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The Interest Trap—Diplomacy before the Cyprus Dispute

The majority of society dismisses Classical literature and history as irrelevant to tangible success in a world that has become as technologically, politically, and socially advanced as ours today. However, this perception fails to adequately acknowledge the presence of banes and boons that have withstood the test of time.

A Cypriot demonstration in the 1930s in favor of enosis (1930s) | Wikimedia
A Cypriot demonstration in the 1930s in favor of enosis (1930s) | Wikimedia

The Cyprus Dispute of 1974 is perhaps a perfect example of this: what were once the Greco-Persian wars of the fifth century B.C. have now arguably morphed into a perilous tango between Greece and Turkey over the island’s territorial status. Although this particular dispute has since ended, its consequential tensions and effects continue to affect Cyprus to this very day.

And yet, what is equally noteworthy is the nature of diplomatic efforts that predate the conflict itself. During his tour from 1967 to 1970, Ambassador Thomas D. Boyatt witnessed firsthand a conflict of interests regarding Cyprus on the parts of Greece, Turkey, and even the U.S., all of which ultimately coalesced into the absence of a lasting solution. At the macro level, the American government was increasingly eager to prevent any collision between two NATO allies, while neither the Greek nor the Turkish government seemingly cared enough to establish a lasting solution, preferring to move past the issues as quickly as possible and focus on the “bigger fish.” Furthermore, the U.S. perspective of this conflict was perhaps far from objective; with the Department of Defense’s and CIA’s interests in Greece at play, America’s role as an intermediary body certainly became even more complicated.

Beyond merely addressing these issues in a foreign context, Boyatt took his experiences dealing with rivalling interests and applied it to his work at the domestic level as president of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). His efforts there led to the implementation of mechanisms that were subsequently incorporated into the Foreign Service Act of 1980. He spent his final years with the Foreign Service in Chile, Upper Volta, and Colombia, before finally transitioning to the private sector.

Conflicts of interest are inevitable within the political sphere, as are the tensions that they create. While they are admittedly beneficial in certain cases, more often than not, they frustrate efforts to produce optimal and enduring solutions, whether it be through saving a country from a destructive war or through ensuring equality among Foreign Service Officers. As much as society has improved over time, the fundamental and unchanged nature of Man has resulted in certain challenges enduring as far back as ancient times. It’s about time we address them.

Ambassador Thomas D. Boyatt’s interview was conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on March 8, 1990. His presentation on Cyprus at FSI was on September 30, 1992.

Read Ambassador Thomas D. Boyatt’s full oral history HERE, and read his presentation on Cyprus HERE.

Drafted by Will Shao

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“The United States was very much in the middle because we feared that our two NATO allies were going to clash with U.S. supplied weapons, as they did later.”

BOYATT: We saw the clash coming in the sense that the situation was so tense and it could have happened at any time. Essentially, Greek Cypriot General Grivas overran two Turkish Cypriot villages and killed a lot of Turk Cypriots. At the same time, when Ralph Denktash, the current leader of the Turk Cypriots who had been in exile in Turkey since ’64, came back to the island clandestinely, the Greeks apprehended him. The minute that the two villages were overrun, mainland Turkey mobilized and threatened an invasion, while mainland Greece mobilized and threatened to send troops to defend against such an invasion. The United States was very much in the middle because we feared that our two NATO allies were going to clash with U.S. supplied weapons, as they did later. There were several days during which the crisis got worse, and there was frenzied diplomatic activity in all of the capitals trying to avert a Turkish invasion we were expecting at any moment.

Our job on the island was to a) find out what was going on in both communities, and b) try to find out what elements could be fed into a negotiated solution, as opposed to a military solution. The Turks kept turning up the pressure, doing all sorts of cute things like sending their military attaché over to say, “Please give us the map coordinates of every house where there is an American, because we’re planning air attacks at any minute.” They did the same thing with the British.

Anyways, it got bad enough that we evacuated all the women, children, and non-essentials, until only the core group remained. At that point, myself and the Turkish language officer were going back and forth between the lines. This was very tricky and dangerous, because there were nervous-as-hell teenage kids manning guard posts with automatic weapons on both sides. In the end, Cyrus Vance was sent out by Johnson to negotiate a compromise. Just as a precaution, our families were evacuated to Beirut, which in those days was a sea of tranquility in an ocean of chaos.
Anyway, at the end of the day, Turkey agreed to a solution that involved the withdrawal of all mainland Greeks back to Greece.

