By: Evaggelos Vallianatos, Ph.D.
Hellas / Greece had the good fortune of becoming the lighthouse of the world. For several centuries it gave birth to science and civilization of unprecedented beauty, reason, justice and virtue. This good fortune came into being in the works of epic poets Homer and Hesiod; the tragic poets Aischylos, Sophocles, and Euripides; the comic poet Aristophanes; philosophers / scientists who probed the heavens to such detail, that one of them, Demokritos in the fifth century BCE, discovered the Atomic Theory and another, Aristarchos of Samos, in the third century BCE, proposed the Heliocentric Theory of the universe. Still yet another astronomer, Hipparchos, set the foundations of mathematical astronomy in the second century BCE in Rhodes. He also left his fingertips all over the Antikythera Mechanism, an immaculate geared bronze computer of genius, the progenitor of our computers.
Add to this extraordinary galaxy of intelligence and foresight, Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great and inventor of the science of zoology in the fourth century BCE, and you have lasting science and civilization power.
The Greeks lived in poleis (city-states) all over the Mediterranean, like frogs in a pond, according to Plato. To make polis living enjoyable and tolerable and to protect themselves from each other and enemies, the Greeks invented political theory, democracy, jury courts, laws published on stone and marble for all to see, and perfect art. They built magnificent temples in honoring their anthropomorphic gods. They sculpted bronze and marble statues of the gods and handsome nude heroes, athletes, and dressed or naked women.
The Greeks were by no means perfect. But with all their human faults, they created and left us wisdom and civilization that still moves the world.
One of the decisive weaknesses of the Greeks was their extreme competitiveness and disunity. Being the best sometimes radiates and triggers excessive jealousy and destructive hatred.
Ephialtes of Trachis, a traitor in 480 BCE when invading Persians were threatening the country’s existence, helped the Persian king Xerxes to surround King Leonidas of Sparta and his troops at Thermopylae in Central Greece. His crime was so abominable that his name Ephialtes has become synonymous to treachery.
Foreigners took advantage of Greek traitors. They conquered Greece and, to this day, meddle in Greek political life and divide even more the divided Greeks.
The Romans were the first successful meddlers in Greece. They learned everything they did from close observation of the Greeks, including strategies of warfare and weapons. They decorated Rome with the art, libraries, architecture, and tutors they looted from Hellas.
Christianization of Hellas
Other conquerors of Greece were worse than the Romans, though the Romans and their empire, made them possible. After all, the Roman emperor Constantine in the fourth century of our era ejected Hellenic and Roman gods and culture in favor of one god from Israel. We still don’t know why. His choice god was the Sun.
That “conversion” of Hellas to Christianity was no conversion at all. It was an Earthquake that smashed most of Hellenic culture: temples, theaters, stadia, classical architecture, the Olympics, the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the Eleusinian mysteries at Eleusis, schools and libraries, art and traditions.
Despite that monumental destruction, enough of the literary, scientific, philosophical, and material culture survived from Hellas that it is overflowing in the greatest museums of the Western world, including those of modern Christian Greece.
The Greek charioteer
Friedrich Nietzsche, German professor of Greek at a very young age in late nineteenth century and, probably, the most genuine of Western students of Hellas, explained the fear and anger of the European beneficiaries of Hellenic science and civilization. Their museums are full of Greek artifacts, which far surpass the best of their own creation. He said the Greeks were the charioteers of civilization, which infuriates the Europeans.
That fury and hidden anger embraces all that the Europeans and Americans have done in Greece since the 1830s, when the country won its freedom from Turkish tyranny. It’s inevitable. Greece is full of archaeological treasures. Modern Greeks are the descendants of ancient Greeks.
The Trojan horse of monarchy
The first hidden hostile act of the European powers (England, France, and Russia) was the imposition of monarchy on the newly independent Greek nation. Monarchy guaranteed the money they had loaned to the Greek revolutionary governments in 1824 and after.
However, monarchy was an alien political institution in the Greek tradition of democracy. It was equivalent to oligarchy and tyranny. Furthermore, monarchy in Greece became a permanent Ephialtes institution for traitors, a gate for political division and foreign influence, a Trojan horse. Monarchy divided the country between those few who benefited from perpetual foreign largesse, loans, and favors and the adherents of democracy and traditions of self-reliance.
America in Europe
America really got into the political and military divisions of Europe during WWI, but, permanently, during WWII and after. WWII made America an empire, not much different than that of Rome. This imperial strategy became bitter and deadly because the communist giant in Eastern Europe, Soviet Union (Russia), thought it deserved equal power in the spoils of WWII. Russia had lost several million soldiers and civilians to the Germans.
