He was one of the most fascinating figures in 20th-century political history—yet, until today, Elias Demetracopoulos (1928-2016) has been strangely overlooked. His life reads like an epic adventure story.
As a precocious twelve-year-old in occupied Athens, he engaged in heroic resistance efforts against the Nazis, for which he was imprisoned and tortured. After his life was miraculously spared, he became an investigative journalist, covering Greece’s tumultuous domestic politics and America’s increasing influence in the region.
A clever and scoop-hungry reporter, Elias soon gained access to powerful figures in both governments…and attracted many enemies. When the Greek military dictatorship took power in 1967, he narrowly escaped to Washington DC, where he would lead the fight to restore democracy in his homeland—while running afoul of the American government, too. His discovery of an illegal money transfer from the Greek CIA to the 1968 Nixon campaign could have changed history.
Now, after a decade of research and original reporting, James H. Barron uncovers the story of a man whose tireless pursuit of uncomfortable truths would put him at odds with not only his own government, but that of the Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations, making him a target of CIA, FBI, and State Department surveillance and harassment—and Greek kidnapping and assassination plots American authorities may have purposefully overlooked.
A stunning feat of biographic storytelling, sweeping from World War II to the Cold War, Watergate and beyond, The Greek Connection is about a lifetime of standing up for democracy and a free press against powerful special interests. It has much to teach us about our own era’s abuse of power, dark money, journalist intimidation, and foreign interference in elections.
The following review is offered by Alexander Kitroeff, professor of history at Haverford University in Haverford, Pennsylvania.
I met Elias Demetracopoulos in Washington DC sometime in the late 1980s. He was, as James H. Barron describes him in this excellent biography, tall and imposing with a penetrating look, well dressed and extremely self-assured. I was researching the activities of the Greek lobby and its success in persuading the U. S. Congress to impose an embargo on arms sales to Turkey between 1975 and 1978. He told me I should first study the lobbying efforts during the immediately preceding period, when the colonels’ junta that ruled Greece between 1967 and 1974. I knew that during that period he had been a one-person lobbying force in Washington, but his opposition to the junta was the only thing that was certain about his activities.
Demetracopoulos had escaped from Greece and arrived in Washington in 1967. He had already established a reputation as a well-connected journalist in Greece. As a correspondent of American news outlets he exposed the inner workings of U.S. – Greek relations, often frustrating politicians and officials in both Athens and Washington. That each side suspected he may be working for the other was largely due to the enigmatic image Demetracopoulos cultivated, with considerable charm, apparently.
In Washington D.C. Demetracopoulos worked tirelessly to discredit the Greek regime and especially its connections to the Nixon administration. He soon acquired valuable sources among both Democrats and Republicans, military and intelligence officers and fellow journalists. All the while his politics, other than being “centrist” and what many thought held hidden motivations, remained difficult to pin down. Among those who in vain tried to do so were the C.I.A. and the FBI and their files on the Greek journalists became fatter every year.
Adding to his mystique Demetracopoulos preferred to work behind the scenes and pass on information to columnists as well as political figures. And he jealously protected the anonymity of his sources ensuring a continuous flow of inside “tips.” In assuming an individualistic, I-am-my-own-boss middleman role, Demetracopoulos was behaving very much like many diaspora Greeks who have traditionally thrived in such in-between positions. But he stayed away from the Greek Americans, even the few who were against the colonels’ junta.
Indeed, his claim to have been the leader of the opposition to the Greek colonels in the United States, another thing he cultivated, was probably based on his view that as a Washington insider he could be tremendously effective. He was also on his own. The disgraceful lack of condemnation of the colonels by almost all Greek American leaders contributed to Demetracopoulos’ stature. But there were others who lined up against the dictators consistently, such as Senator William J. Fulbright and Minnesota congressman Don Fraser and Greek American congressman John Brademas. And there were small pockets of anti-junta Greek American activists in New York City and elsewhere.
Demetracopoulos’ biggest scoop, the discovery that the regime in Athens funneled $549,000 to Richard Nixon’s campaign in the run-up of the 1968 elections via Greek American business mogul Tom Pappas did not have an immediate impact.
As Barron notes “The idea that US taxpayer dollars had been laundered by the Greek junta with CIA complicity could have been a major blow to Nixon” and, he goes on to say, “could have fed such a big story to several reporters and urged them to follow up. He was a reliable source for scoop-hungry columnists like Rowland Evans and Bob Novak, and muckrakers like Jack Anderson and Drew Pearson. He also could turn to his friends on Capitol Hill for statements of outrage and calls for investigation.”
Instead, for reasons that even Barron can’t quite fathom, Demetracopoulos went to Larry O’Brien, chair of the Democratic National Committee who, incredibly, chose not to use the information to damage Nixon’s chances of being elected. Nixon beat his Democratic opponent Hubert Humphrey with the narrowest of margins.
Demetracopoulos somehow felt he could not publicize the information on his own and sat on it until it became unofficially public years later. Then, he feasted on the assumption that protecting the particular information was the reason for the break-in at the Democratic Party offices at the Watergate Building in 1972, the event that eventually brought down President Nixon in 1974. The purported Greek connection to Watergate gave Barron the title of the biography.
Just a couple of weeks before Nixon’s demise U.S – Greek relations entered a new phase when the colonels’ regime collapsed after it engineered a failed coup on Cyprus which triggered a Turkish military invasion. As the Turkish invasion morphed into the permanent occupation of over a third of Cyprus despite an international outcry, several legislators along with an array of Greek American personalities and organizations launched a lobbying effort to persuade Congress to impose an embargo on U.S. arms sales to Turkey.
In another surprising twist, Demetracopoulos shied away from joining the activities of the Greek American lobby and chose instead to continue to hammer away on the topic of the colonels’ payment to the Nixon campaign and its assumed connections with Watergate. Barron describes him as a “lone wolf” and true to form Demetracopoulos recoiled at joining the lobbying effort. Maybe he felt he would be one of many, or maybe he could not stomach sharing a room with Greek Americans who had opposed Congressmen calling a U.S. arms embargo on the colonels’ regime but were now falling over themselves to support the same Congressmen who wished to impose a similar embargo on Turkey.
Winston Churchill once described the intentions of the Soviet Union “as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” but he added that there might be a key. James Barron bravely undertook the task to unlock the similar shroud surrounding Demetracopoulos. It took him ten years of meticulous research which included five years during which Barron frequently visited or spoke by phone to Demetracopoulos who was at the end of his life – he moved from Washington to Greece in 2015 and died there the following year at the age of 87.
Barron’s biography of Demetracopoulos is a carefully documented cradle to grave chronological narrative. It takes the reader through the subject’s early childhood in Athens, his youthful and heroic resistance activities against Greece’s wartime Nazi occupiers – for which Demetracopoulos nearly paid for with his life, his post-war career as an Athens-based foreign correspondence and all that followed after his arrival in Washington D.C. in 1967.
It was obviously challenging to investigate the life of an investigative journalist who is more accustomed to providing information with its sources protected. Barron notes in the introduction that “Elias Demetracopoulos was a difficult subject. He gave me full power under the Freedom of Information and Privacy Acts to access all his government files, and he provided reams of articles and documents concerning better-known aspects of his career, but opened up only slowly about his multifaceted personal life. He steadfastly resisted divulging the names of sources to whom he had pledged confidentiality, even long after the sources had died.”
At the end of this 400-page plus account of the life of Elias Demetracopoulos there are instances where he remains elusive, his motivations for some of his most important moves are still shrouded in mystery. His claims of being a key player in Washington are confirmed by Barron, but one still wonders ultimately how much of an impact he had on developments on the ground in Athens. Barron tends to go along with Demetracopoulos’ version of the events, when there is no other verifiable source.
Nonetheless, this remains a biographical study written with extraordinary care and diligent assembly of facts. The two-page long acknowledgements to persons Barron spoke, and the wide range of documentary and secondary sources he consulted attest to his commitment to offering as fuller a portrait of Demetracopoulos as possible.
Where Barron delivers more transparent insights is the environments in which Demetrcopoulos operated. We learn about the workings of Washington insider politics that Demetracopoulos skillfully navigated and also the personalities with whom he engaged; Barron also provides us with unique and valuable perspectives on Vice-President Spiro Agnew; Elias’ patron and Maryland Republican politico Louise Gore; CIA operative Thomas Karamessines; Cyprus president Archbishop Makarios; Greek junta torture victim Spyros Moustaklis; Tom Pappas; Phillips Talbot and Henry Tasca. the U. S. ambassadors to Greece during the dictatorship, and Eleni Vlachos the publisher of the Kathimerini newspaper.
Reading this book was an enriching experience and it will undoubtedly become a required text for anyone wishing to understand U.S.- Greek relations between 1967 and 1974. But I am not inclined to join either Demetracopoulos’ detractors or those who consider him a hero. Nor do I think he worked for the C.I.A. or the Greek KYP or any political party either side of the Atlantic.
Ironically perhaps for someone who kept his distance from the Greek American community, Elias operated as a quintessential diaspora Greek: he preferred to be his own boss and felt most comfortable as a middleman, playing all sides and looking out for his own interests. But his staunch opposition to the colonels and to the Nixon administration makes Demetracopoulos stand out among the diaspora Greeks of his era.
Alexander Kitroeff is professor of history at Haverford University in Haverford, Pennsylvania. Kitroeff’s research and publishing focus on nationalism and ethnicity in modern Greece and its diaspora, and its manifestations across a broad spectrum, from politics to sports. His latest books are “The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt” (2019) and “The Greek Orthodox Church in America: A Modern History” (2020).