September 29, 2014

1955. The Cyprus Question

Tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean
"An EOKA parade in Nicosia in 1962" (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Rome

October 1, 1955
An experienced diplomat once told me that, after many years traveling around the world in the pay of the United States government on official missions to assure, regain, establish, or bring about "peace," he finally got so discouraged that he had to look up the word in the dictionary.

In these days of tension and confusion, the dictionary is not much help. Peace, the book says, is freedom from war or conflict or hostility.

Right now, it so happens that there is no war—for which we can be thankful. But it takes no diplomat to know that there is plenty of conflict and hostility, and probably there will always be. So it would appear that it is the mission of governments of good will in this second half of the 20th century to keep conflict and hostility from breaking into the ultimate destroyer of peace—the process of war.

All of which would seem to indicate that, when we talk of peace, it does not mean that unattainable nirvana where all hostility and conflict will be settled—but rather a state of "no war" and a continuing attempt to solve and find answers to the multifarious pressures, pushes, and pulls which tug at our modern world.

It is within this definition of peace that has produced the welcome Big Power breathing spell following the four-nation Summit Conference in Geneva.

But no sooner had the world taken a few relieved gasps of hopeful air that there began a seething in the Eastern Mediterranean involving ancient hostilities combined with modern conflicts of interest—and the international frictions so produced are generating such heat that the explosion called war threatens anew.

The technical state of war between Israel, Egypt, and the Arab states has been going on for some eight years. In fact, there appears to be a tendency for much of the world to take it for granted.

The other day on the Turkish-Syrian border, frontier troops exchanged rifle fire in a forgotten struggle emanating from resentment over a border line established only in 1939.

Dynamite was exploded late last August in the Greek city of Salonika, and on September 6th, hundreds of thousands of Turks in Istanbul and Izmir rioted, doing millions of dollars worth of damage to stores and businesses operated by Greeks and Turkish citizens of Greek origin.

In Cyprus, Greek patriots are demanding union with Athens and opposing British colonial rule.

And behind all these dangerous conflicts are ancient hostilities which Americans find hard to understand.
I have just returned from a swing around the hot spots of the Eastern Mediterranean and was surprised, not so much by what I was able to find out, but with the number of things I did not know or comprehend. It would take a score of experts on sociological history to define and explain the old and sometimes traditional hates which tear at the people of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Sometimes the basis of this hostility lies in religion, sometimes in race, sometimes in history, and sometimes in ambition. Often it is a combination of all of these things.

We can only indicate the existence of these factors, but they will play a part in whatever news to come from the Eastern Mediterranean in the next critical months—good or bad.

In Greece as well as the Middle East, one finds the people suffering a kind of cultural and historical hang-over from the six centuries of life under the Ottoman Empire. In many places the people speak deprecatingly of the Turks, and even among many intellectuals, the anti-Turkish feeling is unhidden. When you ask why, you only receive a shrug and a statement that "Americans wouldn't understand."

In Turkey, the source of the anti-Greek feeling is similarly obscure, but it was real enough during the tragic September 6th rioting. I asked a number of Greek residents of Istanbul about this—they blamed this antipathy on a number of factors, cultural and economic. Some Greek families have lived in Turkey for over 100 years, they said, but religious differences have prevented assimilation and social integration. Greek Christians and Turkish Moslems seldom meet except on a business level. In the face of this apartness, the Greek minority has maintained its language ties, and Greek experience and astuteness have made them highly successful, for the most part, in business. Some Greeks say openly that, in event of crisis, they and most of their friends feel greater loyalty to Greece than to Turkey—although most are Turkish citizens.

On the other hand, Greek government officials in Athens say that the Turkish population in Thrace—where the Turks have an ethnic majority—that these people are counted generally as good Greek citizens.

As of this moment, the two hottest spots in the Eastern Mediterranean are the Israeli-Egyptian border and the island of Cyprus.

The announcement by the Egyptian government that it plans to purchase Czechoslovak arms with Nile cotton and grain has greatly upset our State Department and the British Foreign Office. Anglo-American policy over the past several years has been to try to maintain a balance of power between Israel and the Arab countries. In fact, two years ago it was figured that the Jewish military machine was so powerful that arms were granted to Egypt to pull the situation into balance.

But Egyptian Premier Nasser, a military man, thinks that he has many armaments gaps to fill in his army—that the Western Powers are being dilatory in allowing him requested materiel—and he is going shopping for it on the world market. He says it makes no difference to him who sells the arms, and that the Czechs seem willing.

However, fearful Western diplomats see another threat in the situation—the possibility of Communist infiltration into the Middle East and the increase of Moscow influence on Arab nations. It is perhaps significant that Premier Nasser has been invited to pay a state visit to the Russian capital—and that Soviet Premier Bulganin probably will visit Cairo when he returns from a scheduled trip to India this fall.

