As the political crisis in Cyprus escalated in 1964, Turkey’s National Security Council decided that it would invade the island and ordered preparatory actions. The United States immediately intervened and on June 5, 1964, president Lyndon B. Johnson sent a letter to Turkish premier Ismet Inonu to prevent the invasion. The tone of this particular letter, known since as the “Johnson letter,” stressed the consequences such an action could have for Turkey, and forced Ankara’s military and political leadership to abort the plan.
The most important US warning was that this war could trigger the Soviet Union’s intervention in Turkey and that NATO would be reluctant to defend the country in such a case. The military landing was aborted, but US-Turkish relations were damaged.
The US never since tried to tame Turkish adventurism with a similar move; not in the eventual invasion of Cyprus or the 1996 crisis in Imia. They intervened only after Turkey acted. It was obvious that the US leaders were not willing to play the same card again. Those events happened while Turkey was a loyal member of NATO and its autonomy did not threaten the alliance’s cohesion.
Today, relations between the US and Turkey are tense again. Can President Joe Biden act like Johnson did in 1964? Are well-measured statements from the State Department about peaceful resolution enough to tame Turkey? Are the terms laid out by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Menendez for the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey worth anything?
In the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, Turkey used US-made weapons, in violation of the relevant bilateral agreement. What was the result? A short-lived arms embargo, with 36% of Cyprus remaining under occupation. If Turkey eventually receives the upgraded F-16s, no US senator will be able to stop Ankara if it decides to use them against Greece. Let’s not kid ourselves: The only deterrent is our power.