Guest Viewpoints

The Asia Minor Disaster in the American Press of the Time

All wars are eventually consigned to History, but the reality of war starts out as tragic daily life. The destruction of Smyrna was no exception. In the present day, audiovisual coverage of events offers significant opportunities for an immediate supply of information – as well as misinformation. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, news lived on paper and in ink. The newspapers of the time recorded the events, not only as history in the making, but as present anxiety.

In the United States, the Smyrna disaster found its place in a thriving journalistic culture, where major newspapers competed for sensationalism and validity. In New York, the Pulitzer family’s World, now in the wake of its more glorious days as a Yellow Press pioneer, still enjoyed considerable circulation as a shaper of public opinion, although other papers, such as the Evening Journal – in the same vain as the World – or the Times – in stark contrast to sensationalism – developed their own readership.

On the East Coast, the Boston Globe also provided news to a large readership, while on the West Coast newspapers such as the San Francisco Chronicle set the tone. Sometimes through special correspondents, but more often through news agencies, whose telegrams formed the basis of news coverage, the battle for Asia Minor was brought to the pages of the American press. And while newspapers’ references to Greece were more often about the expatriate community and the Greek customs as they emerged and subsided in the ebb and flow of the growing American multiculturalism’s tides, they gradually gave way to the news of the war. In the following paragraphs we will see how the final days of the Asia Minor catastrophe crossed the Atlantic.

The World’s September 8, 1922 edition is headlined ‘U.S. Marines To Guard Americans are Landed at Smyrna’, with the article stressing that the Turkish army was approaching, and the Greeks had declared they could not guarantee their safety. The Turkish advance and the decimation of the Greek forces was undisputed, while the newspaper warns of the famine and disease that await the region. The day’s estimates speak of 100,000 people facing the cruel fate of the refugee, while the resignation of the Greek government and the failure of diplomatic efforts frame the human drama. In Boston, the Globe presents at length the political developments in Greece, emphasizing, however, the arrival of the first hundreds of refugees in Piraeus, while calling the Greek defeat “appallingly decisive”, as “an army of 150,000 men, well organized and equipped, has been transformed in less than two weeks into a virtual band of refugees.”

The picture of the Greek forces as painted by the newspaper is heartbreaking, bringing together images of insubordination, lack of supplies, and the frightened refusal of reservists to engage in a battle that was already being lost.

On the same pages, cities to the east of Izmir are already seen battling flames, while an international fleet is gathering in the area. The New York Times also comments on the burning cities, adding, however, that the Turkish advance is “slow and cautious.”

The next day, the front page of The Times announced that the Greeks were surrendering Smyrna to the Allies, noting in their analysis from Paris that “the only thing for the Greeks to do is to make peace as quickly as possible on any terms that are imposed.” At the end, however, all commentary is framed by the newspaper’s analysis of Greek internal affairs, with the editor characteristically mentioning that “it is too early to predict the return of Venizelos, for today, as twenty-four centuries ago, there are apparently Greeks who would rather be ruined under a man of their own party than win under another.”

In other papers, the countdown to the final fall of Smyrna to Turkish hands has begun. And if that moment seemed to be 1-3 days away, estimates of the size of the refugee wave already spoke of half a million people. In the same breath, an Associated Press telegram reproduced in many newspapers accuses Turks, Armenians, and Greeks alike of destruction, murder, and looting.

On September 10, the American newspapers announced the surrender of Smyrna to the Turks. It is, however, Sunday, and the papers host the first extensive political analyzes of the disaster. Eugene Jared Young, an important journalist and analyst, writes in the Boston Globe about the international game taking place in Asia Minor, emphasizing that together with the Greeks, the British were defeated in their attempt to stop the French and Russian plans for the region. “As the Greek dreamed in fancied security, the Turk struck,” writes Young, explaining the collapse of the Greek army, and describing the consequent disturbance of all balance in the Mediterranean. In the New York Times, the coverage describes the initiative of Senator William King from Utah to deliver to President Harding of the United States a letter in which the removal of the Greek army from Asia Minor is described as “one of the greatest calamities of Christianity and civilization.” The letter, which was delivered to the American president by a committee that included three expatriates and Robert H. McNeil, president of the Society of American Friends of the Persecuted Christians of Asia Minor, characterized the Greek defeat as a “stigma in the history of Europe and America,” threatening the Christians of the region with total extermination. The paper also hosts a lengthy history of the war by T. Walter Williams, who describes Russian aid to Kemal, and includes excerpts from his earlier interview with Constantine. The sentiment of the residents of the area is described as pro-Turkish rather than pro-Hellenic, as, despite the efforts of the Greeks to upgrade the city and the public health of Smyrna, the port suffered financially due to the tariffs imposed. Williams cites evidence that the people would prefer the Turks, “with their bribery and slothful methods of doing business, to the efficiency introduced by the Greek officials.” The coverage is complemented by an article by Henry Morgenthau, the former American ambassador to Turkey, who emphasizes that “the immediate outcome of the Turkish threat will be greater massacres of Armenian, Greek, and Syrian Christians if the Turkish force is allowed to pursue as a conqueror unchecked. The Christian governments of Europe and America must help to rescue the survivors of these unhappy races.”

