- Ellis O. Briggs and the US Embassy in Greece, 1959 to 1962:A “Relentless Struggle”
The announcement of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947 marked the transition when the United States replaced Great Britain as the primary foreign influence in Greek politics.1 The study of US-Greek relations between 1952 and 1963, however, following Greece's recovery from the devastation wrought by the German occupation and the Greek civil war, is a period often neglected by historians and has not received the attention it deserves. It is a period, unfortunately, that is overlooked by those who have placed a great deal of emphasis on the US military and economic support delivered to Greece during the critical civil war period of 1947 to 1949 or who are now, with the benefit of recently opened archives, studying US-Greek relations through the prism of the Greek-Turkish dispute over Cyprus, culminating with the 1974 Turkish invasion.2
The purpose of this article is to shed some light on some aspects of US relations with Greece from the vantage point of the US ambassador to Athens, Ellis O. Briggs, that have remained largely absent from academic examination. Briggs's mission to Athens lasted from 15 July 1959, when he presented [End Page 91] his credentials to King Paul at his summer palace on the island of Corfu, until 1 February 1962, when he departed Greece. As this article will demonstrate, Briggs, although one of the US Foreign Service's most senior and experienced diplomats, was faced with a unique, unfamiliar posting, which perhaps required a more specialized and nuanced understanding of the US-Greek relationship. Indeed, he was something of an accidental ambassador to Athens, who frequently came into conflict with the US bureaucracy both in Greece and in Washington. Although his decision to take up the Athens post in one sense brought his career full circle, in the fullness of time it became a hardship post. As Briggs himself reflected in his memoirs: "Serving as American ambassador to Greece in the early 1960s ought to have been 80 percent picnic and 20 percent work. Instead, Greece turned out to be one of the most arduous assignments I had. This was essentially due to two circumstances: the Greek character and the hordes of supernumerary official American personnel. . . . Dealing with the Americans proved the more time-consuming."3
"An Interloping Latino"
It was the secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, who sent an emissary to Rio de Janeiro with a personal message that arrived on 1 February 1959 to inform Briggs, then United States ambassador to Brazil, that Clare Boothe Luce, the powerful and influential wife of publisher Henry Luce and former ambassador to Italy, coveted Briggs's post. This had come as somewhat of a shock to Briggs, who had taken up his position only in July 1956 and had been reassured by Dulles himself only months before that "there would be no change in Rio representation during the balance of the Eisenhower administration," which still had another two years left in office.4 Briggs, who was dismayed that his ambassadorship was being cut short by a clear case of the political spoils system in Washington and having to uproot his family yet again in what would be his seventh ambassadorship, was a Foreign Service officer with over thirty-three years of experience, the majority of which [End Page 92] came serving in South America and the Caribbean. His appointment to Brazil, South America's largest and fastest growing country, was, to date, the pinnacle of his career, and US relations with Brazil, in Briggs's opinion, were at a critical juncture.5 Despite Dulles's offer to return Briggs to Foggy Bottom as special assistant to the secretary of state for Latin American affairs, Briggs preferred to remain in the field and accepted the curious assignment to become Washington's next ambassador to Greece. As he remarked about his rapidly changing fortunes in a private letter to his family, he was bounced out of Rio "fresh from a pat on the head by Foster [Dulles] . . . no doubt to the great rage of the Near and Middle East...