Literary Society of Washington
Meeting of January 9, 2010
“Essay” by Robert V. Keeley
“Overtaken By Events”
I start with four apologies. Number one is that this is a music stand and I’m not going to sing. Number two is there’s no way I’m going to talk through this presentation tonight. Number three is I don’t have an essay. And number four is I’m keeping you from your dinner. It’s already eight o’clock. And I’m going to make this as brief as I can. Here are excerpts from my new book that I was going to read to you—you’re not going to have to listen to those.
But the reason I don’t have an essay is that unlike this evening I‘ve noticed that whenever the President asks for people who’ve had literary triumphs recently or just published a book very few hands go up. Some did tonight. I’m actually publishing a book. I thought maybe I would tell you something about that. How it came to be published and a little bit about what it’s about, and then let you have your dinner. So it will be very brief I hope. I would like to read you some passages of it. The book will be available at some point. In the spring. This relates to Greece in the period ’66 to ’70, when a military dictatorship took over that has been tragic for that country.
My wife Louise and I were in the Foreign Service for 34 years. Our third post abroad after Jordan and Mali was Greece. I had had long-standing connections with Greece. I’d been asking to be assigned there for a long time. We were thrilled to get there. It was not a very good experience. A military dictatorship took over and ruined that country for seven years, especially Cyprus. Cyprus is still one of our major foreign policy problems that we’re trying to work out.
The reason this book came to be written was that I was very unhappy with the policies we were following there. I was a mid-career officer, a First Secretary-Political Officer working in the Political Section and my major job was Cyprus but I couldn’t resist getting involved in reporting on domestic politics, which was the major problem of that period. And I took a lot of notes and wrote a lot of memos to my bosses, the Ambassador, the Deputy Chief of Mission and the Political Counselor, and I kept copies of those, and after four years when I left there I had a sabbatical at Princeton University at the Woodrow Wilson School. One of the requirements was that I take a course from Richard Ullman on the foreign policy of the United States since World War II. I had to chair a seminar, and write a paper about the sort of bureaucratic interactions that create foreign policy, between an
embassy and Washington. And I used the Greek example and my differences with the policies. And I wrote a 25 to 30 page paper. The seminar members, mostly graduate students, had to read it, and Professor Ullman said that’s a very interesting story, you should turn it into a book. I took him more seriously than I should and did turn it into a book.
My next assignment was as Deputy Chief of Mission in Uganda. The first year I wasn’t terribly busy so I took a lot of time out so I finished a draft of this book on a typewriter. And then put it on a shelf because at that stage to think of even publishing it would not have been career enhancing but rather career terminating.
It sat on the shelf for many years. The one thing I did with it--later I was Ambassador to Greece from ’85 to ’89 and when the career officers who succeeded me came to me for advice and I’d give them the book to read. And I’d tell them don’t tell anybody you’ve read this book. And they were very appreciative.
But on the 40th anniversary of the military coup in Athens, which was on April 21, 1967, that is 2007, I got a call from Athens, from the newspaper Ta Nea (which in Greek means The News, a center-left newspaper). They were printing a book about the coup and the consequences, and they knew something about my reputation and they asked me for a statement. So I took the book off the shelf and I began looking at it, and I mentioned it to my wife, and she said: “By the way, what are you planning to do with that book? Are you planning to publish it posthumously?” And I said, “No. I don’t think you can do that.”
Anyway, I looked into it, and I discovered something very interesting. Of the officials, government officials serving in Athens and in Washington who had been dealing with this problem in Greece, only five of them were still alive, one of them was me, and one had since died, so there were only three people still alive who could sue me for libel and I’m not sure they’re going to succeed.
So I enlisted some help. First of all there was Margery Thompson who runs publications for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, which is a sort of adjunct to the Foreign Service Institute. They have accepted it, and they found a publisher, which is the Pennsylvania State University Press, and it’s coming out in the spring after a lot of effort. I also found a Greek publisher because actually the Greeks were much more interested in this because they are still convinced that we installed these Colonels who took over in Greece and I have proof that we didn’t. Which is important historically. I have very strong proof.
Anyway, the best thing that happened to me is that a friend of my brother’s, Professor John Iatrides, a retired professor at Southern Connecticut University, the
dean of academics on Greek-American relations since World War II, and he has done a Prologue (which is a Greek word) about the scene leading up to 1966 when I arrived at the Embassy. He details the political and economic situations, which were terribly complicated. And the American and Greek publishers have accepted this Prologue and it’s been translated into Greek. Both books should be out in the next three to four months.
Now, the problem that arose was what title are we going to give this book? My original title was “The Choruses of Aeschylus.” And I’m going to tell you why. The dedication of the original text of this book, I mean the book I wrote in Princeton and Uganda, was to the memory of George Seferis, the first Greek winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He died in 1971, the same year I was writing this book. I described him as “Greek, poet, diplomat, linguist, critic, democrat, gentleman, teacher, interlocutor, friend.” My brother has been the major translator into English of his poetry. Seferis made a statement after he spent an academic term here in the States, during which he kept being asked by Greek students, “Why don’t you speak out, you’re a Nobel Prize winner, why don’t you criticize this government that’s been imposed on us?” When he got back to Greece his wife pressured him, I pressured him, a lot of people did. I actually helped him disseminate the statement that I’m about to read to you. It was broadcast around the world in Greek, English, French, German, and it had a tremendous impact in Athens. It was issued on March 28, 1969, which is sort of the end part of my book.
