When Bob Livingston told me I had this opportunity to come and to speak about the extraordinary life of Atatürk and his meaning, not just for Turkey , but for the world, I was thrilled to be allowed to do so.
I want to take you back, and you can use the phrase 125th anniversary, but I want to take you back for just a minute or two since I did teach history, to 1881, because I think sometimes when you deal with these great figures who transform life for millions, it’s easy to forget how really big the change was, and for them how lonely it must have been.
The world into which Mustafa Kemal was born was a totally different world. It was a different world in technology. It was a world before electric lights, a world before telephones. I have two grandchildren who are four and six, so I don’t try to explain to them that there was pre-television and pre-cell phone, pre-blackberry, because that would be unthinkable, and they couldn’t imagine it. But you and I know here is a young man growing up in a world totally different from the world he will leave at the end of his life. And it was a world which had an empire which had been around a very long time and that occupied a tremendous amount of territory. And there was no natural reason as a young man for him to think about the notion that the Ottoman Empire would disappear. There was no natural reason for him to contemplate the collapse of European civilization, the disappearance of Czarist Russia, the removal of Kaiser Wilhelm. And yet early in his life, he would begin to have these experiences.
Remember that he is 33 years old when the First World War begins, and it is not at all obvious, everybody expected in August of 1914 that it would be a three month war. It would be over quickly. And yet it drove on for four years. A hundred million people died. It was capped by a world wide epidemic of flu which we called in the U.S. the Spanish flu. It was a worldwide influenza which killed more people than had died in the four years of war. And at that point, as one of the most successful generals, the general I would argue, and I think most historians would agree, was the decisive figure in the Gallipoli campaign. That it was his leadership, and I’m looking forward to the New Zealand Ambassador’s comments because in a very real sense, it was Ataturk’s leadership, his toughness, his directness, his ingenuity, his energy, and drive which enabled the Ottomans to stop the British, Australians, New Zealand and French, allied landing on the peninsula.
And yet in the very process of successfully defending his country, he was studying the modernity of his opponents, he was learning what was necessary for success in the modern world. And when after the war the Ottoman Empire was disappearing, he was faced with an enormous decision, and I think, again I want you to place yourself in what is still a very young man at that point, someone who at 37 or 38 years of age is suddenly saying, all of the leadership around me is collapsing. All of the old rules are dying. And there are really two choices. There was a choice to create a classic military despotism and to preside over something which I argue you saw happening in Iraq during that period, something you saw happen in Egypt, something you saw happen in many places where strong men seized power with a self-perpetuation of their own agenda, something which has plagued much of Latin America for the last century, where we get very strong people, but they don’t apply their strength for the good of the country. They apply their strength to the advantage of the elite.
And he looked around and he had two I think key insights which are extraordinary. Many years ago when I first became Speaker I think I shocked the Turkish ambassador because I was such a big fan of Ataturk. I remember at the time I was wonderfully received, and when one of my associates Dr. Stephen Kinzer was able to visit Turkey shortly after I gave the speech about the importance of Ataturk, he has never been better received anywhere in the world. People were just so nice to him. But I was fascinated as a young college teacher and before that as a graduate student because Ataturk has two extraordinary insights that he then allows to guide his heart and his head. And very often people have insight and then they forget them because they are too frightening or too hard, or they mean well, they are words up here but they are not actions down here. And the insights are actually contradictory. Bear with me, and those of you who are Turkish correct me if I get my understanding of history wrong, because they seem to be in the opposite direction.
The first is he is going to modernize the people, not just modernize the government, not just modernize the elite, but he’s going to think through and then implement, carrying an entire great people into the modern world in terms of education, the entire effort to turn the whole country into a classroom so that literally in a matter of a year people were writing differently, moving into the modern world. The elimination of the fez.
When you start interfering with the very things people wear, you are in the heart of challenging their entire life. And yet he is carrying an argument that this is the cost of modernity. If we’re going to be a modern people, if we’re going to be strong enough to protect ourselves, and I rank him with Deng Chou Ping’s (phonetic sp.) great speech across southern China when he said, he didn’t say communism was over. He couldn’t have said that. He said at one point, “I don’t care if it is a black cat or a white cat as long as the cat catches the mouse.”
Now what he was saying to the Communist cadres was if free enterprise can build a factory, that’s good. If communism can build a factory, that’s good. And there’s actually a big bridge in southern China where they have these huge statues of black and white cats when you drive across the bridge because all of a sudden Deng Chou Ping was liberating the Chinese from the straitjacket of Maoism saying, if we are going to live in the future, we have to be prepared for change.
The other great moment when this also happens is when the Meijing restoration occurs in Japan and a small group of generals, the people at that time were about Ataturk’s age, in their early 30’s, would then guide Japan for 40 years. And from 1868 to 1925 was one of the great moments of modernization. And in my mind, you can see a direct parallel. These are people who are saying, for us to survive, our country has to become strong. For our country to become strong, it has to become modern, and for the country to become modern, the people have to live in the modern world, not just the bureaucrats, not just the generals, the people.
