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The Case of George Horton

by Ismini and Chris Lamb

The Department of State recently set a useful precedent by honoring Archer Blood, the U.S. consul general in Dhaka during Pakistan’s brutal suppression of free elections in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). He reported Pakistani atrocities and complained when the United States refused to denounce them. Henry Kissinger, then the National Security Advisor, viewed Pakistan as a strategic ally. He had Blood recalled to Washington, clobbered with a career-ending poor evaluation, and stuck in a dead-end job. Blood’s story is told in the award-winning book, The Blood Telegram. By celebrating Blood and naming a conference room after him, the Department corrected an injustice. It should now do the same for George Horton, another diplomat punished for telling the truth and promoting humanitarian values.

The Horton and Blood cases are remarkably similar. Both men were consuls general who witnessed horrendous attacks on civilian populations. Both argued the United States should condemn these horrors, and both intervened to save lives and make the truth known. Both were punished by the Department of State for reporting the truth and challenging extant policy. Both later went public with their accounts, and both have been posthumously vindicated. The major difference is that Horton’s experience came half a century earlier and he was treated even worse.

The Case of Horton

Horton was the American consul general in Smyrna, Turkey (now Izmir) when Turkish Nationalists sacked and burned the city in September 1922.1 The State Department’s senior U.S. representative in Constantinople and Horton’s superior, Admiral Mark Bristol, covered up Turkish atrocities in hopes of securing access to Turkish oil. Horton contested Bristol’s false reporting in a series of increasingly vociferous cables. Allen Dulles, a friend of Bristol’s and the head of the Department’s Near East division, suppressed Horton’s reporting and instead gave Secretary of State Charles Hughes and President Warren Harding a report consistent with Bristol’s falsehoods. Poorly informed, they decided against supporting a British-recommended intervention to save the remaining 1.5M Christians still alive in Turkey.

HMS Iron Duke with burning Smyrna behind it. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
HMS Iron Duke with burning Smyrna behind it. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Department leaders had every reason to believe Horton and not Bristol. Horton was a diplomatic veteran with a stellar track record. When WWI ended, Wilbur Carr, the Director of the Consular Service, noted Horton had “a great and abiding reputation” as “one of the best men in the service.” Horton won plaudits from all sides for organizing relief programs for Muslim, Jewish, and Christian Ottomans and for intervening on behalf of numerous individuals from all those faiths throughout his 30-year career in the region. He was formally recognized by multiple governments and the Pope for his efforts. American businessmen also praised his commercial acumen and friendly relations with Turkish authorities.

Horton’s reputation made it difficult for Bristol to attack him directly, so he did it indirectly. Horton was married to a Greek, and the Department frowned upon foreign-born spouses at the time. Bristol, and others, suggested Horton was biased as a result. Carr knew this was not true. Businessmen and Horton’s vice-consuls reported the opposite. More importantly, Carr knew the results of the Department’s internal investigation of Horton for bias. Before Smyrna was burned, a disgruntled consular employee whom Horton had fired accused him of bias, which precipitated a high-level review. Albert Putney, the acting chief of the Near East division, conducted the investigation. Putney was a lawyer with a scholarly bent who become well-known for his prestigious twelve-volume, “Putney’s Law Library.” His report concluded the allegations were “much mistaken”:

I annex some of the telegrams recently received from Mr. Horton which show that he has not hesitated to criticize the conduct of the Greeks at Smyrna, in cases where he thought they were deserving criticism.…I think that a study of his telegrams and dispatches (which would appear to be the best evidence in the case) show that he furnishes the Department with all the information which he can secure and presents both sides of every case. In this respect he stands out in a striking but pleasing contrast with many of our officials abroad who always limit themselves to the presentation of one side of the case.

Carr reviewed Putney’s report and evidence and reached the same conclusion, as did the Secretary of State.

