Your browser (Internet Explorer 7 or lower) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.


The 1974 Turkish Intervention in Cyprus

The “Cyprus problem” of ongoing conflict between the Greeks and Turks on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus came to a head in July 1974 when a Greek-backed coup d’état on July 15 prompted a Turkish intervention five days later. In the spring of 1974, President of Cyprus Archbishop Makarios III learned of plans for a coup against him orchestrated by EOKA-B, a pro-enosis (union of Greece and Cyprus) Cypriot paramilitary organization, and supported by the Greek junta, led by pro-enosis President Phaedon Gizikis.

Makarios responded in an open letter to Gizikis on July 2 condemning Greek support of the EOKA-B and demanding the removal of Greek officers from the junta-controlled Cypriot National Guard.  Shortly after on July 15, the National Guard executed the coup, taking over the presidential palace and national government. Makarios escaped assassination by fleeing the presidential palace in a taxi and seeking refuge in London via a British helicopter from Paphos. Greek nationalist Nikos Sampson was named president of the new government. Although his regime proclaimed Makarios’ death, the ousted president soon contested these claims from London.

The United States attempted to mediate between the Greeks and Turks in order to avert further violence following the coup. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Joseph Sisco went to Cyprus as a mediator with Turkey but failed to avert a Turkish response. On July 20, Turkish forces launched a military campaign that overthrew the short-lived Sampson government.

The UN Security Council, in cooperation with the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) on the ground, negotiated a ceasefire beginning July 22. The resolution of the conflict led to the fall of the Greek junta on July 23 and the transfer of the Cypriot presidency to Glafcos Clerides on July 24. Ultimately, the following peace talks in Geneva could not prevent a second Turkish invasion in August. The island today remains divided along Greek and Turkish lines.

In the midst of the violence, American embassy personnel and families sought safety and the preservation of relations with local government officials. While most Americans evacuated the country shortly after the invasion, Political Officer James Alan Williams, interviewed by Ray Ewing beginning in October 2003, remained in Cyprus with his family from 1973-1975. He witnessed the coup, invasion, and surrounding events of the summer of 1974. You can also read about U.S. Ambassador to Cyprus Rodger Davies, who was assassinated that August.


“Waving a red flag in front of the Turkish bull”

WILLIAMS: As I recall it was early on a Monday morning when we had gathered for our daily staff meeting to go over what the local press was saying about us, about each other, about the Cyprus problem. We heard loud noises coming from the direction of the presidential palace downtown which was across the road from the Foreign Ministry. We quickly concluded things were seriously amiss down there and shortly had confirmation that a coup by the National Guard was underway. Needless to say we terminated our staff meeting and sent the first of several immediate messages back to Washington alerting the department and others to the fact that a coup was underway.

We had followed for some time and reported on the growing tensions between the archbishop, President Makarios (at left), and the Greek junta in Athens. It was essentially a civil war that started within the Greek community, within the community of Hellenism I should say, between the demands of the Greek junta and the unwillingness of the democratically elected leader of the Cypriot people to knuckle under to the increasing demands from Athens.

We had reported rather grimly the week before when Makarios sent his letter to President Phaedon Gizikis of Greece and essentially threw down the gauntlet saying he was a democratically elected of a historic people on the island of Cyprus and was not going to be treated like a satrap of a junta. Publishing that letter added insult to injury and we predicted at the time that would lead to further escalation of the already tense relations between Athens and Nicosia. Indeed it did.

At the time, and to some extent that may still apply today, but certainly at that time, the National Guard was officered entirely by officers sent from Athens and the commandant was seconded from the Greek army. So it was inconceivable that any significant unit of the National Guard could do anything, certainly like attacking the presidential palace, without the active leadership of the Greek officers from Athens.

So once we concluded that the National Guard was involved in the attack on the presidential palace it was quite clear that this was the Athens junta at work through its officer corps on the island. As I recall the Greek brigade was also involved, the one that was stationed in under the London-Zurich agreements. I think the radio changed hands fairly quickly that morning, but within a few hours we had confirmation on the radio that the National Guard had liberated the island from Archbishop Makarios. A claim that was wildly inflated….

