The Modern Roots of the Graveyard for Diplomats: The Tripartite Conference on Cyprus in 1955

| October 2020

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For nearly 60 years, attempts at finding a lasting political solution to the conflict in Cyprus have created an environment known as the “graveyard of diplomats” for practitioners of international relations.1 Hastily constructed by the British Royal Air Force in December 1963 because of intercommunal fighting between Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, a demilitarized buffer zone, or “Green Line,” partitioned the two communities and has separated the island and its inhabitants ever since. Now, Cyprus hosts an amalgamation of different powers: two British sovereign bases which cover 98 square miles, the “Green Line” patrolled by the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus (UNFICYP) spanning 134 square miles, a de facto state only recognized by Turkey called the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus” (TRNC) occupying one-third of the island, and the Republic of Cyprus which has de jure sovereignty over the entire island but is located in the southern two-thirds.

Mainstream analysis of the contemporary Cyprus conflict in newspapers and policy briefs have a historical narrative beginning in 1959 at the creation of the Republic of Cyprus with the Zurich Accords which granted independence to the former British colony in exchange for military bases. This narrative tracks how the fledging country quickly devolved into unsolvable ethnic turmoil. In this view, the competing objectives of Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots for enosis and taksim respectively is the root of the Cyprus issue and the main reason why the two communities could not peacefully live together.2 That this conflict is now so widely viewed through this lens alone is malpractice of diplomatic history because the independence of Cyprus, i.e. the signing of the Zurich Accords, is intricately tied to the post-war reordering of international politics and the British Empire.

Any attempt to understand one of the most intractable problems in international relations today must take its decolonization into account. The contemporary Cyprus conflict began at the Tripartite Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus held by the governments of the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey in London from August 29 to September 7, 1955. It is the moment that internationalized an otherwise colonial problem. However, most international relations historians writing about Cyprus during the 1950s have glazed over the Tripartite Conference, deeming it a relatively insignificant affair which achieved little of note.3 Some briefly touch upon it with a widely accepted view that its main contribution was to legitimize Turkey’s participation on questions concerning the island.4 Similarly, historians of the British Empire during this period of decolonization have little interest in Cyprus at all.5

How to give enough representation to Cypriots to be acceptable to international public opinion while still preserving control over the territory was the central puzzle facing British policymakers in the 1950s. This problem was not unique to the Crown Colony of Cyprus; the British faced similar conundrums in India, Palestine, Kenya, Nigeria and Malaya for example. But, the particular makeup of the island’s population combined with its geostrategic location in the Eastern Mediterranean made the difference. Maintaining sovereignty over Cyprus was inseparable from an existential question about British supremacy in the Middle East, but the colony’s subjects were Europeans; therefore, lack of government representation for European peoples made the British look bad.6 Moreover, the inhabitants were compatriots of important allies in the region, Greece and Turkey, so this issue threatened key military alliances in the West.

Analyzing Harold Macmillan’s diplomatic navigation as Foreign Secretary in Prime Minister Anthony Eden’s Cabinet (April–December 1955) and the UK government’s decision-making around the Cyprus question and Tripartite Conference sheds new light on the history of the conflict. Faced with the pressure to defend vital national security interests in the Middle East, manage the relationship with the United States as a rising power, stave off decolonization of the quickly dwindling British Empire, and participate in the two new major norms-binding international multilateral institutions (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United Nations), Macmillan maneuvered to find a resolution to Britain’s political problems caused by this vexing Mediterranean colony.7

Macmillan called the conference to appear to be finding a solution and to grant some measure of self-government to Cypriots with the full intention of retaining sovereignty for the foreseeable future. As his maneuvering demonstrates, Macmillan employed “divide and rule” tactics between Greece and Turkey to create a deadlock and encourage the narrative in domestic and international public opinion that the issue was primarily an ethnic one. Macmillan preserved British interests by forming a consensus around the UK’s position that Cyprus was a critical lynchpin for British national security and that the colony would be granted a more representative government at some undefined later date. He managed to influence international public opinion and obtain U.S. support in the short-term, but in the long-term, this internal division along ethnic and national lines sowed the seeds for discontent and future violence in Cyprus as it did in in other parts of the British Empire. These are the modern roots of the present “graveyard for diplomats.”


The United Nations General Assembly Debate

With the impending post-war collapse of their empire in Asia, the British were determined to safeguard their interests in their traditional sphere of influence, the Middle East. While they were ready to make concessions in other colonies, Cyprus, along with Gibraltar, Aden, Seychelles, the Falklands, Bermuda, Hong Kong, and Malta, were deemed either “too small or too important strategically ever to become independent self-governing units.”8 Issues with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser lead to the relocation of the British Middle East Command headquarters from Egypt to Cyprus in December 1954 thereby cementing the importance of the territory in UK’s foreign policy strategy.9 Because of this, Colonial Minister, Henry Hopkinson, famously declared in the House of Commons that Cyprus could “never expect to be fully independent.”10

Therefore, in a conversation with Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Papagos, Eden told his counterpart that “Cyprus was not discussable.”11 This prompted the Greek government to seek resolution through the United Nations, since the highest level of bilateral diplomatic talks had failed to produce any results.12 Citing British intransigence over granting Cypriot independence, the Greek government requested the following item be placed on the United Nations General Assembly agenda for the 9th session in September 1954: “Application, under the auspices of the United Nations, of the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples in the case of the population of the island of Cyprus.”13 The Greek government argued that lack of political development for Cypriots created resentment which threatened wider political stability in the Eastern Mediterranean.14 At this point, the issue was still a colonial one.

