Monteagle “Monty” Stearns, who died last week at the age of 91, was a very important diplomat and a friend of Greece. Although he served in Athens during a testing period in the relationship between the two countries, Stearns always managed to maintain his composure and that Anglo-Saxon common sense.
He first met Andreas Papandreou, the late PASOK founder and subsequent prime minister, in 1950. Stearns was a young envoy working at the US Embassy in Athens while Papandreou was making a first attempt to settle in Greece. The diplomat often mentioned a letter sent to him by Papandreou in which he explained his decision to leave Greece and resume his academic career in the United States.
Afterward, the two cultivated a friendly relationship that led to Stearns being appointed head of the American Embassy after PASOK had climbed to power. It was not an easy task. Greece was swept by a wave of anti-Americanism, protest slogans demanding the withdrawal of US military bases from the country, and the government made overtures to Third World nations. Meanwhile back in the US, Ronald Reagan, a deeply conservative politician, had been elected president. His administration reacted to Papandreou’s maneuvering with skepticism and, occasionally, anger. It was the infamous period of State Department travel warnings, the peak of domestic terrorism, negotiations on military base rights, and the Greek administration’s ties to late Libya leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Stearns tried to explain all that to officials in Washington. One of his favorite anecdotes involved a brief visit by George Shultz, then US secretary of state, to Athens in order to lodge a complaint with the Papandreou administration. The US officials met with the Greek prime minister at his residence in the northern suburb of Kastri. During the meeting, Papandreou switched the conversation to the University of Chicago and his team at the school. Shultz was apparently pleased to have found someone that shared his interests. On the way to the airport, however, he realized that he had forgotten to lodge the complaint. Stearns laughed every time he recalled this incident. “I was very fortunate not to have been sacked at the time,” he said.
Relations between the two countries often came near breaking point, and for a good number of reasons. Concern over Athens’s commitment to the West peaked after Constantine Karamanlis – a politician Stearns knew and admired – failed to be re-elected president of the republic.
Sterns’s name became known in the US diplomatic establishment for a comment he made during a closed meeting at the State Department. The hawks at the time were pushing for retaliatory measures against Greece. Stearns, a steady champion of de-escalating tension with Greece, made the now-famous statement about Papandreou: “Look at his deeds, not his words.”
Soon, Greece’s Socialist prime minister was calling for a “course toward calm waters” in US-Greek relations and the rest is history.
Stearns’s death marks the close of a generation of sincerely philhellenic American diplomats who handled bilateral ties during a darker period.