The years 1979 and 1980 were turning points in history. U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski described an “arc of crisis” across the Muslim world, from the Horn of Africa to the Indian subcontinent. The U.S.-backed monarchy in Iran fell to a revolution, and a similar scenario looked likely in Saudi Arabia. A pro-Soviet party took over Afghanistan in a coup d’etat, then called in Soviet troops to prop up the new regime. Conflicts in Yemen and Somalia continued to simmer.
An often overlooked event is Turkey’s September 1980 coup d’etat. From Washington, the coup may have looked like the end of a crisis. After years of political gridlock and violent unrest that killed five thousand people, Turkish generals seized power and began rounding up political opponents. Although the mass crackdown stopped the violence in the short term, a Kurdish rebellion broke out four years later. The ensuing Turkish-Kurdish conflict has lasted for four decades, killed tens of thousands of people, and spread across the Middle East.
The 1980 coup captures the changes that were under way in the global Cold War. On one hand, Turkey’s putsch was one of the last “Jakarta Method” coups, a style of military takeover favored by the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s. On the other hand, Washington had decided to respond to the setbacks of the 1970s with much more aggressive proxy warfare against the Soviet Union and pro-Soviet revolutionary movements. The Turkish coup laid the groundwork for this new campaign. It restored American leaders’ confidence in their power and shored up the United States’ flanks during its anti-Soviet offensive in the region.
In other words, the last stage of the Cold War may have begun in Ankara.
The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World by Vincent Bevins describes a pattern that occurred over and over again in the Third World during the early Cold War. In response to a crisis, right-wing military officers would declare that they had to intervene to stop a Communist takeover. After forcing out the civilian government, the military would unleash mass anti-leftist violence, which was portrayed as a self-defense campaign.
The violence often had American fingerprints, but no smoking gun that proved U.S. involvement. The CIA worked to destabilize countries under left-wing governments, provoking the crises that gave the military an excuse to take over. And the officers involved often had close ties to the U.S. military. However, there was almost never a written U.S. order to launch a coup. At most, U.S. officials signaled their approval to plots that were already unfolding.
This model reached its murderous apex during Indonesia’s 1965 crisis. After several generals were murdered in Jakarta under murky circumstances, right-wing officers announced that they had foiled a Communist coup plot and seized power for themselves. Spreading lurid stories about Communist witchcraft, the military regime declared open season on anyone accused of left-wing loyalties. Nationalist, Muslim, and Catholic death squads murdered around half a million people over the following months.
The exact degree of U.S. involvement is still unknown. As Bevins writes, British and U.S. officials had agreed in the 1960s that a “premature [Communist Party] coup” would be the best opportunity “to start a reversal of political trends in Indonesia.” The CIA had been involved in attempts to destabilize Indonesia before the coup, and helped distribute anti-leftist hit lists afterwards. But on the day of the coup itself, the U.S. Embassy appeared to be surprised by the Indonesian military’s actions.
The Indonesian purges became a rallying cry for anticommunist forces around the world. The Brazilian military, which had taken over in 1964, began planning a purge called “Operation Jakarta.” Brazil went on to support similar coups in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina, helping to organize an alliance of anticommunist military governments. In the run-up to Chile’s 1973 coup, leftists received threatening letters warning them that “Jakarta is coming.”
Turkey’s 1980 coup shares many elements of the Jakarta Method. The Turkish generals behind the coup had U.S. training and maintained close ties to the Joint United States Military Mission for Aid to Turkey (JUSMMAT). These officers were responding to a crisis that had been inflamed, at least indirectly, by covert U.S. action; many of the right-wing militants involved in Turkey’s 1970s upheaval had received backing through the CIA’s secret Gladio programs. Like the Indonesian and Latin American coups, the Turkish military takeover involved mass purges, including the arrest of half a million dissidents.
Again, the degree of U.S. involvement in the coup itself is disputed. Former CIA officer Paul Henze later said that “the Carter administration would not have discouraged the takeover, if informed in advance, but preferred not to be.” Turkish general and coup leader Kenan Evren claimed in 2011 that he only alerted JUSMMAT of the military’s intentions on the night of the coup. However, the generals’ internal discussions show that they had “received necessary signals from their military counterparts in the U.S.” beforehand, or at least believed they had, argues Ömer Aslan in The United States and Military Coups in Turkey and Pakistan.
Interestingly, Evren seemed to see Jakarta as a cautionary tale to avoid, even though he followed in its footsteps. “Should we be like the countries in Latin America or Africa?” he recalled asking in his 1990 memoirs. After all, Turkey was not a postcolonial Third World country, and pre-coup prime minister Süleyman Demirel was no leftist. At the end of the day, however, the military felt that it had an opportunity, a duty, and a tacit U.S. green light to reassert its dominance through the Jakarta Method.
If the right could invoke Jakarta, the left could invoke Vietnam. Two decades of escalating U.S. involvement had failed to shore up the anticommunist regime in South Vietnam. In fact, it backfired. Within a few weeks in early 1975, the United States was forced out of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos by Communist advances. Turkish and Kurdish leftists looked up to the Vietnamese struggle as a model for their own.
It was not a good time to be a U.S. partner. A few months earlier, in 1974, a Communist coup had overthrown Ethiopia’s monarchy. That same year, an internal revolution forced Portugal to withdraw from its colonies, leading to left-wing takeovers in Angola and Mozambique. Civil war broke out in Cyprus, and threatened to tear the Western bloc apart, as Greece pulled its forces out of NATO to protest Turkey’s intervention in the Cypriot crisis.
