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Tuesday, April 01, 2003


John Peurifoy’s Dubious Legacies

Greece and Guatemala are countries that are not usually spoken about in the same breath. Yet, in 1999, then-President Bill Clinton visited both Athens and Guatemala City and offered an apology for the United States’s past policies in both countries. In doing so, Clinton not only helped to draw attention to the extent of US interference in Greece and Guatemala, but publicly acknowledged the depth of the damage the US had inflicted on two nations several decades earlier.

Guatemala is a textbook case of the egregious destabilization of democratic regimes in Central and South America in which the United States engaged during the twentieth century. In 1954, the United States planned and supported a coup that overthrew Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, putting an end to the nationalization of plantations of the United Fruit Company. Within a few years, the country plunged into a civil war that only ended formally in 1996.

The civil war pitted US-trained and -backed government troops against a left-wing guerrilla movement, embroiling the country’s indigenous population as well. In 1999, a UN-backed commission concluded that government forces had been responsible for 93 percent of all human-rights atrocities committed during the decades-long civil war, which took 200,000 lives, and that senior officials had overseen 626 massacres in indigenous villages — and those figures were based only on data that the commission was able to investigate and establish.

The Guatemalan regime had studied guerrilla warfare and knew that guerrillas rely on agrarian populations for their survival the way a fish depends on water, to paraphrase Mao Zedong. Infamously, the regime’s General Efraín Rios Montt defended the operations against indigenous peoples by saying: “The guerrillas are the fish; the people are the sea. If you want to catch the fish, you have to drain the sea.” In this case, the “sea” being “drained,” of course, was the indigenous peoples, who made up the bulk of those massacred or displaced by government policies, although some were also victimized by guerrillas.

The Greek experience was not identical, in that civil war had already broken out before the United States became involved in “fighting communism” in Greece in 1947. As a result of that involvement, however, the country experienced a politically polarized climate and a right-wing hegemony, backed by the US, which lasted more or less continuously through 1974.

But Greece and Guatemala share more than parallel national lives. Both countries are heirs to the dubious policies of John Emil Peurifoy (1907-1955), who served as US ambassador to Greece between 1950 and 1953 and then as ambassador to Guatemala. Peurifoy, an assistant secretary of state, was given his first ambassadorial post in the summer of 1950, at age 43, when he replaced the more experienced Henry Grady in Athens.

Grady’s previous assignment had been in New Delhi, where he had been unsuccessful in persuading newly independent India to fall in behind the United States in the global struggle against communism. Part of the problem was his personality. Robert Olson, a former diplomat and historian of the US foreign service, describes him as “an old trooper, a friendly and open man who saw his task as getting acquainted, making friends, and disabusing the Indians of their suspicions and uncertainties about American good intentions.” By contrast, Grady did not have to do any cajoling in Athens when he arrived in 1948, as the government was already engaged in full-scale war against left-wing guerrillas in the north of the country.

Less than a year after the Greek Civil War ended, however, the state department decided that the newly elected centrist Greek government needed the type of prodding that the Indians had rejected in order to maintain its vigilance against the communist scourge. The problem was that General Nikolaos Plastiras, the winner of the first post-Civil War elections, had offered an olive branch to the defeated left and its supporters. Indeed, he had won the elections precisely because he ran on a platform that stressed the need for national reconciliation.

Grady was not especially alarmed by the election’s outcome. There was no reason for any American concern. According to Yiannis Roubatis, author of Tangled Webs: The U.S. in Greece, 1947-1967, Grady knew that “the experiences of the United States with Greek liberal politicians during the civil war had reassured it that they could be counted on to carry out policies that were regarded as sound by the Americans” (p. 81). Roubatis adds that Grady was involved in the day-to-day deliberations of Greek politicians, and so was in a position to wield considerable influence.

The state department, however, soon decided that it was time for stronger US intervention. Somewhere in its corridors of power, it was also decided that Grady had to be replaced with someone who could be more assertive. It might not be a coincidence that Grady, who was reassigned to Teheran, was relieved of his duties in 1951 when the new prime minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, submitted a plan to Iran’s parliament to nationalize the country’s oil assets. Two years later, Mossadeq was toppled by a coup backed by Britain and the United States.

