Istanbul Intrigues » Chapter 8-The Americans Arrive-1942-1943
8 The Americans Arrive:
You can’t carry two watermelons under one arm.
While hostile armies paused at its borders, the icy cold winter of 1941-1942 invaded and overran Turkey. People froze to death in Ankara, where the temperature sank to below zero. By January 4, after a week of snowfall, the country was paralyzed. Hoarding and the transport system’s collapse forced a steady reduction of bread rations. Fuel shortages meant that buildings were heated only two or three times a week and hot water was supplied only a few hours a day.
But such hardships were mild compared with what was happening in the neighboring countries engulfed by war or German occupation. The more Americans found out about these events, the more they felt themselves committed to the anti-Nazi cause. As President Roosevelt had said of the Nazis, “No one can tame a tiger or turn it into a charming kitten.”
An American military attaché in Istanbul obtained copies of a German soldier’s photos showing Romanian Jews being deported to concentration camps. Locked into boxcars without food or water for five or six days, he reported, they died during the journey. The bodies were thrown into quicklime, and the clothing was sold so there would be no evidence.
A few days later, the same American was at a dinner party at which von Papen was also present. The German ambassador made a dramatic toast. “As you know, Germany always stands for peace,” he said, with his wine glass raised high. Turning to the American officer, von Papen added, “I hope America will take notice.” The annoyed American looked away. “The ambassador is trying to catch your eye,” said the officer’s neighbor. He pretended not to hear. “The lightning has now struck on every side of Turkey,” an American diplomat wrote in December 1941. “I hope it will not be our turn next!” The next day, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. America was now in the war for keeps.
Still, the shivering American and British residents of still-neutral Istanbul had some consolations to accompany their New Year’s toasts for 1942. Their countries were now allies in the war. After so many retreats–in France, North Africa, the Balkans, and Greece–Britain was returning to the offensive. Its intelligence forces were preparing the return to Nazi-occupied Europe. German armies deep inside Russia were suffering far more from a winter whose intensity had stopped their advance.
Hitler had originally intended to invade the U.S.S.R. in the early spring of 1941, but the campaign into Yugoslavia and Greece had delayed his attack on the Soviet Union until late June. The Germans had been unable to destroy Russian resistance before “General Winter” came to the Soviets’ aid. Berlin’s whole timetable was upset. Instead of preparing for the expected attack on Turkey after the snows ebbed in 1942, every available German soldier was now needed on the Russian front.
The German attack, however, made Stalin eager to have Turkey in the war to draw away German troops and open new supply routes for the U.S.S.R. He secretly ordered the killing of von Papen in February 1942 to provoke a German-Turkish conflict. But von Papen survived, the murder attempt, and the Turks discovered Moscow’s game. Now the Turks were even more angry and suspicious toward the U.S.S.R. Preoccupied with the invasion of the Soviet Union, and worried that Turkey might cooperate with his enemies, Hitler made a historic decision: he would not invade Turkey and would do everything possible to keep it neutral.
Over dinner in Berlin on March 31, 1942, Hitler commented, “On
the political and sentimental level, there’s no obstacle to an alliance between Turkey and the Reich.” He was ready to guarantee the Bosporus strait’s neutrality to prevent it from being used for supplying the Soviets. Pro-German Turks were invited for a tour through Hitler’s domain. “Everywhere we went,” one of them wrote, “we were greeted with feelings of affection mixed with respect and admiration, which Germans all feel for the Turkish nation.” The delegation visited Hitler’s Berchtesgaden lair, Vienna, the Ukraine, and newly captured Sevastapol on the Black Sea to inspect the German “army which has won victory on top of victory for three years.” The Germans promised Turkey military equipment to compete with the U.S.-supplied, British-distributed lend-lease supplies.
With this relaxation of tension, Ïnönü spent the spring and summer enjoying horse races at Ankara’s Hippodrome. In June 1942, after a year’s stalling, Ankara felt secure enough to reopen the railroad bridges connecting Turkey with German-occupied Greece and Bulgaria. As Stalingrad desperately fought the besieging German Sixth Army, Istanbul expanded Taksim Park. “The reason Turkey is wrapped in peace and quiet and is far from disasters,” exulted Istanbul’s mayor, “is that our leaders who know how to make war also know how to guard peace!” A Turkish diplomat explained: “Few people realize how very difficult Turkey’s position is and how dangerous a game she has been playing….Turkey has rendered her greatest service to the Allied cause by retaining her precarious neutrality.” The weather took more of a toll than the war. January’s snows were followed by a heat wave in June, heavy rains in October, severe storms in November, and an earthquake in December.
