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Profiles of Greece
Nicholas Econopouly

March 7, 1964

The guidebook told us that living in Greece is like living in a barrel with 8 million electric eels. A Greek shopkeeper on Syros, on the other hand, promised us a year of peace and tranquility. The guidebook was right and the shopkeeper was wrong. Thucydides knew all about it over two-thousand years ago when he wrote that Greeks were born into the world to never allow themselves a moment's peace, nor allow it to those around them. IT has been precisely that kind of week.

Our lives have been filled with Cyprus for some time now. Most of what has happened has been deeply disturbing to us. We began to relax a little yesterday when, as Secretary Rusk said, the Cyprus issue was transformed from a danger to a problem. By late afternoon, however, King Paul had dies and Greece went into a period of national mourning. I might also point out that these events are taking place during Greek carnival time, a two-week period a kind-of Mardi Gras.

There have been marches on the U.S., British and Turkish embassies all week. Greek priests, leading a silent march by several thousand, started it all. On the following day, university students began their marches -- the temper was festive, friendly and in keeping with the approaching holiday period. Leaders of the first student marches went into the embassy, spoke to Ambassador Labouisse. They expressed surprise at the site of the demonstration. "We started a small protest rally at the university and the next thing we knew there were five-thousand students following us." By Monday of this week, however, a change was clearly apparent. For one thing, there was less smiling and laughing. Posters became increasingly violent ("Enossis or death!" … "Anglo-Americans: Get out of Cyprus!") University marchers were soon joined by high school students and by Thursday of this week by elementary school children. The most shocking and ugliest demonstration was one I saw on Thursday afternoon: several hundred elementary school children, marching seven or eight abreast, down Venizelos Street, carrying Enossis banners and chanting: "Cyprus is Greece - Enossis!" What had started out three weeks or so ago to be a holiday excursion had been transformed into something terribly grotesque -- and frightening.

On Wednesday of this week I went to the Varvakion to meet my classes. Marching out from the school came about five hundred of its high school students, carrying banners and posters -- and chanting. Inside the courtyard were my students, the graduate teachers. They were obviously in no mood for an English lesson but they expressed the desire that we meet and discuss Cyprus. I agreed. It was catharsis. Their frustrations and disappointments boiled over. Why was America supporting the Turks and betraying a faithful ally? What had happened to Stevenson's liberalism? Why didn't the American people do something about the trusts that murdered Kennedy and put Johnson in power? Why was the U.S. supporting dictatorships all over the world: Turkey, Spain, Vietnam? Had I seen the movie The Ugly American? Didn't the American people realize what their diplomats were doing? Had I seen Seven Days in May? Why didn't the American people do something about the military power groups? What is particularly disturbing about the questions is that they came not from Communists, for these men and women are strongly anti-Communist and not from simple, illiterate people. These teachers, on the contrary, are very able and intelligent people -- and equally important, they are in positions from which they can influence many other Greeks, children and adults alike. The teacher is looked upon with awe in Greek society. Something, it is apparent, has gone terribly wrong with American foreign policy in Greece. (I should add here that, in making their comments, they spoke almost apologetically, treated me with utmost respect and courtesy. This, with only a couple of exceptions, has been the case as well with other Greeks, even during the worst days of this past week.)

I didn't answer the questions -- except for a few instances in which I thought they might be able to listen. But I did hit hard, in the last few minutes, on the use of children on the embassy marches, that foreign policy is far too complex, the consequences of errors potentially so disastrous, to give so much responsibility to small children. Most of them agreed. But they also became extremely defensive, insisting that teachers had not directly organized the marches. One teacher insisted that it was simply a natural eruption of children's powerful love-of-country. Another teacher asked about the use of children in integration marches.

The Communists, of course, are having a field day. They are, I'm sure, astounded by their influence during the past week in keeping pots boiling. Communists in our neighborhood have been working strenuously visiting, talking, persuading. Wherever they visit, they leave a particular line, monotonous in its repetition. They play on the Greeks' pet hostilities and blindspots. "War with Turkey? We welcome it! We'll be in Constantinople in 24 hours!" "Greece must go-it-alone. Greeks fight best they fight alone." "We won't sell our national honor for Anglo-American dollars." Again, the vast proportion of these people are not Communists. They are usually terribly frustrated people. Most of them are battling for existence. They're not particularly intelligent. They're terribly vulnerable. (I had a direct collision with the tailor. For the 4th or 5th time that day I heard that only Russia protected weak nations. Example? Look at the way she responded to the French-British-Israeli invasion of Egypt: by threatening to atom bomb London and Paris. What did America do? She scolded at the United Nations. I exploded all over him: Hungry, Berlin, the Greek Communist war. That poor little tailor was on the receiving end of my own anger and frustration, my wounded pride as an American. I stood over him, pointed down his nose and roared. He was astonished and looked more than a little concerned.

