The US and the Making of Modern Greece

politics | Jul 07, 2009 | By John Brady Kiesling

The United States and the Making of Modern Greece: History and Power, 1950-1974. James Edward Miller (Chapel Hill 2009).

In the first essay I wrote for my first real English class in high school I used a quotation from G.B. Shaw: "Truth telling is not compatible with the defense of the realm." I was not an aspiring diplomat or strategic thinker then, and so I instinctively applied the quotation to the one case where it is actually true: the necessary lies we tell ourselves. Jim Miller might counter with Coventry Patmore's epitaph for the historical process: "When all its work is done, the lie shall rot;/ The truth is great, and shall prevail,/ When none cares whether it prevail or not."

For any English-speaking reader interested in an honest assessment of the U.S.-Greek relationship between 1950 and 1974, James E. Miller's new book, The United States and the Making of Modern Greece is the place to look. Miller gives as dispassionate and balanced an account as we are likely to get within the constraints of 211 tightly written pages (backed by another 70 of footnotes). The price is reasonable, and he tells a complex story efficiently, with pithy quotations and only mild, forgivable biases. Greek faith in CIA nefariousness notwithstanding, the odds are negligible that new documents will overturn any significant part of Miller's assessment. The largest hole to be filled in his analysis is due to the difficulty of access to equivalent Greek archival materials.

I got to know Miller at the Foreign Service Institute, where he had the duty of introducing U.S. diplomats and staff to the culture and politics of Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus. One of his other hats was as the editor for the Greece-Turkey-Cyprus volumes of Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), the State Department's official documentary history. In that capacity, Miller could read essentially all the relevant State Department files as well as other classified documents the CIA still refuses to release. In 2001, I served briefly as a sniper in his ultimately successful war with the CIA to release his FRUS volume as an intact historical work.

Miller documents the surprise and unhappiness the 1967 military coup provoked in Washington and the Embassy. A standard Greek response to such accounts is that the State Department did not make policy, that "real" U.S. policy was made by the CIA, or DIA, or darker agencies still. But all this has been denied strenuously and plausibly as well. Miller cites the long, rather plaintive op-ed then-Station Chief Jack Maury wrote for the Washington Post as soon as he was free to do so.

Miller rightly laments the U.S. government's failure immediately to rebut the rumor of U.S. involvement in or endorsement of the 1967 coup. He doubts the U.S. could have restored Greek democracy through threats or even concerted economic pressure. He emphasizes the toughness and fanaticism of the Colonels, and makes the case that coup leader Papadopoulos was the most unyielding Greek interlocutor the USG ever encountered.

Alas, the State Department was honest. It warned Nixon and Kissinger that the Junta would fall eventually, and that damage to U.S. interests from Greek perceptions of U.S. support for it would be serious. But the analysts' bottom line was that the relationship would survive. This is what Kissinger seized on with the decision to "normalize" relations with the Junta. Indeed a high price was paid (but not by Kissinger -- rumors of war-crimes charges brighten my day, but this is a pipedream). Five USG employees were murdered, many others had their cars torched, and the ordinary business of day-to-day diplomacy between two allies turned into endless, excruciating melodrama. But the sky did not fall. Someone should have lied to Kissinger that the sky would fall.

Miller has no illusions that his book will correct the myths current in Greece about the role of the "foreign finger." It is good to be reminded that "the image of U.S. ambassadors as proconsuls, an idea deeply ingrained in the Greek collective memory, recurrently revived by the Greek press, and thus probably not erasable, is in marked contrast with the realities of the early 1950s." (p25) Ambassador Peurifoy, still a byword for imperial manipulation, was actually rather clueless.

Andreas Papandreou is an outsized figure who causes the bars of any documentary cage to creak ominously. What Miller calls the "Andreas version" of Greek-U.S.-relations was exploited when necessary by the elder Karamanlis and all his successors as they rebuilt the maimed legitimacy of the Greek state by proving their independence from Washington. Distortion of the U.S. role in Greece continues to serve a variety of political and social agendas, some narrow and selfish, others (arguably) integral to Greece's spasmodic state-building process.

Predictably, much enjoyable material is buried in Miller's end notes. The gunfire around the Polytechnion on November 17, 1973 had been audible as far as the U.S. Embassy. One of my distinguished predecessors as political counselor was unlucky enough to inform a visiting congressional delegation that "a small disturbance was taking place over curriculum issues" (p269, note 52). This remark helped undercut the credibility both of embassy reporting and of Ambassador Tasca (1970-74) as a promoter of democratic reforms.

Tasca, naively clutching at every crumb of hope dictator Papadopoulos or prime minister Markezinis offered him, comes off as a less unsympathetic figure than I expected. Tasca made himself persona non grata with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger by fervently urging 6th Fleet intervention to save Cyprus. Miller is properly tough in condemning Kissinger for diplomatic incompetence as well as ideological blindness.

Every historian of modern Greece owes a debt to Jim Miller, and this new book adds to it. His FRUS volumes are available on-line at . These documents are a fascinating counterpart to the book, as are the oral histories of U.S. diplomats transcribed at . The level of political analysis is high, and in many cases a passion for truth shines through the bureaucratic mask, even from Cold Warriors who, tragically, feared communism more than they loved freedom.

John Brady Kiesling is a former U.S. diplomat who resides in Greece. See his website here.




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