James Edward Miller, The United States and the Making of Modern Greece: History and Power 1950-1974 . Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2009. Pp xviii + 301.
Robert V. Keeley, The Colonel’s Coup and the American Embassy: A Diplomat’s View of the Breakdown of Democracy in Cold War Greece. The Pennsylvania State University Press (ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Series). 2010. Pp xxix + 274.
It’s not an accident that eyes evolved in pairs. Even the modest width of a human skull is sufficient baseline for depth perception. By the same token, reading two good books covering the same subject from different angles adds a precious third dimension to our understanding. Bob Keeley’s diplomatic memoir The Colonel’s Coup and the American Embassy emerged in 2010 to serve as an illuminating counterpart to James Miller’s timely diplomatic narrative, The United States and the Making of Modern Greece (2009).
From the standpoint of binocularity, the two authors are rather close together. Keeley, as a highly-educated, liberal-leaning U.S. foreign service officer, and Miller, as an idealistic Washington-based professor (who taught Greek-Turkish area studies to U.S. diplomats at the Foreign Service Institute), share a set of core values and a fundamentally optimistic view of America’s role in the world.
Miller’s The United States and the Making of Modern Greece is a meticulous scholarly analysis, based on a thorough knowledge of U.S. official documents and productive mining of British, French, and Greek state papers. His book covers the U.S. relationship with Greece from 1950 through the 1974 Turkish invasion of Cyprus and the restoration of Greek democracy with commendable efficiency, distilling a complex history into 211 pages of well-chosen moments and documented conclusions. His inconclusive digression into the self-portrayal of Andreas Papandreou (pp. 136-146) is an excellent reminder of that statesman’s ability, even posthumously, to distract those who interacted with him from a rational evaluation of their core interests. Though Miller’s extended descriptions of each successive Cyprus crisis will be for some a loss of focus, for me at least they were crucial to understanding the 1974 debacle that brought down the Ioannidis dictatorship but also poisoned Greece-U.S. relations for 25 years.
In contrast, in The Colonel’s Coup and the American Embassy, Keeley’s highly personal account of one foreign service officer’s experience at the U.S. Embassy Athens is much closer to events, with a narrower focus. Fresh, because the quasi-memoir was written during a temporary academic exile soon after his tour as political officer in Athens from 1966-1970. I remember policy disagreements as a limbo of quiet misery or else as a painfully impersonal, concise telegram through the Dissent Channel. Outrage inspired, in Keeley’s case, lively prose. Here is a rare case of a twentieth-century U.S. policy dispute captured in a series of long in-house memoranda Keeley wrote and kept, along with the responses they provoked from his superiors. Those memos were an anchor on which to hang personal memories, which are notoriously untrustworthy without such written support.
Watching as the coup unfolded on April 21, 1967, Keeley was convinced that the United States could, by acting quickly and firmly, restore Greek democracy. Failure to live up to America’s democratic ideals and to use its economic and political leverage, he argued to his superiors, would have dire consequences for U.S. national interests when the dictatorship inevitably collapsed. Keeley proved prescient. It was largely in hopes of repairing that damage that the State Department sent him back to Athens as ambassador in 1985, to cope with the second-term Andreas Papandreou as prime minister.
At this point I should divulge that I worked in Keeley’s embassy for one year (1988-89) as a midlevel political officer. Keeley was a low-key, pragmatic figure, in no way an apologist for any Greek politician or party. He was disliked, however (and his wife Louise detested), by dimmer elements of the Greek right for refusing to share the tribal hatred for Andreas Papandreou that was a hallmark of Athenian polite society. We gradually became friends after his retirement, when similar characters, political views, and fondness for Greece made us natural allies.
My connection with Miller sprang up around 2001 from his task of editing the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volume of key official documents concerning Greece-Turkey-Cyprus during the Johnson Administration. That drudgery made him uniquely qualified to write the work under review. After the FRUS volume was printed, the CIA decided that documents it released had been mistakenly declassified. The CIA would not explain whom or what it was protecting. Instead it asserted, vehemently but falsely, that publication would trigger riots or assassinations. As political counselor in Athens, unable to identify any problematic content, I strongly supported Miller and the work’s legally mandated release. The fact that no riots took place when it emerged does not mean its content was anodyne. This vital sourcebook is online at https://2001-2009.state.gov/r/pa/ho/frus/johnsonlb/xvi/index.htm (accessed July 2018).
Almost no one in the United States is troubled any longer by the question of how much responsibility the United States bore for the overthrow of the Greek democracy and then for the partitioning of Cyprus. For many Greeks, however, the myth of an omnipotent superpower has been slow to die. Politicians still occasionally brandish the ξένο δάκτυλο (foreign hand) to claim blanket immunity from personal responsibility, despite the infantilizing effect assertions of irresponsibility have on Greek civil society. For many, the 1967 dictatorship remains “αμερικανοκίνητη,” America-driven, while Ioannidis in 1974 was simply a hapless pawn for sinister American designs on Cyprus.
These two books are a useful corrective to Greek national self-pity. A careful reader of Miller and Keeley’s conscientious analysis has no choice but to conclude that the U.S. government was genuinely surprised and dismayed on April 21, 1967. Logic confirms that this was a coup by Greeks against Greeks, primarily for selfish aims obscured by anticommunist ideological posturing.
