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Kill Or Be Killed:

The Greco-Turkish War of 1969

By Chris Oakley

Part 5



Summary: In the first four parts of this series we examined the circumstances leading to the outbreak of the 1969 Greco-Turkish war; the early battles of the war itself; the catastrophic defeats Turkey suffered in its failed attempt to seize control of Greece’s Aegean islands; the ill-fated Turkish bid to mount an overland invasion of Greece in the final days of the war; and the Vienna cease-fire negotiations which eventually ended the war. In this chapter we’ll turn to the political and social unrest that began to rock Turkey in the war’s aftermath.


While the UN’s Greco-Turkish border peacekeeping unit was starting its assigned patrol duties and the Greek government was totaling its final estimate of casualties incurred by its armed forces during the September War, the Demeriel regime in Turkey was sitting on top of a political volcano. Grief over the Turkish defeat in the September War had turned to anger; now that anger was turning into a growing demand for Demeriel to resign as Turkey’s president and a new administration to take over the reins in Ankara.

January 1970 saw the movement to unseat Demeriel, which had been agitating for his removal from office in fits and starts throughout the September War, begin to coalesce once and for all into a serious opposition party. The January 10th Istanbul rally calling for him to step down and make way for a new president was just the beginning of a period of upheaval which would span much of the next eighteen months and, at its peak, see Turkey experience sustained political violence on a scale great enough to prompt international fears civil war was about to engulf the country.

A month after the Istanbul rally, hundreds of Turks gathered in Izmir to form what the meeting’s sponsors would later christen the National Reform Alliance. This new party was widely deemed a center- left organization by outside observers, but in reality the Alliance also included a sizable number of conservative political figures who were convinced Demeriel would drag the country into final ruin if he weren’t removed from office quickly. In some domestic circles, the Alliance was known as "the Soldiers’ Party" because a quarter of its charter members were disaffected Turkish soldiers upset over the way the Ankara government had mishandled the September War and failed to compensate them for their physical and mental injuries in the war’s aftermath.

By early March the Alliance had grown to nearly 50,000 members and was making every effort to expand that number even further-- a fact which alarmed the Ankara government no end. The larger the new party’s ranks became, reasoned the Demeriel regime, the greater a threat it could eventually pose to the regime’s hold on power. The Alliance therefore had to be broken up at any cost, before it could play too significant a role in leading the opposition to the Ankara government. With that in mind, Turkish internal security forces began a systematic effort to destroy the Alliance both from within and from without.

For a while, that effort seemed to be working; the Alliance’s

top leaders fell to open squabbling with each other regarding the party’s agenda and the party’s efforts to unseat Demeriel bogged down in petty backbiting over what tactics the Alliance should use to gain its ends. But just when party unity looked to be at its shakiest, an enterprising Istanbul newspaper editor with a nose for big stories and a grudge against the powers that be in Ankara published a series of articles that blew the cover off the government’s secret war on the Alliance. Using as his primary source a memo that had been anonymously smuggled to his office by a disaffected ex-government political spy, this editor outlined in stark and infuriating detail how the Demeriel regime had used all manner of disinformation tactics in order to turn Alliance party members against one another.

As a result, the National Reform Alliance pulled together with a renewed sense of solidarity and a strengthened determination to put an end to the Demeriel government. On April 16th, 1970, while the rest of the world was riveted to the drama of the Apollo 13 astronauts trying to get home after an oxygen tank explosion had stranded them in deep space, the Alliance held what it called a "special convention" to map out strategies and agendas for its next wave of protests against the regime. Four days later, the first fruits of the special convention’s labors could be seen in the streets of Ankara as trade union workers, university students, and disillusioned September War vets marched to demand reforms to the government’s internal security laws.

ot to be outdone, Turkish Communists organized their own anti-Demeriel rally and held it in Istanbul on(fittingly) May Day; there were allegations the Istanbul rally had been orchestrated by Moscow, but KGB archival documents uncovered after the fall of Communism have since shown that the Kremlin in fact tried desperately to convince the Turkish Communists not to go through with their rally plans out of a deep concern such a demonstration might exacerbate tensions along the Soviet-Turkish border.

