Turkey and the Balance of Power


THE Nazi ‘march on Constantinople’ has begun in earnest. ‘Peaceful infiltration’ into Bulgaria has brought the German war machine within a hundred miles of the Dardanelles. Actual armed invasion of Turkey still seems a remote rather than an immediate threat. But it might come at any moment — perhaps before these lines appear in print.

Unless there is a speedy decision in the West, Hitler must be expected to try to win the war in the East by gaining domination of the Dardanelles. For mastery over Turkey is the only way in which Hitler can hope to win lasting victory without knocking out England. If the Nazis can get to the rich oil wells of Mesopotamia, they have broken through the British blockade. If they reach the Persian Gulf, they have cut across Britain’s life line to India. If Hitler, instead of the British Navy, controls the Eastern Mediterranean, the Nazis can begin to build their ‘New Europe’ without much fear of an attack from the back. Germany might well hope that, this achieved, the Battle of Britain would become a mere rear-guard action. And none of these aims can be realized as long as Turkey stands guard over the Dardanelles as ally of Great Britain.

But the Dardanelles are not only the Eastern back door to the British Empire. They are equally the back door to the Nazi Empire. An enemy force in Constantinople would constitute the greatest threat to Hitler’s rear. It could strike directly into the Balkans, Hitler’s only source of grain, oil, and metals. It could count on the sympathies of all the small peoples in Southeastern Europe now groaning under the Nazi yoke. It could force Hitler to fight the ‘war on two fronts ‘ — which has been the nightmare of all German strategists since 1918, and to avoid which Hitler signed up with Russia, In such an attack on their rear, the Germans would be severely handicapped by the terrain; the absence of highways in the mountainous Balkans makes almost impossible the use of the mechanized equipment on which German armed strength rests. Certainly the Dardanelles are the ideal starting point for the counter-attack against Hitler on the Continent promised by Winston Churchill. If things should go badly with the German attack on Great Britain, or if Italy should fold up, Turkey’s alliance with Great Britain might become such a threat to Germany that Hitler could be expected to risk everything in the attempt to get to the Dardanelles before the British do.

Finally, the Dardanelles are just as much the back door to Russia as to the British and German Empires. They are Russia’s only warm-water outlet into Europe, her only ‘window to the West.’ An enemy power in possession of Turkey can cut off Russia’s oil supply in the Caucasus — only a few miles from the Turkish border. It can invade the Ukraine with its anti-Russian and antiCommunist underground movements. The mere threat of such actions might be enough to force Russia into submission.

From the beginning of the present conflict the Russians have therefore been determined to obtain possession of the Dardanelles as soon as possible. They tried in October 1939, just after the war had started. The attempt was defeated because both England and Germany backed up the Turks. Moscow will try again as soon as it thinks that the Western powers have been weakened sufficiently. For the Bolshevik rulers cannot have forgotten that it was enemy control of the Dardanelles which was primarily responsible for the military defeat and the moral collapse of the Russia of the Tsars in the last war. They know that they would never have come to power if Churchill’s attack upon the German-held Dardanelles had been successful in the spring of 1915; for at that time the Tsar’s armies were still militarily and morally unbeaten. Had the Entente powers been able to establish physical contact with Russia in the Black Sea, had they been able to supply the munitions and the leadership which Russia needed, Germany would probably have been defeated before the Russian morale broke. Haunted as they are by the fear of an invasion from the West, which would release all the pent-up tension in the ‘Socialist Fatherland,’ Stalin’s advisers must be determined to make any such attack impossible by seizing the Dardanelles at the first opportune moment.

Turkey’s political and strategic importance does not, however, lie only in her position as fulcrum on the European balance of power. The fate of the new Turkey might also decide the future of the entire Moslem world. From India and Persia to Morocco, the new Turkey is regarded as the spiritual and political leader of Islam in spite of her antireligious policy. She is the example which Moslem movements have to follow in order to obtain autonomy for their country and the respect of the civilized world. Although nationalist, and thus opposed to the European colonial powers, these movements have been led by the ‘Westernization’ policy of the new Turkey to adopt Western ideologies and to put their trust in policies which are ultimately destined to make Western, industrialized, and democratic national states out of the backward colonies of the East. In many respects the Mohammedan East — and especially the Near East — is thus the only part of the Eurasian Continent which still adheres to the ideas of the Versailles world. If Turkey should go under before the onslaught of Germany or Russia, all the movements and forces of the Near and Middle East — Pan-Arabism, Pan-Islamism, Iranian nationalism, and so forth — might be expected to throw in their lot with the totalitarian anti-Western forces which the West itself developed.

The question ‘How strong is Turkey?’ is therefore one of the basic questions of European and world politics. So far the Turks have not shown any signs of weakening or any wavering in their allegiance to Great Britain. Can they be expected to continue their resistance to Nazi and Communist pressure even when there is the actual threat of attack? And can they, if an attack comes, stand off an invader?


There is probably no record in history of a change in the international reputation of a country as profound and as rapid as that which Turkey has undergone since 1918. Twenty years ago it was the ‘Sick Man of Europe’; Carlyle’s phrase, ‘the unspeakable Turk,’ was actually used on the floor of the United States Senate in the early twenties. Today Turkey is the bastion against Naziism, the Eastern sentinel of democracy and freedom, and one of the most popular and most respected small nations in the world.

But the change in Turkey’s internal structure and strength even surpasses that in external reputation. Twenty years ago Turkey lived in an Asiatic despotism which had not changed much since the fifteenth century, except perhaps for the worse. The new Turkey of today, born out of one of the most smashing defeats ever suffered by any country, is entirely twentieth-century; in some respects — in the complete legal equality for women, in functional architecture, in the absolute disregard for religious tradition — it. is considerably more ‘Western’ than most countries in the West.

Seldom has there been as complete a social and political revolution in so short a time. But the Turks themselves know only too well how much there is still to achieve. Their country is today nearer to its goal of equality with the Western industrial countries than to its starting point of Eastern theocratic absolutism, but it is still extremely poor and weak.

Turkey is larger than any country in Europe with the exception of Russia; her size is three times that of Great Britain. Yet her population of 17,000,000 is only about one third of that of the British Isles. Even so, Turkey cannot support her people. There are few parts of the world as barren as Turkey’s interior provinces. Western and Central Turkey are largely desert; Eastern Turkey is a country of deep, almost inaccessible valleys and high mountains, reaching 17,000 feet in Mount Ararat, where Noah’s Ark is said to have landed. In scenery, Asiatic Turkey surpasses anything that Europe can offer. Only Arizona, Colorado, or New Mexico can compare in beauty with the colors of the eroded, wind-swept rocks, the deep canyons, the lofty peaks of Central Anatolia; but there is even less tillable land in Turkey than there is in the Rocky Mountains, as the country has not yet developed artificial irrigation. Whatever agriculture Turkey has — tobacco, cotton, oranges, wheat, and olives — is concentrated in a few narrow coastal plains which look like a miniature of California; but it is precisely these coastal plains which are most exposed to a foreign enemy and which would be the first to be lost or devastated in case of invasion.

Industrially, Turkey is just as badly off. During the last ten years enormous efforts have been made to develop a Turkish industry. But the country had to start from scratch; even the pitiful industrial equipment of 1914 Turkey had been destroyed in the subsequent ten years of almost continuous warfare and revolution, and the most successful of the new industries are still in their infancy. Turkey’s greatest pride are her new steel mills — completed just a few months ago. Their production is said to be sufficient for the ordinary peacetime needs of the country. Yet they produce in an entire year not more than the American steel industry produces in one day of capacity operations. And though Turkey may eventually mine as much copper, silver, petroleum, and coal as does the Rocky Mountain region, her mineral riches have hardly been tapped so far.

