Greece and NATO
Why did Greece want to join NATO? What was its role in securing Allied territory during the Cold War? Enjoy some Greek art, as well as unique vintage films and photos depicting life in the cities, as well as the remotest parts of the country in the 1950s.
(…) we are equally convinced that the organisation of a truly efficient system of collective security constitutes the best means of preserving peace and ensuring justice and liberty in fulfilment of the most ardent aspirations of the Greek nation (…).
Speaking at the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Lisbon, 20 February 1952
Known for its philosophers and its historical legacy as the birthplace of democracy, Greece – its language, culture and history - is omnipresent in Western cultures. This affinity and orientation towards the West was confirmed in 1952 with Greece’s accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Alliance membership oriented the country’s identity toward the West and became a pillar of Greece’s foreign policy.
Greece’s membership of NATO was a security guarantee, one that the country welcomed to support national efforts in providing a viable defence. On 18 February, Greece was formally welcomed as one of NATO’s first new members since the creation of the Alliance in 1949, along with Turkey.
A couple of days later on 20 February, the 14 members of the Alliance gathered in Lisbon, Portugal, where for the first time the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sophocles Venizelos, gave a speech on behalf of his country. This was the first time that the two new members - Greece and Turkey - were attending a meeting of the North Atlantic Council, the top political decision-making body of the Organization. You can listen to Sophocles Venizelos’ speech in the Palácio da Assembléia Nacional de São Bento, the Portuguese Parliament in Lisbon in the clip below.
Read Sophocles Venizelos’ full speech
DEFENDING THE NORTHERN BORDER
For decades, one of Greece’s greatest security challenges had been the defence of its northern border: a 1200km-long frontier that it shared namely with a soviet satellite country – Bulgaria - and Yugoslavia. South-eastern Europe was a region where overlapping national claims had been in play for a long time. NATO membership would help in two ways: firstly, to keep the lid on regional tensions and secondly, to keep the military might of Bulgaria in check. At the time, Greece felt threatened by Bulgaria’s military superiority, with its highly mechanised army. Furthermore, in 1953, Greece signed the Balkan Pact with Turkey and Tito’s Yugoslavia that was seeking protection from the Soviet Union, but unfortunately, the Pact was short-lived. The defence of Greece’s northern border remained a constant concern for successive governments.
While the defence of Greece’s northern border was crucial, so was that of its endless coastline and myriads of islands. Having suffered huge devastation during the Second World War and the ensuing civil war, it had become difficult for the Greek armed forces to protect its own territory and interests. One of the first things created by NATO was a military command called Allied Land Forces Southeastern Europe (LANDSOUTHEAST) in June 1952. LANDSOUTHEAST, with the support of the subordinate Thessaloniki Advanced Command Post, was responsible for an area that stretched from the Caucasus to the western shores of Greece; it was also responsible for the operational control of Greek and Turkish land forces should a crisis involving NATO break out. LANDSOUTHEAST was based in Izmir and was commanded by an American with the support of two deputies: one from Greece and one from Turkey.
The Hellenic Army was large and well trained. To be sustained, Greece initially received support from the United States via the Mutual Defence Assistance Programme. Maintaining defence spending levels after years of war had to be balanced against the economic development of the country, which faced additional challenges such as major earthquakes to which national funds were dedicated as a priority. While some soldiers trained, others helped to reconstruct thousands of homes, schools and public buildings in earth-quake-stricken areas.
In 1953, Athens and Washington D.C. signed a bilateral agreement for the installation of American bases on Greek territory. For Greece, the threat from the north was real and, at times, it felt like the barrier against Bulgaria was mere trip-wire tactics. These American bases were an added security guarantee against an attack. They were dotted around the country: near Athens, on the Attica peninsula and on the island of Crete, while the ‘Voice of America’ reached out to the population.
Greece’s air force had been modernised in the early 1950s and contributed to NATO’s Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force. The Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force was established in October 1953 and was NATO’s easternmost air headquarters. It ensured the air defence of Greece and Turkey and was based near Izmir on the grounds of a former American boys’ school. It was supported by the Royal Hellenic 28th Tactical Air Force of the Greek Air Force and the Turkish 1st, 2nd and 3rd Tactical Air Forces. It also utilised the services of the 39th Photo Reconnaissance Squadron of the Royal Air Force unit flying out of Malta.
Preparedness was essential for aerial warfare, so crews were carefully trained to be airborne within minutes. It was essential that air defence be guaranteed, and any plans of aggression be deterred in this strategic corner of the world. Aircraft assigned to the Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force included jet fighters with conventional and nuclear capabilities, while others were simply reconnaissance aircraft.
The navy, known as the Royal Hellenic Navy at the time, came from a long tradition of seamanship and expertise, with most seaman originating from the islands dotted around the Aegean and Ionian waters. The prestigious Royal Hellenic Navy’s Submarine Command, for instance, attracted outstanding sailors for duty. Greece is ultimately a maritime nation with a huge merchant shipping industry that dates back centuries. In the 1950s, to bolster its forces, the navy was given ships and destroyers from Italy, the United Kingdom and the United States.
GETTING TO KNOW ONE ANOTHER
In 1952, NATO produced similar communication materials for Greece as it had done for the founding members of the Organization. For instance, it had produced a cinematographic series called the “Atlantic Community”, dedicating a film to each one of its member countries. The film on Greece portrays a culturally rich and principally agricultural country with a strong naval tradition, bustling ports and a huge merchant navy.
These films were shown in public theatres and cinemas and constitute a true reflection of their times. NATO also used other ways of telling the story of its new members: it sent photographers to travel the country and captured locals on camera as they went about their daily lives.
To help the military work together, posters were produced displaying the uniforms of the armed forces of each member country to broaden knowledge on each one of them. One such poster was produced for Greece.
