Since the end of World War II, good relations between Turkey and the U.S. have been thought to be a de facto situation, and indeed for the most part that has been the case. Despite the problems that have erupted between the two countries at times, such as the Cyprus crisis which led to the Johnson letter in 1964, relations between the two countries have generally been on the best of terms. This relationship faced a rocky road following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the situation is still vague as the power game in the Middle East is being played out in Syria. Because of recent developments, especially those following the end of the Cold War, most studies tend to see Turkish-American relations through a prism that focuses on geopolitics, foreign policy and international relations. Especially for non-Turkish audiences, this has left a considerable gap in the literature in regard to how relations between the two countries developed over time and reached this point of alliance. In this context, Turkish-American Relations, 1800-1952 fills an important gap in explicating the shared history between the two countries.
In this extremely informative, well-documented and compact study, characterized by extensive archival research, Şuhnaz Yılmaz starts off by examining the understudied nineteenth century. Beginning with the first contact made between the two countries in the early nineteenth century, a period in which the Ottomans had difficulty even identifying the American flag when George Washington visited İstanbul in 1800 (p. 32), the author identifies the two key elements that formed the main spheres of Turkish-American interaction: trade and philanthropic/missionary activities. Trade relations started in 1830 with the Ottoman-American Treaty, a treaty that preceded the Anglo-Ottoman Treaty of 1838. On the other hand, American missionaries proved to be fundamental to the existence and development of Ottoman-American relations, while at times, depending on the issue at hand, they opposed and put pressure on American business circles. A significant yet neglected issue the author brings to readers’ attention is an instance of “diplomatic romance,” a term coined by Oscar Strauss, who was the American Minister in İstanbul from 1887 to 1889 and again from 1898 to 1899. This series of events presented “unusual possibilities for cooperation” (p. 22) which were used to promote the interests of the Americans in regions far from the U.S. (as in the Philippines); this instance of Turkish-American cooperation was followed by “dollar diplomacy” (p. 25), a policy also adopted in other parts of the world such as China. Yılmaz makes an interesting observation, one that can definitely be applied even today, when she says that “dollar diplomats had targeted rather weak empires with promising economic opportunities for the United States” (p. 27), and explains that dollar diplomacy was part of an assertive American foreign policy seeking economic expansion. In the early twentieth century, the Young Turk Revolution was welcomed by the Americans because they saw it as an opening for further business opportunities and the creation of a potential ally for their mainly economic interests, most notably through the construction of the Eastern Anatolian Railroad (the same policy was adopted in other parts of the world). The outbreak of World War I and the Armenian massacres and deportations in 1915, however, caused and led to anti-Turkish sentiment in the United States, an issue that the American government and Turkish diplomats would try to counter in later years.
The end of World War I found the U.S. at a crossroads: On the one hand, Wilsonian policy drove the U.S. to play an active role in the global politics of the time and reshape the Middle East, while on the other hand some circles pressed for the maintenance of an isolationist approach to foreign policy. Yılmaz’s analysis and narration make it clear that while the Americans did not resume diplomatic ties with the Ottoman Empire, through High Commissioner Admiral Bristol the U.S. was one of the first Western powers to grant legitimacy to the Kemalist nationalist movement and maintained regular contact with it (p. 44). The primary goals of the U.S. at the time were to support American economic interests and maintain good working relations with the Turks. The year 1927 was a crucial turning point in Turkish-American relations; a break in diplomatic ties occurred as the result of a “more vocal, better organized, and very effective” (p. 52) opposition to the Treaty of Lausanne by Armenian, missionary and democratic groups and its backing by the Department of State and various other organizations, business circles, and figures, including Turks such as Halide Edib and Americans as well.
Yılmaz demonstrates, however, that official Turkish-American ties not only were maintained but were perpetuated through a system of exchanging official notes that enabled the appointment of ambassadors. The importance of Turkey for the Americans, and vice versa, is demonstrated by the author in the third chapter, where she presents a very engaging account of the efforts of both countries to maintain and strengthen the image of Turks in the U.S. Yılmaz clearly explains the efforts made by U.S. diplomats and prominent American visitors to Turkey in the fields of aviation, business, and academia to build up ties, and the author reveals that Turks also visited the United States to change the negative stereotypes that dominated American public opinion (pp. 66-71). These efforts paid off for the first time back in 1917 when a formal treaty concerning commercial relations between the two countries was signed, and the intensifying of cultural, economic, and political relations significantly contributed to the enhancement of bilateral agreements. Furthermore, brought about by the signing of two treaties (in 1929 and 1939), commercial relations proved to be an important milestone, and the author’s detailed account provides the reader with the general context of the economic crisis in both the U.S. and in Turkey and the repercussions it had for the economies of both countries. Indeed, the period following 1927 signified perhaps the most important period for Turkish-American relations and after World War II those ties would only become stronger.
The ‘active neutrality’ of Turkey during and after World War II and the bolstering of Turkish-American relations are analyzed in the fourth and fifth chapters of the book, respectively. The failure of the Americans and British to hold to a more consistent position during the Potsdam Conference frustrated the Turks, and they expressed their dissatisfaction to both countries. As World War II progressed and the elites in charge of drafting Turkish foreign policy realized that the Soviet presence was causing difficulties for Turkey, policy makers sought to align Turkey more closely with Britain as it was the most powerful player at the time. Soviet policies, especially those that concerned the Straits and put increasing pressure on Turkey, led the Turkish government to approach the West, and combined with the interest that the U.S. showed in Turkey after the end of the war (it had by then replaced Great Britain on the international chessboard as the most powerful player along with the Soviet Union) strong diplomatic, cultural and economic ties were established between Turkey and the U.S., ties that culminated with Turkey’s acceptance into NATO in 1952.
Turkish-American Relations, 1800-1952 is a more than welcome addition to the heretofore small body of studies concerning the relations that existed between Turkey and the U.S. up to the period following World War II. It is important because it takes up the understudied topic of the economic, cultural and diplomatic relations that existed between the two countries, while its comparative approach at times provides the reader with the context needed to historicize the decisions made by the leaders of both countries. In addition, the general framework provided by the author helps the reader more fully comprehend the dynamics that led to the historical and political conditions predominating in the two countries. In short, Yılmaz has written an exemplary study which will be very useful for researchers interested in international relations, economics and history in general, and Turkey and the U.S. in particular.