The people of Turkey are, therefore, among the poorest in the world. According to the latest figures, the Turkish peasant — and 80 per cent of the people are peasants — has an average annual income of about $28, which is not more than one tenth of the income of Negro sharecroppers in the Deep South. And since Turkey has to import such a large part of her needs, living costs in the country are higher than they are in Alabama or Mississippi. Ten years ago a large part of the population was still nomadic, following the goat herds from pasture to pasture; twenty years ago Turkey still had cave dwellers. Today the entire population has been settled. But it lives in abject poverty, very close to if not below the margin of subsistence.

Even if the European war had not broken out, Turkey would have undergone a severe economic crisis. By 1938 she had reached the end of her financial resources and could no longer continue her industrialization program except with foreign help. Her currency was shot to pieces. Her agriculture was largely dependent on Germany, which took a full 50 per cent of the Turkish exports of tobacco, cotton, oranges, and figs, yet did not pay for these goods except in blocked marks.

The outbreak of the war intensified the crisis. All economic energies had to be diverted to defense. The German market disappeared; foreign loans became completely unobtainable. To prevent economic collapse, England has been subsidizing the Turks since October 1938. She has bought all Turkish farm products although she can hardly use them. She has paid for the Turkish defense program and has sent foodstuffs to feed the Turkish army. Even so, the economic situation of the country is precarious. And Turkey is obviously unable to produce the food and equipment necessary to conduct a modern war.

The Turkish soldier has a well-deserved reputation for hardihood, stamina, and ability to stand privation. With military training compulsory, some two million men have been trained; and the officers’ corps has been completely reorganized since 1918. But if the Nazis attack, the Turkish army will be pitted against mechanized forces, against tanks and dive bombers; and it will have little to oppose them with.

When the present war started, the Turkish army had no tanks, no heavy artillery, no anti-tank guns. Although the three main cities — Constantinople, Ankara, and Smyrna — lie within easy flying distance from the Italian air bases on the Dodecanese Islands, Turkey had almost no anti-aircraft equipment. She had only about 370 airplanes — few of them up-to-date. Her light artillery, her machine guns, her automobiles — in short, everything but the rifles — were of German, Russian, or Czech make; consequently Turkey has been unable to obtain the right kind of ammunition, spare parts, and replacements since the war started. There are three railroad lines in the entire country — two from east to west, one from north to south. Highways are almost nonexistent. If any of the vital rail junctions is destroyed from the air, the Turkish supply system might be thrown out of kilter.

It is probable that England has made good some of these deficiencies. Though the extent of English help is a closely guarded military secret, it is known that Britain supplied Turkey with coastal batteries for the Dardanelles. British experts have been building air-raid shelters in Turkish cities and have trained Turkish rescue squads. New airfields for use by British fliers, some military radio stations, a few anti-aircraft defenses, have been installed under British supervision and with materials supplied by England. Yet, how much material aid could England have sent, hard-pressed as she is herself? It is almost certain that Turkey’s equipment must still be very meagre.

Nor can Turkey expect immediate help in the case of an attack from Germany or Russia — except some naval and airplane assistance. When the present war started, there was an army in the Eastern Mediterranean, assembled on the Turkish border and ready to march to Turkey’s assistance at any time; but it was a French army, and it was stationed in the French Mandate of Syria. Not only is this army no longer available to the British; they cannot even hope to be allowed to send their own troops through Syria, which offers the shortest land route between Turkey and the British possessions in Palestine and Egypt. The best the Turks and the British can hope for is Syrian neutrality in an Axis attack upon Turkey, in spite of German pressure upon the French Government and German-Italian agitation among the Arabs in Syria.