I think it was that evening, maybe even the next morning that [Nikos] Sampson was installed on Cyprus in front of Cyprus TV cameras as the president of Cyprus. I had known Sampson in the course of my political reporting duties in the first year that I was on the island. He was at the time a publisher of a rather sensationalist rag called Mahi which in Greek means “The Battle.” He had been a hero of the EOKA struggle who had distinguished himself by shooting British military and civilians in the back as I recall, and by also doing things against Turkish Cypriots. So he was a proven thug with a violent past, no particular education.

I don’t know where his money came from to buy Mahi, but it didn’t take much to buy a newspaper on Cyprus in those days. But because of his reputation as a fierce Greek Cypriot nationalist, leader of the EOKA movement, and someone who had boasted of what he had done against Turkish Cypriots in those earlier struggles, installing Nikos Sampson as the president of Cyprus was very much like waving a red flag in front of the Turkish bull.

“Makarios ina necrosa”

WILLIAMS: Well we had no contact with the archbishop that week, those first days I should say. Ambassador [Rodger] Davies had seen the archbishop I believe in the preceding week. He had only recently presented his credentials and I don’t think he had more than one other meeting with the archbishop before the coup occurred on 15 July. What happened to the archbishop was he was a workaholic as always. He had come down from his mountain retreat in the Troodos and was hard at work in the presidential palace that morning. I think he was receiving a delegation of Boy Scouts or scouts of some kind, and when the shooting started he hustled them out of the palace and they were able to get out unscathed.

Then as the palace took heavier and heavier fire he was able to doff some of his garments of office and walk out of the palace through a trench in the back that got him and an aide off the property. They hailed a cab and were taken to Paphos as I recall, which then was only about three hours’ drive from Nicosia. And in Paphos they somehow established contact with the British, who flew the archbishop and his companion or companions down to Akrotiri, I guess, where he was safe….

When Makarios fled, first of all the junta tried to kill him, there was no question they tried to kill him. The presidential palace was reduced to a flaming ruin within a few hours of the frontal assault by the forces of the National Guard. But unfortunately, for the junta at least, it was not a complete assault because they left the back escape hatch open and Makarios was able to escape. We really had no contact with him.

Q: Do you think that was intentional that they allowed him to get out? 

WILLIAMS: I’ve heard that speculation. I’ve never believed it. I think it would have been much easier to kill him because they hated him so much. And as it was, if they had let him go deliberately they should have known they were going to create a martyr situation for themselves and a rallying point against them, which is what happened.

I think it was inefficiency. He was quick, he was very agile, and he was very lucky. He had more than nine lives I think. Makarios had tremendous luck and by chance found a cab that was willing to take him to Paphos as he came out of the escape hatch behind the palace. I have to say I never saw that trench or that escape hatch. I didn’t even know it was there because that was not something of which I would have been aware normally. But obviously he did. So as I say I think the junta definitely tried to kill him.

Once Makarios was gone, the junta initially announced over the radio that he was dead, “Makarios ina necrosa.” I remember that rhythmic announcement every hour on the hour for a day and a half or so, until it was conclusively proven by his own broadcast… from Paphos that he was not dead. And then they had to retract that statement, but they had then deposed his government. The ministers stopped coming to the office, but the bureaucracy stayed in place. So essentially my contacts in the foreign office and elsewhere remained. Some of them went to work and I saw some of them.

Just as a humorous aside I should say the question of recognition of this Sampson government didn’t really arise immediately from Washington. It was a very short-lived government in any case. I don’t know what Washington was doing, but for us, for me and for Mike Austrian, my colleague, the issue was we had a bunch of contacts below the political level which had fled; the contacts were still in place, so why not see them. And Mike and I went down to see a colleague of ours in the Foreign Ministry, Costas Pilovakios, who had been the regular career diplomat in charge of the so-called Cyprus problem in dealing with Western diplomats.

