The Surplus Property Act of 1944 was an act of the U.S. Congress which allowed the Secretary of State to enter into agreements with the governments of foreign countries for the disposal of surplus American property (mostly WW II scrap) abroad. The Fulbright Act, as it is better known today, became a pioneering platform for educational exchanges between the U.S. and a large number of countries, thanks to an amendment introduced by a young Democratic Senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, in 1945. The amendment allowed the sale of surplus property (e.g., airplanes and their spare parts, arms and ammunition) to foreign countries in exchange for “intangible benefits.” One of those benefits, at the insistence of Senator Fulbright, who had been a Rhodes Scholar as a young man, involved the international exchange of scholars. Since foreign governments did not have enough dollars to pay for the purchase of surplus material, the Act allowed them to use their local currencies to pay the expenses of American scholars studying in those countries.  Fulbright strongly believed in the transformative value of educational exchanges, that they could “play a major role in helping to break down mutual misunderstandings,” and contribute to world peace. On August 1, 1946, President Truman signed the Fulbright bill into law.

Graveyard of American jeeps after WW II

Senator Fulbright

The first European country to sign the Fulbright Agreement was Greece, on April 23, 1948.  The American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School herefafter) with its superb reputation, was one of the immediate beneficiaries of the bi-national agreement. The School claimed that it was the only place of higher learning where American students could apply for research grants to carry out advanced work in classics and archaeology. “It is of course possible for Americans to enroll in the School of Liberal Arts in the University of Athens; but the lecture courses are largely theoretical, library and other facilities are sadly inadequate, and the language problem constitutes a difficult hurdle” argued archaeologist Carl W. Blegen to Gordon T. Bowles of the Conference Board of Associated Research Councils on September 15, 1948 (AdmRec 705/1, folder 1). Blegen, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati, had been appointed as Director of the American School for a year (1948-1949). Having served the interests of the School for a long time, Blegen naturally cared first and foremost for the institution’s well-being. Blegen and others, such as Homer A. Thompson, Director of the Athenian Agora Excavations, saw in the Fulbright Act a new source of income to finance the School’s operations and, especially, the research that was carried out in the Athenian Agora. I have written elsewhere about the curious entanglement of the American School with the Fulbright Foundation in the early years of the program’s implementation, and I will be talking more about it on November 30th at Cotsen Hall in a joint event organized by the ASCSA and the Fulbright Foundation on the occasion of its 70th anniversary.

ASCSA students including Fulbrighters at Ancient Corinth, Nov. 1951. ASCSA Archives, Matthew Wiencke Collection.

Blegen’s Pet Project

Here I focus on a little known and otherwise forgotten component of the Fulbright Program in Greece. In addition to awards for research fellows, junior scholars, and high school students and teachers, the agreement included a number of Visiting Lectureships at Greek institutions of higher learning. For the fiscal year 1949-1950, the Greek government in agreement with the United States Educational Foundation of Greece (as the Fulbright Foundation was known in its early years) advertised three positions: two in Home Economics and Rural Sociology at the Superior School of Agriculture, and one in American Life and Civilization at the University of Athens. It is the latter I am more interested in since Carl Blegen was involved in its establishment, sometime around 1945-1946, when he served as Cultural Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Athens. The position, however, had not yet been filled for financial reasons. In the fall of 1948 the time was ripe. Blegen had just  began the academic year as Director of the American School, his close friend and former colleague in the Office of Strategic Services, archaeologist Alison Frantz, was the Cultural Attaché at the American Embassy, and his other friend, archaeologist George Oikonomos, had been appointed Rector of the University of Athens for 1948-1949.

Carl W. Blegen, 1956. ASCSA Archives, Homer A. Thompson Papers

“An auspicious start can certainly be made in the University of Athens, and as you may recall, this is a pet project of mine. A chair of American History, Life and Culture was established by law in the University of Athens two or three years ago. It is still vacant because of lack of funds, and here I believe we have a great opportunity. The University is eager to have a professor appointed and has made a formal application to U.S.E.F.G.,” Blegen commented in his letter to Bowles. He envisioned the Chair being occupied by a “distinguished scholar, one of the most outstanding we have to offer… A succession of such men in difficult branches of learning would surely have a great success here and could do much to promote cultural relations between Greece and the United States.” In fact, the person whom Blegen proposed as the first occupant of the position was a big-time supporter of the American School and his former “boss” at the Embassy in Athens, Ambassador Lincoln MacVeagh. The latter after years of continuous service in Greece had been transferred, against his wishes, to Lisbon. This proposal, however, never got off the ground, probably because MacVeagh could not leave his post in Portugal.

