The Withered Vine: Logistics and the Communist Insurgency in Greece, 1945-1949 , by Charles R. Shrader, Praeger, $65.
Hours after the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, a green beret with a colonel’s insignia appeared on the grave. A photographer snapped a picture, and a network cameraman hustled to get the same shot. Then there was a rush. All the services–army, navy, air force, and marine corps–managed to place a cap on the grave.
Watching all this on television at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, I knew who placed the beret. It had to be Colonel William “Pappy” Grieves. He was the only full colonel our headquarters had sent to the funeral along with the detail of Special Forces casket guards that Jacqueline Kennedy had requested. However, I did not know why Pappy had done it. When he returned with the detail the next day, I asked, “Why the beret on the grave?” Pappy said, “It’s the custom of the Greek Raiding Forces. I thought it appropriate.”
Grieves was the United States’ expert on the defeat of the Greek Communist insurgency in the late 1940s, a major example America used in developing U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine in the early 1960s. Therein lies some of the considerable importance of Charles Shrader’s excellent book, The Withered Vine. The lead tenet of the doctrine produced in that era held that cutting the guerrillas’ supply chain was the foremost goal of a counterinsurgent force. At the time, the United States thoroughly believed the Greek Communist insurgents were defeated soon after Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Broz, aka Marshal Tito, severed the guerrillas’ line of communication. Now, almost four decades later, Shrader, with impeccable logic based on a mass of recently declassified documents, differs with that long-held view.
The author says it was not that simple. Shrader lists four major causes of the defeat: U.S. military assistance to Greek national forces, the Greek Communists’ limited resources to support a guerrilla force, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s decision to withhold aid from the guerrillas, and–perhaps the largest reason for failure–the Greek Communist party’s fractured leadership. Shrader convincingly shows how the cessation of Tito’s support and the closing of the Yugoslav border was a predictable result of choices foolishly made by Greek Communist party leaders.
This book is important for more than one reason. The author, in recounting the American legacy of this, the first major confrontation of the Cold War, concludes it established a pattern of U.S. responses to Communist guerrilla warfare for the next eighteen years. That pattern was large-scale military assistance, the provision of U.S. military advisers to the indigenous government forces, the creation of counterguerrilla tactics and doctrine, and the indirect involvement of American military personnel while withholding the deployment of U.S. combat forces. Until the Vietnam War, these measures were largely successful.
The subtitle is misleading. This fine book goes well beyond logistics. It’s a bit pricey, but is still the best description of a historically significant and precedent-setting event.