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The Splendid Blond Beast (Excerpt, pp 32-37)

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Importantly, Britain, France, and the United States were at that time vying with one another to divide up the vast oil and mineral wealth of Turkey’s Ottoman Empire. Kemal skillfully played the three powers against each other and insisted on amnesty for the Ittihadists as part of the price for his support in the division of the defunct empire.12

Though often overlooked today, the Ottoman holdings were of extraordinary value, perhaps the richest imperial treasure since the European seizure of the New World four centuries earlier. The empire had been eroding for decades, but by the time of the Turkish defeat in World War I, it still included most of what is today Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, and the oil sheikdoms of the Persian Gulf. The European governments sensed that the time had come to seize this rich prize.

The British had been the dominant foreign power in the Middle East prior to World War I. Their Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later known as British Petroleum, or BP) and the Turkish Petroleum Company effectively controlled most of the oil reserves in the region. But the French acquired an important mandate in the area during the war, and by 1919 they were seeking substantial concessions from the British. Both countries preferred to keep the U.S.-backed Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (today known as Exxon) out of the area.13 The U.S. government meanwhile opposed many aspects of the European colonial rule in the Middle East, preferring instead what it termed “open-door” policies—those that facilitated U.S. penetration of new markets and acquisition of new sources of supply.

Senior officials of all three Western powers became preoccupied with oil politics in the Middle East. It even led to an awkward new term, “oleaginous diplomacy,” that was used for years to refer to government initiatives on behalf of oil companies. “Oil,” said French Premier Georges Clemenceau, “is as necessary as blood.”14

For a short time after the war, the three allies pressed the new Turkish government on two fronts: First, they supported tough punishment for Ittihadist criminals, payment of damages to Armenians and Greeks for the lives and property lost during the massacres, establishment of an independent Armenian republic in northeastern Turkey, and transfer to Greece of the port city of Smyrna. Second, they demanded that the Turks surrender all claims to the resources of the former Ottoman territories outside of Turkey proper, particularly the Mosul oilfields in what is today northern Iraq. Although many Turks saw these terms as humiliatingly onerous, the first postwar Turkish government agreed to them in the Treaty of Sèvres, signed in August 1920. That agreement was hailed at the time as the formal conclusion of World War I.15

But the Associated Powers could not agree among themselves on the terms of the division of the Mosul oilfields, and new fighting broke out between the Armenian nationalists, who sought to establish the republic they believed they had been guaranteed at Sevres, and the Turkish Kemalists, who still regarded Armenia as a part of Turkey. Kemal’s embrace of the Ittihadists contributed to an escalating cycle of revenge killings and renewed massacres in Turkey.

By the end of 1920, the Kemalists were clearly in the ascendance, having established a rival government at Ankara, in the center of the country. The increasingly shaky Turkish government at Istanbul, under intense Kemalist pressure to abrogate the Treaty of Sevres, abruptly shut down the criminal trials of Ittihadists. The Western allies then stepped up their jockeying for influence in the Kemalist camp.

The U.S. High Commissioner to Turkey was Admiral Mark L. Bristol, a man with a reputation as a bigot and a determined advocate of U.S. alliance with Mustafa Kemal. “The Armenians,” Bristol wrote, “are a race like the Jews—they have little or no national spirit and poor moral character.”16 It was better for the United States, he contended, to jettison support for the Armenian republic as soon as possible, stabilize U.S. relations with the emerging Turkish government, and to enlist Kemal’s support in gaining access to the oilfields of the former Ottoman Empire. Bristol’s argument found a receptive audience in the new Harding administration in Washington, whose affinity for oil interests eventually blossomed into the famous Teapot Dome bribery scandal.17

As High Commissioner to Turkey, Bristol had considerably more power than might be enjoyed by any conventional ambassador. As the civil war unfolded inside Turkey, Bristol barred newspaper reporters from access to areas where renewed massacres of Armenians were taking place, purportedly to avoid inciting further atrocities against civilians.

His correspondent at the State Department in Washington was Allen Dulles. After the Paris conference, Dulles had served briefly as chief of staff to Bristol, then moved on to Washington to become chief of the State Department’s Near East desk just as “oleaginous diplomacy” was reaching its heyday.

Dulles supported Bristol’s initiatives. “Confidentially the State Department is in a bind. Our task would be simple if the reports of the atrocities could be declared untrue or even exaggerated but the evidence, alas, is irrefutable,” Dulles wrote in reply to Bristol’s requests for State Department intervention with U.S. publishers to shift the tone of news reports still dribbling out of Turkey and Armenia. “[Tlhe Secretary of State wants to avoid giving the impression that while the United States is willing to intervene actively to protect its commercial interests, it is not willing to move on behalf of the Christian minorities.” Dulles went on to complain about the agitation in the U.S. on behalf of Armenians, Greeks, and Palestinian Jews. “I’ve been kept busy trying to ward off congressional resolutions of sympathy for these groups.”18

The change in the U.S. government’s response to the Armenian massacres presents an acute example of the conflicts that often shape U.S. foreign policy. From 1914 to 1919, the U.S. government and public opinion sharply condemned the Turkish massacres. Ambassador Henry Morgenthau repeatedly intervened with the Turkish government to protest the killings, raised funds for refugee relief, and mobilized opposition to the genocide. A close review of the declassified State Department archives of the period shows that much of the government’s internal reporting on Turkey was strongly sympathetic to the Armenians throughout the war and the first months after the war.19

