Public Service and Public Politics: Very Few Greeks

Like many other Greek Americans, I found myself puzzling over recent news reports about the forced resignation of the Central Intelligence Agency*#8217;s Deputy Director for Operations (DDO), Stephen J. Kappes *#8211; the man in charge of the clandestine intelligence service. While concerned about the harm Mr. Kappes*#8217; departure as DDO would do the embattled CIA, I also speculated *#8211; as many of us do *#8211; on whether or not Kappes is a Greek name.

This is not idle musing. Few remember that the CIA, when first created out of the World War II Office of Strategic Services, or OSS, was a virtual monopoly of Irish Americans from Notre Dame and Greek Americans from Boston. These included officers with distinguished, not to say heroic, records such as Tom Karamessines and Nick and James Natsios. They also served during a period when Greek American names were found in high positions throughout the Federal Administration.


When I entered the Foreign Service in 1963, a constellation of stellar ambassadors was there to inspire me, giants such as Viron Vaky, Nick Veliotes and John Condon. At one time, the number of Greek Americans holding flag rank (General and Admiral) in the American Armed Forces exceeded 20. Pete Petersen was Secretary of Commerce.*nbsp; Many others held high-ranking positions elsewhere in the bureaucracy. In numbers, the presence and, therefore, the influence of the community was punching way above its weight.

By the time I retired in 1998, the number of Greek Americans junior to me in the Foreign Service could be counted on my fingers. Few Greek American names could be found in the upper reaches of other bureaucracies. Yet, if one reviews the catalogue of distinguished Greek Americans in Business, the Sciences and Academia, one must assume that the community did not take a sudden catastrophic descent into incompetence.

Our community continues to be first or nearly first in the United States in education and wealth.*nbsp; Why the sudden decline in Greek American participation in the upper ranks of the military and bureaucracy might well be the subject for a doctoral thesis in sociology or demography. I claim no expertise in either field, but I would like to hazard a guess at why Greek Americans stopped seeking public service for their careers.

The vast majority of these distinguished members of our community entered public service from World War II through early 1972. These dates correspond roughly with the period of the draft in modern United States history. Greek Americans have always been ambitious.

Confronted with choosing between a couple of years as foot soldiers or being officers, they chose to seek the highest levels to which they could aspire.

Given their talents, they did quite well. Once in their new jobs, they came to like them and pursued a career.

When the draft ended, many Greek Americans, if not most, were urged by their parents to go out and make money *#8211; something at which our ethnic group has proven its skills over the millennia *#8211; and were not encouraged to go into public service.

Greek Americans as individuals have made a lot of money or gained fame in other fields. But collectively, our community loses from this trend.

First, we are losing the concept of Public Service. The United States has done a lot for us; do we need to become as self-indulgent as other older ethnic groups in this country, or the homogenized middle class center?

Secondly, as a community, we are increasingly ignorant of how our country makes and implements public policy. How can we affect public policy if we do not know how the system works?

Finally, the very presence of Greek Americans in the inner circles of U.S. Government shapes the tone and content of the discussion, as our fellow citizens of Jewish heritage have long since discovered.

But how do we change the culture? The responsibility rests on our families individually and on our leadership collectively.

So many of us talk about all that America has done for us. How many of try to instill the concept of Public Service in our children? How many of us truly believe, and impart to our children, that we need to both pay back and, more importantly, shape democracy and the American way of life?

Parents need to stop discouraging the young man or woman who expresses a wish to go into the Armed Services or into public service. My father once told me that he did not care what I did, so long as I did it well. As an old French saying goes, You do best what you enjoy doing, and if you like what you do, you will be at your best. Your children will remember and thank you for the freedom of choice. Both the Greek American community, and the United States will be better for it.

The leadership of our community needs to address this issue. It*#8217;s not just a matter of our almost total loss of political clout. Nor is it a matter of helping Greece. Our beliefs and traditions have the potential to benefit the United States.

At the same time, changing politics in the United State,*nbsp; and especially the growing clout of religious groups with a long history of hostility towards the Greek Orthodox, could affect us on a number of issues.

The time has come for the leadership of the Greek American community to set aside its mostly personal differences and come together for the good of the community.

Again, we need to take a page from the book of our Jewish compatriots and establish the equivalent of the Council of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations.


The Archdiocese, AHEPA and the major regional Societies should meet in concert with our long-suffering, dedicated and sorely under-funded spokesmen in Washington and lay out a program of unity to advocate the interests of our community, and to make our beliefs and traditions an important part of this country.

Not only do we need the political parties coming to us, collectively, to beg for support. We must have Greek Americans *#8211; reflecting the values, traditions and skills which have individually made us so successful *#8211; affecting other aspects of American life.

The humiliating debacle of the Administration*#8217;s recognition of The Republic of Macedonia, after it pocketed at least four million dollars worth of Greek American money, is only one example of what our failure to engage America can bring.

The lost opportunity to share the wisdom we have accumulated through 40 centuries is perhaps an even greater tragedy.

By the way, I still do not know if Stephen Kappes is Greek. I hope he is because he seems to be a man of character.