The Secretary of State to President Harding

My Dear Mr. Harding: Referring to your letter, under date of May twentieth, and our interview on Tuesday, with respect to the [Page 923] British proposal for an investigation of the reported atrocities in Anatolia, I should like to emphasize the following considerations. I am unable to say that we can take part in the inquiry with complete assurance that there will be no occasion for regretting this course, but, on the other hand, it is necessary to take account fully of the alternative.

Permit me to call attention to the exact nature of the proposal contained in the British Ambassador’s memorandum of May fifteenth to which I have referred in our interviews. I enclose a copy.7 The British Government, referring to the memorandum based on reports of American workers of the Near East Relief, proposes

“that the United States, French, Italian and British Governments should at once depute a carefully selected Officer to proceed to Trebizond, or to whatever Black Sea port that may be most suitable for the purpose, with a view to proceeding to such places in the interior as may best enable them to conduct the necessary investigation.”

Since the receipt of this note, the British Ambassador has sent me another memorandum (of which I also enclose a copy)8 stating “that the Turkish deportations and outrages in Eastern Anatolia and the action being taken upon them may lead to retaliations in territory in Greek occupation” and that “to avoid any such danger and in order that the Governments concerned may be in possession of accurate information as to what is passing on both sides” the British Government desires that the United States Government should join in the request that the Greek authorities should consent to the “despatch of Officers to regions in Greek occupation.”

It will be observed that the proposal may be taken as being limited solely to an inquiry to obtain accurate information as to atrocities, in Anatolia, committed on both sides. Certainly, if we designate an Officer, we can strictly limit his duty to participation in an inquiry and make it perfectly clear that we enter into no commitment to the employment of armed forces and do not pledge ourselves to any action beyond ascertaining and reporting the facts relating to the atrocities in question.

I am in entire accord with your suggestion that a difficult situation may arise in case an investigation proves the statements concerning atrocities to be correct. But I suggest that the real difficulty will be due to the fact of the atrocities rather than to our joining in the inquiry. The fact of the atrocities is likely to appear in any event. Whatever responsibility may attach to us by reason of the commission of the atrocities will exist in any event. Indeed, if our refusal to [Page 924] participate in the inquiry were believed to have resulted in a continuance of the atrocities we should be under a more serious responsibility. As it seems to me, we are faced with a situation created by the proposal for an inquiry and we cannot escape the responsibility which will attach to our action in refusing to participate. The question really is, I take it, what are likely to be the consequences of our refusal or consent?

Our refusal to join in the inquiry would probably have these consequences:

We should offend a large body of Americans who have deep interest in the Christians of Anatolia. It would be difficult to explain our refusal to their satisfaction, as we have not been asked to do anything more than join in ascertaining the facts. They would be ready to believe the charge that this refusal was to some extent the cause of subsequent difficulties. It would be the more difficult to explain our attitude in the light of our constant insistence upon the protection of our commercial interests in the Near East. It would naturally be said that we were far more solicitous about American interest in oil than about Christian lives.
Our refusal to take part in the inquiry, the British request having been made public, might easily lead the Turks to refuse permission to the other Governments to prosecute the inquiry within the territory under Turkish control. This would place upon us, in large measure, the apparent responsibility for defeating the inquiry and preventing the favorable consequences which might have followed it.
Our refusal to meet the wishes of the British Government, and of the other Governments, in a matter not entailing any commitment on our part beyond an inquiry would tend to make it the more difficult for us to secure acquiescence in our proposals relating to the Near East. We have most important interests, those of mission stations, schools and colleges, those of commerce and industry, and however determined we are to avoid associating ourselves with disputes over boundaries, or to becoming a party to military operations, we must insist upon being heard as to our rights and upon taking part in such negotiations as may involve American interests. Our refusal to join in this inquiry will certainly not aid us and may hinder us in prosecuting our policy.
Our refusal will also deprive us of the opportunity to exercise through the very fact of our presence a restraining and helpful influence. We do not need to attempt the role of mediator or arbiter, but in view of our relative disinterestedness, prestige and financial power, we may have a wholesome influence without implicating ourselves in controversies which are not of our concern. The important thing is that there should be peace in the Near East and that a condition of stability, favorable to the resident populations and likewise to our own commerce, should be created. Our refusal will make it more difficult for us to exert any helpful influence in this direction.

On the other hand, the consequences of our consent should be carefully considered: [Page 925]

Let it be assumed, as I think it should be, that the reports as to atrocities will be proved to be correct to a substantial degree. The question, of course, will arise: What shall be done about it? We may be asked, in view of our participation in the inquiry: What are we going to do about it? It does not follow, however, that this will lead to a proposal of military operations. The British have a very small force in the Near East and are not likely to increase it. There seems no probability of an undertaking on the part of the Allies to deal with the matter by troops. They are hardly in a position to attempt that. At the most, I take it, coercion would be through a naval demonstration or economic pressure. I do not think an occasion will arise in which we will be pressed to send soldiers across the sea. Of course, anything of that sort is out of the question. Nor do I think that we will be put in a position by our joining the inquiry of being compelled to take part in measures of coercion. We have not been a party to the war in the Near East. Our position is quite different from that of the Allies. If the matter comes to a question of the employment of force, I see no reason to believe that we should get ourselves into a position even of great embarrassment. Certainly, we should not be under any commitment.
On the other hand, there is a strong probability that the inquiry itself, if we join in it, will have a restraining influence and tend to prevent the commission of atrocities hereafter. It may create a situation in which it would be the easier to make peace. Dr. Barton, in his letter to me, under date of May nineteenth,9 makes the following points, among others:
  • “5. The United States’ participation in such a commission of investigation would give England courage to publish the facts to the world even in the face of the Indian Moslem opposition. The cooperation of the United States would have a tendency to assure the people of India that the conditions as reported actually existed and that they were not published by England merely as a defense of her unsympathetic attitude toward the existing Turkish Government.
  • “6. Our participation in the investigation and in the report could not fail to have a salutary influence in France where there is a tendency to favor the Turk and to belittle reports of acts of injustice and cruelty. We cannot but believe that it would help bring about a better understanding among all the nations of Europe and furnish a basis in fact for a settlement of the Near Eastern question.”

As I said at the outset, it is impossible to give an assurance that we shall not, if we join in the inquiry, find ourselves in a difficult situation. We cannot be positive, whatever course we take, that we shall not regret it; we are not infallible. But I am inclined to think we shall meet graver difficulties in refusing to join in the inquiry than through participation. We must meet each situation as it arises, and however difficult it may be, according to our best judgment. As I look at it, the probability that our participation in the inquiry will operate as a restraining influence as to future atrocities is so great that I feel that our consent is likely to be very helpful, [Page 926] while our refusal would entail a grave responsibility and expose us to severe criticism as having neglected a course which in the opinion of the large body of people interested in the Near East we could have taken without any serious commitment.

I have no desire to press the matter unduly, and I submit these considerations so that you may have all phases of it before you and may be able to reach a decision with which you will be entirely satisfied.

Faithfully yours,

Charles E. Hughes
  1. Not printed.
  2. Memorandum of May 19, p. 921.
  3. Letter not printed; Dr. James L. Barton was the chairman of the Near East Relief and foreign secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions.