‘A Dark Room,’ an incisive study of 1967-74

Alexis Papachelas’ latest book sheds light on the role of the US in the military dictatorship in Greece and in events in Cyprus

‘A Dark Room,’ an incisive study of 1967-74

‘Few would suppose that when US Admiral Richard G. Colbert, commander-in-chief of NATO forces in Southern Europe, was pictured giving an interview beside Greek dictator Georgios Papadopoulos mere hours after the bloodshed at Athens Polytechnic – a scene immortalized in the 1974 Jules Dassin film “The Rehearsal” – he was not, in fact, a manifestation of American support for the regime. On the contrary, the US diplomatic leadership in Greece decried the move as harmful and pointless.

Alexis Papachelas, who has previously examined the American presence in Greece up to 1967, has returned to that period of Greece’s past and released an impressive sequel examining the ways in which the United States was involved in the southern European country’s political developments during the military junta, demonstrating that relations between the two were far more complex than the orthodox theory of Greek “dependence.”

The constant journalist

His latest book opens with the frequent visits of Demetrios Ioannidis, a military hardliner and leading figure of the dictatorship, to his sister who, by coincidence, happened to live in the apartment above the author’s family. “A Dark Room” vividly portrays the political “thriller of the generation” of a then-teenage Papachelas, a defining moment on his path to maturity. The prominent journalist’s persistence in shedding light on the tough 1967-1974 dictatorship led him on an exploration of US archives that lasted for more than 25 years.

His commitment to presenting crucial questions pertaining to instrumental actors in the events before they passed away and took their stories with them was an important driving factor in this book’s creation. These interviews, in the form of selected and revealing audio highlights, accompany the published book.

Central to this story is a group of Greek-American CIA agents, as well as businessman Tom A. Pappas. Pappas, in particular, wielded enough influence to ensure that Henry J. Tasca was appointed US ambassador to Greece. The reader follows the communications of the dictator Papadopoulos not only with the Americans, but with successful Greek tycoons (most notably Aristotle Onassis) in a failed attempt to implement a controlled liberalization. We are also introduced to a shadowy group of young military officers who, as early as 1967, were complaining that the supposed ideals of the so-called “revolution” had been betrayed.

The second half of the book covers the crucial period following the overthrow of Papadopoulos by Dimitrios Ioannidis on November 25, 1973. Papachelas points out that this was something that had been planned for months before the student uprisings, with the events at Athens Polytechnic acting as a pretext and not as the linear, root cause of the tragic events that would take place in Cyprus as some people now claim. Finally, the author focuses on the dramatic days before and after the fateful coup against the government of Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus, covering the events in a barrage of dense passages that convey the feel of the events themselves.

Kissinger unfiltered

“A Dark Room” provides the reader with an accurate compass to navigate the labyrinthine tangle of high-ranking and low-ranking politicians, agents and diplomats, who often pursued contradictory goals. Readers get a glimpse of how the Central Intelligence Agency had become an almost autonomous entity and was in partial control of the embassy in Athens, leading to ambivalence in messaging and a lack of clarity on who was the ultimate authority guiding US foreign policy. Papachelas brings to life the cynicism of the members of this secret organization and their callous vernacular, introducing us to almost uncontrollable players like the larger-than-life Gust Avrakotos.

Contrasting this, we also meet more sensitive American diplomats (like Thomas D. Boyatt) who were uneasy about the developments in Greece and who often made their concerns known, even though their alarm fell mostly on deaf ears. Even more interesting than this are the disagreements between then secretary of state Henry Kissinger, (his underling) assistant secretary of state and then under secretary of state Joseph J. Sisco, and the often-clueless embassy staff in Athens. Papachelas also highlights that this discord and lack of coordination challenges common perceptions of how a superpower acts.

The book perfectly points out Kissinger’s obsession with geopolitical realpolitik, always in favor of US interests, with the Watergate scandal looming in the background. Papachelas delves into meeting records and memos, with readers being able to hear the unfiltered and recorded voice of Kissinger, sometimes amusingly doused in cynicism. This is the case when he chides Tasca that “we are the State Department, not a university department of political sciences” (p. 210). His friendly attitude towards Turkey and his fellow Harvard alumnus Bulent Ecevit is evident, and he confidentially informs former US president Gerald Ford that “there is no American reason for the Turks to not hold a third of Cyprus.” (p. 528).

His Machiavellian inspiration to convince the already hesitant Greek soldiers, through several channels, that if they showed “self-constraint” and did not open fire on the invading Turkish forces that Turkey would not engage in open conflict on the island, largely explains the long delay of a Greek response. Finally, Kissinger’s striking lack of empathy for those involved in the conflict is laid bare: “We will eat because the bastards fighting will all be asleep,” he says at some point. (p. 441).

Papachelas makes public, for the first time, all 38 recorded minutes of the critical war council meeting held during the tense hours of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus on July 20, 1974. This valuable and insightful piece of evidence illuminates the utter disarray of the Greek political and military leadership during the invasion as they come to realize the true scale of the looming national disaster and find themselves incapable of taking any decisions. In parallel, we are presented with the experience of Greek soldiers and officers coping with the vacillations of the leadership, with aircraft pilots and submarine commanders receiving orders that were revoked shortly after and then re-issued in a panic that seems to be directly inspired by the war room of “Dr Strangelove.” It would almost be amusing if it were not so tragic.

‘The petty humans’

At the same time, we follow the seemingly omnipotent and merciless commander of the Greek Military Police, Demetrios Ioannidis, as he begins to spiral, acting unpredictably, erratically and in an often-delusional way. This secretive, obsessive and violent brigadier general even reached the point of mistakenly accepting the silence of the American intelligence officers (the “petty humans,” according to Admiral Petros Arapakis) as a “go-ahead,” as acquiescence to the coup that overthrew Makarios. Ioannidis’ surprise once he realizes that the Americans were not restraining the Turkish forces, like they did in 1964 and 1967, and that the Turkish invasion was not a ruse, emphatically proves his bad judgment. Papachelas deftly narrates the fluid nature of the late days of the regime, with the other military leaders repeatedly throwing the “invisible dictator” under the bus or keeping him on ice.

By the end of the book, we see the return of the statesman Konstantinos Karamanlis to Greece despite the prevailing precarious conditions and the fear of a looming collapse, with wild rumors circulating freely. Karamanlis made certain important decisions, including avoiding open war with Turkey and maintaining a sensitive balance within the armed forces. He also took Greece out of the military side of NATO, providing an outlet for pent-up popular rage but not for the unbridled anti-American sentiment that accompanied it.

What is missing from the exhaustive records of the book are certain small important kernels on US cultural diplomacy, like the activities of the deeply divisive Ford Foundation during the dictatorship, while the British factor is not brought in until the very end, when it makes an appearance due to Cyprus. Nevertheless, “A Dark Room” remains an excellent mix of investigative journalism and historical research, with measured accounts and level judgements, even for the gaps and silences contained in testimonies and archives.

The book is an important tool in enhancing our analytical understanding of the era, while it makes clear that the root of many of our issues with Turkey today (continental shelf, natural gas and oil in the Aegean, airspace violations, Cyprus) can be traced to those important years in the 1970s. And while the democratization of Greece that took place during the Metapolitefsi was gestating during this same period, we come to realize that this birth, as “smooth” as it may have been, was the product of a rape by Greek hands: that of the Republic of Cyprus.

Kostis Kornetis teaches contemporary history at the Autonomous University of Madrid.

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