America was unconvinced. It sought monopoly of power. The ensuing “cold war” has exacerbated all political and environmental crises threatening Europe, America, and the rest of the world. The monster climate change feeds on these political divisions and on the avarice and greed of corporate and state control of the world, including the United States.
The plight of modern Greece
Greece dropped into this abyss of great power competition and conflict by domestic and foreign interests. The victory of Greece over Italy (allied to Hitler’s Germany) in 1940-1941 and the heroic resistance to the Nazi Germans, Bulgarians, and Italians occupying the country did not impress the American hegemons of post-war Europe. In the heat of ideological warfare with communist Russia, they set up NATO in which they included the worst Greek enemy – Turkey.
This new control of Greece, not merely by America and its European NATO allies, but, to some degree, by Turkey, made Greece an occupied country. Like the European powers since 1453 kept Turkey alive to balance each other, the United States befriended Turkey to balance its hostility towards Russia.
This external reality heightened internal Greek tensions and divisions, which blew up in a killer civil war, 1945-1949. American weapons and money brought the civil war to an end, but the country continued to be split between the communists and everybody else. Those communists killed two brothers of my father and a sister of my mother. The Greek civil war was the second Peloponnesian War.
The end of this deadly conflict did not revive unity or freedom for the Greeks. One had to side with America, or else. When the Romans wiped out Corinth in 146 BCE, they kidnapped the leaders of the country and exiled them to Rome — for 20 years. America did not have to be that violent. Greek politicians and military leaders remembered 146 BCE. They embraced America. They received their schooling in America. Not only that, but the United States opened its borders to Greek immigrants who arrived to America by the thousands.
Greeks appreciated America, which became like Russia of several centuries before the Greek Revolution: a country that welcomed Greeks to start a new life. The United States, however, spoiled this friendship by allowing the cold war to get out of hand.
Like dark-age theologians or crusaders willing to wipe out entire populations to satisfy their ignorance, America went haywire with communism. It destroyed southeast Asia and poisoned the Pacific. It had this crazy notion that communists might invade America or their allies. It’s this irrational fear of a revolutionary and powerful communist state, Russia, that explains the rather hostile American meddling in Greece.
American meddling in Greece
In 1967, the Greek military shut down the parliament and stayed in power until 1974. No doubt, the US encouraged the Greek military to jail democracy in the country that gave it birth. The reason was simple.
The US wanted to please the Turks who insisted they should have half of Cyprus for their NATO allegiance. Greece, however, had an army in Cyprus. The only way to remove the Greek soldiers from Cyprus and avert a full scale war between two NATO allies, Turkey and Greece, was to have a military government in Greece to do the bidding of America and Turkey.
President Lyndon Johnson had no trouble at all giving Cyprus to the Turks. In June 1964, he told Alexander Matsas, Greek ambassador in Washington, DC, Cyprus had to be divided between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. When Matsas said this was not allowed by the Greek Constitution and the Parliament, Johnson threatened to abolish Greek democracy. He said:
“Fuck your parliament and your constitution. America is an elephant. Cyprus is a flea. Greece is a flea. If these two fleas continue itching the elephant, they may just get whacked good …. We pay a lot of good American dollars to the Greeks, Mr. Ambassador. If your Prime Minister gives me talk about democracy, parliament and constitution, he, his parliament and his constitution may not last long.”
Johnson’s brutality triggered the military overthrow of the government in Greece. The Greek military government ordered its soldiers in Cyprus to return home. In 1974, with the blessings of the US and England, Turkey invaded Cyprus and grabbed nearly half of the island. Conveniently, the military in Greece returned to its barracks and a civilian government returned to power in Athens, this time without the monarchy. The military had abolished it.
The military upheaval in Greece and the loss of half of Cyprus to the Turks caused further polarization in Greece between those who liked America and those who did not appreciate foreign interference in their country. Even if one did not know that America might have been behind the coup, they could observe a steady American support for the military government in Athens.
Resisting the US-hatched Greek military government
Some Greek citizens resisted the military takeover of the government. One of them was Elias Demetracopoulos, 1928-2016. He was an investigative journalist who took democracy seriously. He had trouble with the censors, so he made it to the United States in 1967 to continue his struggle for the restoration of democracy at home.
I arrived in America in 1961, six years before Demetracopoulos. I came to study, he came to protest the American government that wrecked the democracy of his country.