The only way the Allies could profit from Turkey’s neutrality was to use the country as a secret base for gathering intelligence and supporting European resistance movements. These missions had to be accomplished, however, in a way that would avoid any provocation which might make the Germans attack or the Turks expel the Allies.
The British had led the way; their new ally, the United States, would now mount its own espionage effort. The Office of Strategic Services (OSS) had just been organized as America’s intelligence agency. The man named to lead it, William Donovan, had learned from his earlier travels through the Balkans, Turkey, and the Middle East that the
Germans were waging a new kind of war in which covert operations and propaganda played a central role. He also came to understand that the Balkans could be the Axis’s soft underbelly. Starting virtually from scratch, Donovan created an impressive, if amateur, group of espionage operators, analysts, and guerrilla fighters.
The OSS plan for the Turkey operation, “Project NET -1,” argued: “Turkey offers a base of penetration into the entire enemy-occupied Southeastern Europe. From Istanbul run the only land routes into that territory, and from Izmir small boats can be operated into the Dodecanese and Aegean Islands and to the Greek mainland.” The base would recruit, infiltrate, and aid “agents and groups into these territories for the purpose of organizing subversive activities of all kinds.” The first step in laying a foundation for OSS operations in Turkey was taken on January 9, 1942, when a little round woman named Betty Carp boarded the Taurus Express at Istanbul’s Haydarpasha Station. She had been invited to Washington by her old friend Allen Dulles to work for the OSS.
Carp was unquestionably the most popular person in Istanbul’s foreign community. She was born there of Austro-Hungarian parents in 1898 and, at the age of 16, went to work for the U.S. embassy as a switchboard operator. Carp started accumulating hundreds of friends among shopkeepers, policemen, officials, and diplomats from a dozen countries. She found out everything the consulate needed to know, cut red tape, and accomplished tasks with almost magical speed in a society notorious for its inefficiency. As her diplomatic friends moved to new posts, Carp developed a worldwide network of acquaintances with whom she kept in touch and from whom she raised funds for charity.
Carp became so indispensable that, although officially only a reception clerk, she was given far higher responsibility. The U.S. ambassador’s letter of recommendation notes the love and respect inspired by Carp’s “quickness and sensitivity of perception and her amazing resourcefulness in finding practical solutions to almost any kind of a difficulty that presents itself.” Carp helped everyone in Istanbul as “adviser on local customs, [philanthropist], employment agency, and spiritual adviser.” She was, in short, “a remarkable personality–with a deep understanding and tolerance and love for her fellow humans of all degrees, and as nearly selfless as any man or woman I have ever
known, in her complete freedom from striving for her own interests and from malice or jealousy towards others.” With her usual combination of humility and practicality, Carp told her boss, “How can I personally hand such a letter to any man?” She paused, then added, “I think I will mail it to him.”
Allen Dulles had been a State Department officer in Istanbul, and he became an early member of Carp’s fan club. As one of the OSS’s chief organizers, he urged that Carp be hired to help launch operations in the Balkans and Turkey. He explained: She “was for over twenty years in a highly confidential and important position in the American Embassy in Turkey….I have known her personally since 1920 and can absolutely vouch for her. In addition to an extraordinary knowledge of the Near East and all its personalities, she speaks and writes fluently English, French, Italian, German, Greek, and Turkish.”
Carp’s cover story for going to Washington was that she worked for Dulles’s law firm. When a State Department official teasingly asked what kind of law she would be practicing, Carp jokingly replied she would specialize in divorce cases and was willing to start with his.
Carp’s voyage to America was an ordeal. From frigid Istanbul, she went through Beirut, Jerusalem, Cairo, and Khartoum. She spent three torrid days at a remote colonial outpost when engine trouble forced her plane down in central Africa. At last, Carp arrived in unbearably humid Nigeria. Rommel was on the offensive. “Wouldn’t it be dreadful,” a British officer asked her, “if we found Rommel sitting in Shepheard’s Bar in Cairo one of these days?”
