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TURKEY: Wild West of the Middle East

8 minute read

Since the birth of the Truman Doctrine, Turkey has been an American outpost. To the tough peasant republic, created 26 years ago by iron-willed, Western minded Kemal Ataturk, the U.S. has sent a steady flow of moral, military and economic help. Last week, from Istanbul on the strategic Dardanelles which Russia has long coveted, TIME Correspondent George Jones cabled:

Istanbul’s paved boulevards and narrow cobbled streets echo with the shrill tootle of otomobiller dodging rickety, horse-drawn carts and blind beggars. Smoke-blackened industrial towers, dubbed “Ataturk’s minarets,” jut skyward between the graceful spires of the Ottomans. The muezzin still calls the faithful to prayer, but in place of flowing robes, he wears a Western business suit. Near the waterfront, hollow-eyed children stare from the windows of tottering wooden tenements. In the dimly lighted bar of the sleek Park Hotel, Turkish intelligence agents mingle with American engineers and Balkan refugees, drinking the latest Yankee concoction of vodka and orange juice, called a “screwdriver.”

Istanbul is a symbol of Turkey in its dizzying mixture of progress and backwardness, its perpetual anxiety over war and its hope for a modern future. “This country,” says one Marshall Planner, “is the Wild West in the Middle East.”

State of Siege. One night, in a village restaurant between the Black Sea and Ankara, my dinner was interrupted by a group of grizzled oldsters drinking raki (grape brandy). One called across the smoky room: “When are you Americans going to stop the Russians?” No country in the West so deeply hates and fears the Russians. Turkey lives in a state of siege. Russian propagandists have been claiming Turkey’s eastern provinces for the Soviet motherland. Radio Sofia purrs the happy lot of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority; Radio Azerbaijan calls on all Kurds, including Turkey’s, to revolt.

Cement pillboxes dot the rolling plains of Thrace; piles of stone lie by the roadsides for emergency roadblocks. From the border of Bulgaria in the west to Ararat in the east, Turkish riflemen stand guard. Almost half a million men are in the armed forces—a staggering burden for a poor country of 19 million people. Defense takes 40% of Turkey’s budget.

Day & night Turkish police watch the massive, drafty Soviet embassy in Ankara and the consulate general in Istanbul. Russian cars are trailed relentlessly. (Sometimes four or five Russians will dash out, separate, pile into different automobiles before the one or two Turkish police can figure out which car to follow.) Counter-espionage is big business here. From the time any foreigner, from private citizen to ambassador, enters the country, his movements are known. A vast army of full-time and part-time informers keeps Turkish intelligence posted on who goes where, who meets whom, who said what. Turkey’s jittery police often resort to drastic measures. Occasionally an Istanbul newspaper notes briefly and enigmatically that the body of a Turk or an Eastern European has been fished up from the dark waters of the Bosporus. One local definition of such events: “Death from over-interrogation.”

The Turkish Communist party is an underground outlaw. Today Turkish Communists and their sympathizers probably number less than 5,000 persons.

Ya-Vashington. It would be nonsense to describe Turkey as a democracy, yet Ataturk’s successor, President Ismet Inb’nii, has guided his nation into a freer political climate than it has ever known before. In 1946 he ordered the republic’s first multi-party elections. Last week he held his first press conference. The most important opposition to the government’s Republican People’s Party (RPP) is the Democratic Party, led by onetime Premier Celal Bayar, an old rival of Inonii. There have been frequent suppressions of the press, but newspapers still scream against the government (one law prohibits “insults” to the President or Parliament, but under it only four offenders have been sentenced in the past three years).

Ismet Pasha works hard to be popular. At least 5,000,000 portraits of him, in formal evening attire, adorn Turkish parlors and offices. Occasionally the President drops into a coffee shop to feel the common pulse. Most Turks still prefer to talk about their late great dictator, whose spectacular personal rule has been replaced by Inonii’s bureaucracy, which rules by the collective and painfully slow decision of its thousands of ministers, secretaries, under secretaries and clerks. The consequences are best embodied in a popular Turkish word, yavas (take it easy). Exasperated Americans refer to Turkey’s capital, Ankara, as ya-vashington.

