The Ambassador in Turkey (MacMurray) to President Roosevelt

Dear Mr. President: The courier taking this letter from Istanbul at the end of this week will afford the first opportunity for me to make any reasonably intelligent reply to the letter of August 28 in which you asked for my impressions of the effect of the Russo-German alignment54 upon Turkey and her policy. For it reached me at a moment when the very question you had asked was uppermost in the minds both of foreigners and of the Turks themselves, as a query for the answer to which nobody had any reliable data. Only a few days before, the Turkish Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Saracoglu, who is admirably honest and frank in answering one’s questions, although perhaps inclined in some cases to take a little advantage of the privilege of answering no more than the precise question put to him) had told me that he was going to Moscow primarily for the purpose of satisfying his own mind as to whether the Soviet authorities were now friendly or unfriendly towards Turkey. And it is only very recently that the question has cleared up enough to justify even a tentative opinion on that question and on its effect upon the Turkish attitude with regard to Soviet Russia.

Perhaps, in order to put things in perspective, I should start with a comment upon the rather exceptional relationship of friendliness that until recently prevailed between Turkey and Russia. In the days when both countries were … fighting against interventions in order to assert themselves as new national entities, it was not unnatural that they felt a considerable mutual sympathy, lent each other support (Russia’s assistance to Turkey naturally being far the more important), put aside the rivalries and ambitions that each of them associated with a discredited past, and convinced themselves that their common boundary and their common interest in the Straits as the key to the Black Sea could thereafter be regarded as [Page 445] matters of cooperative effort against an unfriendly outer world rather than as matters of contest between them. And I really believe it is true that, for a dozen years and more, this sense of an especial closeness of sympathies was a reality, among the leaders of both peoples, to a degree that seemed to confute those of us who find it hard to conceive of nations or peoples as entertaining, for more than a brief spell of emotional excitation, those sentiments of affection and sympathy which are normal as between individuals. This rather idyllic friendship between the two nations was somewhat clouded by the Soviet Government’s reluctance at the Montreux Conference of 193655 to concede to Turkey full control of the Straits: but it continued to receive at least lip service (perhaps a sort of Coué treatment) from both sides. And up to a few months ago I think it might have been said, without any sentimental illusions, that there continued to exist relations of an exceptional degree of friendliness and of mutual trust between the two Governments.

The favorable psychological relationship which had existed over all this period had meanwhile taken legalistic form in a treaty of non-aggression between them,56 which ten years ago had been supplemented by an agreement57 that neither of them would, without fully consulting and obtaining the approval of the other in advance, come to any political understanding with any neighboring country.

This was, in outline, the background of Turco-Russian relations at the time when, last April, the Italians moved into Albania58 and thereby precipitated a new situation in the Balkans and compelled the Turks to seek some method to meet what they not unnaturally felt to be a menace to their national safety. The story is current—whether it is true or not, I do not know; but I really think it not unlikely—that Atatürk59 had some years ago made to his more responsible advisers the observation that, if Mussolini60 really wanted to restore the ancient Roman Empire, he was stupid not to see that his first step to that end should be the taking of Albania; in which case, Turkey could assure its own safety only by allying itself with Great Britain [Page 446] as the dominant sea power of the world, and incidentally with France as the necessary ally of Britain. Whether or not such a voice from the tomb was decisive, it is natural, enough that the Turkish Government did, under the circumstances of last April, promptly go at least half way to meet the desire of the British and French to reinsure themselves on their commitments to Greece and Rumania.61

But the Turks (despite having their fair share of human weaknesses, and being often enough irritating in cases where we find it hard to understand why they should be) have at any rate a rather fine sense of obligation in the matter of their loyalties; and feeling that the Russians were, so to speak, their best friends in the international society, they insisted on taking the Soviet Government into their confidence, and working with its full approval, before coming to an agreement even with the British, who might well have been construed to stand outside of the Turkish obligation to consult Russia before reaching new understandings with a neighboring power. Thus the Russians were, so to speak, unofficial observers of the negotiations which led to the preliminary Anglo-Turkish Agreement of last May,62 and the Franco-Turkish Agreement of a month or so later.63 And in the arrangements leading tip to both of those declarations, it was clearly understood that they were subject to Turkey’s non-aggression pact with the Soviet Union, and would not require her to engage in hostilities with Russia—although the clause providing that there should be no separate treaty of peace implied that if Turkey were once engaged in hostilities on the side of the Allies, she would not drop out in the event that Russia should later become involved on the other side.