We simply went down to see Costas and I remember walking over the thousands and thousands of shell casings that the National Guard had expended in shooting its way through the gates of the presidential palace and around the Foreign Ministry, which had been heavily fortified by Makarios defenders. In any case, walking over with our shell casings, seeing the pock marks in the Foreign Ministry building, I think the presidential palace was still smoldering, but Costas Pilovakios was there in his office sipping coffee and looking very normal.

So we went in for a chat just to tell him we were glad he was okay, to discuss what had happened from his perspective. Then we went back and we were roughly chastised by the deputy chief of mission, Lindsay Grant, who thought we had committed a grievous sin of implicitly conveying recognition of the new government by talking to Costas. To be fair, Lindsay had a point; he was a China hand with a deep background in the nuances of recognition and non-recognition policy. And we had received no authorization from the embassy or Lindsay or certainly not from Washington to talk to Costas. But we took the chastisement to heart and did not see Costas again until as I recall the Sampson government was deposed, or quit….

“It was just as if I was detached from it, watching it on a large, wide-angle screen”

Naturally we were all concerned because for several days in Nicosia and elsewhere on the island there was active fighting. We used to watch the tracer bullets at night from the balcony of our apartment, which was just a few blocks from the Embassy. We certainly took precautions by advising people to stay inside, curtail their outside activities, and just to keep their heads down.

I think we only had one casualty in the American community and that was accidental, where a piece of shrapnel from one of those missiles, I guess, wounded a young girl in the leg or the chest. It was not a life-threatening injury, but it was a serious one, and she was taken care of in the Nicosia hospital and then sent down to Akrotiri, where the British had better facilities and also a more secure location. We were, of course, concerned for our families, but in the time before the Turkish intervention I don’t recall that any of the families left the island, although we certainly realized that was a real prospect that grew more imminent each day.

We were increasingly concerned with the installation of Sampson (left) as the president of Cyprus by the Athens junta through the idea that the Turkish government would have to respond militarily to what it viewed as such a provocation.

I think we said that in a number of cables back to Washington trying to lay it out that we had to really pull out all the stops to try to stop the Turkish invasion from happening. [Under Secretary for Political Affairs] Joe Sisco was engaged actively in trying to do that as was the Secretary of State [Henry Kissinger]. [Director of Cyprus Affairs] Tom Boyatt said at one point… that the embassy had not made a strong enough case in Washington with its cables to help him fight the fight in Washington. And he may be right. I can’t recall what those cables said….

I remember [the invasion on July 20th] vividly. At the time, I was living and working in my office, which was part of the complex that also contained the Ambassador’s residence. Our families had not yet been evacuated…. My wife Ann was pregnant at the time and threatening to miscarry. She was confined to bed at home. I was in constant touch with my family by phone, by walkie-talkie, and by walking down to see them. But most of my waking time and all of my sleeping time I spent those last few days in my office.

And around 4:30 that morning of July 20, before first light, I got a call from Derek Day, the British Deputy High Commissioner who told me that Turkish Prime Minister Ecevit had just informed the British as co-guarantors of the London-Zurich Accords [signed in 1960, under which Turkey, Great Britain, Greece, and Cyprus guarantee that Cyprus shall not join in any manner with any state with which all parties to the Accords are also not in union] that the Turkish government was going to send a military force to Cyprus to undo what the Greek junta had done on July 15. It was quite clear and Derek’s message did not require elaboration. ‘The Turks were on the way’ is what it said.

And when first light came about thirty minutes later the planes started coming overhead, we saw paratroops dropping, we heard antiaircraft fire, and we knew that the invasion was underway. We got our telegram message out soon after that phone call. Of course I informed the Ambassador. We stayed, of course, in very close touch with the British embassy by phone because it was not safe to go out while the fighting was going on.

I remember seeing all those parachutes coming down; it was like watching butterflies descend. Quite surreal. I’d never seen something like that before. Once in a while you’d see a parachute collapse and its occupant fall like a stone to the ground and you knew what had happened, but again it was just as if I was detached from it, watching it on a large, wide-angle screen.

