James H. Barron, The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate. Brooklyn: Melville House. 2020. Pp. xiii + 482. 21 illustrations. Cloth $32.99.
Foreign interference in U.S. democracy is not unique to the 2016 and 2020 elections. In fact, as James Barron shows in his absorbing book, the Greek military junta might have determined the outcome of the 1968 presidential election by funneling money to the campaign of Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon. Moreover, that contribution might have helped provoke the burglary that later brought down Nixon’s presidency. Barron uses the life story of Elias Demetracopoulos, the Greek newsman and political activist who revealed the illegal transaction, as a means to examine Greek American relations since World War II, journalism history, and the origins of the Watergate scandal.
Born in Athens in 1928, Demetracopoulos was at the center of events in Greece from World War II to the mid-1970s. Young Elias first showed his courage in 1940, when the Nazis invaded and occupied his country. Just 12 years old, he worked for the Greek resistance against the fascist occupation. Captured, tortured, and slated for execution, he won a reprieve when family connections gained him a transfer from the Nazi prison to a psychiatric hospital. His imprisonment took a toll on his health, and he suffered from tuberculosis for years.
As Demetracopoulos recuperated, he became a voracious reader of newspapers and decided to make a career as a journalist. Though he was not a Communist—nor even a leftist—he was critical of U.S. officials who treated Greece like a client state in the early Cold War. He ferreted out evidence of official corruption and crimes, particularly those committed by Greek officials who took advantage of American aid programs to feather their own nests. In the process, Demetracopoulos won many admirers who regarded him as a brave truth-seeker and defender of democracy. He also earned the enmity of a long list of officials and agencies, including various U.S. ambassadors to Greece, the Central Intelligence Agency, the State Department, and members of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. The targets of his stories tried to discredit his reporting by smearing him as unreliable and corrupt. The CIA, while conceding he was a “good news man,” declared him “persona non grata” and warned American officials to exercise “caution and skepticism in anything concerning him” (94). The Agency waged a decades-long campaign of disinformation, surveillance, and harassment against him and succeeded in convincing U.S. publications to fire him as their correspondent.
When a military junta seized power in Greece in 1967, Demetracopoulos fled to America and became a pro-democracy activist. For the next eight years he helped lead the battle to end American aid to the corrupt and authoritarian government—a regime which censored, imprisoned, tortured, and executed its opponents. Because the colonels who led the junta needed American support, Demetracopoulos’s opposition embroiled him in U.S. political debates.
Demetracopoulos’s greatest scoop as a journalist—and his best opportunity to influence political events—occurred in 1968. In the last weeks of the presidential campaign, Demetracopoulos was stunned when Spiro Agnew, the Republican nominee for the vice presidency and the most powerful Greek American in U.S. history, abruptly abandoned his earlier, neutralist course and chose to endorse the Greek dictatorship and attack its critics. After contacting his sources, the reporter believed that he discovered the reason: Agnew had changed sides because of a corrupt bargain. Tom Pappas, a Greek American businessman and co-chair of fund raising for Republican nominee Nixon, had arranged an illegal transfer of more than half a million dollars (more than $4 million today) from the Greek equivalent of the CIA to Nixon’s campaign. Moreover, because the money originated in the American CIA, which had transferred the funds to Greece as part of its “black budget,” Pappas had effectively laundered American taxpayer money to help fund Nixon.
Instead of taking the scoop to his colleagues in the press, Demetracopoulos decided to give the information privately to Larry O’Brien, head of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Though O’Brien told the reporter that he would give the information to the Democrats’ nominee, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and to President Lyndon Johnson, the seasoned campaign operative chose to drop the matter instead. Nixon won the razor-thin election with less than one percent of the vote. Barron argues that the consequences of O’Brien’s failure to pursue Demetracopoulos’s lead were immense: “Timely disclosure of this transfer could have meant a Hubert Humphrey victory, no President Nixon, no Watergate, and a different course of history” (xi).
Why did O’Brien refuse to follow up on the tip? Barron concludes that the disinformation campaigns against Demetracopoulos had succeeded: after years of hearing from various U.S. government officials that Demetracopoulos was a liar and a fraud, O’Brien simply didn’t trust the messenger.
Barron has conducted a prodigious amount of research for the book. He spent ten years interviewing dozens of people connected to the story, as well as poring over documents in archives in several countries. In addition to his compelling discussion of the 1968 illegal funds transfer, Barron also adds some new information to the story of the 1972 Watergate break-in. For years, some scholars have suggested that the Watergate burglars might have been looking for O’Brien’s Pappas/Demetracopoulos files when they rifled through the DNC offices on June 17, 1972. The burglars focused on O’Brien’s phone and files. As the man who documented foreign interference in the 1968 presidential campaign—documentation that Richard Nixon was desperate to suppress—Demetracopoulos might have triggered the Watergate break-in and the most consequential political scandal in American history. G. Gordon Liddy, one of the supervisors of the break-in, later said that the burglars’ purpose was to find out what derogatory information O’Brien had on Nixon. The theory that the Watergate burglars wanted to get the Pappas files, known as the “Greek connection,” has been examined in earlier books on Watergate, including the most authoritative work on the scandal, The Wars of Watergate by Stanley Kutler. To this story, Barron adds details from declassified U.S. government files to show that the Nixon administration was worried about Demetracopoulos and determined to undermine his credibility.
The book highlights an understudied issue—the Greek connections to American politics in the Cold War—and analyzes how these connections undermined democracy in both countries. In the name of anticommunism, the U.S. government rewarded some of the worst characters in Greek politics for decades and supported a repressive dictatorship for some of those years. U.S. backing for authoritarians threatened democracy in Greece, the cradle of democracy. Moreover, the American connections to the Greek CIA, the junta, and to shady businessmen like Pappas, undermined democracy in the United States.
The Greek Connection is a fascinating study of a newsman whose commitment to democracy led him to political activism. Because he insisted on telling inconvenient truths, powerful officials responded with smears and harassment that almost cost him his career. Barron concludes that Demetracopoulos’s story contains lessons for contemporary readers. “There are eerie echoes today of Elias’s world of the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s: when foreign money tainted and undermined free and fair elections, when fragile democratic norms buckled under popular susceptibility to authoritarian impulses, when human rights were deemed expendable, when independent journalists and political critics were harassed, subjected to disinformation campaigns, and disparaged as purveyors of fake news” (xiii). Demetracopoulos’s story serves as a sobering reminder that the survival of democracy depends on freedom of the press and on fearless journalists willing to test its boundaries.
University of California, Davis
Kathryn Olmsted is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. Her areas of expertise include conspiracy theories, government secrecy, espionage, and anti-Communism.