The General Assembly voted to inscribe the item onto the agenda in September despite the UK’s petition to the United States Department of State to prevent it from happening.15 Although the State Department had communicated to the Greek government that “no useful purpose would be served, and in fact serious harm would be caused to Western interests, by the introduction of this controversial subject in the General Assembly,” the U.S. abstained from action because it “recognize[d] that Cyprus is of strategic importance to the United States but [was] unable to confirm that United States strategic interests require that there be no change in sovereignty over Cyprus.”16 The U.S.’s Aide-Mémoire to the British Embassy forecasted that should this issue arise on the international stage, “the United States Government would be confronted with the problem of reconciling general political considerations with the importance which it attaches to the principle of the self-determination of peoples.”17 This was a historical point of tension between the two governments and by no means confined to the Cyprus case.18

When the Cyprus question was brought for discussion before the United Nations’ First Committee, a Greek draft resolution aimed to have the Assembly recognize the right of self-determination in Cyprus.19 The UK delegation argued that the matter was under British domestic jurisdiction, pointing to Article 2, paragraph 7 of the UN Charter, and that Greece’s appeal to principle of self-determination was a guise to obtain sovereignty over the island. Self-determination equated to enosis because if given a chance to self-identify, the majority of Cypriots would choose to unite with Greece. This set a terrible precedent, the UK delegation claimed.20

Moreover, the delegation pointed out that they were committed to the ideals of the UN Charter; and yet, because of “tremendous defence obligations” and the withdrawal of British forces from the Suez Canal Zone, the UK could not concede independence or self-determination to Cyprus. Underlining the importance of the island in the UK’s grand strategy, the representative stated, “the fate of the United Kingdom and of the democratic world might well hang on Cyprus, which was a vitally important link in the chain of defence of freedom.”21

The debate ended when the delegations of El Salvador and Colombia submitted an amendment to the draft resolution which postponed a decision. Though the diplomatic wrangling ended civilly at the UN, the failure to act on Cypriot autonomy led to anti-British and anti-American rioting in Greece and intensified resistance to British rule: “In Athens 59 persons were reported injured when 5,000 demonstrators surrounded buildings housing United States…In Salonika Greek rioters publicly burned British and American flags, smashed windows in the United States and British Consulates.”22 In addition to this rioting, Georgios Grivas formed a guerilla organization, EOKA, to oppose British rule on the island through violence.


Plan B

When Macmillan was appointed Foreign Minister in April 1955, the situation in Cyprus was dire. Facing violent attacks from EOKA and adverse international public opinion, the British government was forced to reevaluate its position on the island. Macmillan wrote in his journal: “Very bad news from Cyprus. In spite of the confidence of the Governor and the Colonial Office that there would be no trouble, there have been serious bomb outrages, involving the destruction of the new wireless station, ([which] has cost HMG an immense sum).”23 Beginning in June 1955, he worked closely with Colonial Secretary, Alan Lennox-Boyd, to figure out a solution to the Cyprus problem which safeguarded British security interests, quelled an increasingly hostile local population entrenched in guerrilla warfare, was acceptable to both the Greek and Turkish governments, and satisfied public opinion both within the UK among Conservative voters and among the international community at the UN.

The British Ambassador to the United States similarly urged action following the events at the United Nations and asserted that the Greek government inscribed Cyprus onto the General Assembly agenda to appeal to American audiences. He urged Prime Minister Anthony Eden to change the status quo because Americans regarded it as unsustainable. He explained how the UK’s present position in their colony would eventually lead to friction with the rising power, “if British rule in Cyprus is able to maintain itself only by failing to provide an outlet for the political aspirations of the local people, we are always going to have to fight hard—and not always successfully—for the United States support.”24 Arguments for providing a modicum of self-government to the colonial population of Cyprus were mounting. Nevertheless, the UK government worried that if granted a political voice, the vast majority of Greek Cypriots, backed by the Greek Orthodox Church, would agitate for enosis and transfer sovereignty over the island to Greece.

Then Macmillan had an idea: “start by asking the Greeks and the Turks to talk it over with us. If the Greeks refuse, their position in [the United Nations] will be correspondingly injured.”25 Clearly, the 1954 General Assembly debate was fresh in his mind. As historians have noted, the involvement of Turkey as an equal partner in these talks legitimized the country’s claims to the future of island. But this was a careful calculation on Macmillan’s part. During the 1954 General Assembly debate over Cyprus, Turkish policy was to avoid souring relations with Greece. The Turkish delegation was contented to let the British deal with the enosis question in their colony on their own.26 However, when he assumed control of the Foreign Office, Macmillan sought to bring Turkey to the center of the Cyprus question. This was part of his strategy to use international leverage to solve the problem rather than allow the Colonial Office to manage the colony’s domestic politics.27 This approach brought international dynamics between countries to play out a Cypriot stage with bloody consequences for its inhabitants.

