Nuclear Energy and Turkish Conspiracy Theories: Continuity in US-Turkey Relations

I spent last week in Istanbul at a conference the Hollings Center for International Dialogue organized about the future of the US-Turkey relationship. In one of the early sessions, the participants had a lengthy discussion about the way in which conspiracy theories impact US – Turkey relations. During the discussion, I could not help but remember a Foreign Service Despatch that the US Embassy in Ankara wrote on 14 April 1955. The despatch was written in response to American bewilderment at an article written in Akis about the recently concluded US-Turkey nuclear cooperation agreement. Akis, according to the archival records, was the “Turkish prototype of Time Magazine.” The report is absurd, but has some incredible parallels to the current discourse about American foreign policy in Turkey.

Through out 1955, Turkey and the United States were engaged in discussions for the conclusion of the world’s first nuclear cooperation agreement. American officials from the Atomic Energy Commission were in contact with representatives from Turkey about the conclusion of the arrangement. Yet,Turkey had very few nuclear experts and had to rely heavily on US experts when making plans to purchase and then build its first small research reactor.

During the negotiations, Mr. Duncan Ballantine, President of Robert College College, worked with officials from the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to coordinate training programs and to help oversee some aspects of the implementation of the nuclear cooperation arrangement. Mr. Ballantine did not work alone, but his presence is noteworthy for the strange conspiracy theory that Akis wrote about in December 1955.

In December 1955, Akis wrote that the United States had made the installation of the small 1 MW reactor conditional on elevating Robert College from a high school to a University (Robert college was an American missionary school before the founding of the Republic. It has since become Turkey’s most prominent high school.) The Embassy wrote to Washington that it had been “unable to find any logical or reasonable explanation for the outburst.” Moreover, the document went on to inform Washington that the article was even more puzzling, given that Akis “is published by Metin Toker, son-in-law of RPP leader, former President Inonu.” The article (which was later published in an RPP allied publication known as Ulus) then goes on to explain how “Turkey rose from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire” and that it was a “free and respected country….legally born with the Treaty of Lausanne.” The article concludes with a rant against the American insistence on establishing a US university inside Turkey, which violated Turkey’s sovereignty. According to the US Embassy’s translation, the author writes “No American would accept the establishment of a French University in the United States. But we are now approving such a strange idea.”  This all makes sense, except for the fact that the story was based on a wild conspiracy theory that had no basis in reality.

Moreover, it speaks to some of the dynamics that still influence the relationship today. For one, there is a feeling amongst Turkish conservatives that the US was more supportive of Inonu’s Republican People’s Party because it represented the Kemalist – and thereby “secular” –  wing of Turkish society. Yet, according to the archival documents, the United States was far more open to working with Adnan Menderes’ Democratic Party. The two sides saw completely eye-to-eye on the threat of Soviet communism and had a very close relationship on nuclear weapons issues. In particular, former Foreign Minister Fatin Rüştü Zorlu was a huge proponent of the forward deployment of nuclear weapons and argued forcefully – in private – that the United States should continue to build nuclear weapons – and deploy some in Europe – up until a time when the USSR was willing to make a verifiable commitment to disarmament. (Rhetoric aside, this policy continues today, albeit with in much more muted tones and a change in enemy.) Moreover, it represents how even during the 1950s, Turkey’s Kemalists were beholden to the Ulus wing of the party. The Ulus wing is particularly wary of the United States and still has a very negative view of Washington. Moreover, this group also believes that the United States installed the AK Party and is actually secretly directing Turkish policy – perhaps in concert with the exiled Fetullah Gulen – from Washington. #Facepalm.

In any case, I raise this issue because the discourse in Turkey has once again reached a fever pitch and conspiracy theories – particularly surrounding the US anger at Ankara’s decision to purchase a Chinese missile system – have once again gained in prominence. In fact, after the United States first announced that it was changing the 1945 Atomic Energy Act to allow nuclear cooperation with “free world countries,” Turkey jumped at the chance to conclude a nuclear cooperation agreement with the US. The United States placed few demands on Turkey, other than to appropriate at least a $250,000 for the procurement of some laboratory equipment from US companies. The US paid $300,000 to American Machine and Foundry to construct Turkey’s first nuclear reactor and many of the buildings at the Kucukcekmecek facility. Yet, the truth really didn’t matter. And, you know what, it still doesn’t.

Moving forward, I think it is important to place the current state of US-Turkey relations in their proper context. Thus, when it comes to conspiracy theories, I am sorry to say that they have been a prominent part of the relationship for close to 70 years. And, if I had to guess, they are likely to have a particular salience on the Turkish side for the foreseeable future. However, with three elections approaching, I think it would behoove the United States to prepare for the coming nonsense and focus more on how it sees the future of the US-Turkey relationship in the coming years and decades. As of now, neither side has a strategy for the future, which leaves the door open to analysis of US actions along the lines of Metin Toker.

As always, if you have comments, criticisms, or questions please tweet them @aaronstein1.

About aaronstein1

I am an Istanbul based PhD Candidate a King's College London.
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