Opinion: Cold Copy: The Times insults the great dignity of the Tukishness of the dignified Turkish people of the great dignified Turkish nation


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We’ve had plenty of cause for celebration lately that we are not bound by Article 301 of the Turkish penal code (which specifies a six-month-to-three year prison sentence for insulting ‘being a Turk, the Republic or Turkish Grand National Assembly’) or even by Article 125 (three months for offending ‘honour, reputation, dignity or prestige’), but we’re even gladder than usual after a tour through the editorial board’s contemporaneous coverage of the Armenian genocide.

The blunt instrument of a penal code will never have much to say about writing style, and there’s plenty of evidence that the Times’ sympathy with the Armenians — a sensibility widely shared by Americans at the time — was genuine. But somehow the expressions of pity for the Christian peoples of a far-off land seem perfunctory; it’s only in denunciations of the Turks, or as the board preferred at the time, ‘the Turk,’ that those nameless, faceless writers of yore rose to anything like poetry. Or actually, that’s only half-true: The wartime eds are brimming with couplets and quatrains and someties whole stanzas from Lord Byron, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Bible and occasionally the doggerelists of the ed board themselves, and I’m making it my mission to work more Byron into future editorials. Anyway, let’s go to the tape:


Dec. 18, 1917: THE END OF TURKEYThere is as much cause for including Turkey and Bulgaria in our declaration of war as there is for including Austria Hungary. There are as good reasons for the extinction of the Ottoman empire as there are for the overthrow of the government of the Kaiser. For 500 years the Turks have been a curse to Christendom, engaged in war after war and massacre after massacre. During the early middle ages there was built in the Balkans large and prosperous cities on the ruins of the civilization of Rome. The Turks found there a fertile and cultivated country. The cities which they seized became ruined and deserted villages. ‘Wherever they have trodden,’ said Henry Cabot Lodge, ‘trade, industry, commerce and the arts and civilization have withered away...’ [...] At least half of the Armenian people have been slaughtered in cold blood and the remnant is only preserved now because a large part of Armenia has falled under Russian control and the other Armenians have taken refuge there.

Feb. 26, 1918:

MARTYRED PEOPLESWhen a peace of victory is finally achieved Germany must answer for her inhumanities in Belgium; Austria for the depopulation of Serbia, and Turkey for the almost total annihilation of the Armenians. [...] If the war continues for another year with Serbia in possession of its arch enemies, it will be impossible to repatriate the Serbian people, for it will have ceased to exist. The same is true to an equal extent with Armenia; but the slaughter has been greater there because the population was greater. In six years the native population of Armenia has sunk from 16,000,000 persons to less than 800,000. Those who have approved this policy of extermination must be made to settle. The German, Austrian and Turkish peoples have approved and taken part in this wholesale murder; they should be forced to pay a huge indemnity.

March 3, 1918:

THE STAND OF UNCLE SAMWhen the President said the peoples should not be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty, he had in mind the combined force and intrigue by which Germany holds Alsace-Lorraine today, by which Austria continues to dominate and enslave Hungary, and by which Turkey is depopulating Armenia and Arabia. [...] When President Wilson declared that all well-defined national aspirations must be accorded the utmost satisfaction that can be accorded them, he indicated clearly that Armenia must be relieved of the crushing yoke of Turkis oppression...

Nov. 10, 1919 (apparently a West Coast first-reaction to the Armistice):

THE HAND OF GOD When we think of Armenia, safe after more than a thousand years from the incessant butchery of the filthy and unspeakable Turks, [...] we behold miracles not less than any told in holy writ. Therefore, the inevitable conclusion must be that God is still in his heavens. His hand is still upon us.

