The Roots of American Genocide Denial: Near Eastern Geopolitics and the Interwar Armenian Question

Donald Bloxham. Journal of Genocide Research. Volume 8, Issue 1. March 2006.

There has been a recent spurt of interest in the relationship of the USA to the Armenian genocide, as illustrated by the publication in 2003 of Peter Balakian’s bestseller The Burning Tigris and Jay Winter’s edited collection America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. This development is unsurprising given the proximity of the 90th anniversary of the Armenian case and the topicality of genocide not only for scholars but also on the international political and legal stages; the connections between responses to the Armenian genocide and the contemporary politics of the current world hegemon implicit in the two volumes in question are made explicit, for instance, in Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Beyond the concern with the American response to the actual killings and deportations of 1915, however, both works are also extensively concerned with the question of the abortive American sponsorship of an independent Armenian state in formerly Ottoman and Tsarist territory in the interwar period. This latter focus has a much longer pedigree, and is more of specific concern to Armenians than is the quasi-universal issue of response to genocide per se.

The issue of Armenian independence briefly gifted by the victorious powers at the conclusion of the First World War is as much a function of the historical Armenian question as of the genocide with which the Committee of Union and Progress (Ittihad ve Terraki Cemiyeti; CUP), the primary perpetrators, sought to “solve” the question once and for all. In other words, though the murder of the Armenians gave urgency to and a seeming justification for the idea of independence, the independence idea itself had deeper roots going back into the second half of the nineteenth century in the question of reform and possibly autonomy for the eastern Anatolian provinces where the majority of the Ottoman Armenians dwelt. Indeed, greater care than has been exhibited in the existing scholarship needs to be taken to separate the ethical and historical questions pertaining on one hand to American (and non-American) responses to the genocide and on the other hand to the independence question, since the former is a matter primarily of humanitarian policy and the latter a more controversial and more overtly political question with profound ramifications for non-Armenian groups. By the same token, the American failure to take a League of Nations mandate for Armenia, or to support the short-lived Republic of Armenia politically and militarily, as was Woodrow Wilson’s sometime wish, should not necessarily be seen as an American “betrayal” of the values that led to the donation of vast quantities of charitable aid to the Armenians from 1915. Besides, apart from Wilson’s pronouncements on Armenian independence, and perhaps the encouragement lent to the cause by American Christian interests, America’s historical responsibility for the Armenian plight during and after the war was slight compared to that of the other “bystander” states to genocide, the European powers.

While American policy during the genocide was entirely reactive, the policies of key European powers in the years and decades right up to 1914 were implicated in exacerbating the very inter-ethnic dynamic that culminated in the Armenian genocide. And this is not even to mention the other cases of colossal inter-group violence that characterized the fragmentation of the Ottoman empire from 1912 to 1922, from the Balkan wars through to the British-sponsored Greek occupation and then outright invasion of Anatolia, and the ensuing atrocities against Muslims and Christians. As regards the Armenian question, no better summary of the situation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries springs to mind than Gerard Libaridian’s. According to Libaridian,

The game of musical chairs played by England, France, Germany, Russia …—alternating as “defenders of Ottoman territorial integrity” and “protectors of Christian minorities”—allowed the Sultan’s government to exchange its economic prerogatives and many of its sovereign territorial rights in outlying areas for the license to resolve domestic unrest in the core of the empire as it saw fit.

The US had been only a political spectator as changing European alliances and priorities meant that the question of reforms for the Armenians was repeatedly raised and then shelved, with the main result that Ottoman suspicions were aroused regarding Armenian loyalty and relations with external powers, while nationalist Armenians were encouraged wrongly to believe that they had reliable foreign sympathizers to whom to appeal.

To lay blame at Washington’s door for failing to sort out the Ottoman and European debacle resulting from the ethnic fragmentation of Anatolia with what would have been a policy of unprecedented, huge and costly intervention just as the USA was starting to become more proactive on the ground in the Near East is somewhat unrealistic. This is why the mandate issue, which took most of the energies of the Armenian and pro-Armenian lobbies in the USA in the 1920s, and which has occupied many scholars since, is something of a red herring in any moral assessment of US policy. But this line of argument is not to suggest that American policy in the interwar period was beyond reproach. Historically speaking, we need to examine the whole complex of factors driving US policy, including attitudes towards existing great power interests in the Near East. Ethically speaking, the real gravamen of America’s role concerns the attitude of US diplomats towards the treatment of minorities under Turkish rule at a time when they were otherwise prepared to exceed the boundaries of political non-intervention in limited ways to forward material interests.

American representatives opportunistically and often cynically reassessed the relationships between Turkey and its minorities in both the past and the present, and re-presented these in turn in their own official rhetoric for domestic consumption and diplomatic advantage in the new Turkey. This had very significant ramifications for the American attitude to recognition of the Armenian fate in the longer term, as what was to become known as genocide denial was propounded on the international scene. For just as Turkish sensitivity about the events of 1915-1916 developed almost simultaneously to the destruction of the Armenians, so too did external accommodation of that sensitivity, and, as we shall see, no one was more accommodating to Ankara than the USA.

The limited historiography on interwar American-Turkish relations and the Armenian question can be encapsulated in outdated assessments of one person: the High Commissioner to Turkey from 1919 to 1927, Admiral Mark L. Bristol. He is depicted by his detractors as an anti-Armenian opportunist, prepared to forward American economic ends at the expense of all else. Bristol’s admirers see him conversely as a realist who championed concrete American interests and was not prepared to offer Armenians false hope. One aim of this article is to critique and nuance both images. The wider intention is to link Bristol’s policies with the aspirations of an important echelon of diplomats and strategists on the role Turkey should play in the region and in America’s future. These aspirations involved much more than the question of Near Eastern oil, the reductive interpretation that satisfied opponents of US policy at the time and has been restated in Balakian’s explanations of the abandonment of support for Armenia. They included anti-bolshevism, the need to foster viable, defensible states, regional stability and American economic penetration. In pursuit of these objectives, the question of Turkey’s past and present treatment of its minorities, though ostensibly maintained on the American foreign policy agenda by US public opinion, was used as a cheap bargaining counter, and effectively disposed of early in the game.

