Drain the Swamp: The Strange Case of US High Commissioner Mark Bristol

US High Commissioner Mark L. Bristol

After the United States entered WWI their diplomats were expelled from the Ottoman Empire. Normal diplomatic relations between the USA and the new Republic of Turkey (created in 1923) were not established until 1927. Therefore in the period 1919-27, the senior American diplomat in Turkey was a High Commissioner. That person was Rear Admiral Mark Lambert Bristol. It’s a strange case—at least to me. Although he did a lot to help Americans help the people in what was left of the Ottoman Empire (e.g., the Red Cross, and ABCFM), every time I read the words that came out of his mouth, I wonder how this man came to represent his country. The answer, of course, is that he was appointed.

He uses generalizations, avoids presenting any evidence to support his claims except making wild accusations, is clearly a racist, and is condescending to anyone opposed to his ideas, especially to women. Does it remind you of anyone in high office today?

To James Barton, head of the NER and ABCFM, March 28, 1921:

  • I am sure that the mass of people at home believe the Armenians are Christians in action and morals, and that they are able to govern themselves. You and I, and others that know them, know that this is not the case. We believe that they have been made what they are by the conditions they have been compelled to live under, and we want to get them out from under these conditions so they can become Christians and able to govern themselves.
  • I don’t want to appear as being critical at all and you know that. But I do realize that we are human beings and when we realize the suffering of the Armenians our sentiments make us respond to our human instinct, and especially our American ideas of fair play, so that we forget, and even desire to conceal, the failings of the Armenians in order to obtain their release from the oppression of the Turkish rule. It may be that I am wrong in my idea that the best way to obtain this is by stating fully just what the Armenians are and what they are capable of and then tackling the whole job of cleaning up this Near Eastern mess.
  • During the last two years the Armenians in Russian Caucasus have shown no ability to govern themselves and especially no ability to govern or handle other races under their power. During over two years that I have been here in Constantinople I have had occasion to see nearly everyone of our Americans that have gone to, or returned from, the Caucasus, and I think I am safe in stating that I have never had one of them that believed the Armenians had any ability to govern themselves, and most of these Americans that have been working with the Armenians have come away disgusted. I am not disgusted with the Armenians, and I pity them; but I cannot believe in the idea of the establishment of an independent Armenia in a country where not 25% of the people are Armenians.
  • In regard to loaning the Armenians money without Armenia being under a mandate I believe this is an unjustifiable waste of money. For two years we have expended money in relief work for the Armenians and we supplied them flour on a loan covering over 50 million dollars. What is there to show for all this vast expenditure? There is nothing to show except ingratitude, and when an emergency arose, one of the greatest friends Armenia ever had and the one that had been working and giving his best efforts for relief work amongst them, had to depend upon the Turks for his own personal protection. It is a well known fact that in the beginning of our relief work flour and provisions turned over to the Armenian Government for the starving were taken by the high officials of the Government and sold for their own benefit. Then finally Armenia turned Bolshevik and repudiated all her debts; and one of these debts was for the flour we had furnished on their word of honor to repay, because they certainly had no security to offer. It was a sentimental loan based on faith in a people, and they have gone back on us.
  • The Greeks keep contending they have got a majority of population in the parts of Asia Minor that they occupy. You know, and we all know this is not true. Those who know the Greeks out here know that they are not in any war representative of the ancient Greeks that we all admire. In fact, they are just the opposite.
  • The mass of the Turks are ruled by a few intriguing Turks that represent in Turkey, more nearly than anything else, the Manchus that were overthrown in China. These few Turks have a spattering of education and a moral character developed by intriguing and deceit. They have unlimited power which has debilitated their moral character so that they are not fit to administer any law.
  • In regard to the policy of the Near East Relief, I am sure that the workers in the field do not understand the instructions that there should not be any discrimination in matters of religion in applying relief. … I would suggest that it would be well if the workers in the field clearly understood that the relief work was to be carried on without any discrimination as regards race or religion. I know that they do not understand that now… There is no doubt whatever a policy was carried out of giving relief only to Armenians, except in cases like Miss Cushman and Miss Graffam and Miss Allen, and some others that I might mention who know the way to establish good will in the country and therefore assist the Turks. [I must jump in here… the truth is that a minority of relief workers, mainly in Constantinople where Bristol was located, showed favouritism. All my research in personal letters and official reports demonstrate that humanitarian aid was supplied equally to anyone in need, regardless of race or religion.]
  • I hope you adopt as a policy relief work for all orphans and destitute women, without any regard for sect or religion. I have just been to Beirut where they have started a relief work for orphans to extend over ten years, so as to bring these children up self-supporting and at the same time not to educate them beyond the position that they will be required to hold in their own country.

To Ruth F. Woodsmall, Secretary in Charge of YWCA, Constantinople, March 18, 1924:

  • If you will stop to consider, that these Christian races represent about 90% of the commerce and wealth producers of the country. There is no doubt that the Christian minorities were in general the financiers, merchants and artisans, but, at the same time, a careful study of the subject will convince you that they were the leeches of the country, taking everything possible out of the country and giving very little in return—in the same class of the Levantines doing business in Turkey. Just as a little piece of inside information, in addition to the above, you will remember as you look back now that it is a well established fact that business in this part of the world was done almost entirely through the method of baksheesh, that is, bribery and corruption. If the Levantines and the Christians were the business men they must have been the ones who practiced baksheesh. Still, there is no doubt that the Turks were not business men but were the soldiers and civil functionaries of the Government, and thus were the ones who accepted the baksheesh. Still further, the disappearance of the Christian races cannot mean a very large decrease in productivity and exports, because, if they were the business men and artisans they were not the producers of dried fruit, tobacco, mohair, wool, cotton, grain, etc.
  • As you know, Christian influence in this part of the world means nothing more than a political influence. I will not go on with further comments along this line. The thing is too big a subject and I believe you know my attitude in regard to it. I only wish to stir up your thoughts on the subject, believing that you, yourself, can work out, better than I could suggest for you, what should be your future policy and future outlook as regards the work of the Y.W.C.A. in Turkey. …  I regret, at this last moment, that you are now going away but it will probably be for the best for you to get away where you can think out the problem in a clear atmosphere.

Drain the Swamp

Bristol gave Barton his final words of wisdom: “The Near East is a cesspool that should be drained and cleaned out without any halfway measures. The idea of establishing an independent Armenia and placing the Greeks over a part of the territory is only creating what, with the new Turkey that would be established, three cesspools, instead of one.”

What a guy.

Bristol’s letter to Barton is posted at Assembly of Turkish American Associations; Bristol’s letter to Woodsmall is in A Short History of Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Activities in Turkey (pdf) by Rıfat N. Bali.

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