So on one level, he is this remarkable example of bringing together and carrying an entire nation into the future at a moment when it was not obvious. Remember, Turkey as it had become at the end of the Ottoman Empire , had lost all of its external provinces, it had lost many of its sources of wealth, it had been through a long and debilitating war. There was no reason to believe that out of this you could suddenly create a great new nation.
And secondly, and this is often misunderstood by people who are in the rarified world of academics or politics. To carry Turkey to the West, he moved the capitol East. It was very important that he recentered the government in Ankara to recenter the heart of the Turkish highlands so that Turkish people would look in at themselves and not be constantly looking at the Mediterranean and constantly looking towards Europe, because he understood that he had to unite these great streams, the populist and national sentiment of being Turkish with the meaning of being Turkish to become modern, democratic, and advanced. And that is genius.
But what made it truly historic wasn’t that he understood it. It was that he then spent the entire rest of his life living that out; that he both imposed his will when he had to, and he patiently grew to capacity of the Turkish people towards self government, towards productivity, and towards modernity. It’s very seldom you get both. Sometimes you have people who, in the effort to grow, people are too weak, and, therefore, the whole thing falls apart. And you could argue in a sense that was the great crisis the Shah faced in Iran late in his career, that he didn’t know how to balance these two, how to both modernize and nationalize simultaneously.
Now what was the result? The result was first of all something he could not have predicted in 1918, the rise of a coherent modern nation of people who were proud of both their heritage and of their future, of a people who governed themselves, who have elections, who fight over power in precisely the way that we in this country believe God endowed all of us with the right.
And to set a little bit of delicate territory, let me say that when the Turkish Parliament could not give permission for the American Fourth Division to go through Turkey, I wasn’t shocked because we had not won the argument in the hearts of the Turkish people, and the newly elected government of Turkey in a democracy had 93 percent disapproval. Like I say to people, in the modern world it’s not good enough to have our ambassador talk to their ambassador and our secretary of state talk to their foreign minister. If we can’t win the argument in the hearts of the people in a free society, you cannot expect the government of a free society to carry it through.
Just as in Germany , Schroeder won the election in part because the German people said “no”, we don’t want to go through that. And so you have to have some respect for the very traits that Ataturk was creating, a modern country, but a country that’s a democracy where people do matter, and where people have to wrestle with their own lives, they have to make many decisions about the kind of future they want, the kind of life they want, the kind of opportunity they want for their children and their grandchildren.
And so I think when we gather today for this kind of event, you’re celebrating more than a man, although whether one argues Washington or Lincoln, it’s not a bad league to be in. This is certainly I think a man who ranks with the great modern nation builders of the last 100 years. A man eminently worth of study for anyone who would like to solve the problems of sub Saharan Africa, anyone who would like to solve the problems of democracy in the Arab world, anyone who would like to try to help the Chinese make the transition to freedom, because there’s something magic about how Ataturk reached out, personified the future of Turkey, and got the Turkish people, convinced the Turkish people to invest their hopes in his courage and to invest their fears in his leadership and therefore to move in a 25 year period into a better world.
One of the byproducts of that was that when the Cold War began, Turkey resolutely sided with the West and was a very key player in containing the Soviet empire for 44 years. It’s easy to forget how hard this was, how long a process this was, how much pressure there was sometimes to back down. My father fought in the Korean War, and always felt permanent affection for the Turkish brigade, which was so heroic, and so competent and proved its capabilities so beautifully, standing side by side as part of the Alliance .
Today, despite occasional arguments, the fact is that there is so much more that binds us together that can push us apart. And the truth is if in the long run we are to win the war on terrorism, and if in the long run we are to help all the Middle East in becoming democracies, the road to a great deal of that will be through Turkey and will be side by side with the Turkish people.
And so I felt when Bob called and offered me this chance that this was a great opportunity and time for the United States . I don’t get many invitations to go to the local Rotary Club and explain the central role of Ataturk. It’s something I’ve studied, I’ve thought about, I’ve tried at times to learn from. I’ve tried to see in what ways we can learn to do things better and more effectively by studying how he did it. And I commend each and every one of you for taking the time out of your life today for two reasons. One because it is good to celebrate who we are and where we came from. It strengthens, those flags matter, people are bound together by emotions that draw upon the memories of history and draw upon the facts.
But there’s a second reason. There are some young people here today who may learn to dream of a bigger future for themselves, and they learn that they, too, can play a role in solving problems, and helping the people, and having a better future. And in that sense I think that Ataturk is a model that every young person in the world should study fully as much as we would encourage them to study Washington and Lincoln, and fully as much as we would encourage them to study the other leaders who spent their lives trying to bring people into the modern world, to help them achieve suffrage and give them a chance to live in freedom and safety.
So I look forward for many years to come to work with you and to work with the people so that together Americans and Turks can create a better future working towards the kinds of things we want our children and our grandchildren to experience.
Thank you very, very much.