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Armenian Issue Revisited

Admiral Mark L. Bristol to Dr. James L. Barton (1921)

Rear Admiral Mark L. Bristol was the U.S. High Commissioner and then the first U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Turkey between the years of 1920 and 1926. Below is his letter, dated 28 March 1921, to Dr. James L. Barton of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. As a U.S. diplomat living in Turkey, Ambassador Bristol talks about his experience and observations about the Armenian claims and how they relate to reality.

What follows is Dr. Barton's reply to Ambassador Bristol. Dr. Barton talks about the Armenian lobby in the United States and their claims, which he believes are far from reality.

On Board U.S.S. ST. LOUIS At Sea.
En route from Island of Rhodes to Constantinople, Turkey.


28 March, 1921
Dr. James L. Barton.
14 Beacon Street,
Boston, Mass.

Dear Doctor Barton:

Your letter of 14 of January was duly received. Shortly after receiving your letter I started on a cruise to Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Cilicia. I have been gone over a month and we are at the present time entering the Dardanelles, and will be in Constantinople tomorrow morning. Mrs. Bristol, with some other ladies, made the same trip by mail steamer and railway, so we had some very pleasant excursions, visiting the places of interest during our trip. It has been most interesting, instructive and enjoyable. I needed a change of scene and rest and have profited fully by this outing.

During this trip I have had an opportunity to meet General Allenby, and our own representatives in Egypt, to have an audience with the Sultan of Egypt and meet some prominent Egyptians. This experience had given me a sidelight, from personal associations upon the affairs of Egypt.

In Palestine I came in personal contact with the new Jewish movement. I met Sir Herbert Samuels, Colonel Stores, and many others belonging to the Staff of the High Commissioner in Palestine. Colonel Deeds, who was with the British High Commissioner in Constantinople for some time, is the Chief Political Officer under Sir Herbert. Likewise, I was able to see our Delegate here, Consul Heiser, and his relief which arrived at the same time I did, Mr. Southard, who has just come from Aden. I had an opportunity to look over our different institutions at this place. I was surprised to find that the Near East Relief work at Jerusalem is practically a Jewish affair.

In Syria I had a very pleasant association with Comte de Caix who is acting as High Commissioner because General Couraud is away. Comte de Caix, is, of course, the power behind the throne, and I was most pleasantly surprised at his ability, frankness and optimism. At the same time he has no illusions in regard to the difficult work that he has before him. It was from him I first learned that the French had come to an understanding with the Kemalists and would withdraw the French troops from Cilicia. Likewise, the boundary between Syria and Turkey will be established on lines that are much more sensible than the one provided in the Sevres treaty. He is very much opposed to any Armenian refugees from Cilicia being allowed to come into Syria. I quite agreed with him in regard to this, except that I do believe the French should guarantee the safety of the Armenians in Cilicia and should evacuate from Cilicia those Armenians that especially aided the French, and particularly the Armenians that were disbanded from the French Foreign Legion or were mustered out after serving in the French Army. If you can bring any influence to bear in Washington I would suggest that you work along these lines. I believe it would be a grave mistake for the Armenians to get in a panic and make a general exodus from Cilicia when the Turks return to power. I think it would be very much better for the Armenians to stay there and the Turks be compelled to grant them proper rights.

I visited Alexandretta and Mersine. I found out there that an armistice had been arranged between the French and the Kemalists from 19 of March for the period of one month. The result has been that the conditions have quieted down, although since the armistice began a French officer and some soldiers have been killed and the railway broken. But at Mersine, for instance, the fighting that had been going on almost continually day after day just outside the city has recently stopped. I had a talk with Dr. Chambers, Mr. Applebee, Head of the Y.M.C.A. Dr. Chambers agreed with me in regard to the Armenians not evacuating Cilicia, and using all influence with the Turks for the benefit of the Armenians. If the Armenians started to run away this would encourage the Turks to attack them, not only on account of the fear shown, but probably with the hope of driving the Armenians out of the country. However, if the Armenians remained in Cilicia and the moral influence at least of Europe and America was brought to bear on the Turks, I believe that the Armenians would be all right, except for individuals that have been active in opposition to the Turks during the past year.

