Greece’s late prime minister Constantine Karamanlis visited John F. Kennedy at The White House during the earlier stages of the Cold War.
According to archives from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, their meeting centered on how the U.S. could bolster support for Greece as well as how to strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Commonly known as NATO, the international group had become the antithesis to the Soviet Union’s communist coalition which it formed via the 1955 Warsaw Pact.
The joint communique drafted by American officials stated that Karamanlis informed Kennedy of his country’s ongoing economic struggles while also citing “the grateful appreciation of the Greek people” for past U.S. aid.
“We Greeks often forget the evil that many, at times, have done to us,” the prime minister said during his official remarks. “But we never forget those friends who helped us in difficult times, and granted us their effective support.”
Past American assistance included massive relief via the Marshall Plan, which in December of 1949 culminated in one million tons of aid for Greece.
The American president reciprocated Karamanlis’ gesture by commending the “stability and progress prevailing in Greece,” recognizing those developments as “invaluable assets for the free world,” or sections of the world not under the arm of the USSR.
“I am sure that sometimes the Greeks get tired of hearing about ancient history, because they are concerns with making history today,” Kennedy said in his official remarks. “But we look to ancient Greece for inspiration, and we look to modern Greece for comradeship.”
Following their meeting, US officials stated that relations between the two nations were based upon “solid and sincere friendship, mutual confidence and loyalty to common ideals and the common purpose of maintaining peace and safeguarding liberty and justice.”
The historical context
Karamanlis’ visit came at a time when Europe remained in the middle of an “East vs. West” tug-of-war between the U.S. and Soviet Russia. Both sides exerted influence through various means including economic aid and military support for European nations.
Given its “gateway” location between East and West, Greece found itself in the middle of the proxy war. But the U.S. remained determined to keep the country from falling into the Soviet sphere, as demonstrated by its massive post-World War II aid via the Truman Doctrine.
After WWII, Greek leftist forces had battled the country’s royal government in a grueling civil war. Truman argued that Greece was “threatened by the terrorist activities of several thousand armed men, led by communists.” He insisted that it was incumbent upon the U.S. to support Greece so that it could “become a self-supporting and self-respecting democracy.”
Greece’s political left saw the American aid as “blood money” that only supported pro-government areas while neglecting pro-communist regions.
Concerns regarding Soviet influence
At the time of their meeting, Karamanlis and Kennedy found themselves particularly concerned with Soviet influence in Europe.
According to the joint communique, their meeting devoted “special attention” to defense affairs and especially to bolstering NATO. “The need to strengthen the defense of the Atlantic community was recognized, as well as the importance of promoting solidarity and the fulfillment by each member of its obligations,” the document stated.
The two men also discussed the situation in the Balkan region, which had become an effective extension of the USSR into Eastern Europe. The communique added that Greece and the U.S. would “continue to consult closely with each other regarding developments in these areas and elsewhere.”
Political reputation of Karamanlis
The Greek prime minister earned notoriety for his pro-Europeanist vision. Since 1958 he had pursued an aggressive policy toward Greece’s membership in the newly-founded European Economic Community (now incorporated into the European Union since 2009).
In July 1961, just months following his White House visit, Karamanlis’ lobbying efforts succeeded as Europeans approved Greece’s entry into the EEC. The signing ceremony in Athens was attended by delegations from the six-member bloc of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands, a precursor of the EU.
Karamanlis has received historical praise for presiding over an early period of Greek economic growth (1955–63) and for his efforts to involve the country in the greater European community. The late national leader is also recognized for establishing the third Hellenic Republic after the collapse of Greece’s military junta in July 1974.
Some of his conservative opponents criticized his socialist economic policies during the 1970s, which included the nationalization of Olympic Airways and Emporiki Bank, as well as the creation of a large public sector.
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