The American Diplomatic Background

Until the end of WWI the US government was politically non-interventionist in the Ottoman Empire, a tradition enduring through the massacres of 80-100,000 Armenians in 1894-1896, and of 20,000 in 1909. Diplomatic relations were primarily concerned with supporting the growing colony of American missionaries and educators in the region. The rise of US public opinion on Near Eastern questions was expressed by collection of financial aid for “suffering Christianity.”

The 1890s saw an expansion of US external trading relations as the “open door” doctrine was enunciated during the depression. Further opportunities were opened up for capital investment in the Ottoman empire by the 1908 coup by the CUP. In the era now of President Taft’s dollar diplomacy, the USA sought to obtain some of the concessions available for railroads and other projects. In that quest some of the ground rules of political non-interventionism were broken.

The most important project supported by the State Department was the bid of the Ottoman-American Development Company for a railway concession in Asia Minor, and accompanying rights to exploit mineral resources in the vicinity of the track. This “Chester concession,” led by the eponymous Admiral Colby M. Chester, was doomed to fail when the board of directors withdrew their application because of internal financial difficulties. In supporting it, however, the State Department had effectively expressed favouritism for the project over and above others and had been prepared to cooperate with one or other European power in an attempt to overcome German opposition to the bid.

Though the pursuit of “concessions at any price” met with the opposition of Oscar S. Straus, ambassador to Turkey from 1909 to 1910, who attributed it to the influence of the newly-established Near Eastern Affairs section (NEA) of the State Department, the US government continued its search via his successors. One such was William Rockhill, author of the original open door notes in China in 1899-1900. This brief if unsuccessful period of overweening emphasis on business was a harbinger of things to come in the postwar years. With the accession of Woodrow Wilson in 1913, however, the USA reverted to non-interventionism, non-favouritism in the promotion of business concerns, and the protection of missionary interests, though Wilson maintained a close interest in trade expansion. Rockhill was replaced by Henry Morgenthau.

The American response to the WWI deportation and murder of Armenians and Assyrians built on the tradition of public charitable aid in the form of the relief organizations incorporated in 1919 as “Near East Relief” (NER). The State Department, however, remained reluctant to be drawn into any form of official conflict with the Ottoman government. Part of the matter was that since at the beginning of the war the CUP had abrogated the capitulations, American diplomats had to rely for the protection of American interests on maintaining good personal relations with Turkish officials. When the diplomatic break did occur in 1917, it did so at the behest of Germany, which pressured Istanbul to terminate relations with the USA. American-Turkish relations were severed on comparatively friendly terms. Overall, the prewar American rejection of political involvement and protection of its missionary interests translated in wartime to a tacit dividing line between humanitarian assistance to the victims of the CUP and political action against that regime. After the partial resumption of diplomatic relations in 1919 the policy gradually metamorphosed such that solicitousness towards Turkey’s erstwhile victims also came to be seen as injurious to American prospects.

Explaining the 1919 Policy Shift

The changing nature of US-Turkish relations derived in some measure from the subordination of the “missionary interest” whose Ottoman Christian constituency was devastated. It was also due to the different outlook of the men who represented the USA in the Near East, and American adjustment to the changing reality and potential of the regional situation. The most significant regional development was the shift from the large, multi-ethnic Ottoman empire to what aspired, on a much-reduced territory, to be a homogenous Turkish nation state.

After the formal armistice, the years from 1919 were characterized by the ascendance in Turkey of resurgent nationalism under Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). His movement gradually established itself over the Allied-influenced Istanbul government. The peace treaty of Sèvres signed in August 1920 by the Istanbul regime thus had to be renegotiated in the nationalists’ favour at Lausanne in 1922-1923. In the interim the Anglo-French front that originally secured the division of the Ottoman empire in its interests at Versailles fell apart. Britain retained control via League of Nations mandates over the former Ottoman territories of Palestine-Transjordan and Iraq. France came to early terms with the nationalists, relinquishing control of Cilicia and contenting itself with Syria. The nationalists also defeated invading Greek armies in 1922, the latter the willing proxies of Britain in the quest to crush Kemal and extend Greek territory. To the east, in the Caucasus, after British forces departed in the second half of 1919, the nationalists consolidated and extended Turkey’s borders. At the end of 1920 they defeated and then imposed a draconian peace on the Republic of Armenia, which had been independent since May 1918. In a subsequent agreement with the Bolsheviks Kemal secured the Caucasus territories lost in the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878.

The chief issue concerning the Kemalists was maintaining the territorial integrity of Eastern Thrace and Anatolia. At the heart of this claim was the rejection of a prospective Armenian state that, according to the Sèvres terms, would include much of eastern Anatolia. The nationalists also sought to regain the Mosul province, which had been provisionally incorporated according to British wishes into Iraq, not least because of London’s designs on its rich oil resources. Within the territory they claimed, the nationalists demanded full political, administrative and economic sovereignty; not just freedom from occupying armies but from the semi-colonial subservience into which the Ottoman empire had been placed in its final decades. With the exception of the Mosul question, they were successful.

One notable aspect of the post-WWI military campaigns on which Lausanne was founded was their brutality. For the nationalists, the successful conclusion of each provided the opportunity to “cleanse” the territory thus secured of opposing armed forces but also indigenous Christian civilian populations. Particularly extensive massacres also occurred in Cilician Marash and on the conquest of Caucasian Armenia. These campaigns may not, however, be equated precisely with the 1915-1916 deportation and murder of the Ottoman Armenians. The Armenian genocide was a one-sided destruction of a largely defenceless community. Notwithstanding the marked continuity of personnel and ideology between the CUP and the Kemalists, the dynamics were slightly different in many of the events of 1917-1923, and markedly so in the Greco-Turkish war. The latter episodes, in all their bloody complexity, would, as will become apparent, be a vital factor in retrospectively shaping external perceptions of the 1915-1916 genocide.