Therefore, when Eden announced to the House of Commons that they had invited the Greek and Turkish Governments to the conference, he stated that “strategic and other problems” in the Eastern Mediterranean are affecting the United Kingdom, Greece and Turkey alike.28 When pressed by Labour Members of Parliament about whether the Cypriot people will be included or at least consulted to ensure that their interests would be taken into consideration, the Prime Minister responded that he preferred to deal with the “international aspect” of the problem first instead of involving representatives of the Turkish Cypriot and Greek Cypriot communities which have empowered them in their efforts towards self-government. Historian Robert Holland argues that “only by excluding [Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriots] could the internal complexion of the island be subordinated to the international and regional factors which Macmillan was bent on exploiting.”29

After Greece and Turkey accepted the invitations to attend, the Cabinet met to discuss the plan for the upcoming conference. Macmillan proposed two different ways forward and asked the British government to choose: either Cyprus could have a regime like Tangier that shared power between Greece, Turkey, and the UK or the UK could allow self-government for ten years and address questions of sovereignty with Greece and Turkey after that period.30 He admitted that the latter option would effectively surrender the decision over Cyprus to Turkey because of their veto.31 Macmillan stated that he recommended the second option for the sake of “scuttle,” suggesting that the objective of both plans was–if not failure–then no effective change in the UK’s sovereignty.32

On July 28, 1955, the Cabinet considered memorandum C.P. (55) 94, signed by Selwyn Lloyd, Minister of Defence, which fleshed out Macmillan’s plan and laid out two proposals for constitutional advance in Cyprus to be presented at the Tripartite Conference. The overall objectives of the UK government going into the conference were to safeguard British political and strategic interests in the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus and to secure “at least the acquiescence” of Greece, Turkey, and internal politics in Cyprus.33

UK government needs were summarized as:

“(i) a secure position for our Middle East Headquarters and a safe base for the deployment and supply of a strategic reserve and for staging aircraft; (ii) the maintenance of a physical symbol of British power in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East; (iii) the maintenance of order and good government in Cyprus and the encouragement of its steady progress towards internal self-government.”34

The key to overcoming this inherent contradiction between British security interests and self-government for the colony and was the idea of “steady progress.” Vaguely defined, progress could be delayed indefinitely or given at such small increments as to be rendered harmless to the status quo. Objective iii was not actual self-government and therefore not threatening to the maintenance of British sovereignty.

The two options Macmillan had previously laid out were developed into plans A and B. Both sought to introduce a new constitution aimed at “progress towards” self-government in all fields except foreign affairs, defence and police. This caveat highlights the prioritization of British national security over placating their subjects with true self-representation.Plan A would retain British sovereignty “at the price of some association of the Greek and Turkish Government in the administration of Cyprus.”35 Plan B was to kick the can down the road and “review the future status of Cyprus at the end of a definite period, subject to conditions regarding the state of the world and the adequate attainment of self-government by the Cypriots.” The drawback of this plan, as Macmillan mentioned before, was that the UK would then depend on Turkey’s veto in the future to stay on the island.

For conference tactics, the memo summarized the following constraints: 1) to not let the Greeks suspect that the UK was delaying but to keep the negotiations going as long as possible even through the opening of the UN General Assembly and 2) to not gang up with the Turks against the Greeks overtly while still relying on the Turkish position to enhance their own. These tactics demonstrate the double game the British government planned to play at the conference and lengths to which policymakers allowed their cynicism to take them.

The guiding strategy was to divide and rule:

“Throughout the negotiations our aim would be to bring the Greeks up against the Turkish refusal to accept Enosis and so condition them to accept a solution which would leave sovereignty in our hands until at least there was tripartite agreement to make a change.”36

This tactic, though good for British interests, further enflamed tensions between Greece and Turkey, just as it did when operationalized in other parts of the far-flung imperium Britannica. By having the Greek and Turkish governments go on the record and state their positions publicly, it highlighted the gaps between them which played into extremist forces in their respective domestic politics back home. If cooperation was truly the aim of the conference, this policy would be self-defeating. But the objectives had been identified as the maintenance of power and military control for the British Empire.

During discussions about the memo in the Cabinet meeting on July 28, Macmillan reiterated that Cyprus was required as a headquarters for Britain’s Middle East Command and as a transit base.37 Eden noted that during the intervening period, the UK could build up vested interest favoring British presence and asked if Turkey would ever agree to Cyprus joining with Greece. Macmillan responded that he wanted to see exactly how tough the Turkish representative’s line would be on that point during the conference—the preference was for Turkey to be as hardline as possible to enable the UK delegation to hide their objective of maintaining status quo behind Ankara. Lord Salisbury, Lord President of the Council, said that if the UK renounced its sovereignty over Cyprus they will be in the same position as they were in Egypt and that they “couldn’t stand” two withdrawals in the Middle East. “All this leads me to think [that] we can’t contemplate self-determination [within] this generation,” Salisbury declared.38

Eden responded that Plan B did not guarantee that the UK would concede self-determination in ten years; it merely would “review” the situation after that time had elapsed. Macmillan said that his concern was “to avoid use of words [which] will lead to expectations…of self-determination in 10 years,” and that he wanted to find vague language between the memo’s “when full self-government was working satisfactorily and international conditions permitted it would be the definite purpose of Her Majesty’s Government to reach agreement with the constitutionally elected representatives of the Cypriot people about the future status of the island” and “never.”39 Again, this highlights how ambiguous timelines and promises of achieving “progress towards” representation was a form of obfuscation. Finally, Eden and the Cabinet agreed on Plan B.