Since last June, the British have worked feverishly to remedy this weakness of their Near Eastern position. They have greatly strengthened their own armies in Egypt, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, which are now said to number between 250,000 and 500,000 men — largely Australians and New Zealanders accustomed to a hot, dry climate. They have even risked internal trouble in India by sending Indian troops to the Eastern Mediterranean against the protests of Gandhi’s followers. They have laid a hundred miles of narrow-gauge, single-track railroad through the Mesopotamian desert in order to link the Turkish railroad system with the British army basis in Baghdad; it is a poor substitute for the excellent line that runs down from Turkey through French Syria into Palestine and Egypt, but it is at least one supply line. English and Australian army engineers are pushing a highway through the desert parallel to the new railroad; it may be ready for traffic by next spring. To forestall an attack on Turkey, England occupied the island of Crete as soon as Italy invaded Greece, which gives England a naval and air base within 150 miles of the Turkish coast. This time the British are determined not to be caught unawares. Yet most of their help will come in the east of Turkey— 1200 miles of mountains and desert away from Turkey’s western border where the attack is likely to occur, and where a war against Turkey may be decided.


Turkey may thus be thrown back upon her resources. If she cannot prevent a Nazi attack by skillfully playing off Russia against Germany, she can survive only through a miracle of national unity and sacrifice such as that which laid the foundations of the New Turkey twenty years ago. In either case, survival or defeat — with all it might mean for Europe — will largely depend upon Turkey’s leadership and upon the trust of the Turkish people in it. This makes Ismet Inonu, Turkey’s President-Dictator, one of the most important people in the world today.

Inonu has been longer in high office than any other major statesman today. For sixteen almost uninterrupted years — from 1922 to 1938 — he was the leading man in the Turkish Cabinet, first as Foreign Minister, then as Premier. Since November 1938, when his predecessor Kemal Ataturk died, he has been President of the Turkish Republic. Though legally elected by Turkey’s oneparty Parliament, he has as much dictatorial power as Hitler or Mussolini. He is reputed to be the most skillful diplomat in Europe and one of the best administrators. He is a great soldier; his strategic exploits in the First World War and in the Turko-Greek war of 19211922 are ranked very high among professionals. Yet he is completely unknown in the outside world. His name almost never appears in the headlines. The only available official record is a dry recital of positions held: born in 1884, graduated from military school in 1906, colonel in 1914, and so forth. Even that is not readily obtainable. Who’s Who, for example, the English reference book which lists carefully every Turkish minister and diplomat, does not contain in its 1940 edition the name of Inonu, the ruler of Britain’s most important European ally.

Even more surprising is the fact that no one in Turkey seems to know much more. No personal gossip, no scandal is known about him in the bazaars of Constantinople, Smyrna, and Ankara — Oriental cities where gossip is the staff of life. He is happily married and devoted to his three children, none of whom ever appear at any public function. He is neither deeply attached to the Mohammedan religion nor, like his predecessor Kemal Ataturk, bitterly hostile to the clergy. He does not drink as a rule, but does not mind an occasional glass of sherry at a foreign diplomat’s reception. This man, who grew up in the most corrupt of all corrupt societies, pre-World War Turkey; who before he was twenty was a leader in the secret conspiracy which overthrew the old Turkey; who since then has always held important positions in army or political life; who was a principal actor in one of the most stirring dramas of our time, the rebirth of the Turkish nation and the creation of the new Turkish state, is as unknown personally as a village schoolteacher.

Yet few men in high office can be as easily approached as Inonu. Any foreign newspaper man who wants an interview can see him — usually the same day. When the reporter arrives to see the great diplomat, the hero of the decisive battles in the Turko-Greek war, the master of 17,000,000 people, he finds himself welcomed like an old friend by a small and slender elderly gentleman. Chatty, rather hard of hearing, and apparently with all the time in the world at his disposal, Inonu looks and acts like an absent-minded professor of mathematics who is well on his way toward becoming a campus institution. He is ready to listen to any question and apparently eager to take the interviewer into his confidence. Yet, when the newspaper man leaves after a pleasant half-hour, he finds that he has learned absolutely nothing and has instead been drawn out subtly and painlessly by one of the real masters in the art.

