TURKEY is under heavy pressure from the Soviet Government, for Turkey controls both the Straits connecting the Black Sea with the Aegean and the mountain-ringed Anatolian plateau, the two direct southern routes of Russian expansion into the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf. Again, as in the last half of the nineteenth century, the interest of a World Power in limiting Russian expansion coincides with Turkey's interest in survival. Britain is today unable to balance the power of a Russian empire far stronger than in Tsarist times and driven by leaders with far more crusading zeal. But an explicit statement by President Truman has recognized the common interest of the United States and the Turkish Republic, and a program of aid to Turkey has been adopted by the United States Government to give the "Truman Doctrine" practical effect.

Naturally enough, so important a development of United States foreign policy has elicited diverse opinions from diverse western minds. I have no intention here of analyzing the Truman Doctrine (though I believe that the substance of the President's statement and the action taken by Congress were proper and wise), nor of disputing the views of those who see it unfavorably. One aspect of the disparagement of the program of aid to Turkey, however, seems based on a misconception so odd and yet so prevalent as to necessitate special attention. It is the assumption that the Turkey of 1947 is the Turkey of 50 years ago. Thus one hears talk of the "feudal régime" of the Turkish Government, and finds cartoonists using the symbol of the fez to represent the Turkish state. And, of course, one meets with constant reference to the famous "wrong horse" which Britain is supposed to have backed by supporting Turkey instead of Russia in the past century. No less a notable than Professor Harold J. Laski triumphantly produced this cliché several times in the course of a confident demolition of American policy in a recent article.[i]

We may note that in a longer perspective than Lord Salisbury enjoyed when he said in 1897 that the British had been "staking their money on the wrong horse," Britain seems plainly to have backed the right one, for by allying herself with Turkey she did keep Russia out of the Mediterranean basin and did safeguard an interest which was vital to her. But it is even more relevant to note that the point at issue when Salisbury made his famous statement indicating a reversal of Tory policy was whether Turkey would reform herself. The Tory assumption had been that such reform was possible, and that British policy should be designed to promote it. In 1897, on the heels of new and atrocious manifestations of Sultan Abdul Hamid's tyranny toward subject peoples, Salisbury abandoned that hope, and pointed out that unless the Turkish Empire was able to take measures of reform, its ruin was certain.

He was quite right. Ruin did come to the Empire. But the central fact of the whole matter, so far as our problems are concerned, is that, at long last, reform came to Turkey. The United States is not dealing with the Turkish Empire, but with a Turkey which, since the British Prime Minister coined his phrase, has changed more radically than any country in the world. The apparent ease with which this truth is overlooked is my justification for setting down in the following pages some brief and pertinent facts about the Turkey of today.


The Turkey of Lord Salisbury's time was the 600-year-old Ottoman Empire, a medieval Moslem anarchronism straight from the pages of the "Arabian Nights." Its ruler was the despotic sultan-caliph, who claimed to be the Shadow of Allah on earth, successor of the Prophet Mohammed as head of state and religion. Its dominant minority of Turks governed a host of mutually hostile peoples in Europe, Asia and Africa who differed in language, religion and way of life. The whole structure of government, economy and society was feeble, corrupt, insolvent and on the verge of dissolution. Complete collapse came in 1918. The victorious Allies appropriated the Arab-populated provinces of the Empire as mandates of the League of Nations, and sent armies of occupation into most of the remaining territories. Only the arid interior of Anatolia was left to the Turks, and even this was invaded by the Greeks with Allied encouragement.

But then the grim determination of the Turkish people to survive wrought an almost miraculous change in the situation. There, in the Turkish homeland, spontaneous local resistance was organized by a National Assembly headed by Mustafa Kemal, later surnamed Atatürk. By 1923 the Greeks had been driven out, the British, French and Italian occupation forces had been withdrawn, the sultanate had been liquidated, and a republic had been established with Ankara as capital and Atatürk as president. In the same year the negotiated peace of Lausanne legalized Turkish national independence. The Empire was gone. In its place was a homogeneous population, and a national state within its own proper boundaries which was making its way into the modern world with remarkable success and (compared with other revolutionary states) absence of bloodshed.

