Reading Gifted Greek: A Research Profile
Monteagle Stearns, Gifted Greek: The Enigma of Andreas Papandreou. Lincoln: Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press. 2021. Pp. xxv + 144. 11 photographs. Cloth $25.83
Published posthumously, Gifted Greek is a curiously conflicted account of Andreas Papandreou authored by a professional U.S. diplomat whose credentials to write about the controversial Greek leader were unparalleled within American foreign policy circles. Monteagle Stearns earned his credentials as a Papandreou expert during three State Department postings in Greece, the last and most consequential of which was his appointment as U.S. ambassador by the anti-Communist Reagan Administration during Papandreou’s turbulent first term as prime minister (1981-85). Given that Papandreou’s Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) had run on a program of sweeping reform that included Greece’s exit from NATO and the departure of U.S. military bases, Papandreou in power stoked fears that Greek-U.S. relations could tip into a major crisis.
In the event, the feared rupture failed to materialize. Instead, Stearns’ performance as ambassador earned him kudos within the U.S. foreign policy establishment for his work in helping turn a potential crisis flashpoint into a success story for American strategic interests in the region. To be sure, plenty of turbulence buffeted U.S.-Greek relations during the first years of the Papandreou era, and unsurprisingly so, given that the two governments, as Stearns notes, “instinctively distrusted each other and had totally opposing views on America’s proper role in the world” (100). Still, in significant measure, it was thanks to Stearns’ deft diplomacy that a new U.S. bases agreement was successfully negotiated. Satisfying the needs of both sides, the 1983 agreement secured the continued presence of America’s four major military bases, but included a termination clause that, as Stearns’ puts it, enabled “PASOK stalwarts” to celebrate the agreement as a “treaty of departure, not continuation” (114). (The termination clause was never used, but for both political and technological reasons, most U.S. bases would in fact leave Greece over the coming years.) Following decades of deeply damaged relations due to U.S. backing of the 1967-74 military junta and Washington’s dubious stance during the 1974 Cyprus crisis, the agreement was key to opening the way for Greece’s relations with the American superpower. Papandreou himself acknowledge this softening of relations ahead of the 1985 elections when he told the public to expect relations with the U.S. to enter calmer waters.
Those hoping for a behind-the-scenes account of the debates and decisions within the national security bureaucracy during Stearns’ ambassadorship will find Gifted Greek disappointing. To be sure, Stearns alludes to the existence of heated internal differences when he notes that, as ambassador, he needed to cope with the “many powerful factions” in Washington who regarded Andreas to be “a dangerous figure” (99). But he refrains from identifying these “factions,” although one can reasonably assume that they included Pentagon officials. Moreover, he gives no hint of the differences within the Reagan Administration that set the stage for his diplomatic mission in Athens.
While the issue merits further research, its outlines are provided by Morton Dworken, Jr., a Greek desk officer at State in 1980-82. According to Dworken, a policy debate took place within the national security bureaucracy in the spring of 1981 over how to handle the likelihood of a Papandreou victory in elections expected later that year. There was “great concern” in some parts of the U.S. government that should Papandreou win the elections, he would carry through on his “anti-American, anti-Western, and anti-capitalist rhetoric” and that “the United States would find its core interests in the region damaged irrevocably” (Dworken, 75). Another school of thought, however, was that Papandreou’s policies would be moderated by the responsibilities of power and that “we would find that, although difficult to deal with, he was someone we could deal with” (75). In the end, according to Dworken, this second school of thought prevailed. And it is worth adding that, for those familiar with Stearns’ diplomatic history, his appointment was itself a signal that, should PASOK win the elections, the Reagan Administration was prepared to seek a working relationship with Papandreou, rather than work to subvert his government.
There are additional aspects to this backstory not referenced in Gifted Greek, including parallel initiatives on Papandreou’s part to lay the groundwork for a diplomatic opening to Washington ahead of the October 1981 elections, particularly around the issue of U.S. bases (see Draenos 2021).
Stearns’ colorful anecdotal account of his first meeting with Papandreou following his sweeping victory in the October 1981 elections further obscures the role of the State Department’s decision to pursue a soft landing with the maverick politician. Stearns writes that he approached this first meeting with trepidation, fearing that he would be subjected to “a litany of grievances against the United States,” with himself as the “butt of [Papandreou’s] denunciations” (101). However, to his pleasant surprise, he was instead treated to a Papandreou charm offensive. After speaking warmly of Stearns before journalists and camera crews invited for the event, the prime minister showed the U.S. ambassador into his parliamentary office where the two men engaged in a friendly têt-á-têt over scotch and sodas. By that account, their meeting amounted to “pleasantries over drinks” (101). Yet Stearns’ own contemporaneous report to Washington on their meeting (not mentioned in Gifted Greek) indicates a more substantive exchange.