On February 12 another plane took her to Gambia, where she ran into Laurence Steinhardt, the new U.S. ambassador to Turkey, who was heading the opposite way. He had had a near escape the previous day when British antiaircraft guns fired at his plane after it failed to give the proper landing signal. He was lucky to have survived. A few hours earlier, three Vichy planes had been shot down in the airfield’s vicinity.
Carp then flew via Trinidad and Bermuda to Baltimore through forty-eight hours of storms. The whole trip took over five weeks. Nevertheless, Betty immediately went to work in Washington. She wrote memo after memo on every aspect of Turkey; on American teachers, missionaries, oil and tobacco men, and journalists whom the OSS might recruit; and on Axis agents to watch. She particularly recommended
Archibald Walker, director of Socony Oil operations in Turkey, as a good prospect for the OSS. The 59-year-old Walker had served the company for thirty-five years all over the Balkans. The slim, sandy-haired executive had a ruddy complexion that showed his excitable personality. “Very erratic,” Carp wrote, “very capable, very brilliant, but carries his one-track mind and independence of thought and action to the extreme.” Anyone who visited the German embassy was barred from his house; he even dropped friends for listening to German music. To be denied Walker’s hospitality was a real punishment, since he was among Istanbul’s most popular hosts and owned one of its most beautiful homes.
Precise, elegant, and gracious, Walker was both tough and sentimental. “No sooner is some country invaded than he rushes up to [its ambassador] and offers him his home, his car, his purse.” Walker was approached by the OSS and he agreed to begin gathering intelligence in Istanbul. Carp selected two young American tobacco buyers as Walker’s first agents; they were to keep an eye on Axis ships traveling into Istanbul and along the Bosporus.
The OSS was also looking for Greeks or Greek-Americans who might be infiltrated back into that country. This search took Carp to some unexpected places. On a Friday evening in March 1942, she entered a dirty Greek restaurant in New York’s tough waterfront section. Signs on the walls urged the leftist clientele to “Give to Russia.” All the other patrons were Greek workers or merchant sailors who told Carp about their dangerous voyages carrying supplies to England through submarine-infested waters. Sitting at a corner table, Carp ordered dinner in perfect Greek, impressing everyone with her fluency. She was such a hit that everyone invited her to come the next evening for a Russian war relief rally set for 8 p.m.
The next night she arrived on time only to be told, amid much laughter, that Greeks always started everything late and nothing would happen until 10. “But, of course,” her hosts explained, “if we had told people to come at 10, no one would arrive until midnight!” Finally, the restaurant was filled with 300 people in their Sunday best. They drank beer, ate Greek food, and toasted the health of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. Men unknown to the clientele were warned off. “This is an international place,” growled the guard; “everyone can come in, even fascists can walk in, but fascists never walk out again.”
The first speaker talked at great length, urged unity, begged everyone to think of General MacArthur and of the wonderful Red Army and to fight until America won the war. His patriotic speech then shifted tone. If the Red Army fights so bravely because its soldiers are Communists, he said, he was proud to call himself one. “Greeks! The tragic fate of your country is due to England alone! England let you down, she did not help you, she is responsible!” The Turks, too, he added, were not to be trusted. A man at Carp’s table stood up to say it was impolite to attack the Turks since a distinguished guest from Istanbul, Carp, was present. Another Greek yelled at her, “We want to know: Is Turkey biding her time or is she going to work with the Axis? New Turks–old Turks–they are all the same.” At such gatherings, however, Carp began to recruit Greeks for the OSS, and some of these people would find themselves operating from Turkey a few months later.
In addition to working with the Greeks, Carp’s job involved meeting Soviet officials visiting the United States and writing accounts of Moscow’s views. One of her key contacts was an old Istanbul friend who was now secretary to the Soviet ambassador in Washington. As early as March 1943, Carp noted that the Soviets intended to establish “a protective ring of friendly neighboring states” on their borders after the war.