On Monday, September 11, the American newspapers carried the indisputable news. In the Globe and the Times, coverage centers on the Turkish celebrations, the anxious repatriation of the collapsed Greek army, and the political developments in Greece. The main topic is Kemal’s letter, sent to the Allies on the previous day via the Red Cross, and the reality it conceals. As the New York Times characteristically headlines, Kemal’s disavowal of Ankara’s responsibility for massacres which will be due to the “excited spirit of the Turkish population,” means these massacres are raging unchecked. The World reports on Turkish celebrations in Constantinople and its mosques, highlighting attacks by Turks against Christians in Pera, were shops and homes were looted before being set ablaze. Many policemen, trying in vain to defend the Christians, are said to have been murdered while the mob’s chants, as conveyed by the newspaper, seem clear: “Down with Greece – may all things Christian be wiped out !”

On September 12, the Boston Globe publishes the tragic first photo of Smyrna after the bombing. The newspaper analyses are dominated by Kemal’s triumphal entry and by concerns about Constantinople, where the allied fleet is assembled. At the same time, the Near East Relief committee and the diaspora are collecting money to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees. A New York Times op-ed under the headline ‘What to do with the Turks’ holds the allies accountable, as Turkish demands, emboldened by military triumph, reveal their true scope. “Europe”, notes the article, “is once more face to face with the Turk, who has been kept off for the past three years by the shock-absorbing Greek army. To be sure, he is not the Turk of old; if strong in spirit, he is weak in force. But Europe is weak too, weak and divided. The Turks want certain things and are willing to work for them much harder than any other European Power – except Greece, now beaten – will work to stop them.” The article’s final paragraph is shocking: “The responsibility of dealing with the Turks now lies on the three Powers whose dissensions and backstairs intrigue have brought the Turk back to the threshold of Europe. The Greeks were fighting for European civilization; the Turks were fighting for their own national life.” And after warning that, in this context, the looming diplomatic developments will favor the Turks, the author warns of an important detail: “The Western Powers do not pay their own losses. They leave that to the Christians of Anatolia. The Turks are making a great show of behaving well at Smyrna, where everybody can see them and the guns of British dreadnoughts command the town; but there is sufficient evidence as to their treatment of Greeks and Armenians when they are out of range of naval guns.”

Similar anxieties about the operational and diplomatic future of the war dominate the next day’s American press, which announces the Turks’ entry into Bursa, which the Greeks are accused of burning during their retreat, is reported. In the World, this same news coexists with a testimony that captures the absurd balances of any war, as an American reader describes his recent experience in a Greek cafe where, usually, those present are “a gay lot, who sing after they eat and joke merrily.” After an absence of two weeks, the reader visited it the day before, only to find it dreary and dark, with a newspaper on every table, which few were leafing through. “I asked Yanni, the proprietor, what was the matter. ‘Smyrna is captured by the Turks,’ he whispered with tears in his eyes. ‘Many of us had relatives there.’ I felt as if I was attending a funeral.”

Two days later, on September 15, the true horror of the Turkish frenzy hit the headlines. The World’s bold headline reads ‘2000 Die In Smyrna Massacre ‘, adding the subhead: ‘Wall Of Flame Two Miles Long Sweeps Over Smyrna; Traps Mob Of Refugees’. The articles reveal the anguish of many Americans in the city, while a large photo of Kemal introduces him as the “head of army which massacred thousands.” The Boston Globe, under similar headlines, describes the overnight massacres that came before, commenting that the fire was intended to cover up the atrocities of the Turks, and emphasizing the murder of Metropolitan Chrysostomos as well as the anti-Christian nature of the Turkish attack. Mourning for the missing Americans and fear for Kemal’s next plans run through the San Francisco Chronicle’s coverage, which cites testimonies that the fire was started by a Turkish official. The destruction of the American consulate and the consequences of Kemalist ambition are analyzed by the New York Times, while the World’s commentary summarizes the Western world’s panic, as it describes how “with flames and massacres – and this time with victory – the Turk again challenges the statecraft of Europe.”

On September 16, the Boston Globe features the burning ruins of Smyrna, its headline bringing the scale of the devastation to everyone’s attention, as the previous day’s estimates pale in comparison to the lamentation of more than 120,000 who lost their lives at the hands of the Kemalist army, which was “drunk with victory and fired with religious fanaticism.” News cables speak of Turkish soldiers firing their machine guns indiscriminately, while tens of thousands of women and children are missing under Turkish military rule. In an article titled ‘Turks will always be Turks’ the New York Times comments on the total disaster that belied the Turkish military’s previous rhetoric of restraint: “How the admirers of Nationalist Turkey will reconcile these events with their conviction that the Turks have turned over a new leaf we do not know. The sturdiest and most useful foreign sympathizers of Kemal, certain politicians and financiers in Paris, have never been troubled by any of these moral scruples.”

Among the most famous and influential commentary on the Smyrna disaster is that of a young journalist at the time, a WWI veteran paramedic, who had set out to cover the Asia Minor Disaster for the Toronto Star newspaper. The extremely talented journalist never made it to Smyrna, but he did face the consequences of the Greek defeat in Constantinople, and in Adrianople, where he came face to face with the retreating, impoverished Greek soldiers. As those soldiers passed before the great Ernest Hemingway, they inspired him to fill in the blanks of his personal journalistic experience with his deep knowledge of the unfathomable limits of human brutality as unleashed by war. Though partly fictional, the American Nobel laureate’s account of women’s screams echoing through Smyrna’s harbor, around corpses and holding dead babies, faces no difficulty in depicting reality. After all, sooner or later, all wars travel the same tragic and pointless course from human polemic to the poetic.


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