The Turkish enclave of Nicosia was in the north and it sort of went up like a triangle toward the Kyrenia range, extended into the Kyrenia range as I recall, blocking the then-only road over the Kyrenia range.

One of the first concerns of the Turkish military was to strengthen the Turkish Cypriot presence, military capability in that enclave. So they paradropped a number of folks in while they were in the process of establishing a beach head on the northern shore at Kyrenia, which was sort of due north from Nicosia.

Needless to say, when that happened the fighting started early that morning, went on for several days. We had a number of people at our FBIS (Foreign Broadcast Information Service) station with their families who were caught smack dab in the middle on the north coast, west of Kyrenia as I recall. They were either at Karavas in their houses [or] up on the beach in their beach houses. By the grace of God they all survived. Scared to death in many cases, especially the children. We were able to get them out during one of the ceasefires or lulls in fighting under UN convoy in the next few days. But it was a harrowing time for them and for those of us who knew about them in Nicosia….

The fighting essentially was over in the north about the 23rd or 24th as I recall. Since we had profound reasons to believe that was simply a lull, that it would break out again any time, we decided to conduct a general evacuation. I think it was ordered from Washington…. There were Americans all over the island, but essentially most of them were in Nicosia. By this point, late that first week of the invasion, we had gathered many of them in Nicosia from the northern shore. There were retired Americans up there.

Most of the Americans up north were not hurt as I recall, just scared out of their wits, and we got them all down to Nicosia. At the same time we gathered Americans from elsewhere, archaeologists who were working in Kyrenia or elsewhere, their families. And we organized what I would describe in a letter to Dana Davies as a wagon train of cars and various vehicles that gathered at the American Embassy on the 24th [or] 25th… of July.

With UN escort the convoy drove down on the old road to Akrotiri, from which they were going to be taken off to the waiting U.S. ships offshore and evacuated. That went very smoothly. As I say the fighting had stopped at least over Nicosia by this point. The Americans were not harassed; the Greek Cypriots, still reeling from the shock of what had happened, had not focused on the Americans or the foreigners. Primarily Americans, but also some other foreigners, were in that convoy. But the Greek Cypriots were benign or indifferent. They had their own concerns.

Many evacuees said they spent a miserable night on a sand-fly-infested beach in Akrotiri before they got on the offshore vessel, but that was a small price to pay. My wife and son did not evacuate because of Ann’s medical condition. As I said earlier she was about to miscarry. Her gynecologist or obstetrician made the case quite convincingly that she was certainly going to miscarry if she was subjected to the rigors of a rough trip down to Akrotiri and staying on the beach.

So with great reluctance Ambassador Davies agreed that Ann and Ben could stay behind, but on condition that they move into the residence where his staff could better take care of them. He just did not want to have them staying in the house we had after the evacuation occurred.

“The Sampson government was a one-week wonder”

The Sampson government just evaporated shortly after the Turkish invasion of July 20. I never saw again any of those civilian ministers on whom I had called the previous week. I don’t think any of them, except perhaps the defense minister, had any role in defending the island against the Turkish forces that were invading.

So essentially the Sampson government was a one-week wonder. It came by the grace of the National Guard and Athens junta and it fell and departed just about as quickly. But the military side was another matter. That was well-organized. The National Guard, Greek officers, had fortified the northern part of the island to a fare-thee-well against the day when the Turks did come down in force.

The Turks in the earlier phases of the Cypriot problem invaded somewhat with midnight landings, some over-flights, some napalm in the early ‘60s and ‘64 I think. But the Greek Cypriots, and for that matter Athens, knew that if the problem went on there was a high likelihood that the Turks would come in force. Against that contingency they had pillboxes well dug in and they were fierce fighters and they fought very well even though the Sampson government had disappeared. The military chain of command held and acquitted itself, I’m told, very well. Certainly the fighting was fierce and protracted for several days.

The ceasefire was arranged by UNFICYP [the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus] by July 24 [Ed note: on July 22]…. I think both sides were fairly worn out; the Greek Cypriots had killed a lot of Turks but had given up terrain in the north. Essentially the triangle that goes out from Nicosia to the northern shore on two sides.