As long as the war of independence continued domestic reform was almost completely neglected. The revolution sought the support of every group, including the numerous civil officials and military officers, the great landlords of the southeastern provinces, the numerous peasant proprietors, and the city merchants; its driving force was nationalism of the simplest sort. But eventually the revolution affected almost everything in the country except land titles. Atatürk and his immediate entourage were convinced that there could be no stopping place short of complete westernization. They insisted that the Turks could not borrow piecemeal from the west as they had done in the past, but must with utmost rapidity become westerners in every sense of the word, retaining only that modicum of Turkishness which would correspond to the differences between European nationalities.

These reformers were mostly military officers, impatient of disorder and delay, accustomed to orders crisply given and promptly executed. But though they were authoritarian in temperament and experience, they apparently believed the World War demonstrated that parliamentary democracies were in the long run healthier and stronger than other European types of society and government. The Turkish Republic which emerged was a remarkable hybrid. It had all the machinery of a democracy, and its leaders believed in the superiority of western parliamentary ways; but, until recently, it actually was a benevolent despotism led by Atatürk and the party which he founded.

Atatürk was a man of extraordinary acuteness, vigor and ambition. He developed a capacious grasp of national and world affairs, unerring judgment as to what the Turkish people would approve or at least tolerate, and qualities of restraint which saved him from political or military adventures. His personal prestige was immense and well-deserved. He could have won in free elections by tremendous majorities, but he chose to take no chances in that direction. As head of the People's Party he selected personally every one of its candidates for the Assembly; as President of the Republic he appointed the officials who operated the governmental machinery in a way to make sure that the Party's candidates would be elected; and the Assembly repeatedly reëlected him to the presidency.

The constitution adopted by the Assembly established a highly centralized government. The one-party régime which was set up gave such fair representation to all influential elements of the population, however, and balanced so expertly the interests of classes and localities, that it was able to carry out a fundamental reorganization of Turkish society without significant dissidence save among the Kurds, the one minority of consequence which remained in the country.[ii]

The organized Moslem religion was regarded by the leaders of the Party as the chief obstacle to that westernization which was to be the guarantee of national existence. The endowments which supported Moslem preachers, teachers, students of theology and muezzins had long been administered by the Ottoman Government. The Republic appropriated most of this income; a large proportion of those who made religion a profession were left without livelihood. The semi-secret dervish orders, which had served the emotional needs of a people unsatisfied by the stern formality of orthodox Islam, were abolished and their property confiscated. Schools other than those of the Ministry of Education and of organizations enjoying its approval were closed. Religious instruction was forbidden in all schools except those of the Christian and Jewish minority communities and the National University.

The sacred law code of Islam and the religious courts which administered it were next swept away. Enactment en bloc of the Swiss civil code, the Italian criminal code, and the commercial code of the German Republic substituted almost overnight a legal framework which provided every citizen, male and female, with all the rights and duties of western Europeans. The position of women in society was revolutionized. Polygamy was abolished and the veil either disappeared or ceased to have any significance.

To weaken the hold of tradition and modernize the mentality of a conservative people the Latin alphabet was substituted for the Arabic in which Turkish had been written for a millennium. The new alphabet (unquestionably a great improvement from the viewpoint of phonetics) was given out, a campaign for adult education launched and the old characters outlawed all within a few weeks. Thenceforth only such of the old literature as might be transliterated and printed with official approval was available to those who did not already know the Arabic script. Future generations will be almost completely cut off from the literature and thought of past centuries.

The public wearing of fezzes, turbans and costumes associated with religion was prohibited, and the edict efficiently enforced by the police. The government was determined to make the Turk look like a westerner, as part of the process of making him consider himself one. It acutely embarrassed western-educated Turks, however, when it promulgated a startlingly nationalistic interpretation of history, locating the source of civilization and even of language among the pre-Islamic Turks of Central Asia. Doctrines of this sort were more than the police could enforce. But Turks nonetheless accepted loyally the necessity of severing many of their oriental roots, even at the cost of much pain to themselves. The break with the Ottoman past was sharp.


