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A Rapture Deferred

The American life and Hellenic ambition of Greek prime minister Andreas Papandreou.

Greek economist and socialist politician Andreas Papandreou (1919 - 1996) in London, UK, 24th July 1968. (Photo by John Downing/Daily Express/Getty Images)

Gifted Greek: The Enigma of Andreas Papandreou, by Monteagle Stearns (Potomac Books: 2021), 176 pages.

In the late spring of 1939, the 20-year-old Andreas Papandreou, later known to posterity as a polemically anti-American prime minister of Greece in the 1980s, was apprehended by the police and badly beaten, his jaw broken, having been targeted as a member of a Trotskyist resistance group to the Greek dictatorship. The wily Papandreou was undeterred, deceiving the dimwitted security chief of dictator Ioannis Metaxas into granting him an exit visa—and absconding to New York City. 

So he liked to say. In fact Papandreou seems to have won passage out of Greece, and thus escaped the ravages of Nazi occupation and civil war, thanks to the interventions of parents: his mother, the daughter of a war hero; his father, soon inserted by the British as prime minister of a wrecked postwar Greece. Obediently signing a statement repudiating his views, he may also have informed on his friends. So one of them later suspected. 

In New York, dashing Andreas courted a young Greek American, Christina Rassia. “One day he’d bombard me with Marxist clichés,” she would later write, “and the next day about his noble family relations.” Promising a “rapture” beyond her imagination on their wedding night, Christina was disappointed when Andreas failed to deliver, instead falling asleep listening to the traffic outside the Lexington Hotel. Former Greek ambassador Monteagle Stearns comments in this wry posthumous biography of his troublesome friend that Christina’s disappointment anticipated how, for the Greek left, “Andreas’s promises to overthrow Greece’s entire social system would also become a rapture indefinitely deferred.” Promising her equal status in the marriage on his honor as a socialist, he in fact never learned how to do his own laundry.

Christina did not last long. Andreas, as he would be known to the Greek people, soon jettisoned her as he climbed the ranks of postwar academic economics. Studying with Schumpeter at Harvard, he stopped off in Minnesota long enough to acquire a lover and then a second wife in Margaret Chant, stout Midwestern progressive, with whom relations were more productive. He eventually assembled an impressive array of professors at Berkeley as chair of its economics department.

Stearns probes Papandreou’s academic writings for signs of his later radicalism—which would have surprised his colleagues—and finds a few traces. Papandreou the economist was not so far from Burnham, convinced that managers within large corporations were the true entrepreneurs propelling capitalism’s creative growth (and, relatedly, that the state could act as entrepreneur). He was, however, in favor of a “workably competitive economy,” and a Hamiltonian approach to antitrust, unafraid of largeness but interested in preserving competition. 

Andreas seemed tortured by the conflict between the Greece of his birth and his father Georgios, by then a leading establishment figure of the parties of the center, leading their endless squabbles with the right. Papandreou père drew Andreas, who had sworn never to return, back to Greece in 1961 under the guise of leading an institute for economic reform. An exile from 1967 until 1974—the rule of the junta—upon his return he had his revenge on his father, dead since 1968, by rejecting an offer to lead his Center Union party, instead setting up PASOK, the first formidable noncommunist party of the left. 

Victorious at the polls in 1981, PASOK took Greece to the left while the rest of the world was veering right, giving the country on the periphery of Europe what it had missed during the ferment of the 1960s and ’70s: civil marriage, divorce, abortion, the abolition of the dowry, the makings of a welfare state. But if radical in inclination, PASOK was conservative and typically Greek in organization, rigidly obedient to Papandreou as clan leader and increasingly dependent on corrupt patronage networks. 

Rather than combat ubiquitous tax evasion by the middle and upper classes—upwardly mobile PASOK-voting urbanites dodged taxes as eagerly as their conservative parents—Papandreou simply cashed checks from the nascent E.U. and borrowed to fund the new social programs. He failed to bring to bear his economic expertise to diversify the Greek economy away from diaspora mercantile capital, low-quality exports, and tourism. Despite some foreign-policy dust-ups resulting from his professed belief that the Soviet Union was a “country of peace,” unlike the U.S., his promises to take Greece out of NATO and lead a revitalized nonaligned movement unraveled predictably. By his death in 1996, on his third term and his third wife, his charm had dissipated. Today his party is eclipsed, his legacy fading: a man whose contradictions far overshadowed his resolve.

Monty Stearns, whose name alone identifies him as one of the postwar WASP generation of “area studies” diplomats, comes off as a surprisingly subtle American observer of Greece under the Papandreous, not to mention a generous one. Stearns seems to have been ever friendly with Georgios and Andreas, despite the father having once made a pass at his wife and the latter, during Stearns’s ambassadorship, having lied to him about a major political decision (re-appointing Constantine Karamanlis as president). In relating his own and Papandreou’s interlocking lives, he displays all the lenience and conventional morals of the Quiet American and little of his bloodthirsty idealism—frank, for example, on the Nixon administration’s tacit support for the Greek junta. 

Stearns cites as the cultural ingredients of Greekness love of public life, curiosity, and family loyalty (something far stronger than the “family values” of American parlance)—but also “obstinacy, exaggerated pride, and impetuous behavior: bear in mind that Oedipus killed his father in a dispute over the right of way at a crossroad.” Watching his friend Andreas drawn despite himself away from his personal ambitions in America and back towards his father in Greece, it seems that Stearns felt a half-horrified fascination, contemplating the workings of something older—stronger?—than the American creed.

Nick Burns is a columnist for the New Statesman.

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