That said, the coup should not have been a surprise. Members of the U.S. official mission in Greece knew, through a reasonably dense, effective network of personal and professional connections, that a coup was being plotted. As it became clear that the U.S. government would not support a coup, the flow of information dwindled. Coup plotters stopped sharing information, or perhaps CIA and DIA assets stopped reporting it up the chain of command. Those assets could and should have been pressed, but a weak, divided mission leadership preferred not to look for something it did not want to find.
A.E. Housman wrote bleakly, “the faintest of all human passions is the love of truth.” Certainly one of the runners-up is the love of democracy. The CIA was furious at the coup, but mostly because it had been caught with its pants down. The U.S. mission as a whole rejected the rationale behind the coup, but saw only risks and no rewards from opposing it. The U.S. military was comfortable that the Junta would maintain the friendly military-to-military relations that had long prevailed. The diplomats, absent any clear guidance from Washington, fell back on bureaucratic inertia, a failing less risky that being caught out on the losing side of a policy argument. Keeley paints a nuanced picture of this process at work. His bosses did not care to risk their future influence by fighting for a policy that, if it succeeded, would simply lead to the election of a government in which Andreas Papandreou would have a leading role. Pervasive dislike of Papandreou and zero-sum calculations vis-a-vis the Soviet Union prevailed.
Keeley disagreed. He was convinced that the Greek armed forces were divided enough, and the U.S. government respected/feared enough, that a quick, firm threat would have led to the coup’s collapse. It would have been risky to do so, but less so than it seemed. If U.S. intervention failed, the coup leaders would be angry, but could not retaliate without harming vital Greek national interests.
Keeley may well have been right, if the U.S. response had followed his own automatic instincts, and been immediate and coordinated. Talbot was not the ambassador to take such a stand. In the years that followed, Keeley resisted America’s gradual, incoherent normalization of ties to the new regime. His description makes clear the pervasive cluelessness of the U.S. military and intelligence communities in Athens. Most U.S. officials embraced a Panathenaikos-Olympiakos division of the universe into two competing football teams, with victory in the next match the only measure of success. That said, Keeley probably gives undue emphasis to straws in the wind—for example, the funeral of George Papandreou. Only a handful of idealists risked imprisonment and torture to fight for Greek democracy. The bulk of the armed antidictatorship resistance survived on millenarian communist dreams. The rare moments of democratic glory—the Law School and the Polytechneion uprising—would not have taken place had the Junta been more intelligent in its attempts to corrupt student politics in its own image.
Miller has produced an excellent, efficient account of the crucial issues in U.S. Greek relations. Bureaucratic reality is not reality, as Keeley illustrates, but Miller uses a wide variety of sources to peer around the national or personal blinders worn by the authors of the documents he knows so well. I was struck by a key point that other authors tend to soft-pedal. Under a reasonably popular, democratically elected president of Cyprus, Greek Cypriots had lost the enthusiasm for Enosis, union of Cyprus with Greece, that had been tactically necessary during the independence struggle. Ioannidis launched the coup against Makarios because he was an obstacle to Greece’s colonialist aims in Cyprus.
The U.S. certainly did not share Greece’s megalomania regarding Cyprus. It intervened too weakly, using the wrong channels, slowed by the childish instincts of its ambassador and by Kissinger’s perverse insistence that the world was a chessboard on which he was competing against Russia’s grandmasters, with Greece, Cyprus, and other countries as pawns. A steady flow of hostile intelligence, designed to blacken Makarios in American eyes, played a crucial role in U.S. inaction in July-August 1974.
A key difference in the two books is in the concept of responsibility. A key function of any bureaucracy is to break down every decision into so many component parts that no individual can be held professionally or morally responsible for even the most horrendous of outcomes. With the forgivable exception of Secretary Kissinger, Miller adopts the reasoning of his bureaucratic sources in arguing persuasively that the catastrophes of modern Greek history, but in particular the 1967 coup and the 1974 partition of Cyprus, are primarily the responsibility of Greek politicians and the people who put them in power.
Keeley takes an antibureaucratic stance. Because the United States had the ability to avert such catastrophes, it therefore had the responsibility to avert them. His account documents the failure of U.S. officials, including himself, to rise to the moral level this crisis required.
A sobering note in both books is the corrosive effect, internally and externally, of a clandestine policy arm working in parallel to the overt diplomatic arm and not subject to full historical oversight. Decades later, the CIA keeps some relevant records locked away. Keeley and Miller, despite ambassadorial-level access to secret material, could only be 90 percent sure they knew what policy CIA clandestine operators were implementing. Though I doubt any key conclusions will be overthrown by documents in the CIA’s vaults, our Hollywood-inflamed imagination fills any gap with scenarios much nastier than the truth would be.
Many Greeks still assert dictator Papadopoulos was a creature of the CIA. For the analytical and policy wings of the CIA this was untrue. It is impossible to disprove some hidden role in each Greek tragedy, most plausibly as encouraging whispers from Greek American case officers (immortalized in the persona cultivated by/for Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War), whose tribal allegiance was not to their government but rather to a shared war against communists. That lingering uncertainty is exaggerated in the media in order to allow not only politicians but even whole nations to wash their hands of crimes that are primarily their responsibility.
John Brady Kiesling is an independent scholar based in Athens. He served as a U.S. diplomat from 1983-2003. His books include Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower (Potomac, 2006) and Greek Urban Warriors: Resistance and Terrorism 1967-2014 (Lycabettus Press, 2014).
Cover photo credits: CIA Out of Greece 1974 #20, Demonstration against the Greek military junta in front of the White House, April 21, 1974. Reading/Simpson. https://www.flickr.com/photos/washington_area_spark/5500318509