I see that reports are being freely circulated in the United States that the Turks massacred thousands of Armenians in the Caucasus. Such reports are repeated so many times it makes my blood boil. The Near East Relief have the reports from Yarrow and our own American people which show absolutely that such Armenian reports are absolutely false. The circulation of such false reports in the United States, without refutation, is an outrage and is certainly doing the Armenians more harm than good. I feel that we should discourage the Armenians in this kind of work, not only because it is wrong, but because they are injuring themselves. In addition to the reports from our own American Relief workers that were in Kars and Alexandrople, and reports from such men as Yarrow, I have reports from my own Intelligence Officer and know that the Armenian reports are not true. Is there not something that you and the Near East Relief Committee can do to stop the circulation of such false reports? I was surprised to see Dr. McCallum send through a report along this line from Constantinople. When I called attention to the report, it was stated that it came from the Armenians, but the telegram did not state this, nor did it state that the Armenian reports were not confirmed by our own reports. I may be all wrong; but I can't help feeling that I am not, because so many people out here who know the conditions agree with me that the Armenians and ourselves who lend ourselves to such exaggerated reports are doing the worst thing we possibly can for the Armenians. Why not tell the truth about the Armenians in every way? Let us come out and tell just what the Armenians are and then show our sympathy and do everything we can to make the future of these people what it should be for human beings. I am sure that the mass of people at home believe the Armenians are Christians in action and morals, and that they are able to govern themselves. You and I, and others that know them, know that this is not the case. We believe that they have been made what they are by the conditions they have been compelled to live under, and we want to get them out from under these conditions so they can become Christians and able to govern themselves. But I cannot believe that right is ever produced by wrong-doing. As I have stated to Dr. Peet and many others, I believe that so long as we don't refute these false reports made by the Armenians, or don't come out and state the true facts in regard to the Armenian question, we run the risk of being accused of being party to this information. Dr. Peet and I had a long talk about a year ago along this same line, and I think as a result of it he wrote to you. I don't want to appear as being critical at all and you know that. But I do realize that we are human beings and when we realize the suffering of the Armenians our sentiments make us respond to our human instinct, and especially our American ideas of fair play, so that we forget, and even desire to conceal, the failings of the Armenians in order to obtain their release from the oppression of the Turkish rule. It may be that I am wrong in my idea that the best way to obtain this is by stating fully just what the Armenians are and what they are capable of and then tackling the whole job of cleaning up this Near Eastern mess.

I certainly was surprised to hear, from your letter, that there was a movement on foot to loan money to Armenia. I don't think that the question of money, or the amount of money, should enter into the question of assistance to the Armenians, but I do think that any money loaned to the Armenians under the present conditions is wrong. I do not believe in the loan to Armenia to be used under an American Commission unless the United States is prepared to furnish the troops and the means to maintain Armenia as a country and protect it against all aggression from outside. We have already loaned Armenia over 50 million and that money is lost. I recommend against this loan at the time. Another loan would be simply putting good money after bad.

As long ago as last July I reported officially to the Department that there [were] strong Bolshevik feelings amongst the Armenians and that many of the Army officers were Bolshevik in sentiment. I stated then it was only a question of time when Armenia would go Bolshevik. Armenia did turn Bolshevik and was not compelled to do so by the Russians, although they may have been influenced by Russian propaganda. The Bolshevik leaders represent one party, the Dashnaks represent another, and the National Democratic Party of Armenia represents another party. As far as I am concerned I can find very little difference between the party leaders of these different parties. While the Dashnaks were in power they did everything in the world to keep the pot boiling by attacking Kurds, Turks and Tartars; by committing outrages against the Moslems; by giving no representation whatever to the Molokans which are a large factor in the population of the Caucasus Armenia; by massacring the Moslems; and robbing and destroying their homes; and finally by starting an attack against the Turks which resulted in a counter attack by the Turks, and then the Armenians deserted and ran away and even would not stand and defend their women and children. The acts of the Armenian army at Kars absolutely disgusted our Americans, including Yarrow. During the last two years the Armenians in Russian Caucasus have shown no ability to govern themselves and especially no ability to govern or handle other races under their power.

During over two years that I have been here in Constantinople I have had occasion to see nearly everyone of our Americans that have gone to, or returned from, the Caucasus, and I think I am safe in stating that I have never had one of them that believed the Armenians had any ability to govern themselves, and most of these Americans that have been working with the Armenians have come away disgusted.

I am not disgusted with the Armenians, and I pity them; but I cannot believe in the idea of the establishment of an independent Armenia in a country where not 25% of the people are Armenians. I do not believe the Armenians are able to govern themselves, and especially should not be allowed to govern other people; and certainly, if any of the other races here in this part of the country are under the Armenians, they are going to be submitted to oppression and outrage. I believe in helping the Armenians, but not in this way. I believe that if we come out and state all the facts regarding the Armenian question, and all combine, we can get the United States to help them. However, so long as we proceed along the present line I do not believe we will succeed because I don't believe it is right.

In regard to loaning the Armenians money without Armenia being under a mandate I believe this is an unjustifiable waste of money. For two years we have expended money in relief work for the Armenians and we supplied them flour on a loan covering over 50 million dollars. What is there to show for all this vast expenditure? There is nothing to show except ingratitude, and when an emergency arose, one of the greatest friends Armenia ever had and the one that had been working and giving his best efforts for relief work amongst them, had to depend upon the Turks for his own personal protection. It is a well known fact that in the beginning of our relief work flour and provisions turned over to the Armenian Government for the starving were taken by the high officials of the Government and sold for their own benefit. Then finally Armenia turned Bolshevik and repudiated all her debts; and one of these debts was for the flour we had furnished on their word of honor to repay, because they certainly had no security to offer. It was a sentimental loan based on faith in a people, and they have gone back on us.