In the second week of June a group of university students in Izmir, taking a cue from their American peers protesting the war in Vietnam, began staging a sit-in to push for an end to Turkey’s highly stringent internal security laws. On the third day of the sit-in, the army was deployed to break up the protest-- a move that sparked rage among the protestors. Within minutes after the first troops arrived, the civil authorities in Izmir had a full-scale riot on their hands. By dawn the next morning close to two hundred people were dead and at least three square blocks of the city had been reduced to rubble as a consequence of the rioting.

The fallout from the violence in Izmir split the Turkish army’s officer corps wide open. Even before the Izmir riots the army’s upper echelons had been feuding with each other about how to deal with the civil upheavals that had been confronting Turkey since the end of the September War; the riots themselves exacerbated existing disputes and sparked new ones. In the aftermath of the riots lieutenants would turn against majors, majors against colonels, colonels against generals, and generals against each other. As one NATO diplomat put it at the time in a letter back home to his superiors, it was a miracle there was any semblance of a Turkish army left between the rioting and the losses suffered at the hands of the Greeks during the border war.

By the first week of July Istanbul, Izmir, and Ankara were all under martial law and dozens of high-ranking officers in all branches of the Turkish military were facing court-martial for their actions in regard to the growing social and political unrest in Turkey. At least two army colonels were executed by firing squad after having been convicted of conspiring to murder a fellow officer. And things were hardly any more tranquil among Turkey’s civilian population: Istanbul’s mayor was seriously injured when a bomb went off outside his office in a bungled assassination attempt shortly after martial law was imposed on the city.

But as horrendous as things had already gotten, worse was still to come...


Two weeks before the one-year anniversary of the outbreak of the September War, the National Reform Alliance announced that it would be holding a mass outdoor rally in Istanbul to demand the replacement of the country’s defense minister. Next to Demeriel himself, the defense minister was considered the most corrupt and oppressive member of the Demeriel regime’s inner circle. He was also held responsible for many of the troubles plaguing Turkish combat veterans in the aftermath of the September War. At least two left-wing Turkish lawmakers had called for him to be put on trial for corruption because of his alleged ties to a graft scheme in which September War vets were being cheated out of their pensions in order to line the pockets of Demeriel’s friends.

The government saw this rally as an intolerable assault on its prestige and resolved to stop it before it could get started; with that in mind, Demeriel’s security forces launched a stiff nationwide crackdown on individuals and organizations who had even the slimmest connection to the anticipated protest. An amateur soccer team whose coach had made an off-color comment about Demeriel’s justice minister somehow managed to get arrested on conspiracy charges just before an exhibition match against a visiting Italian club.

Undaunted by the Demeriel regime’s aggressive attempts to squash their protests, the Alliance chose to go ahead with the rally as planned. Around noon local time on August 20th, 1970 some 6000-plus1 demonstrators braved sweltering summer heat and the hostility of the government’s security forces to state their case to their fellow Turks; that 6000 grew to 8000 as the afternoon wore on, and by sunset there were close to 11,000 marchers gathered in the heart of Istanbul. After the demonstrators ignored repeated warnings by police to break up the rally, government security troops began firing tear gas at the Alliance marchers-- who promptly retaliated by hurling rocks, bottles, and chunks of concrete at their tormentors. The police then opened fire on the protestors; some of the protestors had themselves smuggled guns to the rally for just such a contingency, and they didn’t waste time before returning fire. A few ingenious radicals even managed to improvise petrol bombs to hurl at the government forces. By midnight,  the two sides were waging an all-out battle for control of Istanbul’s streets.

Foreign tourists and diplomats in the city were horrified by the violence unfolding before their eyes; some of them even thought this was the beginning of the Turkish civil war many geopolitical experts had been anticipating for months. In fact, the second-highest ranking American diplomat in Istanbul cabled Washington explicitly stating to his superiors his belief that a full-fledged armed revolt against the Demeriel regime had broken out. The city’s Soviet consulate fired off an urgent telex to Moscow recommending that Soviet military forces in the Black Sea region be immediately placed on full alert....


To Be Continued



[1] According to a Reuters news account of the demonstration and subsequent riots.

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