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: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HsQ_hA9lPiY
2 Phileleftheros newspaper, 10 November 2018.
3 Democratic Rally, ΔΗΣΥ, est. 1976, secured 32% and 12 seats in 1981.