Not every distinguished visitor to Skaneateles is someone you’d like to bump into at breakfast. Admiral Mark Bristol, who visited Roosevelt Hall in August of 1931, was one such notable. At the time, Bristol was chairman of the General Board of the United States Navy, the Navy of which his host, Harry Roosevelt, was the Assistant Secretary.
But between 1919 and 1927, Bristol had served as the United States’ High Commissioner in Turkey, answering for much of the time to Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes. Editorial writers had dubbed Hughes the Secretary of Oil, citing his legal work for, and ardent defense of, American oil interests. Noted one writer, “It does not matter where in the world the oil is, if it is an oil well, Mr. Hughes has noble principles available which will apply to it.”
Turkey had oil. Hughes wanted it for the U.S.A., and Admiral Bristol wanted it for the ships of the U.S. Navy. Thus Bristol’s role as the highest U.S. official in the region was to groom and accommodate the Turks in every way.
But American public opinion would not be groomed so easily. Turkey, allied with Germany, had been our enemy in World War I. Within its own borders, while the world was distracted with war, Turkish forces had slain more than a million Armenians and “redistributed” their wealth, in a stated effort to expunge all traces of the Armenians from Turkey. The Armenians were Christians, as well, and many had relations in the United States. A recent enemy currently engaged in a genocide against Christians — that was going to be a hard sell.
Bristol’s job was to smooth things over, help the Turks deny that the Armenian genocide happened, say both sides behaved badly during the war, spread the blame around, confuse the issue, and persuade those who wanted to work with the Turks – whether oil men or missionaries – that we had best let bygones be bygones. He was awfully good at it.
As part of his campaign of obfuscation, he avoided passing along inconvenient truths. Instead, Bristol wrote letters to colleagues and superiors that included statements like this one:
“To me it is a calamity to let the Greeks have anything in this part of the world. The Greek is about the worst race in the Near East.”
And this equal-opportunity slur, in a letter to Admiral William Sims in 1920:
“The Armenians are a race like the Jews. They have little or no national spirit and poor moral character.”
In other words, it was the victims’ fault. Bristol, however, was wrongly characterized as a lover of the Turks; in fact, he had disdain for everyone in the region. Referring to the Armenians, Syrians, Jews, Greeks and Turks he wrote in his diary:
“If you shake them up in a bag you wouldn’t know which one will come up first, but the Turk is the best of the lot.”
Of course. The Turks had oil. He was a bigot, but he was their bigot, one whom the genocide-deniers revere and quote to this day. Fortunately for history, whenever Bristol received evidence of the genocide, he carefully filed it with the very letters he wrote denying it, and no one thought to sanitize his papers after his death.
To return to Skaneateles – a village in 1931 with few Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Jews or Turks – Bristol probably had a nice, quiet weekend at Roosevelt Hall. He died in 1939.