Having thus, with Russian acquiescence, committed themselves to the Allied camp, the Turks felt it was a blow in the face when Russia (in the latter part of August), without the slightest intimation to them, entered into the preliminary agreement with Germany which at least potentially ranged the Soviet Union with the opposite camp. The Turks were hurt and at a loss to understand the meaning of it. Their inclination was to feel disillusioned, suspicious and even antagonistic; but they at least made an effort to rationalize as favorably [Page 447] as possible what Russia had done, and to keep as much of the old confidence as they could.

They were somewhat reassured when (early in September the not very personable or beloved Soviet Ambassador64 returned from a prolonged visit to Moscow and laid before them a Russian proposal for a Turco-Russian treaty of mutual assistance, which would have paralleled and supplemented the tripartite Turco-Franco-British treaty which was then in the later stages of negotiation, and which, in conjunction with it, would seemingly have made Turkey the central pier in a bridge uniting the Soviet Union with the Democracies in the protection of the Balkan and Black Sea region against invasion by either Germany or Italy. These proposals (whose precise terms, by the way, are still a well-kept secret) were promptly laid before the British and French Ambassadors,65 and approved by their Governments; and although naturally under very heavy pressure of work here, Mr. Saracoglu eventually yielded to the insistence of the Russians that he should go to Moscow to negotiate the details of a treaty on the basis of the proposals.

I talked with him just before he left, and found him in a mood of almost pathetic desire to justify the traditional Turkish confidence in the Soviet leaders, but with a very realistic and even cynical apprehension that, in view of their unknown commitments to Germany, they might well prove to be double-crossing their old friends. President Inönü66 evidently shared that apprehension, and is understood to have given Mr. Saracoglu, by way of parting instructions, a warning to be on the alert against any trick detrimental to the interests either of Turkey herself or of her British and French allies.

Before Mr. Saracoglu had actually left Turkish soil, the Russian invasion of Poland had brought closer and made more acute the apprehensions that Russia really belonged to the opposite and potentially hostile camp; and after he reached Moscow, he was held at arm’s length and treated like a tourist until the Soviet leaders had finished their new set of negotiations with von Ribbentrop.67 Even then, he was still kept dangling, without an opportunity to talk with any responsible officials, for about another week. Whatever may have been the reason for this, it had a lamentable effect on general Turkish opinion, which felt affronted by the seeming lack of even common courtesy towards the representative of the Turkish Government.

[Page 448]

When the actual conferences with the Soviet leaders (including Stalin68 himself) began on October 1, it appears that they put forward two new proposals which would wholly have changed the purport and the bearing of those which they had previously made. One was that the proposed Russo-Turkish pact of mutual assistance should not obligate the Soviet Government to assist Turkey against Germany; the other was that Turkey should bind herself to Russia in advance that, in the event of a war in which Turkey might be a belligerent, she would forego the discretion granted to her in such a case by the Convention of Montreux, and would undertake to close the Straits to the war vessels of her co-belligerents. Both of these proposals Mr. Saracoglu refused to consider or even to refer to his Government; whereupon, as he has told me, the Russian negotiators dropped them with the statement that they did not attach much importance to either of them.

They also made two other proposals, which contemplated modifications of the tripartite treaty with Great Britain and France as already drafted. One of these was to the effect that Turkey should go no further than she had already gone in the Turco-British and Turco-French declarations in undertaking to consult (rather than to participate) in the event of Britain and France being called upon to fulfill their guarantees in the Balkans; the other was that, in the event of Soviet Russia’s becoming involved in hostilities against the Allies, the provisions both of the Turkish alliance with Great Britain and France, and of the proposed Turco-Russian treaty of mutual assistance, should be suspended for the duration of the war. The Turks talked over both of these proposals with the British and French, and worked out with them formulae which were believed to meet the Russian requests in full. When, however, Mr. Saracoglu informed the Russians that he was prepared to meet their views, they again (actually for the third time) raised the two demands which he had refused to consider, and said they would negotiate no further until these demands were conceded; whereupon Mr. Saracoglu apparently asked his Government to order him home.

He actually left after having been in Moscow more than three weeks. While he was on his return journey, the Turkish Prime Minister69 made a singularly blunt and unreserved statement that the negotiations which the Minister for Foreign Affairs had gone to Moscow to conclude had come to nothing because the Russians had made new (and impliedly incompatible) demands. The Russians, on the other hand, published a communiqué which said in effect that there was a [Page 449] mere pause for rest and refreshment in the course of negotiations which were necessarily long and arduous, and that the talks would shortly be resumed in Ankara. And (no doubt at the suggestion of Mr. Saracoglu) the Turkish Government pressed the British and French Governments to sign the new tripartite treaty of alliance,70 exactly as it stood in the initialed text before the three Governments had consented to the changes requested by the Soviet Government, at as early a date as possible—or rather, at the earliest moment after Mr. Saracoglu should have left Russian territory.

