Present at the Creation: My Years at the State Department
The situation in Greece, bad at the end of December, deteriorated rapidly during January and February 1947. All three of our scouts in Greece—Ambassador Macveagh, Paul Porter, chief of the economic mission, and Mark Ethridge, who had been reporting to Mr. Byrnes on conditions in the Balkans—sent back increasingly alarming reports of imminent collapse due to mounting guerrilla activity, supplied and directed from the outside, economic chaos, and Greek governmental inability to meet the crisis. Macveagh reported rumors of impending British troop withdrawals; Waldemar J. Gallman, Minister in London, that the British Cabinet had met to discuss Greece, and would be asking for help from the United States. All signs pointed to an impending move by the Communists to take over the country, which Loy Henderson discussed in a memorandum entitled “Crisis and Imminent Possibility of Collapse,” which I edited and sent on to General Marshall. It urged that only a national coalition government and substantial aid could save Greece. Before leaving the next day—Friday, February 21, — to speak at Princeton’s bicentennial celebration, the General instructed me to prepare the necessary steps for sending economic and military aid.
Shortly after the General had gone, the British Ambassador’s private secretary asked urgently that his chief might see the Secretary of State to deliver “a blue piece of paper,” the trade name for a formal and important message from His Majesty’s Government, which Lord Inverchapel had been instructed to deliver personally to General Marshall. The Ambassador and I were close friends. He told me that the note contained important information about a crisis in British aid to Greece. I explained that unless he went to Princeton or North Carolina he could not catch General Marshall until Monday morning; that if he did the General would turn the note over to me; and that if he sent his First Secretary over with a copy and presented the ribbon copy to the General on Monday, the letter and spirit of his orders would have been meticulously obeyed. He agreed.
Henderson shortly received not one but two documents. They were shockers. British aid to Greece and Turkey would end in six weeks. Henderson and Hickerson brought them to me. They were brief and all too dear. One described the state of the Greek economy and army, which we all knew. It estimated Greece’s current foreign-exchange needs at from two hundred forty million to two hundred eighty million dollars and, in addition, substantial sums over several years. The other reported Turkey as stronger but still unable to handle the financing of both the modernization and maintenance of the large army that Russian pressure demanded and the economic development of Turkey, which since Kemal Ataturk’s time had been its first priority. The British could no longer be of substantial help in either. His Majesty’s Government devoutly hoped that we could assume the burden in both Greece and Turkey.
I instructed Henderson and Hickerson to get the European and Near Eastern Division people together that evening and assign tasks for preliminary reports the next day on facts as seen by United States representatives; (2)funds and personnel currently available; (3) funds and personnel needed; (4) significance of an independent Greece and Turkey to Western Europe. They should also confer the next day with Admiral Forrest Sherman, Deputy Chief of Naval Operations, and General Lauris Norstad, Army Director of Plans and Operations, so that they might brief the Secretaries of Navy and War on military-aid needs and available supplies for a meeting with the Secretary on Monday morning. Then, by telephone, I explained to the President and General Marshall what had happened, what had been done, and asked for further orders. They had none.
Reports kept coming in to me on Saturday from various working groups. These were studied, discussed, and sent back for further development and documentation. On Sunday they were brought to my house in Georgetown for final review. They were in good shape. Henderson asked me whether we were still working on papers bearing on the making of a decision or the execution of one. I said the latter; under the circumstances there could be only one decision. At that we drank a martini or two toward the confusion of our enemies.
General Marshall found the early-morning hours, before the place got cluttered up, his most productive time. Then he read the papers that Colonel Marshall (Pat) Carter had arranged for him and noted instructions for me. On Monday, February 24, although I came in early, he had already read the British notes and our memoranda preparatory to his meeting with Lord Inverchapel at ten o’clock. As usual, probing the essential points, he wanted to know whether we were sure of our facts about Greek and Turkish financial weakness; how long British troops could be induced to stay in Greece; what military forces would replace them; how we proposed to get an effective governmental organization in Greece; what were our estimates of cost and over how long? The consequences of inaction were clear enough. Of the answer to the first question I was sure; to the others, the answers had to be tentative, subject to further work. As we ended, the General said that I must continue to take the principal responsibility in this matter. He would be going to Moscow for the foreign ministers’ meeting in a little over a week and had a lot of preparatory work to do. It would be essential to have continuity of direction. He would do everything possible to get us started.
The meeting with Lord Inverchapel, which I did not attend, was brief, performing its essential function of convincing the Ambassador of the General’s grasp of the situation and its critical importance. Later the General went off to a Cabinet luncheon at the White House, staying afterward for a discussion with the President, the Secretaries of War and Navy, Admiral Sherman, and General Norstad. At its end the service secretaries and officers resumed it with Henderson, Hickerson, and me in my office. We agreed that the President and his principal advisers seemed convinced that it was vital to the security of the United States for Greece and Turkey to be strengthened to preserve their national independence, that only the United States could do this, that funds and authority from Congress were necessary, and that State would prepare for concurrence by War and Navy specific recommendations for the President. General Marshall approving, Henderson and his staff worked with me prepare the recommendations.
The next day, the three secretaries concurring, the President approved the paper for action. This moved us from consideration through decision by Executive. The President set up a meeting for the following day to begin the important next step of consultation with the legislative branch, now controlled by the opposite political party. The actual planning had advanced only to the extent of a decision to send as soon as possible such funds and equipment as existing legislative authority permitted, to give Greece priority in assigning military aid, and to find out at once what British military help we could expect and for how long. A Pentagon proposal, voiced by General Eisenhower, to include in our request funds for other countries in need of bolstering was rejected because we already had more to deal with than the time available permitted.
When we convened the next morning in the White House to open the subject with our congressional masters, I knew we were met at Armageddon. We faced the “leaders of Congress”—all the majority and minority potentates except Senator Taft, an accidental omission to which Senator Vandenberg swiftly drew the President’s attention.
My distinguished chief, most unusually and unhappily, flubbed his opening statement. In desperation I whispered to him a request to speak. This was my crisis. For a week I had nurtured it. These congressmen had no conception of what challenged them; it was my task to bring it home. Both my superiors, equally perturbed, gave me the floor. Never have I spoken under such a pressing sense that the issue was up to me alone. No time was left for measured appraisal. In the past eighteen months, I said, Soviet pressure on the Straits, on Iran, and on northern Greece had brought the Balkans to the point where a highly possible Soviet breakthrough might open three continents to Soviet penetration. Like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties in Western Europe. The Soviet Union was playing one of the greatest gambles in history at minimal cost. It did not need to win all the possibilities. Even one or two offered immense gains. We and we alone were in a position to break up the play. These were the stakes that British withdrawal from the eastern Mediterranean offered to an eager and ruthless opponent.
A long silence followed. Then Arthur Vandenberg said solemnly, “Mr. President, if you will say that to the Congress and the country, I will support you and I believe that most of its members will do the same.” Without much further talk the meeting broke up to convene again, enlarged, in a week to consider a more detailed program of action.