Into this situation of fracturing alliances, soon-to-be-redundant treaties and ongoing inter-ethnic violence, Bristol was appointed US High Commissioner. He retained influence in Allied circles according to the logic that though the USA had not fought the Ottoman empire, it had been instrumental in bringing about its defeat by America’s military role in Europe. According to Bristol, he was accorded the leeway simply to do what he might think best to protect American interests. The historiography indeed emphasizes the “personal factor” of Bristol, then his successor, Ambassador Joseph Grew, and key members of their staff, in shaping US-Turkish relations in different directions, for instance, to those that would have been taken had men like Morgenthau and Straus returned to Istanbul. Moreover, when Congress refused to ratify the Versailles treaty and the Covenant of the League of Nations in November 1919, the USA reverted to a more traditional non-interventionist policy. American relations in the Near East were put back onto a diplomatic footing, with the State Department divisions to the fore (in this case the NEA), rather than the broad strategic one centralized under Wilson’s direction. This shift was only reinforced with the accession of the Republicans under Harding in 1921.

On his appointment Bristol conferred in Paris with the American representatives assembled for the Versailles conference. Alongside Wilson, these included Herbert Hoover, then of the Food Administration. Some of Bristol’s philosophies bear the hallmarks of the influential ideas espoused by Hoover then and during his time as Secretary of Commerce under the Harding and Coolidge administrations. His policies certainly engendered the support of the Republican Commerce and State Department administrations. As regards the Armenian question, a study of one of his early dispatches to the State Department in July 1919, in which he provided a general critique of the Turkish situation, encapsulates most of the thinking exhaustively related in his subsequent reporting.

Bristol’s main contention was that Wilson was playing directly into the hands of the Allies in his contemplation of an Armenian mandate. A mandate would legitimate British and French imperialism in the Near East, he argued, and would further serve British ends by providing a buffer between Iraq and Bolshevik Russia. Bristol was thus to be scathing about the territorial terms of the later Sèvres treaty, and its restoration of European economic control of Turkey. He judged the settlement the embodiment of a European self-interest that might force the Turkish nationalists into the Bolshevik camp.

What did Bristol himself want? More nuance than is provided in the existing studies of the man is required to ascertain exactly what he stood for. Given his own staunch nationalism, the high incidence of economic considerations in his papers, his vigorous championing of the interests of American businessmen in Turkey, and their reciprocal support for him, it seems that his direct emphasis was on commercial and investment possibilities for the USA. Moreover, as a naval man he was well aware of the navy’s need for oil. Given, too, the earlier failure of dollar diplomacy, the “open door” was a sensible alternative. Nevertheless, in theory Bristol and others were not just railing against the Europeans because they were intent on perpetuating economic spheres of influence, but because this was seen as injurious to regional stability and thereby, in circular fashion, to the potential success of American economic relations with Turkey. Such was, indeed, the received wisdom of the open door doctrine.

The Russian revolution affected negotiations on the postwar settlement from the Pacific to eastern Europe. Prominent American strategists, especially Hoover, opposed a harsh French-inspired peace for Germany, fearing that Germany too might be driven into the communist camp. At the same time, the Wilson doctrine had set itself against the imperialist economic competition that had contributed to war in 1914. American proponents of free trade led by “responsible” private interests rather than foreign offices (albeit perhaps with some cooperation between the two) argued that it would prevent economic competition translating into international competition and then war, the “mother of revolution,” and would simultaneously increase the universal prosperity needed to consolidate and expand the capitalist system.

If this was the global theory, what was the reality on the ground in the Near East? Certain aspects of the theory, namely, (American) economic goals and anti-bolshevism, were emphasized more strongly than others, namely genuinely equal commerce. By no means all of this was in Turkey’s interests. The quest to foster the stability of Turkey as a potential part of the capitalist order under American influence was however actively pursued, and with full awareness of what this quest implied for “suspect” Ottoman minorities putatively threatening the peace. Into the mix should also be added the obvious reluctance of Washington to commit substantial resources to the Near East, and the particular, personal preoccupations of American diplomats in Turkey, none of whom was more important than Bristol.

American and European Interests: Conflicts and Coincidences

Bristol’s analysis of the malign role of external intervention in Ottoman affairs past and present had obvious truth to it, as did his assessment of British motives for propounding a US mandate for Armenia. The historians Trask, DeNovo, Bryson and Buzanski have tended to replicate the views of Bristol and Grew themselves in emphasizing the divergence and conflict between British and American Near Eastern policies. Such conflicts there clearly were on the ground in Turkey over Allied intrigue, as a cursory glimpse at the Bristol and Grew diaries show. These have been ignored by proponents of an “informal entente” between British and American geopolitical interests in the interwar period. Nevertheless, a convincing picture can be drawn of an overall confluence of US-British interests at the high policy level in the Near East in the 1920s, as most clearly manifested in the final disposition of oil rights in Iraq from 1922, and in the broader mandate question.

The stability needed for full commercial relations with and penetration into new territories presupposed steady governmental control of the type which in “immature” states only the tutelage of “civilized” powers could purportedly assure. The mandate system in the former Ottoman empire reconciled the ostensibly conflicting aims of Wilson’s 14 points by giving the Europeans colonial control of the territories in question while paying lip-service to their national development and placing a wedge firmly under the open commercial door as stipulated in the Versailles treaty. American economic goals were achieved through European imperialism, and in Iraq this meant that American oilmen moved in alongside their British counterparts into the virgin fields of Mosul after Britain had “pacified” the province at no expense to the USA.