Economically, the Republic found Turkey a land of peasant agriculture, with practically no industry, with commerce in the larger cities almost monopolized by non-Turks, mineral resources largely unexplored and unexploited, and transportation woefully inadequate. Local Christians and Jews had modest amounts of capital, but ardent nationalists could hardly be expected to permit distrusted minorities to profit disproportionately from the country's development; the recently-liquidated Administration of the Ottoman Public Debt was vividly remembered as an example of foreign financial imperialism. Turkish capital (plus Turkish manpower) would have to do the best it could.

Through taxation and domestic borrowing the Government obtained enough capital to undertake a limited program of industrialization. Existing railways were bought from their foreign owners. New lines were constructed, and all were run with reasonable efficiency. State-capitalized banks financed and operated mines, lumber mills, textile and other factories, and even a steel plant. High tariffs and complicated international trading arrangements provided a high protective wall for domestic industry. Expansion of governmental activity into the economic field meant more positions, increased power, and better pay for bureaucrats, whose loyalty to the régime was consequently solidified. That the enterprises which they operate are often inefficient and are in many cases highly uneconomic goes almost without saying. Turkish steel, for example, costs several times as much as American steel delivered in Turkey, freight and customs paid. But though state capitalism has been costly to Turkey, it has at least provided a certain amount of education in industrial techniques for Turkish personnel.

Most Turks and many foreigners believe Turkey to be rich in minerals, and there has been a good deal of prospecting. The search for oil has been quite intensive, but it has not been found in any quantity. On the Black Sea coast near the Straits is a sizable field of bituminous coal. Lignite is found in many places and in large quantity, but exploitation is only beginning. Iron ore is plentiful but located far from the coal field. There is much chrome ore in widely separated localities and a great deal of it was exported during the war, when prices were high. A little copper is produced and deposits of a number of other valuable minerals are known. Water power resources are considerable but unfortunately are located far from existing centers of population. The fact is that no one really knows enough about Turkey's mineral and power resources to be entitled to a firm opinion about the possibilities of her industrial development.

The country's agricultural resources are better known. In foodstuffs Turkey is self-sufficient, though at a bare subsistence level for a large proportion of the peasantry. Considerable quantities of specialized products such as tobacco and dried fruits are normally exported. The peasants are the main producers of wealth, and the success of any régime must be judged largely by its effect on them. They have profited under the Republic by the longest period of peace in many generations, by the firm maintenance of public security, and by the substitution of tax payment in cash for the Empire's wasteful method of collection in kind through tax-farmers. New railways and developing motor transport have begun to open distant markets. More of the land has been cultivated and cultivation has been more intensive. The Government has set up experimental farms to encourage the planting of new crops, the improvement of seed and livestock and the use of modern methods, but success has been limited by ingrained peasant conservatism and distrust of officials. Millennia of experience with rapacious governments cannot be quickly forgotten; but the peasants give the Republic a good deal of credit as the least oppressive régime they have known.

Unfortunately, the gain in agricultural and indeed in all other production has been more than offset by the general mobilization of the army which threat of invasion made necessary in December 1940. The Nazi menace was promptly replaced by the Russian, which still continues and keeps the best of the country's manpower under arms. The boys, the old men and the women have done what they could, but production has suffered badly and a serious inflation has developed. Demobilization has seemed out of the question because the inadequate transportation system could not effect remobilization quickly enough to meet a sudden attack. Soviet pressure has been slowly and inexorably exhausting the economy of Turkey.