Here’s what George Seferis said:
“… It is almost two years since a regime was imposed upon us utterly contrary to the ideals for which our world – and so magnificently our people – fought in the last World War. It is a state of enforced torpor in which all the intellectual values that we have succeeded, with toil and effort, in keeping alive are being submerged in a swamp, in stagnant waters. I can well imagine that for some people these losses do not matter. Unfortunately this is not the only danger that threatens.
“We have all learnt, we all know, that in dictatorial regimes the beginning may seem easy; yet tragedy waits at the end, inescapably. It is this tragic ending that consciously or unconsciously torments us, as in the ancient choruses of Aeschylus.
“The longer the abnormal situation lasts, the greater the evil….”
My title, of the original book, was “The Choruses of Aeschylus.” When I got to the Greek publisher, Patakis, which is probably the best publisher in Greece, they said “We can’t deal with that title. Nobody in Greece wants to read about the classical Greek tragedy. That title makes it sound like that’s the subject.” So I said
OK, what title do you suggest? “Well, something better. Something shorter and more pertinent. You keep using this phrase ‘Overtaken By Events.’ OBE. Sounds
like a State Department bureaucratic term.” I said yes, yes, that’s the theme of the book. Something happens in your country, unexpected, and the embassy reports it to Washington, and it gets discussed in different agencies, and they futs around with it and about two weeks later they come up with some instructions about what the embassy is supposed to do, and the ambassador reads it, and he says “OBE. Overtaken By Events.” That makes these instructions ridiculous. So that phrase could be put at the end of every chapter.
I consulted my Greek professor friend, John Iatrides, and he said this word “overtaken” (in Greek “kseperasmeni”) doesn’t make any sense because the verb is used about a footrace, say a marathon where one runner overtakes another and takes the lead, and that’s not what you’re talking about, is it? I said, yes, it’s just the opposite, new events make useless the instructions about what you’re supposed to do. They don’t make any sense whatever.
So we dropped that idea, and I asked Professor Iatrides if he could come up with a better title, and he said he had already done so. He asked me if I was “computer literate.” I said sort of, I spend a lot of time on the computer. He said you have to have key words in your title, so that when people Google these words
your book pops up and they buy the book. I said, John that’s wonderful. Does that really work? Of course, he said, how do you think people sell books?
I said OK, what’s your title? And this is the title of the book that’s going to be published. “American Diplomacy and the Breakdown of Democracy in Cold War Greece, 1966-69; An Insider’s View.” I said that sounds like a sub-title. He said that’s the title. I said, “What’s the sub-title?” He said, “Prologue by John Iatrides.” That will surely sell a lot of books in Greece, I said, but I don’t know about here.
Well, at that point I got a little bit worried, so I contacted the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, and they found a publisher, the Pennsylvania State University Press. We had earlier tried the press of my university, Princeton, and they wouldn’t even look at the book. If I can be a little bit vulgar for a moment, I called my brother and asked him why did they reject my book? That press has published about twelve of my brother’s books, mostly of modern Greek poetry in translation, and novels, lots of things. He said they think they’ve gone commercial. They’ve published a professor of philosophy’s book and it’s selling thousands and thousands of copies. I asked him what book is that, and he said it’s by the philosophy professor and it’s called “Bullshit.” So I said to Mike, Look I
can change my title to “Chickenshit” or “Horseshit.” I’ve got a lot of that in my book. No, he said, that only works once.
Anyway, I’ve given you the actual title, and the book is going to come out in some months. I have had a little bit of concern about two things. One of them is libel. There are only three people mentioned who are still alive, and I think two of them are not still in a reading condition. So they might sue me, and that could be a problem, but I also worried about not having sought clearance from the State Department. I consulted the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training and they said even though I had a lot of stuff about the CIA in the book, if I asked for clearance from State they would send it to the CIA and about two years later they’ll come back with all sorts of emendations, so I said I don’t want to do that. So I went to see my oldest friend, Plato Cacheris, a very well-known criminal defense attorney in Washington. His clients have included Fawn Hall and Monica Lewinsky, John Mitchell, Aldrich the spy, Hansen the spy. Plato’s a very old friend of mine. So I said to him, Do I have a problem? The things I’m writing about are forty years old. I don’t think most people remember what went on forty years ago. That’s my problem in trying to sell the book. And Plato said, If they try to suppress your book, I mean the authorities, we’ll sell thousands and thousands more books. Yeah, I know, said I, but if we get into trouble and you’re my lawyer and we walk into court arm in arm, the jury’s going to take one look and decide this guy must be guilty as hell, he’s got the best criminal defense attorney in Washington. Plato says, That is not the way it works. We do a plea agreement. I said, A plea agreement! You mean I go to prison for several months? Well, what are months? You want to be famous? I said, No, no, and I don’t want you as my lawyer.
So that’s where we stand. It’s 8:15, and you have a choice of having dinner, which I strongly advise, or I can read you a couple of extracts from this book.
(Audience: Read! Read! Read!) I can’t believe that. I’ve got to find some very short ones. I’ll read you a short piece, No two short pieces, no three. These are titled “Kollias,” “Nixon,” and “Talbot.” We’ll start with “Talbot.”