George Horton, about the time he left for service in the Ottoman Empire. Courtesy of George Horton Papers, Georgetown University
George Horton, about the time he left for service in the Ottoman Empire. Courtesy of George Horton Papers, Georgetown University

By contrast, Bristol was notorious for biased reporting. The Secretary of State objected to a Navy man being made senior diplomatic representative in Constantinople, but then relented. It did not take long for Bristol to demonstrate he put a low value on truth. Bristol manufactured false reports, punished his officers for telling the truth about atrocities, doctored reports from others, and tried to intimidate subordinates to change their testimony. The British and Greek governments and American missionaries all eventually demanded that Bristol be replaced. The Department dismissed the intelligence officer who drafted many of Bristol’s reports and asked Bristol to do better, citing Horton as a positive example, but never sacked Bristol.

Since no one knew about the Department’s internal investigation that exonerated Horton of bias until recently, the charges of bias clung to him despite his protestations and evidence to the contrary. In his book, The Blight of Asia, Horton shared letters of praise signed by Turkish leaders to demonstrate he was not anti-Turk or anti-Muslim. He also argued there “have been great Mohammedan civilizations that have contributed much to the world’s progress” that arose “through the fundamentally noble character and intelligence of the peoples that have founded them.” “It would not be fair to Mohammedans in general,” he concluded, “to say they approve of butchery and rape….”2

Horton was “antigenocide,” not “anti-Muslim.”3 He detailed Turkey’s “consistent program of exterminating Christianity throughout the length and breadth of the old Byzantine Empire,” insisting it was “carried on over a considerable period of time, with fixed purpose, with system, and with painstaking minute details” and “unspeakable cruelties.” Modern scholarship has substantiated all these points, most recently in a Harvard University Press book by two Israeli scholars who document how and why the Turks from 1894-1924 “murdered, straightforwardly or indirectly, through privation and disease, between 1.5 and 2.5 million Christians.”4

Roger Jennings’ Take on Horton

Nevertheless, over the past century many sources have simply repeated the accusations of Horton’s original detractors without offering any substantiating evidence.5 A case in point appeared in this journal in an article entitled One Man Changed Greece and Turkey Forever.6 The author, Roger Jennings, extols the humanitarian efforts of his grandfather, Asa Jennings, a pastor and YMCA missionary who arrived in Smyrna just before it was burned and helped organize a flotilla of ships to rescue hundreds of thousands of people. Roger Jennings’ article regrettably includes egregious falsehoods about Smyrna and Horton.

He claims Horton was “repeatedly invited to the meetings of the American Relief Committee,” where Asa Jennings “asked George Horton at each meeting to take action on behalf of the refugees.” Despite having “the title and prestige to seek an agreement with the Turks that would protect the civilians,” Roger Jennings claims Horton “in fact, did nothing on behalf of the refugees.” Numerous primary sources on Smyrna, including Horton’s cables, the U.S. consulate’s daily record book, and other participant testimonies prove these assertions are false. Moreover, Horton was not invited to American Relief Committee meetings; rather, he presided over them in his own consulate, including the meeting that created the committee.

Roger Jennings claims his account is based on private family records. If so, they are not consistent with what Asa Jennings said at the time. In an interview after the crisis, Asa described Horton in positive terms, saying Horton, “foreseeing the inevitable, called together the men of the American colony to discuss the best means of protecting American lives and property.”7 Asa offered to help Horton provide relief to refugees and Horton readily agreed. Asa said nothing negative about Horton, and YMCA records of his correspondence do not reveal him doing so either.8 If Asa did attack Horton in private, which seems inconsistent with his character, it only proves he was wildly confused, because all the charges Roger Jennings makes against Horton and even his basic facts about Smyrna are demonstrably wrong.

Jennings did not have to repeatedly plead with Horton to assist refugees because Horton was already doing so, as the Committee well knew. He officially requested aid for the refugees in his dispatches, and the American Relief Committee he supported, which was headed by Caleb Lawrence, not Asa Jennings, endorsed his requests.9 Horton repeatedly intervened personally to save lives in Smyrna—for example, by hiding refugees on American ships despite objections from Bristol’s Navy officers—and after arriving in Athens. The American missionary community praised his efforts for the refugees in a letter to the Secretary of State.

