Thanks to my colleague Aram Sarkisian, I recently came into possession of the first batch of a trove of U.S. State Department documents related to the Orthodox Church — and particularly the Ecumenical Patriarchate — in the early 1950s. It will take me months — maybe years — to sift through all these materials and share my findings. This article represents a small first step.
Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras is one of the most important figures in modern Orthodox history. After 17 years as head of the Greek Archdiocese of North and South America, he was elected Ecumenical Patriarch in 1948, just as the Cold War was getting underway. When we talk about Athenagoras and the U.S. government, context is vitally important, because, while some of Athenagoras’ statements are alarming regardless of context, we can’t forget that this was the early Cold War era. Many people — including the Patriarch — viewed this as a war between Good and Evil. And the United States was, in the eyes of Patriarch Athenagoras and millions upon millions of others, the obvious agent of all that was good, against the existential threat of Soviet Communism.
During his time in the United States as Archbishop, Athenagoras got to know both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman, and as I explored in a previous article, he was eager to assist U.S. intelligence officials during World War II (for instance, in 1942 he told an agent of the OSS, “Every one under my order is under yours. You may command them for any service you require. There will be no questions asked and your directions will be executed faithfully”).
After Athenagoras’ election as Patriarch, in a very public show of support, President Truman had the Patriarch-elect flown to Istanbul on the presidential airplane (what today would be known as Air Force One). With Stalin now viewing the Moscow Patriarchate as a tool for Soviet geopolitical ends, America had their own Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople. Orthodoxy became the subject (or one might say, victim) of one of the many proxy wars between the U.S. and the Soviets in this period.
None of this is new information. What’s new is that we now have declassified State Department documents attesting to the precise nature of the relationship between the U.S. and Patriarch Athenagoras. The documents present Athenagoras as willing and eager to collaborate with the American government. Far from a puppet, he seems to have viewed himself as a key partner in America’s war against Communism.
In this initial article, I’m going to share some of the documentation of the relationship between Athenagoras and the State Department. In the future, there are plenty of rabbit trails to follow and stories to explore, but we’ll start here, with the basic understanding of the arrangement, as presented by the State Department in its own documents from 1950-51.
February 8, 1950 Memorandum from Vice Consul James Gustin to the Consul General at Istanbul regarding a Conversation between the Patriarch, Consul Merrill, and Myself on February 1, 1950 (source)
… Athenagoras appeared very pleased to meet Mr. Merrill, and said that I could carry the message back to America that he, the Patriarch, was working steadfastly in America’s cause. He stated that the United States is the hope of the world, and he would always be very proud of the opportunity he had had to know President Roosevelt personally from the time of his nomination as Governor of New York State to his death, and then to know President Truman personally. He also expressed appreciation for the close cooperation which he had received in the past from the State Department. He also mentioned the great courtesy that had been shown to him at Ottawa when he journeyed there to renounce his American citizenship, and how deeply the personal kindness of the Ambassador had touched him.
[Note: Athenagoras had to renounce his U.S. citizenship to become a Turkish citizen upon his election as Ecumenical Patriarch. He did this because the U.S. did not, at the time, allow dual citizenship, and the Ecumenical Patriarch was required to be a citizen of the Republic of Turkey.]
May 26, 1950 Memorandum on the Conversation between the Patriarch and Consul General LeVerne Baldwin on February 1, 1950 (source)
… He [Athenagoras] stressed his Americanism, belief in the Good Neighbor policy, in democratic methods, and in the courage and frankness of America, which he had endeavored to carry out in his policies as Patriarch. He inquired whether we as the American Government felt that he was on the right track in his approach to the Turkish Government and in his treatment of his Patriarchate…
… Patriarch Athenagoras stated that he would be happy to keep Consul General Lewis advised through present channels of such communications as he might receive which he felt might be of interest to us; I had thanked him for his past actions in that respect.
Sept. 22, 1950 Memorandum by Consul General Frederick Merrill on an Interview with the Ecumenical Patriarch (source)
… Athenagoras also spoke at some length of the situation of the Orthodox Church in the Middle East. The weakest spot of all, he said, was Alexandria and the only solution remaining was to have the Patriarch thrown out. Although Chrystopher was an old man, he was still vigorous and extremely dangerous, in that he was definitely influenced by Communist agents and was planning a trip to the United States, via Canada, where (Canada) he was in contact with a Communist agent. He again intimated that the Greek and American Governments should intervene directly with him, Athenagoras, in order to give him the necessary excuse to correct the situation in Alexandria. Athenagoras takes every opportunity to talk on this particular problem — which seems to worry him greatly.
[In the future, I’ll write more on this whole affair with Alexandria and Athenagoras’ attempts to have the Patriarch removed with help from the U.S. and Greece.]
April 4, 1951 Memorandum from F.T. Merrill to the Consul General regarding a Conversation with His Holiness the Oecumencial Patriarch, Athenagoras (source)
… Athenagoras appeared to be much more optimistic about his various plans to draw the Orthodox Churches in the Near Eastern area closer to the Phanar in Istanbul, and “America”, as he added. As usual, he talked at some length of his belief that the United States must remain in the Near East for several centuries to fulfill the mission which had been given it by God to give freedom, prosperity and happiness to all people, etc…
… Another plan, which he said he had been turning over in his mind, was to have Mount Athos placed under the “cultural benediction” of the Byzantine Institute in Washington. He did not seem to know how he would go about this. It is evidently his desire to attract financial support to the Monastery and to throw open its archives, library, etc. to the Byzantine Institute and other American scholars.
[Emphasis added, because, while I am trying to present all this material as dispassionately as I can, Athenagoras’ statement about the U.S. in the Near East is a pretty remarkable and seems to remain significant to the present day.]
That’s all I have today, but there’s a lot more to come.