You write that if the United States loaned Armenia money for her rehabilitation and for her protection of the boundary fixed by President Wilson the countries of Europe would be requested to protect Armenia from attacks from without. I am afraid you have more faith in European countries than I have. Thus far the European countries have protected none of the races in this part of the world. The fact is, in my opinion, the plans that they have been carrying out have resulted in greater harm to the so-called Christian races than if nothing at all had been done. I cannot imagine anyone believing that the European countries would do anything to protect the boundary of Armenia fixed by Mr. Wilson unless it was to their selfish interests to do so, and I do not see what selfish interests would be involved by our loaning money to Armenia. As regards the United Staes guaranteeing the protection of that boundary from within, I cannot imagine the United States ever consenting doing this. Such an undertaking would certainly be the best possible way of involving America in European entanglements; and still more, in my opinion such entanglements would not be justified. The boundary laid down by Mr. Wilson was certainly an arbitrary boundary and it was so stated in the report defining this boundary.

I note that you state Armenia at that time was an established fact so far as political recognition was concerned. I cannot understand this point of view because the Sevres treaty was ratified by no one and there was no possible hope of anybody ratifying this treaty. The determination of the boundary of Armenia was based upon a ratification of the treaty and in my opinion should not have been made until after the treaty was ratified. Probably there is no doubt that the fixing of this boundary brought about the attack upon Armenia by the Turkish Nationalists. Thus again Armenia was injured by the best intentions in the world. You will note that at the present conference in London the Armenians are being given practically no consideration. Another example of this is the withdrawal of French troops from Cilicia. You will see that in the end European Powers are going to do little or nothing for the Armenians. Therefore, I believe that we should not try to dicker with the European Powers, but come out in America with a fixed policy for the good of all races in the Near East. If we had adopted such a policy two years ago and worked steadily for it I feel certain we could have accomplished something. I haven't yet given up hope because I think it is too late. It is never too late.

I believe in starting a campaign and placing the Armenian and Greek situation before our people in the United States squarely and fairly, telling both sides of the story. The Greek propaganda in the United States has given our people a wrong idea entirely in regard to the Greek question. The European countries lend themselves to this misleading propaganda. The difficult situation that the European Powers have got into the Near East is due in my opinion to basing their action upon wrong-doing. There was no justification for putting the Greeks in Smyrna and this was borne out by a report of investigation which was as fair and square an investigation as was ever made. This report is in the State Department. The Greeks keep contending they have got a majority of population in the parts of Asia Minor that they occupy. You know, and we all know this is not true. Those who know the Greeks out here know that they are not in any war representative of the ancient Greeks that we all admire. In fact, they are just the opposite. I don't believe there is a single representative of a European Country in Constantinople that does not deprecate the occupation of Asia Minor by the Greeks. There is no doubt in the world that the support of this is simply upon the old principle of maintaining a balance of power in the Near East. I don't think there is any doubt in the world that if our people at home were made to realize this that they would rise up against any support of Greece by money or moral influence.

There is another fact that should be brought out and that is that the administration of Turkish law by the old Turkish Government and the Turkish Government that has existed for many centuries is a vile administration. This administration should never be allowed to continue, and yet European countries are proposing to reestablish a part of this country under Turkish rule with practically no guarantees for the minorities. The mass of the Turks are ruled by a few intriguing Turks that represent in Turkey, more nearly than anything else, the Manchus that were overthrown in China. These few Turks have a spattering of education and a moral character developed by intriguing and deceit. They have unlimited power which has debilitated their moral character so that they are not fit to administer any law. It is my opinion that America should come out against this horrible outrage of placing these people in power to administer the Turkish law over anybody.

The Near East is a cesspool that should be drained and cleaned out without any halfway measures. The idea of establishing an independent Armenia and placing the Greeks over a part of the territory is only creating what, with the new Turkey that would be established, three cesspools, instead of one. Therefore I beg you to use your influence and that of all those with you that I know have much influence in America to have our people in the United States fully informed regarding the Near Eastern question. Let us adopt a big policy and stand for it and do our best to get this policy carried out. I know that sometimes it is a good thing to take less than the ideal when that is all you can get. But I do believe in placing our ideal in full light of the day so that when you accept less than the ideal it is done with a full knowledge. I am not certain that America if she fully realized the big task in the Near East and at the same time could be made to see what a big opportunity there was for America to do, probably the biggest thing in the world for true peace, would not tackle the job. Our people like to do big things. Then too, I believe if they would take a mandate for the whole of the old Ottoman Empire it would not involve us in the European affairs as much as we are bound to be involved in the future if this Near Eastern question is not properly settled at this time. Still further, I am absolutely certain that any assumption of responsibility for a part of the old Ottoman Empire, like an independent Armenia, is bound to get us involved in European affairs and involved in a way that we could not justify our action because such a procedure is not based upon what is right and just. I agree with you that it would be more difficult for America to take hold now than it was before because we have been contaminated by this advocacy of Greek and American claims and, in a measure, our reputation has been destroyed by the belief that we are working with the Allies of Europe, or at least supporting them in the schemes that they have been carrying out in the Near East.

