Between 1957 and 1961, George Lister served as the First Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Rome. In Rome, Lister adopted a strategy of combating Communism by trying to break the historic alliance between Italian Socialists and Communists.
When Lister began his tour of duty in Rome, Italy's Communist Party regularly received 25 percent of the vote and was the largest Communist party of any democratic country in the world. The Italian Socialist party, led by Pietro Nenni, was politically aligned with the Communists. Yet, within his party, was a group of ''autonomists'' that was beginning to distance itself from the Communists.
In September 1957, Lister was given responsibility for reporting to the Embassy on the activities of several leftist Italian political parties. Until his arrival, much of this reporting took place at arm's length. Lister, however, believed that it was in the United State' interest to begin a dialogue with the Socialists, both to understand them better and to encourage them to break their alliance with the Communists. In early 1958, with approval from U.S. Ambassador James D. Zellerbach, Lister established contact with the Italian Socialists and began to establish a rapport with them.
Lister's efforts to influence the Italian Socialists continued with the support of the Embassy until early 1959, when Outerbridge Horsey became the new Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM). Horsey was skeptical about the possibilities for bringing the Socialists into the democratic fold; he put pressure on Lister to cease his meetings with the Socialists, but Lister continued. Tension between Lister and his Embassy superiors led the Political Counselor, his immediate boss, to criticize him in a February 1961 efficiency report for ''a lack of discipline and cooperativeness.''
In March 1961, when Roving Ambassador W. Averell Harriman visited Rome, Lister served as his interpreter. Harriman evidently agreed with Lister's attempts to reach out to the Socialists; according to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Harriman ''pronounced Lister the only officer in the Rome Embassy who understood the Communist problem.''
Later that year, Lister's tour in Rome ended. He returned to Washington, D.C., where he was informed by the State Department's Promotion Panel that he had been recommended for''selection out''of the Foreign Service. Lister's job was only saved by intervention from Harriman, although he was nonetheless demoted. This demotion severely hampered Lister's long-term career prospects with the State Department.
Lister, however, continued to be involved in the Italian political situation. On October 16, 1961, Harriman wrote to Lister to tell him that he had mentioned Lister's name to Schlesinger, then a top advisor to Kennedy. Lister and Schlesinger soon began informally working together. Lister's friends in the Italian Socialist Party often would come to Washington, D.C. on visits, and Lister would take them to the White House to be introduced to Schlesinger.
The turning point in Italy finally happened in July 1963 when Kennedy, on a visit to Rome, made a highly symbolic political gesture at a public reception by taking aside Socialist leader Nenni for a lengthy conversation. Partly as a result of American diplomacy, in November 1963 the Socialists joined with the centrist Christian Democrats and entered the government, forming the first center-left coalition in Italian history.