The open door was certainly not sacrosanct if it seemed American interests would best be achieved by other means, as in American relations with the Caribbean, the Philippines, and Latin America. The conditions of the concession within which the American oil companies worked in Iraq, under the umbrella of the British-dominated “Turkish Petroleum Company,” constituted a “multinational monopoly,” given an initial period of exclusive exploration and drilling rights and the sheer scale of capital and technology required to exploit the oil resources. Bristol also broke the rules of the open door by seeking to press the American Chamber of Commerce to prioritize the Chester Concession as a matter of “American prestige.” His preference was hard to square with the ideal of free and equal commercial competition devoid of antagonistic state influences. He expressed the desire for American companies in Turkey to “combine for a common interest and not compete with each other.” He preferred fully American companies—i.e. firms not working with Europeans or Ottoman Christians—to act as a bloc against the firms of other states. This ambition bore similarities to the nationalist approach taken by France in its Ottoman economic dealings in the later nineteenth century, and undermines the vision of Bristol as a simple “open door diplomat,” bringing him more into the realms of economic imperialism. However, there is little evidence that this specific policy was supported by the State Department.

More importantly, the USA was capable of showing as little respect for Turkish (or Iraqi) national sovereignty as the Europeans when those sovereign rights impinged on economic interests. US diplomats were not afraid to infringe the former to protect the latter, disproving the old “isolationist” orthodoxy. The US delegation at Lausanne, composed of Bristol, Grew and Richard W. Child, had express instructions to work as a first priority alongside the Allies for reinstatement of the capitulations. As in the maintenance of extraterritorial privileges in China policy, American diplomats seemed to be making a convenient distinction between territorial integrity and administrative integrity. They also aided the Allies in enforcing maintenance of low prewar Turkish import tariffs until 1929, benefiting exporters to Turkey while threatening the development of the immature Turkish import-replacement industries that were supposed to provide the foundations of Turkey’s postwar policy of economic self-reliance. This also restricted the government’s revenue raising ability. Where by Lausanne there was an indisputable coincidence of American goals with those of the Turkish nationalists was in rejecting political division of Anatolia.

Turkish National Viability and the Armenian Mandate Question

Pursuant to Wilson’s agreement at Versailles to consult on the mandate question, the Allied Supreme Council requested in April 1920 that he adjudicate on the Turkish territory to be added to the then independent Caucasian Republic of Armenia for what was to become the Sèvres treaty. This he accepted. Rather surreally, given that Congress had already rejected the Covenant of the League of Nations, the Supreme Council also requested that the USA accept the Armenian mandate. In May 1920, the Senate rejected that too.

Two fact-finding reports on the regional situation were submitted to Wilson in 1919. The earlier, returned in August, was composed by two NER trustees, Henry C. King and Charles R. Crane. Among their many cautionary findings was the problem of removing non-Armenians from future Armenian territory and bringing other Armenians in from outside the territory. In reporting in October on the prospective costs of a mandate, General James G. Harbord estimated a figure of $75 m over the first five years, and pointed to the difficulty of defending it militarily. The collapse of Caucasian Armenia in late 1920 only reinforced this conviction. Wilson was unable to reverse the tide of political opinion, and, in mid-1921, the Democrats were swept from office. Besides, as Harding later stated, there was nothing that could be done even with the best will in the world given that no one in the USA was prepared to go to war with Turkey. Conversely, there were important reasons for the USA to oppose a mandate in any case.

Even prewar demographics would not have justified an Armenian claim for territorial division based on ethnic majoritarianism. Nevertheless, the state Wilson envisaged, in addition to Caucasian Armenia, comprised large parts of the provinces of Van, Erzurum, Bitlis, and Trebizond on the Black Sea Coast. As Wilson observed, though these areas, particularly Trebizond, had Muslim majorities, it was essential for the economic survival of the Armenian state that it have access to the sea and to fertile lands. As important as the demographic question, therefore, was the issue of geopolitical viability. This could work both ways: in the earlier words of US Consul-General in Istanbul G. Bie Ravndal, the eastern Anatolian provinces should be incorporated in their entirety into the new Turkey for its “moral and material” success.

Furthermore, there was the question of Armenian defence highlighted by Harbord. Harbord had actually been dispatched by Hoover to assess such matters while the latter was leading the operations of the American Relief Administration in Istanbul and the Caucasus. Hoover’s concern in 1919 was as much about defending a prospective state against Bolshevik penetration as Kemalist attack. If no Armenian state could function without external protection, the same was certainly not true of Turkey. This underlay Child’s judgment that “if every group in the world which desires independence were satisfied there would be thousands of peanut states and the map would look more like chickenpox than Wilson ever believed when he created the slogan of ‘self-determination’.” The Allied delegates at Lausanne voiced similar opposition to “small, segregated areas, autonomous or otherwise.” Whereas Lloyd George had earlier sought to entangle the USA in Armenia as a counterweight to the Bolsheviks and Turkish pan-Islamism, the USA, like Churchill and other “pro-Turks” in London, saw that nationalist Turkey itself could be the regional stabilizer.

As with the rise of Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese nationalists in the 1920s, and like their British Foreign Office counterparts studying the Near East, the State Department was concerned about Turkish nationalist links with communist forces, and took a little persuading that the marriages were only of convenience—in Turkey’s case, to maintain a supply of arms. Bristol was important in identifying earlier than most the independent agenda of the nationalists. The wish may have been father to the thought here, since it appealed to his aspirations for American-Turkish relations to have a viable Turkish power centre alternative to the Allied-influenced government in Istanbul. Nevertheless, he was correct when he boasted in the preparations for Lausanne that he had long maintained “Turkey would never be bolshevik.” All that was required, Bristol argued, was for the Allies to provide the aid necessary to “get Turkey away from Russia and make her a strong bulwark in the Near East against bolshevism”; the plea for a strategic use of aid was a distinctly Hooverian approach to the postwar settlement. Importantly in this strategy, since in nationalist eyes the minorities were obstacles to the coherence and (therefore) stability of the new Turkish nation state, they would become obstacles in the eyes of important American observers too.