It’s in the postwar settling up, however, that things begin to get murky. A tone of unease seeps into the ed board’s wartime bravado. From May 28, 1919:

CAN OLD WRONGS BE RIGHTED?Armenians for centuries have been ceaselessly disinherited and destroyed. So today even in Armenia proper they are hopelessly outnumbered by the Turks and Kurds. Either these Turks and Kurds would have to be violently deported or some stronger nation would have to keep a permanent army of occupation in this inhospitable country to insure the Armenians against daily revolutions. In the first case you are writing one injustice by perpetrating another. In the second you are passing a decree on the young men of a country that was wholly innocent of the original wrong. Europe, in a dubious compliment to the United States, has picked our self-sacrificing country as the mandatory power for the new Armenia. But our young Americans who would have to be drafted into this large army of occupation (for no American would willingly leave the United States to go and dwell in distant Armenia) might have something cogent to say about the justice of such an arrangement.

That second paragraph may not ring any bells, but it’s the opening of an interesting seesaw campaign for the editorial board. The postwar debate over the Armenian mandate (described by Wikipedia in one sentence: ‘There was even consideration of possibly making Armenia a mandate under the protection of the United States’) seems inconsequential now, but while it was live the issue cost the Times years of foment, and led to a variation on the great American debate between pragmatic non-intervention and reckless idealism. On June 6, 1919, the ed board is all for the mandate:

SHOULD ACCEPT THE ARMENIAN MANDATEThe United States should unhesitatingly accept the mandate of the League of Nations for Turkey and Armenia. [...] Unquestionably the United States is best qualified to handle the affairs of Turkey and Armenia. First, we have no national ‘ax to grind.’ No European nation has the slightest reason for jealousy of us or for suspicion as to our intentions and motives. Second, the Turks and Armenians themselves would both prefer us as rulers to any other nation. While unsparingly condemning his atrocious crimes, to the Turk we have been friendly as it is possible to be. American missionaries and Robert College, established by them at Constantinople, have given the Turk a large share of the limited culture and civilization which he has been capable of assimilating. To the Armenian we have been the best of friends. We have fed him in the hour of need; we have often protected him from atrocities at the hands of the Turks. To the Armenian, fleeing from the Turk, the United States is the Land of Promise, his hope and refuge.

Moreover, the ed board was persuaded that this military action could be done on the cheap. From the same editorial:

The government of the former Ottoman dominions would impose no burden whatever upon us. There would be a small army of occupation composed entirely of adventure-seeking volunteers who might adopt the military profession for life. No man would be drafted for such service. If perchance not enough Americans volunteered friendly aliens of good character could be accepted and many soldiers from the disbanding Allied armies would doubtless be glad to serve for the higher rates of pay in the American army.

By the end of that summer, the Times was conspicuously less confident on this point. Sept. 11, 1919:

THE SAME OLD TURKShall America accept the mandate to administer Armenia? This question is a hard one to answer and the discussions beyond the Rockies on the subject show a wide cleavage.

And by the following year, the ed board’s hesitation had hardened into opposition. Feb. 22, 1920:

THE ADRIATIC AND THE TURKGladstone’s ‘unspeakable Turk’ is just as cruel and just as ruseful as he was half a century ago. There has been a partial enlightenment of a part of the Turkish population; but it has served to make them more scientific and none the less cruel. [...] The same objection applies to the mandate for Armenia. America can and should join the League of Nations, and the Times believes it will soon do so; but by joining the League it is not obligated to become the mandatory for any undeveloped European or Asiatic people. The Near East problems must be settled, in the main, by the Allied nations adjacent to the Near East.

The short-lived Armenian Democratic Republic created another opportunity to get out of the mandate proposal. May 8, 1920:

FOR A FREE ARMENIA There is sympathy for Armenia both in the United States and Canada, but there are many sound reasons why neither country should have the governing of that faraway region. [...] The people of the new world are not in favor of mixing with the troubles of the old.

