Modern Turkey’s History of Military Coups
The July 2016 attempted coup d’état in Turkey was the latest in a series of military interventions in the nation’s history. The military has forced out four civilian governments since 1960, when Premier Adnan Menderes was deposed. In 1971 the military forced Prime Minister Suleyman Demirel to resign; in 1980, the Turkish army launched the bloodiest military takeover in Turkey’s history; and in 1997, after the military issued so-called recommendations during a National Security Council meeting, the prime minister agreed to some measures and resigned soon after in what is referred to as the “post-modern” coup.
The Republic of Turkey’s constitution grants the military the authority to intervene when needed to quell turmoil. After each coup, the military took charge of the government but returned it to civilian rule within a few years.
The U.S. Embassy has closely followed the political upheavals of this strategically important nation. Daniel O. Newberry and Parker T. Hart were each serving in Turkey around the time of the 1960 coup, and Alfred J. White, James W. Spain, and Richard W. Boehm served during the coup of 1980. Charles Stuart Kennedy interviewed Newberry, Spain, and Boehm in December 1997, October 1995, and June 1994, respectively. Hart was interviewed by William R. Crawford in January 1989, and White was interviewed by John J. Harter in September 1997.
“What he had picked up was an open discussion of a plot by the military to overthrow the Menderes government”
Daniel O. Newberry, Economic/Commercial Officer, Istanbul, 1952-1956
NEWBERRY: The 1950 general elections in Turkey had been the first really free and unfettered democratic elections. The party of [Mustafa] Ismet Inonu and his colleagues who had inherited the traditions of Kemal Ataturk was voted out of power. A new party, called the Democrat Party, led by Adnan Menderes (seen at left), came into power in 1950. When I arrived in Turkey, this new government was still very much in the “bloom” of its success and riding high. Of course, the American government was smiling broadly on this phenomenon of a freely and democratically elected government in the Middle East. The only other such government that the American government could point to was Israel.
This situation had its pitfalls. Adnan Menderes was very shrewd and quick to exploit this situation. He spread the notion that he was the “chosen instrument” of Washington. We played this game, consciously or unconsciously. The first thing we knew was that Adnan Menderes and his Democratic Party began to abuse their power; the American government was also tarred with the same brush.
We were regarded as not only condoning but encouraging Menderes to abuse his power. It was that kind of atmosphere. There were very strong restrictions on the role of the other parliamentary parties and what they could do. There was a misuse of police power. Tax breaks were accorded to important members of the governing Democrat Party.
What I’m leading up to is this. One day, in the middle of a snowstorm, at the end of 1955, I guess it was, I had received a telephone call from this Turkish-American. He said that he had something “terribly important” to tell me and that he had to see me right away.
So I went out to see him. From his point of view what he had to tell me was terribly urgent, because what he had picked up from the Turkish military garrison right next door to his wife’s estate was an open discussion of the beginnings of a plot by the military to overthrow the Adnan Menderes government. I listened to him very carefully.
As soon as I got back to the Consulate General, I made my notes and drafted a report about what I’d been told and what questions I’d asked my friend. I didn’t talk to any of the military attachés assigned to the Consulate General. I felt that my Turkish-American friend was pretty astute, and he took this report very seriously, as did I.
I showed this report to the Consul General. He looked absolutely terrified. I sent it in the CONFIDENTIAL diplomatic pouch to Ankara, and that’s as far as it went. It was never reported to the [State] Department. Then, lo and behold, the Turkish military overthrew the Menderes government [in 1960].
Washington might have had a good two years of lead time to collect additional intelligence on this event, because the report was in such detail. According to my friend, the military officers involved in this coup d’état talked about their contacts throughout the Turkish military structure. At least this report could have assisted our intelligence people, if no one else, in tracking down what was going on.
“The military felt that Menderes was guilty of violating the tenants of Ataturk and the pillars of the republic”
Parker T. Hart, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Near East Affairs, Washington, DC, 1958-1961
HART: The real power was in the hands of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes who was a very adept politician and who knew how to handle the United States so as to get the maximum aid possible. He spent it in ways which increased his popularity. His was the first freely-elected government under conditions of open contest in the Republic of Turkey. He had headed the first opposition party to the original founding party of the Turkish republic.
