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Elias Demetracopoulos: The Perils of Committed Journalism

November 3, 2020

This column will not appear until after the election. Whoever emerges as victor, his policies must be monitored by responsible mass media. Relevant to that need is the example set by Elias Demetracopoulos, an influential Greek journalist active in the 1950s-1970s. Demetracopoulos was a conventional conservative so committed to the rule of law that he often worked comfortably with liberal politicians and professional colleagues.

Born in a socially well-connected Athenian family of modest wealth, Demetracopoulos was thirteen when the Nazis occupied Athens. He immediately joined the OAG (Organosis Anataseos Genous), a conservative resistance group allied with British intelligence that undertook some military actions but mainly gathered intelligence data and protected stranded British military. The Nazis arrested him in 1943, tortured him, and sentenced him to death, but his life was saved by a Christmas intervention by Archbishop Damaskinos. The teenager was transferred to a hospital for the mentally ill where he remained until the end of the war.

Demetracopoulos was very pro-American, but wanted the United States to be a model for Greece, not a master. In 1950, mainly on the basis of his mastery of English, he was hired by Kathimerini. The U.S.-Greek relationship became his specialty.

Although Demetracopoulos was appalled by Communist atrocities committed in post-war Greece, he was upset that the American Embassy and the CIA insisted that leftists be excluded from government while welcoming former fascists. Even more troubling was tolerating the formation of reactionary cabals in the new Greek army. During his first visit to America in 1951, Demetracopoulos spoke with Pentagon officials about his concerns. His continued critiques earned him the lasting enmity of the American Ambassador to Greece and the CIA.

Demetracopoulos’ professional ethics were exemplary. His work was so dependable that over the years he would be employed by major American as well as Greek publications. These included The International Herald Tribune and Time/Life. He taped all his interviews, transcribed them, and got signed approval from those he’d interviewed. These documents proved quite useful in defending himself against later charges of being deceitful. He also was a tireless researcher who poured over official documents to decipher hidden implications and assumptions. Among his vital sources were bellicose American admirals unhappy with American naval policies in the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. How many of the secret documents he obtained are due to this relationship is unknown.

In the early 1960s, Demetracopoulos, wary a coup would be carried out by generals associated with the palace, tried to curb the power of the monarchy through his writing and activism. When the colonels unexpectedly struck in 1967, he went into hiding. He needed four harrowing months and the direct assistance of Danish diplomats to escape from Greece. Although he was admitted to the United States as a political refugee, his political enemies harassed him by trying to prevent him obtaining permanent residence. One of his major foes was Tom Pappas, an American entrepreneur who Demetracopoulos had reported was diverting American aid to Greece into his own Greek enterprises.

Demetracopoulos worked tirelessly behind the scenes to get the United States to denounce the colonels. His extensive anti-junta agitation led the colonels to plan an assassination if he returned to Greece to see his dying father. Senator Ted Kennedy personally warned him that the American government knew of the plot but had remained silent. In 1968, Demetracopoulos provided evidence to Larry O’Brien, the chairman of the Democratic Party and Hubert Humphrey’s campaign manager, that Pappas had pressured the colonels to recycle $548,000 in secret CIA funds to the Nixon re-election campaign. He later speculated that recovering those documents was one of the goals of the Watergate break-in.

Demetracopoulos was not a fan of Archbishop Makarios, but when the colonels tried to militarily oust him, he vigorously supported the Archbishop and mobilized all his resources to get the United States to intervene. He was pleasantly surprised that the Turkish invasion of 1974 provoked massive protests by Greek-Americans, often organized by AHEPA and the Archdiocese, but he was bitter that they had not done so in 1967 when the colonels initiated their regime.

For most of the 1970s, Demetracopoulos was immersed in clearing his name of accusations that he was a disinformative mouthpiece for hidden financial or foreign powers. He was able to successfully refute all these charges before his death in 1985 from Parkinson’s disease.

 A detailed and candidate account of his fascinating personal life, his foibles, financial sources, Washington insider politics, and Greek political wrangling are available in The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate by James Barron.  A troubling theme in that saga is how often hostile American officials offended by Demetracopoulos’ political activism used fabricated data to pressure publishers to silence him.

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