An Open and Shut Case

Maxinne Vlug walks through the “open door” to consider how American public opinion swirled around the ratification of the Lausanne Treaty.

Maxinne Vlug is a History student at Utrecht University.

Although the United States sought to limit its involvement at the Lausanne Conference, it was also keen to protect its political and economic interests in the Middle East. Due to fuel shortages during the Great War and the increasing use of automobiles, many Americans feared a post-war “gasoline famine”, fears stoked by US oil majors as part of a fictional US-UK “Oil War”. Notorious for the oily Teapot Dome scandal, Republican President Warren Harding’s administration viewed the so-called Open Door Principle, championed by Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes, as a means of escaping the tentacles of a “British oil octopus” allegedly intent on cornering the United States’ oil supply. The Principle held that no single power should enjoy special economic privileges, drawing a line under the pre-war system of “spheres of influence”. It was assumed that the new Turkish Republic’s interests would align with this policy. After all, the Turks not only sought international recognition at Lausanne, but curbs on the Capitulations and other economic controls imposed under the terms of successive French, German and British loans to the Sultan.


It was unclear, however, how such support of Ismet’s beloved “sovereignty” could be squared with other American concerns, not least humanitarian ones. Neither Lausanne nor the provisional bilateral treaty of amity between the United States and Turkey intended as a stop-gap made any mention of the Armenian Genocide or the prosecution of those who might be held responsible. The establishment of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Republican Turkey thus aroused considerable debate within the American society. Many Americans sympathized with the Armenians, contributing to missionary activities and the work of Near East ReliefFor a short period in 1919 it had seemed that energy security and humanitarianism might be reconcilable, as the borders of a proposed US-administered League of Nations mandate for Armenia were drawn in such a way as to include territories then believed to hold large oil deposits. Unfortunately Congress proved to have no appetite for such an open-ended foreign entanglement.

At Lausanne, by contrast, the Turks revived a dormant 1910 railroad and oil concession granted to retired US Admiral Colby Mitchell Chester. This served as a means of luring the American delegation to put oil (the Chester Concession) before humanitarian concerns (punishment of genocidaires, creation of an Armenian National Home within Anatolia), pitting the American observers at Lausanne against their British and French allies. For the Armenians themselves, a people that already suffered so greatly, hopes invested in a Wilsonian notion of self-determination and a better future within the generous borders of a Wilsonian Armenian mandate were crushed.


The American Committee Opposed to the Lausanne Treaty and church leaders such as the Episcopalian bishop of New York, William Thomas Manning, sought to rouse public opinion against the treaty, which the Committee described as “a purposeless and humiliating surrender to a red-handed, faithless military despot,” ratification of which would “reflect upon American honor and self-respect.”[1] During the course of the 1924 presidential campaign the Democrats argued that the treaty and the Open Door Principle betrayed the Armenian people. At the same time Democratic senator William H. King of Utah actively pleaded before the Senate against ratification. The Senator argued that Turkey’s past record did not indicate that she could be trusted to abide by treaties. “A few business men and the Turkish Government are carrying on an extensive propaganda in the United States to secure recognition,” King claimed. “Turkey wants to borrow money and hopes that the ratification of the Lausanne treaty will enable her to negotiate a loan in the United States.” [2] Secretary of State Hughes was singled out for criticism in much of this press coverage:

Obviously, Secretary Hughes went to Lausanne fully prepared to make any and all sacrifice to clinch this oil concession, and he betrayed Christian Armenia and his own country to attain his purpose.

The Atlanta Tri-Weekly Journal4 August 1924.

The headline of a Chicago blue-collar newspaper The Daily Worker put it more bluntly: “Turks given liberty to kill Armenians for big concessions.”[2] Other political figures and businessmen sought to minimalize the Armenian Question. Admiral Chester and his son Arthur Tremaine Chester claimed in the New York Times’ Current History that the massacres of the Armenians were a direct result of their own alleged “treachery”. “It is safe to say,” the latter wrote, “that no massacre of any importance has occurred that was not the direct result of traitorous or threatening acts by the victims.” [3] Chester Jr. then sought to ram his point home by inviting his American readers to imagine what he claimed was an analogous hypothetical:

Suppose that Mexico was a powerful and rival country with which we were at war, and suppose that we sent an army to the Mexican border to hold back the invading enemy; suppose further that not only the negroes in our army deserted to the enemy but those left at home organized and cut off our line of communication. What do you think we as a people, especially the Southerners, would do to the negroes?

Arthur Tremaine Chester, “Angora and the Turks”, Current History 17.5 (Feb. 1923): 758-64 (763).

The Senate did not vote on ratification until January 1927. While the vote was favourable (50-34 in favour of ratification), this was six votes short of the requisite two-third majority. Admiral Bristol, the United States’ High Commissioner in Constantinople, was left having to reassure Ankara that the vote did not signal any desire to break off good relations, and attempting to secure another extension of a bilateral treaty of amity between the two countries. Despite this unhappy “modus vivendi”, later that year President Coolidge sent Joseph Grew to Ankara as ambassador. “Whether the Senate declares this legal or not,” noted the New York Times, “it was contended the President does not require an act of Congress to send an Ambassador to any country he chooses.”[5]

Meanwhile the Chester Concession proved to be a damp squib, even after being formally confirmed by the National Assembly in Ankara in 1923. By that point the Ottoman American Development Corporation which had taken over management of the Concession had fallen apart, thanks to disagreements among the shady characters now at the helm, which caused State Department officials such as Allen Dulles considerable embarrassment.

As for the Open Door, when it came to Middle East oil it only remained open long enough to enable a consortium of American oil companies to bluster their way (with the help of officials like Dulles) into the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), whose claim to the oil of the Ottoman vilayets of Mosul and Baghdad derived from another pre-war concession, secured from the ancien regime in June 1914. This international (English, Dutch, French) condominium thus gained a fourth partner. Once inside TPC, American oil executives lost interest in the Open Door, and made sure that the State Department did, too. Here again, idealism had lost out to dollars.

[1] “Atrocities Laid to Turkish Rulers”, New York Times, 17 May 1926.

[2] “Urges the Defeat of Lausanne Treaty”, New York Times, 12 April 1926.

[3] The Daily Worker, 11 June 1924.

[4] C. Chester “Turkey Reinterpreted” and A. T. Chester “Angora and the Turks”,  New York Times Current History 17.5 (1923) and 16:6 (1922).

[5] ‘Turkish Relations Upheld”, New York Times, 29 November 1927.