Accidents of History

Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library

In 1948 John F Kennedy was 31 years old and had just been elected Democratic member of the House of Representatives for the state of Massachusetts. That year Michael Mouskos, a solemn but affable 35-year-old Cypriot deacon, was studying at Boston University’s School of Theology not far from Kennedy’s residence, on the same side of the river Charles.

Mouskos’ adopted clerical name was Makarios, which in Greek means ‘supremely blessed’. In Boston on a World Council of Churches scholarship he would abandon his studies after being elected Bishop – in absentia – to return to Cyprus where he was eventually enthroned Archbishop.

In just over a decade, in 1960, Kennedy and Makarios would rise to the highest offices in their respective countries. In the clean-shaven liberal Kennedy Americans had elected the first Catholic as their 35th president. In the bearded black-cloaked Makarios, post-colonial Cyprus had elected its orthodox spiritual leader as its first president.

When the two men met in Washington on the 5th of June 1962 Kennedy wryly remarked “We don’t have that option in this country, you have to choose one or the other”.

In 1962 Cyprus was still enjoying its post-colonial honeymoon with Makarios seeking to carve out a much larger role than his newly established state of half a million merited. In the midst of the Cold War he found refuge in the Non-Aligned Movement balancing precariously between the USSR and the US.

Henry Kissinger would later label him “the Fidel Castro of the Mediterranean” with US diplomats often referring to him as the ‘Red Monk’. Oddly, Christopher Hitchens, the author of God is not Great and one of Kissinger’s most fierce critics, described Makarios as “the only priest that I ever liked.”

State Department documents reveal that the US had persistently encouraged Makarios to allow the formation of a right-wing party in Cyprus that would bring some balance to the local communist party’s strong influence. The first US Ambassador to Nicosia Fraser Wilkins remarked that the sustained threat of Communists taking over the government after Makarios’ first term kept President Kennedy personally interested in developments on the island.

So Makarios’ 1962 US trip was a big deal. He arrived from West Germany where he met Chancellor Adenauer, the founder of the Christian Democratic Union CDU. Kennedy welcomed him in person at Washington National Airport1.

Their talks focused on copper mining, US oil interests in the region and Cyprus’ water shortage. The US president acknowledged Cyprus’ important strategic position and expressed his administration’s desire to set up a Voice of America transmitter on the island hoping that Makarios would view the suggestion sympathetically.

The Cypriot president claimed to be wary of the political implications. He told Kennedy that he was keener on the establishment of an American University. An educational institution would bring a useful Western influence into the nascent republic and draw students from the region. Kennedy’s staff said they would consider it and consult with the American University in Beirut.

The two men proceeded to exchange gifts; Makarios offered Kennedy an ancient Hellenistic urn and Kennedy reciprocated with a sterling silver cigarette case by Tiffany & Co along and a table lighter.

Kennedy’s gift choice had been discussed with the Cypriot embassy in Washington with the responsible State department official informing the White House that Makarios’ undersecretary “felt that the gift would indeed be suitable seeing no objection to publicly linking his prelate with the smoking habit”.

Liberated by distance and charmed by the hospitality Makarios told Kennedy that he saw America’s newfound confidence as deriving from its president’s inspiring moral strength. Ambassador Wilkins later reported that the visit went “extremely well” and relations with Cyprus couldn’t have been better.

When Kennedy was assassinated in 1963 Makarios was said to have openly wept. Though he had come to know president Johnson, JFK’s passing would make him suspicious of the US. He too would survive several assassination attempts. In one, during the 1974 coup d’état, in which the CIA had an invisible hand, the Tiffany cigarette case Kennedy gave him went missing.

Four years ago, a local newspaper2 revealed that the inscribed Kennedy gift was in the possession of a 98-year old man, a labourer who had worked on the restoration of the attacked Archbishopric. He claimed the case, dented in one corner, had been given to him by Makarios himself. He had found it in the rubble and showed it to the Archbishop who said he had no use for it telling him to keep it.

Makarios died in August 1977 of a heart attack. Little attention was paid to the fact that he had been a chain-smoker.

