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Guest Viewpoints

The American Documentary Evidence Proving the Turks Burned Smyrna and Why It Was Kept Secret

September 24, 2022
By Constantine G. Hatzidimitriou, Ph.D.

One-hundred years have passed since the great fire that engulfed Smyrna, the massacre of its helpless population, and the genocide of Anatolian Christians, which destroyed Anatolian Hellenism where it had flourished for thousands of years. This Turkish genocide in a sense continues, because a century later its government and leaders continue to deny what took place and have the audacity to blame the victims instead of taking responsibility for their actions. Scholars call this ‘denial’ the final stage of the genocide process. It is also tragic, that the United States government which rightly celebrates its humanitarian values – continues to refrain from any specific official recognition of this horrific genocide and has yet to acknowledge the truth of what happened to the Anatolian Greeks and why. That this is the case, despite what its own documents reveal, continues a pattern that began in 1922 in which political and economic interests are still used today to absolve the Turks and distort and cover-up the truth.

It is also important to recognize that two courageous Americans, Edward Bierstadt and George Horton, spoke out and condemned this conspiracy, soon after those events – and that the U.S. government ignored and suppressed what they attempted to reveal.

Using American documents, it has taken me over 30 years of research to piece together the story that I will summarize here. My purpose was not just to find out exactly what happened, but to find proof that the Turks deliberately set fire to the city and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and why they did so.

Through my research, I found originally classified American documents from the National Archives in Washington, DC that prove that the Turks deliberately burned the Christian sections of the city, and that the United States knew about it and covered it up for political and economic reasons! In my last, publication I called this phenomenon ‘SmyrnaGate’. However, it is not only a story of tragedy, greed, unprecedented suffering and murder on a massive scale – but also a time of heroism – when individual Americans were better than their government, and chose to commit what one courageous woman called: “unauthorized acts of humanity!”

The results of my research were first published in a 2005 book and added to in a lengthy article in 2012. I am happy to announce that this past summer my book appeared in a new, updated Modern Greek edition to mark the centennial, published by Lavyrinthos Press in Athens.

As is well-known, U.S. Consul George Horton was forced to flee the American consulate which was burned in the great fire. He was so outraged by his experience in Smyrna that he wrote a devastating indictment of the behavior of the Turks titled The Blight of Asia in 1926, in order to bring the truth of what occurred out into the open. He not only related details of what he himself saw but gathered together and reproduced the testimony of other Americans, particularly missionaries who corroborated the opinions and accusations he makes in his book. Earlier, another American official involved in relief work, Edward Bierstadt, also wrote a book with the revealing title: The Great Betrayal, which concluded that the treaty of Lausanne was signed in oil and sealed with the blood of Greeks and Armenians. He too called attention to a cover-up of Turkish responsibility for massacres and Smyrna’s destruction. The U. S. State Department considered both of these accounts biased.

It is important to note, that the economic context, and that especially oil and mining interests, played a key role in determining U.S. policy in the region. For example, in my book, I published a State Department document dated July 6, 1922, in which the Secretary of State referred to negotiations with Turkish Nationalist authorities concerning railway, mining, and other commercial rights in Anatolia. Unofficial commercial representatives were negotiating with a government not yet recognized by the U.S. for economic gain – in the midst of war and the widespread massacre of Christians. Other documents refer to the so-called Chester Concessions – pre-WWI commercial agreements that were being renegotiated at this time. By going through the U.S. State Dept. archives, I have found that our government not only had economic representatives on the scene, but as one would expect, intelligence officers connected to the military whose job was to report on and supplement information being sent to Washington through official diplomatic channels such as Consul Horton.

Admiral Bristol, the senior American diplomat in Constantinople, well-known for his pro-Turkish bias and distain for Greeks and Armenians, played a key role in the control and manipulation of all official information which reached Washington – and his friend and former secretary Alan Dulles worked with him to make certain that his views were prioritized from within the State Department. In this connection, it is also worth noting that both the State Department and the Harding administration had strong ties to the American oil industry, especially Standard Oil, a subject which needs further attention and investigation. In fact, the Standard Oil facility in the Smyrna harbor was not burned, and suffered no damage during the great fire. It was these economic interests that played a key role in why the U.S. government systematically worked to minimize and suppress any information it had concerning Turkish responsibility for the massacres, atrocities against innocent civilians, and their burning of the city.

Through my research in the American archives, I found four key documents that prove that the U.S. and British governments had confirmed that the Turks burned the city and covered it up. The first of these key documents is a wire dispatch dated September 14, the date of the outbreak of the great fire, that was sent to Admiral Bristol, by Lieutenant A.S. Merrill, his naval intelligence officer in Smyrna. Bristol sent a copy to the State Department in Washington the following day and this is where the original is still preserved. It is brief and very much to the point. The text reads:

“Constantinople: Dated September 15, 1922. Received 3pm

Sent to Secretary of State, Washington D.C.

