Greece and Greek America should move swiftly to build on the successful speech Kyriakos Mitsotakis delivered before a joint session of Congress on May 17th. The Greek prime minister’s eloquent words hit all the right notes and his invocation of the common values of the United States and Greece resonated deeply among his audience judging by the chamber’s applause and standing ovations. And the Turkish government’s angry reaction was further testament to the poignancy of his words.
But for Mitsotakis’ message to survive in the face of the busy agendas of both Houses and the 24-hour news cycle, the speech requires follow-up. Several observers have suggested how this can be done and we can safely assume Greece’s and Greek America’s representatives in Washington D.C. are at work elaborating on the speech’s messages in their contacts with legislators
Another way one could build on the momentum created by Mitsotakis’ speech would be by highlighting the fact the U.S. Congress has proven to be reliable and consistent friend of Greece over the past two centuries. It is true Mitsotakis was the first Greek prime minister in history to address Congress. But it is also true Congress has a long record of embracing Hellenism’s causes, something that adds weight to the prime minister’s summons of the values shared by the two countries.
Many Greek-Americans know that Congress imposed an arms embargo on Turkey following its invasion and occupation of a part of Cyprus in 1974. The embargo was lifted in 1978, but since then there have been numerous expressions of solidarity with Greece in both the Senate and the House, based on the common values of both countries and also thanks to the initiatives of Greek-American senators and congressmen and congresswomen as well as members of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues, formed in 1996.
Yet those initiatives are also part of a long historical legacy that we would do well to remember. It began when Daniel Webster a Massachusetts Congressman made a motion calling on the United States to send an American envoy to Greece to support its struggle for independence in December of 1823. In January of 1824 Webster followed up his proposal with a fiery speech supporting the Greek cause, and he was joined on the floor of the House of Representatives by Congressman Henry Clay of Kentucky. The motion did not pass but the speeches were a source of encouragement and inspiration for the growing philhellenic movement throughout the United States.
Another example came in the wake of the Cretan uprising of 1866, the first of several efforts to end Ottoman rule on the island and achieve its union with Greece. In 1867, a joint resolution of the Senate and the House of Representatives stated “the people of the United States feel a strong sympathy with the people of Crete, constituting a part of the Greek family, to which civilization owes so much.” There were further expressions of solidarity the with struggle of the Cretan cause on several more instances until the island became part of Greece in 1913.
A few years later, thanks to AHEPA, Congress was given the opportunity to show its support of Hellenic values in a more systematic way. In 1929 AHEPA held its first national banquet honoring Congress and 75 members of the United States Senate and House of Representatives were present. Their numbers would grow in the decades that followed as the event, known now as AHEPA’s Congressional Banquet, became a biennial occasion celebrating American and Hellenic values.
When Greece heroically pushed back Italy’s attack in 1940 Congress praised the Greek war effort. And in June 1942, King George of the Hellenes, while on a visit to the United States, went to Capitol Hill and gave a speech before Congress. And five years later, in March 1947, President Truman appeared before a joint session of Congress and outlined the Truman Doctrine that shaped Greece’s post-war history.
There were even occasions when members of Congress stood up for American and Hellenic values even when those governing Greece were failing in that responsibility. During the colonels’ dictatorship of 1967-1974, Minnesota Congressman Don Fraser spoke out against the torture being inflicted against the regime’s political opponents. Congress tried to curtail the U.S. military aid program to Greece while the dictators were in power, but its efforts were stymied by the Nixon administration.
This is by no means not a complete list, but it highlights the U.S. Congress’s embrace of Greece and Hellenic values in several key moments during the past two centuries. Congress and Hellenism are old friends. It is a special relationship, one that few other countries and cultures have enjoyed. By publicizing and celebrating its long history and legacy we could help deepen the bonds forged by Mitsotakis’ speech.