The Poor, Tortured, Bombed, Painted Truman Statue in Athens

The 33rd president has been bombed, toppled, and vandalized with paint over the statue’s troubled 50-year history.

The statue of President Harry S. Truman in Athens, Greece.
National Journal
Matt Vasilogambros
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Matt Vasilogambros
Dec. 3, 2013, 1:53 a.m.

ATHENS, Greece — Along a bust­ling street in the Greek cap­it­al, a few blocks away from where the first mod­ern Olympic Games were held, stands a 12-foot bronze statue of Pres­id­ent Tru­man. It’s a touch­ing ded­ic­a­tion to the man who led an ef­fort to aid the European na­tion after World War II. There’s only one prob­lem: It’s covered in red and pink paint.

For vis­it­ors to Athens, the statue is  a prom­in­ent sight on the drive in­to the cent­ral part of the an­cient city that takes you past the Ac­ro­pol­is and Temple of Olympi­an Zeus, among oth­er won­ders.

Sur­roun­ded by Medi­ter­ranean cypress and bit­ter or­ange trees, the monu­ment to the 33rd pres­id­ent fea­tures the oft-tampered statue — which oddly makes the every­man from Mis­souri look ro­bust — and two faded white marble tab­lets, in­scribed in Greek and Eng­lish, that thank Tru­man for “help­ing the Greek people to pre­serve their free­dom and na­tion­al in­teg­rity.”

It was donated by the Amer­ic­an Hel­len­ic Edu­ca­tion­al Pro­gress­ive As­so­ci­ation, one of the largest Greek-Amer­ic­an groups, to hon­or the Tru­man Doc­trine, which gave $2 bil­lion in eco­nom­ic and mil­it­ary aid to the Greek gov­ern­ment to fight off com­mun­ist guer­ril­las dur­ing the coun­try’s civil war between 1946 and 1949.

But since its erec­tion in 1963, the statue has been the sta­ging ground for protests against the United States by Greeks for a num­ber of is­sues: the Tru­man Doc­trine, the Turk­ish in­va­sion of Cyprus, and the U.S. sup­port of a series of au­thor­it­ari­an mil­it­ary lead­ers, among oth­ers. It’s been bombed, toppled over, and now doused in paint.

One of the more doc­u­mented in­cid­ents happened in March 1987, when a left­ist group protest­ing what it called Amer­ic­an im­per­i­al­ism in Greece bombed the statue. Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times:

The monu­ment was blown off its ped­es­tal, a few nights be­fore the ar­rival of Sec­ret­ary of State George P. Shultz, in protest against any im­prove­ment in re­la­tions. Re­spons­ib­il­ity for the ac­tion was claimed by a group call­ing it­self the Chris­tos Cas­simis Re­volu­tion­ary Or­gan­iz­a­tion, named for a mil­it­ant killed in 1978 in a gun­fight with the po­lice.

It took more than a year and a half be­fore the statue was re­stored, but not after a few road­b­locks. The So­cial­ist Party-dom­in­ated Athens City Coun­cil voted against restor­ing the statue, say­ing that Atheni­ans were still bit­ter after the U.S. in­volve­ment in the Greek civil war.

Fi­nally, however, So­cial­ist Greek Prime Min­is­ter An­dreas Papandreou agreed to put the statue back in the cent­ral Athens park where it ori­gin­ally stood, cit­ing im­prov­ing re­la­tions between the U.S. and Greece at the time. Pre­vi­ously, Papandreou was elec­ted on the prom­ise to sig­ni­fic­antly cut ties with the U.S., and to leave the North At­lantic Treaty Or­gan­iz­a­tion and the European Com­munity.

From The New York Times on Aug. 7, 1987, the day the statue was re­stored in the middle of the night un­der heavy se­cur­ity:

The pro-Mo­scow Greek Com­mun­ist Party today charged that the res­tor­a­tion of the statue ”con­flicts with the anti-Amer­ic­an sen­ti­ments of the Greek people.” It said it was a ”hu­mi­li­at­ing act” that demon­strated the gov­ern­ment’s at­tempt to gain fa­vor with the United States lead­ing up to talks on the re­new­al of an agree­ment on Amer­ic­an mil­it­ary bases here.

In Ju­ly 2006, Greeks protest­ing U.S. for­eign policy in the Middle East pulled down the statue fol­low­ing demon­stra­tions at the Amer­ic­an and Is­raeli em­bassies. It had pre­vi­ously been toppled at least four times.

(Matt Vasi­lo­gam­bros)Now, the statue is covered in red and pink paint. It’s un­clear, though, what the paint is protest­ing.

Sep­ar­ately, at the en­trance of the monu­ment, spray painted on the marble in Greek, is graf­fiti read­ing, “Greece and Cyprus to­geth­er.” In 1974, the U.S. did not stop Tur­key from in­vad­ing Cyprus and claim­ing 40 per­cent on the Medi­ter­ranean is­land with heavy ties to Greece, which re­mains a di­vis­ive is­sue between Greece and the U.S.

Graf­fiti as a sign of protest is not for­eign here in cent­ral Athens. Just blocks away from the Ac­ro­pol­is, streets are lined with spray paint on build­ings, shops, and signs. After the eco­nom­ic crisis spilled out in­to the streets here with massive ri­ots — where Greeks chipped away at an­cient marble to throw at po­lice — graf­fiti spread.

Cur­rently, re­la­tions between the U.S. and Greece are strong: Prime Min­is­ter Ant­onis Samaras just came to Wash­ing­ton to meet with Pres­id­ent Obama as the Greek eco­nomy con­tin­ues to slowly im­prove. But it seems that as long as Amer­ica’s 33rd pres­id­ent stands in the Greek cap­it­al, he’s just an­oth­er can­vas for what re­mains of Greek an­im­os­ity to­ward the U.S.

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