Thirty years after 21 April 1967, assessment of responsibility for the military coup in Athens has taken a giant stride out of politically motivated polemic and into the realm of historical analysis. Alexis Papachelas’s The Rape of Greek Democracy: The American Factor, 1947–1967 is a splendidly researched, soundly reasoned, and tightly written investigation of the roots of the crisis in Greece’s hybrid “crown democracy,” of the plot that led to its overthrow, and of American involvement in what Margaret Papandreou aptly called the “Nightmare in Athens.”
In writing his history of Greece in the 1960s, Papachelas’s primary sources are the records created by extremely interested foreign observers: the diplomats of the United States Foreign Service. Since few Greek primary sources are available (outside of the voluminous record of the colonels’ trial), the author has supplemented his American archival treasure trove with a judicious use of the press and also of interviews with many of the participants, including some of the coup makers and their acolytes.
The author’s choice of American diplomats’ dispatches is not without its dangers, even in a book that deals with the “American Factor” in Greek politics, but it takes advantage of the one undoubted virtue of the U. S. Foreign Service: its carefully honed reporting skills. Those skills were particularly acute in the Greek case because the State Department’s Office of Greek-Turkish and Iranian Affairs (GTI) was a sort of state within State, manned by diplomats who spent [End Page 162] decades shuttling between assignments in the Aegean and Washington and frequently developed exceptional language skills and cultural-political insights.
American documentation on the overthrow of Greek democracy and the U. S. role in that tragedy has been growing for years. Within weeks of the coup, a copy of the policy-making 303 Committee’s February 1967 discussion of a possible secret operation in Greece was leaked to the Washington Post. The following year, Elizabeth Drew, who had access to the same document, was able to piece together an accurate appraisal of events in Athens based on discussions with U. S. officials. The desire of embarrassed philhellenes within the State Department and CIA to talk about the coup and its origins (and to justify their role in the disaster) reached its height in the mid-1970s when the CIA’s ex-station chief, Jack Maury, went public. Maury had already joined a plethora of officials who talked to the Washington Post’s Laurence Stern. Stern’s The Wrong Horse: The Politics of Intervention and the Failure of American Diplomacy (New York: Times Books, 1977) is a goldmine of information on both the 1967 coup and the subsequent 1974 Cyprus disaster, although the analysis is marred by the author’s too evident biases. The Association for Diplomatic Studies’ oral history program, run by another Athens veteran, Stu Kennedy, has interviewed most of the living American participants in the events of 1965–1974. The papers of the State Department’s Greece analyst Charilaos Lagoudakis have been available at Boston University for some years.
In addition to these sources, Papachelas’s work profited from the landmark 1991 legislation and the 1995 executive order that the Clinton administration laboriously extracted in the teeth of determined bureaucratic opposition. The CIA, steadfastly refusing to cooperate with the intent of either Congress or the White House, has succeeded in holding up the publication of the Foreign Relations volume on Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey, 1964–1968, for five years. However, this rear-guard action is largely irrelevant since it has not impeded the opening of State Department archives.
The picture that emerges from Papachelas’s reconstruction is one of a rapidly declining American ability to control Greek affairs. With the end of Marshall Plan assistance in 1952–1953 and the subsequent decline in military aid, the U. S. simply had fewer tools available to influence Greek behavior. Moreover, thoughtful American officials realized that the United States needed to develop a more normal and mature relationship with Greece. Henry Labouisse, President Kennedy’s ambassadorial appointee (1962–1965), engaged in a more even-handed approach to the players in the Greek political drama. Labouisse and his successor, Phillips Talbot (1965–1968), reigned in the CIA, became the primary contact for the palace, and opened up dialogue with the anti-communist and reformist Center Union party and its veteran leader, George Papandreou.
Unfortunately, the relationship between the embassy and Papandreou soon soured. Papandreou’s handling of the 1964 Cyprus crisis during his term as prime minister (1963–1965) dismayed U. S. officials. He sought U. S. support for the rapid enosis of the island republic with Greece, claiming that he could control Archbishop Makarios, the Cypriot ethnarch-president who was the bête [End Page 163] noire of American policy makers George Ball and Dean Acheson. Actually, the crafty Makarios outmaneuvered the Greek leader, who ended up laying the basis for a subsequent major crisis and humiliation for Greece by secretly introducing thousands of troops onto the island. Papandreou’s decision to hand over copies of Acheson’s successive proposals for a Cyprus settlement based on “double enosis” enabled Makarios to scuttle the UN-backed, US-dominated Geneva mediation (July–September 1964) and to preserve his own and Cyprus’s independence.
Meanwhile, Andreas Papandreou, George’s American-educated son, stunned U. S. officials with his caustic and continuous public attacks on the United States as he laid the basis for a spectacular political career. Andreas’s strident, shrewdly calculated anti-Americanism drove a wedge between the Center Union’s octogenarian chief and U. S. officials, who came to share the fears of Greek conservatives that Andreas would seize control of the Center Union from his father and lead it into collaboration with the communist-front EDA (United Democratic Left).
