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Gifted Greek: the Enigma of Andreas Papandreou by Monteagle Stearns, A Book Review Essay

By Patricia H Kushlis

Being US Ambassador to Greece is not easy and it was particularly difficult from the end of World War II until 2004 well after the US military presence had been withdrawn following the Cold War’s end, and N-17 - a domestic terrorist group that had killed three Americans between 1975 and 2004, wounded another and murdered multiple Greek conservative politicians and newspaper editors as well as a British defense attache -  was finally rounded up.  Its members were tried, sentenced and imprisoned just before the 2004 Olympics opened.

Ambassadors come and go and although Greece’s sunny Aegean beaches have tempted many the political appointee as well as career diplomat, in reality, that position belongs in the hands of a professional – one who speaks the language, understands the politics and knows the country’s personalities, society and culture, as well as how the State Department and Embassies function.  

I was an Assistant Cultural Affairs Officer and Executive Director of the Hellenic American Union (then our binational center) and my late husband William (Bill) Kushlis was a political officer in the Embassy during the first three years of Ambassador Monteagle Stearns four-year tenure as Ambassador.   I later served as Country Affairs Officer for Greece, Turkey and Cyprus from 1986-7 at the US Information Agency and Bill headed the Greek desk at the State Department from 1985-87.   

Gifted GreekThis was Ambassador Stearns third posting to Athens.  We all arrived during the summer of 1981 as political power was about to shift from a Conservative government to the center left and one led by the charismatic, enigmatic, and mercurial Greek politician Andreas Papandreou, a former economics professor and department chair at the University of California Berkeley, Harvard PhD, son of the Greek liberal and anti-monarchist politician George Papandreou and neighbor of the Stearns from 1959-61 in Psychiko, a near suburb of Athens.

In this book, Stearns describes Papandreou’s history as well as writes about the time during his first assignment to Athens as a political officer when he and his wife Toni (Antonia) were part of the boisterous crowd on Syntagma (Constitution) Square watching the George Papandreou rally the evening before the national elections of October 1961, an electoral contest that Andreas’ father George Papandreou lost to the conservative politician Constantine Karamanlis.

What Stearns does not say, however, is that he and several Embassy officers including the then chief of the political section, and my husband and I watched the enormous rally unfolding in this central square from a room in the Grande Bretagne Hotel that preceded Andreas Papandreou’s victory the next day in the November 18, 1981 elections twenty years later.   

Stearns notes in Gifted Greek that he had predicted the Conservatives would win by a thin margin in 1981, but then gives credit to his “first rate political section (whose members) heartily disagreed, and of course, they were right.”  In fact, PASOK, Papandreou’s party which had replaced his father’s Center Union Party, won by a comfortable margin. (p.99)   

In this newly published book and Stearns’ final one – not finished when he died in 2016, but completed by his wife Toni who had accompanied him throughout his Foreign Service career - he (and she) provide a first hand recounting of their relationship with the Papandreou family from their first meeting as neighbors during Stearns initial assignment to Greece to his final meeting with Andreas Papandreou not long before he died.  

In this book, Stearns describes some of his interactions with Papandreou but most importantly uses them to make sense of Papandreou’s seemingly complex dual or Janus like personality and sometimes consequently difficult to understand decisions.   As he tells the story Stearns also provides a crystal clear, perceptive, objective and concise description of modern Greek politics and US-Greek relations even after he concluded his Ambassadorship in Athens.

In so doing, he raises questions that troubled that binational relationship and others elsewhere for decades:  the over-reliance on the US military, the too close relationship between the CIA and the conservatives – in particular the monarchy, and consequently the too strong support for the political right including the Fascist right in the name of anti-Communism without recognizing the importance for the country to develop a cohesive non-Communist center left rather than driving them into a closer relationship with the Communists as happened too often.  In an ADST and DACOR virtual book launch video with Antonia Stearns and Dr. Constantine Arvanitopoulos now online, it was suggested that Papandreou’s fiery anti-EU, anti-NATO and anti-US Bases populist rhetoric could be seen as a part of the Greek nationalist backlash at the time.   

In this excellent book (although the chapter on Papandreou’s generally illustrious academic career was slow going for this non-economist), Stearns did make two observations that I question.

First, he dates the terrorist threat against Americans as beginning in 1975 and says it came from the domestic political left.  And second, he describes Andreas’ relationship with his father as stormy. I don’t dispute the overall difficult father-son relationship which Stearns describes as continuing into the next generation– it’s well documented and unsurprising.   Yet I also remember father and son Papandreou attracting a huge crowd at a campaign rally they held together in downtown Thessaloniki in 1965-6, the year I worked at Anatolia College as a Teaching Fellow, so the break between the two may not have been as immediate or abrupt and likely more complex than seen from the outside.     

With respect to the terrorist threat to official Americans, I know that the Embassy had already been threatened by two Greek Cypriot terrorists in late August 1970.  This occurred during my first tour at the Embassy in Athens as a very junior officer in the US Information Service.  Fortunately, the Cypriots succeeded only in killing themselves in their car in the Embassy parking lot due to their ineptness at handling explosives.  This as opposed to destroying the Embassy as they had planned.  I had just walked through that lot and behind their car twenty minutes before the bomb exploded blowing up the two young people along with their car as well as damaging other cars in the lot.

Their goal, we were told at the time, had been to protest US policy towards Cyprus by destroying the Embassy from the inside.  So it is quite likely that at least some increased security had already begun before CIA station chief Richard Welch was murdered outside his home in 1975 in the first of the multiple N-17 (November 17) attacks.  However, obviously not enough because we had one military attache murdered and another seriously wounded by N-17 while I worked in Athens.  Another became a victim of N-17 after I had left.

 By 1981, it was difficult to fathom why the Greek security forces had not rounded up N-17.  I at least still cannot find an answer to that question to my satisfaction.  In the end, they turned out to be a small band of ultra Greek nationalists led by a Trotskyite professor. Three were from the same family including an icon painter. Their fatal mistake was made by one member who was carrying a bomb down a street in the port city of Piraeus in 2004. The bomb exploded injuring him badly enough for him to be hospitalized.  This led to the group’s unraveling, arrests, subsequent trial and imprisonment. 

But back to the Stearns.  Stearns was not only a consummate Greek hand but also the most experienced Ambassador I ever worked for and his expertise is once again demonstrated in this final book.   It is quite possible that had the US been represented by someone less expert and without his extensive knowledge of Greece, his personal contacts and his diplomatic finesse that the tenuous US-Greek relationship could have unraveled entirely before the Cold War’s end and with ensuing recriminations.   This book, then, should be read not just by Greek hands and Greeks but also by those who want or need to know how to be a successful US Ambassador faced with a troubled relationship in difficult times.

Monteagle Stearns, Gifted Greek:  the Enigma of Andreas Papandreou, An ADST-DACOR Diplomats and Diplomacy Book, Lincoln: Potomac Books, in imprint of the University of Nebraska Press, 2021.   


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About Us

  • Patricia Lee Sharpe
    Poet, journalist, teacher, foreign service officer with 23 years public diplomacy experience in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean.
  • Patricia H. Kushlis
    27 years public diplomacy experience in Europe, Asia and Washington, DC as a US foreign service officer. International affairs writer, analyst and commentator.

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