Some years ago a friend of mine in Venice, whose family had been too influential during the Fascist years for anyone to doubt the source, told me a funny story about Vittorio Cini, an intimate of Mussolini’s. I recently found it corroborated in a memoir by Federico Zeri, the great historian of the Italian Renaissance and a lifelong acquaintance of Cini’s.

It may be recalled that, in the years punctuated by the signing of the Pact of Steel and the unveiling of the Axis, Mussolini was hesitant about Italy’s part in the great European conflagration which he, unlike most of his lackadaisical or myopic contemporaries the world over, knew was coming. The notion of Italy’s youth being used by Hitler as cannon fodder may have been exciting to a romantic fantasist like Gabriele D’Annunzio, but the Duce was made of duller stuff.

Mussolini knew that the pivot of the entire affair would be the United States – specifically, her ability to enter the war. And, as it happened, a daughter of Cini’s, by all accounts rather plain, had been swept off her feet by an American who, her father suspected, was after her money. Or, rather, after his money, as, famously, Lorelei Lee corrects Esmond Sr. in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The only way to verify the claims of the prospective son-in-law was to visit his family in America, which Cini had resolved to do, and it was at this juncture that Mussolini summoned him.

The idea was that, while in the States on family business, Cini would visit as many machine building plants as he could, with an eye to determining whether or not American manufacturing was capable of rapid conversion from civilian to military production and, consequently, whether or not a precipitous entry of the industrial giant into a European war could be factored into Italy’s calculations with regard to Germany.  The sweating paterfamilias did as bid, returning to Rome with a rather curt report, according to which no such conversion was possible.

If Cini had been able to see the matter clearly – and if Mussolini had lived long enough to see it in retrospect – the total picture would have looked as follows.  In 1941, Germany produced 3,623 tanks, out of a wartime total of 46,274.  Russia’s tank production for the same year, with a wartime total of 62,424, was comparable to Germany’s.  In that same year the United States built 4,021 tanks, out of a wartime total of 88,816.

4,021 tanks sounds great, as does 88,816, since the industrial conversion Cini had ruled out allowed the Allies to win the war.  Except that two years earlier, in 1939, Germany was producing tanks and Russia was producing tanks, while the great and powerful United States produced 18 of them. Yes, eighteen tanks, down 80% from the 1938 output of 99.

If the United States had built 4,021 tanks not in 1941, but in 1939 – or, better still, in 1933, when she built none at all – she would not have needed to build the other 84,795.  More important, this would have impelled Hitler to seek his Lebensraum in the east, where an early clash with Stalin would have mortally exhausted both combatants and opened their regimes to Anglo-American influence. Does one need to add that Mussolini’s Italy would never have joined the Axis?

Like the deterrent value of a future atom bomb, timely armament by the United States and Britain would have saved Europe from the catastrophe that these champions of liberty brought upon it by temporizing. And this, I submit, is as true today as it was in 1933.