According to Stearns’ confidential report (Cable to State, November 5, 1981), Papandreou began their closed-door meeting by acknowledging that he “had gained the reputation of being anti-American,” with harsh words being exchanged in both directions, but that now “he wanted to close that chapter and start a new one” Moreover, Papandreou wanted to assure Washington that “he did not intend to spring surprises on us or pursue a policy of confrontation” (Stearns 1981). Stearns reports reciprocating positively, telling Papandreou that “he would find my government and me personally ready to discuss any aspect of our bilateral relations at any time.” In his closing comment, however, Stearns alerts officials at the State Department, as well as the Pentagon, with whom his cable was shared, that Papandreou “gave nothing away” during the meeting and that “his basic positions remain and will inevitably produce problems” (Stearns 1981). Still, his report is a clear indicator that the two men had laid the basis for addressing those problems in the context of a mutually sought-for working relationship.
Looked at from the standpoint of a longtime activist within the Papandreou camp who subsequently became a Papandreou biographer, Stearns’ ambassadorship marked the benign denouement of the longstanding feud between Papandreou and official Washington. That feud erupted soon after Papandreou leapt from American academia into Greek politics in the 1964 elections won by his father, Georgios Papandreou, leader of the Center Union party. Initially regarded positively by U.S. officials, the younger Papandreou infuriated the Johnson Administration by helping scuttle the Acheson Plan to partition newly-decolonized Cyprus between Greece and Turkey, thereby frustrating American Cold War objectives in the region. Within Greece, Papandreou’s stance was instrumental to forging his political identity as a socially progressive nationalist, helping fuel his rapid rise in popularity. But within U.S. foreign policy circles, where Cold War hawks had overblown fears of a Greek drift out of the Western camp, Papandreou’s stance inaugurated the narrative that would ultimately brand him as an untrustworthy, opportunistic anti-American rabble-rouser. In the course of the 1965 constitutional crisis that climaxed in the pro-American 1967 military coup, the State Department and U.S. Embassy became increasingly, and tragically, driven by a perceived need to stop Andreas. “Andreas Papandreou became an overpowering obsession of American foreign policy managers in Athens and Washington” (25), we learn in Washington Post journalist Laurence Stern’s authoritatively sourced book on the 1967 coup and the 1974 Cyprus crisis (The Wrong Horse). And in a first-hand account confirming Stern’s reporting, Monteagle Stearns’ successor as U.S. ambassador, Robert Keeley, a political officer in Athens at the time of the coup, writes at length about the embassy’s “fervent hatred” (53) of Papandreou in The Colonels’ Coup and the American Embassy.
Returning to Greece in 1974, Papandreou re-entered the Greek political arena as the devil that U.S. officials feared, having steadily evolved in the course of his fight against the junta from a Kennedy-era progressive into a third-road neo-Marxist radical. Also present in the wake of the junta’s collapse was Monteagle Stearns, who had been recruited by National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to “hold down the fort as deputy chief of mission, as Washington began a house cleaning of our embassy, some of it associated too closely with the fallen regime” (Stearns 2021, 87). In that post, Stearns co-authored an embassy report with Gene Preston (not cited in Gifted Greek) on the November 1974 elections, hastily called by Konstantinos Karamanlis to consolidate public support for his leadership in transitioning Greece back to democratic rule. PASOK’s unexpectedly weak third-place showing in those elections was a demoralizing blow for Papandreou (from which he quickly rebounded), but at the U.S. Embassy, Papandreou’s woes were greeted with a sense of relief and a dose of schadenfreude.
“In the 1974 Greek election, Andreas Papandreou sustained deep and perhaps even mortal political wounds,” the embassy wrote Washington (Telegram 1974). “His defeat showed how unwilling the Greek people were to accept his vision of a socialist, nonaligned Greece,” leaving Papandreou with the “immediate task of sustaining his financing, his charisma and his liver,” a reference to his fondness for Scotch (Telegram 1974). In fact, Washington was informed, “After [junta leaders Dimitris] Ioannides and [George] Papadopoulos, Andreas Papandreou is probably the most disliked Greek around.” At the same time, “he would appear still to have prospects, though, in view of his own weaknesses, not very bright ones” (Telegram 1974). Stearns’ co-authorship of the report makes it difficult to attribute these statements directly to him, although he did approve it for dispatch to Washington. Sent over the name of ambassador Jack Kubisch, who initialed it, the report nonetheless reflects the poisonous climate towards Papandreou at the embassy.
Stearns remained Deputy Chief of Mission for only two years, departing before the 1977 elections that gave the embassy new cause for alarm about Papandreou. The doubling of PASOK’s vote in 1977 made Papandreou the leader of the opposition, positioning him for his successful 1981 bid for power. In any case, following the end of the Cold War and a decade after Stearns’ pivotal ambassadorship, the feud between the US and Papandreou reached official closure when the now frail Greek prime minister was invited to the White House in 1994 by U.S. President Bill Clinton. Following Papandreou’s death, Clinton sought to consummate the reconciliation process by making an unusual political apology during a 1999 visit to Athens: “When the junta took over in 1967 here,” he declared in a speech written for him by Paul Glastris, “the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interests––I should say, its obligation––to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War” (Clinton 1999).
