Commonly referred to by the German press as "Hitler's favorite commando," Otto "Scarface" Skorzeny was six feet, four inches tall and 220 pounds with, says Christopher Simpson, "appropriately arrogant 'Aryan' features and a five-inch dueling scar down his left cheek,." It was Skorzeny that Hitler called upon to execute the daring rescue of Benito Mussolini when the dictator's enemies in Italy placed him under house arrest in 1943.
Mussolini was initially imprisoned on the island of Ponza, some 35 miles off the coast of Italy. Using contacts cultivated by German agents well established within the Italian hierarchy, Skorzeny learned of Il Duce's whereabouts and of his subsequent transfer to the Gran Sasso skiing area of Apennine Mountains. The hulking Scarface proceeded to execute a stunning rescue against impossible odds, thus ingratiating himself with his Führer.
"Hitler loved him," says Simpson. Allen Dulles of the OSS (and later the CIA) had a bit of a crush on him, too.
Like Reinhard Gehlen before him, Skorzeny wisely surrendered himself to the U.S. in the last hours of the Third Reich...after which he was promptly acquitted of war crimes and managed to "escape" from an internment camp...leaving behind a note that proclaimed he had "only done my duty to my Fatherland."
In the ensuing years, Scarface Skorzeny worked his mayhem while on the CIA payroll. It was in Egypt, in the late 40s and early 50s, that the Nazi killer left his mark on the international theater. At the special request of Gehlen, the CIA sent Skorzeny to replace King Farouk with an Egyptian general named Mohammed Naguib. Scarface felt at home in the Middle East where he saw a chance to renew his anti-Semitic, fascist propensities. He threw his support behind rising star Gamal Abdel Nasser and used CIA money to import over 100 former SS cronies to aid in his efforts.
In a twist Hollywood could never conjure, the U.S.-funded Scarface would indirectly face off against another U.S.-funded criminal and murderer. Read on.
In the first three months following Pearl Harbor, the U.S. and its allies lost over 120 merchant ships to German U-boats in the waters off the American coast. Suspicion of enemy infiltration grew and the investigative section of U.S. Naval Intelligence in the New York area, the B-3, began to collaborate with mobsters who dominated the New York City docks. Their first contact was Joseph "Socks" Lanza, but with multiple racketeering indictments, Lanza's motives began to be questioned by his cohorts. It was time to for the B-3 to aim higher. "Operation Underworld," as the Navy called it, led directly to Lucky Luciano.
Salvatore C. Luciana, a.k.a. Charles "Lucky" Luciano, was known as the first of the modern Mafia bosses. He had been in prison since 1936 and, as of May 1942, still had twenty-four years of his sentence to serve, followed by inevitable deportation orders. However, Luciano wasn't nicknamed "Lucky" for nothing...he had something the Navy wanted and all they needed was to find a like-minded soul to convince him to share. In 1942, the Navy reached out to Meyer Lansky.
A mobster of legendary reputation, Lansky-once dubbed "the Mafia's Henry Kissinger" by comedian Jackie Mason-was already active in domestic anti-Nazi circles when the navy contacted him. During the mid-1930s, Lansky and his henchmen would regularly break up pro-Nazi meetings in the U.S. On one occasion, journalist Walter Winchell tipped off the underworld chieftain about a gathering that would feature none other than the leader of the German-American Bund, Fritz Kuhn, scheduled to take place in Yorkville, Manhattan's German neighborhood. Lansky recalled that night as follows: "We got there that evening and found several hundred people dressed in their brown shirts. The stage was decorated with a swastika and pictures of Hitler. There were only about fifteen of us, but we went into action."
"Lansky's volunteers threw firecrackers and started fights," says Lansky's biographer, Robert Lacey, "so that the meeting degenerated into chaos." As a result, the assembled audience did not get to hear Fritz Kuhn speak that night.
With a proven anti-Nazi background and many years of lucrative collaboration with Luciano as collateral, Meyer Lansky was a natural for Operation Underworld. In no time, he had Luciano transferred to Great Meadow, "the state's unprison-looking prison" in the town of Comstock, sixty miles north of Albany. "We went up by train to Albany," Lansky recalled, "and from Albany we get a car to take us to the prison." Almost overnight, stories of lavish banquets became commonplace, although prison authorities and New York Governor Thomas Dewey denied such allegations.
Luciano put out the word on June 4, 1942, and by June 27, eight German secret agents were arrested in New York and Chicago thanks to information provided by patriots who moonlighted as murderers, loan sharks, and gamblers. In November of that same year, with Socks Lanza mediating, a threatened longshoreman's strike was averted...much to the navy's delight.
It wasn't long before the U.S. government would call on its favorite professional criminals for help in the actual fighting of WWII. As the Allies took control of North Africa and began to contemplate an assault on Sicily, military planners realized that they were too unfamiliar with the coastline of the Italian island to undertake such a venture. In a flash, Lansky recruited an illegal gambling cohort, Joe Adonis, to dig up some Sicilians in New York City. Soon, these padrones, as they were called, were meeting at the headquarters for navy intelligence at 90 Church Street to peruse a giant map of their homeland. The results are, as they say, history:
In the small hours of July 10, 1943, Lieutenant Paul Alfieri landed on Licata Beach and made contact with local Sicilians who told him the secret location of Italian Naval Command, hidden in a nearby holiday vista. Inside, Alfieri discovered 'the entire disposition of the Italian and German Naval forces in the Mediterranean-together with minefields located in the Mediterranean area-together with overlays of these minefields, prepared by the Germans, showing the safe-conduct routes through the mines.'