The French are busy. Their popularity has risen sharply in Greece, although most intelligent Greeks I've spoken to also more than suspect grandstand-playing by DeGaulle and really don't expect much help from him. From here we get the feeling that the French are busy leading all of us toward disaster -- Americans, Greeks, Englishmen and Frenchmen alike. Too strong? Perhaps. As I said, it has been an angry, frustrating week -- and the French haven't helped matters.

The Greeks we've spoken to -- the teachers on one end and the tailor on the other -- agree on one thing: American power and influence in Greece have suffered a powerful setback; it will probably never rise to its previous level again. I am very much inclined to agree, although a rise from the depths of last week is likely and already is under way.

What has gone wrong? How did America drop from its tremendous popularity of even a few short years ago? How is it that the people of a country who have so much affection and admiration for Americans as people can harbor so much anger and resentment toward our government?

I think I've written before that, given the complexities of the situation, I doubt that any American foreign policy could be spectacularly successful here. The Greeks responded powerfully, overwhelmingly to the personal touch -- are there enough Americans, armed with their copies of Margaret Mead and a determination to be helpful, to go around, and is it really worth it all? I don't know but as matters now stand, and without a miracle by the Papendreo government, the situation is not encouraging. You might even say that, on the face of it, we're failing.

The roots of the problem go deep. It's possible to dwell here on the Turkish occupation, the terrible Balkan conflicts, life which has been a bitter struggle for survival -- and the attitudes, institutions and traditions that have resulted. Focal to all of this and in a real sense of preserving and extending these cultural remnants, for better and for worse, has been the Greek public school. It is an archaic institution, both in the physical and intellectual sense. It indoctrinates a kind of virulent nationalism, appalling by our standards. Its textbooks emphasize a hatred of Turks that is frightening (and the Turks probably do the same). Greeks hate Turks. They despise them with indescribably intensity. Revulsion is not too strong a term here -- and it is an emotion shared by the vast majority of the population. Greeks simply do not discuss Turks except in these terms -- and with a suspicion bordering on paranoia.

And then there is a second contemporary element. Greece is a marvelously free country. Debate and controversy flourish. The recent elections, in which 90% of the eligible population voted, were peaceful (but lively) and honest. Their motion pictures are relatively free of the problems of censorship -- certainly as free as ours. Take a stand on any issue in Greece and a discussion quickly follows. People are not afraid to say what is on their minds. This is all a very remarkable thing for a country which only a few years ago was fighting a bitter civil war with the Communists. It is more than remarkable -- it's a miracle. But there is another side of the coin. It is Lippman's theme in The Public Philosophy. Debate, if it is to have meaning, must have as its goal the search for truth -- an in order to do this, there must be adequate access to and use of knowledge and information. This is the problem. The schools place little focus on present-day issues, except in the context described above. And neither do the information media fill the role. The press is free -- as free as any in the world -- but it is hardly responsible. Its function is to sell newspapers -- it can do this by feeding popular emotions. It has fed them on the Cyprus issue with enthusiasm. Newspapers attacked the U.S. position as pro-Turkish. One newspaper displayed a front-page cartoon showing Stevenson placing a container over the head of the Statue of Liberty. Distortion followed distortion as the newspapers clamored for readers. They competed with each other with a fury -- and sales went up. The BBC and VOA Cyprus reports were calm and objective -- and the Greek newspapers demanded that BBC and VOA news scripts be dropped from Greek radio stations. (That night the VOA calmly quoted a Greek government official -- poor devil -- to the effect that Greek newspapers were doing a disservice to the Greek people by distorting the issue. We cheered. The VOA scripts were not dropped.) And because the Greek is not particularly well-informed to begin with, there was nothing to counteract the torrent. Students marched, tempers rose and by the end of the week, we had suffered a serious set-back. Discussion flourished, rumor piled on rumor -- and by this past week we were wearing the clock of military imperialism, preparing to seize Cyprus for the Turks.

Pretty dreadful. But we are hardly free of responsibility.

Something else is reflected in all of this: the Greeks' growing resentment toward American foreign policy. There are 3,000 American soldiers here in Greece. They have had a strong and positive military impact. But has their political impact outweighed, in a negative sense, their military contribution? I don't know. Soldiers can't be expected to be very good goodwill ambassadors, particularly in a culture as puzzling as that of Greece. But they are critical of Greeks and Greece-- not publicly, certainly, but they have Greek maids, many of whom speak English. Our kids come home with it -- Matthew picks it up from soldiers' kids at the American Community School: "Papendreou is a Red." "Karamanlis was a friend of the U.S. and now he's gone." "Greeks don't know how to make good (food, machinery, cigarettes, -- pick it)." The Greeks pick it up. The Army Air Force radio station, one of the four powerful stations in Athens, displays a whole stable full of illiterates for announcers (they recently added one good one, fortunately); Venizelos dies and the station does not interrupt tits collection of rock 'n roll and shop talk (they are playing classical music now that King Paul is being mourned -- that God! Thank God!) The Greek notices. We were walking in the Plaka the other night -- very narrow streets -- a car came around the corner, blasted its horn -- frightened everyone, including a half-dozen Greeks, half to death. Inside the car: a U.S. government official and his wife (in a fur coat) and children. Commented one of the Greeks: "Ah! They're Americans." And there is so much more … an insensitivity, an apathy, a condescension, repeated a thousand times. The Greek gets the message.