By the 25th of that month, America’s refusal to join the League of Nations provided a hook for the ed board to renounce its earlier enthusiasm for the mandate while maintaining some consistency in stare decisis (a concern that I suspect has always been of greater moment to the ed boards than it has been to the readers):

ARMENIA NOT FOR USFor a country not a member to hold a mandate for a duly-qualified member of the League would present a curious anomaly. [...] If the United States were a member of the League consideration fo the mandate would be in order; but under present conditions it would put both this country and the members of the League in false positions. But, even though we had ratified the treaty, The Times at least hopes that some other method for solving the Armenian problem should be adopted than saddling it upon the United States. They might give us something easy until we get more accustomed to playing the game of international mandates. Armenia is the worst card in the deck.

And by the 30th, the board was emboldened to take shots at both Woodrow Wilson’s pie-eyed proto-neoconservatism and the chickenhawks who were urging it on:

THAT ARMENIAN ‘TOUCH'Excepting perhaps a few idealists who never consider practical questions of public safety and are always advocating sacrifices, provided they are not the ones to be sacrificed, thoughtful persons will be wholly in accord with the recommendations of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate that the United States shall not accept a mandate for Armenia at this time nor lend the Armenians any of our money. President Wilson set forth in his message that it was our duty to help a struggling Christian people to establish a republic within the historical boundaries of Armenia. He would keep us perpetually in quest of a Holy Grail, putting ourselves under the dominion of a League of which we are not a member. But there are those who regard the acceptance of a mandate which has been categorically declined by Great Britain, France and Italy in the light of pulling someone else’s chestnuts from the fire.[...] If this country accepted the mandate it would necessitate a huge loan from Uncle Sam to Armenia (phew!) and the dispatching of an expeditionary force of not less than 50,000 men to conquer the territory which is to be included within the new Armenian boundaries. Armenia’s credit is very poor — worst than that. And the whole expense of the campaign would fall upon the American people. It would mean fighting, and hard fighting, for perhaps two or three years. [...] The Armenian problem is one immediately affecting the European states. It is as old as European civilization itself. President Wilson may be willing to play the part of Sir Galahad, to embark upon a crusade that would have appealed to a Coeur de Lion; but the American people have problems upon their own continent that demand their first attention.

What kinds of problems? Schools, of course. A Jan. 17 editorial that year revealed an Armenian role in curriculum creep:

INSTANT HORRORSThe State Superintendent of Education makes protest against the use of the schools in the campaign to raise funds for the people of Turkey and Armenia. The children are fed tales of horror to inspire their interest until their young minds are made morbid. It realy would be a bright idea to bring the public schools back to their original mission and the Superintendent should be able to help some in the doing. More power to his elbow.

And what was it that made accepting the Armenian mandate such a dangerous proposition? A Sept. 4, 1920 editorial blamed it on the historic treachery of the Turk:

THE TURK AND THE TREATYLess than a month has elapsed since the Turkish commissioners signed the Treaty of Versailles, and a ‘holy war’ has been declared by the Mohammedan peoples of Asia against the ‘white infidels’ who are now occupying Mesopotamia and other Asiatic districts that were formerly Turkish dominions. [...] This treaty has been signed by the government in Constantinople. But that signature of itself is worthless. The Turkish government will surrender territory only under armed pressure. The Moslem Sultans have held for generations that no pledge made with an infidel is binding. They are fortified in this assumption by the teaching of the Koran itself. And the Moslem people believe in their gospel as firmly as the most ardent Christians in the gospel of Christ.

That Turkey was emerging as a secular state (albeit one no less hostile to the Armenians) was an irony lost on the ed board, but the Times did see the secular threat coming from Armenia’s other flank. Dec. 13, 1920:

BETWEEN TWO WOLVESSooner than submit [the Turks] went on the warpath, with Mustapha Kemal as leader. [...] With Turkey exacting its pound of flesh and with Russia forcing soviets on her, unhappy Armenia may be said to be between the devil and the deep sea. A semiofficial statement declares that a Soviet administration has been organized in Erivan and ‘a complete accord exists between Soviet Russia, Aserbaijan, Armenian and Turkish Nationalists.’ This is the same kind of accord as exists between a lion and a lamb. It really seems that if Armenia is ever to be rescued from its miserable plight it must be through the good offices of the United States. The European countries have failed in all their attempts on behalf of that distacted country.