I certainly am glad that you did not resign from the Near East Relief. Likewise, that Mr. Dodge is going to hold on. However, I hope you adopt as a policy relief work for all orphans and destitute women, without any regard for sect or religion. I have just been to Beirut where they have started a relief work for orphans to extend over ten years, so as to bring these children up self-supporting and at the same time not to educate them beyond the position that they will be required to hold in their own country. At the present time the French seem very friendly to American institutions in Syria, but on general principles I would warn against counting on this attitude after the French have obtained the mandate for Syria and are fully established beyond dispute. I do not believe the French are going to give up the idea that we Americans are not carrying on our institutions to DOC undermine the French influence. We must do everything in the world to destroy this impression by assuming a most neutral attitude regarding politics and religion in carrying on our work. This is not only for the sake of French good-will, but in order, as you agree I know, to continue the reputation that our institutions have.

In regard to the Custer case I am afraid no one is to blame but Custer himself, and I do not believe his act is going to hurt the other Americans. He can undoubtedly thank Miss Graffam for his liberty. Such acts as drawing a revolver on a policeman is not countenanced in any country, especially when it is not justified, and the policeman was carrying out his duty. On the whole our Americans are being treated very courteously by the Turks in the interior and I believe we will continue to have this treatment so long as we play perfectly fair and square and don't take up sides with anyone, and especially if we will carry out relief work on the broad principle of giving relief to anyone that may require it.

I do not agree with Lloyd George that Mustapha Kemal has mutinied and is a rebel. He may be a rebel in the strict and technical sense, but it was the action of the Allies that drove the Turks to rebel. I do not justify the Turks in their acts but, knowing the Turks, if you want to control them don't goad them like you would a wild bull in a bull ring.

In regard to the policy of the Near East Relief, I am sure that the workers in the field do not understand the instructions that there should not be any discrimination in matters of religion in applying relief. At the assembly of workers here in Constantinople last Autumn this question was taken up and was very heatedly discussed. Mr. Vickrey himself told me that you have changed your policy, but that is neither here nor there. There is no doubt whatever a policy was carried out of giving relief only to Armenians, except in cases like Miss Cushman and Miss Graffam and Miss Allen, and some others that I might mention who know the way to establish good will in the country and therefore assist the Turks. The charge made by the Armenians in their papers that our relief organizations was using 80% of all the receipts for work with the Turks and Kurds, is, I am sure you will admit, in keeping with the accuracy of the statements that the Armenians are given to making. Don't you think that we can stand any of the accusations made by any of the races in this part of the country? I am very proud of the work that our people have done in this part of the world and it doesn't make much difference what anyone says about the work. I would suggest that it would be well if the workers in the field clearly understood that the relief work was to be carried on without any discrimination as regards race or religion. I know that they do not understand that now, even after the assembly at Constantinople last Autumn. Yes, I did know the Red Cross made large contributions to the Near East Relief work and therefore feel that it was not right to expend the funds, especially the Red Cross funds, for any particular race or sect. And again, I know that lots of the workers did not and that the Red Cross funds were a part of the contributions.

I have dictated this letter as I have felt because I feeI deeply. Still further, I have an impression that since things have been going steadily from bad to worse in this part of the world, and this has been brought about by following a policy that I have never been in sympathy with, it may be that I have not done all that I could to improve conditions in the Near East and that I should make greater effort. I appreciate that this may sound to you, and to others, in some parts like criticism, but I do not intend it in that way because I do not want to arouse opposition, but only to establish a new policy that I believe is right. I believe you will forgive me for anything stated herein if you believe that my sole intention is simply to do what I think is right. I simply want to get us all to work together. I want to work with you because I know that your aims are just as sincere as mine. However, I am sure you will agree that our ideas frequently change, and if this will bring from you a reply that will change my ideas, I am only too ready to grasp the opportunity.

I thank you very much for your good wishes, and reciprocate, hoping that your efforts there have continued for so many years for the good of this part of the world will meet with success, and that I may be able to help you in your work.

With best regards,

Sincerely yours,

Mark L. Bristol
Rear Admiral, U.S. Navy

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