On August 6, 1923, after the main Lausanne negotiations in which the Americans were officially only observers, they concluded a separate treaty of amity and commerce with Ankara, the “Turco-American treaty of Lausanne.” It gave the USA most of the terms already agreed with the Europeans. American opponents of the treaty condemned it as a sell-out of Armenian hopes in furtherance of American economic advantage. The lobbying of domestic opposition to ratification of the Turco-American treaty ultimately denied the Republicans the two-thirds Senate majority required to endorse the agreement. If part of this opposition, like that of the vocal American Committee for the Independence of Armenia (ACIA), was based on the rationale of not wanting to supersede the Sèvres terms for an independent Armenia, another part was based on a more nuanced and potentially realistic premise. Opponents such as J. R. Veris of NER wished to use the Senate’s rejection to state that they were not prepared to deal with a regime that acted as the nationalists did. They sought to deny the American recognition that the nationalists desired if the latter did not treat remaining Christians tolerantly. As trading relations between the two countries stood at that point, and as, indeed, they had traditionally done, isolation from Turkey would not have been economically costly to the USA.

Bristol’s response to Veris was incoherent except in its self-interest. At the same time as arguing that “if we did not ratify the Treaty it would make very little difference to the Turks, and … would only injure our own interests,” he contended contradictorily that with the resumption of full diplomatic relations “we would continue to occupy a very influential position towards the Turks,” influence which could be used “for greater amelioration of the situation of the Christians.” Bristol and Grew repeatedly trumpeted the moral capital the USA had accumulated in Turkey because of its self-confessed political disinterestedness. Yet this capital would only be invested in improving relations between the two countries, not “wasted” on the very obvious ongoing moral issues raised by Turkish ethnic policies. Laurence Evans is utterly wrong to suggest that the USA “kept up a constant diplomatic pressure on Angora to follow a course of moderation in the treatment of minorities.”

American Attitudes to Minority Protection and Turkification

Any constructive solution to the minority question would be complicated. Ismet “Inönü”, leader of the Turkish delegation at Lausanne, told the Americans “we have fought with all our minds and bodies and property and souls for our independent sovereignty. We will not have Armenians and Greeks remain as the means of importing corruption and disloyalty into our country.” He favoured “emigration.” The Ottoman Greeks, at least, could be “exchanged” for Muslims in Greece, as would be the course sanctioned by the international community at Lausanne. The Armenians, like ethnic Macedonians in the Balkans, and like Jews throughout eastern Europe, had no independent state to which to go.

An early indication of American priorities had come at the close of 1921. The American consul in Aleppo, in Syria, Jackson, had at that time seen the clouds blackening for the Armenian population of Cilicia as the French occupying forces were in the final stage of withdrawal. He could draw on the experiences of massacres in the coastal areas of the region from the previous year. In invoking French responsibilities for protecting Cilician Christians, Jackson elicited the response from Bristol that “our assertion of French responsibility … might be invoked as indirectly sanctioning political or commercial privileges already secured or to be secured by France in these same regions.” Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes sided with Bristol, instructing Jackson to discontinue his correspondence with the French and assigning the High Commissioner greater responsibility for American interests in Cilicia. To Jackson, Hughes later observed that beyond the protection of American rights, he should “exercise the greatest circumspection in discussing questions of more than local interest,” and, significantly, that “American officials in the Ottoman Empire should usually find it possible to accommodate themselves to certain existing conditions without formally recognising them.”

From his early days in Istanbul Bristol was also critical of the actions of American relief organizations, feeling, simplistically, that they were propagandists on behalf of “suffering Christianity.” He disagreed for instance with every aspect of NER’s policy towards Christian orphans. Even after the destruction of Smyrna in 1922, he was still advising NER not to bring orphans out of Anatolia since he “knew well that they were perfectly safe in the interior,” and compounded this with the bizarre charge that the move “could tend to put it into the heads of the Turks not only to get rid of the orphans but to get rid of all the Christians.” While he claimed to be prepared to act should the orphans gathered in Istanbul be threatened by “disturbances,” he far preferred that the relief agencies did not put him in the position where he had to face “this embarrassment”; the conclusion must be that he simply objected to whatever the NER did because its very presence invoked an awkward attitude towards an awkward past. NER representatives consequently began to see Bristol as an obstacle to the fulfilment of their function and at the end of 1921 petitioned the State Department for his ouster. Washington again backed the High Commissioner’s assessment of American interests and kept him on.

The logic of the American approach for the minorities, given the refusal to confront the dominant ethnic group, was full conformity with the nationalist agenda. In the new Turkey that meant ethnic assimilation, whether “voluntary” or forced. Two contexts need to be taken into consideration when assessing precisely how the American diplomats understood the minority situation. The first was international in the sense that it was common to the outlook of other powers; the other had more distinctly “American” colourings.

Turkey was not the only state to oppose the minorities clauses in the first place, then to disregard its treaty commitments, and finally to impede potential protests by its minorities. Nor was the USA alone in effectively ignoring Turkish policies; its actions were congruent with those of another major arbiter of the general 1919 settlement, and the major arbiter of the Near Eastern settlement, Great Britain. The minorities treaties, as first applied to eastern European states at Versailles, had been an attempt to reconcile the call for self-determination with geographical and economic realities such as the need to create viable economic units and the great intermingling of peoples. The treaties were in the medium term to provide a measure of cultural self-determination for state minorities. Ultimately, however, in the British view, oriented as it was towards maintenance of the new status quo, they were a transitional measure, the final result of which would hopefully be the absorption of the minorities into majority culture, aimed at ensuring the stability of the postwar territorial settlement. Since the minorities treaties were a means to an end, fractures of their terms were treated with a certain tolerance. Once the Kemalists had forced their claim to the whole of Anatolia, precisely the same was true of the American and British views of Turkey and its minorities.