Turkey’s constitution flatly defines “Statism” as the republic’s guiding economic policy. The Turkish .government operates power plants, railroads, ports, communications, sugar, salt and tobacco manufactories, oil, steel & coal enterprises ; it dominates shipping and banking. The bureaucrats have grandiose dreams of industrialization and self-sufficiency. They built a huge steel mill at Karabuk for $23 million—equal to the national education budget for one year. They are blueprinting airplane factories and plush government offices. But Turkey cannot yet keep pace with their plans.

Market for Progress. Turkish coal mines dig only one-tenth as efficiently as American mines. Turkish farmers still have few steel plows. But everybody seems to want improvement. Perhaps the most important result of Turkey’s uneven march toward modernization is the creation of new demands—a great market for progress. Most Turks would understand the words of Celtik village’s oldest inhabitant, 92-year-old Hayriye Soydan. Stooped, wrinkled and deaf, she still wears the traditional western Anatolian peasant costume—flowered baggy trousers, dark blouse, a blue-and-white yasmak (handkerchief) around her head. Sitting cross-legged on a long sofa, she told her (and, in a sense, Turkey’s) story:

“My father, the late Hadji Mehmet, was the most important and feared man of the district. Galloping horsemen slowed down when they passed our house at dawn so as not to wake Hadji Mehmet. Roosters crowed in the name of Hadji Mehmet. But even he died. Nothing is forever. When I was a child, there were seven of us in the village who went to school to learn to read and write from the hoca. I was the richest of the seven, and all I had was my dress and a pair of red slippers. Today even I am not satisfied with one dress and one pair of slippers. There are now so many of us who want, oh, so many small and big things.”

No Pulley to the Outhouse. Americans here are doing their best to help Turkey get the things she wants. This week, in Ankara, an American combat veteran lectured Turkish officers on modern tactics. A Yankee roadbuilder walked among bronzed workmen as they pushed a road with bulldozer and shovel past marveling sheepherders on the eastern plains. An American oil-drilling team tapped the vast sandy reaches of Raman Dag near the Syrian border.

U.S. Ambassador George Wadsworth, a veteran of Middle East diplomacy, sticks to cultured language and flowery compliments which, many Turks feel, would be more appropriate for Bedouin sheikhs than a people who shun Pan-Arab politics and think of themselves as of the West. They prefer General Horace Logan McBride, head of the American Military Mission, who is as tough and realistic as a top sergeant looking over a fresh batch of recruits. American military aid has poured tanks, planes, radios, screwdrivers, bulldozers and shells into the Turkish army and air corps. At closely guarded maneuvers on the Thracian plains last month, six Turkish armored brigades got their first workout. Grunted McBride: “They’ve improved. Next year they’ll look better. There’s still a long way to go.” Just as earthy and realistic as McBride is handsome, greying Russell Dorr, chief of the ECAmericans here. When Turkish economists talk too ambitiously of mechanizing Turkish farms, ECA’s agricultural specialist reminds them: “You don’t need a pulley to get you to the outhouse. A Missouri farmer with a brace of mules is a modern farmer, too. You don’t have to mechanize to modernize.”

Dorr’s men are busy everywhere, teaching road-planning and maintenance, unscrambling Turkey’s complicated tax system. At the chrome mines in Guleman, an EGA mining expert wandered afield, noted another rich chrome deposit eleven miles away. Nothing had been done about it. “We can’t get it out,” said a Turkish official. “There’s no road.” At ECA’s insistence the government built a temporary road, and is now mining chrome at the new deposit. A top item on Dorr’s agenda: more free air for private enterprise.

Americans in Turkey are convinced that there are potentially enough resources in Turkey’s black soil—and in her sturdy people—to make life for ordinary Turks far better than the splendid existence of Hadji Mehmet ever was. But Turkey will need more knowledge and a safer peace; toward both goals, the road is hard.

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