Turkey's manpower is probably her most promising resource. Turks of both sexes and of every class have shown during the last 25 years that they have the ability to master the techniques of modern industrial civilization. The popular demand for education, fostered by the Government, has been tremendous and literacy has improved dramatically. Technical training is being stressed and an effort made to avoid educating peasants to leave the land. The cessation of loss of life in wars, which for centuries decimated the villages, and the introduction of public health measures have resulted in a rapid increase in population, which now totals about 19,000,000.

Attainment of freedom from want is still distant. Turkey is a rugged and partly desert country, its more fertile plains and valleys already densely populated. The large areas now used for dry farming and grazing, though thinly peopled, provide only a bare subsistence. Much additional land can be made cultivable by irrigation, but agriculture must become a great deal more efficient if the general standard of living is to be raised. Thus far the curve of population increase has risen at least as steeply as that of production.


The People's Party has in general exercised great restraint in dealing with its opponents, at least when judged by local standards. Only a handful have been executed and a few score exiled. The contrast here between the Turkish revolution and the revolutions in China and Russia is striking. Atatürk encouraged the organization of rival parties, but in each case had them liquidated when incitement to violence rather than peaceful political activity resulted. One-party rule has not been glorified as an ideal system of government and its eventual replacement by a two-party or multi-party system has always been envisioned. Within People's Party caucuses there have been many genuine debates, and uninstructed votes. Committees of the National Assembly have frequently thrashed out questions of policy in free discussion. Majorities have learned the importance of restraint and tolerance while minorities have realized that argument and patience can win votes and change unacceptable decisions. In short, democratic concepts and procedures have been studied, and to some extent they have been practised.

In August 1946 the Democratic Party was organized, undoubtedly with Inönü's blessing, and has already grown to such stature that it could hardly be suppressed without violence. The new party, headed by a former premier whose background is in banking rather than military affairs, endorses the Government's foreign policy but disagrees on almost everything else. For example, it proposes to reduce the scope of state economic activity and to decentralize the administration. It is attracting many of the younger generation, who regard Inönü and his advisers as "old-fashioned," that is to say, more authoritarian and military in outlook and practice than present conditions justify. In the Assembly the strong Democratic group is outspokenly critical, clear evidence that its members do not fear persecution.

President Inönü has resigned the leadership of the People's Party and is apparently trying to establish the presidential office above the level of party politics. He and his immediate collaborators, who have held power for almost a quarter of a century, cannot be expected to want to relinquish control. Yet their genuine patriotism and their confidence in the long-run virtues of democracy might well enable them to accept an unfavorable verdict at the polls, should it come. A factor of importance is their clear understanding that the existence of their country is dependent on the great democracies of the west and that the approval of American and British public opinion is of tangible value in their struggle to survive.

The proportion of the country's educated manpower which is engaged in government is very large. Thus far the bureaucracy has been able to provide a job for practically every university and technical school graduate who wished to enter it. But unless the fields open to professional careers and commercial enterprise are enlarged, there may soon be an "intellectual proletariat." If, on the other hand, all candidates continue to be welcomed into the unproductive bureaucracy a top-heavy society will result.

Military officers constitute a very large group of government employees. They have contributed immensely to the Republican régime and have consistently supported the whole program of westernization. No one knew so well as they the technical backwardness of Ottoman Turkey, for they and their troops repeatedly paid for it in blood on the battlefield. No one can say that Turkey's military expenditures have been unjustified, for she is today independent and respected, but the tendency of officers to assume the attitudes of a privileged caste is unhealthy. Thus far the presidents of the Republic have been exofficers, who have seen to it that their former colleagues had no legitimate grounds for dissatisfaction. The first president who lacks a military background may have a delicate task in maintaining civilian ascendancy without impairing the splendid esprit de corps of the army and navy.


It is not only unfair, but downright stupid, to pretend that such achievements as these are not impressive and encouraging. Of course they have been interspersed with backward steps. The most notorious relapse of recent years occurred in 1942 in the treatment of the Christian and Jewish minorities, a field in which substantial but hard-earned gains had been made between the two World Wars. The government lost its head in a moment of great financial difficulty and administered a capital levy upon the minorities in terroristic fashion. Though the folly was eventually perceived and the law repealed, great damage was done, for in the Near East confidence among different religious groups grows slowly and painfully.

