By Patricia H. Kushlis
(A shorter version of this review essay appeared in the FS Journal's June 2011 issue.)
On April 21, 1967, a tightly knit group of shadowy Greek colonels staged a coup d’état that deposed the Greek government and set the course of democracy in Greece back seven years. In his memoir about that watershed event and all that surrounded it, Robert Keeley, then a middle grade political officer in the US Embassy in Athens, describes the colonels’ coup and its effects from the vantage point of an Embassy reporting officer trying to keep up with a rapidly unfolding and confusing situation, all the while offering his own analyses and prescriptions for US policy – none of which, he tells us, were followed.
Despite or perhaps because of Keeley’s unreceptive audience, this is a unique and important book in US-Greek relations. It is also the only one written about that turbulent period by a knowledgeable Embassy insider. The US has often been accused of complicity in bringing about that coup, or at least knowing beforehand that it would happen. Keeley persuasively debunks these accusations.
Adding credence to Keeley's debunking of a popular but erroneous myth
To add credence to Keeley’s debunking, I think it important to mention that the Deputy Chief of Station at the US Embassy at the time of the 1967 coup had described to me several years later what he had seen that fateful day inside those Embassy walls in an interview for my dissertation research on Greek politics. What the CIA Deputy Chief told me then and Keeley’s observations in The Colonels Coup about the Embassy’s lack of knowledge about the colonels and their coup agree.
The truth is the US Embassy did know about a potential generals’ plot to have taken place later in the month, but the actions of these unknown undercover midlevel army officers who had spent their lives working in the shadows for Greek military intelligence– no. According to Keeley, the CIA had had an informant among the group that staged the coup, but the information had run dry by February 1967. One can only guess why: perhaps as Keeley conjectures because the plotters wanted to be sure the secret was safe within their small inner circle of officers who eventually pulled it off.
Keeley also makes another excellent and troubling point that I don’t remember seeing previously in print when he writes that almost all embassy staff had little or no personal contact with the Greek centrists – either George and Andreas Papandreou, the father and son leaders of the country’s major political opposition or other leaders of their party in the years leading up to the coup. I take Keeley’s word for it. I agree with him that if so, this was indeed a serious omission that should never have happened. It was clear well before the fact - after all - that Greece’s center/center-left party would win the 1967 elections if they had been held as scheduled.
Contacts with the opposition
Keeley argues that the CIA should have been in contact with these people – and was caught with its pants down. He said that the Embassy had become so vested in the ruling political right over the years that the US had failed to grasp the need to broaden its contacts so as to be able to predict, if nothing more, let alone adapt to the coming political sea change.