The USA itself had not been unaffected by the global rise of chauvinist nationalism over the previous decades. In the specific American experience we encounter the second of our factors shaping US attitudes towards the Turkish minorities. It is often suggested that American diplomats felt an affinity with another state trying to fashion a new start outside the constraints of the old world, and Bristol and Grew were certainly keen to propound such a vision of Turkey. A closer study of the record suggests this rosy picture needs qualification by a value transposition of a different sort. American entry into WWI intensified a growing domestic sense of xenophobia, characterized by growing “nativist” opposition to the mass immigration of the previous decades, suspicion of “fifth column” minorities, with German Americans and then Jews prime examples, and of politically subversive elements. “New Americans” and “hyphenated Americans” were contrasted with “one hundred percent Americans” who had thoroughly imbibed American values and patriotism. The great triumph of the nativists came in the year after the Lausanne conference, with the “National Origins Act” of 1924. This suspicion of fifth column minorities in a country of varied origins was applied by Bristol and others to the Turkish situation.

The most powerfully resonant idea Bristol employed in Istanbul was his “melting pot scheme,” a metaphor borrowed directly from the prevailing American orthodoxy of boiling away immigrant culture, as one would remove impurities in the forging of steel. As he put it, “if the Armenians here were left alone they would work out their salvation and may be in a generation or two … would become Turkish citizens like foreigners become citizens of the United States.” According to this logic, Christians were no longer natives of the Near East but suspect aliens, and were to be treated as such. But a worldview shaped according to prevailing American paranoias could go yet further in the quest for organic wholeness.

In contrast to his opposition to NER’s removal of Armenian children from the Turkish interior, Bristol was not always consistent on the question of Armenians remaining in Turkey. Briefly, in the aftermath of the Greek defeat and the massive violence that unleashed in 1922, and as population exchanges in the region became a de facto reality, he began to openly express the need for all Christians to leave Turkey. Immediately before he departed for Lausanne, Bristol adjudged that he “could see greater calamities to the world than for the Turks to come in here and clean out of Constantinople all of these Levantines of different nationalities, the Greeks and Armenians, and start to build up again without these people.” “The Greeks and Armenian merchants … have been the leeches in this part of the world sucking the life blood out of the country for centuries.” Interestingly, each of these extracts was highlighted in the original documentation, and by the first the State Department reader noted “this is one of the few passages where B. really says what he wants!” Discounting for a moment the colour of the language, here was a prescription for Turkey’s national development that explains the peculiar vitriol towards Istanbul.

What one British writer termed “bastard levantine Constantinople” encapsulated something. With its large European populations and great Christian quarters, the intimate connection seemingly laid bare between the great powers and their extraterritorial privileges on one hand and local Christians on the other, Istanbul represented all that was worst about the Ottoman past in nationalist eyes and those of Bristol too. As Charles, H. Sherrill, Grew’s successor as Ambassador, would write in an account of Kemal’s revolution, “no man, sick or well, could digest the hash of foreign elements that the earlier Ottoman empire had swallowed.” “The Turks needed re-Turkification—a purification from all the base metals that made up the Ottoman amalgam.” All of this chimed perfectly with the Kemalists’ and the CUP’s own anti-Christian rhetoric, including their politico-economic assault on Christian merchants in the name of creating a Turkish-Muslim bourgeoisie.

Bristol’s sentiments belie the image of a simple realist, resignedly acknowledging that temporary unpleasantness was a price worth paying for long-term stability. They reveal instead a man actively endorsing a future in which the Ottoman Christians should be marginalized by any means necessary. The Christians of Istanbul were not just a threat to Turkish stability by an accident of historical intermixing, they were a debilitating element, an alien parasite on a more intrinsically worthy host society. This was not anti-Armenianism or anti-Greekism per se, but instead a nativist nationalist thinking to improve the moral and material well-being of another society by application of the principle of ethnic purification in a place beyond hope of proper assimilation into the Turkish body. And though the NEA could not be seen to endorse further Christian expulsions, the acceptance of assimilation as a way to solve the Armenian question was effectively adopted in American policy, while such refugee exoduses as there were presented no grounds for action.

One problem remained in the “normalization” of US-Turkish relations. Irrespective of the dwindling numbers of Christians in Turkey, the Armenian question would remain an issue because of the ongoing activism of the anti-Lausanne campaigners and the deep impression atrocities had made on the American consciousness and view of “the Turk.” The need to square American opinion with American policy resulted in what was effectively a public relations campaign stemming from Istanbul based on the twin images of the minorities as a self-constituted national problem and the struggles of the emerging Turkey.

The Propaganda Effort: Revising the “Terrible Turk” Image

Most of the American educators and missionaries in Turkey came to accept the reality of the new Turkey, and to make the best of their position they supported ratification of the Turco-American treaty alongside businessmen and diplomats. Domestic opposition to ratification as a betrayal of the Armenian national home was spearheaded by the ACIA. Opposition was incorporated by the Democrats into their 1924 campaign platform. The treaty was blocked in 1927, even though its presentation to Congress had been delayed until the government thought it safe. Bristol had defined his position against such opposition from the beginning of his Istanbul tenure; his avowed aim was to present “both sides of the question” to rehabilitate Turkey’s reputation, a portentous aspiration for anyone acquainted with latter-day techniques of genocide denial.

While American missionary literature had employed positive stereotypes of Armenians and negative ones of Turks, and treaty opponents continued to use these, Christians in the Ottoman empire clearly had been subjected to vast atrocities that it was entirely legitimate to report and engender sympathy around. Furthermore, it would have been difficult to represent the events of 1915 in anything other than terms derogatory to Turkey. Bristol, however, used a number of tactics to “balance” the picture. The most straightforward was outright denial or minimization of Christian suffering. Thus in February 1920 he deliberately misinformed the State Department about the massacre of Armenians in Cilicia, denying it contrary to the report of the Beirut consulate that 5,000 had been so killed. When Washington queried the inconsistency in the two reports, he simply asserted that Beirut had relied upon Armenian sources which were, therefore, inherently untrustworthy. Conversely he was eager to give credence to Armenian sources that downplayed the news of atrocity, even though Americans near the scene had already advised the State Department that such sources were writing under Turkish duress.

