Ambassador Ahmet Muhtar, Henry Ford, and Detroit’s Turks

101 years ago on April 20th, just two weeks after the United States declared war against the Imperial German Government, Turkey severed diplomatic relations with the United States. This interruption would take a decade before the ties were eventually reestablished in 1927, after an exchange of notes in Ankara, Turkey. The aftermath of this rupture would change the US-Turkey relations dramatically.

On May 19th, 1927, Joseph Clark Grew was appointed as the first American Ambassador to the Turkish Republic. Grew was a career diplomat who served the U.S. government for over forty years and his impressive career included two ambassadorships. He was also the American representative at the Lausanne Conference, and after the completion of the Lausanne Treaty, Joseph Grew and Ismet Pasha had remained in Lausanne to complete the details of the separate treaty between the United States and the Government of Ankara.

Before his post in Turkey, Grew had served as the Ambassador to Denmark (1920–1921) and Ambassador to Switzerland (1921-1924) and the Under Secretary of State (1924-1927). His appointment in fact was an indication of importance that the State Department attached to its relations with the Turkish Republic. Grew also had one of the best reputations in the entire American diplomatic corps as a keen negotiator of difficult matters. On August 1st, 1927, the Grews started their journey on SS Leviathan and anchored off Galata on September 18. When they arrived, their Cadillac car, a Turkish chauffeur and kavas (embassy guard) were waiting for them and then the family headed to their residence at Palazzo Corpi in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district. In his first year, Ambassador Grew would be very popular in Turkey when he jumped from a ferryboat into the Bosphorus to save a Turkish woman who leaped overboard.[1]

Paving the way to the normalization of diplomatic relations after a 10-year rupture was also the appointment of Ahmet Muhtar as the first ambassador of the Turkish Republic to the United States. Having started his diplomatic career as the second secretary to the Ottoman Embassy in Stockholm, he later returned to Istanbul and worked at various posts in the Ottoman government including having served as a translator to the Grand Vizier. When Grew came to Turkey, Muhtar was still in the country. In fact, Ambassador Muhtar’s delay in commencing his post in the U.S. worried Ambassador Grew, who was concerned about some opposition to his appointment for the ambassadorship to Turkey that was yet to be confirmed by the Senate.

 

A number of Senators opposed Treaty of Amity and Commerce in Lausanne, that was meant to establish diplomatic and commercial relations between the U.S. and the new Turkish Government. Grew wrote in his diary “I did not wish to be withdrawn from Turkey” as the Senators who opposed the Treaty could also oppose Grew’s appointment. After being informed that Ahmet Muhtar Bey’s departure for the U.S. could be delayed until mid-December, he explained his concern to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Tevfik Rüştü Bey (Aras). Grew said if Ahmet Muhtar Bey did not depart soon, “this might cause an unfavorable reaction” from some senators who could say “Where is the Turkish Ambassador to the United States? Our own Ambassador arrived in Turkey in the middle of September, and now, three months later, no Turkish Ambassador arrived to the United States.” In fact, the reason for this delay was that Muhtar Bey waited for the formation of the new Cabinet and when it was finally formed on November 1st, Tevfik Rüştü Bey assured Grew that Ahmet Muhtar could leave soon.

Being aware that his fellow ambassador’s reception in the U.S. would not be as warm as his own, due to the extremist Armenian and Greek propaganda, Ambassador Grew explained that he thought it very important that Ahmet Muhtar Bey sailed by an American ship “as this could create a favorable impression in the United States,” and, he added  that “if he got off by the Leviathan, he could get to Washington in plenty of time before the opening of the Senate on December 6….”

