Exile on K Street

After fleeing Greece, Elias Demetracopoulos fought against his home country’s junta from Washington—and nearly upended Richard Nixon’s presidency.

Like a bolt out of the blue, tanks surrounded the Greek parliament on April 21, 1967, as a cabal of junior officers launched a military coup to thwart impending elections. Arresting more than 8,000 citizens, the officers installed an oppressive junta that would rule Greece for the next seven and a half years. 

The Greek Connection: The Life of Elias Demetracopoulos and the Untold Story of Watergate
by James H. Barron
Melville House, 487 pp.

In Washington, the coup posed a thorny challenge to Lyndon Johnson’s administration. Unlike other right-wing military coups during the Cold War, the Greek junta had not seized power in some distant Third World country. It had done so in a flawed but functioning democracy and a critical NATO ally on the frontier of a divided Europe. 

While liberals condemned the coup, Cold War hawks, fearful that Greece was drifting out of the Western camp, were quietly relieved. Rather than issue a statement denouncing the takeover, the administration remained silent for a week. When the State Department finally released a press statement, it expressed regret at the suspension of democratic processes but welcomed the new regime’s declaration of continued devotion to NATO. Meanwhile, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo that the Pentagon would covertly evade. The purpose of the ruse, as a National Security Council official put it, was “to straddle the fence between continuing basic supplies to a NATO partner while maintaining a semblance of disapproval for domestic political purposes.” The net result of the administration’s policies was to leave the junta free to continue ruling through martial law. 

Fear of arbitrary arrest and possible torture drove a variety of Greek public figures out of the country. Among these exiles was Elias Demetracopoulos, a controversial Athenian journalist whose life and times are the subject of The Greek Connection, James Barron’s engrossing, richly detailed book. Having escaped arrest on the night of the coup, Demetracopoulos made his way to Washington. 

He was no stranger to U.S. politics. In 1949, he had landed a position covering Greek-U.S. relations with Kathimerini, a serious conservative Athens daily. In a period when Greece was still struggling to recover from World War II occupation and its civil war aftermath, the massive American mission in Greece wielded a heavy hand in shaping the country’s affairs. Ambitious and talented, Demetracopoulos made abundant use of the opportunities that the Greek-U.S. beat offered. He was able to steadily develop a network of confidential American sources, particularly within the U.S. military, by using his pen to curry their favor and demonstrating his ability to keep a secret. In a letter, one U.S. military leader called Demetracopoulos a “friend”  who “has always presented our efforts to the reading public in a most favorable light.” This relationship allowed him to break major stories. In 1963, for instance, he published an interview with a high-ranking U.S. general suggesting (correctly) that nuclear weapons were secretly being stored in Greece. 

But despite his relationships with trusted confidential sources in the American military and the CIA, Demetracopoulos, a committed democrat, became a fierce critic of U.S. backing of the Greek junta. Barron’s book was inspired by the achievement that secured Demetracopoulos a place of honor in the annals of investigative journalism: In October 1968, he discovered that the Greek American tycoon Tom Pappas, a longtime crony of Richard Nixon’s and a future Watergate bagman, had secretly funneled $549,000 from the junta’s intelligence agency into the coffers of the Nixon presidential campaign. 

After interviewing Demetracopoulos (who died in 2016), Barron discovered that “this episode was but part of Elias’s much larger and even more compelling life story,” and decided to write a full-fledged biography. What results is the story of one of America’s first complex, controversial, and powerful émigré residents. Like the late Saudi exile Jamal Khashoggi, Demetracopoulos became a dedicated critic of his home country’s authoritarian regime and a player in his new country’s politics. Both Khashoggi and Demetracopoulos befriended powerful American political and media figures and earned prominent platforms. Both men were attacked by other powerful Americans who considered their work meddlesome. And both were targeted by their home states for abduction and assassination—successfully in one case, unsuccessfully in the other. 

But Demetracopoulos’s anti-junta activities were constrained by professional calculations. Even though he uncovered a damning, potentially devastating story about Nixon, he made only limited attempts to use it. Unlike many of his anti-junta contemporaries—or Khashoggi while he was alive—Demetracopoulos mostly operated on his own. The book’s narrative thread is not the Greek-U.S. connection but, rather, Demetracopoulos’s success in exploiting that connection to become a redoubtable, if controversial, Washington insider. 

