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Friday, March 01, 2002


A Dangerous Liaison: NATO & Greece

Kostas Simitis reacted angrily when journalists asked him whether his hosts were pressuring him during his official visit to Washington, DC, last January. To even raise such an issue, the Greek prime minister said, was to invoke the atmosphere of the 1950s. But Greece is no longer in that era, he emphasized, as it now formulates policy independently, according to its national interests. Fifty years later, it is true that 1950s-style kowtowing to the United States is out. Back then, it took on embarrassing proportions. “Here is your army, my General,” is an infamous and often-quoted phrase used by a moderate Greek political leader while presenting a Greek army division to US general James Van Fleet.

The diplomatic façade legitimizing this uneven relationship with the United States was inaugurated on February 18, 1952, when Greece officially joined NATO, along with Turkey. The alliance was a vehicle for US predominance over the rest of the “Free World,” and the height of the Cold War was certainly not a time conducive to small European countries such as Greece exercising foreign policy as they wished.

To ensure blind obedience from Athens, the United States helped install a conservative government in 1952, a few months after the country’s accession to NATO. The United States shaped the policies of the Greek military and security services, installed military bases on Greek soil, extracted extraterritorial rights for its operatives in Greece, as well as its servicemen, and, last but not least, gained a loyal client for its military hardware. No wonder the recent fiftieth anniversary of its accession to NATO passed without fanfare in Greece.

Prime Minister Simitis might be right about Greece no longer finding itself in a 1950s style relationship with the United States, but the truth is that the manner in which both countries became allies has remained an open wound. The US - Greek connection has never enjoyed the legitimacy and acceptance among Greeks that other foreign liaisons have, such as Greece’s past anglo- and francophilia and, currently, rampant europhilia.

Greece has felt much more comfortable in the European Union (EU, formerly the European Economic Community) that it joined in 1981 rather than in the arms of the NATO alliance. When Simitis met George Bush last January, he offered the US president a set of euro coins. As the Greek prime minister was the first European leader on an official visit to Washington after the European-wide conversion, somebody came up with the idea that he should bring along samples of the new currency, which, among other things, is supposed to compete against the dollar.

There was a much deeper though unintended symbolism in bearing a gift of euros, however. Simitis was demonstrating how comfortable and integrated Greece feels in the European Union. That is certainly not the case with Greece’s attitude toward the American-led military alliance, although Greece has belonged to it for more than twice as long as its membership in the EU.

The European powers, and Britain in particular, trampled on Greek rights frequently until they passed the baton of “protector” on to the Americans. Yet as much as it mistreated Greece, “Europe” remained a model, an ideal that the Greeks wished to emulate and catch up with. For the Greeks, civilization has always been European, while imperialism has always been American. The “Great” French revolution of 1789 is a revered turning-point in world history in Greek school textbooks, while the American Declaration of Independence and the US constitution are unknown.

Perhaps all this was inevitable, as the first close encounter between the United States and Greece came during the Cold War. Then again, one would have expected all those Greeks who had feared a communist takeover – real or imagined – to harbor a longstanding sense of gratitude toward NATO and the Americans. There was, however, more to the Greek-US connection in the 1950s,to wit: a blind American indifference toward Greek nationalist sensitivities over Cyprus, then a British colony in the throes of a Greek-led guerrilla movement designed to achieve the island’s union with Greece. It was a struggle that pitted Greece against Turkey, as almost a fifth of Cyprus’s inhabitants were ethnic Turks.

The US reaction was quick, to the point, and disastrous for its image in Greece. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles gave the problem very short shrift. He simply warned Greece and Turkey not to weaken their ties and to hurry up and “mend their fences” in the interests of NATO solidarity. There would be no sympathy toward Greece on this matter emanating from Washington. Among other things, this attitude alienated the Americans from their natural constituency in Greece, the conservative and anticommunist element of the population. The US had already lost its friends among liberals and communists because of its role in installing a conservative regime after the Greek civil war. Now, it had turned its back on its supporters.

In an admiring account of the career of Konstantinos Karamanlis published in the early 1980s, conservative leader Miltiades Evert took pains to outline Prime Minister Karamanlis’s “independence” from NATO during the 1950s. Despite the country’s allegiance to the alliance, he wrote, Greece “cultivated friendly relations with all peoples.” He cited as evidence, among other things, Greece’s solidarity with Egypt rather than with the Western powers in the Suez crisis of 1956 and a visit by a Soviet dignitary in the late 1950s. While neither of these events were blows against NATO exactly, it is significant that Evert felt the need to point to some daylight between Greek and NATO positions.

Evert’s account of Karamanlis’s early efforts to start the process of Greece’s accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) is even more revealing. Most people recognized the economic benefits of this initiative. Karamanlis saw further, however, Evert writes. Joining the EEC would secure Greece’s independence and territorial integrity, which were constantly under threat. Why then, one wonders, did Greece ever join NATO if the alliance was evidently not satisfactory from the standpoint of Greek national interests.

The diplomatic and political doubts that conservatives had about the usefulness of NATO in the 1950s was all the more significant if one considers that, aside from anticommunism, there was nothing else about NATO or the United States that appealed to Greek conservatives. In short, Pro-Americanism in Greece during that decade was based almost exclusively on anticommunism. Did conservative leaders really believe they were facing a red menace, however? After all, this was a time when the Greek communist leadership was incarcerated in a number of concentration camps enclosed by barbed wire on several Greek islands – not exactly an ideal vantage-point to storm a Greek winter palace. As for those who still roamed “free” behind the borders of “actually existing socialism,” they had been gathered up by the KGB and deposited in the city of Tashkent in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, a mere 2,410 miles away from Athens.