The Whitbridge family with Homer Thompson (white hat) at the Stoa of Attalos (before its reconstruction), 1951. ASCSA Archives, Homer A. Thompson Papers.

After several delays, Arnold Whitridge, a distinguished professor of history at Yale University, was finally appointed as the first Chair of American Civilization at Athens University in the fall of 1949, a position he held until 1951. There are a few clues hinting that Whitridge may have been recommended by MacVeagh. Mrs. Arnold Whitridge appears on the list of donors who contributed to the restoration of the Lion of Amphipolis in the 1930s, MacVeagh’s own pet project. (I spotted her name in a footnote in Betsey Robinson’s article “Hydraulic Euergetism: American Archaeology and Waterworks in Early-20th-century Greece,” Hesperia, Special Issue 2013, pp. 101-130. A version of it was published in From the Archivist’s Notebook, Sept. 1, 2014).

George Rippey Stewart’s Experience

One can follow the history, duration, as well as the name of recipients of the American History and Literature lectureship on the webpage of the Fulbright Foundation in Greece. The program continued into the late 1960s. A quick search of the profiles of the first lecturers reveals that they were highly accomplished academics in the field of American History and Literature. Fortunately, one of them, George Rippey Stewart (1895-1980), Professor of English at Berkeley, wrote a memoir of his experience as a Fulbrighter in post-war Greece (1952-1953) in an informative but also highly entertaining essay, “Fulbrighting in Athens,” published in Harper’s Magazine, in October 1953. (A typescript copy is included in the School’s Archives.)  A prolific writer, Stewart is remembered today for scholarly works such as Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States (1945; reprinted 2008) but also for a science fiction novel Earth Abides (1949) which served as an inspiration for Stephen King’s The Strand. I also read in the Wikipedia entry for Stewart that his novel Storm (1941) prompted the National Weather Service to use personal names to designate storms.

As Blegen had anticipated, language was the biggest problem in teaching at a Greek University which then did not have an English Department and where the majority of the students and faculty spoke and wrote in French as a second language. For his meetings with the Dean of the Liberal Arts School (Φιλοσοφική), Stewart needed the services of a translator.

“Almost immediately I discovered that most of the students did not know English well enough to do much reading in literature. I therefore decided to emphasize the ‘civilization’ rather than the ‘literature’ of my double-barreled title, and was thus put into the paradoxical position of trying to teach civilization to the Athenians,” scribbled Stewart with a sense of humor.

Stewart found the Greek students, men and women, delightful and attentive although from time to time “the whole class would break into floods of an unintelligible tongue” for the sake of an argument. He admitted that the language problem was a difficult one since “students had learned English by all sort of means, one of them merely by listening to radio broadcasts from London.” They also had a hard time with his American accent. In addition to teaching, Stewart as a good Fulbrighter, invested time in fostering good relations with the students. He describes fondly Sunday afternoons at his house, he and his wife eating, drinking, and singing with the Greek students (to the students’ surprise since they never got to socialize with their Greek professors). “In Greece the continental tradition holds, and a professor is a thing apart from and above his students.” (I have to say that this tradition held until my time in the early 1980s.)

“Scratch a cultural activity, and find a Fulbrighter”

Stewart was one of the six American lecturers for 1952-1953, four at the University of Athens and the Superior School of Agriculture and two at the University of Thessaloniki. There were three Research Fellows, one of whom, the numismatist Sydney P. Noe, studied ancient coinage at the Athenian Agora Excavations. The second Research Fellow was Theodore Saloutos, whose book The Greeks in the United States (1964) still remains a cornerstone in transatlantic migration studies. The third fellow, a New Testament scholar, Ernest W. Saunders spent considerable time on Mount Athos microfilming Armenian, Greek, Arabic, Georgian, and Syriac manuscripts for the Library of Congress. But the real “workforce” of the Fulbright program were thirty other Americans serving primarily as teachers in secondary education, not just in U.S. oriented schools in Greece (e.g., Pierce or Anatolia College) but also in the public-school system. To Stewart, “sending American secondary-school teachers to the gymnasia in various smaller Greek cities was a bold experiment and might have well failed… There was a very good chance that a young American suddenly isolated in such an environment simply could not take it. But, on the whole, the program turned out to be a brilliant success.”

