THE COUP OF 21 APRIL 1967
My first knowledge of the coup came from my son Chris, who burst into the bathroom where I was taking a shower and informed me that I wouldn't have to go to work that Friday morning, because the schools were closed, the buses weren't running, and the Kifissia Boulevard was filled with tanks moving toward Athens. “Oh my God!” said I, and hurried to get ready to go to work.
The story of the April 21 coup in Greece has been told in many places and does not bear repeating here except for a few vignettes that may illuminate U.S. policy problems at the time. I drove to work in my old Volkswagen Beetle and had no trouble negotiating the various roadblocks and diversions until I reached the main intersection of the Kifissia and Alexandras Boulevards in Ambelokipi, a few blocks north of the American chancery. There, soldiers under command of a captain had blocked all the streets with tanks and armored personnel carriers, and no one was permitted to pass, with very few exceptions. The few exceptions were officers in uniform. And as I stood there arguing with the captain––on my own behalf and for a few diplomatic colleagues similarly blocked––I was more than a little dismayed and annoyed to observe a number of our service attachés and senior military mission officers passing through the roadblock in their chauffeured limousines and receiving smart salutes from the Greek soldiers, which they naturally returned. No civilians were getting through, not even full-fledged ambassadors of NATO countries. It struck me as curious at the time that those in charge of a military coup appeared to have no fear of foreign military officers, but for some reason they did not want civilian diplomats to reach their chanceries. The attachés did not offer to pick us up in their cars, so we waited and argued.
The discussion with the captain became quite heated. As one of the few diplomats at the roadblock who spoke Greek, I carried a large part of our side of the argument. I encouraged all the arriving diplomats to descend from their cars and to join the civilian phalanx with which we were confronting the troops. Our principal argument was that we were diplomats and had to get to our embassies, coup or no coup; in fact it was even more important that we get to our offices that morning, so that we could inform our governments of what was going on. This line had no appeal to the captain, who simply kept repeating that he was under orders to let no civilians through. At one point the soldiers pushed us back from the intersection toward the nearest apartment building, and a few colleagues decided they should perhaps go home and wait things out after they observed some bloodstains on the sidewalk nearby. (The coup has always been advertised as “bloodless,” and with the exception of a very few victims it was very nearly so, at least initially. Most successful coups are in fact bloodless, while the unsuccessful ones often are not.)
One of the civilians stopped at the roadblock was our own CIA station chief, Jack Maury, who returned home after a brief effort to talk his way through. He, too, had noticed that non-Greek officers in uniform were getting through, so he used his head and broke out from an old trunk his Marine Reserve colonel's uniform left over from the war. (Having gained some weight, he split some seams putting it on.) On his second try at the Ambelokipi roadblock, now in uniform, he made it through to the Embassy. I reached the Embassy shortly thereafter, when the captain in charge of the roadblock finally relented and let all the diplomats through in a one-time lifting of the gate. Once inside the ring of tanks and soldiers, we had no difficulty making it the rest of the way to our offices.
On arriving at the Embassy I discovered that the first American diplomat to learn of the coup had been, strangely enough, the ambassador himself. In the middle of the night, Dionysos Livanos, the nephew of Prime Minister Kanellopoulos’s wife, had awakened Talbot at his residence (two blocks from the chancery building) to tell him that soldiers had taken his uncle away “for his own protection.” But Livanos said he feared it was a military coup because he had seen some tanks in Constitution Square. He added that his aunt was hysterical and had asked if the ambassador would please come along to the P.M.’s apartment in Kolonaki nearby and assure her that everything was going to be all right. (Like many other people, she and Livanos had assumed it was an American-approved coup.) Talbot agreed to do so, but stopped off at the chancery first to send a “flash” telegram to the State Department. The ambassador dictated the text to a code clerk, a cable that contained all the information he thus far had; but in the urgent confusion, the code clerk ran together in one sentence what Talbot had meant to be sent as two. The cable as received in Washington read: “UNDERSTAND PRIME MINISTER HAS JUST BEEN SIEZED BY MILITARY ELEMENTS AND TANKS IN CONSTITUTION SQUARE. TALBOT.”
The telegram was sent at 3:27 a.m. Athens time and received in Washington at 8:34 p.m. It was immediately distributed to the Executive Secretariat Operations Center (S/S-O) and to the White House, DOD, CIA, USIA, and NSA. The code clerk, as above, had misspelled “SEIZED.” A senior watch officer in the Department’s Operations Center telephoned the Greek Office Director, Daniel Brewster, at home and read him the cable. Brewster was puzzled by the brief text because the picture it presented to him was one of the aged and dignified prime minister being surrounded by a large military force including tanks in the principal square of downtown Athens. He wondered (as he explained many weeks later): What was the prime minister doing in Constitution Square in the middle of the night? Why did they need to use tanks? Is he putting up some resistance? Before heading in to the State Department, Brewster told the watch officer to send a cable to Embassy Athens with the following text: “WHO SENT EMBTEL 4729? WHERE IS AMBASSADOR TALBOT? RUSK”
It had crossed Brewster's mind that the cable from Athens had perhaps been sent by a drunken code clerk or by a duty officer who thought this would be a funny joke.
When he arrived back at the chancery, having comforted Mrs. Kanellopoulos and heard from her an account of her husband's arrest, Talbot read Brewster's cable and was highly indignant, for he was not aware of the run-on sentence in his original cable, which he had dictated and which would not be typed up as sent until much later in the day. Talbot shot off an answer to the Department as follows: “I SENT EMBTEL 4729. I AM IN MY EMBASSY. TALBOT”