Roger Jennings’ assertion that Horton refused to mediate is the most glaring indication that he is not knowledgeable about this topic. Multiple histories of Smyrna’s demise, dating from the 1970s, note Horton’s cable to the Department in which he requested permission to mediate with the Turks to prevent violence.10 These sources also document that Horton was explicitly prohibited from mediation by President Harding himself, acting upon the recommendation of the Department of State.

Jennings also depicts Horton as spineless for leaving Smyrna. In fact, as Horton reported, the Ottoman Christians in Smyrna were in great danger but not himself and other native-born Americans. He explained in his cables that the Turks were being quite careful about who they harmed, not wanting to give any of the great powers an excuse for intervention. A few native-born Americans or Europeans were fired upon, beaten, or killed during the sacking of the city, but it was far different for naturalized Americans, whose adopted nationality was not recognized by the Turkish authorities. Horton rightly predicted the Turks would treat naturalized Americans horribly, which was why he was anxious to get them evacuated. Sadly, Bristol prohibited it. He sent his chief of staff, Captain Arthur Hepburn, to ensure Horton obeyed his “neutrality” orders, and repeatedly rejected Horton’s requests to evacuate, which cost the lives of several naturalized Americans (George Carathima, Joseph Tara, and others). Horton had to pressure Bristol and Hepburn to reverse their “no evacuation” position. Their price for doing so was that Horton had to leave also. They wanted Horton out of Smyrna because he was sending cables accurately reporting the horrors taking place there.

Roger Jennings is also mistaken in asserting, “all of the U.S. and U.K. citizens left Smyrna save one, Asa Jennings,” and thus “Asa did not have to defer to anyone and could take what he considered to be the best course of action.” Many Americans remained in Smyrna throughout the Turkish occupation, including Horton’s two vice consuls, Bristol’s Navy officers, and Caleb Lawrence and other members of the American Relief Committee. Neither Horton nor those remaining with Jennings tried to prevent him from assisting the refugees. On the contrary, they collaborated with him.

Rescue Was A Team Effort

Indeed, the very title of Roger Jennings’ article is misleading. “One man” alone did not save the refugees and change Greece and Turkey forever. Jennings was quickly well-recognized for his humanitarian work. After the fire, he was welcomed back to the United States with a New York Times headline announcing, “Man Who Rescued 300,000 Arrives!” However, Commander Halsey Powell, Captain Ioannis Theofanides, and others who played instrumental roles in the rescue of refuges have been overlooked until recently.11 Moreover, all these heroes, including Jennings, could do nothing until leaders at higher levels acted first.

In mid-September, as the fires in Smyrna died out, the refugees’ fate was hanging in the balance. As Asa Jennings noted, they were trapped on Smyrna’s wharf with “nowhere to go.” They were surrounded by “Turkish soldiers picketed to shoot anyone attempting to swim away.” Jennings watched “husbands snatched from the side of wives, and fathers from little children,” which “was almost too terrible to endure.”12

Desperate refugees swamp a boat. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command
Desperate refugees swamp a boat. Courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command

Still, Bristol did not support their evacuation because Turkey’s leader, Mustapha Kemal, was against it. On September 18, Kemal rejected Allied requests to evacuate the refugees, a decision the British protested was “tantamount to condemnation of a quarter of a million people to death.” Kemal partially reversed his decision the next day, allowing only women and children to depart, presumably for fear of Allied intervention. That same day Bristol followed suit, switched positions, and notified the Department that he, too, would support evacuation. The first group of refugees left two days later, and three days after that the large-scale evacuation began. The reality is that “one man” could do nothing until more senior leaders cleared the way. This does not diminish the heroic effort of Jennings and others, but it puts their efforts in context.