This quality of self-effacement, this ability to listen without saying anything, the unfailing patience and courtesy, are the key to Inonu’s personality and success. He was always the ugly duckling; but he outlived and outlasted all the swans. Of the many young men which the first Turkish revolution of 1909 catapulted into power, Inonu must have been not only the youngest but also the least conspicuous. There was Enver, the great war lord whose massacres in all four corners of the pre-war Turkish Empire are still a byword for terror in the Orient, and who finally sold out his country to Germany on the eve of the First World War. There was Jaavid, the great banker and financier who thought that he could save Turkey with the help of foreign capital, and who was executed by Kemal Ataturk as a traitor. Most colorful of all, there was Kemal himself, the ‘Gray Wolf’ of the Turkish steppe, who collected the broken pieces of Turkey after the defeat in 1918 and built the new state out of nothing by sheer force of will and personality. Kemal never ceased to be the beloved father of his people. But when he died in 1938 — before he was sixty — he was a broken man, who had suffered years of excruciating pain and was subject to recurring fits of depression and despondency. And Ismet Inonu, the drab, colorless staff officer with the friendly poker face, succeeded at the age of fifty-four to his position of personal dictatorship without the slightest struggle, without purge or bitterness.

In the thirty-five years since Inonu graduated from military school, Turkey went through two revolutions and fought five wars, of which she lost three, with the defeat in 1918 being as complete as France’s defeat last summer. She made herself over from a mediæval Oriental country into a modern Westernized state. In every single one of these events Inonu played a decisive part. Each one was accompanied by deep intrigue, profuse shedding of blood, bitter factional fights, and lasting bitterness and enmity. Yet Inonu is not known to have made a single enemy. The one personal stand he took was with Kemal; from the day when the two men met — during the First World War — to Kemal’s death there was never any doubt about Inonu’s devotion to the older man. Nevertheless he refused to join in the personal feud against those fellow revolutionaries who opposed Kemal’s dictatorship. Here is a soldier, and a strict disciplinarian to boot, who does not believe in the iron hand: a politician who loses favor with him is simply sent away as Minister to Siam or as Consul to South Africa. Here is an Oriental revolutionary who thinks that patience achieves more than bombs.

So far Inonu has outbluffed and outwaited every opponent. His first great success was the battle of Inonu in the Turko-Greek war of 1921-1922. It was after this battle that he took his name when family names were introduced in post-war Turkey. The Greek army had invaded Anatolia, the Asiatic mainland of Turkey, and was marching rapidly on Ankara, where the Turkish Government sat. But Inonu, who led the Turkish armies, refused to give battle and withdrew his troops day after day. The government got panicky; it begged, implored, ordered Inonu to fight, and threatened to court-martial him. His ill-equipped, half-starved, barefoot army of volunteers dwindled by the hour. Kemal himself, the Commander in Chief, was on the verge of breakdown. Still Inonu withdrew till he had the Greeks where they had no possible chance of orderly retreat; then he turned on them and beat them decisively.

Even greater, though less spectacular, was his success in the peace conference which followed the war. Inonu, who had never been outside the Orient, who had never filled any but military jobs, and who was not known to a single statesman in the West, was sent alone to Switzerland in 1922 to fight the diplomatic battle against the Great Powers. There he was pitted, not against badly led Greek soldiers, but against the might of the British Empire and its ablest diplomat, Lord Curzon, England’s Foreign Minister. The British Government had supported the Greeks with money and supplies; it regarded their defeat as a personal insult. The Turks were convinced that Lord Curzon was only looking for a pretext for a British invasion of Turkey. Curzon certainly acted as if this were so. Imperious by nature and spoiled by seven years as Viceroy of India, he would not brook opposition, least of all from an Oriental. He refused to make the slightest concession. He raged, he stormed, and called Inonu a ’native’ to his face. He ordered the British fleet in the Mediterranean to get ready for immediate action.

