What has the United States ever done for Greece? In a country where anti-Americanism was rife until recently, the question brought heated debates. It still does.
Although relations between the two countries are seemingly currently at their friendliest since the end of WWII, many in Greece question the country’s strategic alliance with the U.S. and revisit the history of American involvement in Greek affairs over the last seventy years.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that today our friendship and partnership and our alliance is closer and stronger than it has ever been,” President Biden noted recently during a visit of the Greek PM to the White House.
Historically, there have been ups and downs in the relations between the two nations, including positive and negative developments that have shaped generations. Here’s a list with the most important developments throughout the years:
Greece remains a member of the “free world”
The U.S. was instrumental in helping Greece remain in what was then called the Free World, by defeating the insurgency of communist guerillas during the Civil War in the country.
The United States, assuming Britain’s former mantle as Greece’s chief external patron, provided military equipment and advice.
At a time when democracies throughout Europe were struggling to contain the “communist threat” after the end of WW2, the U.S., through the declaration of the Truman Doctrine in March 1947, pledged support for “free peoples” in their fight against internal subversion.
American intervention and the consequences of the break between Josip Broz Tito (under whose leadership the Yugoslav state would eventually unite) and Stalin, combined with factionalism and altered military tactics on the left, all contributed to the defeat of the communist guerrillas in the summer of 1949.
Since then, Greece has been firmly anchored to the West. Despite the anti-American rhetoric of some leaders and the crises in bilateral relations that have erupted over the years, very few question its geostrategic choice.
The U.S. helps in Greece’s reconstruction
Greece did benefit substantially from her share of Marshall Aid, as did so much of Western Europe, receiving about two billion dollars, which would be worth more than twenty-one billion dollars today.
Between 1947 to 1949, US aid constituted some twenty-five percent of Greece’s gross national product and financed sixty-seven percent of all Greek imports.
Through the Marshall Plan, over 6.5 million tons of U.S. food and supplies reached the people of Greece. Millions of dollars in loans were approved for businesses in the agricultural and industrial sectors, which helped modernize production, equipment, and factories and also created thousands of new jobs.
The transportation infrastructure of Greece was also completely transformed.
Although the longer-term effects of Marshall Aid funds did prove to have substantial, beneficial effects, the manner in which the aid was distributed was at times counterproductive and so overwhelming that it threatened to undo much of the good it did in the first place.
The American dream for millions of Greeks
Although Greek mass migration to the U.S. started in the late 19th century, Greeks again began arriving in large numbers after 1945, fleeing the economic devastation caused by World War II and the Greek Civil War.
From 1945 until 1982, approximately 211,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States. These later immigrants were less influenced by the powerful assimilation pressures of the 1920s and 1930s and revitalized Greek American identity, especially in areas such as Greek-language media.
Greek immigrants established more than six hundred diners in the New York metropolitan area in the 1950s to 1970s. Immigration to the United States from Greece was at its peak at that time.
However, it was not only diners that flourished. Greek-Americans became leaders in business, industry, film, television, and politics. Greek communities in the U.S. thrived and brought the two nations closer together.
“As a proud Irish-American, I’ve felt a great kinship with the Greek-American community,” President Biden said.
“The same values define the way we grew up: courage, decency, honor, treating people with dignity as well as an immense pride in the heart and the heritage of our ancestors that they brought with them to America,” the President said.
“This is an incredible resilience among Greek-Americans….a determination to keep going, to keep fighting, no matter the odds—no matter what,” he added.
U.S. mediates to stop potential Greece – Turkey war over Imia
In January 1996, a dispute over salvage rights between Turkish and Greek captains was the trigger for a series of events that escalated into a major international incident called the Imia Crisis.
Naval vessels from both nations sailed to the hotspot, and Turkish troops in northern Cyprus were reported to have moved closer to the island’s dividing line, prompting an alert from Greek-Cypriot forces.
Washington moved to defuse the crisis. President Bill Clinton placed calls for a peaceful outcome, and Ambassador Richard Holbrooke began intense mediation. American diplomatic efforts were targeted in bringing the situation under control.
The US position was that “if the Greek military force withdraws its presence [from Imia] and the Greek flag, the Turkish military forces will do the same.”
The statement from the United States emphasized that “the party that shoots the first bullet will find the United States against it.” Finally, both sides withdrew, and a return to the status quo ante was achieved.
U.S. bases in Greece a deterrent against Turkish aggression
Military collaboration stemming from World War II has set the foundation for the two countries as firm allies. Greece and the U.S. have also remained allies through the Cold War as well as the conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan within this past century.
With the ratification of the Greek-American Mutual Defense Cooperation Agreement (MDCA) by the Greek Parliament on May 13, 2022, the US gained access to three military bases in Greece in addition to the one already previously in operation.
Apart from the naval base in Souda Bay on Crete, which the U.S. has been operating since 1969, MDCA will permit the U.S. military to also utilize Georgula Barracks in Greece’s central province of Volos in addition to Litochoro Training Ground and the army barracks in the northeastern port city of Alexandroupoli.
Although it is unlikely that the U.S. would become directly involved in a war between Greece and Turkey, its growing military and security cooperation and troop deployment in Greece acts as a deterrent against Turkey’s revisionist claims.
The U.S. supports authoritarian post-WW2 governments
Ever since 1947, Washington has played a decisive role in Greek political and economic affairs. The U.S. turned a blind eye to the harsh authoritarian policies of the first post-Civil War governments in Greece.
Thousands of political opponents, that is, defeated leftists, of the Civil War were sent to prison camps on remote Greek islands to become “re-educated.”
Makronisos, Gyaros, and Agios Efstratios were among the most infamous camps, where prominent Greeks were imprisoned and tortured.
