November 22, 1963
A neighbor walked in
(Mr. Prantounas). We talked for a few minutes about a number of
things, then got around to the topic of race relations in the
U.S. Talked about twenty minutes - he didn't understand why such
feelings exist - we moved from this to regional patterns - to
letters from my university students to Northport students - then
suddenly his wife burst into the room, a look of awful shock on
he face, her arms waving and hardly able to speak - something
about Kennedy - hard to distinguish between her words and our
own conversation about racial conflict at the time. We rushed
to the radio - the army station had switched to the Voice of America
- and the news was confirmed.
I will never forget
the reaction of Mr. Prantounas. He is a quiet and gentle man and
suddenly his arms were flailing over his head, a sign of extreme
and awful distress in Greece and he swore repeatedly and immediately
associated it with Southern racists: "The beasts. The beasts.
They killed him. They killed him." His wife had tears around
her eyes, as did the others in the room, Greeks and Americans
alike. We still could not believe it had happened. We went to
the balcony and looked outside. It was strangely, strangely quiet,
especially for nine o'clock Friday night - the shops had closed
and people had gone home early.
The U.S. had come
crashing back on us.
Next day. The distress
in this city is hard to describe. I went to Mr. Prantounas' later
last night - they were stunned, disbelieving - "He was a
man first and an American second." We have heard much criticism
of American policy, some of it justified but never have we heard
an attack on Kennedy - the closest to it being curiosity as to
whether he knew of the true picture in Greece, had he been accurately
informed, etc. Went downstairs this morning & the place still
very quiet - the barber, hardware man, photographer, coffee shop
man, tailor, several others crowded around - why had they killed
him? What could have been the motive for killing a man who was
interested in peace? He was a democrat, they agreed, he worked
for the good of ordinary people - this is always dangerous. Their
affiliations (political): from extreme left (communist, a peculiar
ill-informed variety) to center, all in agreement on the topic.
The Embassy is quiet
- Greeks walking in quietly to sign a register, cross themselves,
walk out again.
Several have been
awed by a number of things: (1) at how quickly we dismissed the
possibility that the set might have been committed by a political
opponent - impossible, impossible, we told them - it was probably
done wither by a manic and/or a Southern racist, not a Republican
- sounds strange, almost funny but we tend to forget the remarkable
and peaceful nature of our political tradition; (2) the orderly
transfer of power. Will there be riots, revolution, they asked?
What will happen now? Will there be a contest to decide the new
President? No, we told them - President Johnson was installed
immediately after the death of Kennedy. He will be in the presidential
offices this morning. They were very, very impressed.
The army station is
playing funeral music, as are some of the Greek stations. Acropolis,
an Athens daily, had headlines from the top down to the middle
of the page. Papers were selling rapidly and around every kiosk
(they are everywhere, several on every important block in the
city) people gathered to read the headlines on the Greek, French,
Italian, English newspapers displayed there. And the groups of
people are strangely quiet, reading, perhaps whispering and moving
on. Strange, strange, strange for Greeks.
"The poor, poor
black people. They lost the best friend they had," said a
man downstairs. "We all lost a friend," added the hardware
man. I look at the words now and they appear almost trite - but
they were said so quietly, with solemnity and feeling.
Sunday. All radio
stations are now playing serious classical music. Same thing tomorrow.
All radio commercials have been cancelled through Monday. Schools,
which ordinarily operate on a six-day week, were closed on Saturday
and will remain closed until Tuesday. All government offices and
banks are closed during the three day period of national mourning.
Many private businesses were closed on Saturday and will be closed
on Monday (a severe hardship to the small merchant who barely
makes ends meet.)
Went to downtown Athens
this morning - all copies of the Paris editions of the New York
Times and Herald-Tribune had been bought up within a half hour;
I finally found copies in a kiosk at the edge of the district.
Same scene as yesterday: people standing around quietly reading
the latest editions of papers displayed on the kiosks.
Confusion about the
motives for the assassination. Greeks are not particularly well
informed about life in America - many assumed immediately that
the crime was committed by gangsters. "Why don't you do something
about your Al Capones? Gangsters shoot people down in the streets
almost every day." (Greek teenagers do particularly those
prominent in the 1930's era.) Quite a few people with whom we
spoke thought at first (as we did) that the assassination was
carried out by Southern racist. Many more, however, seemed to
feel that Communists were responsible, that it was part of a large
plot involving many other people - or that it was the work of
a political opponent - i.e. Johnson, in Texas - as a means for
getting the Presidency. (Politics in this part of the world can
be a pretty violent business.) Conversation is now largely focused
on this: why did Oswald do it? Was it really for the reasons given
by Dallas police?
To sum up, we are
astounded at the intensity of the reaction here in Athens. The
city is stunned, in mourning & as one Greek commented, it
would have been no more intense if it was a Greek national leader
who had been assassinated. It is also a measure of Kennedy's personal
popularity in this part of the world. In three years he emerged
as a symbol of the search for peace, higher in stature in this
respect than any otherworld leader. He was, in effect, the keystone
of positive feelings between the Greek and American, far more
so than aid programs and military assistance. The Greek tend to
see issues and problems in terms of personalities & Kennedy
and the Greeks were, strange as it seems, well suited to each
other. Bewilderment about the future - without references to the
'64 campaign - is now an important ingredient in the Greeks' feelings
about the problems of peace.
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