Historical truths are often twisted or forgotten. The Asia Minor Catastrophe of the 1920s is a case in point. For decades Turkish leaders pursued a policy of “Turkey for the Turks,” mass murdering and expelling Christians, culminating in the burning of Smyrna in September 1922. When they were finished, they had “murdered, straightforwardly or indirectly, through privation and disease, between 1.5 and 2.5 million Christians” (the 30-Year Genocide). Adding to the horror of it, the world powers ignored the genocides and even covered for the Turks while it was going on.
Many truths about this horrible period have been forgotten, including the whole story of the dramatic rescue of the 300,000 refugees stranded on the docks of Smyrna. Recent films (“Paradise is Burning” and “The Unknown Savior”) and books (“Ships of Mercy” and “The Great Fire”) extol Asa Jennings’ role in rescuing the Smyrna refugees who were being raped, murdered and starved on Smyrna’s two-mile-long quay. Yet Jennings was well-recognized for his humanitarian work 100 years ago.
On July 8, 1923, he was greeted back in the United States with a New York Times headline announcing, “Man Who Rescued 300,000 Arrives!” So much attention was paid to Jennings that other important people and developments have been overlooked. Other heroes like Commander Halsey Powell and Captain Giannis Theofanides, who also were instrumental in the rescue, were ignored until recently. More importantly, it is forgotten that those heroes on the ground in Smyrna could do nothing until others at much higher levels acted first.
In mid-September, as the Smyrna fire died down and the refugees’ fate hung in the balance, Turkish, British, Greek and American leaders debated what to do and who would do it. Admiral Mark Bristol, the senior American representative in Turkey, was not sympathetic. He had been covering up Turkish atrocities with fake news and disinformation in hopes of winning Turkish approval for American access to oil. He also had been foot-dragging on relief for the refugees, not wanting to irritate the Turks.
When Kemal rejected Allied pleas for permission to evacuate the Smyrna refugees on September 18, the British protested his decision was “tantamount to condemnation of a quarter of a million people to death.” Seeing he had gone too far, Kemal relented and reversed his decision the next day. Bristol quickly changed his tune to match Kemal’s decision, notifying the Department of State that same day that he had decided to “direct our destroyers to assist in every way possible” with the evacuation.
Both Kemal and Bristol had conditions, however. Kemal would only allow women and children to depart. All adult male Ottoman Christians would still be sent on marches to the interior to die or serve as slave laborers until they died. Also, Kemal only gave the Allies little more than a week, until the end of the month, to facilitate his ethnic cleansing. After that, the women and children also would be herded to death in the interior. Bristol too had conditions. He told the Department of State that he would only allow his destroyers to assist evacuation if the department decided there would be no US aid for the refugees in Greece. Allen Dulles, Bristol’s friend running the Department’s Near East Division at the time, agreed. After protests from George Horton, the American consul general in Smyrna, the charge d’affaires in Athens, and others, Dulles had to reverse his decision and US assistance flooded into Greece.
Admiral Mark Bristol had been covering up Turkish atrocities with fake news and disinformation in hopes of winning Turkish approval for American access to oil
These actions cleared the way for Jennings and others to organize the boatlift to save the refugees. The first group of refugees left on an Italian steamer, the Constantinopoli, on September 21, two days after Kemal relented and Bristol followed suit. Three days later, Jennings began the large-scale evacuation, sailing into Smyrna’s harbor aboard the SS Ismini with 14 other Greek ships. After the Turks robbed refugees of all valuables, they were allowed to board the waiting vessels that ferried them to Greek islands. Soon the process was being repeated in other Asia Minor ports. Many hundreds of thousands of people reached sanctuary in Greece, the only country that would accept them.
That is, as they say, “the rest of the story!” It does not diminish the heroic efforts of Jennings and others, but it puts their efforts in context. It further illustrates the influence of key individuals back then when the bureaucracy was much smaller. Events could have unfolded much differently – for much better but also much worse – all depending on the efforts of a few key officials both in senior government positions and on the scene in Smyrna.
Ismini Lamb is the director of Modern Greek Studies Program at Georgetown University. Her biography of George Horton, “The Gentle American,” co-authored with Christopher Lamb, is available from Gorgias Press in hardback, and from Gorgias’ publishing partner, De Gruyter, in an e-book edition.