On September 18, 1922, a British diplomat handed Allen Dulles, chief of the Near East Desk for the U.S. State Department, the following message from the British foreign secretary regarding the unwillingness of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk to let rescue ships enter Smyrna harbor:
“Reply returned by Kemal September 18 to associated admirals and consul through Italian admiral is tantamount to condemnation of quarter of million people to death by starvation. H.M.G (His Majesty’s Government) feel confident that government to which you are accredited will instruct their naval representative at Smyrna to protest and press again for permission to embark refugees. British Senior Naval Officer at Smyrna is being instructed to do so.”
However, the U.S. State Department ignored the message, leaving tens of thousands of refugees helpless and hungry on the city docks and contributing to one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 20th century.
The disaster, known as the Catastrophe of Smyrna, began on September 13. On that day, Turkish nationalist forces had set four fires around the perimeter of the city’s Armenian neighborhood. Thereafter the flames spread and engulfed much of the city, forcing hundreds of thousands of helpless refugees — mainly Greeks — to flee to the waterfront.
As a result of the fires ignited by Turkish nationalist soldiers, historians estimate a Greek and Armenian death toll ranging from 10,000 to 100,000.
Boston University Professor Lou Ureneck covers the story in remarkable detail in his book titled The Great Fire, which he published in 2015.
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