A Cautious Balance: The Question of Turkey in World War II

By VanderLippe, John M. | The Historian, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

A Cautious Balance: The Question of Turkey in World War II


VanderLippe, John M., The Historian


In the spring of 1939, Ismet Inonu, who had succeeded Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as president of Turkey the previous November, said, "I see a new world war that is definite, inescapable and close." (1) Inonu believed that the Turks had nothing to gain from the impending war in Europe and would only risk destruction of their cities, economic dislocation, and perhaps even occupation if they joined the conflict. Turkey had entered the First World War unprepared, resulting in defeat, occupation, and the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Fearing war was imminent, from the first months of his presidency Inonu's two guiding principles in foreign affairs were caution and balance as he sought to avoid any mistakes in foreign policy, no matter how small, that could lead to an attack on Turkey or force the country into war. For Inonu, caution meant weighing all of the potential effects of every decision before making any commitment to the Great Powers, Allied or Axis. Balance did not equal neutrality, but rather a recognition that Turkish interests would be served best by a balance of power in Europe, through which the Great Powers would each serve as a check on the ambitions of the others.

But in a world dominated by Great Powers, to what extent can a less powerful state determine its own terms of participation in war? As states like Czechoslovakia, Poland, Greece, and Rumania were dragged into World War II, what possibilities existed for Turkey to remain out of the conflict and retain its sovereignty? Annette Baker Fox, in her study of small power diplomacy, argues that states like Turkey were able to maintain autonomy in foreign relations during World War II because the Allied and Axis Powers sought both to attract small states to their side and to prevent them from shifting to the other side. Small powers were therefore able to maneuver by making small concessions and avoiding firm commitments. (2) In their studies of Turkish foreign policy in World War II, Selim Deringil and Edward Weisband both argue that Turkey had full autonomy in international relations and that throughout the entire war Inonu sought to maintain Turkish neutrality. Frank Weber argues that Turkish foreign policy makers were driven less by fear of damage or destruction than by opportunism and perceptions of gain to be made by exploiting Allied and Axis fears. (3)

In contrast to these approaches, my own research indicates that Inonu always believed that Germany would lose the war and was personally committed to the Allied cause from the beginning. But as the war began, his concern was to remain outside the war and to minimize the economic impact of the conflict. In 1939, the Turkish military was still equipped mostly with World War I era weapons, which precluded any military effort beyond trying to deter an invasion. Thus, Turkey's contribution to the Allied effort would have been minimal, while the danger of German retaliation was great. To offer serious assistance to the Allies, the Turkish military required considerable investment in new weapons, technical support, and training, which in the first years of the war the British were unable to supply.

Once the tide of the war had shifted in favor of the Miles in early 1943, Inonu's thoughts turned to the postwar balance of power in Europe, and the implications of a German defeat and Soviet occupation of the Balkans and eastern Europe. By 1943, Inonu was willing to join the Allies on two conditions: first, the British and Americans would have to supply adequate weaponry and support, or Inonu would not risk German retaliation. Second, Inonu insisted that Allied leaders treat the Turks as equals by consulting on military and strategic policy and informing them of Allied plans for the postwar settlement. The Allies proved incapable or unwilling to meet either of these conditions. Inonu and Turkish policy makers grew increasingly suspicious of the Allies, and as a result, kept Turkey out of the war until February 1945. …

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