Incidentally, the measure of hatred between Israel and Egypt and her allies is growing every day—particularly among the 870,000 refugees festering in camps along Israel's borders. The latest expression of this feeling is the organization of the Fedayeen corps—Fedayeen literally means sacrificial death or suicide—and the squads are beginning to infiltrate Israel's borders in a campaign of terror against civilians.

On Cyprus, the problem is more complex. The island has been a British colony since 1914, having been annexed from Turkey. Since then the Greek population on Cyprus has grown to an 80 percent majority. However, demands for separation from British rule have been current for the past 25 years, and in 1931 Cypriot patriots burned down the residence of the British governor.

Since the end of World War II, the Cyprus question has become red hot again, this time a burning political issue in Greece as well as Turkey. The island is 500 miles from Athens but only 50 miles off the Turkish coast. The Turks see it as an anchored aircraft carrier strategic to their security.

The Greeks point to the United Nations charter and their 80 percent ethnic majority on the island and demand self-determination, which would mean enosis—political and economic union with Greece.

The British, sweating under the current sentiment against colonial rule, need the Cyprus bases for their troops displaced by the agreement to withdraw from Suez. The British justify their position by saying only that they can provide the stabilizing force to prevent trouble between the Western Allies and Greece and Turkey. They point to the great advances in education, economic developments, and standards of living that the Cypriot people have gained under years of British administration. And in addition, says Britain, the Western Allies need a strong military base in Cyprus to protect the Suez and the Middle East generally. The British say that the Cypriots now enjoy more freedom and prosperity than they could get under either Greek or Turkish rule—that the island within the sterling bloc has a visible economy which it would not have within the troubled economies of Greece or Turkey.

However, the Cyprus question has gotten beyond sober reason—it now has become an emotional issue again stirring up old hostilities.

The Turks say frankly that, if Cyprus becomes Greek, Turkish troops will be sent to capture the island.

Further complicating the issue is the Greek Orthodox Church and a 42-year-old American educated Archbishop named Makarios.

Archbishop Makarios is the vociferous and vigorous leader of the enosis movement. I talked with him the other day in Nicosia. I said that Americans did not understand the position of the Orthodox Church—that we believed in the separation of church and state. Makarios replied that his interpretation of the struggle for Cypriot freedom was not a political one, but a moral one. He pointed out that one of the heroes of the Greek struggle for freedom from Turkish rule was the Archbishop of Athens, who was executed for his agitation.

Makarios said that, since the United Nations refused to take up the Cyprus question in its current session, his followers would force self-determination upon the British by what he called "intensified passive resistance." The Archbishop said he was opposed to violence, but since then the "passive resistance" campaign has produced numerous incidents of beatings, stonings, and property destruction.

Archbishop Makarios indicated that he would attempt to stop all Cypriots from working for the British, which could mean a breakdown in all public services—electricity, transportation, water supply, and the rest. He said that no Greek Cypriot would be used as a tool of the British. The question now is, can he pull it off?


No Easy Solutions
Such is the dilemma plaguing the Eastern Mediterranean. The Greek government has withdrawn its troops from this fall's NATO maneuvers following the Istanbul rioting and the attacks on Greek NATO officers stationed in Turkish Izmir.

The Greek-Yugoslav-Turkish mutual aid agreement has all but been destroyed by the Cyprus crisis.

The situation threatens to wreck the Western security program in this part of the world—a problem which directly affects the security of the United States.

In my travels through the Eastern Mediterranean, I found no person who had any hard and fast solutions to either the Arab-Israeli dispute or the Cyprus problem.

Ancient hostilities are abetting new nationalisms. Modern power balances have run head-on into conflicts as old as the Bible and the Koran.

And in the background of it all is the 20th century struggle between two modern ideologies and two great power blocs.

How the Cyprus question and the Israeli-Arab conflict are resolved will decide in a large measure which of the power blocs will receive the support of the nations of the Eastern Mediterranean.

This part of the world forms the bridge between Europe and Asia—it also is the bridge between Europe, Asia, and the continent of Africa.

Put into perspective, the struggle in Cyprus and the Holy Land are much, much more than local conflicts to be unilaterally solved. They involve us all—and the outcome is going to affect the stability of the world for many years to come.

Also, solutions cannot be found in fairness and justice merely by saying that, if we do not discuss Cyprus of the Israeli-Arab problem, these problems will somehow go away.

The long and bitter history of the Easter Mediterranean proves that they will not.

There has been recrimination among the British themselves that their handling of the Cyprus problem has been bungling and undiplomatic, and that America's policy in the Middle East has been timid and awkward.

These things may be true, but they offer no solutions to the present dilemma.

In the long run, the United States and her allies must find a way to preserve the ideals of democracy and freedom in this part of the world and put these ideals into competition with the old hates and hostilities.

The Eastern Mediterranean area has long been dormant as a force in the modern world, but it is now coming to life again. The peoples of the area are looking for political goals and shopping for modern ideas.

How the Cyprus problem is handled, and how the Arab-Israeli conflict is resolved, will determine whether these people look to the east or to the west for their future.

This is Bill Downs. Now back to CBS News in New York.