Impressed by Carp’s skill, Dulles wanted her to join him in Switzerland at the end of the war, but she decided to return to her old job in Istanbul. William Donovan, chief of the OSS, personally sponsored her application for U.S. citizenship. In August 1953, a State Department bureaucrat decided to fire Carp as part of a payroll cutback. Allen Dulles, at that time the CIA’s director, stormed into a meeting on the matter, pounded on the table, and stated in no uncertain terms that firing Betty Carp would be a “national disgrace” and would seriously impair U.S. security. She was quickly reinstated.
Assembling an intelligence service required a variety of skills and personalities. Betty Carp, the well-connected observer, analyzed political developments and found people to recruit. Archibald Walker was an energetic man of action who excelled at initiating projects. But the OSS’s weakness, as events in Istanbul would show, was that it lacked experienced intelligence operatives.
This period not only marked the birth of U.S. intelligence but also I was a turning point in the style and scope of U.S. diplomacy. The old-school methods of polished gentlemen, elegant conversation, and a
narrow focus on high statecraft no longer sufficed in a topsy-turvy world. American representatives abroad now also had to deal with a new set of issues: economic competition, espionage, propaganda, intelligence gathering, and public relations. U.S. responsibilities required a broader, more active foreign policy. New types and larger numbers of people were needed to carry out these activities.
In 1939, the U.S. Ankara embassy and Istanbul consulate housed only an ambassador, three diplomats, and a couple of military attachés. Two years later, there were eleven diplomats, twenty-one clerks, a large military detachment, and representatives of many new agencies created to deal with wartime exigencies. The Office of War Information (OWI) rented a large building on Istiklal Boulevard and employed twenty Americans and a hundred local people. One of its main projects was a news service for the Turkish press. The Foreign Economic Administration, Board of Economic Warfare, and U.S. Commercial Corporation decided which local companies to embargo for trading with the enemy and supplied U.S. goods to maintain Turkish morale and loyalty. They also bought up chrome, acorns (used for tanning hides), wool, hazelnuts, and even chests of opium for medicinal use to keep these goods out of German hands. Most of these products were stored in warehouses during the war and sold at discounts thereafter. But one could never tell what might turn out to be important for the German war effort. The Allies later discovered, for example, that Germany used high-quality Turkish cotton to make counterfeit British banknotes for paying its espionage agents in Turkey and elsewhere.
The Lend-Lease office provided military aid to meet the Turks’ demand for defensive equipment, though much of it rusted on Turkish army bases. A Soviet diplomat complained, “The Americans are giving you Turks lots of weapons.”
“But the Americans are giving you a lot more,” answered a Turkish official.
“Yes,” responded the Russian, “but we use them.”
The State Department was hard-pressed to maintain its supremacy over these new wartime agencies and to adjust to the changing demands of diplomacy. Laurence Steinhardt, who came to Ankara as U.S. ambassador in early 1942, was an appropriate symbol and manager for this new era of change. He was a clever lawyer–active, energetic, analytical,
sometimes abrasive–who would never accept the old-school diplomatic maxim warning against excessive zeal. He was truly American in his brisk self-assurance, jocular manner, and matter-of-fact problem-solving approach. Steinhardt’s appearance–tall, handsome, graceful, and distinguished looking–made him look like an American ambassador from central casting. The Turks liked his directness.
At first, British ambassador Knatchbull-Hugessen thought Steinhardt too vigorous and cocksure, “inclined to take the line that he can get things done where no one else can…. He loses sight of everything else… blurred by the bright vision of his own personality.” As a New Deal Democrat, Steinhardt also spoke the new language of liberalism, sometimes criticizing Britain’s imperial attitude. As a representative of America’s new international activism, he voiced a buoyant, sometimes arrogant, self-confidence. “We won the last war for you by throwing our money and our soldiers into the struggle,” he told British guests at a dinner party.” We are going to win this war for you but with a difference.” The United States and the U.S.S.R. were going to be the world’s principal powers; Europeans must face up to “how important a part America is going to play in your lives.”
The new American ambassador had another attribute for which he was disliked by some British and State Department officials: he was Jewish. As an activist in Democratic politics, Steinhardt had been a strong Roosevelt supporter and the president successively made him U.S. minister to Sweden and then to Peru. Before these appointments, only three Jews had served as U.S. ambassadors, all to Turkey during Ottoman times.