When this coup d’état took place in 1960, Adnan Menderes’ popularity had led him toward a kind of republican and democratic absolutism. In other words, he had gotten to the point where he wouldn’t tolerate any opposition to his ruling party which had originally been an opposition party.
For ten years he had had everything his own way. He was not only re-elected when he needed to be — by crushing majorities – but he was also spending the country into bankruptcy on some good projects but also many that were not so well considered.
He had used strong-arm tactics against people who had objected to his policies. Students began to agitate. He cracked down on the students very hard, with armed forces, and the officers didn’t like that at all. Finally, he made the big mistake of arresting Ismet Inonu [opposition leader] who was making a speech against him.
They even instituted a kind of star-chamber proceeding of judging and convicting the opposition in the parliament. All of this had just preceded my arrival but the military had gotten a new constitution prepared and put in force. They had handed back the reigns of authority to a civilian sector which was the Republican People’s Party headed by Inonu. They had declared the Democrat Party of Adnan Menderes to be outlawed. They had put on trial all of the parliamentary members of the Democrat Party.
The military had done this on the grounds that the military in Turkey is by custom, and by [Mustafa Kemal] Ataturk, mandated as the guardian of the republic against all threats from within as well as from without. They felt that Menderes and some of his people were very guilty of violating the fundamental tenants of Ataturk and of what we call the pillars of the republic, more fundamental than any constitution in Turkey.
The constitution in Turkey is a mechanism for governing the country, but its obedience to the principles of Ataturk is written right into the document and they may not be amended. One of the pillars is secularism. Another is code of dress–no more tarbush, or fez.
Another is that the country shall always remain a republic and never go back to being an empire. The royalty and all of its trappings are gone. Women are to cease wearing the veil and have equal rights.
In any event, the military tried a lot of these Democrats. They had imprisoned most of them on the island of Yassiada in the Marmara Sea. Menderes, and his finance minister, and foreign minister were all hanged after being judged guilty of violating the fundamental tenets of the republic.
Then they had prepared a new constitution which provided what they call the d’Honte (Belgian) system of proportional representation, a national remainder system of utilizing excess votes to broaden political representation in parliament and to provide checks against excessive authority.
“The sense of relief among the people was palpable. For the first time, I saw Turks smiling.”
Alfred J. White, Financial Officer, Ankara, 1980-1984
WHITE: The phone rang at about 3:00 AM. It was the Embassy Duty Officer saying: “Don’t come to work tomorrow morning. Something’s happened.”
Well, what had happened is that finally General [Kenan] Evren (seen right), in what is called a bloodless coup d’état — and it was really bloodless — simply announced that the country was not being governed and that it had to be. He put the leaders of both major parties under house arrest and formed a government of technocrats.
He also set a date for the promulgation of a new constitution. He made it clear that the Army would be back in its barracks within two years, or whatever the time period he set.
Now if ever there was a reluctant general, General Evren was that person. The next morning I went down to the Embassy. I went a little later than usual, after I saw that there were no disturbances. Nothing was happening.
I didn’t take the car for some reason. I took the bus downtown. Traveling by bus is a nice way to find out what people are thinking.
The sense of relief among the people was palpable. For the first time I saw Turks smiling. There is an unwritten article in the Turkish Constitution that says, in effect: “If the government isn’t governing, the Army has a moral responsibility to step in and make things happen.”
This is what General Evren did. He appointed a government of technocrats. He sensibly realized that the Army knew nothing other than the Army. So there wasn’t a situation of colonels running ministries that they didn’t understand. He brought in a man named Turgut Ozal and made him “Economic Czar.” In effect, he told Ozal: “I don’t know anything about the economy. They say that you do. So you run the economy.”
“Washington didn’t approve of military takeovers, but if there ever was a case where one was justified, this was it”
James W. Spain, Ambassador to Turkey, Ankara, 1980-1981
SPAIN: Security had been deteriorating again almost from the time I left in 1974. Right and left extremists were back to battling in the streets. Violence was growing; the politicians were squabbling; and the military was obviously growing more and more restless. Things were bad.
