Korean War Armistice Recalls Origins of Turkish-US Military Partnership


2012-07-30 By Richard Weitz

In recent years, Turkey has become one of the most influential countries in NATO, backstopped by dynamic diplomacy, one of the world’s most powerful economies, and a rough neighborhood whose security vacuum propels Turkish involvement.

The Turkish-American relationship has existed for two centuries, but their strategic alliance began only after World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, when the United States decided to provide economic and military aide to both Turkey and Greece to prevent their falling under Soviet control.

Even so, it took the Korean War to cement bilateral ties.

July 27th marks the 59th anniversary of the armistice that ended the Korean War, the first time thousands of Turkish and American troops have fought against a common foe of freedom.

The Turkish intervention in Korea was incredibly well timed. The 5,000-man Turkish brigade arrived in October 1950, coming when US forces, then acting as part of a United Nations coalition, were struggling to survive a powerful Chinese offensive. The following month, the brigade managed to halt an onslaught of six Chinese divisions around Kunu-ri. After the brigade helped stabilize the front, the Commander of the UN Forces, General Douglas MacArthur said that, “the Turks are the hero of heroes. There is no impossibility for the Turkish Brigade.”

Members of the Turkish Brigade move into position in December, 1950, shortly after suffering severe casualties attempting to block encirclement of the US 2nd Division at the Chongchon river in North Korea. Credit Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turkish_Brigade

Congressman John P. Murtha noted how the Turkish intervention “gave hope to a demoralized American nation.” Marking the 50th anniversary of the Korean War in 2000, Murtha recalled how Turkish soldiers, after having run out of ammunition, affixed bayonets to their rifles and continued fighting in hand-to-hand combat.

British Prime Minister Clement Atlee was so impressed by the Turkish contribution that he lobbied vigorously for Turkey’s admittance to NATO, reportedly saying that he would rather have the “Johnnie Turks with us, than against us.” Atlee should know. During World War I, Atlee served in the British Army and participated in the ill-fated allied attack at Gallipoli, when the Turkish defenders inflicted a severe defeat on the British invasion force.

The Turkish brigade, attached to the US Marine’s 25th division, served under the command of Gen. Tahsin Yazici, a veteran of the 1915 Gallipoli campaign.

These “Anatolian Lions” were later awarded the highest honorable citation of the US Army for saving the US 8th Army and the IX Army Corps from encirclement and the US 2nd Division from total annihilation. In this legendary effort, the Turks lost 717 men and suffered 2,413 wounded, representing the highest combat casualty rate of any UN unit engaged in Korea.

General Walton H. Walker, Commander of the US 8th Army, thanked “The heroic soldiers of a heroic nation… [for saving] the Eighth Army and the IXth Army Crops from encirclement and the 2nd Division from destruction.” President Harry Truman awarded the Turkish brigade a Presidential Unit Citation, which is given to units of the U.S. Armed Forces and allied countries for extraordinary heroism against an armed enemy.

Turkey ultimately became the fourth largest military contributor to the UN effort, with a total of 15,000 Turkish troops serving in Korea at various times during the war.

The camaraderie on the battlefield led to deep relations between American and Turkish soldiers.  After they arrived in Korea, the Turkish troops were trained and equipped by the US Army, giving soldiers and officers several opportunities to strengthen their personal and professional ties.

Ankara’s brave decision to send troops to Korea in late 1950 also proved pivotal in securing Turkey’s entry into NATO the following year.

When the alliance was formed in April 1949, Turkey was not invited to join. Washington was reluctant to commit to defend distant Turkey, and had also rejected Turkish proposals for a bilateral alliance or a unilateral US security guarantee. NATO’s West European members did not want to risk diluting the US economic and other assistance they were receiving.

Although some Turkish leaders wanted to pursue a more neutral foreign policy following NATO’s snub, Turkish policymakers continued to pursue NATO membership, believing the alliance offered Turkey the optimal Western anchor. Turkey’s key contribution to the Korean effort then made it impossible for the allies to turn down Ankara’s renewed membership campaign. In September 1951, Turkey along with Greece had received a formal invitation to join the alliance.

Turkey has since made major contributions to NATO.

During the Cold War, Turkey helped constrain the Soviet Navy in the Mediterranean, provided one of the largest armies in Europe, and hosted key NATO military facilities. More recently, Turkish soldiers have contributed to NATO-backed missions in the former Yugoslavia and Libya.

The United States, Britain, and other members of the international community are now working closely with Turkey to bring peace to Afghanistan, the Middle East, and other global hotspots.

More than one thousand Turkish soldiers serve in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The Turkish military is training the Afghan National Security Forces, while Turkish diplomats have been pursuing regional peace initiatives such as the Istanbul Process, aimed at reconciling Pakistan and Afghanistan through confidence-building arrangements and other measures.

Looking forward, Turkey and the United States will probably cooperate further in advancing democracy in the Middle East, reintegrating Iraq and Central Asia into the global economy, and reinforcing transatlantic bonds at a time when Washington’s attention increasingly focuses on Asia.