More revolutions came in 1979. Leftists seized power in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Grenada. Islamists took control of the Iranian government, and although they were happy to use the CIA’s list of Communists to be killed, the new Islamic Republic was stubbornly opposed to U.S. interests.
The Carter administration was desperate to stop the bleeding, starting with Brzezinski’s “arc of crisis.” It began arming rebels in Afghanistan, deepened its ties to the Turkish military, and declared control of the Persian Gulf a vital U.S. interest. The Reagan administration, which took office in 1981, turbocharged those efforts. It initiated a loud public campaign in favor of anticommunist rebels in Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Angola, while more quietly stepping up support to U.S. client states across the Third World.
The 1980 coup was the first real victory for this campaign. Or, at least it was in American eyes. “Given the fears that had developed that Turkey might go the way of Iran and the entire Western security position in the Middle East might disintegrate, there was a great sense of relief throughout Washington when the change occurred,” wrote Henze in his 1998 book Turkey and Atatürk’s Legacy.
Decades later, U.S. officials continued to celebrate the coup. During Egypt’s 2013 upheaval, former U.S. diplomat James Jeffrey suggested that the Egyptian military should take a page from Turkish history. Jeffrey had served as a U.S. State Department political-military officer in Turkey in the 1980s and was later appointed the ambassador to Ankara in 2008. He called Turkey’s 1980 coup “the most successful of the region’s many military interventions over the past two generations” that produced both a “democratic success” and “a stable, strong, and helpful U.S. ally.”
It’s little wonder why Washington was so heartened by Turkey’s military putsch. Not only did Turkey exit the arc of crisis, but it also returned to being a pillar of the Western bloc. U.S. aid and weapons sales flowed to the new Turkish military government. Soon after the coup, Washington was able to secure a Turkish-Greek agreement that returned Greece to NATO. U.S. officials, according to the Washington Post, hailed the pact as “a realization by Greece and Turkey of the difficulties the Western alliance has come to face in the past year or so.”
Having stabilized its Turkish flank, the United States was able to go on the offensive in the region. The CIA and its partners poured aid into the Islamist insurgency in Afghanistan. In the nearby Iran-Iraq War, the United States backed Iraq just enough to prevent an Iranian victory, while also brokering a secret side-deal to finance Nicaraguan guerrillas by selling weapons to Iran, a scheme known as the Iran-Contra affair. These operations would be impossible, or at least far more difficult, without a friendly Turkish government.
Although Turkey did not play as active a role as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, or Israel in these operations, it was a supporting character. Planes carrying American weapons from Israel to Iran overflew Turkish airspace. (The Turkish government may not have been so enthusiastic about the latter scheme, and investigated reports that a U.S. official had bribed air traffic control to allow the shipments through.) Turkey, along with many other countries, sold weapons to the Afghan rebels.
Most importantly, the Turkish military agreed in 1982 to set up a program of “colocated operating bases” in order to fight off any further Soviet move towards the Persian Gulf. Turkey was an immovable object for the Soviet Union and the ultimate insurance policy for the United States in the region.
The chessboard view of the Middle East, of course, missed what was happening inside Turkey. The unrest only ended because of a massive program of torture and killing. Out of the hundreds of thousands of people jailed by the military regime, scores were tortured, and several hundred died in custody. Tens of thousands of people were stripped of Turkish citizenship. When multiparty democracy “returned” in 1982, it was tightly controlled by the military, which wrote a new constitution for the Turkish republic. The tensions that had led to the unrest of the 1970s, hidden by repression, would eventually resurface.
The coup traumatized almost all sectors of Turkish civilian political life. Turkey’s current Islamist president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made breaking the military’s power and memorializing the victims of 1980 a major part of his agenda. The government put Evren and fellow coup plotter Tahsin Şahinkaya on trial, sentencing them to life imprisonment in 2014. Both died the following year.
The secular opposition, too, remembers the 1980 coup as a terrible episode. When Turkish army officers attempted a new coup against Erdoğan in 2016, opposition parties rallied against it. However strongly they oppose each other, Turkey’s civilian politicians all agree that the military cannot be trusted to rule again.
The deepest impact, however, was on Kurdish society. The military regime banned the Kurdish language. Thousands of Kurds passed through Diyarbakır’s newly-built central prison, which became one of the most infamous torture dungeons in the world, and over thirty died in custody. The 1982 constitution solidified the Turkish nationalist character of the state and closed off paths to local Kurdish self-government. Exiled to Lebanon, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) trained for armed struggle against the Turkish government. The ensuing Turkish-Kurdish conflict has continued, outlasting the end of the Cold War by over thirty years.
James Jeffrey, the U.S. diplomat who wrote approvingly of the 1980 coup, later became U.S. special envoy for Syria. Under his watch, Turkey turned Syrian Islamist guerrillas into its own proxy force, deploying them against Armenian, Libyan, and — above all — Syrian Kurdish opponents. In a throwback to the 1980s, Jeffrey has argued that Turkey is an important bulwark against Russia. And he has compared U.S. policy in Syria to the anti-Soviet proxy war in Afghanistan.
Much has been written about the blowback caused by U.S. support for Islamist rebels in the 1980s. Defending his choice to back those militants, Brzezinski infamously said in 1998 that “the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War” were “more important in world history” than “a few agitated Muslims.” Just three years later, Islamists based in Afghanistan would become public enemy number one in American eyes.
The trauma of 1980 has similarly taken on a life of its own. And just like the Islamist uprisings, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict has similarly become a source of transnational upheaval. Every Turkish shell that lands in Syria or Iraq, every bullet fired by left-wing Kurdish guerrillas, and every belligerent word in an Erdoğan speech carries an echo of 1980. The world we know today would not be possible without it.
(Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)