Mr. Saracoglu returned to Ankara in a sweeter temper than I should have thought possible: he showed none of the resentment that many of his fellow countrymen had felt about his being kept dangling in a rather humiliating way. On the contrary, he professed a very optimistic view of the Russian situation as his experience in Moscow had disclosed it. His views are worth considering, because he is an exceptionally intelligent man, representing a country which undoubtedly does still have some special sort of relationship to Russia, and having known personally for years most of the Russian leaders with whom he had been dealing. Against these qualifications as an observer should perhaps be set the fact that he was undoubtedly somewhat elated and exalted in his ego by the fact that he had received from the lips of Allied statesmen as well as from the press considerable praise (to which he adverted somewhat naïvely in the course of my conversation with him) for the staunchness and loyalty with which he had met a difficult situation. But in any case, his views have the importance that they represent the bases on which Turkish policy has been and doubtless will be formed.

His explanation of the situation starts with the assumption that Soviet Russia has reverted to old Tsarist imperialism, but that it is not yet morally or materially prepared actually to fight for its imperial ambitions; and that it is therefore rather a jackal (to borrow a phrase once used to me in another connection by a certain Chinese politician) feeding where bolder beasts have killed. He does not believe that the Soviet Government has committed itself to Germany more deeply than is necessary to enable Russia to profit by the situations which German aggressive activities may bring about. He thinks that Russia has not any concrete plan of expansion, but is simply on the watch for any advantageous opportunity that may turn up. He feels fairly confident that she will not risk any adventure in Bessarabia or elsewhere in the Balkans unless, despite her having screened the northern border of Rumania, Germany should make such a devastating rush into the Balkans as would, completely destroy [Page 450] the morale of the Balkan peoples—in which case the Red Army would, as in Poland, be able to enter without serious cost or risk, and interpose itself between the Germans and the coveted objective of the Straits. In the meanwhile, he believes the Soviet refusal to go on with its own proposals of last September was primarily the result of indecision and a desire to play for time, and perhaps in part a tactical incident to the game which the Soviet Government is playing, the Russians have possibly agreed to turn him away as part of a bargain by which they got from the Germans a free hand in the Baltic States:71 but he considers that this will not necessarily stand in the way of a future agreement at some time when the Russians find it opportune to assert their real interest in keeping Germany and Italy away from the Straits and the Black Sea. He does not deceive himself into any belief in the tenderness of Russian regard for the interests of Turkey or the other Balkan countries, but assumes that circumstances will for some time to come incline Russia to cooperate with them rather than against them; and so long as that state of affairs exists, he feels that Turkey should make the most of the traditional closeness of relations with Russia. It is a hard-boiled point of view, with just a trifling rather self-conscious but not altogether insincere residue of sentiment.

A different estimate of the situation—an estimate which, I understand, became a matter of very violent debate and even of fisticuffs in one of the private meetings of the official party, although no word of it has been allowed to reach the public ear—is that Mr. Saracoglu’s judgment of the matter, hard-boiled as it is, is altogether too optimistic, and that the Turkish Government should from now on recognize and act upon the assumption that Russian neo-imperialism is a definite threat to the safety and independence of Turkey. That, perhaps, is stating the case in its most extreme aspect. Another opinion—one which I understand is rather general among journalists and others of the more intelligent Turks outside of the Government—is rather less extreme and less definite: it could perhaps be described as a feeling that the Russians had failed to live up to the part of old friends, and in a critical time had not only ignored the interests but also deliberately humiliated and hurt the feelings of their Turkish friends. Not only is this feeling somewhat indefinite, but it finds as yet no public expression. I believe, however, that it exists widely, and rankles very deeply, and that it carries with it that especial bitterness which is peculiar to a feeling of having been let down or betrayed [Page 451] by those in whom one has placed his trust. If so, it is to be anticipated that the canker will in time destroy whatever remains of the more sentimental aspect of Turkish friendship for the Soviet Government.