When Steinhardt became ambassador to the U.S.S.R. in 1939, Nazi newspapers and American anti-Semites attacked him. He was in Moscow when World War II began with the German invasion of Poland. Thousands of Jews and Poles fled eastward into lands occupied by the Soviet army. Polish-American and American Jewish organizations bombarded the State Department with letters asking that the refugees be helped to reach safety in the United States. The State Department and Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long, who oversaw visa and immigration affairs, were most unsympathetic. Long saw himself as a protective shield against waves of uncouth, subversive immigrants, and he ensured that legal restrictions were observed to the last punctuation
mark. Those who had barely escaped the Germans with their lives were required to furnish detailed documentary proof of their background, citizenship, education, and professional credentials.
The only way to aid a significant number of refugees, Jewish leaders realized, was by going directly to the White House. Roosevelt issued a special order reducing the power of legalistic U.S. consuls to deny visas and easing requirements for refugees designated as “well-known intellectuals or labor leaders.” Long was determined to reverse this decision, arguing that the refugees might be Russian or German agents.
Tragically, Steinhardt supplied the ammunition Long needed. Steinhardt’s background made him both sympathetic toward these refugees and worried about admitting them to the United States. Members of the wealthy New York German-Jewish elite to which Steinhardt belonged passionately wanted to be accepted by the upper-crust society that often sought to exclude them. Their own out-group status made them sensitive toward social justice, but the group’s desire to imitate a snobbish social elite made its members nervous about anything that might cast aspersions on or threaten their own status. Some of them feared that the large-scale immigration of poor eastern European Jews could increase anti-Semitism. These attitudes shaped Steinhardt’s insecurities.
Writing from Moscow, Steinhardt stressed the need for caution in admitting refugees. The vast majority of them, he said, did not qualify even for visitors’ visas or for the president’s special program. “Thus far,” he claimed, “not a single well-known intellectual or labor leader has made an appearance at the Embassy unless a high school geography teacher is to be regarded as a well-known intellectual and anyone performing manual labor is to be regarded as a labor leader.”
Many of the refugees, he continued, had been politically active in the Zionist Labor party, the Jewish Socialist Bund, and the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Incredibly, he warned that these people were “professional political agitators…who might well transplant their entire political organization to the United States.” The pro-refugee organizations, Steinhardt concluded, “are obviously more interested in finding a haven for these unfortunates than they are in safeguarding the welfare of the United States in the most critical period of its history. I still regard admission to the United States as a privilege, not a right.”
Long rushed the telegram to Roosevelt, who agreed to tighten regulations. Steinhardt’s arguments were ridiculous. The Zionist and Bundist officials were anti-Nazi and anti-Communist. Their organizations had long-established American branches and posed no possible threat to U.S. security. Most of the refugees who were refused a safe haven in the United States were later killed when they fell into German hands.
In similar circumstances, a Japanese consul in Lithuania, Sempo Sugihara, was saving 4000 Jews by giving them visas. When France fell a year later, Portugal’s consul in Bordeaux, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, rescued several thousand more by the same method. No British or American diplomat followed their example.
When Steinhardt briefly returned to America before taking up his new post in Turkey, Zionist and other Jewish groups urged him to do more to help refugees. Steinhardt told the Zionist leader Emanuel Neumann that he was still very sympathetic but that he had to protect his own position as a diplomat.
Steinhardt found himself in another potentially hostile situation in Turkey. Turkish leaders had mixed feelings about the appointment of a Jew as U.S. ambassador. Atatürk had asked Roosevelt in 1933 not to make a practice of doing so. When informed of Steinhardt’s appointment in 1942, the Turkish foreign minister commented that this was “very sad news.”
The Turkish government admitted Jewish refugees only when it was sure they would quickly pass through to Palestine. The story of the ship Struma personifies the cowardice, prejudice, and bureaucratic meanness of so many nations whose actions complemented or even collaborated with Nazi genocide against Europe’s Jews.