On August 15, the Cabinet discussed the upcoming conference again. Macmillan said that the tactic would be to “spin it out” and suggested creating a drafting committee to draw up specific statements of various points of view which may produce a deadlock. However, if that occurs, “we shall have shown it’s a deadlock, not because of British Colonialism, but because of differences between Greece and Turkey.”40 This statement demonstrates how the divide and rule strategy not only animated the conference but also turned a colonial independence issue into an international one with ill-fated results.


The Three Positions

The Cabinet discussions above illuminate the UK government’s intention to remain in Cyprus and “scuttle” negotiations going into the Tripartite Conference at Lancaster House on August 29. Macmillan’s opening statement on August 30 began with an overview of common interests between the three parties, their membership in the NATO alliance, and the need for unity against the USSR: “Our chain of nations will be like all other chains—no stronger than its weakest link…Greece and Turkey together form the right wing of our common front.”41 Cyprus was the base from which the British protected their interests, and, he argued, the interests of the Free World as well.

However, that spirit of partnership had limitations. Macmillan expressed that the British government’s internal affairs (i.e. colonial possessions) could not be discussed with foreign powers, and that “sovereignty over Cyprus rest wholly and exclusively with the British Crown.” The UK government repeatedly used this sovereignty argument in the international arena—no other country could interfere in the “domestic affairs” of the UK colonies.42 This attitude overlooks the desire of colonial subjects to be free and their will to demand independence which is precisely what Greek Cypriot leader Archbishop Makarios was agitating for and why EOKA was waging guerilla warfare. Content to neglect the internal dynamics of the Crown Colony, Macmillan admitted that the British could not ignore that issues on the island were spilling over into the wider area thereby “imperiling our co-operation and the smooth working of our common defence in the Eastern Mediterranean.”43

Additionally, Macmillan listed various engagements and treaty obligations in the Middle East which necessitated physical British presence in the Eastern Mediterranean. These included the Baghdad pact with Turkey and Iraq, the Special Agreement with Iraq, the Treaty of Alliance with the UK and Jordan, the Tripartite Declaration by the UK, France, and the U.S., and NATO. As a headquarters as well as base, Cyprus was “the heart of our defence system in that part of the world” and these defense facilities were located all around the island.44 In the world view of Macmillan and other Conservative Cabinet members like Salisbury and Eden, possession of the island was essential for British domination of the region. And like any other gambit in the Middle East, the stakes were “no less than the economic survival of Britain” because of access to oil.45

On August 31, Greek Foreign Minister Stefanos Stephanopoulos presented Athens’ position which denied that they sought enosis and focused on applying the internationally guaranteed right of self-determination to Cyprus. Stephanopoulos offered that this right need not be granted immediately but only after a transitional period of three years. During this time, Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots would administer the territory in a “free government” through representatives elected in proportion with the population.46 This arrangement would favor Greek Cypriots who were roughly 80% of the island’s inhabitants at the time.

Recognizing that the UK had contractual obligations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the need for a base, Stephanopoulos asserted that Greece never had the intention of weakening Britain’s defensive positions or seeking the withdrawal of British forces from the island. He argued that the UK’s defensive position would be strengthened if it was surrounded by a friendly population and that “the formal recognition of the right of the people of Cyprus to determine their own future and to choose, by the free expression of their sovereign will, that political system which suits them best” would be the only way to guarantee Cypriot acquiescence.47 Stephanopoulos invoked the United Nations Charter and the Bandung Conference in which Turkey recognized the right of self-determination on behalf of all peoples without exception.

Macmillan thought the Greek case was “very moderately argued.” Indeed, Stephanopoulos’ approach indulged his counterpart’s portrait of the British Empire as a moderating force for peace and stability not only in the world but especially in the region. Macmillan, undoubtedly pleased, received reports from the British Ambassador in Athens, Charles Peake, indicating that the position Stephanopoulos had articulated was the result of a struggle between “the older Greek politicians and civil servants and soldiers, (who look back with pride to generations of friendship with England) and the younger men who are beginning to revive some old and foolish dreams of expansion.”48 The Cyprus question had created a chasm in the previously close-knit Greco-British relationship which began with the transference of Greece into the U.S.’s orbit with the Truman Doctrine in 1947.

The next day, Turkish Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu presented Ankara’s position through a legalistic argument based on the Treaty of Lausanne. He explained that Articles 20 and 21 of the Treaty determined Cyprus’ status and officially transferred the nationality of inhabitants from Turkish to British; therefore, the matter only concerned Turkey and the Great Britain. To re-open the Cyprus question was to revise the Treaty of Lausanne “which is the foundation of a new political constellation” and “system of security.”49 The Treaty “liquidated a whole past full of antagonisms” between Greece and Turkey and served as the foundation of the present Greek-Turkish co-operation, Zorlu argued. Turkey had accepted its new territorial boundaries, and in exchange Greece received Thrace, the northeastern region of Greece which borders Turkey, and abandoned the expansionist “megali idea.”50

Zorlu, much to Macmillan’s delight, took the hardest line possible. He emphasized that Turkey supported the status quo in Cyprus and that a change from British sovereignty would abrogate the Treaty, thus reverting Cyprus to Turkish control. Additionally, he threatened that this would open “a number of ponderous questions which would also enable Turkey to put forward certain demands” including wider territorial claims outside of Cyprus. Although the legal reasoning behind this argument was questionable, the legalism hardly concealed the intimidation latent in the Foreign Minister’s words: Cyprus is a Pandora’s box. In laying out Turkey’s national interests so blatantly, Zorlu had played perfectly into Macmillan’s hand.

