THE proposals regarding the Italo-Jugoslav boundaries made by the United States delegation at the London Conference of Foreign Ministers ran as follows:

The frontier with Jugoslavia should be substantially adjusted in favor of Jugoslavia to follow roughly the ethnic factor, subject to necessary modification to preserve the essential economy of the local region. There is suggested the old Wilson Line in part, with modifications in favor of Jugoslavia in the north and in favor of Italy in the south. The modification in the north is primarily for ethnic reasons; the modification in the south is for both ethnic and economic reasons and would preserve for Italy coal and bauxite deposits which are important for her economic life. The foregoing will give Trieste to Italy. It is suggested, however, that a substantial part of the port of Trieste be made a free port, administered by a commission containing representatives of the nations which will use the port. . . .

The "ethnic factor" formula gives rise to a good deal of doubt. If it had been said that the frontier had to be readjusted roughly in accordance with the "national factor," no room would have been left for equivocation. "National" feeling is based on consciousness and will. When we say that, according to the Austrian census of 1910, so many Italians and so many Slavs were living in Trieste and its outskirts, we mean that so many people professed Italian national sentiment and so many professed Slav national sentiment. But if we speak of "ethnic factors," we put our finger into a wasps' nest. For two thousand years (not to mention prehistoric times, about which we know nothing) Venezia Giulia was the meeting place of nobody knows how many "ethnic" elements coming from everywhere by land and sea. Italian nationalists and Fascists used to maintain that most of the Slavs were "ethnically" Italians who had "betrayed" their Herrenvolk; while Slav nationalists and Fascists (and now Tito's Communists) term most of the Italians "renegades" of Slav origin. Both Italians and Slavs have swallowed the Nazi doctrine of "race" as a primitive and permanent factor in history, and draw from it absurd deductions.

Let us hope that the authors of the American memorandum thought "national" when they wrote "ethnic." If we start from the assumption that the "national" factor must control, we have to agree with their contention that the Wilson Line, proposed by the United States in 1919, provides the most suitable approach to a sensible solution, provided it is modified as required by the essential economy of given localities.[i] The Slav farmer who has to sell his milk and cabbages cannot be politically disassociated from the nearby town and forced to go with his donkey to market fifty miles away. But though he has to be respected and protected in his rights as a human being, he cannot claim the right of administering a town whose population is not Slav but Italian in its majority. A railway that links two important Italian cities like Trieste and Pola should not be handed over to Slav authorities solely because it passes

through a stony territory sparsely inhabited by Slavs. On the other hand, cities like Fiume or Zara cannot be economically disassociated from the compactly and exclusively Slavic population which surrounds them, even though three-fifths or more of their own populations are Italian.

The United States proposals leave a dangerous gap: they do not indicate the ways and means for enforcing the personal, political and cultural rights of the Slav national minority under Italian jurisdiction and of the Italian minority under Slav jurisdiction. National minorities cannot be left to the mercy of the majorities, either here or in any other plurinational territory of Europe. One of the worst crimes of those who operated the League of Nations was to regard all pledges to respect minority rights as scraps of paper. If an efficient system of guarantees to protect minorities is applied in nationally mixed territories, even an imperfect boundary will not give rise to serious trouble; without it, even the best political frontier will be a permanent wound.

Perhaps President Truman and Secretary Byrnes think that the matter is covered by the Bill of Rights which Italy must undertake to maintain. But a Bill of Rights can contain only general principles, whereas detailed provisions and agencies for enforcement are required to protect national minorities. In the case in question, the provisions once agreed upon between Rome and Belgrade to protect the Italian national minority in Dalmatia would be sufficient. They should be revived to protect both Italians in Jugoslavia and Jugoslavs in Italy, and a permanent Arbitration Committee should be set up with the task of enforcing the rights and privileges of minorities against annulment or circumvention.

Pending a definite and let us hope a wise solution, the exigencies of the situation have produced one good development. In order to keep the peace in the Anglo-American zone, the AMG officials have been training a body of police. In any mixed territory an arbitrating authority will not be able to uphold the rights of national minorities without having a police force at its disposal. The numbers of such a force need not be large, in view of modern facilities of communication.

If the above solution is not adopted, there remains only the Hitler-Stalin method: to evict or murder minorities (or majorities) everywhere they interfere with nationalistic programs.