Desperate to escape from occupied Romania, 769 Jewish refugees–including 300 children and 200 women–crowded aboard the little Struma, an aged ship whose usual capacity was 100 passengers. Just before its departure on December 12, 1941, Romanian officials came on board and seized the passengers’ money, jewels, some supplies, and even copper cooking pots. Three hours after leaving, the ship’s engine broke down. A tugboat came in response to the Struma’s SOS, but the Romanians demanded that repairs be made on the spot rather than bringing the Struma back to harbor. The tug escorted the Struma to the Romanian territorial limit to ensure that the ship did not return or
tarry. The engines failed several times more until the Struma was towed by a Turkish tugboat into Istanbul on the night of December 16.
The rusting, overcrowded hulk–decks crowded with exhausted, frightened people–was moored opposite the busy Tophane ferry landing. The Turkish police, fearing the passengers might try to remain in the country, insisted they stay on board. The captain was allowed ashore only to arrange for repairs. When Turkish officials demanded that all bills be paid in hard currency, Walker, the Istanbul representative of an American company, stepped in and provided the necessary dollars.
The passengers wanted to go to Palestine. But since the British government refused to grant them visas, the Turks would not allow them to land or to continue their journey safely by train. Forced out of Istanbul harbor, overcrowded and unseaworthy, the Struma drifted off course. After further wanderings and sufferings–and despite the fact that it flew a neutral flag–it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. There were no survivors.
The institutional battles for control of U.S. foreign policy, State Department anti-Semitism, Steinhardt’s personal situation, and the Turkish attitude toward minorities all came together in one issue. In June 1943, George V. Allen, director of the State Department’s Division of Middle East Affairs, wrote Steinhardt a “personal and confidential” letter on a “matter of considerable delicacy.” Allen continued, “My remarks result from the sincerest desire not only to perform my job as best I can but equally from the warm friendship which I feel for you and your interests.” The implication that Steinhardt’s career depended on his heeding Allen’s demands would loom throughout their correspondence in an unsettling manner.
Allen thought there were too many “American officials of the Jewish race” in Turkey. German propaganda, he warned, was trying to inflame Arabs and Moslems with the threat that “the United States intends to turn over all of the Near East to the Jews after the war.” Berlin sought to exploit the fact that three U.S. agencies in Turkey–the embassy, Lend-Lease, and OWI–were headed by Jews.
Allen said he considered Steinhardt to be a successful ambassador and “loyal American through and through.” Although the State Department was “most loath to raise the question of a person’s race or religion in considering him for an appointment abroad,” Allen wanted
to ensure that no more Jews would be sent to Turkey and that some of those there would be transferred. Unless pending appointments were headed off, “irreparable harm may be done not only to you personally but to broad American interests.”
Responding to Allen’s urgings, Steinhardt wrote Secretary of State Cordell Hull that Turkish leaders “do not harbor any anti-Semitic feelings” but might blame him for the presence of more Jewish officials, thus weakening his influence and damaging U.S.-Turkish relations. His argument is not persuasive, however, since no one claimed that the Turks had pressed the matter, no untoward incident ever took place, and Steinhardt admitted that all the Jewish officials had good relations with the Turks. Objections might have just as easily been raised against American Christian officials in Turkey, several of whom were former missionaries with strong ties to the Greek and Armenian communities. Steinhardt’s real animus was aimed at the directors of the OWI in Turkey, Robert Parker and his deputy Hal Lehrman. Steinhardt’s remarks on Lehrman read like the old German-Jewish elite’s classic prejudice toward new immigrants. “As you know,” Steinhardt wrote Allen, “a single individual can frequently draw attention to a situation of this kind by his conduct just as the diners in a restaurant are made conscious of the presence of a Jew by his loud or rowdy conduct or bad manners, whereas prior to his entry there may have been a dozen well-behaved Jews…of whose identity…the other diners were not conscious.”
The ambassador’s antagonism also reflected the local skirmishes in the State Department’s bureaucratic battles with the OWI and other wartime agencies. Steinhardt was angered by OWI-Istanbul’s size and independent behavior; the personalities and mission of the OWI officials inclined them toward a higher profile than Steinhardt liked. Their job was to affect Turkish public opinion and to gather information using newspapers and radio broadcasts from the German-occupied lands. Parker, the head of the OWI in Turkey, was a veteran foreign correspondent whose years of circumventing officials and outsmarting censorship in the Balkans made him view embassy methods as too stuffy and slow. The colorful, audacious foreign correspondent and the cautious, disciplined diplomat were almost inevitably rivals.
