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.