The Western press, too, was overwhelmingly favorable to the Armenians and hostile to the Turkish government. One recent study by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin found that between April and December of 1915, the New York Times published more than 100 articles concerning the massacres when the killings were at their height. All of the Times coverage was sympathetic to the Armenians, and most of the news stories appeared on the front page or the first three pages of the newspaper. A roughly similar pattern can be found in publications such as the New York Herald Tribune, Boston Herald, and Atlantic Monthly and in the journals of various Christian missionary so~ieties.~~ The volume of news coverage rose and fell with events over the next five years, but on the whole it remained strongly sympathetic to the Armenians.21

Yet a remarkable shift in U.S. media content and government behavior took place as the new Harding administration established itself in 1921. “Those who underestimate the power of commerce in the history of the Middle East cannot hav
e studied the postwar situation in Turkey between 1918 and 1923,” Dobkin writes. “There were, of course, other political factors that proved disastrous for the Armenians . . . but the systematic effort (chiefly by the Harding administration) to turn U.S. public opinion towards Turkey was purely and simply motivated by the desire to beat the [rival Associated] Powers to what were thought of as the vast, untapped resources of that country, and chiefly the oil.”22

“It was not possible to bring about the desired change in public opinion without denigrating what the Armenians had suffered,” she continues. Retired U.S. Admiral William Colby Chester joined Admiral Mark Bristol as a leading public spokesman for reconciliation with Turkey. Chester was not a disinterested party. The Turkish government had granted him an oil concession in Iraq that was potentially worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Writing in the influential journal Current History, Chester contended that the Armenians had been deported not to deserts, but to “the most delightful and fertile parts of Syria . . . at great expense of money and effortu-a claim that went well beyond even what the Kemal government was willing to arg~e.2~ Dobkin reports that missionary leaders such as Cleveland Dodge and George Plimpton, who had once been instrumental in documenting the genocide, began to lend their names to publicity insisting that the reported Turkish excesses had been “greatly exaggerated.”24

By mid-1923, the complex and interlocking challenges created by the demands for justice in the wake of the Armenian Genocide, on the one hand, and U.S. political and commercial interests in Turkey, on the other, had been settled in favor of a de facto U.S. alliance with the new Kemalist government. The day-to-day details of the U.S. diplomatic shift in favor of Kemal were handled by Ambassador Joseph Grew (who will reappear later in this narrative as acting secretary of state during a pivotal moment in World War 11) and the chief of the Near East desk at State, Allen Dulles. The U.S., which had been the principal international supporter of the nascent Armenian Republic, withdrew its promises of aid and protection. Mustafa Kemal soon succeeded through force of arms in suppressing Armenia and in establishing a new Turkish government at Ankara. In July 1923, the Turks and the European allies signed a new agreement, replacing the aborted Treaty of Shvres with the Treaty of La~sanne.25 Western governments agreed to new Turkish borders, officially recognized Kemal’s government, abandoned any claim on behalf of an Armenian republic, and specifically agreed to an amnesty for all Ittihadists who had been convicted in the earlier trials.26

As things turned out, many of the top Ittihadists who fled Turkey in 1918 were assassinated by Armenian commandos. Talaat, the minister of internal affairs and grand vizier of the Ittihad state, was shot in Berlin on March 15,1921. Behaeddin Sakir (Chakir), a senior member of the “Commission of Supply,” which had coordinated much of the extermination campaign, and Djemal Army, military governor during the height of the killings in Trebizond, were killed in Berlin on April 17,1922. Enver, the former minister of war, is said to have been killed by the Soviet army in Bukhara in 1922, though many of the details of his death remain uncertain. Djemal, who with Talaat and Enver had constituted the ruling triumvirate of the Ittihad state, was gunned down in July 1922 in Tiflis. He was on his way to a trade conference in Berlin, where he was to buy weapons for the Afghan army.27

Armenians lost a great deal under the terms of the Lausanne treaty while Western commercial interests prospered. The new Turkish leader Kemal agreed to relinquish all claims on the territories of the old Ottoman Empire outside Turkish borders, thus formally opening the door to the Anglo-American control of Middle East oil that was to continue with minimal change for the next fifty years. This was not a simple quid pro quo, of course. The agreement also involved other important elements, notably a settlement of most reparation claims against Turkey and an agreement between Greece and Turkey to repatriate thousands of ethnic Greeks and Turks to their respective countries of origin. There were to be several more years of squabbles before the U.S.-European disputes over the Mosul oilfields were finally settled.

The point was nonetheless clear. Western governments had discarded wartime promises of action against the Ittihadists who had murdered about a million people in order to help their political maneuvering over oil concessions in the Middle East. The dominant faction in Turkish society never accepted Armenian claims as legitimate, despite the strong evidence of genocide established by Turkey’s own courts. In fact, the Turkish government even today continues to refuse to acknowledge Jttihadist responsibility for the Armenian massacres, and has instead in recent years financed a large and sophisticated publicity campaign aimed at rewriting the history of the war years.28

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