After a half-cheer on Dec. 14, 1920 for a brief Danish attempt at overseeing Armenia (fleshed out with an overly learned potted history of Protestant missions in the Near East that seems to indicate an afternoon of cramming at the library), and a Feb. 3, 1921 swipe at W.L. Westermann, a University of Wisconsin history professor and proto-neocon in Wilson’s brain trust (the board does everything but call him an egghead), it was back to smiting the Turk. Sept. 18, 1922:

THE ‘TERRIBLE TURK'The name Turk first occurs in history during the sixth century, as given to the mighty hordes who dwelt on the steppes of Northern Asia. They were a savage, aggressive people, eager for further possessions, especially in lands already cultivated. [...] The knowledge that there are over 200,000,000 Mohammedans who may be called upon to wage a holy war for the Turks indicates that the title ‘The Sick Man of the East’ no longer applies to Turkey. In the light of her past history and with an understanding of her present potential strength the world is anxiously watching the turn of her affairs.

Nov. 5, 1922:

WHAT ANSWER?Cables from the Near East continue to bring in to The Times accounts of the atrocities committed by the Turks upon Christian minorities that make even the Armenia massacre seem mild in comparison. One who reads the narratives of the American correspondents on the ground cannot escape from the fact that the Turks are systematically wiping out the Christian populations of the lands they have newly occupied. [...] Let those who ask if the modern Turk is as cruel, intolerant and bloodthirsty as those of former generations reflect on these incontestable facts. [...] Those girls of Smyrna and Aivaily with roses in their cheeks and perfume in their hair, because they lived among the roses, lying, stark in the slimy pools, are a terrible arraignment of Moslem rule over Christian minorities. Life was sweet to them, as sweet as to our own maidens in sunny California; but they preferred death to the bestial brutality of the Turkish harem.

On Dec. 16, 1922, the board welcomed Warren G. Harding’s return to normalcy with a sigh of relief:

A HARDING POLICYWhat would be our position if we were holding an Armenian mandate in the face of the present national and racial disturbances in the Near East? Does anyone imagine tha tCongress would have approved sending an army into Asia Minor and a navy into the Black Sea to enforce the terms of such a mandate? We should have been placed in the humiliating position of the British government, which finds itself holdinb mandates in Mesopotamia and Palestine that it is not in position to support. The Bonar Law government is no preparing to surrender these mandates, because the British taxpayers will have no more of them.

And with one more swipe at the malignant and the turban’d Turk, the Times cleared the period of the Armenian genocide. Oct. 16, 1923:

‘THE NEW TURKISH TREATY'The Turks declined to be placed on probation; would not permit their bloody past to be cast into the scales. They went further. They insisted on expelling more than 1,000,000 persons of what they termed an alien race from Turkish territory. They would have non residing on Turkish soil but the followers of the prophet. They declined to be expelled from Europe; declined to permit any outside interference in Turkish affairs. To those who are willing to close their eyes to Turkey’s bloody history — to confirmed altruists — the Turks were perhaps within their rights. But the higher consideration injects itself into the Turkish problem: whether any people shall be permitted to exterminate minorities whose only crime is that they are Christian.

Of course in those days, Armengeles was just a rumor of the thriving community it would become. But a passing mention in an anti-immigration editorial from Nov. 17, 1922 hints at the day when the Times would come to see testifying to the Armenian genocide less as an excuse for Turk bashing and more as a matter of constituent service:

THE BARS AGAINST IMMIGRATIONAn examination of the immigration records shows that the Mediterranean countries, the Balkans, Poland, Armenia and other South European countries, have not only rushed in their full quota of immigrants to these shores, but have in some instances crowded past the limit by means of fraudulent tricks.

Some of these editorial chestnuts appeared in a post a few months back. Read the conversation they generated at the time.