The formula adopted in the American memorandum in connection with the port of Trieste is good. "A substantial part of the port" should be made "free" and administered by "a commission containing representatives of the nations which will use the port." All the merchants and workers of Trieste, whatever their "national" sentiment, would be glad to see a substantial part of the port -- nay, the whole of it -- made "free" from customs duties and administered by a board of businessmen (not diplomats) belonging to the countries which have to use it, that is, Italians, Slavs, Austrians and Czechoslovaks.

Even so, the formula is not sufficient to cover all the issues involved. The port of Trieste depends for life only in small degree on local facilities and management; mostly it depends on the customs duties and railway tariffs of the hinterland, and on the absence in that respect of unfair discriminations between Trieste and other competing ports, particularly Fiume (which, strangely, is not mentioned in the American memorandum at all). This matter calls for careful thought, so that it may at least be settled in principle by the peace treaty, in the interest both of the hinterland and of Trieste.


The memorandum laid before the London Conference by the Italian Foreign Minister, Signor De Gasperi, and published in the New York Times of October 6, had the great merit of being short; but it could have been even shorter.

First of all, it should have omitted the argument that the frontier accepted by the Jugoslavs in 1920 "follows the Alpine watershed and corresponds to the geographical border line between the Black Sea and Adriatic areas -- namely, between the Italian region and the Balkans." Not only is the geographical border line in Venezia Giulia so uncertain that no two geographers can agree on it, but, more important, the doctrine itself of "natural" frontiers becomes absurd when transferred from the domain of physical geography to that of history and international relations.

Geographers, for the purpose of their studies, divide the surface of the earth into "natural regions," separated by "natural frontiers." Some take as their criterion the watersheds, others the rivers, with resultant variations in the form and contour of "natural" regions according to the different methods of different schools. If one takes the watershed as a criterion, historical Switzerland vanishes into thin air. If one takes the rivers, an Alpine natural region is formed, with Switzerland as its heart and with the Rhine, the Upper Danube, the Middle Danube, the Sava River and the Po River as natural limits; in that case, historical France, Germany, Austria, Jugoslavia and Italy are quartered. If one adopts the watershed in dividing the Italian from the Balkan peninsula, Venezia Giulia is split into an eastern section that goes to the Balkan and a western section that goes to the Italian peninsula (though nobody can locate the watershed in the Carso). If one prefers the rivers, the Isonzo River becomes the boundary between the two "natural" regions.

In actual fact, it is the people occupying a country that make history, and not the mountains, watersheds, rivers and nests of lizards. In settling here and there, groups of human beings have not been concerned with the needs of the geographers. "National" frontiers, far from being "natural," are "artificial." That is, they are the product of human will. They result from the struggles between neighboring groups, which pass over mountains, cross rivers, advance, recede. There is no "natural" boundary between the United States and Canada. Those who compiled the Italian memorandum would have done well to break away from the misconception of "natural" limits.

The strategic arguments should also have been ignored. In the day of airplanes, rockets and the atomic bomb, the transfer of the frontier in Venezia Giulia a few miles to the east or to the west would not assure "adequate possibilities" of protection, as the memorandum states, for the Venetian plains, the Po Valley or the northern Adriatic. There no longer are strategic frontiers, but geographical positions, economic resources, industrial organizations and alliances. The Italian Foreign Minister should have left strategic tomfooleries to those chiefs of the Italian General Staff who gave such shining evidence of their abilities in 1940 and following years.

The economic arguments should have been left out, too. The people living in a given territory are duty-bound to make good use of their local natural resources and not to prevent access to them by other peoples. In the case of Venezia Giulia, if the Italian Foreign Minister says that he "needs" bauxite or coal, Tito too will say that he "needs" them. Everyone needs everything. When one puts "need" before "right," one forfeits the right to protest when the person holding the knife by the handle steps in and takes what he "needs."

The authors of the Italian memorandum might well have based their line of thought on a principle formulated on October 6 by John Foster Dulles, Adviser to Secretary Byrnes at the London Conference: "Territorial settlements should, as far as possible, conform to the wishes of the peoples concerned. Strategic and economic considerations ought to be subordinated to human considerations." Mountains and rivers, bauxite and coal, have no souls. A country belongs to the people who inhabit it in the same way that a house belongs to those who built it and not to the bricks which make it.

