Robert V. Keeley was an outstanding American diplomat and an excellent friend to Greece. He passed away in Washington a few days ago at the age of 85, but unfortunately his death went largely unnoticed here.
Keeley was serving as a political officer at the US Embassy in Athens when, in the early hours of April 21, 1967, the colonels seized power by force. Though he did not hold a high-ranking position at the time, he had openly expressed his strong disagreement with the official American position on Greece both before and after the coup. Before the dictatorship he had been one of a handful of officials who called for steps to be taken to discourage the palace and the various interlocutors of the CIA and the Pentagon from considering a coup. His stance put him at odds with Deputy Chief of Mission Norbert Anschutz and his calls were not heeded.
After April 21, he wrote a string of extremely important memos advising Washington to sever all ties with the regime and warning of the risk that any sign of collusion with the colonels could endanger Greek-American ties in the future. There is a memorable story about Keeley during that seven-year period: It is said that during a dinner party in Athens, one of the guests insisted that the regime was not using torture. The American diplomat is said to have jumped up from his chair and grabbed the woman by the hair, saying, “This is what they are doing.”
After Athens, Keeley went on to serve as ambassador to Uganda, Cambodia and Zimbabwe. He returned to Greece in 1985 during a particularly difficult period in Greek-American relations. He had been selected for the post because of the relationship he had forged with then-Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou before the dictatorship and because he had already earned his badge of honor through his outspoken criticism of the junta and its supporters in Washington. While in Athens he had an especially difficult relationship with New Democracy leader Constantine Mitsotakis, who thought the American envoy was too close to Papandreou. Nevertheless, Keeley played a pivotal role by conveying to Papandreou the atmosphere in the Reagan administration and carrying on the approach of his predecessor, Monteagle Stearns, which encouraged Washington to pay more attention to what the Greek premier did rather that what he said.
Keeley had a summer home on his beloved Sifnos and a great many Greek friends. He was the brother of Edmund Keeley, the celebrated Hellenist and Princeton University professor who was so instrumental in bringing Greek poetry to an international audience.