“From the CIA’s bureaucratic point of view, they had a major asset in Athens, and they certainly didn’t want their relationship with the man who ran the country disturbed by the Cyprus problem”

Ethnographic distribution in Cyprus 1960 (2012) Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra | Wikimedia
Ethnographic distribution in Cyprus 1960 (2012) Alexander-Michael Hadjilyra | Wikimedia

From a bureaucratic perspective, there were a couple of wild cards: the first was the U.S. defense establishment’s support of the Greek military government. The main reason was because Admiral Zumwalt wanted to homeport the Sixth Fleet in the Piraeus, the port of Athens. In order to homeport the Sixth Fleet there, he had to have the agreement of the Greek government. And since the Greek government consisted of three or four generals and colonels, he had to have their agreement. Therefore, nobody in the defense establishment wanted to see any activity involving Greece that would alienate the military government in any way.

To complicate matters further, the CIA had a special relationship with General Ioannidis and Colonel Papadopoulos. The reason for this is historical: in the ’40s and ’50s, there was a communist guerrilla movement in Greece. At that time, we weren’t sure whether Greece was going to become communist or not. We poured huge amounts of aid and bureaucratic attention into Greece, and among that bureaucratic attention was a huge intelligence establishment. That establishment, as it always does in a liaison way, got in touch with the Greek military and the Greek CIA. Almost 30 years later, it turns out that both General Ioannidis and Colonel Papadopoulos had been very friendly with the CIA in the ’40s and ’50s, and that the CIA actually had a very close relationship with both of them, particularly with Ioannidis. From the CIA’s bureaucratic point of view, they had a major asset in Athens, and they certainly didn’t want their relationship with the man who ran the country disturbed by the Cyprus problem.

From the viewpoint of the U.S. embassy in Ankara, they were already worried about a variety of things in terms of the bilateral relationship, and they didn’t want to see Cyprus impinge upon those relationships. From the Turkish point of view, almost everything the United States did, or could do with respect to Cyprus, was anathema to any Turkish government. This was particularly prominent now given how carefully observed this Turkish government was by the Turkish army.

“The problem was that, almost the minute the crisis was over, that is to say the minute this three-or-four-point compromise had been established, our colleagues in Athens and Ankara wanted to go back to business as usual.”

BOYATT: In a straight up vote, the vast majority of Greek Cypriots would have voted for enosis (union with Greece). But, you weren’t going to have a straight up vote because at least the educated ones knew that such an action would bring the Turkish army in. So you had the ideologues supporting Enosis and the pragmatists, who were theoretically for Enosis but realistically wanted independence and the continuation of an independent Cyprus, with potential union at some future date under terms and conditions currently not in sight.

Q: From your perspective, looking at it from Nicosia during this crisis, how did you feel our embassies in Ankara and Athens were responding?

BOYATT: I thought they were totally spokesmen for the Greeks and the Turks; I didn’t think they were being realistic at all. I’m sure they thought the same thing about us.

. . .

Q: Was there a certain amount of arm twisting? I’m talking about our three points of contact, our three embassies—rather rough orders coming down; you do this, and you do that.

BOYATT: Yes. In all three capitals, the ambassadors were delivering messages that the host countries essentially didn’t want to hear. For Turkey, the message was: don’t invade and accept the compromise. In Greece, the message was: pull back your troops and accept the compromise, which is not going to involve Enosis. And in Nicosia, the message was: give up on Enosis, and what’s more give Denktash back to the Turk Cypriots so we can get some local negotiations started.

Q: Looking back on this, do you think was this the best way to go about it?

BOYATT: Yes, I do. I think it was an excellent example of successful crisis diplomacy. The problem was that, almost the minute the crisis was over, that is to say the minute this three-or-four-point compromise had been established, our colleagues in Athens and Ankara wanted to go back to business as usual. Their imperative was: for Christ’s sake let’s get Cyprus back on the back burner; the local talks will do that, they’re negotiating under the auspices of the UN. Let’s get on with the really important stuff, which is negotiating our basic rights in Ankara, and trying to live with the colonels in Greece.

Q: Tom, what was your impression of Archbishop Makarios?

BOYATT: I thought Archbishop Makarios was a masterful combination of Greek Cypriot peasant cleverness. I don’t mean to call him a peasant by that, but he had kind of a native moxie. In our culture, we say someone is street smart. Well, in that culture, the person that is smart is the one that manages to stay free and prosperous as a peasant…he just had all of that native cunning combined with all of the grandeur, majesty, and learning of a 1,500 year old independent church. The Autocephalous Church of Cyprus is as old as the church of Rome, and just as independent.

The third thing, of course, that he had was an excellent modern education and a real feeling for modern politics. Dealing with him was a great pleasure because he was very charming, and amusing. He had a twinkle in his eye, a spark, as it were. He was probably the most masterful politician/diplomat I’ve ever seen at playing off all of the elements in a situation, and playing for time on the theory that if you play long enough, something is going to break your way. In other words, as a small country surrounded by larger countries, and then as a part of the East-West conflict, he had to make the most of what he had. What he really had was agility; he was just terrific at playing off all sides against each other, and playing off the problem, until something changed which put him in less danger or brought him closer to his goal.