During 1967 to 1974, I was a graduate student. I was concerned that soldiers governed Greece. But I did not have a clue of American meddling in the hatching of the coup or plans against Cyprus. My postdoctoral studies in the history of science at Harvard did not help to clear the picture. My Harvard studies brought me to Washington, DC, where I worked for a Congressional Committee, the Office of Technology Assessment. Then I joined the staff of Congressman Clarence Long (D-Maryland). This was in 1978, four years after the Turks occupied half of Cyprus. The Cypriot ambassador met with Long and I prepared the background for the meeting. I found the argument of the ambassador compelling. He was requesting about 15 million dollars to assist the internal refugees following the brutal Turkish invasion. Privately, I explained to the Congressman that what happened to Cyprus was catastrophic. I said the US should have never allowed, much less encouraged, Turkey to embark on such an atrocity.
A couple of months later, Congressman Long said to me, in coded language, I should be looking for another job: “I never thought I hired a Greek agent,” he told me. It was useless to argue with him. He liked to be addressed as Dr. Long. He pretended he was against corruption. I convinced him to investigate the corrupt International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, both creatures of the US Treasury Department. I prepared hearings on IMF and the World Bank, only to cancel the hearings all together – at the last moment. Lobbyists crawled all over his office.
Probably I met Demetracopoulos during my Congressional assignment – in 1976-1978. I don’t remember what we talked about. But what I remember distinctly was his fabulous surroundings at the Fairfax Hotel and the Cosmos Club in high-class neighborhoods and society in Washington, DC. I said to myself this man must be funded by some one very wealthy. He never spoke about the nature of his daily work.
I did not know then he was a ladies’ man, a cosmetic addition to the rich conclaves of Georgetown neighborhood, and earning respectable sums from Wall Street. Neither did I know that the FBI, CIA, and the State Department kept a close watch of the doings of Demetracopoulos in Washington, DC.
An American investigative journalist, James H. Barron, spent close to 10 years throwing light on this perplexing path of Demetracopoulos’ life and the cold war – connections between America and Greece. Why would the US government have treated Demetracopolulos like an enemy agent? What justified surveillance and spying on an immigrant journalist spending his time gathering information about Greek Americans and their influence on policy-making in Washington, DC? After all, he was naïve to believe his lobbying of the Democrats during the Nixon administration might change US support of the Greek military government, which had its origins in the Democratic administration of Lyndon Johnson, 1963-1969.
Barron explains this history in his timely and important book: The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate (Melville House, 2019).
Barron likes Demetracopoulos. He describes him as journalist, “dangerous gadfly,” lobbyist, Wall Street economics consultant, tipster, troublemaker, and a “desired extra man” for Georgetown dinner parties. In addition, Demetracopoulos was an “extraordinary Greek patriot and a relentless champion of democracy and the free press.”
Barron weaves Elias Demetracopoulos’ life and Greek history: an extremely interesting narrative of wars, foreign occupations, heroism, resistance and return to peace. Yet, the American-propped military government in Greece forced Elias Demetracopoulos to seek refuge to the United States. President Johnson told the State Department to give Elias the appropriate visa for entering the United States in September 1967.
Elias was astonished Greek Americans remained largely apolitical – chained to business as usual. Most of them would tell him that, if the US government supported the military in Greece, that was good enough for them. I was also embarrassed by the overt pro-American stance of Greek Americans, even when anti-Greek American policies demanded at least a critical perspective.
I remember once listening to Nicholas Burns, American ambassador to NATO and Greece, 1997-2001. I wanted to ask why the US had helped Turkey to invade and capture half of the Greek island of Cyprus. However, the Greek host of the event interrupted me and Burns said nothing.
Demetracopoulos was more diplomatic than me. He started his Washington resistance to the Greek military government by revealing that Tom Pappas, a wealthy Greek American and devout Republican, was the bagman who carried money from the Greek military to the Nixon reelection committee in 1968. This confirmed the bias of the American agents watching Elias, especially the Nixon assistants in the White House. They wanted to deport him from the country.
But Elias had allies like Senator George McGovern and Wall Street bankers. They interceded on his behalf. He survived Watergate and the snares of spying agencies and the hostility of the Greek military. He contributed to the struggle for freedom, from America, his second home.
Read this wonderful and riveting story, written well and with passion by an American journalist honoring a Greek journalist. The story illuminates the difficult times of a great power, America, confronted by the unbeatable and corrupt temptations of empire. Greece, however friendly to America, paid a terrible price at the hands of the cold-war American warriors.
Barron brings this terrible moment of American madness to life. President Johnson insulting the Greek ambassador and abolishing Greek democracy was the doing of a tyrant: ordering a servant to jump off the cliff. Greek and American democracies were shredded for narrow, unethical, and shameful “strategic” interests. Barron paints this canvas through the eyes of Elias Demetracopoulos.
Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and ecopolitical theorist. He is the author of hundreds of articles, 6 books, including the forthcoming: The Antikythera Mechanism: The Story Behind the Genius of the Greek Computer and its Demise.