Inonu knew that his country could not resist a British attack; the Turkish army had by then completely exhausted its supplies of food and equipment. Yet he just smiled and waited. He knew that the Conservatives who were coming back into power in England feared nothing more than Russian Communism. So he threatened to call in the Red Army, though he himself hates and fears Communism just as much as any English fox-hunting colonel. He knew that the Freach and the British were quarreling over the French Mandate in Syria; so he supported the French claims, though Turkey herself wanted part of Syria. He was deeply suspicious of Italy, who had been trying to snatch Turkish territory since 1912; but he knew that the British were even more suspicious of Italy s naval ambitions than he was, and he therefore made ready to support the Italians against Lord Curzon. He arrived in Switzerland with all the odds against him. He left with a treaty which exceeded the most optimistic expectations of any Turk.

His entire foreign policy since then has been one of utilizing the conflicts between the European Great Powers in Turkey’s interests, of making new friends and conserving the old ones, and above all of patient bluffing. To offset pressure from the West he held closely to Russia, though the Communist Party is forbidden in Turkey. He played first on the Franco-British and then on the FrancoItalian tension in the Mediterranean. He gradually won the esteem and friendship of all but one of the Balkan countries with whom Turkey had been fighting incessantly for a century. He also made friends with the neighbors and old enemies in the east and south: Persia, Iraq, and Syria. Finally, when in 1935 the Abyssinian War brought the first storm signals to the Eastern Mediterranean, he executed his most brilliant manœuvre. Overnight he used the conflict between Italy and Great Britain to make up the old quarrel with England and to obtain a watertight British alliance. He has never held good cards; but he has always, so far, played his cards better than the others.

He will need all his patience and skill this time. Never since the peace negotiations in Switzerland seventeen years ago has Turkey held a weaker hand. And never since Inonu had his first diplomatic triumph have the stakes been as high as they are today.


If there is any chance that Turkey can win the war by skillful diplomacy, Inonu is undoubtedly the best leader Turkey could have at present. And in any Western country he would also be the ideal leader in a fight against an invader. But is Turkey sufficiently ‘Westernized’ to be able to afford so good a leader in a war? Or, to put the question more clearly, is the Turkish peasant sufficiently ‘Westernized’ to understand Inonu’s qualities, to appreciate this man and follow him, as he followed Kemal twenty years ago? Is it enough for the leader of the New Turkey to be honest, efficient, patient, wise, and a statesman? Or do the people demand a colorful, swashbuckling, hard-drinking, romantic, and ostentatious hero such as Kemal was?

It is a question which no one could answer in advance. The Turkish peasant himself is inarticulate; no one quite knows how much he has understood of the reforms of the last twenty years. He is still largely illiterate; at best he can write his name. He has the vote; but there is only one party, the official one, and only one official list of candidates to vote for. The lot of the peasant is a great deal better than it was under the last Sultans; but he has lost whatever comforts religion offered him before. The Turks in the cities who have actually taken part in the rejuvenation of their country as government officials, professional men, business men, or soldiers, have become passionately nationalist and boundlessly proud of their new state; but the peasant is politically almost as passive and almost as completely under orders from above as he was before. Yet, with 80 per cent of the people peasants, it is the peasant attitude that will be decisive if Turkey is attacked; and no one either outside or inside Turkey can really predict what it will be if put to the test.

In the Balkans — which are not only geographically near Turkey but socially very much like it — the new states, built after 1918, failed mainly because they could not win the peasant over to their side. In one Balkan country after the other the ‘good governments’ of the peasants were overthrown without much struggle during the twenties, and were replaced by corrupt governments of royal dictators, army generals, and land speculators — which in turn surrendered without resistance before the first onslaught of Naziism. Turkey’s political development under her patriotic dictatorship has been a completely different one. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that it was also a more successful one in solving the basic political problem of the Eastern peasant states: the winning of the peasant’s allegiance.