The Red Army could have invaded Greece with no local fifth column aiding and abetting it. But could this have taken place in between Soviet preoccupations with the alleged “doctors’ plot” against Stalin, the Korean War, disturbances in Berlin, Stalin’s death, the 1956 Soviet party congress that revealed Stalin’s crimes, and the invasion of dissident ally Hungary that same year? If there was no real communist threat, however, the Greek-NATO-US connection required a non-political basis. Yet there was little in the ruling conservative party’s make-up to suggest any deep affinities with the transatlantic big brother in the economic or cultural spheres.

There was certainly no wish by Greek conservatives to emulate an American-style entrepreneurial free-for-all in the economy. Quite the opposite, the right-wing-controlled state remained heavily involved in the country’s economic life, dispensing favors to the well connected. Accordingly, despite the economic development of the 1950s, entrepreneurs did not consider the United States as a model to be emulated, the way earlier Greek modernizers had looked toward Europe. Nor did the US bother to promote such sentiment. Thus, ironically, post-Civil War capitalist development did not become a vehicle through which all who benefited somehow ended up identifying with the principles of American-style entrepreneurship.

In the cultural arena, there was an attempt made to inform Greeks about the American way when the Fulbright Foundation funded trips to the United States by Greek intellectuals in the 1950s. Fifty years later, the fruits of that product seem very quaint. Spyros Melas, a member of the prestigious and exclusively conservative Academy of Athens, published his impressions from a visit to the United States in 1952. Melas’s posture is captured well by his description of Manhattan as a giant tray of baklava.

His 228-page account is full of references to the oddities he encounters in the United States. A visit to Macy’s and another to a supermarket were apparently dazzling experiences. Melas is impressed by what he sees, but the way he describes it evokes a naïve awe that reminds one of those much earlier accounts of America as a “Wonderland” that Greek newspapers carried from the late nineteenth century onward. Among many gaps, there is no sustained discussion of American political life, not even in the short chapter about his visit to Washington, DC.

The tone of Melas’s description conveys the colossal differences between the American and Greek ways of life in the 1950s. The two countries were, culturally, a world apart, and yet Greece was tied to the United States through NATO. No one seemed to think that this was problematic. Judging from the lack of many other books by Greek visitors, the exchange program ceased, precisely at the time when closer contacts were required as a political rift widened.

Nothing that happened following the 1950s helped put things right with regard to Greece’s relationship to NATO and the US. In fact, things got worse in the 1960s. Cyprus, by then an independent country, experienced ethnic tensions between Greeks and Turks. Greek prime minister George Papandreou was invited to Washington. This was only the second visit by a Greek prime minister to the US capital since Greece had joined NATO in 1952. Ostensibly an honor, the visit was designed to let the Greeks know of US displeasure over their nationalist attitude toward Cyprus.

In the immediate aftermath of the Papandreou visit in 1964, President Lyndon Johnson is said to have reprimanded Greek ambassador Alexandros Matsas in no uncertain terms: “Fuck your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If those two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked by the elephant’s trunk, whacked good.”

Worse was to follow when the United States backed the colonels’ dictatorship in 1967. Again, those alienated were the likes of Eleni Vlachou, editor of the daily newspaper Kathimerini – in other words, the conservative intelligentsia that could have countered anti-Americanism in the sphere of ideas. Public intellectuals are important opinion-makers in Greece, and therefore this was a debilitating loss.

Twenty-five years after the collapse of the colonels’ junta, President Clinton offered an apology for the US. Visiting Athens in November 1999, he said: “When the junta took over in 1967 here, the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interest, I should say its obligation, to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War. It is important that we acknowledge that.” Alas, it was too little, too late. The gesture is to Clinton’s credit, but it did not address the nationalist sensitivities of Greek conservatives. At most, it might have restored a sense of betrayal that Greek conservatives felt when NATO and the US backed the colonels. Several leading conservative politicians have spoken of their disillusionment with the support offered to the junta.

In any case, after the junta came the Cyprus crisis, and the US attitude to that generated a new round of anti-American sentiment among Greeks. Significantly, Karamanlis, back in Greece as prime minister, decided to withdraw the Greek forces from NATO command as a response to the second Turkish invasion of Cyprus. Greece remained in NATO, but was leaving its military wing – a ridiculous notion if one considers that NATO was fundamentally a military alliance. What was really ridiculous, however, was NATO’s attitude toward Greece and its non-involvement in the Cyprus crisis lest it alienate Turkey, which it considered a more valuable ally. Ultimately, Greece returned to NATO’s military wing, but not before Karamanlis struggled, in vain, to gain a “special relationship” for Greece.

The temporary withdrawal from NATO is often overlooked as a tactical move conceived as a ploy that would defuse popular anger in Greece. But it was more than a symbolic safety-valve move. The leader of the pro-Western political forces in Greece, the man who enunciated the phrase, “We [Greeks] belong to the West,” had decided for a blow against NATO. Karamanlis’s decision was yet another sign of what most Greeks considered to be NATO’s arrogance of power, and its obdurate refusal to appease, let alone please, its natural constituency in Greece. No wonder then that Kostas Simitis arrived in Washington a few weeks before the fiftieth anniversary of Greece’s accession to NATO bearing gifts that evoked a quite different alliance – one that is much more palatable to socialist as well as to conservative Greeks.

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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