How great was Atatürk? The question came up examining Turkish attitudes to Churchill, which one might expect would be hostile. In 1914, Churchill’s Admiralty denied Turkey two battleships being built in Britain as World War I erupted. In 1915, Churchill pushed hard (though did not conceive of) the attacks on the Dardanelles and Gallipoli. (See also “comments” on this post from thoughtful Turks.)
One historian speculated that Churchill mirrored the courage and resourcefulness of Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). Another said there “might be a lingering impression that Churchill had helped save Turkey from the red menace by his resistance to Russian demands on the Dardanelles Straits—of course it was Harry Truman who did the heavy lifting there [through the Truman Doctrine]”
The Turks have abundant reasons to feel positive toward Churchill, aside from his personal courage, and his post-1945 resistance to Soviet designs on the Dardanelles (when he was out of office and powerless). Churchill’s liking for Turkey dated back to 1910, when he toured Anatolia—partly on a locomotive cow-catcher!—and “met many of the brave men who laid the foundations of modern Turkey” (as he wrote to Turkish President Ismet İnönü in 1943).
Churchill undertook several risky trips in World War II. His visit to İnönü was one of them. He went to Istanbul after Casablanca, in a period when he was away from home four weeks. Nor was the meeting entirely in vain, as he told Parliament in May 1944. Despite “an exaggerated attitude of caution,” İnönü intervened to halt chrome exports to Germany. This was more important then than it may seem now.
While understanding that he ruled by diktat, Churchill had profound admiration for Atatürk. He wrote in 1938: “The tears which men and women of all classes shed upon his bier were a fitting tribute to the life work of a man at once the hero, the champion, and the father of modern Turkey. During his long dictatorship a policy of admirable restraint and goodwill created, for the first time in history, most friendly relations with Greece.” (Churchill by Himself, 321).
Sir Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life (and his biographic volume IV in more detail) record Churchill’s performance in the 1922 Chanak crisis. This added to his Turkish credits. Churchill persistently argued, in telegrams, letters and Cabinet meetings, for a firm stance by Britain and the Dominions. But he restrained a bellicose, pro-Greece Lloyd George from acting rashly when the Turks marched near British-occupied Chanak. Eventually there was a negotiated settlement. With that, the Conservatives bolted the Lloyd George Coalition. This cost Lloyd George his premiership and Churchill his seat in Parliament. Martin Gilbert concludes (Churchill: A Life, 454):
Churchill saw the Chanak crisis as a successful example of how to halt aggression, and then embark on successful negotiations, by remaining firm. But “Chanak” had become the pretext not only for the fall of the Government but for one more, unjustified, charge of his own impetuosity.
Gilbert’s Churchill: A Photographic Portrait records WSC’s 1943 letter above, which he handed İnönü when they met. After remembering “the brave men,” Churchill explained:
There is a long story of the friendly relations between Great Britain and Turkey. Across it is a terrible slash of the last war, when German intrigues and British and Turkish mistakes led to our being on opposite sides. We fought as brave and honourable opponents. But those days are done, and we and our American Allies are prepared to make vigorous exertions in order that we shall all be together…to move forward into a world arrangement in which peaceful peoples will have a right to be let alone and in which all peoples will have a chance to help one another.
Not bad for the hoary old imperialist. This represents rather an improvement on some more recent western overtures to Turkey. I suspect many Turks still feel pretty good about Churchill. The Adana, Turkey siding where the İnönü meeting occurred has been turned into a park dedicated to peace.