THE rapid deterioration in US-Greek relations which followed the unfortunate hijacking of TWA Flight 847 at the Athens airport highlights a serious defect in American foreign policy which will likely become the Achilles' heel of our purported world mission. Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou has indicated that he will close American bases on Greek soil when the current lease runs out in 1988, thus drawing upon himself the fulminations of the Reagan administration and American public opinion in incidents unrelated to foreign policy, such as sloppy airport security.
Informed by the press that the Greeks have twice elected a ``socialist'' government that wishes to close down NATO bases, the American public views Mr. Papandreou as an irrational and ideological anti-American fellow-traveler.
Yet Papandreou fled imprisonment and torture by royalist dictator King George II for the United States, obtained an economics degree at Harvard, where he later taught, spent 21/2 years in the US Navy during World War II, married an American woman, became an American citizen, and took part in the American presidential campaign of 1952 as a supporter of Adlai Stevenson. The son of a Greek prime minister, he returned to his native country only in 1959, benefiting from Guggenheim and Fulbright fellowships.
How could a person with such familiarity with the US suddenly become so ``anti-American''?
The key is the military coup staged by the Greek colonels in June 1967. This coup followed King Constantine's unseating of Papandreou's duly elected party in July 1965 and the scheduling of free elections for May 1967.
Using a NATO contingency plan (``Prometheus''), a group of Greek Army officers seized power and established a Revolutionary Council. The Johnson administration did nothing to block the coup, while the Nixon administration and its Greek-American vice-president, Spiro Agnew, lent the regime more open approbation. Added to the friendly relations between Greek and American security services, these events firmly established the American connection with the colonels.
Promising to restore parliamentary government and free elections to forestall criticism, the colonels tortured and imprisoned opponents such as Papandreou, purged the armed forces, subjugated the civil service, dominated the church, dismissed the country's most noted judges, and eliminated civil rights.
Police expenditures went up by 40 percent between 1966 and 1969, while spending for education was cut by about 2 percent.
By 1971 the monarchy had been abolished and the dictatorship of George Papadopoulous had been established.
Most important, the colonels passed legislation that encouraged foreign investments, favoring the transfer of large chunks of the Greek economy into foreign hands, especially those of Greek-Americans and Greek shipowners operating from New York and London. These economic investments, in turn, bolstered the colonels' regime and remain a sore point in Greek-American relations.
These occurrences could hardly be expected not to influence a student of politics and economics such as Papandreou. In his memoirs, ``Democracy at Gunpoint: The Greek Front,'' Papandreou wrote that the 1967 coup represented the greatest defeat for Greek democracy since the Axis occupation and, more significantly, the renaissance of totalitarianism in a new militaristic form which threatened all Western Europe.
Considering the coup an aspect of the cold war comparable to the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he accused the Americans of extending their Latin American policies to Europe.
According to Papandreou, there has been a pattern of Western intervention in Greek affairs since World War II, beginning with Winston Churchill's restoration of the Greek monarchy.
In short, Papandreou aims at a Greece free of foreign intervention, which in his experience has come primarily from the West.
The Greek prime minister, however, is not naive enough to believe that Greece could be free within the Soviet orbit or by following the Soviet model.
Like many European socialists, he has scarce faith in a free-market economy and believes that economic planning in a modern society is inevitable. But he conceives of planning as basically ``steering'' a society in a certain direction, while maintaining freedom and a high degree of decentralization.
He may be dreaming, but he has long since decisively rejected Soviet planning as elitist and arbitrary.
Only by considering the nuances of differing ideologies and political conditions within their own context can the US survive, not by dividing that world into good and evil.
Spencer DiScala is associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.