Sophistry was a vital tool, and Bristol employed it liberally. On those occasions when he could bring himself to address mass murder, as to a correspondent of the New York Times in May 1922, he observed that “all the races in this part of the world are given to committing atrocities and massacres.” His most potent weapon in portraying a situation where everyone and therefore no one was responsible was the fact of the Greek invasion, where Christians had been clear aggressors. On this subject, he deployed some important truths about post-1918 Turkey in the pursuit of profound distortions about the pre-1918 Ottoman empire.

After the 1921-1922 war Bristol told anyone who would listen that Christian refugees “had themselves committed outrages upon the Turks,” as in 1920 he had seized on the fighting on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border in which both sides had committed atrocities. Other members of the High Commission staff could distinguish between the differing extents, organization, and chronology, of atrocities since 1915. In his focus upon Christian crimes, however, Bristol blurred past and present events—as well as conflating the actions of the Greek invading army with those of the beleaguered Armenian state—for external consumption, as in September 1922 to allay the misgivings of the director of Standard Oil (an interesting twist on the caricature of the Harding administration being towed forward by oil interests). Grew copied the technique. In 1928, he wrote of the book The Turkish Ordeal by the nationalist feminist Halidé Edib that “It is a thoroughly ex parte statement of events from 1918 to 1923 and is excellent publicity for the Nationalist cause and their heroic deeds, painting the crimes of the British, Armenians and Greeks in most lurid colors.” With the rhetoric of Turkey as the “underdog,” Bristol and Grew were doing exactly what prominent Turkish nationalists, many of whom had been implicated in the massacres of 1915-1916, were themselves beginning to do: using the history of the post-1918 war of independence to present retrospectively the prior world conflict as a defensive, anti-imperialist war, the killing of Armenians as an act of resistance against an internal aggressor.

Since 1919 Bristol had written to American senators, connecting “Armenian propaganda” to European imperialism, as he had regularly repeated the Turkish line that Armenians were a fifth column of the former Allies. He also lobbied pressmen with his views, as did the State Department, the US consular representative at Ankara, and Bristol’s naval subordinates, each always making sure to let Turkish representatives know how “impartial” they were encouraging reporters to be. Thus after the New York Herald had commissioned a naval officer to report from the Turkish interior in summer 1922, the commander of the USS Edsall recounted to the district governor of Samsun how he had dispatched such an officer, purportedly to comment on conditions “with complete justice and fairness to all sides”—but in fact to “obtain first hand information of the conditions left after the retreat of the Greek army.” The commander concluded by noting with satisfaction the enormous circulation of the newspaper.

American businessmen anxious for the stability of full relations with Turkey were eager to endorse Bristol’s depiction, with Colby M. Chester to the fore. Chester wrote one of the more remarkable apologia for the CUP, claiming in a 1922 article in Current History that the Armenians had been moved “to the most delightful parts of Syria,” where the climate resembled Florida, at great expense to the Ottoman government. Overall, the complex of information and misinformation disseminated at this time contained most of the elements of later denial of the Armenian genocide: the minimizing of Armenian deaths, the denial of Ottoman intent to kill, the blaming of the victims and/or the Europeans, and the focus on Muslim casualties.

Despite the State Department’s awareness of Bristol’s biases and the querying of some of his reports, it would in the final analysis approve the sophistry of his analysis to legitimate the pursuit of American interests. In July 1925 the NEA was confronted with the collected grievances of the Greeks of Istanbul since Lausanne, particularly concerning property and religious freedom. Its response was as follows:

These grievances would appear to be decidedly serious and if they are as well founded as they appear to be … one can hardly escape the conclusion that the Turks are evading some of their obligations under the minority clauses of the Treaty of Lausanne. … I have no doubt we shall hear echoes of this memorandum in the Senate. … Such an attack can probably best be met along the lines with which we are already familiar, including the emphasis of the confusion which still exists as a result of the efforts of the new regime to adjust itself to the new situation in Turkey.

Beyond this deliberate misrepresentation, there was a more positive side to the public relations campaign, emphasizing the progressive nature of nationalist Turkey as the right kind of partner for the USA. Kemal’s remarkable secularizing and modernizing reforms received acclaim across the world, and it was understandable that a western state should have some sympathy for a country seeking to emulate western development, and against a backdrop of such massive destruction. Nevertheless, the same people who had been prominent downplaying the destruction of the Armenians led the channelling of this acclaim. Grew and Sherrill were at the forefront in the late 1920s and early 1930s, as was the “American Friends of Turkey,” established in 1923, and involving a number of members of the NEA. Bristol was elected to its chair in 1932. In the final analysis, there was a painful duality to Turkey’s modernization, and one conveniently ignored by pro-Turkish historians to this day, just as by the former High Commissioner.

There was a close relationship between the nationalist reformism of the CUP and the Kemalists and their assaults on non-Turkish populations. This duality could even be detected in a comparatively moderate character like Halidé Edib. While her feminism and nationalist intellectualism (and her American education) attracted her to the High Commission staff and later to American political experts when she visited the USA in 1928, her nationalism had also meant that during WWI, she had overseen the entrance into orphanages and accompanying Islamization of Armenian children. Likewise the American-educated journalist Ahmed Emin Yalman, who also helped to promote Turkish-American business links, was at the same time a prominent critic of the pre-1908 Ottoman state for tolerating ethnic difference at all instead of forcing its peoples into the melting pot.

The Christians were not the only groups to lose out in the selective American focus on Turkey. From 1925 onwards Kurds would be the main victims of the nationalist drive to centralize control of Anatolia and consolidate the Turkish state. Inasmuch as the fate of Kurdish populations attracted any of their attention, Bristol and others were happy to accept Ankara’s own definition of its brutality as an attack on “feudal” or “reactionary” religious forces. The combination of American modernization rhetoric and obfuscation would eventually have its impact, though it was only some years after 1927 that concrete results would be achieved in Congress. A more significant legacy was that the contortions the US diplomats had adopted as a matter of choice would rapidly become a matter of Turkish expectation, nay insistence.