Once the Allies had landed in Sicily and met with Luciano's contacts, they were aided on the ground throughout the entire venture. This was especially true for General George S. Patton, the commander of the Seventh Army. "Patton was a general of extraordinary martial dexterity, but the sixty thousand troops and countless booby traps in his path should have given him at least a few problems," says author Jonathan Vankin. "His way has been cleared by Sicily's Mafia boss Calogero Vizzini, at the request of Luciano."
While Lacey downplays such stories, he does mention "dark tales of planes dropping flags and handkerchiefs bearing the letter L behind enemy lines-signals, supposedly, from Luciano to local mafia chieftains."
Regardless of the methods used to recruit unabashed murderers into a battle against unabashed mass murderers, anti-communism was again the overriding motivation. Since much of Italy's anti-fascist resistance was made up of leftists and communists, the Mafia was a willing partner in smashing such sentiment. As Sicily was secured by the Allies, "the occupying American Army appointed Mafia bosses-including Vizzini-[as] mayors of many Sicilian townships," says Vankin. "Gangsters became an American-backed quasi-police force." When Vizzini killed the police chief in Villaba, the town where he was appointed mayor, he was not prosecuted.
"In American-occupation headquarters, one of the best employees was Vito Genovese, who eventually inherited Luciano's New York operation," adds Vankin. Upon the war's end, Luciano was granted executive clemency by New York governor Thomas Dewey and was released (albeit for deportation) on January 4, 1946. What the mob boss did with his newfound freedom is yet another of the Good War's vile repercussions.
"From abroad," says Vankin, "Luciano founded what might as well be called Heroin, Inc., an illegal multinational corporation." The price to be paid would be incalculable. After WWII, there were roughly 20,000 heroin addicts in the U.S. down from 200,000 twenty years earlier. By 1952, the number of addicts had tripled to 60,000. In 1965, it was 150,000. By 1990, estimates ranged from 533,000 to 1.1. million.
Meanwhile, in Luciano's homeland, Mussolini was gone and the U.S. had no intention of letting Italy slip through the cracks.
When the war-weary Italian people went to the polls in 1946, the Italian Communist Party and the Socialist Party combined to gain more votes and more seats in the Constituent Assembly election than the U.S.-favored Christian Democrats. This was not surprising, considering that a worker- and peasant-based movement fought off six German divisions during the liberation of northern Italy-with the invaluable aid of the Communist party. As a 1948 election loomed on the horizon, however, the U.S. realized that certain perceptions of reality needed to be seriously altered.
"It was at this point that the U.S. began to train its big economic and political guns upon the Italian people," William Blum explains in Killing Hope. "All the good ol' Yankee know-how, all the Madison Avenue savvy in the art of swaying public opinion, all the Hollywood razzmatazz would be brought to bear on the 'target market'."
Downplaying the quite impressive anti-fascist credentials of the communists and the potentially embarrassing record of collaboration with Mussolini displayed by the Christian Democrats, the U.S. cleverly framed the battle around, what Blum calls "the question of 'democracy' vs. 'communism' (the idea of 'capitalism' remaining discreetly to one side.)," and the most powerful election issue was that of U.S. aid.
The influential American media obediently did its part with the January 21, 1947 New York Times proclaiming that, "Some observers here feel that a further Leftward swing in Italy would retard aid." By March 22, 1948, Time magazine was labeling a potential leftist victory in Italy to be nothing short of "the brink of catastrophe." As the election neared, the CIA pulled out all the stops.
Blum has documented some of the steps taken in this "awesome mobilization of resources." A few representative examples should offer an idea of the propaganda's scope and depth:
* A letter-writing campaign from Italian-Americans to their friends and families in Italy was guided by "sample letters" provided by the U.S., that included such passages as: "A communist victory would ruin Italy. The United States would withdraw aid and a world war would probably result."
* Short-wave broadcasts to Italy warned that "under a communist dictatorship in Italy," many of the "nation's industrial plants would be dismantled and shipped to Russia and millions of Italy's workers would be deported to Russia for forced labor."
* The stars of Hollywood, like Gary Cooper and Frank Sinatra, were called upon to make Voice of America radio broadcasts and/or engage in fundraisers for causes like "the orphans of Italian pilots who died in the war."
* As for more direct aid, the CIA admitted to giving $1 million to Italian "center parties," although Blum says the figure could be as high as $10 million.
In case all the funny stuff failed, the CIA also took the precaution of organizing Operation Gladio, a secret paramilitary group in Italy, "with hidden stockpiles of weapons and explosives dotting the map," says author Mark Zepezauer. While the rationale for such intervention was the always-handy "threat of Soviet invasion," Zepezauer reveals the actual purpose of Operation Gladio, i.e. its "15,000 troops were trained to overthrow the Italian government should it stray from the straight and narrow."
They needn't have bothered because, after the circus left town, the Christian Democrats stood as the clear winner with 48 percent of the vote. The future course of Italy had effectively been charted...not by a fair and open democratic election, but instead via the subversion of organized criminal syndicates like the Mafia and the CIA.
Postscript: Amid all these machinations, Meyer Lansky kept his fingers in the foreign policy pie when, in an ironic turn, Zionists approached fellow Jew Lansky in 1948, for help arming Israel. He used his B-3 contacts to track down a Pittsburgh dealer who was supplying Arabs with weapons. These arms conveniently "fell overboard," and Lansky had them diverted to the new Jewish state so they could wage war on their neighbors...some of whom were battling Israel with tactics taught by another U.S. government soulmate, former SS legend Otto Skorzeny.
Roll over, Machiavelli ...and tell Paul Wolfowitz the news.
Mickey Z. is the author of The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet (www.murderingofmyyears.com) and an editor at Wide Angle (www.wideangleny.com). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.