Lessons for U.S.-Turkish Relations from a Coup Gone By

July 26, 2016

In discussing Turkey’s recent coup attempt, some observers, including contributors to War on the Rocks, have noted the striking parallels with Turkey’s 1960 coup. In this, the first of several coups in the Turkish Republic’s history, a group of mid-level officers toppled a democratically elected populist government that had become increasingly autocratic and reliant on religious rhetoric. Yet unlike in this month’s coup attempt, the 1960 plotters succeeded — creating an early challenge for NATO’s commitment to its idealistic  democratic rhetoric. This tension is at play in a memorandum of the U.S. ambassador’s first conversation with Turkey’s new general-turned-president in May of 1960. This document makes it clear how willing Washington was to work with the new government, casting in interesting light Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent statement to Ankara on NATO’s “democracy requirement.”

Before the 1960 coup, Turkish prime minister Adnan Menderes had been an enthusiastically pro-American leader. Since coming to power in Turkey’s first democratic elections a decade earlier, he had pursued free-market reforms and brought Turkey into NATO. Not surprisingly, he was well-liked by the American government, in particular by U.S. ambassador to Turkey Fletcher Warren, who some in the embassy felt was too accommodating of the prime minister’s flaws. Contrary to widespread Turkish conspiracy theories that the United States backed the coup (theories echoed today), one diplomat recalled that if Warren had heard advanced warning of a coup, he would have immediately passed them along to Menderes.  As a result, rumor has it that upon seizing the foreign ministry, the coup leaders immediately checked the archives to ensure there was no secret treaty by which Washington would intervene to defend its client.

Initially, the U.S. government did worry that Turkey’s new military leaders might take the country in a more pro-Soviet direction. The first statement of the plotters pledged their commitment to NATO, which helped assuage these fears, as did the fact that many of the coup’s leaders (along with most successful Turkish officers from the era) had participated in U.S. military training programs. As a result, by the time Warren met with Cemal Gürsel, Turkey’s new leader, he appeared happy to set him at ease. The ambassador began by praising Gürsel for pulling off “by far the most precise, most efficient, and most rapid coup” he had ever seen. If this didn’t reassure the general, Warren noted twice that he was not there to “create difficulties, but to try to help solve them.” (Warren also notes that he declined to bring up the one action which had displeased him: , apparently in reference to a tank that had angered his wife by parking on the residence lawn during the coup).

The ambassador’s comments were not, however, a statement of unconditional support. Warren warned that having taken power once, the military would face increasing pressure to do so whenever the political process faltered in the future. This analysis proved prescient, as Turkey experience subsequent coups in 1971, 1980 and 1997. Moreover, Warren brought up the fact that the coup might complicate efforts to secure congressional support for economic and military aid, and that it would “further enhance the prestige of the junta abroad” if, as happened, they “moved quickly to a fair and honest election.” More sensitive was the issue of Menderes’s fate. Gürsel promised “no mistreatment” and a “seashore cottage with a bath where he can reside in comfort,” adding, perhaps in a dig at the prime minister’s many mistresses, “with his family if he desires.” Instead, Menderes was sent to an island prison where even his letters to his family were censored and eventually condemned to death. When Menderes was sentenced, President John F. Kennedy felt enough responsibility toward America’s former friend to personally ask the military government to spare his life. When they declined, though, Washington ultimately concluded against applying further pressure.

The specter of Menderes’s execution has long haunted Turkey, and in recent years Erdogan has been fond of invoking him as a democratic martyr. Now, following a coup attempt in which Erdogan’s own life was threatened, he no doubt feels the parallels even more strongly. Turkish officials have already launched a series of absurd accusations about U.S. involvement in the recent coup. This 1960 document hints at the history behind this anger and suspicion. But it also suggests that no matter how autocratic Erdogan’s post-coup behavior becomes, he is unlikely to run afoul of NATO’s democracy requirement either.


Nick Danforth is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center