“Pistol packing Peurifoy”
Peurifoy burst on the Greek political scene, bringing with him an appetite for confrontation and a willingness to fight until he got his way. Betty Jane, his wife, once described him as “pistol packing Peurifoy.” An admiring journalist, former New York Times foreign-affairs columnist Flora Lewis, once wrote that he was not really a diplomat but a politician who favored a blunt informality matched only by his preference for loud, checkered shirts. The venerable Sophocles Venizelos, Greece’s foreign minister and deputy premier, must have had a shock when Peurifoy greeted him with the words, “Look, Soph, you call me Jack. Lets talk frankly about this.”

Unlike the strategy later in Guatemala, his brief was not to prepare a coup. Rather, his job was to engineer new elections, along with a “first-past-the-post” electoral system that would favor the large conservative party and damage the coalition of centrist and center-right parties led by Plastiras and Venizelos. Roubatis notes that in order to uphold the legitimacy of the Truman Doctrine’s crusade against communism, Washington favored a system in which it could influence Greek affairs as much as it needed to in order to preserve its interests, while at the same time preserving the parliamentary system.

Peurifoy’s success in persuading the centrist Plastiras to agree to the winner-take-all electoral system did the trick. One can understand Plastiras’s political suicide: Greece was dependent on US aid and goodwill. Moreover, as Grady had known so well, most Greek centrist politicians ultimately obliged when pushed by the Americans. In the November 1952 elections, Field Marshal Alexandros Papagos’s right-wing, anticommunist Ellinikos Synaghermos (Greek Rally) party won 49 percent of the popular vote but, thanks to Peurifoy’s electoral system, gained 82 percent of the seats in parliament.

The 1952 elections were Peurifoy’s creation in more ways than one. They took place only because he publicly backed Papagos’s claims that the Plastiras government was relying on “communist votes” to maintain its parliamentary majority. Those votes had been tendered by two parliamentary deputies of the Enomeni Dimokratiki Aristera (United Democratic Left, or EDA) party. This was not the communist party (that had been proscribed in 1947), but was close enough according to Papagos, who claimed that communists were participating in governing Greece.

Peurifoy rushed to support Papagos. His logic, which he explained publicly, was simple. The two deputies who were voting for Plastiras’s centrist policies belonged to EDA. It did not matter that the party itself was not supporting Plastiras. What mattered was that the party must have received the support of communist voters, as the communist party was outlawed. There was no way to prove that, of course, and no one contested EDA’s right to run in the elections, especially since the party did not adopt a communist platform.

How could one accuse EDA of being a front for a communist party, and how could one also claim that votes in favor of centrist policies by its deputies meant that “communists” were propping up the government? It was an uncomplicated task for Peurifoy, whose close association with the CIA was reflected in his ability to unravel conspiracy theories. EDA’s deputies, according to him, surely had supported the communists during the Civil War; they could not have supported Papagos, who had led the government forces. Could they have shifted over to the policies of reconciliation favored by Plastiras, however? Oh no, said Peurifoy, explaining: “In the United States we have a saying, that the leopard can never change the spots on its hide. I think that this saying can be totally applied in this case.” (p. 114)

The state department rushed to echo the expression, announcing, two days later, that “deputies who have been elected by a communist front do not change their hide by changing parties,” adding that Greece was in dire need of a “stable” government (p. 115). Greece’s fate was sealed. Plastiras’s reconciliation was out, and Papagos’s right-versus-left polarization was in. The rest, as they say, is history. It took Greece just over two troubled decades to shed the US-backed right-wing stranglehold on its political and public life.

Have Gun, Will Travel
While Greece was falling under US hegemony, trouble was brewing half-way across the globe, in Guatemala. Arbenz had taken power in 1951 and had launched his reformist program. The issue that confronted the state department there, according to James Durkerley, author of Power in the Isthmus: A Political History of Modern Central America, was “how to deal with a popular nationalist regime that was boisterous in language, modest in substantive policy but committed to reducing the dominance of US economic interests” (p. 145).

Enter Peurifoy, whose job was done in Athens. He arrived in Guatemala City in 1953. After a long meeting with Arbenz, he reported back to Washington that the Guatemalan leader was not a communist, but “he will certainly do until one comes along.” In January 1954, he told Time magazine that “public opinion in the US might force us to take some measures to prevent Guatemala from falling into the lap of international communism.” The die was cast.

Piero Gleijeses sums up Peurifoy’s attitude in Guatemala as “imperial hubris” in his Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954. The same can be said of the way he performed in Athens. Observers often wonder about the depths of anti-Americanism in Greece, and why this sentiment has been more pronounced than in the rest of Europe, at least until the war in Iraq. Part of the answer lies in comparing Greece, in terms of its experience with the United States, not to Europe, but to the more troubled countries of Central America.

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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