Because of its history, Makronisos is considered a monument of the Civil War era; therefore, the island and the original structures on it are protected from alteration. At least twenty-two thousand people were exiled or imprisoned on the island of Gyaros during that time.
The camps remained in operation throughout the post-WW2 period and were abolished in 1974 after the return of Democracy in Greece.
The right maintained a firm grip on power for the majority of the period from 1952 to 1963 and was none too careful in the means it employed to retain its power.
Below, prisoners return from the camps in 1974.
The military junta
Greece and the United States were allies in NATO, and Greece had been heavily dependent on the U.S. to secure its military capacity in defending its national integrity.
However, this special relationship received a heavy blow due to the fact that many Greeks believed Washington was largely responsible for the establishment and long tenure of dictatorship in Greece from 1967 to 1974.
During his visit to Greece in 1999, former President Bill Clinton acknowledged the U.S. government’s support for the widely despised military junta that had ruled Greece in the late ’60s to mid ’70s.
“When the junta took over in 1967 here, the United States allowed its interests in prosecuting the Cold War to prevail over its interests—I should say its obligation—to support democracy, which was, after all, the cause for which we fought the Cold War,” former President Clinton had said.
“It is important that we acknowledge that,” he said, gaining a burst of applause.
During its seven years in power, the junta jailed hundreds of thousands of Greeks for political reasons and forced tens of thousands into exile, including most of the country’s civilian political leadership, including the left, right, and center.
According to testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, the junta contributed financially to Richard Nixon’s successful 1968 presidential campaign.
Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, of Greek descent, angered many Greeks when he visited in 1971, embraced the junta leaders, and called them the country’s best leaders since Pericles ruled ancient Athens.
U.S. Vice President Spiro T. Agnew pictured below on his visit to Greece.
Among the Greeks who fell victim to the junta’s repression were composer Mikis Theodorakis, who was arrested and tortured, and actress Melina Mercouri, who fled to avoid arrest and was stripped of her Greek citizenship.
The Turkish invasion of Cyprus had created sentiments of great bitterness in Greek public opinion toward the U.S. government, which was blamed by Greeks for not doing much at all to deter the invasion. The U.S. is also accused of possibly not even favoring a solution to Cyprus’ partition.
Henry Kissinger, U.S. Secretary of State at the time of Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, told former U.S. President Gerald Ford that Turkey was entitled to seize part of the island.
“There is no American reason why the Turks should not have one-third of Cyprus,” Kissinger told Ford, according to declassified minutes of a meeting between the two. The meeting was held after Turkey had launched an initial invasion and gained control of three percent of the eastern Mediterranean island. Internationally brokered peace talks in Geneva aimed at potentially resolving the crisis.
“The Turkish tactics are right—grab what they want and then negotiate on the basis of possession,” Kissinger said.
Minutes of the meeting reveal that Kissinger believed Turkey to be a more important ally than Greece and that in the event of a war between Greece and Turkey, the United States was to back Turkey.
“We certainly do not want a war between the two, but if it came to that, Turkey is more important to us,” he said.
Cyprus remains divided to this day. In 1983, the Turkish Cypriot leader declared independence—solely recognized by Turkey—of the occupied part of the island to be known as the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus henceforth.
Numerous diplomatic initiatives aimed at reunifying the island have taken place in the more than forty years since 1974, but none have succeeded thus far.
U.S.- dominated IMF imposes austerity on Greece
In 2010, Greece, with a spiraling spending deficit, requested financial rescue from the European Union and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
Bailouts—emergency loans aimed at saving sinking economies—began in 2010. Greece received three successive packages, totaling $330 billion, but they came with a heavy price, namely that of drastic austerity measures.
Measures were pushed in particular by the U.S.-dominated IMF. Wages and pensions were cut, public services, including hospitals and schools, suffered, and hundreds of thousands of jobs were lost.
With over a sixteen percent voting share, the U.S. is by far the largest single voting bloc. Many major decisions by the IMF require supermajorities of either eighty-five percent or seventy percent of its membership.
For those decisions requiring eighty-five percent of member agreement, the U.S. enjoys effective veto power.
Many Greeks blame the IMF, and, by extension, the U.S. for the misery they suffered during the 2010 to 2019 period.
In retrospect, he blames France and Germany for the austerity suffered by the Greeks.
“I noticed that [French and German politicians] rarely mentioned that German and French banks were some of Greece’s biggest lenders, or that much of Greeks’ accumulated debt had been racked up buying German and French exports—facts that might have made clear to voters why saving the Greeks from default amounted to saving their own banks and industries,” he wrote.
In his book, he explains that the two European nations’ revelations of their deep ties to Greek banks “would turn voter attention away from failures of successive Greek governments and toward the failures of those German or French officials charged with supervising bank lending practices.”
The United States beefs up Greece’s defense capabilities
Greece has been the recipient of weapons worth billions of dollars from the U.S. over the last seventy years. This has boosted its defense capabilities. Facing a much larger Turkish army, U.S. defense sales have allowed Greece to maintain a balance of power in the Aegean.
More recently, as Turkey’s aggression against Greece has been increasing, the U.S.—through congressional initiatives led by Bob Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee—is penalizing Turkey, which has also been a recipient of substantial military aid.
The influential senator has vehemently opposed the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. In a recent interview, he explained why. “This is not the Turkey that we aspire for, is not the type of NATO ally that is behaving in a way that we should be able to go ahead and give it some of the most sophisticated fighting equipment,” Menendez maintained.
The U.S. has also removed Turkey from the F-35 program because of its purchase of Russian S-400 missiles, and it has signaled its intention to sell the new generation jets to Greece.
Finally, in September 2022, the U.S. lifted its arms embargo on Cyprus, allowing the Mediterranean nation to buy American weapons to defend itself against the Turkish occupying forces.