After the Turkish Foreign Minister had made his statement, Macmillan wrote that the “Greeks seemed very depressed by the Turkish attitude” because Zorlu made it clear that “in starting off ‘the so-called Cyprus question’ they were playing with fire.”51 This issue endangered the Greco-Turkish relationship with the potential effects of breaking up the Balkan alliance and reopening old territorial disputes. Macmillan viewed Greece’s position as untenable and wrote that Zorlu’s speech made the Greek delegation “realise that they have sown the wind, and they don’t relish the whirlwind.”52 This is precisely the outcome that Macmillan had hoped to produce since he sought to undermine Greece’s position on the issue on the international stage at the UN.

Once all three parties had issued their statements, they agreed on a joint communiqué explaining their maximum claims as suggested in C.P. (55) 94. Macmillan saw this as a “considerable” advantage to the UK because it demonstrated the differences among the three governments: the wide gaps would help the UK government justify staying on the island for the foreseeable future.


The British Proposal and Conference Aftermath

On September 6, Macmillan presented the British proposal at the conference, but he was “not at all confident” about this plan because the “Turks are too tough; the Greeks are too weak, to make a concession.53 His proposal was mostly based off of Plan B but took some aspects from Plan A, and it separated the issue into two parts: the internal conditions on the island and the international status of Cyprus. Following along the lines of Plan B, Macmillan offered that the UK would develop a “system or a constitution of internal self-government by which [the Cypriots] can manage their own internal affairs” and “set the people of Cyprus on the normal path of democratic development.”54 But, because of strategic requirements, the British government would need to maintain control over foreign policy, defence, and security.

Outside of those realms, Macmillan stated that it was “our hope and intention to see developed a new and liberal constitution, and to give the fullest measure of internal self-government” with the following criteria: an Assembly with an elected majority, Cypriot Ministers responsible for departments other than the ones previously listed, safeguards for the independence of the public service, and a Cypriot chief minister to head the new administration who would be chosen by the Assembly with the approval of the British Governor.55 Macmillan also mentioned that, in order to create a partnership among the communities on the island, there would be a quota of seats in the Assembly for Turkish Cypriots and a proportion of ministerial portfolios reserved for them as well.

Macmillan invited the Turkish and Greek governments to join a Tripartite Committee, an extension of the conference, that would meet in London to review the British government’s proposals, advise the Colonial Secretary, and assist the British government in carrying out their plans. This Tripartite Committee idea was reminiscent of Plan A, but it did not grant Turkey or Greece a direct role in Cyprus’ affairs. Instead, their advice would be most valuable “for guaranteeing the interests of the various communities and the proper methods of securing that those guarantees were effective.”56 The Tripartite Committee would be the “centre for discussing problems and differences arising out of the new developments” and would represent a “permanent, living proof to the world of the co-operation of the three Governments in their task.”57

Unlike Plan A which was based on active cooperation among the three governments and sharing sovereignty, this proposal kept the UK’s reign intact but called on the other two parties to help manage their Greek and Turkish Cypriot constituents. This would have transmitted the unresolved dynamic of the conference onto working out a system of self-government for Cyprus. The Committee could never have functioned properly in those circumstances. But despite whether it worked or not, its mere existence would resolve the UK’s optics problem; the British would be able to point to this Committee as either a scapegoat or proof of progress when confronted by adverse international or domestic opinion.

Once he had defined the plan for partial self-government, Macmillan described the positions of three governments on the international aspect of the problem as irreconcilable. He suggested to “agree to differ” on the future international status of Cyprus and issue a moratorium on discussing the issue. The British position was that of no change: “we cannot foresee conditions which would enable us to abandon either in one direction or another the trust which we undertook and which we must still carry out.” Though he cited the lack of Greek and Turkish concessions, Macmillan’s own redline on the needs required by British defense obligations in the region contributed directly to the deadlock.58

This British compromise plan was “distasteful to the Greeks and Turks” and, Macmillan caustically added, “perhaps that proves that it is not a bad plan.”59 Although he knew that the conference was doomed to have never succeeded, Macmillan felt it had been a worthwhile endeavor because of the influence it would have on international and British public opinion: “[The conference] has at least proved that Cyprus is not a ‘colonial’ problem but a great international issue.”60 When anti-Greek riots broke out in Istanbul and Smyrna at the tail end of the conference on September 6-7, 1955, Macmillan observed that the violence “proves our case—that this is not a ‘colonial’ problem but the oldest international and inter-racial dispute in the world.”61 The underlying purpose of the conference was to frame the debate in these terms and profit off the perception of an insolvable, perennial ethnic conflict. Internationalizing a colonial problem deflected the onus from the UK to relinquish territorial control and grant true self-government to Cypriots.