Ambassador Ahmet Muhtar arrived in the U.S. on November 29. However, his arrival was not a smooth one as James W. Gerard, former American Ambassador to Germany and chairman of the American Committee Opposed to the Lausanne Treaty, opposed strongly against the revived Turkey-US relations. In the American press, he portrayed Ambassador Muhtar as the person responsible for the deaths of Armenians in WWI. Thus, because of the risk of an assassination attempt, Muhtar had to be escorted from the Leviathian by a squad of armed motorcycle police. When Ambassador Grew received the telegram from the State Department announcing that Ambassador Muhtar had arrived safely in Washington, he wrote in his diary: “it is at least a relief to know that Mouhtar has arrived in Washington, although if some fanatic Armenian is out to get him, he can probably do it there as easily in New York. If anything happens to Mouhtar, Gerard will have a lot to answer for, at least to his own conscience…”[2]

When the Muhtar-Gerard incident found its way to the Turkish press, Grew had to travel to Ankara in order to talk over the matter with the government and find a way to assuage the Turkish press. During the meeting with the Minister Tevfik Rüştü Bey, Grew expressed his regret and said: “I had been disgusted by Mr. Gerard’s outburst against Mouhtar Bey on the latter’s arrival in the United States and that I regarded the incident as most regrettable. However it must be realized that Gerard in no way represented or spoke for the Government and that, after all, it was the Government’s point of view that counted. Mouhtar Bey had been received by the government with great cordiality.”

Ambassador Ahmet Muhtar’s first official visit was to Detroit, in order to observe the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha (Kurban Bayramı) with a large community of Turkish immigrants, many of whom were laborers at the Ford Motor Company. Among them there were also restaurant owners. On the day of his arrival, there were around 400 Turks who greeted their Ambassador in Detroit. Another reason for Muhtar’s visit to Detroit was the ongoing talks between the Turkish government and Henry Ford about the opening of a Ford Factory in Istanbul. On August 23, 1925, an agreement for the establishment of a Ford automobile factory in Istanbul was signed but did not take effect until December 1928.[3] A week after the final approval of the agreement in 1928, a warehouse in Istanbul’s Tophane district was leased to Ford Motor Company by the Turkish Seaway Management (Seyrisefain İdaresi). Also in 1925, Henry Ford had invited the Turkish government to send 25 Turkish boys to Detroit to learn the automobile business in the factory and the Turkish government accepted the offer. Their travel expenses to the U.S. would be covered by the Turkish government and Henry Ford would pay them $5 a day.[4] Ford Motor Company Exports Incorporated in Istanbul finally began assembling Ford cars and trucks in 1929 with a capacity of seventy-five cars a day.

The first day of Ambassador Muhtar’s three-day visit to Detroit started with a speech at the meeting of the Red Crescent and Turkish Orphans’ Association at the auditorium of the Fort Wayne Hotel. The Ambassador and his party were greeted by the representative of the Turkish community in Detroit. “Detroit impresses me as a remarkable industrial center,” Muhtar said, “in some parts it resembles Istanbul near the Bosphorus.” He noted that his plan was to get in touch with the Turkish colony and remarked: “As the first ambassador to America of the Turkish Republic, I want to promote amicable understanding between our two peoples.” Muhtar also expressed his gratitude to the Turkish Orphans’ Association “for the efforts of his compatriots here to aid the needy youngsters in Turkey.”

The Governor of Michigan, Fred W. Green, said in a telegram to the Ambassador: “Michigan extends a hearty welcome to you in behalf of all its citizens. We are exceedingly proud of the fact that we have such a splendid representation of citizens of Turkish descent.”[5] Governor Green and Mayor John C. Lodge also sent their representatives to attend the dinner given by the Red Crescent and Turkish Orphans’ Association in honor of their Ambassador at the famous Book Cadillac Hotel which is currently known as the Westin Book Cadillac Detroit Hotel located at 1114 Washington Boulevard.

Ambassador Muhtar also visited Ford Airport and spent two hours inspecting the aircraft plant. The next year Turkish government officials paid a visit to Detroit which would eventually lead to the agreement with the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company for the establishment of an aircraft factory in Kayseri, in central Anatolia. When the Treaty of Commerce and Navigation between the U.S. and Turkey was ratified in 1930, a friendly and cooperative relationship between the two nations would flourish on many fronts. Turkish immigrants, who had migrated to the U.S. long before the establishment of the Turkish Republic, also contributed extensively to the development of friendship and cooperation between the newly established Turkish Republic and the United States.

[1] The Morning Call Sun, July 29, 1928.

[2] Joseph C. Grew. Turbulent Era: A Diplomatic Record of Forty Years. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1952.

[3] The New York Times, August 24, 1925. 

[4] Detroit Free Press, January 3, 1925.

[5] Detroit Free Press, June 3, 1928.