George R. Stewart’s novel Earth Abides

When Stewart was asked by the U.S. Cultural Attaché in Athens to go on a lecture tour in various Greek towns, he opted not to lecture about America’s greatness, as one might have expected at this point in the intellectual Cold Wars, but about “The Influence of Greece upon the United States.” His tour included cities such as Patras and Pyrgos, Rhodes, Kavala, and Thessaloniki. For his lectures he prepared two manuscripts, one in Greek and one in English. Where he could secure the services of an interpreter he read in English “presenting a paragraph or two, and then pausing while the Greek interpreter read from his text.” The few times he had to read in Greek he “expended a great deal of toil and sweat.” One Greek-American friend complimented his effort by telling him “I understood every word you said, and sometimes it sounded like Greek.” (Greek is not an easy language and I have seen American friends, including my husband Tom Brogan, and colleagues struggle in their admirable efforts to deliver long academic lectures in Greek.)

“In retrospect, I have decided the lectures served a good purpose. Whether, considered as high-level propaganda, they helped to prevent anyone’s conversion to communism or to aid his reconversion” concluded Stewart with a touch of wit. Stewart was proud of his and other Fulbrighters’ efforts to reach out to non-Athenian audiences because it showed that “the United States is interested in other things than the purely material ones.” His comment reflected Western European perceptions about American culture: a highly materialistic and wasteland consumer culture without tradition (the Germans used the word “Unkultur” to describe it).

Greek authors Elias Venezis and George Theotokas who visited America, within the Smith-Mundt Act framework, in 1949 and 1952, respectively, wrote about this very materialistic, “time is money” aspect of the American culture. After having visited the assembly-lines of the Ford plantation Venezis concluded, “I myself would have to work to be able to say what transformation into an automaton does to a man’s soul.” Where Venezis wondered and wanted to put himself to the test, Theotokas reckoned that coordination, stability and precision of organization saves a lot of effort. For Theotokas, only “large-scale industrial mass production” would lead the masses “to rise to the highest possible living standard” and “offer to each of its members the goods that will allow him to be ransomed from the depression and agony of material want and to live with humanity, in hygienic conditions, with dignity, and, above all, with enjoyment.” [See also “A Greek Author Travels to the Country of the New Myth: The Voyage of Elias Venezis to America in 1949.”]

AWOPs (a.k.a. Americans Without Privileges)

George R. Stewart

In the last part of his essay Stewart feels compelled to compare the Fulbrighters with the “other” Americans who flocked to post-war Greece as members of various missions, such as AMAG or CARE. Despite the good these missions had done, they had also “piled up a stupendous debit of bad personal feeling” and treated local people as “natives.” His vivid description of the secluded life of the American colony in Athens is worth repeating: “American colonies have fenced themselves in with invisible wire –ridden in their own buses, bought at the PX, eaten in their own restaurants, sent their children to American schools, learned not a word of the language of the country, gathered in their own clubs.” By contrast, the Fulbrighters, because of the terms of their appointment, were paid in drachmas and could not use the Army Post Office or the PX or the Mission buses, or enjoy any other such privileges. Also by nature, the Fulbrighters being scholars and teachers were “trained to respect other people’s points of view,” their customs and history.

Having heard and read much (and recent) scholarship about the larger, hidden, and propagandistic agenda of American foundations or groups abroad, such as the Ford Foundation or the Congress for Cultural Freedom, especially during the Cold War, I subscribe to Stewart’s sound and still valid interpretation of the individual Fulbrighter’s mission:

“If you ask various Fulbrighters why they are on their jobs, you will get various answers. Those on research appointments can simply say they are doing their own research and are essentially working in line with their own careers. The teachers will most likely say they want the experience of living and working abroad… that they enjoy learning about a foreign people. Rarely will one of either kind say that he wanted to ‘help’ the foreign country, carry on propaganda against communism or spread American ideas”; to finally conclude, that the Fulbrighter “because he is not a professional in any of these departments, he actually manages to accomplish a considerable amount in all of them.”

Americanization or genuine globalism? In the Fulbright case, I am inclined to believe it’s the latter.

Note: I was a Greek Fulbright grantee in 1986-1987. The award allowed me to begin graduate school at Bryn Mawr College.