Following from Smyrna: ‘Fourteenth. Am convinced Turks burned Smyrna except Turkish section conforming with definite plan to solve Christian minority problem by forcing allies evacuate Christian minorities. Believe they will now prepare for an attack on Constantinople Merrill.’”

The second of our key documents confirms that information concerning Turkish intentions, the loss of life, and the burning of the city reached the Secretary of State and was corroborated by other sources. The document is a telegram received and read by Hughes, the U.S. Secretary of State. The relevant sections are quoted below:
“Secstate U.S.S. Maryland No. 50 for Hughes

My/44, September/15, /3p.m.

Situation in Near East extremely acute, with possibility of complications which will involve Great Britain and Allies in war with Turkey….
……. Confidential reports received from our many officials at Smyrna, and British Foreign Office, indicate that Turks burned the city in conformity with definite plan to solve the Christian minority problem by forcing the evacuation of the minorities. The return of several hundred thousand Christians to their homes is apparently made impossible by the wholesale destruction of villages by retreating Greeks as well as by advancing Turks.

Reports indicate heavy loss of American property in Smyrna. Native Americans are all safe. No further details received regarding missing naturalized citizens…”

This important originally classified document proves that the U.S Secretary of State received information that was considered reliable shortly after the great fire which indicated that the Turks had deliberately destroyed the city as a matter of policy. Furthermore, it is stated that the reports were numerous and supported by British confidential documentation. It corroborates the earlier wire that Lieutenant A. S. Merrill, the American High Commissioner’s Intelligence Officer.

The Merrill wire quoted earlier is also supported by two entries in Lieutenant Merrill’s diary, which was later officially sent to Washington as part of a collection of first-hand accounts dispatched by Bristol on September 21, 1922: The entry for September 14 reads:

“All morning the glow and then the flames burning Smyrna could be seen. We arrived about an hour before dawn and the scene was indescribable. The entire city was ablaze and the harbor was light as day. Thousands of homeless refugees were surging back and forth on the blistering quay – panic striken [sic] to the point of insanity. The heartrending shrieks of women and children were painful to hear… We had two men ashore from the LAWRENCE acting as chauffeurs… I located the two sailors in their cars. Their stories were identical. They both stated that they had seen Turks spreading the fire. The Turks used rags soaked in oil, which they threw in windows as they ran down the narrow streets in the Armenian quarter…”
Merrill’s entry for September 16 reads:

“The Turks say the fire was set by the Armenians and that 22 of the guilty parties confessed. That the Turks only burned houses fighting the fire with fire. The French pretend to believe this. I am convinced in my own mind that the Turks burned the town. They burned it to force the Allies to evacuate the non-moslems [sic]. Their slogan is ‘Turkey for the Turks.’ They consider that all their troubles during the last 40 years can be attributed to the propaganda spread by Christian minorities and that the only solution is to remove these Minorities…”

The final and in some ways most important document is an undated unofficial and highly confidential British document that was sent to the State Department in early November 1922, or perhaps earlier, It is too lengthy and full of details to be quoted at length here. However, the cover page of this important secret ‘unofficial’ British document gives the gist of what it contains, and reads as follows:

“AIDE MEMOIRE

His Majesty’s Ambassador is instructed to communicate unofficially to the United States Government the accompanying copy of a preliminary report on the sacking of Smyrna from His Majesty’s High Commissioner at Constantinople.

It will be observed that the evidence contained therein all points to the conclusion that the European and native Christian quarters were systematically destroyed by the Turks as part of a deliberate policy.

If the United States Government are prepared to communicate in the same way any reports which may have reached them upon this subject, His Majesty’s Government will be glad to receive them.”
[U. State Dept. Index number 767.68/517] handwritten note says: “ackgd 11/16/22 mc.”

Now that we have reviewed the information that the American government had, let us briefly consider several official actions that illustrate that a U.S. cover up took place. The first is that the U.S. State Department sent to the British a report from Smyrna in response to the document they received mentioned earlier, that indicated that it was unclear who burned the city instead of any of the other information verifying that of the British, that we now know they had. The State Department chose to send a report by Vice-Consul Barnes that minimized Turkish culpability rather than anything by George Horton, his superior, or any of the other documents such as those by Merrill noted above. This suppression of the truth enabled the Turks to deny responsibility, which continues today.

