady things going on in Italy renders the Moro Affair a kind of an anti-conspiracy. P2 members, neo-fascists, communists, and maybe even the American government may have toasted Moro’s death on May 9th, but in the mountain of strange events that occurred, nothing beyond circumstance suggests direct involvement in Moro’s death. Everyone had their fingers in the pie, often with competing goals. Sometimes they succeeded; just as often, they failed to achieve them. The resulting state of chaos was exactly the fertile soil from which an organization like the Red Brigades grows. Their doctrine permitted any means in service of their utopian ends, a fact that hardly contradicted the spirit of the times.
So the idea that other forces actively worked with them to bring about Moro’s demise…doesn’t add up, even if their actions fueled the rise of the Brigades. The Italian state was known for its incompetence and corruption. The police’s initial suspect list included, along with six individuals who were indeed involved, one informant employed by the government and one exile who lived in Paris. And the security services? The 1977 restructuring that some suggest had to do with Moro’s death is perhaps more plausibly read as an unfortunate coincidence. These are far more logical explanations for the failure to rescue Moro. Does it really make sense that, if there was a grand plot, we don’t have hard evidence of that nearly half a century later?
IV: THE FINAL WORD
Ironically enough, when they put Moro on “trial,” the Red Brigades believed they were about to unravel the dark truths of the conspiracy behind Moro’s government. He would finally admit what they already knew—that the Christian Democrats were nothing more than a puppet government for the United States, that Moro himself was no more than a provincial governor of an imperial territory, masquerading as the leader of an independent nation.
By all available accounts, admittedly secondhand, Moro responded with a remarkable clarity of vision. Yes, the US had interests in Italy, and sought influence, but this was the nature of politics. More importantly, they’d failed! Moro had orchestrated the historic compromise with the communists anyway, and the day of his kidnapping the deal, hated by fascists, communists, and foreign governments alike, went through, as the Communist party voted their confidence in the Christian Democratic government.
Moro held to his principles until the moment of his demise, but can we say the same about the party that refused to negotiate for his release? Even if we absolve them of conspiracy, weren’t their actions incredibly callous nonetheless?
If we put ourselves in their position, it’s hard to say. As some key decision makers at the time have since said, they weren’t sure whether Moro’s kidnapping was just the opening gambit in a wider, more brutal insurgency. To bestow political recognition and prestige on a group as brutal and dangerous as the Red Brigades might only have brought about more, not less, suffering in the long run.
And yet…something feels wrong about this kind of calculation. It was the Red Brigades, after all, for whom zealous ends justified brutal means. In following the coldly calculated interests of the Italian state, were the Christian Democrats and their Communist partners not displaying the same inhumanity: a statesman’s life in exchange for the potential of stability?
Either way, Moro’s death was a tragedy, and a lesson. On that fateful day in March, Moro had walked with the weight of his country on his shoulders. He’d been the most important man in Italian politics for decades, but he had seen that his party’s long dominance of the system was wreaking havoc, on itself, on Italy, on her people. Healthy democracy needs loyal, robust opposition, and alternation between the parties in power, or the party that rules becomes corrupt, unresponsive, and risks dragging democracy down with it. Moro had attempted to coax the Communists into a commitment to liberal democracy, and he’d been on the verge of success.
It was democracy, with all its wondrous mundanities of negotiating coalitions and reaching compromise, that had terrified Moro’s enemies, to his left and to his right. Democracy, that had convinced the Red Brigades if they didn’t kill Moro now then their reason for being might evaporate. No one would support violent revolution if democracy could work: for the terrorists, an uncharacteristic moment of clear-sightedness.
In the end, then, what killed Aldo Moro was this fear that democracy could work, that moderation, compromise, and the peaceful transfer of power could deliver domestic tranquility and enduring faith in political institutions. To deny democracy its power, Moro had to go.
Moro isn’t a martyr. He was a politician, with a politician’s virtues and flaws. But his death is, in a somewhat perverse way, a testament to democracy’s strength, to the importance of achieving and maintaining it, to defying those who fear it so much they’ll kill those who make it work.
Bocca & Morucci. ↩︎
nyt_MORO SLAIN ↩︎
“Press Release 1”. ↩︎
Montanelli , ch. XIII: VIA FANI. Page numbers unavailable, so this book will be cited by chapter. ↩︎
nyt_Italy Arrests. ↩︎
Montanelli, ch. XIII: VIA FANI. ↩︎
Montanelli, ch. XIII: VIA FANI. ↩︎
Montanelli, ch. XIII: VIA FANI. ↩︎
Montanelli, ch. XIII: VIA FANI. ↩︎
Montanelli, ch. XIII: VIA FANI. ↩︎
Montanelli, ch. XIII: VIA FANI. ↩︎
Richard Drake, The Aldo Moro Murder Case, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge Massachusetts, 1995), 60. ↩︎
Ibid., 101-102. ↩︎
Ibid., 99. ↩︎
Ibid., 104. ↩︎
“Riflettere sul passato per comprendere il presente,” in Polizia Democratica, May 2002. ↩︎
Drake, Aldo Moro Case, 75. ↩︎
Montanelli, ch. XII: NON-TRUST. ↩︎
“SCANDALS: The Lockheed Mystery,” in Time Magazine, 13 September 1976. ↩︎
Drake, Aldo Moro Scandal, 90 ↩︎
Ibid., 90. ↩︎
Ibid., 90. ↩︎
Ibid., 30. ↩︎
Ibid., 90. ↩︎
Ibid., 174. ↩︎
Alessandra Stanley, “Rome Journal; Agony Lingers, 20 Years After the Moro Killing,” in The New York Times, 9 May, 1998. ↩︎
Anna Cento Bull, Italian Neofascism: The Strategy of Tension and the Politics of Nonreconciliation (Berghan Books, 2007), 7; Philip Willian, “Moro's ghost haunts political life,” in The Guardian, 9 May 2003. ↩︎
Central Intelligence Agency,_ The Red Brigades: A Primer_, 13-14. ↩︎
Montanelli, ch. XIII: VIA FANI ↩︎
Drake, Aldo Moro Case, 117. ↩︎
Ibid., 117. ↩︎
Ibid., 84. ↩︎
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