Since the Germans distributed news stories and periodicals, Parker was determined that the OWI would provide more and better ones,
including prized copies of Life and Vogue. The magazines, explained an OWI report, were “like gold. We keep them in the old bank vaults in the office basement under lock and key, use them sparingly for bribery, giving them to politicians’ wives and well-known dressmakers.”
Despite his animosity to the OWI, even Steinhardt became involved in cultural battles. When a famous German pianist came to Ankara to play with the national symphony orchestra, the United States countered with a soprano, unfortunately one with no known reputation. Steinhardt scheduled a reception before her recital. The woman refused to come, complaining cigarette smoke might affect her voice. Steinhardt scolded her, “What do you mean? This is war!”
The OWI did better with art forms that were American specialties. It leased a theater in Istanbul to show war-oriented Hollywood films and newsreels. The promoters had to be careful, since showing propaganda pictures to Turkish citizens was illegal and foreign propaganda was supposedly barred from Turkey. But the Turks were desperate to see the movies. A customs official let OWI material pass without opening a box. “We’re glad to help the Americans,” he explained, “but I would like to bring my wife and daughter to your cinema.” Free passage of OWI pamphlets was exchanged for three season tickets. A night watchman threatened to arrest an OWI man unless he got a ticket.
The psychological impact on audiences was tremendous. After seeing Edge of Darkness, a film about resistance in Norway which OWI impresarios worried might be too melodramatic, a Norwegian refugee came up, eyes red from weeping, and asked, “Have my people really suffered so much?” Pulling herself together, she added proudly, “You see what we Norwegians are!” A Greek gentleman, throwing his arms about in fine Homeric gestures, said, “This might have happened in Greece, too. You must show this picture many times so that people in Turkey will really understand what is happening.”
But these successes took place amid the OWI’s own disorganization, infighting, and tendency to ignore embassy directives. “It’s a madhouse,” one Turkish employee commented. An OWI official wrote home, “The chronicle of the past few months is a very sad one, full of betrayals, politics, jealousies and skulking in dark corners.”
On Thanksgiving day 1942, Parker returned from the American community’s picnic to pick up his mail. The embassy mailroom was
locked, so Parker took the simple expedient of kicking in the door. This was the last straw for Steinhardt. He spent the next several months making sure Parker was recalled and barred from returning to Turkey in any capacity.
Remembering the earlier strictures on the number of Jews working for the U.S. embassy, Steinhardt complained that the OWI office was packed with minorities, including a “large number of Levantine Jews.” The OWI payroll, however, contained relatively few Jewish names compared to the number of Greek, Armenian, and Slavic ones. There were sound reasons for employing people from all these groups. Since the OWI’s job was to survey Balkan developments and translate materials, it needed people proficient in not only English but also such languages as Turkish, Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Romanian. Jewish refugees from the occupied countries were fluent in these languages and had an up-to-date knowledge of conditions in those areas. Jewish journalists purged from the official Turkish press agency for suspected Allied sympathies could find work only with the OWI.
There were several other conflicts between Steinhardt and the colorful OWI staff, including the controversy over George Littmann, a wealthy Romanian who had owned his country’s most fashionable resort. Littmann lived in a luxurious Park Hotel suite, wore a monocle, and always appeared with a beautiful woman on his arm. A friend described him years later as resembling Rodney Dangerfield in the role of a European aristocrat.
Before joining the OWI, Littmann had worked for British intelligence, but he fell out with his superiors. The British claimed Littmann tried to sell visas to other Romanian refugees, and they even hinted he might be an enemy spy. When an OWI official pointed out to a British intelligence man that everyone in Littmann’s family was a refugee and that his son was a Royal Air Force pilot, the Briton replied, “Those are the worst kind.”
Littmann’s contacts with Romanian officials were useful in smuggling anti-Nazi leaflets and initiating covert contacts with Romania’s leaders. But some of these activities were not cleared with the proper authorities in the embassy, and in the summer of 1943, Steinhardt ordered the OWI to fire Littmann immediately. The OWI protested, which only made Steinhardt angrier, before it finally complied.