Turkish suspicion of foreigners and foreign enterprises is intense. This was justified a generation ago, but is certainly out of place now that coöperation with the democratic west is an accomplished fact. The foreign capital and skill desperately needed for development of the country will surely not be forthcoming unless the existing excessive régimentation and taxation of foreign activities are relaxed. Both government and public seem to be obsessed by fear lest foreigners make immense profits and take them out of Turkey, in the pattern of the old days. To prevent this a vast web of laws and administrative regulations has been created. When the foreigner travels from one part of the country to another he must have a sort of domestic passport which the police visé in and out of every precinct where he stops. In addition, military regulations exclude foreigners from much of the country. It is only fair to state that police control of Turkish citizens is only slightly less vexatious -- but the Turks are accustomed to it.

Taxes on incomes, on business transactions and on capital gains are so high that honest enterprises are hard pressed to survive. The bureaucracy is everywhere, watching the public as though suspecting everyone of tax evasion, spying or some illegal practice. The real danger to orderly democratic development within Turkey comes not from Communism or Fascism but from indefinite expansion in function and personnel of a bureaucracy which is often (though not always) honest and public-spirited but has inherited and perfected all the devices for control of the people that both orient and occident have invented.

Intellectual freedom is almost complete, except for Communists, who are all lodged in prison. The omnipresent police do not concern themselves with the citizen's thoughts but concentrate their attention on organized activities. Clubs and societies are closely watched, but the individual can think and say what he pleases. The press is theoretically free, but in practice is still subject to very strong pressure from the Government, which can always find legal excuses for closing down an obnoxious newspaper, or disciplining an obstreperous correspondent. Much improvement has been made in this field in recent years, but there is room for a great deal more.

Freedom of religion is absolute for the individual, but the Government continues to cherish what seems an unreasoning fear of organized Islam. It is high time that citizens of all faiths be permitted to organize freely for worship and for the religious instruction of their children, who have been growing up with little religious faith and very fragmentary ethical standards.

But the Turkish Republic's credits far outweigh its debits. It has moved an almost incredible distance along the road from the Ottoman Middle Ages toward western democracy. The tremendously significant fact is that to the Turks the west does represent the good society. Turkey really wants to be a "western" country, and takes American approval or disapproval very seriously. Such off-hand criticism as Henry A. Wallace's recent statement that "Many Allied divisions were immobilized throughout the war because we never knew on whose side this [Turkish] army was preparing to fight" -- a statement which has in it not the smallest grain of truth -- seems to go unnecessarily far out of the way to take a slap at people who want to be friends with us. Perhaps American journalists and public speakers who are intent upon altering the course of American foreign policy might remind themselves that tolerance is, after all, one of the democratic virtues, and that although Turkey is by no means a perfect democracy neither are we, though we have been at the business much more than a short quarter of a century. Turks believe that our immense power is not merely the result of luck but is somehow the product of our society and government. They welcome the assistance which we are currently giving them and grant us the right to insist that it not be used deliberately to perpetuate the one-party system, to consolidate the control of civil and military bureaucracy, or to subsidize a fatuous economic autarchy. They are willing to believe that the United States will use its power and prestige for the benefit of the Turkish and American peoples, whose interest in a free and peaceful world is mutual.

The Turkey of today is a free nation, fiercely determined to remain free. It is struggling toward democracy against tremendous obstacles, and making progress. We may properly be pleased at her friendship.

[i]Cf. Harold J. Laski, "Britain Without Empire," The Nation, March 29, 1947.

[ii]Cf. William L. Westermann, "Kurdish Independence and Russian Expansion." FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July 1946.

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  • WALTER LIVINGSTON WRIGHT, JR., Professor of Turkish Language and History, Princeton University; President, Robert College and American College for Girls, Istanbul, 1935-44
  • More By Walter Livingston Wright Jr.