“They just wanted Cyprus off the screen, and the problem with that was that whereas Makarios could deliver the Greek Cypriot side, the only people who could deliver the Turkish Cypriots were the mainland Turks.”

Q: How did you read Makarios’s feelings towards the Greek colonels, Papadopoulos, and company, who had taken over Greece in early ’67?

BOYATT: I don’t think he was ideological about it, but I don’t think he liked them. I think he thought they were narrow, and above all I think he thought they were dangerous and that they might overthrow him, which in the end they tried to do. Turkey was concerned that they might do something reckless and stupid, which in the end they also did. So, he was very suspicious of them. I mean, periodically, Makarios or the Foreign Minister would go to Greece and have a round of meetings, from which they would come back and say there was a complete identity of views between u mitera partida, which roughly means the motherly fatherland. Of course, we all knew it wasn’t true.

Q: How about Denktash? How did you find him?

BOYATT: Well, we helped save his life. Initially, in the early stages of course, he was very accessible, prepared to discuss the Cypriot problem, and open to us, as he was to everybody. But as time went on, and I’m talking about years now, those relationships deteriorated. He’s a one-man band. I mean there is no other political element – I shouldn’t really say “is” because I’m not that close to Cyprus now – but in those days, there was no one who even touched him in political stature.

Q: On the Turkish side.

BOYATT: On the Turkish side, yes. He was in a class by himself.

Q: And what about Clerides?

BOYATT: Clerides was on the Greek side, and although he was Denktash’s counterpart, he was not his equal because Clerides didn’t have the political power: Makarios had the political power. Clerides had the constitutional power because he was the appointed negotiator in the talks, appointed by the freely elected Makarios, but Denktash was himself a power.

Q: There were two ambassadors there, one was Belcher, and the other was David Popper, but when the embassy officers, you as political counselor, the DCM, and our ambassador would sit down, in your hearts of hearts how did you see the situation in Cyprus working out in the future?

BOYATT: Well, in ’68 we all thought that a return to the status quo, with some mutually agreed adjustments in the 1960 constitution, was very possible. There was a lot of momentum after the resolution of the ’67 crisis and the beginning of the local talks in January-February of ’68. There was a lot of optimism, and people thought, “Well, this will lead to a conclusion.” We in the embassy were trying to play an activist role in finding the elements of a solution, while in Athens and Ankara, they couldn’t have cared less.

Q: Because they had other fish to fry.

BOYATT: That’s right. They just wanted Cyprus off the screen, and the problem with that was that, whereas Makarios could deliver the Greek Cypriot side, the only people who could deliver the Turkish Cypriots were the mainland Turks. So we were constantly battling with the embassy in Ankara because we wanted our embassy to put pressure on Denktash to compromise, and in essence they never did.

Q: Who was the ambassador in Ankara?

BOYATT: I think initially it was Bob Komer, if I’m not mistaken, and then Pete Hart [trans. note: Parker T. Hart, Robt. W. Komer, Wm. J. Handley]. In answer to your question, Stuart, yes, we had a vision of how this problem could be solved. The reality was that we couldn’t impose our vision on the parties.

Q: In ’69 there was a change of administration between the Johnson administration and the Nixon administration. So, we’re only talking up to the ‘70s, and later we’ll come to the continuation of this. But while you were there, did you and the embassy in Nicosia see any initial change in how one felt about this coming from Washington?

BOYATT: With the change in administrations?

Q: Yes. It was probably too early anyway.

BOYATT: But even so, the people who were in control were the Atlanticists, and they were in control, interestingly enough, when Jimmy Carter came in. He talked a good pro-Greek Cypriot line, but when he won the election, he didn’t do a damn thing. In fact, he later wound up on the Turkish side like everyone else. There’s a real problem here in this whole thing, and that is that the merits of the case are on the Greek Cypriot side. They are an 80 percent majority. How would we feel if somebody came in here and wanted to make the blacks and Hispanics a separate nation, as it were, and were prepared to support them externally. We’d have a lot of trouble with that, and the Greek Cypriots had the same trouble. So, in a sense, justice was on the Greek Cypriot side. But, the geopolitical realities were on the Turkish Cypriot side, and the two sort of balanced out. As a result, the solution never went anywhere. I am mortally convinced…I mean every damn problem that one lived with in those days, is much closer to a solution today, except this one: Czechoslovakia is free; there’s an Egypt-Israeli peace agreement; things are changing everywhere, and yet the Cypriot problem goes on hopelessly without progress, and those same local talks that we established in 1968 – that same vehicle – is still puffing away 30 years later.


B.A., Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University 1951-1955
M.A. Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy 1955-1956
Joined the Foreign Service 1959
Nicosia, Cyprus—Political Officer 1967–1970
Washington, D.C.—President, American Foreign Service Association 1971–1975
Santiago, Chile—Deputy Chief of Mission 1975–1978
Bogotá, Colombia—Ambassador 1980–1983