We sat in the second floor sitting room in the Residence in Ankara and listened to gun battles going on all over the city. Americans were prime targets of the left. Between June 1979 and September 1980 eleven Americans were killed. Then on September 12, 1980, the military took over the government. In two days they had the graffiti scrubbed off the walls and all the agitators (as well as some innocents) locked away in jail. We were back to peace and quiet, if not democracy.
And the military does let go of the situation after a while. As a policy the United States is opposed to this, but in your heart of hearts you must have felt soon rather than later they have to do it.
We tried to keep Washington up to date on events from day to day. There were complaints about military behavior from the human rights people, but these existed even before the military took over. It has always been true that the Turkish police and military take more than a legitimate amount of glee in banging students and other agitators over the head. But I don’t recall that between January 1980 when I came and September 1981 when the military intervened that I ever had any instructions to tell them not to do it.
I think most people in Washington recognized the situation for what it was. They didn’t approve of military takeovers but if there ever was a case where one was justified, this was it. There was also less reason to be concerned about a military takeover in Turkey than in most other places because the Turkish military had a good record of intervening and getting out in a finite time.
Each intervention took longer. If I remember correctly, the 1961 intervention when they hung Prime Minister Menderes lasted something like 18 months. The 1971 takeover, which happened when I was in Istanbul, ran 20 plus months. The 1980 takeover stretched to three years or so.
So, this kind of thing is accepted by most Turks. There is a tradition dating to Ataturk, if not an actual constitutional provision for it. In 1961 they jumped a little fast — Menderes was juggling the army promotion lists, not exactly a crime deserving the noose. But in 1971 and 1980 they waited until well after law and order had broken down under the elected governments.
“The military, who regarded themselves as the guardians of democracy, thought that the threat required them to move in”
Richard W. Boehm, Deputy Chief of Mission, Ankara, 1980-1983
BOEHM: Turkey was a functioning parliamentary democracy. Within a few weeks of my arrival, [Prime Minister Suleyman] Demirel (seen right) was once again thrown out by the military. There had been a lot of terrorism, which was a very serious problem indeed — bombs going off and assassinations, right in the heart of downtown Ankara.
The situation was getting very nasty, and the government wasn’t controlling it. So in accordance with what you might call “tradition” in Turkey, the military, who regarded themselves as the guardians of democracy, thought that the threat required them to move in. Once again, Demirel was out. The military were in power then, throughout the rest of my stay there.
As a diplomat, you get to know as many people as you can who might be able to help you out on the subject. You keep in touch with them — especially military people. You find out what they’re thinking. You analyze the causes which might lead to a takeover and see how that’s going. Then you have intelligence sources as well.
You have the military attachés, and our attachés always had very good connections with the Turkish military. The attachés would be prepared to find out from their best contacts what the thinking in the Turkish military was. You had CIA reports. You check all of these various intelligence sources and try to analyze the situation as best you can.
Now, in the case of the 1980 takeover, which was in September, one of the Army attachés [gave us an indication]. We were examining this situation every day as to whether it was or was not going to happen — is this the time, or when?
One of our more junior military attachés spotted a column of tanks lined up along a road near downtown Ankara. He checked around and concluded, on the basis of what he saw and could find out, that the military was just about to take over.
We looked at this report and checked with a few Turks as to what those tanks were doing. We were told that there was nothing unusual about that. The police had asked for assistance. They were expecting another terrorist attack, and the tanks were to assist the police.
That very night those tanks moved in, and the military took over. It was a coup. I would not say that we had rejected the report but I would say that we had not reached the same conclusion as our young military attaché had reached. But he was absolutely right. He said, “This is it,” and it was.
Most of the Turkish people, I think, were not interested in revolution and basically approved of the military taking over for a specific purpose — that is, to calm things down and move the terrorists out of the way and reform the political system. The Turkish people want democracy. They have shown that in elections and, in fact, the military recognize this.
They moved out. They always have. They seize power, deal with whatever the crucial problem is that caused the coup, and then they move out. In the case of the 1980 coup, of course, they rewrote the constitution to eliminate some of the constitutional problems that had made it difficult for the Parliament to function.
The parliamentary system was almost unworkable and very, very awkward and cumbersome. It was hard to get a majority on anything. The 1980 coup d’état set about restructuring the political system. The military wrote a new constitution. Eventually, elections were held, and the military moved out of power. Turkey is once again a democracy, and Demirel is President.