In Democracy at Gunpoint (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1970), Andreas charged that the United States’s irritation with the Papandreous led it to cooperate with the palace and reactionary Greek military officers in plots that blocked his party’s efforts to create a true Greek democracy, eventually triggering the coup. Papachelas’s reconstruction makes it clear that this explanation of what went wrong in Greece in the 1960s is wildly at variance with the facts. While U. S. policymakers must take a share of blame, their sins were more of omission than commission. The real culprits were a headstrong royal family, self-promoting Greek politicians, a military establishment that provided shelter for the activities of Colonel Papadopoulos and his fellow plotters, and, of course, the coup makers themselves.
In a revealing aside to one U. S. official, George Papandreou admitted that he was more effective in leading an opposition movement than in guiding a government. He misread King Constantine’s determination to retain the palace’s special relationship with the military, provoking a summer crisis in 1965 that split his own party and gave reactionary officers a “green light” for renewed coup planning. U. S. officials briefly discussed aiding the king with secret CIA funding, but the project was rejected by senior planners in Washington (201–202). The king used his own funds to buy enough deputies to keep Papandreou out of power in the short term. However, the “Old Man” was not easily denied. Utilizing his tactical and oratorical skills, Papandreou tapped into long-standing public discontent with the Greek ruling establishment and by 1967 appeared to be on the verge of a triumphant, democratically sanctioned return to power. Herein lay the rub. The Papandreous’ triumph would have been a thoroughgoing public humiliation for both the monarchy and the conservative political forces allied with it. The military faced subjugation to elected civilian control for the first time in decades. While the elder Papandreou sent repeated signals of his willingness to be moderate in victory, Andreas canceled them with his bitter public attacks on the palace, the military, and the old political establishment. Thoroughly frightened, the establishment began plotting an “extra-constitutional [End Page 164] deviation,” its shorthand for a military dictatorship. The Greek General Staff revised a NATO contingency plan, Irex II, for use against the Papandreous.
In this crisis, U. S. officials shuttled between the contending forces relaying messages, counseling moderation on both sides, suggesting compromise scenarios, and considering and rejecting a CIA plan for a secret intervention to weaken Andreas and the left wing of the Center Union party (279–282). They debated what to do in the event of a royal coup, while urging the king to avoid “extra-constitutional” actions. Ultimately, the Americans concluded that a Center Union victory would not undermine the Greek constitution or deliver the country over to the communists (and Andreas). On 20 April, Deputy Assistant Secretary Stewart Rockwell cabled instructions to the embassy to press the wavering king to accept the popular will and keep the army in its barracks (310–311).
On 21 April, the Americans awoke to discover that they had misread the threat to democracy in Greece. They had plenty of company. The king and his senior officers had coddled the coup-plotters for years. The colonels were able to carry out their own plans without the knowledge of their superiors. The Americans were well informed of the coup-makers’ activities through early 1967, but like Greek general officers they assumed that the colonels were loyal to senior authority and would act only on orders from the palace (256–257).
Papachelas’s account also provides a dramatic résumé of the first days after the coup. The angry powerlessness of the king was matched by the confused response of U. S. authorities. Greece was a low priority item on the foreign policy agenda of a Johnson administration mired in Vietnam. While senior officials at State dithered about an effective response, and Ambassador Talbot tried to rebuild the king’s shattered confidence, the president’s chief foreign policy advisers, Walt Rostow and Dean Rusk, looked for ways to avoid taking any action. U. S. response to the coup in Greece was to be characterized by a few light wrist slaps to the colonels followed by a slow rapprochement with the regime. The volume concludes with a recounting of events that led to the Greek-Turkish confrontation over Cyprus in November–December 1967 and the failed royal counter-coup.
A model of clear, evenhanded reporting and analysis, Papachelas’s book could serve usefully as a primer for many U. S. practitioners of diplomatic history. However, it is not without small flaws. The author should have provided fuller citations from both archival collections and the press. Another difficulty is a shortage of background information. A May 1997 poll in the periodical Odyssey demonstrated the “fading memory” of most Greeks regarding the coup and junta. Even though some older Greeks and a few foreign specialists will be able to recognize various players by their last names alone, most readers need more guidance in the form of full names and identification of official capacity for a large cast of characters. (A “dramatologio” at the rear of the volume partially fills this need.) The book would also have benefited from more backgrounding on recent Greek history. Again, the specialist reader may find this unnecessary, but even a majority of scholars dealing with twentieth-century history, to say nothing of Greeks under thirty years of age, will be coming to this volume with limited [End Page 165] background. The need for this sort of information will become especially critical if, as is hoped, the author plans an English-language volume. Finally, the author has a tendency to accept at face value the sometimes self-serving but dramatic recollections of certain secondary participants. These make great reading but should have been set against the stricter evidentiary standards employed in the rest of the book.