It is difficult to understand the statement in the Italian memorandum that "about a million inhabitants were left in 1940 in the region -- more than 550,000 Italian-speaking and approximately 400,000 Slav-speaking." Even if we grant that Austrian officials hostile to the Italians gave undue advantage to the Slavs in the 1910 census, and if in consequence estimate the Italians at 390,000 or 400,000 in 1910, the number of them cannot have jumped to 500,000 by 1940. To be sure, the deliberate importation of Italians after the last war brought about an exceptional increase; but a figure like 100,000 can hardly be true.

The memorandum admits that a perfect solution of the national problem is unattainable, in view of the inextricable mingling of the two national groups, and proposes the Wilson Line as that which best divides Slav territory from that which is predominantly Italian. Furthermore, it admits as a "self-evident" fact that large-scale autonomies will have to be granted on both sides of the frontier and that adequate legislation will have to be enacted to insure to both groups the full enjoyment of personal, political, cultural and economic rights. This is fair-mindedness and common sense.

The Italian memorandum rightly distinguishes the national problem of Venezia Giulia from the economic problem of the port of Trieste. On the latter, it properly states that the prosperity not only of this port but of Fiume as well depends not on the local technical organization, but on economic adjustments between the near and distant hinterland and on an international agreement on the best method of utilizing the two ports.

The Italian memorandum ends by paying homage to the memory of President Wilson, who in 1919 "pleaded for a decision of equity and justice." This is not the way in which Italian nationalists and Fascists spoke in 1919. Father Time is an honest man.

If suitably clarified, the American and Italian proposals can be easily reconciled and would lead to a fair solution of the problem.


In the end, the London Conference decided on September 19 that the whole question of the Italo-Jugoslav frontier should be studied by "deputies and experts" of the Big Five. They have to work out the "ethnic" line to the best of their ability, after visiting the disputed area, and to report on the international régime and form of transit facilities which would be best suited to the port of Trieste.

It is disheartening to discover that on a matter which has already been worn threadbare by hundreds of scholars of all nationalities there still should be considered some need for experts to visit the disputed areas and work out an "ethnic" line. Were there no "experts" in England or in the United States capable of working out an opinion during the years of the war and so of preparing the decisions to be taken by the Foreign Ministers?

To take as a basis for decisions the present status of the populations on the spot would mean to reward crimes. During the years of Fascism, many Slavs were forced to emigrate to avoid prison or death, and many Italians were imported to alter the proportions of the two national groups. Then World War II came. How many Slavs were exterminated by Italian Fascists between 1941 and 1943, and how many Italians were made short work of by Tito's Partisans in 1945? Nobody knows, or perhaps will ever knew. Neither the situation created by Mussolini before 1945, nor that created by Tito in 1945, affords a basis for estimating the real strength of Italians or Slavs in this unhappy territory. The only fair basis for estimates and decisions still remains the Austrian census of 1910. Though the Austrian political authorities were partial toward the Slavs, the 1910 figures represent a fairly correct picture of a situation that had spontaneously developed during the preceding century and that most likely, under normal conditions, would have undergone little or no change from 1910 to the present.

The State Department possesses the studies made in 1918 by a body of honest scholars for the Paris Conference. They chose precisely the Austrian census of 1910 as the basis for ascertaining the strength of the two national groups in the disputed territory. Factors which were neither "national" nor "ethnic," but simply criminal, made their work useless in 1919. Let us in 1945 come back to the right path. If the American conclusions of 1918 are likely to be improved upon in some details, let them be improved upon by a Committee of Arbitrators. Most likely such a committee would go to the Library of Congress and would make its decisions there quietly without wasting time and money in visiting the disputed area. If the Big Five want to do justice and at the same time avoid embarrassment, resort to the arbitration method would have two advantages: it would remove from their shoulders a dangerous responsibility; and it would force the interested parties to bow before the rule of reason or, at the worst, to dishonor themselves by revolting against it.

Perhaps the Ministers of the Big Five decided to send experts to Venezia Giulia in the thought of gaining time while they negotiated compromises on other matters which had nothing to do with the Italo-Jugoslav frontier. Let us hope that compromises in other fields are not bought at the price of injustices inflicted on Italian or Jugoslav skins.

[i] For the historical background of the question, see Gaetano Salvemini, "The Frontiers of Italy," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, October 1944.

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  • GAETANO SALVEMINI, formerly Professor of Modern History at the University of Florence, now Lecturer in the History of Italian Civilization at Harvard; author of "Under the Axe of Fascism" and other historical works.
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