A lot of Greek Cypriots were becoming refugees in their own country and, Makarios liked to say, were fleeing the area for good reason. And the Turks, having established several beachheads, needed to consolidate their gain. So both sides had an interest in stopping the fighting. UNFICYP was material I think in arranging it. I think the diplomacy that we… [and] the British did with the Turks and Greeks also helped facilitate that…. Fighting stopped, but the refugees continued to move out of that area that the Turkish army was in the process of occupying….

Makarios had been flown off the island by the British from their sovereign base area in Akrotiri to London a day or two after he had escaped from Nicosia, gone to Paphos, and then come down to Akrotiri. There was the illegal government of Nikos Sampson installed by the junta, which collapsed then soon after the invasion of July 20.

And then the Cypriot constitution came into play. Glafkos Clerides, who was the president of the House of Representatives, very distinguished politician, lawyer, member of a very well-regarded family on the island, trained at the Inns of Court in London and so forth, by virtue of the constitution became the acting president of Cyprus in the absence of the archbishop. This was standard practice whenever the archbishop went overseas on a trip, which he often did.

Makarios liked to travel as president. Whenever the archbishop left the island, the president of the House of Representatives, which was usually Clerides in those days, became automatically the acting president with full powers until the archbishop returned. And this was the mechanism by which Clerides ascended to the presidency in the week of July 20….


The terms of the ceasefire as negotiated by UNFICYP called for a stabilization of the perimeter that the Turkish forces had established and no material change in the military situation of either side. The hope was to prevent the Turks from upgrading their capabilities, bringing in more material, and to keep the Greek side from doing the same on its part of the island.

Needless to say that hope was in vain. The Turks wanted the breathing space the ceasefire offered in large part in order to restock their supplies and to build up for the next phase of a military operation, what the military calls a breakout. And there was a constant stream of reports from the embassy, from Mike Austrian who covered it somewhat from the civilian side, from Red Jessup who covered it on the military side, from UNFICYP and others, and screams of protest from the Greeks and the Greek Cypriots about the very blatant military buildup the Turks conducted through the port of Kyrenia for the next few weeks after the ceasefire went into effect….

There was always the view that the United States could stop Turkey if it wanted to. We had unwittingly reinforced that view by successfully stopping Turkey from invading Cyprus a number of times. We had the Johnson letter in 1964 when we told the Turkish government of Ismet Inonu if you get your ass in a crack with the Soviet Union by virtue of invading Cyprus, don’t expect NATO to bail you out. It succeeded but the Turks never forgave us or forgot that letter.

In 1967 we did it again when President Johnson sent Cyrus Vance to mediate between Turkey and Greece over a possible war that was going to break out because of something the National Guard had done under [General Georgios] Grivas… against the Turkish Cypriot villages in the south. In the early 1970s we intervened less dramatically but still effectively behind the scenes to try to calm some of the more dangerous aspects of the confrontation between the junta and Makarios. So we had done a lot and the Greek Cypriots knew that, and the Greeks knew that and the world knew that, to keep Turkey from invading Cyprus.

It was not unreasonable therefore for Greek Cypriots and Greeks to expect in 1974 we would do the same thing. The fact that we were unable to do it despite Joe Sisco’s and Henry Kissinger’s efforts led many Greek Cypriots, and the irresponsible element especially, to conclude we hadn’t tried hard enough and really didn’t want to stop the Turks this time.

And so there was a growing sentiment, although in the time of which we’re speaking it wasn’t yet dangerous, that the Americans were ultimately responsible for this by virtue of not having used the Sixth Fleet to interpose between Turkey and the island therefore stopping the invasion. We saw that in the paper, we heard it occasionally, but there were no demonstrations against us.

Again, the Greek Cypriots in this first period after the invasion on July 20 were so preoccupied, understandably so, with their own concerns, their families, their properties, the uncertainties, the tragedies, the deaths, the rapes, the lootings, this sort of thing, that they really had not had time to focus on us. That came later.