BOSTON, MA – Retired U.S. Ambassador Monteagle Stearns was recently made a Grand Commander of the Order of the Phoenix by the President of Greece. He is the first American Ambassador to receive the award, which is given to both Greeks and non-Greeks “who have increased understanding and appreciation of Greece and its culture throughout their careers.”
In a touching ceremony at his home, he received the medals and documents from Iphigenia Kanara, the Consul General of Greece in Boston, in the presence of his wife, Antonia, and two of his four children, Christopher and Jonathan, who happened to be visiting at the time.
Amb. Stearns served three times in Greece between 1958 and 1985, telling The National Herald that he declined an assignment during the rule of the colonels.
He brought unique personal and professional qualifications to his tenure as ambassador from 1981-85, a challenging period in U.S.-Greece relations encompassing the presidency of Ronald Reagan and the premiership of Andreas Papandreou.
His wife was the daughter of a previous U.S. Ambassador to Greece, James Riddleberger, and he knew Papandreou personally, whom he met in 1959 when the latter was in Greece on fellowships. “We lived on the same street in Psychiko and we became friends.”
Asked to respond to criticism that Papandreou took advantage of his friendship, and was able to take American support for granted, he said in no uncertain terms that,
“Our vital concern was to keep American facilities functioning and we succeeded in that.” He pointed out that Souda Bay in Crete continues to be a very important NATO base.
“The fact that we knew each other before made our personal contact easier. He was quite accessible when I needed to talk to him. “
After the fall of the junta he served 1974-76, a difficult period because the general feeling in Greece was that the U.S. had been far too acquiescent in dealing with the colonels,” he said, and noted that the perception was strengthened by the visit of Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Asked whether Agnew’s visit provoked debate in the State Department, he reminded that he was then in East Asia, “but knowing how foreign policy is formulated in the United States I would be surprised if there had met been discussion and dispute over that.”
GREEK-AMERICAN DIVISION A BOON TO JUNTA
Told that Greek-Americans still argue over whether a stronger community stand against the junta might have made a difference under Presidents Johnson and Nixon, he replied, “I think pressure would have been helpful, and the fact that the Greek community in the U.S. was itself split, with some conservative Greeks favoring military rule, certainly relaxed pressure that would otherwise have existed.”
The Ambassador’s distinguished foreign service career was an accident. In his youth he was a documentary film maker and signed on with the State Department as a motion picture officer.
His first assignment was Turkey, where his work attracted the attention of the U.S, ambassador, who convinced Stearns to take the Foreign Service exam around 1953.
Stearns traveled all over Turkey during what he called the honeymoon period in U.S.- Turkish relations after Ankara’s neutrality in WWII.
The opportunity to visit Eastern Asia Minor taught him that “life in Turkey was very different from what was being discussed at embassy staff meetings…the roots of Kemalism might not be as deep as we supposed…we tended to simplify,” he said, and agreed the still-deep roots of Islam we not properly appreciated.
He noted “that turned out to be true and probably explains the success of Erdogan.”
Stearns emphasized that what appears to be the case after recent elections, despite the tumult amid reports of corruption of the past year, is that “Erdogan continues to enjoy a great deal of popular support. One can hope he does not overplay his hand by continuing to make what seem to be arbitrary decisions.”
Asked if he agrees Greeks should not pray to hard for Erdogan to disappear, whether the Turkish leader sincerely wants to maintain good relations with Greece and may even be a bulwark against forces that might want to take advantage of Greece and Cyprus’s current weaknesses,” he said, “Absolutely. You never know what might come afterwards,” and he gave the Arab Spring as an example.
Given the fizzling of dreams for greater Turkish influence in the Middle East, Stearns agrees that Erdogan now has an opportunity to mend fences with the EU and US. “He is by no means anti-Western in temperament,” he said, and noted that all of the Turkish leader’s children have been educated in the United States.
Stearns has met Erdogan’s son when he was studying at Harvard and called him “a very rational young man, very conversant with the history of the Western world. We just have to see what Erdogan does now that the election is behind him.”
The Ambassador distilled his knowledge of the Eastern Mediterranean into his 1992 book, Entangled Allies: US Policy Toward Greece, Turkey, and Cyprus.
GREECE WILL RISE AGAIN
Regarding Greece, he said “I have always said Greece has an extraordinary ability to recover from disasters, whether it’s winning the Battle of Salamis after the burning of the Acropolis, or the current financial crisis. I continue to be optimistic about the future.”
He attributes the survival of those qualities over 4000 years “to the depth of Greek culture, and the strong sense of Greek identity – language, religion, history…all those factors contribute to the will and the ability to survive in a dangerous world over the centuries.”
He also credits the Diaspora. “It saps Greece in an immediate sense as population decline, but it repays in many indirect ways.”
Stearns was born in 1925 in Cambridge, MA, where he now lives. He grew up in California, earned his BA at Columbia University, and was a Marine during WW II.
In his youth, he was focused on the arts, and his classics studies entailed studying Latin, but he developed his appreciation for Greece over time.
The ambassador met Antonia in Greece during his first foreign service assignment in Athens. She was visiting her family after graduating from college and there is a photograph of the exact moment when they met.
“She was very attractive. A blonde. She got the attention of the press in Greece and someone took a photo of us being introduced when we were shaking hands – it happened, of all places, on the Acropolis, in front of the Parthenon – at the Propylaea!”
“It was a real Greek romance,” he said. “We married in Athens and honeymooned in Corfu and Paleokastritsa.”
They have three sons and a daughter, who is following his footsteps in the Foreign Service and is now serving in the Congo.
In 2004 the couple enjoyed spending a month in Thessaloniki when Stearns was a Dukakis Lecturer at Anatolia College. When they were posted in Greece they loved to travel all over the country.
“We were very fond of the Greek way of life and the Greek people,” and they hope to return soon, he said.
Amb. Monteagle Stearns, his wife Antonia and two of their children, Christopher and Jonathan, after receiving his medal from Iphigenia Kanara, Greece’s Consul General in Boston.
The Order of the Phoenix is a two part award, a medal consisting of a Phoenix rising from flames at the center of white enamel cross, and a medallion showing a golden phoenix in the midst of a silver starburst