Security was a chronic problem. The British, Turks, or OSS periodically claimed that one or another OWI employee was an enemy agent. While one Turkish OWI employee was found to be a German agent, the OWI claimed that most of those accused were innocent: one employee simply had the same name as a Bulgarian agent; another, a Greek, was ordered ousted because his father was pro-fascist though even the Greek embassy insisted that the man himself had a spotless record. The OSS went so far as to complain that the OWI had discomfited the Turks by accidently uncovering an Emniyet agent in its office.
While the OWI officials were quite unorthodox by State Department standards, the same could be said about Steinhardt himself and his deputy, Robert Kelly. Kelly, 48 years old in 1942, came from a poor Boston family but worked his way through Harvard, where he studied Russian and became fascinated with that country. As a military attaché in Latvia, he reported on the early years of Lenin’s regime. He joined the State Department and was chief of its Division of East European Affairs between 1926 and 1937. Kelly trained the department’s first Russian specialists, many of whom would later become ambassadors and architects of U.S. foreign policy. The tall, corpulent, impeccably dressed Kelly was a fixture among the State Department’s Washington barons, though his scholarly, even monkish, demeanor kept him an outsider.
In 1937, Kelly’s career suffered a fatal setback. Convinced that the U.S.S.R. would inevitably continue to foment revolution and subversion, Kelly criticized Roosevelt’s policy of improving relations. He was forced from his post and exiled to Turkey, where he stayed until his retirement in 1945. Embittered, Kelly became more of a loner and his quarter-century of experience was wasted at a time when expertise on the Soviets was desperately needed. The Russians, he would tell anyone who listened, were still as nationalist and expansionist as they had been in czarist times. The German invasion was a matter of “two thieves falling out.” These were unpopular sentiments during the war.
The growing U.S. establishment in Turkey outran its accommodations. Steinhardt lived on the second floor of the Ankara embassy; Kelly’s apartment and office were on the first floor. During the day, the ambassador’s dining room was used as an office. Steinhardt’s mostly
young staff worked long, hard hours and sought diversion whenever possible. One of them suggested that Ankara’s coat of arms should bear crossed cocktail glasses.
There was, however, no luxury. Living costs were high. An apartment rented for $175 a month, suits cost $100, and shoes were $22, astronomical prices in those days. Given these expenses, Americans faced a great temptation to take their pay in dollars and change them on the black market at a considerable advantage. The other embassies allowed such transactions, but they were against U.S. regulations. At least two American diplomats were caught and forced to resign. Shipments from home took four to twelve months, since cargo space was devoted to other priorities. One ship was loaded with thirteen Packards and two Studebakers presented to the Turkish government to compete with von Papen’s gift to Ïnönü of a Mercedes-Benz.
While the war might sometimes have seemed distant from the peace of neutral Ankara, the enemy was very close at hand. Americans working in the embassy office building in downtown Ankara would look out the window to see von Papen walking by. He tipped his hat at Americans on the street, but they had been ordered to ignore him.
Shortly after arriving from the States, Huntington Damon of the OWI was driving down a street in Ankara with a U.S. air attaché. The car behind honked its horn, and Damon pulled over to let it pass. His eyes widened as he saw von Papen pass by in a big limousine flying the swastika flag. “Why did you let him pass?” the American officer shouted. “Never do that again!”
A few nights later, Damon was going to the Greek embassy. It was very dark as he drove up Cankaya Hill, trying to follow the complex directions. Finally, he reached an appropriate-looking house. He rang the bell and asked to see the ambassador. After awhile, an Oriental man came to the door, sized up the visitor, and said, “Are you by any chance looking for the Greek embassy? It’s next door.” He pointed 50 yards up the street to an identical building. The man was too tactful to point out that Damon had mistakenly come to the embassy of America’s enemy, Japan.
Everyone agreed, Archibald Walker reported, that the Germans would- invade Turkey only if they concluded that the Russians were beaten. Yet an attack might still come. Those who had been in Romania,
Yugoslavia, or Bulgaria wondered whether they were seeing the pattern repeat itself. The U.S. and British military attachés drew up plans for destroying their embassies’ codes and communications equipment if the Germans attacked.
Parker had commented that Turkey offered a front-row seat for viewing the war. Now the tiny band of Allied officials in Turkey understandably felt that they were down on the playing field itself.