That much said, what ultimately becomes clear from Stearns’ account of Papandreou is the vindication that the Greek leader’s years in power represented within the arc of Stearns own diplomatic career as it intersected with the Papandreou saga. Gifted Greek is starkly and, in many cases, excessively critical of Papandreou’s character and conduct. Nonetheless, the book’s closing chapter defends Papandreou against those who would simply dismiss him as a populist demagogue by crediting him with significant contributions to Greek political life. And among those contributions, Stearns argues, was PASOK’s role in shortening “Greece’s long and painful convalescence from the trauma of the 1945-49 civil war and [putting] an end to the anachronistic divisions that had long dominated the configuration of the main political parties” (134). Greece’s post-civil war history, Stearns explains, was deeply polarized by the defeat of the communist left. “With politics so polarized, the noncommunist left and the communists were strange bedfellows, but it was the only bed available to them” (134). It was here, Stearns asserts, that PASOK made its “most important contribution” by separating “the two once and for all, providing left-wing parties with a proper place in the political spectrum” (134).
What is remarkable about Stearns’ crediting PASOK with expanding the democratic choices available to Greek voters is its consistency with the analysis Stearns had already arrived at during his first posting in Greece between 1958 and 1962. In reaction to the startling surge in voting support for the communist left in Greece’s 1958 elections, Stearns, as embassy political officer, advocated to the State Department the need to support the development of a non-communist left (see Draenos 2008). During Stearns’ absence from Greece between 1962 and 1974, much history intervened that derailed such a development. But it is notable that, in describing plans for his book in a 2013 oral history interview, he stated that its subject was “the emergence of a non-communist left in Greece and my personal recollection of the controversial prime minister, Andreas Papandreou.” (The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training Foreign Affairs Oral History Project, April 30, 2013, 107) Clearly the emergence of a non-communist left was a key issue for Stearns as he sought to grapple with the Papandreou “enigma” in writing the book he left unfinished at his death in 2016.
Given these facts, one can safely assume that his posting as US ambassador to Greece, his last before retiring, was a gratifying, yet bitter-sweet final act to his diplomatic career. While the Papandreou era was a vindication of Stearns’ hopes for seeing Greece resolve what he considered to be its core political problem, Papandreou was, in his view, a deeply flawed, but nonetheless effective vehicle for fulfilling those hopes.
Stan Draenos (Σπύρος Δραϊνας)
Stan Draenos (PhD, Political Science) is an independent scholar living in Athens. During Papandreou’s exile in Toronto (1969-74), he was a member of Papandreou’s support staff and later worked in the 1981-85 PASOK government on media issues. His publications include Andreas Papandreou: The Making of a Greek Democrat and Political Maverick (London, IB Tauris, 2012). He is currently writing a book on the relationship between Andreas Papandreou and Konstantinos Karamanlis from 1960 to 1995.
Clinton, Bill, “Remarks to Business and Community Leaders in Athens,” November 20, 1999, Inter-Continental Hotel, Athens, Greece, American Presidency Project, University of California at Santa Barbara. www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/remarks-business-and-community-leaders-athens.
Draenos, Stan, “United States Foreign Policy and the Liberal Awakening in Greece, 1958-1967,” The Historical Review / La Revue Historique, Athens: Institute for Neohellenic Research, 5, 2008.
Draenos, Stan (Δραΐνας, Σπύρος), “Γιατί διορίστηκε ο Στερνς πρέσβης των ΗΠΑ στην Αθήνα το 1981” (“Why Stearns was Appointed U.S. Ambassador in Athens in 1981”), Sept.19, 2021, Athens, Καθημερινή (Kathimerini).
Dworken, Morton R. Jr., interview conducted with retired ambassador Raymond Ewing on March 10, 2008, for Foreign Affairs Oral History Project of the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training.
Keeley, Robert V., The Colonels’ Coup and the American Embassy: A Diplomat’s View of the Breakdown of Democracy in Cold War Greece. University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 2010.
Stearns, Monteagle, “My Initial Call on Papandreou,” Athens Embassy to the US Department of State, November 5, 1981, Ronald Reagan Library, Executive Secretariat, NSC: Country File, Greece, Box 15.
Stearns, Monteagle, interview conducted with Charles Stuart Kennedy, April 30, 2013, for The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, Foreign Affairs Oral History Project.
Stern, Laurence, The Wrong Horse: The Politics of Intervention and the Failure of American Diplomacy. New York: NY Times Books, 1977.
Telegram from the Embassy in Greece to the Department of State, “Subject: Greek Political Leadership—Andreas Papandreou,” November 20, 1974, document 30, Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS), Greece; Cyprus; Turkey 1973-1976, XXX, editor Laurie Van Hook, general editor Edward C. Keefer, Washington: US Government Printing Office, 200. Sourced from the National Archives, RG 84, Athens Embassy Files: Lot 78 F 134, Box 40.