LBJ Thwarted Turkish Plans to Invade, Seize Cyprus in 1964

July 26, 2021

ATHENS – In 1964, some 10 years before then-US President Richard Nixon looked the other way while Turkey twice invaded Cyprus and occupied the northern third of the island, President Lyndon Johnson prevented it from happening then.

In a feature report in Kathimerini, Marianna Kakouanaki wrote about a 6-minute conversation in June, 1964 between LBJ and his Secretary of State Dean Rusk that for a decade stymied Turkish invasion plans.

The recording, said the paper, revealed the secretive side of diplomacy in which they tried to decide the best approach to convincing Turkey to back off invasion plans that would have likely brought in a Greek involvement.

Johnson staved off a military confrontation between Greece and Turkey by sending a strongly-worded letter – LBJ was a tough cookie – to Turkish Prime Minister Inonu, the report said.

“I am gravely concerned by the information which I have had through Ambassador Hare from you and your Foreign Minister that the Turkish Government is contemplating a decision to intervene by military force to occupy a portion of Cyprus,” said LBJ.

To make sure the message was understood, four days later Johnson talked it over with Rusk, who recommended that Undersecretary George Ball be brought back from London where he was talking with the British – the island's former Colonial ruler before independence was obtained by the Cypriots in 1960.

Ball had been scheduled to go to Athens but Rusk didn't think it wise, fearing it would rouse the Greeks and the Turks alike. “The conclusion that they have been talking about in London is something that will almost guarantee the Turks would intervene and this is what concerns me,” said Ball.

LBL overruled that. “I think it’s a lot bigger a problem to send him after he gets back over there than let him go while he’s there, don’t you? It looks like it’s just a routine thing, if he’s there now. He’s been touring all over the continent,” he said.

LBL wanted Ball to also bring a message to Greek Prime Minister Georgios Papandreou to tell him that the US was notified about Turkey's invasion plans that would have upset the balance of power in the region and likely a conflict.

“We prevailed on them not to do it. We don’t think that things are going as they ought to there and we are very concerned about what’s going to happen. And we appeal to you to exercise whatever influence you’ve got with (Archbishop) Makarios to try to let the United Nations work this thing out for you instead of shooting at them and arresting them and capturing them and running off with them. And we just think that if you don’t take some leadership here and move in, as we had to move in with Turkey, that this is going to be a very bloody bath,'” added LBJ.

Still, Rusk thought it better to talk to the Greek Ambassador to the United States in Washington in a different tactic but Johnson wasn't persuaded.

“I don’t think… that Inonu is going to think that’s much, for me to talk to this little ambassador here,” said LBJ, wanting to go to the top of the Greek government to add to the weight on Turkey.

“I think that if he thinks that this man has crossed the waters and gone to Athens and put the heat on them just like we put the heat on the Turks, that he’ll think we are sincere and genuine and we’re really working at it and not going to sleep on it,” he said of Ball's mission.

Rusk and LBJ talked about inviting Inonu to Washington, the plain-speaking President from Texas telling his Secretary of State that, “The last thing we want him to do is let me be the peacemaker and later wind up on my lap. I think we ought to carry it right to Ankara and Athens. Now that’s my country-boy approach to it,” adding he didn't want to bring the mess to Washington.

“He’ll come over here looking for heaven and he’ll find hell,” said LBJ.

The President and Rusk agreed that after the “strong message” Johnson had sent Inonu, an approach should be made to Athens. “I need to follow through with the Greeks, and the easiest and simplest and least-noticed way to do it is while Ball is there to spend two hours doing it,” the President said.

Ball did go to Athens to personally deliver LBJ's message and, only after that happened, would a visit by Inonu to Washington be planned, Johnson securing no attack on Cyprus that he wouldn't abide.

Just to make sure, LBJ told Inonu that the US would leave Turkey defenseless against the Soviet Union if it invaded Cyprus and then the President met him and Papandreou in Washington.


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