Not that long ago, American presidents understood that Washington’s active support and defense of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was not only consistent with the principle of religious freedom but was also an important, global resource for highlighting and communicating American values in the twin arenas of international relations and Great Power diplomacy. The history surrounding this official view of the Patriarchate as a unique partner for emphasizing democratic ideas abroad and for advancing humanitarian objectives throughout the world has, however, largely eluded public awareness while being steadily eroded from the institutional memory of this country’s foreign policy elite.
Recently declassified State Department documents reveal a fascinating story, an alternative narrative, of American interest in, and engagement with, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople during perhaps the most critical period in US foreign policy history. Under President Harry Truman, the containment doctrine against communism—inaugurated in Greece in 1947—emerged as the defining paradigm governing the US’ role in the postwar world. Containment defined Washington’s priorities, determined its international relationships, and dictated its actions abroad.
Often underappreciated by many historians is the fact that containment under Truman, as well as Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, had a strong religious dimension, which operated in two ways. First, it helped define the lines of the global struggle against communism by dividing the world into “moral, God-loving nations” to be led by the US, and the forces of atheism and irreligion controlled by the “Godless Soviet Union.” Second, religion not only provided a valuable instrument in containing the expansion of communism, it encouraged the internal collapse of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Truman saw religion as a powerful tool to undermine faith in the Soviet system and to bring about its eventual downfall.
Because the dominant religion in the Soviet Union and much of the East Bloc was Orthodox Christianity, the American foreign policy establishment developed for the first time an active interest in the Orthodox Churches of Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. However, since the Orthodox Church in Russia was captive to the Soviet state, Truman necessarily had to look elsewhere to enlist Orthodoxy in his initiative for a pan-religious coalition against communism, an effort that actually went beyond the rhetorical level to the operational level with the participation of the Anglican Church and the Vatican by late 1947.
It is remarkable, and perhaps intriguing, that at the moment the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople became the centerpiece of Truman’s plan to bring the Orthodox world into his pan-religious coalition, an American citizen became Patriarch. On November 1, 1948, the Church’s Holy Synod in Constantinople elected Athenagoras, the Archbishop of the then Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, to become the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. A longtime personal friend of President Franklin Roosevelt, and someone who had also forged a close relationship with President Truman, Athenagoras’ candidacy for Patriarch had enjoyed the active support, and some new evidence suggests possible involvement, of the Truman administration.
In a June 1949 communication to State Department officer Myron Taylor (the senior US diplomat who, while officially serving as the president’s representative to the Vatican, was actually responsible for coordinating the secret anti-communist pan-religious coalition in Europe and the Middle East), Truman singled out Patriarch Athenagoras I for special praise: “It is well that the forces of Christianity and democracy have such a staunch advocate and defender as he. He is indeed in a position to exercise great influence in his exalted station in Istanbul.”
One of the most popular vignettes in Greek-American history that speaks to the disconnection between enduring myths and accurate historical understanding relates to the end of Athenagoras’ tenure as Archbishop in the Americas and the beginning of his primacy as Patriarch in Constantinople. In January 1949, Athengaros was flown to Istanbul aboard Truman’s presidential airplane to assume his position as Ecumenical Patriarch. Despite the popular, almost folkloric, account and interpretation of this event, Truman’s extraordinary gesture was not a function of his sentimentality or respect for Athenagoras, both of which, incidentally, were genuine.
Instead, this was a measured action taken by a president who viewed Athenagoras and the Patriarchate as influential and crucial partners in the furtherance of US international interests and humanitarian values in the world struggle against communism. Truman’s unprecedented display of presidential goodwill was not intended merely as a personal expression of mutual friendship and regard for Athenagoras, but as a clear indication of Washington’s value of and support for the Patriarchate—a strong diplomatic message Truman sought to send to both Ankara and Moscow.
President Truman often emphasized the pro-American convictions of Patriarch Athenagoras and the importance and influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, along with the Greek Orthodox community in the US, as vital to American foreign policy objectives. Indeed, Truman saw the Patriarchate and Athenagoras as crucial to bolstering the pro-Western resolve of both Greece and Turkey, as well as to promoting stability in the Middle East.
Indeed, the Truman administration was especially alarmed by the apparent inroads Moscow was making with Orthodox populations throughout the Middle East. As a result, Washington viewed the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as an important counterweight—given its revered position among the other three ancient Eastern Sees of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—against radicalization in the Arab lands. Truman’s foreign policy valued and deliberately emphasized the ecumenical status of the Patriarchate of Constantinople—as the first Patriarchal See among equals, enjoying spiritual aegis over all Orthodox Churches—as a means to foil Moscow’s politically-driven efforts to project the Church of Russia as a global rival to Constantinople.
It is remarkable that in today’s post-Cold War landscape some of these same issues, but now in different and more complex incarnations, continue to challenge US foreign policy in the Eastern Mediterranean and Russia. Although, it appears that effective responses to these problems are more illusive than ever, this seemingly intractable condition could be mitigated if Washington were to once again recognize the important international and constructive moral role the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople has played in the past and, if freed from Turkish persecution, could play in the future.
Dr. Alexandros K. Kyrou is Professor of History at Salem State University, where he teaches on the Balkans, Byzantium, and the Ottoman Empire.