Guest Viewpoints

One Good Apology Deserves Another – The Story of George Horton

August 13, 2022
By Ismini Lamb

The Department of State owes George Horton an apology. Horton was the American consul general in Smyrna, Turkey when Turkish Nationalists sacked and burned the city in September 1922. The Department’s senior U.S. representative in Constantinople and Horton’s superior, Admiral Mark Bristol, covered up Turkish atrocities with disinformation in hopes of American access to oil. He even went so far as to block any American aid to the victims of Turkish persecution. Bristol’s subterfuge provided cover for Turkish genocide and ethnic cleansing, costing many lives that could have been saved.

Horton contested Bristol’s false reporting. After evacuating Americans from Smyrna, saving many naturalized Greek-Americans in the process, Horton wrote a series of increasingly vociferous cables arguing for changes in American policy. He exposed Bristol’s falsehoods and opposed his policy of no aid for refugees who made it to Greece, the only country in the world willing to accept them. He thought the United States should intervene, and that the mere threat of doing so would stop the pragmatic Turks. Absent that, he thought it should at least denounce the atrocities. Above all, he argued against rewarding genocide with a treaty of friendship, which is what the Department of State wanted.

In retaliation, Bristol tried to ruin Horton’s reputation with assistance from other Department officials, including Bristol’s friend, Allen Dulles, who was then chief of the Near East division.

With the centennial remembrances of Smyrna’s demise approaching this September, it is high time the Department of State apologized. There is precedent for doing so. Recently the Department honored Archer Blood by dedicating a conference room in his memory (see Politico: https://politi.co/3dh4otM). Blood, the consul general in Dhaka, defied the Department and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger by reporting on Pakistan’s brutal 1971 suppression of a free election in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). He also complained that the United States refused to denounce the widespread Pakistani atrocities. Kissinger had Blood recalled to Washington, clobbered with a career-ending poor evaluation, and stuck in a dead-end job. Blood’s story is told in historian Gary Bass’ book, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide (available online).

The Department of State gave Horton the same treatment. After Horton complained about Bristol and the U.S. failure to confront the Turks, he was recalled to Washington, given poor evaluations, and forced into retirement. Bristol had friends in journalism write false reports on Horton. He also defamed Horton by falsely reporting that he broke down in Smyrna under pressure and had to be evacuated. Allen Dulles assisted Bristol’s campaign by inserting a damaging review in Horton’s personnel file. Dulles also deep-sixed Horton’s long report on the situation and instead gave Secretary of State Charles Hughes a different account consistent with Bristol’s disinformation. He did so at a critical moment, just before Hughes went to see President Warren Harding for a decision on whether the United States should join the British in threatening to use force if the Turks did not cease and desist in their crimes against humanity. Hearing only Bristol’s side of the story, Harding decided against intervention.

Diplomats who fail to toe the Department of State policy line cannot expect rewards. But neither should they be punished for accurate reporting and providing their best-informed views. No well-performing organization wants subordinates who only report what they believe will be popular and career-enhancing. It is even more egregious when superiors falsify the record to punish a subordinate for doing their job well. Both for punishing and falsifying Horton’s record of service, the Department owes Horton the same kind of belated apology it has, in effect, issued to Blood and his descendants.

The mistreatments of Blood and Horton are more than individual cases of injustice. Green lighting massacres cost innumerable lives. Of course, Department leaders had their geostrategic reasons, but in Horton’s case at least, it was all for naught. The Turks never granted the oil concessions the Department wanted, nor were they even needed.

Despite the Federal Trade Commission’s 1923 warning that “the supply of crude petroleum in this country is being rapidly depleted,” American oil production exceeded domestic demand that very year and the excess just kept growing as oil was discovered near Los Angeles and in Oklahoma. “By the end of the decade, the gloomy predictions of the early 1920s had been washed away by the flood of oil that seemed to flow unendingly out of the earth” (Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power).

Bristol and other Department of State officials had ignored, denied, and whitewashed genocide and ruined Horton’s career for nothing. If that doesn’t merit an apology, what would?

Ismini Lamb is the Director of Modern Greek Studies Program at Georgetown University. Her co-authored biography of George Horton, The Gentle American, is available from Gorgias Press in hardback: https://bit.ly/3bJHr22 and from Gorgias’ publishing partner, De Gruyter, in an eBook edition: https://bit.ly/3bKz32j.




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