The person-to-person, then, is eliminated, as far as it affects the average Greek, as an essential element of foreign policy in Greece. Perhaps this is right -- is it possible to influence 8 million Greeks through face-to-face relationships and good works? (Contradiction: why do we spend great sums of money on a Hellenic-American Union building here in Athens and fail to keep it filled with people and activities most of the time?) Greece, in a cultural sense, does not lend itself easily to a Peace Corps type of philosophy. But is it out-of-the-question?

The approach, then, is something quite different. As one USIS officer explained it, it is to work with the power elements in the country, influence them and let the rest take care of itself. The theory has a lot of validity. It means, in effect, that U.S. influence is now to be directed at assisting the Papendreou government to carry out the basic reforms so necessary to the country: economic, educational, social. And there are indications that precisely this is being attempted -- Papendreou's educational reforms include a new university closer to the American pattern. But there are problems, too. How do we keep from being identified too closely with a particular government -- Karamanlis is an example -- when that government becomes unpopular? ("The Americans want Karamanlis" was a constant refrain last fall. It hurt us very badly.) It is a problem. Is it necessarily a fatal one?

Perhaps the philosophy is not the problem, although it is my feeling that one approach does not, except in a budgetary sense, eliminate the other and that far more could be done with person-to-person. The problem may be more in the area of execution. How is it possible to exert a powerful influence at the top without in some way reaching the Greek teacher? Or other Greek intellectuals? Why are they -- and they'll influence many people -- so poorly informed about us, about American policy, about why we're putting so much energy and time and money in Vietnam, in Berlin, in Greece? They are ill-informed -- dreadfully ill-informed. Are they being included among the groups "at the top?" Are there ways of reaching them more effectively than we have been? Or is it a pretty hopeless situation? And the newspapers -- what about the newspapers? Is it possible to work in Greece without having the newspapers periodically clubbing us? Can they be persuaded in any way? Counteracted? Or is this also hopeless? Again, perhaps the situation defies all remedy. But it is hard to believe that we're really trying. You sense an apathy here in Athens -- a then-bee-rah-zee -- that seems to permeate our offices. The resources of the Fulbright people are not being tapped to the fullest. USIS people look almost bored as they go through their daily routines. A secretary sat lounging in a chair munching an apple -- she managed to drawl out a "What do you want?" The Hellenic-American Union lies almost idle -- all five magnificent floors of it. Isn't there something more than can be done in informing people than the very insipid
"American Viewpoint" newsletter? The textbook delivery caused quite a stir -- but only in that it might cause some damage by identifying us too closely to the king. I have a feeling and it is shared by others -- and perhaps we're wrong -- that the principal concern has somehow evolved into preservation of the institution, not winning a cold war battle and as such the greatest premium is placed on taking few risks and maintaining a comfortable posture. (We had a USIS spokesman tell us that the Air Force Station was really no so bad, that those boys really try pretty hard and anyhow, the Greek stations are so much worse by comparison. There was no concern about rocking the boat here -- or at least I should say visible concern. This isn't too surprising -- if the first concern is for the preservation of the institution and the Air Force is part of it.)

What a year! What a year!

Oh, yes. The British ambassador asked to see Papendreou. He got the meeting. The little guy (actually, I don't know if he's a little guy -- I just think of English ambassadors as little guys -- he's probably eight feet tall) went in and demanded an apology for the behavior of Greek students at the British Embassy for putting fezzes on fence posts and that sort of thing. He got his apology -- and the newspapers ran it. He also won a lot of Greek admiration, too. Great, great. One Varvakion teacher said to me: "the English know so much more about Greeks and diplomacy than Americans do." Nevertheless, the British got it a lot worse this past week than we did.

Oh, yes, again. As I was saying, the king died. He had been on the brink for several days. We awaited the announcement of his death the way I used to wait for John Ryder's telephone call for a snow day. Schools will be closed. Yes, I know. Pretty grisly, insensitive. And anti-climatic.

Anyhow, I'll try to get to the funeral procession. Maybe, if it doesn't seem too vulgar and I can do it discreetly, I'll take a few pictures.

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