After arriving in Washington in October 1967, Demetracopoulos took up residence at the Fairfax Hotel, then owned by the influential GOP politician Louise Gore, with whom he had once had a brief affair. With Gore’s help, Demetracopoulos began expanding his network of American contacts, starting with Maryland Governor Spiro Agnew, soon to be tapped as Nixon’s running mate for the 1968 election. The two met to discuss U.S. relations with the junta, which under Johnson had been moving toward normalization. He left the meeting believing that Agnew, while unable to come out against the junta, had at least agreed to remain neutral. At a National Press Club event the following September, he was shocked when Agnew responded to a question about the junta by reading a prepared statement that downplayed its negative image. Agnew credited the regime for having “done a bit to stabilize the Communist threat in Greece” and criticized “Communist forces under Andreas Papandreou,” Greece’s future center-left prime minister, for purportedly “stimulating attempts at an uprising.” 

Demetracopoulos felt betrayed and pursued rumors that Louise Gore shared with him that “Nixon campaign officials John Mitchell and Maurice Stans had been in regular contact with Tom Pappas as he traveled back and forth among his corporate headquarters in Athens, his suburban Boston home, and his Washington office.” Pappas, a longtime GOP fund-raiser and CIA conduit, had clashed with Papandreou over his petroleum monopoly in Greece and eventually helped foment the 1967 coup. Following Gore’s tip, Demetracopoulos was able to document the junta’s illicit donation to the Nixon campaign, carried out via Pappas. 

Demetracopoulos then gained access to Larry O’Brien, chair of the Democratic National Committee, and told him about the donation. But he was ultimately frustrated in his efforts to convince Democrats to use the explosive information to damage Nixon’s election prospects. It’s not certain why O’Brien demurred, but one of the plausible explanations Barron cites comes from Johnson biographer Robert Dallek. In Flawed Giant (1998), Dallek explained that “Johnson wanted something to use against Nixon if the Nixon Justice Department started to comb the Johnson Administration for scandal, and Nixon’s Greek connection would serve that purpose handsomely.” 

Rebuffed by O’Brien, Demetracopoulos decided to bury the story in his files, where it remained for the duration of Nixon’s time in office and many years thereafter. He eventually decided to make it public by giving the information to Seymour Hersh for his 1983 book on Henry Kissinger, The Price of Power. In 1986, Christopher Hitchens, a Demetracopoulos friend and champion, added a provocative new twist: Writing in The Nation, he argued that what Nixon’s plumbers may have been seeking in the Watergate break-in was Demetracopoulos’s dossier on the donation, which was likely on file in O’Brien’s office. 

In October 1968, Demetracopoulos discovered that the Greek American tycoon Tom Pappas, a longtime crony of Richard Nixon’s and a future Watergate bagman, had secretly funneled $549,000 from the Greek junta’s intelligence agency into the coffers of the Nixon presidential campaign.

Barron, however, leaves that proposition in the realm of speculation. He also doesn’t offer a satisfying explanation for why, after being rejected by O’Brien, Demetracopoulos didn’t work much harder to insert the potential scandal into the 1968 campaign. While he told a small circle of journalists and politicians that he had evidence of an illicit transaction between Nixon and the junta, he didn’t offer them any details. Part of that circle was Papandreou, who leaked it to the Swedish press, but when the junta reacted by denouncing the claim as “ludicrous,” the story died. (The New York Times relegated the junta’s statement to a short item buried at the bottom of page 17 of its October 15, 1968, edition, and didn’t follow the accusations up.) Like The Washington Post’s largely ignored story on the Watergate break-in trial prior to the 1972 elections, the bread crumbs were there, but no one followed their trail. That failure belongs in no small part to Demetracopoulos. 

He did provide Barron with one explanation for his reluctance to make the details public. Demetracopoulos, Barron writes, “coldly assessed his situation and wondered what he, with an uncertain immigration status, under wiretap and other government surveillance, should do next.” The Democrats had indicated that they didn’t consider his scoop of great value, and Johnson and Hubert Humphrey had covertly supported the junta. Demetracopoulos decided that the risk of pursuing the story further wasn’t worth any potential upside, and that, according to Barron, the fight against the junta would continue anyway.

But Barron himself seems unsatisfied with this explanation. As he notes, once Demetracopoulos had exhausted his efforts with Democratic officials, he could also have shared the information with any number of syndicated columnists—Barron mentions Rowland Evans, Robert Novak, Drew Pearson, and Jack Anderson specifically—as well as to the wires. In addition, Barron writes, Demetracopoulos could “have held a major press conference, disclosing everything he knew. Not doing so was a fatal miscalculation.” 