Given the political climate in Greece after the riots, the Greek government officially rejected the British proposals including participating in the Tripartite Committee and once again sought to inscribe the Cyprus issue onto the upcoming 1955 UN General Assembly agenda. In response, Macmillan asked his American counterpart, U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, to prevent this from happening. He assured Dulles that the proposed constitution for Cyprus would “be a liberal one designed very sincerely to lead to the fullest measure of internal self-government.”62 This request portrayed the conference and subsequent proposal as bona fide and sincere which is if not an outright lie then a gross misrepresentation. Dulles replied that it would “be contrary to our general policy to oppose inscription” and noted that he was “deeply concerned as to repercussions in Greece and on Greek relations with its NATO partners of a negative vote by the United States.”63

Macmillan doubled down to persuade Dulles about the potential harmful consequences of an international debate. He portrayed the Greek government as unreasonable for rejecting their proposals for self-government:

“This ignores the facts of life; including British strategic needs and the Turkish determination not to see the last of their off-shore islands pass into Greek hands. In any case I find it hard to believe that the Greek Government’s ultimate loyalty to N.A.T.O.—from which Greece derives such immense advantages—really depends upon their having their whole way over Cyprus.”

He managed to convince Dulles. The next day, Henry Hoover Jr., U.S. Under Secretary of State, sent a telegram to the U.S. Embassy in Greece announcing the decision to persuade Greece not to press for inscription of the Cyprus item and to actively prevent it if they insisted.64 Echoing Macmillan’s arguments from his September 19th telegram, Hoover wrote that a discussion of the Cyprus question in the General Assembly would lead to an “intemperate debate” which would further destroy Greek-Turkish cooperation and that the UK’s proposals for self-government presented the “best prospect for ultimate solution acceptable to parties concerned.”65 Hoover was unequivocal about the potential risk: “Importance [of] free world unity and threat to NATO far exceeds that of Cyprus question…I am aware [that the] U.S. will be criticized for opposing [the] aspirations [of] dependent people and that [the] Sov[iet] Bl[ock] may take advantage [of the] situation.”66

U.S. Permanent Representative to the UN, Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., justified the U.S.’s vote against inscription in a speech to the General Assembly by stating there were “occasions when quiet diplomacy is far more effective than public debate, and this seems to be one of those occasions.”67 He also referred to the “assurances” made by the United Kingdom that they will “acutely pursue a program which will afford the Cypriots a greater opportunity to attain their legitimate aspirations.”68 But as outlined above, these were minimal commitments and neither the UK Foreign Office or Colonial Office had any intention of giving up sovereignty over the colony. With 28 in favor, 22 opposed, and 10 abstentions, the General Assembly voted not to inscribe the Cyrus question onto the agenda. With the Tripartite Conference, Macmillan had achieved his aim of winning over international opinion by creating the perception that the UK was an honest broker involved in an ethnic conflict between two impossibly opposed parties.


Graffiti on a wall of the buffer zone in Nicosia, July 2019. 
Photo by Author



The negotiations around the Tripartite Conference of 1955 demonstrate that Macmillan and the UK Foreign Office deliberately played the Greek and Turkish governments against each other to maintain their position on the island. After the Suez Crisis and his appointment as Prime Minister in 1957, Macmillan had to rethink the Tory government’s foreign policy strategy. He made concessions on his earlier positions on Cyprus which he was unwilling or unable to do as Foreign Minister. On February 11, 1959, the Zurich Agreement granted Cyprus its independence at the price of sovereign UK military zones, and on August 16, 1960, the Republic of Cyprus was born.

But celebrations were short-lived because there was little trust between the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot sides, and the new government was unable to function properly or pass basic legislation. Ultimately, the 1959 political agreement underlying the unique constitution proved unsustainable and broke under pressure. The Tripartite Conference and the crystallization of this colonial problem into a multi-dimensional international one laid the groundwork for this breakdown by sewing mistrust among the local population who had been denied a say in the makeup of their self-government and by exacerbating hostility between the Greek and Turkish governments which was then reflected in the attitudes of the Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

In 1963, three years after independence, there was an escalation of violent incidents between extremist groups within the Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot communities on the island which threatened a wider Greco-Turkish war. As a quick fix, Group Captain Mark Hobden of the British Royal Air Force took up a green pen and drew a line on the map of Cyprus to separate the population. This makeshift partition became semi-permanent when the UN Security Council authorized UNFICYP in 1964 to quell the intercommunal fighting and the Turkish invasion of 1974 calcified this partition. Subsequent U.N.-sponsored negotiations between 1974 and now have failed to achieve a final settlement.

In trying to understand the contemporary Cyprus conflict, practitioners of international relations have not been starting from the right place nor taking the country’s decolonization process sufficiently into account. The historical narrative of mainstream analysis underplays the fomentation of ethnic tension by the British and the exclusion of the local population in decision-making, This sets the parameters for how the conflict is understood not only by practitioners but also by everyday people including those in Greece, Turkey and Cyprus itself. The overemphasis on ethnic antagonism and Great Power politics over the concerns of the needs and aspirations of the local population continues until today.

History can seem more like a hindrance to a solution in an intractable conflict such as this. However, history shapes how people relate to one another and the world, and in its retelling, we can change what people believe about the past and subsequently how they interpret their present and envision their futures.