The Alliance also communicated with citizens via the NATO caravan – a mobile exhibition that travelled across Europe. It explained the role of NATO to local audiences, as well as the role of the host country within the Alliance. In addition to the driver, the caravan travelled with a NATO information officer who showed films, distributed leaflets and answered the public’s questions. The NATO caravan visited Greece from 7 September to 2 November 1952. During 50 showing days, over 750 000 visitors from Athens and Thessaloniki viewed the exhibition.
These initiatives were extremely important for a population that remained polarised after the civil war; moreover public support for NATO started to waiver in the mid- to late 1950s. This phenomenon was principally linked to Greece’s relations with the United States, which started to fray over the issue of Cyprus. Greece and Turkey had deep-rooted differences over the Aegean Sea and Cyprus, with tensions appearing in the mid-1950s and peaking in 1964 and 1974; these tensions were even palpable within political and diplomatic circles of the Alliance. At the time, Athens did not consider Washington D.C.’s reactions to these crises to be sufficiently neutral… and neither did Ankara. With American military installations across the country, the American presence on Greek territory was very tangible, which did not help to quell tensions. And in the minds of many people, anti-American sentiment was easily confused with anti-NATO sentiment…
THE YEAR 1962
The year 1962 marked the tenth anniversary of Greece’s accession to the Alliance. From NATO’s perspective, their membership was a huge strategic asset allowing NATO involvement in south-eastern Europe, as well as the entire Mediterranean and the Black Sea. In the lead-up to the anniversary, Athens strongly felt that Khrushchev had been uncomfortably singling out Greece. In a speech given in August 1961, the Soviet leader had stated that nuclear weapons would spare “neither the olive trees nor the Acropolis”. In parallel, the Berlin crisis ran rife, leading to the construction of the Berlin Wall. Athens increasingly feared that the next attack would come from its northern neighbour, Bulgaria. As tensions were high between the two super powers, NATO needed to know how to react to threats like the Berlin crisis, that were below the level of an all-out (nuclear) attack. The newly elected American President, J.F. Kennedy, was concerned by the notion that a nuclear war could be triggered by accident or miscalculation and started to advocate for a more flexible strategy that would be less reliant on nuclear weapons.
On 3-6 May 1962, Greece hosted a meeting that would be key for its security and that of the other European Allies and Canada. Foreign and defence ministers from NATO member countries gathered in the Parliament Building and the Zappeion (photo) to discuss the issue of the political control of nuclear weapons. The two-day meeting gave birth to what is known as the “Athens Guidelines”: NATO had made a first attempt to temper its policy of ‘massive retaliation’ by submitting the use of nuclear weapons to consultation under varying circumstances. Coincidentally, a few months later, international tensions culminated in the Cuban Missile Crisis - the closest the world ever came to a nuclear confrontation during the Cold War!
Every effort was made by the host country to make the meeting of NATO foreign and defence ministers a memorable occasion, as illustrated by the spectacular fly-over organised over the Acropolis.
A COMMITTED ALLY
In 1964, Bulgaria officially dropped all territorial claims over Greece. While this was a huge relief, Greece wanted to maintain a credible defence as tensions remained in the region. While politicians juggled with sometimes challenging regional and international issues, military activities continued to take place. NATO conducted military exercises on a regular basis both as a show of solidarity vis-à-vis its Allies and as part of its deterrence posture vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. Exercises were an opportunity to test procedures, equipment and tactics, and gave troops from different member countries a chance to train side-by-side.
In 1968, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia (and later Afghanistan in 1979) reaffirmed the value of NATO membership for Greece. Alliance protection against the Warsaw Pact continued to be vital. Nike surface-to-air missiles formed part of its air defence, although Athens did not allow the stationing of nuclear weapons on Greek territory. The NATO pipeline system, set up during the Cold War to provide fuel supplies in times of crises, also ran through the country, and NATO forces were authorised to use some military bases, under certain conditions. Greece participated in the NATO Air Defence Ground Environment (NADGE) programme, which provided the Alliance with a powerful barrier against the intrusion of fast-flying, or even supersonic, enemy aircraft into NATO European airspace. An unbroken chain of stations ran through several NATO member countries to improve the Organization’s ability to detect, identify and intercept aircraft and, if it came to that, destroy enemy aircraft.
A MULTI-DIMENSIONAL FOREIGN POLICY
Following the dictatorship of the so-called Regime of the Colonels (1967-1974), a newly elected government played a crucial role in the country’s transition back to democracy. The year 1974 was also a turning point for Greece’s relations with NATO: a wave of public resentment at NATO’s inaction regarding the situation in Cyprus led to the decision of the then Prime Minister Karamanlis, a great admirer of former French President, De Gaulle, to withdraw Greece from NATO’s integrated military structure following the French precedent of 1966. Greece was still a member of the Alliance, but it would no longer participate, for instance, in staffing military headquarters or have a say in the command structure.
The government introduced a more independent and multi-dimensional foreign policy, stressing Greece’s strategic location at the crossroads of three continents. While relations were already good with the Middle East, Athens took steps to establish cordial relations with Greece’s northern neighbours and the Soviet Union. Greece returned to NATO’s integrated military structure in 1980, just before it achieved its long term objective of joining the European Economic Community on 1 January 1981. Membership of this economic club crowned the country’s efforts to integrate western European institutions.
Greece continued to work closely with its NATO Allies during the 1980s, while pursuing a multi-dimensional approach to foreign policy. Greece reached out to both blocs, if not equally, at least in principle, by wanting to be an ally of the West and a friend of the East. History followed the same route just a few years later: little did the international community know that in 1989, the Berlin Wall would fall and come to symbolise the end of an era, the end of the Cold War.