Sunday, June 10, 2007

Historical Note on Turkish-American Relations

The dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire
(Perry Castaneda, click to magnify)

Hazbani's questions about U.S. policy toward the Ottoman empire and the Turkish republic after WWI sparked my interest in the history of Turco-American relations.

As Hazbani noted, the U.S. did not declare war on the Ottoman empire in 1917 - a decision in line with the non-interventionist policy it had pursued since the late 19th century. The U.S.'s main concerns then were protecting the investments that American missionaries had made in educational institutions, as part of efforts to convert Ottoman Christian minorities. But the American also had an eye to future economic opportunities. The latter motivations became preeminent after 1918, when most of the Ottoman Christian populations had either left or been killed or deported.

It is interesting that Hazbani mentioned a US Navy paper, on "USN relations with Turkey from 1914-1940," as the person whom many associate with redefinition of American relations with Turkey after the war was Admiral Mark Bristol, the U.S. High Commissioner to Turkey from 1919-1927. Bristol saw economic and investment opportunities for the U.S. in Turkey, and he was not blind to the navy's need for oil (Donald Bloxham, The Great Game of Genocide, pp. 185-187).

Another point that Hazbani made was about the relatively benign stance of the U.S. toward the defeated Ottoman empire, especially when compared to the rapacious aims of the British, French, Italians, and Greeks.

Under the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in August 10, 1920, the Ottoman empire was not only stripped of all its non-Turkish territories (in the Balkans and in North Africa), but also of some of its Anatolian possessions. The oil-rich town of Mosul, one of those former Ottoman empire possessions that Melih Can was talking about, was seized by the British as part of the Iraq mandate. The French took Cilisia as part of their Syrian mandate. In Eastern Anatolia, the Allies recognized the Armenian and Kurdish claims to independence. Finally, in May 1919, the Allies approved of the Greek occupation of Smyrna (or Izmir in Turkish) in the west, also on the grounds of national self-determination (Greek statisticians claimed a Greek majority in the city). However, the Italians were allowed to occupy Antalya in SW Anatolia (Norman Rich, Great Power Diplomacy since 1914, p. 61).

The U.S. did not participate in this, partly because it had not been party to the irresponsible promises of territorial spoils made by the Allies to each other. However, American businessmen were happy to go along with the British in looking for oil in tapping the Mosul oil fields. There actually was a certain convergence of US and British interests here, but the U.S. came to differ with Britain and the other European powers on the future of Turkey. The British, under Lloyd George, hoped to persuade America to guarantee Armenian independence and thereby put in place a check against both Bolshevik and possible Turkish pan-Islamist (or pan-Turkic?) ambitions. The Americans refused, and eventually came to see a strong, nationalist Turkey as a preferred alternative (Bloxham, Ibid., pp. 192-193).

Atatürk (Wikipedia)

In the meantime, Mustafa Kemal had risen to the top of the Turkish nationalist movement. In October 1920, the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Armenian Republic and turned it into a Soviet Republic. But with the Red Army embroiled in a war with Poland, Kemal attacked the Armenian Soviet Republic and regained all the lost Turkish territory, including Batum, Kars, and Ardahan; Batum was later returned, and became part of the Georgian Soviet. Kemal also signed a treaty with France, which returned Cilicia in southern Anatolia as well as arms, in exchange for Tureky's recognition of the French mandate over Syria. Lastly, the Italians surrender their Anatolian claims in return for certain economic stipulations and Turkish acceptance of their possession of Tripoli, the Dodecanese islands, and Rhodes. In August 1922, the Turks took back Smyrna from the Greeks. Finally, the nationalist forces headed north to Constantinople, where the British were still defending the sultan and the Treaty of Sèvres. Soon thereafter, Kemal led the domestic revolution that deposed Sultan Mehmed VI on November 17. The net result: Anatolia had been secured under the leadership of a modern, Western-oriented Turkish Republic.

These Turkish gains were consolidated under the November 20, 1922 Treaty of Lausanne. Armenian and Kurdish independence in eastern Anatolia had been quashed, as had Greek claims in the west (eastern Thrace); only Mosul was lost to the Mesopotamian mandate, and Alexandretta (İskenderun) to France (the latter became part of Turkey again in 1939) (Rich, Ibid., pp. 85-87).

(Map source: Wikipedia)

From 1922 to 1989, American policy viewed a strong, undivided Turkey as a bulwark against the Soviet Union and as a force for stability in the region. Although Turkey's pursuit of an autarkic economic policy and its trade relations with the Weimar Republic and then the Hitler regime during the interwar period and into the 1930s meant that many of America's economic hopes were not realized then, the military and economic aid that poured into Turkey in the 1940s cemented the American role in the country.

Turkey, it seems clear, now wants some of the oil spoils of which it had been deprived by the British after WWI. In addition to protecting its population from terrorist attacks, the country also wants to safeguard its territorial integrity, which it sees threatened by the rise of a Kurdish state on its southern border, and Kurdish control over oil revenues from Kirkuk and elsewhere. The trick for the U.S. will be to determine how to keep the Turks in line with its own interests, at the lowest price possible.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Amos. You saved me a Doctor visit. The Elzheimer is not here yet and it seems that my father was not talking nonsence either. By the way the other day I was talking about the good old past with a "kid" who performed for Ata Turk in a school ochestra many years ago. Ata Turk was a great man as can be seen from what you wrote. My family remembered the totally beaten & defeated retreating Turkish soldiers in 1918 asking for bread and water and see what this great leader made out of them in few years. Wish the ME had leaders like him today who can define realistic national goals an build nations out of defeated people. Yes and Mosul was stolen from Turkey !!!

Amos said...


Glad to be of service.

I'm not quite as sanguine about endorsing Kemal Mustafa in the way you do, in part because of some of the things that happened in the Caucasian campaigns. Maybe I am wrong about that. Great men are not saints, I guess.

On a very different note - did you know that you can have your name appear as "Hazbani" rather than "anonymous"? When you leave your comment, choose the second option button, and just fill in "Hazbani" there.

What instrument did this "kid" play, and do you know the piece that this school orchestra performed? Just curious...