Implications for Future Turkish-American Relations

When in 1927 Congress refused to ratify the Turco-American treaty, Bristol contrived to circumvent a potentially damaging rejection of Turkey in a way consistent with the history of unofficial American foreign relations since the rejection of the League of Nations Covenant. By drawing on the personal reservoir of goodwill he had established with the nationalists, he agreed diplomatic and commercial modi vivendi that adopted the treaty terms. At the behest of the State Department, he was acting as if the treaty had actually been passed. Grew then went on to secure annual extensions of the modi vivendi in 1928 and 1929, until the groundwork had been laid for another attempt at passing a formal treaty of commerce and navigation with Turkey, as was presented to Congress—with a minimum of forewarning and fanfare, as requested by the State Department—in 1929. In 1931, a treaty of establishment and residence governing personal and business rights was also passed, and these two treaties together incorporated most of the substance of the failed Lausanne agreement.

The modi vivendi represent a triumph for Bristol and Grew in terms of immediate, material American interest. They allowed businessmen to continue to operate in Turkey on some of the key terms secured by the European powers. However, there were costs to a provisional arrangement lacking the democratic domestic mandate that would have cast mutual obligations in mutually-binding legal form over the long term. The brand of semi-official diplomatic policy-making that had developed since 1919 could only operate successfully with continued Turkish approval of the course it was taking, and that approval needed regular explicit re-affirmation as the modi vivendi and other agreements were negotiated throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s. The element of control explains the avowal of the Turkish foreign minister in November 1927 that his government would be perfectly happy were the treaty never ratified. It reproduced the situation of the American embassy in 1915-1916, when protests against the deportations had to be muffled for fear of straining personal relations with the CUP leaders. Consequently, nationalist sensitivity about the issues of Turkey’s present and recent past was transmitted with peculiar intensity back to Washington. Whether or not Bristol and Grew apprehended it as they repeatedly crowed about American moral credit in Ankara, every time Ankara praised the USA for its political neutrality it was also warning the State Department to keep things that way, mindful of European interventions in the Ottoman empire and of popular American reactions to the wartime murder of the Armenians.

The American-Turkish relationship pattern was most famously illustrated by the reaction to the plans by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to film Franz Werfel’s 1933 novel of resistance to the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Upon learning of the project in September 1935, the Turkish ambassador to Washington wrote to the State Department that the book “is full or arbitrary calumnies and contempt against the Turkish people and … would certainly not be of a nature to promote the existing friendly relations between the two peoples.” After hearing from the NEA, the MGM president then conveyed to the Turkish embassy that the scheme would be dropped. Similar pressures were revived when after Kemal’s death at the end of 1938 rumours circulated that the project would be resurrected. The established American policy of non-intervention over Turkey’s treatment of its minorities was now extended to repression of internal American discussion of the matter, and the die was cast for posterity and the refusal to the present day of the US Congress to pass resolutions identifying the Armenian fate as genocide.

The context of the cold war proper, with Turkey a key NATO ally on the Soviet border housing American nuclear missiles, was of course important after the Second World War in influencing the attitude of Congress and the US Presidency on the “recognition” issue. Moreover, since the downfall of the USSR, US-Turkish relations have retained their importance because of Turkey’s role as a stabilizing, politically secular influence in a volatile region. Nevertheless, these considerations have only bolstered the underlying, and intrinsically related economic and geopolitical influences on US policy that assumed ascendancy in the year following the First World War. In a very real sense, “genocide denial” was accepted and furthered by the US government before the term genocide had even been coined.

The irony of the US position was that despite expectations there was in the first instance little return on the American “moral investment” in Turkey. For their part, the nationalists, well aware of the political implications of foreign presence in their economy, used the ideology of economic nationalism in the 1930s to ensure that they would never again become overly dependent on other countries. Trade with and investment from Europe remained much more important for Ankara. Moreover, and again despite American geopolitical pretensions, Turkish politicians continued to keep the USSR on good terms as a counterweight to the other powers, thus keeping the USA and the Europeans guessing about its long-term allegiance. It was only with the influx of military and economic aid into Turkey at the end of the 1940s and the alignment of Turkey with the western bloc through NATO membership that American influence in Turkish politics and economics began to discernibly increase; thus not because—as Roger Trask has claimed—of the wisdom of American interwar policies, but because of a Turkish calculation based on simple material self-interest.


The comparatively minor significance of Turkey in US economic policy, and the very limited interwar success of American policy towards Ankara should not obscure the fact that Turkey formed an intrinsic part of grander American strategic designs in which anti-bolshevism, concerns for regional stability, hopes for advantageous business relations and prescriptions for a “viable” and “reliable” state all played related parts. An American desire to build up commercial relations with Turkey there certainly was from 1919. Equally strong was the wish to open up all the Near Eastern markets as an outlet for surplus American capital, and the 1922-1923 settlement was a central bargaining arena for these rights. If a strong, independent, nationalist Turkey favourably disposed to the USA appealed at almost every level of strategic thinking, the Armenians were exposed by the same logic.

Despite the sense of Bristol, Child and Grew that they were midwives to a new and more wholesome order in the Near East, some of the problems they encountered, and some of the solutions they applied, were not new either historically or morally. The American diplomats embarked on the road that Imperial Germany had taken in the mid-1890s and that their own predecessors had considered in 1909. Both powers arrived in eras of Armenian massacre; both were seeking a foothold in an economy dominated by Britain and France, with Russia a looming political influence to the northeast; both used their loudly-proclaimed “neutrality” in the Armenian question as a bargaining tool to gain advantage with the Turkish government while other powers were proactively manipulating the same question in their own interests.

Up to the First World War, Ottoman Armenians looked fruitlessly to Russia or Britain to secure their future within or outside Ottoman rule. Thereafter, the Wilsonian peace and the possibility of a mandate meant that hopes for that future were invested for a time in the USA, only to be shattered once again. Latterly, as world hegemon and home to a large Armenian community, the USA has become an arbiter of the Armenian past, and has played that role with a narrow self-interest that would be entirely familiar to the nineteenth century diplomats of London, Paris, Berlin and St Petersburg.