1 The international solution to this conflict revolves around a “settlement based on a bicommunal, bizonal federation with political equality,” see “Resolution 2483 (2019),” United Nations Security Council, S/RES/2483 (2019), July 25, 2019, The vision is for a federation (combining multiple semi-autonomous areas into one government) consisting of two zones separated into the two communities (Greek Cypriot and Turkish Cypriot) under regional administration.
2Enosis is the Greek word for “union” and seeks the political union of Cyprus and Greece. Taksim is the Turkish word for “division” or “partition” and seeks the partition of the island of Cyprus into Turkish and Greek portions. For an example of this narrative see Vincent L. Morelli, “Cyprus: Reunification Proving Elusive” (Congressional Research Service, 2019)
3 Mohammad F. Mirbagheri, Cyprus and International Peacemaking (New York: Routledge, 1998) begins the Cyprus problems at the Zurich Accords in 1959. He glosses over the Tripartite Conference stating that it did little to achieve a solution. Cemal Yorgancıoğlu and Şevki Kıralp, “Turco-British Relations, Cold War and Reshaping the Middle East: Egypt, Greece and Cyprus (1954-1958),” Middle Eastern Studies 55, no. 6 (2019): 914-31 characterize the talks as producing “no fruitful outcome.”
4 Adel Safty, The Cyprus Question: Diplomacy and International Law (Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2011) outlines the official proceedings of the conference but maintains that its significance was to only to concede that Greece and Turkey had legitimate interests in the British colony. Andrekos Varnava, “Reinterpreting Macmillan’s Cyprus Policy, 1957-1960,” Cyprus Review 22, no. 1 (2010): pp. 79-108, writes two sentences on the conference and sees its impact as validating Turkey’s position.
5 Simon Smith, Ending Empire in the Middle East: Britain, the United States and Post-war Decolonization,1945-1973 (Oxford: Routledge, 2012) describes the post-WWII reshuffling of global power in the Middle East and the relationship between the U.S. and the UK. It challenges the assumption of the ‘special relationship’ that the two countries were often working in tandem; instead, Smith writes that the UK robustly defended its interests in the region. It does not mention Cyprus.
6 This is something Harold Macmillan himself admitted, “Mediterranean peoples could not be refused any kind of self-government, as if they were primitive savages.” This statement betrays a regrettable view that it was more “acceptable” to subjugate non-European peoples. Peter Catterall, ed., “4 September, 1955” in The Macmillan Diaries: The Cabinet Years, 1950-1957, vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 2003), 469.
7 Robert Holland, Britain and the Revolt in Cyprus, 1954-1959 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998) details the conference, surrounding events, and Macmillan’s role closely. Holland describes Macmillan’s key objectives as neutralizing the threat of self-determination for the island and saving face at the UN (page 73). But he does not include Macmillan’s diaries as a source, and this provides further context for how he made his decisions as Foreign Secretary.
8 “The Constitutional Future of the British Empire,” Eastwood to JM Martin, United Kingdom National Archives PREM 4/42/9, September 1, 1941.
9 There were two types of British Empire in the Middle East: a formal dependent empire made up of the Mandate of Palestine and Transjordan, the Somaliland Protectorate, the Crown Colony of Aden, and the Crown Colonies of Cyprus and Malta and an informal empire of treaty relations with the Arab states, particularly Egypt and Iraq. These were managed by the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office respectively. See William Roger Louis, Imperialism at Bay: The United States and the Decolonization of the British Empire 1941-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978) and Simon C. Smith, Ending Empire in the Middle East: Britain, the United States and Post-War Decolonization, 1945-1973 (London: Routledge, 2013).
10 “Cyprus (Constitutional Arrangements),” Commons and Lords Hansard (UK Parliament, July 28, 1954),
1114 June, 1955,” The Macmillan Diaries, 436.
12 Holland, Britain and the Revolt in Cyprus, 1954-1959, 31-33. Holland describes this conversation between the Prime Ministers as “the beginning of the end” of the traditional Anglo-Hellenic friendship.
13 “Chapter VII: The Cyprus Question,” 1954 Yearbook of the United Nations (United Nations), accessed May 10, 2020, 94-96,
14 See Stephen G. Xydis, “The UN General Assembly as an Instrument of Greek Policy: Cyprus, 1954-58,” The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 12, No. 2 (June 1968), 141-158,
15 “Memorandum of Conversation, by the Deputy Director of the Office of Greek, Turkish, and Iranian Affairs,” by William O. Baxter, State Department 747C.00/2–85, February 8, 1954.
16 “Department of State to the British Embassy, Aide-Mémoire,” by Maxwell M. Hamilton and William O. Baxter, State Department 747C.00/1–2854, July 12, 1954.
18 When Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met at Yalta to reconfigure the new international order at the end of the Second World War, the latter exploded in an undiplomatic fit of rage while discussing trusteeships and dependent areas: “I will not have one scrap of British territory flung into that area. After we have done our best to fight in this war and have done no crime to anyone, I will have no suggestion that the British Empire is to be put into the dock and examined by everybody to see whether it is up to their standard,” “Congressional Record: 81st Congress, First Session,” Vol 95, Part 7, United States Senate (1948), 9092-9093.…
