The Grab for Greece

The Prelude to the Truman Doctrine: British Policy in Greece 1944-1947

by G.M. Alexander
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 299 pp., $46.00

Most Greeks believe that Greece is the center of the earth. The belief has more than twenty-five centuries of history behind it, for in the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi there stood a carved stone known as the “navel of the earth.” A few years ago President Karamanlis, who has been trying for years to educate his fellow countrymen in the facts of international life, was alarmed to be told by the French archaeologists at Delphi that they had unearthed the original stone which was called the navel of the earth. “I begged them to throw it into the sea,” he told his astounded parliament. No one but Karamanlis, with his unique prestige, could have uttered such a heresy without starting a riot.

Forty years ago, having as yet no Karamanlis, the Greeks were still contemplating their own navels. Greek politicians in particular knew that they need never accept responsibility for anything because whatever went wrong was always the fault of somebody else. They were convinced in 1944 that the sole war aim of the Allies was the liberation of Greece from German occupation. After that nothing was important except the future of Greece, which must be the sole preoccupation of the major Allies.

Churchill’s sole object, it was assumed, was to restore King George II to his throne, from which he had been obliged to take refuge abroad after the German invasion in April 1941. Stalin’s object was assumed to be the absorption of Greece into the Soviet empire. It was a pity that President Roosevelt seemed to have no object at all, but eventually that gap was filled by his successor with the Truman Doctrine in 1947. The “Greek question” was thus seen to be whether Greece was to become a British, a Soviet, or an American colony.

In reality Greece did not enjoy nearly so much attention from the Allied leaders as the Greeks supposed. There were short periods of crisis when Greek affairs needed intense concentration, but the average amount of attention given to Greece by the leading figures in London, Moscow, and Washington during the 1940s was probably about one hour a week. Stalin in particular regarded Greece with indifference. When Churchill asked him, at a historic meeting in Moscow during October 1944, to allow Britain a virtually free hand in Greece in exchange for a similar freedom of Soviet interest in other parts of Eastern Europe, he agreed without hesitation.1 When a delegation from the Yugoslav Partisans, who were intensely interested in Greece, raised the question with Stalin, he made it clear that he would not encourage a communist attempt to take over Greece, because the Western allies would not tolerate it, “and besides, we have no navy.”2

The Greeks are not the only people who have misunderstood the attitudes of the great powers toward their country in the 1940s. Many Western historians, both European and American, have done the same. Their common error has been to assume that great-power…

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