After that, Horton was recalled to Washington and given false, career-ending evaluations. He was prohibited from public speaking and laudatory attestations of his performance from U.S. businessmen and missionaries went missing from his personnel file. Worse, the Department defamed Horton to undermine his credibility. But Horton, like Blood, has been redeemed by research. Our new book, The Gentle American, from which much of the material in this article is drawn, tells his story based on primary documentation from the U.S. National Archives. One poignant finding is that all the skullduggery was for naught. The Turks never gave the Harding Administration the oil it wanted. In fact, the United States did not even need oil. Despite warnings of scarcity, American oil production exceeded domestic demand the year following Smyrna’s burning and the excess kept growing until, “by the end of the decade, the gloomy predictions of the early 1920s had been washed away by the flood of oil that seemed to flow unendingly out of the earth.”13 Bristol, Dulles and other Department of State officials had shamefully whitewashed genocide and blackguarded Horton for nothing.

Horton argued the injustice done to him was nothing compared to what millions of Christians in Asia Minor suffered. Nonetheless, it is an injustice that should be corrected for reasons beyond simple fairness and historical accuracy. Disciplining a subordinate for bucking policy is one thing but falsifying the record to punish subordinates for doing their job well is disgraceful—and counterproductive. Diplomats must support U.S. policy, but they should not be punished for accurately reporting and providing their best-informed views. No effective organization wants subordinates who only report what they believe will be popular and career-enhancing regardless of whether it is true. For this, if for no other reason, the Department should correct the record and honor Horton. It would emphasize to current Foreign Service Officers that they are expected to report truthfully regardless of political pressures and especially during crises of historical import.End.


1 All detailed studies of Smyrna’s destruction conclude the Turks burned Smyrna. See Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City (Newmark Press, New York, 1998); Giles Milton, Paradise Lost, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of Islam’s City of Tolerance (London: Sceptre, 2009); Robert Shenk, America’s Black Sea Fleet: The U.S. Navy Amidst War and Revolution 1919-1923 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2012); Lou Ureneck, The Great Fire: One American’s Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century’s First Genocide (New York: Harpers-Collins Publishers, 2015).
2 George Horton, The Blight of Asia (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1926): pp. 25, 238, 254, 261.
3 Horton, The Blight of Asia, pp. 28, 219.
4 Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, The Thirty-Year Genocide: Turkey’s Destruction of Its Christian Minorities, 1894–1924 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2019): 488, 501.
5 Justin McCarthy accuses Horton of bias based on the complaint filed against him, apparently unaware that it led to an investigation exonerating Horton and lauding him as a model of objectivity. Justin McCarthy, Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922 (Princeton, N.J.: Darwin Press, 1995), p. 316.
6 Roger Jennings, “One Man Changed Greece and Turkey Forever,” American Diplomacy, March 2010.
7 R.W. Abernethy, “The Great Rescue,” a chapter in Basil Mathews, The Spirit of the Game (George H. Doran Company, NY 1926), p. 168. Abernethy interviewed Asa Jennings while they were passengers on a ship.
8 Records of Asa Jennings’ YMCA work in Turkey, including his correspondence and reports, are housed at the Elmber L. Andersen Library of the University of Minnesota.
9 Ureneck, The Great Fire, pp.88-89.
10 For example, see Dobkin, Smyrna 1922, p. 111; and Ureneck, The Great Fire, p. 69.
11 Ureneck explains how these other actors, working with Jennings, organized the rescue.
12 Abernethy, “The Great Rescue,” pp. 194-95.
13 Daniel Yergin, The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power (London: Simon & Schuster, 2012), pp. 178-179, 218, 223.

Ismini Lamb

Ismini Lamb and Christopher Lamb are the authors of George Horton’s biography. Ismini is the Director of the Modern Greek Studies Program at Georgetown University, where she has taught and researched Greek language, history, and culture for more than 30 years. For the past nine years, she has researched and spoken about George Horton’s legacy.

Christopher Lamb
Christopher Lamb

Christopher has served as a Foreign Service Officer and senior official in the Department of State and in the Department of Defense. He is an award-winning author with numerous publications. Their biography, The Gentle American: George Horton’s Odyssey and His True Account of the Smyrna Catastrophe, is available from Gorgias Press, Amazon and other vendors in hardback, and in an eBook edition from Gorgias’ publishing partner, De Gruyter.


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