Meanwhile, what has happened only makes the Turks more resolute in their policy of holding aloof from involvement in the war unless and until new circumstances create a situation calling for positive action by them jointly with their British and French Allies. They have been challenged in their loyalties, and are proud of the faithfulness with which they met that challenge. One feels that even if the Germans were right (and I do not think they are) in their whispering propaganda that the Turks now repent of having committed themselves even conditionally to the side of the Allies, they would nevertheless hold true to the obligations they have undertaken; for my own belief is that the action of the Russians in compounding, to whatever extent, with the Germans, has had the effect of making it more than before a matter of honor and of stubborn pride for the Turks to abide staunchly by the policy in which they have pledged themselves to the British and French.

To sum up the story in its broad outlines:—The Turks were completely surprised by the Soviet rapprochement with Germany and participation in the invasion of Poland, at a loss to understand the motives or the implications of that course of action, and torn between a feeling of suspicion and recoil and a desire to put the best possible construction upon it; in the course of the Foreign Minister’s visit to Moscow, their first confusion and bewilderment settled into a pragmatic acceptance of the situation that the traditional friendship has proved a bit hollow, that any such idealism as they had supposed to guide the Soviet Government has died out and been replaced by a revived spirit of Russian imperialism which may well become a menace to the interests and the independence of Turkey, but that for the time being Russia has not the resolution or the material strength to take any risks of really serious involvement, and that it may therefore be worth Turkey’s while to jog along in cordial relationship with Russia so long as no definite conflict of interests is brought to an issue; and the upshot of the Soviet effort to inveigle them into playing fast and loose with their obligations to Great Britain and France has been to stiffen them in the determination to manifest to the world an even Quixotic staunchness in their loyalty to their Allies.

I trust that I have not, in this lengthy outline of what seems to us here an important aspect of the war situation, trespassed too greatly upon your patience or upon the interest which your letter expressed.

Faithfully yours,

J. V. A. MacMurray
  1. A treaty of nonaggression, with secret additional protocol, was signed at Moscow on August 23, 1939; for text, see Documents on German Foreign Policy, 1918–1945, series D, vol. vii, pp. 245–247.
  2. For correspondence regarding the conference on the Straits, held at Montreux, June 22–July 20, 1936, see Foreign Relations, 1936, vol. iii, pp. 503 ff. For text of the Convention signed on July 20, 1936, see League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. clxxiii, p. 215.
  3. Treaty of Friendship and Neutrality signed at Paris on December 17, 1925; for text, see ibid., vol. clvii, p. 355.
  4. Protocol enlarging and prolonging the validity of the treaty of December 17, 1925, signed at Ankara on December 17, 1929; for text, see ibid., p. 361. Further prolonged by Protocol signed at Ankara on October 30, 1931, ibid., p. 367; and prolonged until November 7, 1945, by Protocol signed at Ankara on November 7, 1935, ibid., vol. clxxix, p. 129.
  5. The Italians entered Albania on April 7, 1939. For correspondence concerning the absorption of Albania by Italy, see Foreign Relations, 1939, vol. ii, pp. 365 ff.
  6. Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, President of Turkey, 1920–38.
  7. Benito Mussolini, Head of the Government and Prime Minister of Italy since 1922.
  8. For text of an announcement made on behalf of both Great Britain and France by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in the House of Commons on April 13, 1939, see Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1938–39, 5th series, vol. 346, col. 13; and simultaneously in the House of Lords by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Halifax, ibid., House of Lords, 5th series, vol. 112, col. 612.
  9. Prime Minister Chamberlain announced this agreement in the House of Commons on May 12, 1939; see Parliamentary Debates, House of Commons, 1938–39, 5th series, vol. 347, cols. 952 ff.
  10. For text of the Franco-Turkish declaration of mutual assistance of June 23, 1939, see Germany, Foreign Office, Documents on the Events Preceding the Outbreak of the War (New York, 1940), p. 332.
  11. A. V. Terentyev.
  12. Sir Hughe Montgomery Knatchbull-Hugessen, and René L. D. Massigli, respectively.
  13. Ismet Inönü, President of Turkey since November 11, 1938.
  14. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Reich Foreign Minister.
  15. Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin, Secretary General of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks); member of the Politburo and Orgburo of the Party.
  16. Reflk Saydam.
  17. Treaty of Mutual Assistance, signed at Ankara on October 19, 1939; for text, see League of Nations Treaty Series, vol. cc, p. 169.
  18. For information concerning the pressure exerted upon the Baltic States by the Soviet Union in 1939 to conclude pacts of mutual assistance, see Foreign Relations, The Soviet Union, 1933–1939, pp. 934 ff.; and for information concerning the incorporation of the Baltic States into the Soviet Union in 1940, see ante, pp. 357 ff.