By then Republican president Nixon and especially his Secretary of State Kissinger, who stayed on under president Gerald Ford, had managed to wipe out any good will America enjoyed in Cyprus. Not until 1981 would a full blown pro-Western party of the right enter the Cypriot parliament.

Today it is Cyprus’ ruling political force3 though considerably weakened by its controversial golden passport scheme of gifting citizenship to scores of shady investors. It has even come under criticism from its own conservative group at the European Parliament, the EPP, which is known, rather outdatedly, as the Christian Democrats.

This is an adapted version of an essay that first appeared in the book
Knowing One’s Place in 2017.

1 Footage of the Kennedy-Makarios meetings:

2 Phileleftheros newspaper, 10 November 2018.

3 Democratic Rally, ΔΗΣΥ, est. 1976, secured 32% and 12 seats in 1981.


The Erasmus Perfidy

Who would have thought that the perfidious Albion would one day turn on its own people? With all the deception, delusions and lies that the post-2016 Brexit era has normalized it should not really have come as a surprise.

The decision of the British government in the last days of the Brexit negotiations to pull out of Erasmus, the EU’s flagship student mobility scheme, is the epitome of the Johnson government’s irresponsibility and, more alarmingly, its bitterness.

For why if not to extinguish the idea of European youths cooperating and understanding each other, benefiting from other education perspectives and potential job opportunities, would you deprive them from the chance to train at European universities? Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it best by describing the end of participation as “cultural vandalism”.

What did Johnson fear? Indoctrination? That the more British students got to experience Europe’s spirit of integration, the more they would regret the decision of their elders? The government’s pitiful spin is that withdrawal was driven by concerns about cost [“extremely expensive” Johnson said] but the Tory record of irrationality and, more recently, capriciousness points to ideological resentment not prudent fiscal judgement.

This will soon be tested given the announcement of a £100m annual exchange scheme named after the English mathematician Alan Turing to enable up to 35,000 UK students to study abroad – and not just at EU universities.

Packaged as part of Boris Johnson’s vision for a Global Britain the only thing going for it is that it wasn’t announced on the side of a bus. It is odd how the more global the pretentious Tory narrative wants to sound the more things seem to be traded away and the country shrivels. Similarly, the more the prime minister talks of an open Britain the more closed and unfriendly it seems to become.

He appears completely unaware that much of the considerable “soft power” Britain had been able to project is beginning to thin. British students going to other EU universities would have also meant European students coming to the UK to appreciate so much of what Britain still has to offer in education. The Turing scheme doesn’t include that possibility for European students. 

The European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students, acronymically known as ERASMUS, after the Dutch humanist Desiderious Erasmus, was first approved in 1987 by the EEC12 including the UK. By 1990 almost 45,000 students benefited. Today, no longer limited to students but open for training, adult education, faculty and researcher exchanges and more – it has enabled 9 million people to study, train and gain professional experience abroad. Records show that 200,000 British students used Erasmus since 1987.

The next phase, to run from 2021 to 2027 has a €30 billion proposed budget and will see up to 12 million people moving across the continent.

The American philosopher George Santayana claimed that “there’s wisdom in turning as often as possible from the familiar to the unfamiliar: it keeps the mind nimble; it kills prejudice and it fosters humour,” while Immanuel Kant asserted that “the right to visit other countries should become a condition of perpetual peace”. Rousseau was more explicit: “I hold it to be an incontestable maxim that whoever has seen only one people does not known men; he knows only the people with whom he has lived”. That’s beginning to sound like a self-fulfilling Brexit prophecy.

British students eligible to participate this year would have been in their mid-teens in the June 2016 referendum. As adult voters they might one day come to punish the Conservatives not for the Erasmus own-goal but for everything else that will result from Brexit.

Had the EC opted to name the programme after a British scholar back in 87 perhaps it would not have been as easy for Johnson to pull the plug now. It would have been harder to run away from such a successful programme named after John Locke, Thomas Hobbes or David Hume.

It was Hume “the geographer of human reason’ who said that men often act knowingly against their interest. This was such an occasion. Still, who knows? If Nicola Sturgeon gets her way Hume may one day become part of the EU’s nomenclature. He was Scottish.