We also know that the State Department officials lied to Congress. For example, when Henry Cabot Lodge, a prominent U.S. Senator with ties to the Greek-American community sent an official inquiry dated February 24, 1923, to the State Department as to what happened in Smyrna, and specifically asked what happened to the Consulate and who was responsible for the fire; the Secretary responded that:

“…As the Consulate building was destroyed in the general conflagration it was not possible to attribute the destruction of this particular building to the individual act of any person or persons. As far as the Department is informed the authors of the fires, apparently of incendiary origin, which brought on the Smyrna conflagration have never been apprehended, nor their identity discovered. On this point conflicting evidence has been received by the Department and the various antagonistic racial groups in Smyrna have each ascribed the origin of the fire to the other….”

Almost as a vague afterthought, the text concludes that since the Turks were in control of the city, they bear some responsibility but nothing specific.

What the State Department did not reveal, is that they had specific information concerning the burning of the Consulate which indicated that Turks poured petroleum in front of the American Consulate steps with no other possible purpose than to communicate the fire to that building. In fact they had American eyewitnesses, Clifton Davis, Chairman of the Disaster Relief Committee of the Red Cross, and others, who were standing in the door. Mr. Davis went out and put his hands in the mud thus created and it smelled like petroleum and gasoline mixed together. The soldiers seen by Mr. Davis and the others had started from the quay and were proceeding toward the fire. This information was reported by Horton and Davis. According to other official documents, Barnes, the American Vice-Consul also saw Turkish soldiers spreading petrol on the consulate – yet the State Department reported to the Senator that they did not know who was responsible!

There is also a lengthy and detailed document written by the Near East Division of the State Department which suppressed and distorted the information it had about the fire and massacres in order to minimize and counter the accusations made by Bierstadt in his famous book. We have Dulles’ handwritten notes, which indicate that information about massacres was not to be mentioned under any circumstances despite numerous American sources that refer to them. I have published almost the entire document in a detailed article which is also now available in Greek translation. In this document, the Near East Division recorded how it struggled to deal with the many accusations and facts concerning Turkish atrocities in Bierstadt’s book in order to minimize any Turkish responsibility.

Finally, there are two other documents which add to our knowledge of the extent of the American cover up of what was known which I have recently discovered and intend to publish on in the near future.

The first, I owe to my friend and colleague, Stavros Stavrides in Australia and contains the lengthy record of Hearings Before a Congressional Committee on Immigration and Naturalization which met in 1922 to consider a Bill to allow Greek and American refugees from Smyrna into the United States. In it, various individuals including U.S. Consul Horton provided sworn eyewitness testimony to these Congressional representatives concerning the fire, massacres and Turkish responsibility. It is my understanding that the refugee bill was not passed, but the Congressional record of the proceedings which included eyewitness accounts of Turkish atrocities was certainly known to the State Department and was clearly ignored.

The second document, comes from the State Department itself, dated April 22, 1929, that I found in the archives and remains unpublished. It is their response to an inquiry by one George Tsakiris of St. Louis, Missouri, concerning his father who he believes was being forcibly detained in Turkey. In it, the State Department notes that the American Consul in Smyrna has made inquiries with the Turkish authorities who deny any knowledge of any such person, as they had done with many other previous inquiries. The American Consul also contacted the Greek Consul in Smyrna concerning this matter, who indicated that they also have not been able to locate any of those similarly detained like Mr. Tsakiris’ father. However, when I compared the information in all the documents concerning Tsakiris, I noticed that the document from the U.S. Smyrna Consulate indicates that both Consuls believed that all the Greek prisoners taken to the interior were either repatriated, escaped or were dead – yet, in the State Department’s response to Mr. Tsakiris, the possibility that his father may be dead is omitted. Only the first two possibilities – repatriation or escape are mentioned. Apparently, as late as 1929, the State Department could still not admit to the possibility that the Turks had murdered any of their Greek prisoners. Stavros Stavrides has uncovered many other similar documents concerning the search for missing family members by Greek-Americans that date into the 1930’s. The subject of the enslavement and eventual murder of many of these unfortunate victims is another subject in need of ongoing research.

I now rest my case before the court of public opinion – and, as I have written, I call this U.S. government conspiracy of lies and deception: ‘Smyrnagate’. I believe that the documents I have presented above prove my case and I am certain that additional research will reveal many other aspects concerning the extent and motives behind this tragic example of official corruption and deceit. However, as I have already noted, many courageous individual Americans proved themselves better than their government, and their philanthropy and public pressure in 1922/3 saved thousands of victims, as I am certain others will discuss in this special issue on the centennial of the Great Catastrophe.

Dr. Gus Hatzidimitriou is a historian, Director of State & Federal Program Implementation NYC Dept. of Education, author of several articles and books on the Asia Minor Disaster, and editor of the American Journal of Contemporary Hellenic Issues published by the American Hellenic Institute.

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