That may be an understatement. If Demetracopoulos had made the information public, its potential to create a scandal would have been by no means small. In 1968—when politics was less polarized, reputable news sources were widely trusted, and facts mattered—the information could have tipped the election outcome in favor of Humphrey. The election was, after all, exceptionally close: Nixon wound up winning by fewer than a million votes. 

The upshot of these considerations is the unflattering possibility that Demetracopoulos’s decision to bury the story was ultimately driven by his desire to maintain good ties with power brokers across the aisle and within the national security bureaucracy. Barron seems to suggest as much in his introduction to the book. Paraphrasing a passage from Fame, the 1977 book by Susan Margolis, Barron writes that the “essence of [Demetracopoulos’s] success was his ability to be both an outsider and an insider . . . [He] had mastered the game of knowing what and how much to disclose or tantalizingly hold back until the next time.” 

For all that, Demetracopoulos’s contribution to the anti-junta struggle, both as a journalist and as a lobbyist before Congress, was genuine. With J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, leading the way, congressional critics of the war in Vietnam were eager to include the government’s warming relations with the Greek junta in their assaults on the “arrogance of power” and attempts to rein in the “imperial presidency.” This opened many doors for Demetracopoulos on Capitol Hill. He used his connections and knowledge of Greek issues to help congressional investigations. He did valuable research to support Congress in its annual appropriations battles with the Pentagon and State Department over military aid to the junta, including documenting the Pentagon’s use of deceptive accounting to partially evade the arms embargo against Greece. 

Still, the fact that he buried an especially explicit and damning link between the U.S. president and Greece’s military leaders must be balanced against his activism. And by smoothing the path for Nixon’s win, he helped the Nixon administration do what Johnson wouldn’t: publicly announce the resumption of military aid to Greece, without requiring regime liberalization in exchange. It was a signal to friend and foe alike that the junta, expelled from the Council of Europe in 1969 for flagrant violations of the Human Rights Convention, now enjoyed the full backing of the United States. 

If Demetracopoulos’s goal in saving his information was to preserve ties to sources, he succeeded. He helped conservative icon Senator Barry Goldwater, whom he had interviewed for the Greek press in 1963 and 1966, lobby to get their mutual friend, retired Lieutenant General William W. “Buffalo Bill” Quinn, named U.S. ambassador to Greece. But it only got him so far. Quinn’s bid for the post was unsuccessful. 

And if Demetracopoulos’s overall political goal was to turn around or blunt America’s pro-junta policies, he failed. His work with Congress could only make so much of a difference. By 1971, the congressional battle against the administration’s policies toward the junta had effectively been stymied by Nixon. “Look, I am the best friend [the junta has] got,” Nixon boasted to Tom Pappas on a 1971 White House tape. “If I had not been in this office, they’d be put right down the tubes.” 

The junta did eventually collapse, but not because of any shift in U.S. policy. Its behind-the-scenes leader, the chief of the military police, triggered a Turkish invasion of Cyprus by orchestrating a coup against the island’s president. Faced with a war with Turkey, Greece’s dictator lost the confidence of the branch commanders of the military. The junta went into hiding, and democracy was restored.  

Ironically, the junta fell on the same day in 1974 that the Supreme Court ordered Nixon to hand the White House tapes over to the special Watergate prosecutor, driving him from office two weeks later. For Greeks, the demise of the military junta marked a moment of truth. For Americans, so did the resignation of Nixon. It’s easy to imagine a world where, by publishing the Pappas-Nixon connection, Demetracopoulos would have been instrumental in the downfall of both. But while Barron portrays Demetracopoulos as having “led the fight to restore democracy in his homeland,” his practical contribution was more modest. Rather than leading a political fight, Demetracopoulos was a loner who cultivated an aura of mystery around his access to confidential sources, someone who, as Barron writes, “kept up with the different anti-junta factions but seldom joined in their activities.” Andreas Papandreou’s American-born wife, Margarita, aptly pegged him as “nobody’s agent but his own.”

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Stan Draenos

A historian and political analyst, Stan Draenos is the author of Andreas Papandreou: The Making of a Greek Democrat and Political Maverick. He is currently writing a book on the relationship between Konstantine Karamanlis and
Andreas Papandreou from 1960 to 1995.