19 Ecuador, Syria, El Salvador, Poland, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, the Soviet Union and Yemen expressed their agreement with Greece during the debate.
20 “Agenda Item 62,” General Assembly First Committee, United Nations A/C.1/SR.752, December 15, 1954,
22 “Congressional Record: 84th Congress, Second Session,” Vol 102, Part 4, United States Senate (1956), 4545-4546,…
23 “3 April, 1955,” The Macmillan Diaries, 410.
24 “American Attitude Towards the Cyprus Question,” by Sir Roger Makins to Sir Anthony Eden, United Kingdom National Archives, RG 1081/48, January 12, 1955.
25 “9 June, 1955” in The Macmillan Diaries, 434.
26 Holland, Britain and the Revolt in Cyprus, 1954-1959, 43-45.
27Ibid, 58-61.
28 “Eastern Mediterranean (Invitation to Greece and Turkey),” Commons and Lords Hansard (UK Parliament, June 30, 1955),…
29 Holland, Britain and the Revolt in Cyprus, 1954-1959, 64.
30 The Tangier Protocol was an agreement between the United Kingdom, France, and Spain which created a Tangier International Zone in the city of Tangier, Morocco. The entered into force on 14 May 1924 and lasted until 29 October 1956 when it was reintegrated with Morocco.
31 “Cabinet Minutes” from July 14, 1955, The United Kingdom National Archives C.M.23(55), 21-22,
32 Scuttle: to sink one’s own ship deliberately i.e. to cause a scheme to fail.
33 The United Kingdom National Archives CAB 129/76/44, “Cyprus” memorandum by Selwyn Lloyd, 25 July 1955,
37 “Cabinet Minutes” from July 28, 1955, The United Kingdom National Archives C.M.27(55), 33,
39Ibid, 34.
40 “Cabinet Minutes” from August 15, 1955, The United Kingdom National Archives C.M.28(55), 43,
41 “Statement made by the Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan at the Second Plenary Meeting Held on August 30, 1955” in The Tripartite Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus Held by the Governments of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Greece and Turkey, 1955, United Kingdom Parliamentary Papers Cmd. 9594, 6,
42 “Agenda Item 8” statement by Harold Anthony Nutting, Tenth Session, United Nations General Assembly, September 23, 1955, 56-60,
43 “Statement made by the Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan,” 7.
44 “Statement made by the Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan,” 12.
45 “12 January, 1956” in The Macmillan Diaries, 524: “For the stakes are very high - no less than the economic survival of Britain. For we lose out in the M. East, we lose the oil. If we lose the oil, we cannot live…”
46 “Statement Made by M. Stephanopoulos at the Third Plenary Meeting Held on August 31, 1955” in The Tripartite Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus Held by the Governments of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Greece and Turkey, 1955, United Kingdom Parliamentary Papers Cmd. 9594, 15,
47Ibid, 19.
48 “31 August, 1955” in The Macmillan Diaries, 466.
49 “Statement Made by M. Zorlu at the Fourth Plenary Meeting Held on September 1,1955” in The Tripartite Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus Held by the Governments of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Greece and Turkey, 1955, United Kingdom Parliamentary Papers Cmd. 9594, 21,
50 Greek for “big idea.”
51 “1 September, 1955” in The Macmillan Diaries, 466-467.
54 “Statement Made by The Rt. Hon. Harold Macmillan at the Restricted Session Held on September 6, 1955” in The Tripartite Conference on the Eastern Mediterranean and Cyprus Held by the Governments of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Greece and Turkey, 1955, United Kingdom Parliamentary Papers Cmd. 9594, 36,
55Ibid, 31-32.
56Ibid, 32-33.
57Ibid, 33.
58 After the Suez crisis and the reassessment of British foreign policy that it caused, Macmillan, then Prime Minister, was eventually forced to concede this point. In 1959, the year of the Zurich Accords which granted Cyprus its independence, Macmillan wrote “we only need our ‘Gibraltars’” i.e. sovereign military sites. See Peter Catterall, ed., “10 February, 1959” in The Macmillan Diaries: Prime Minister and After, 1957-1966, vol. 2 (London: Macmillan, 2011), 192.
59 “6 September, 1955” in The Macmillan Diaries, 470-471.
60 “7 September, 1955” in The Macmillan Diaries, 471-472.
61 “14 September, 1955” in The Macmillan Diaries, 474.
62 “Message From Foreign Secretary Macmillan to Secretary of State Dulles,“ Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204, London, September 15, 1955,
63 “Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in the United Kingdom,” Department of State, Central Files, 747C.00/9–1755, Washington, September 17, 1955, and “Message From Foreign Secretary Macmillan to Secretary of State Dulles London,” Department of State, Presidential Correspondence: Lot 66 D 204, September 19, 1955,
64 “Telegram From the Department of State to the Embassy in Greece,” Department of State, Central Files, 747C.00/9–2055, Washington, September 20, 1955,
67 “Proposed Inscription of Cyprus Item on Assembly Agenda,” Statement by Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr., The Department of State Bulletin, Volume 33, October 3, 1955, 545-6,
68Ibid. A similar rationale was used to explain the U.S.’s vote against inscribing the issue of Algerian self-determination to the Assembly agenda, namely that the General Assembly was not the proper place for these discussions and would make matters worse.
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Manouselis, Erika . “The Modern Roots of the Graveyard for Diplomats: The Tripartite Conference on Cyprus in 1955.” Paper, October 2020.

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