The first of its kind in the history of the Republic of Turkey, the 1960 coup resulted in the prosecution of 592 people and execution of three leading political actors. The notorious coup was a breaking point in Turkish politics, as many political parties and their leading actors determined their policies in accordance with its outcomes, with some still continuing to do so. On May 27, 1960 the military overthrew the government of then-Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Menderes and his fellow Democrat Party (DP) members were tried in 14 separate cases on Yass?ada, an island in the Marmara Sea. The judges overseeing the case handed down three death penalties, 12 life sentences and hundreds of long-term imprisonments. The coup stands as a unique opportunity for anyone who wants to understand what is going on in Turkey today, because many current developments are reflections of these events.
On the morning of May 27, 1960 we were awakened by a telephone call from my grandmother who lived just a few blocks away from our house. It was just around six in the morning. In a tense and shaky voice she said, “Turn on your radio,” and hung up. There was no TV those days and only one national radio station broadcasting to the entire country. I was eleven years old; about to finish my elementary school education, and getting ready to take the dreaded entrance exams to be accepted to one of the four foreign language middle schools inIstanbul. Spring in Istanbul was in full bloom and like every other kid in the country, I was looking forward to a summer vacation without school work, lots of swimming and enjoying lazy afternoons in the shade reading comic books.
My father turned on the reliable old Phillips. After hearing a few military marching tunes, the music abruptly stopped and we heard the deep and metallic voice of a man who was in later years identified as an Army Colonel. “Hello! Hello! This is the voice of your friendly armed forces. We have taken over the country in the air, the sea, and the land. Please remain calm and stay in your homes. Martial law has been declared as of 4:00 AM and anyone seen in the streets will be shot immediately.” Military marching tunes resumed immediately.
My father was a businessman in Istanbul with many connections to the ruling party in the government; we had relatives who were congressmen, mayors, and governors. This was a military coup; the elected government had fallen and this was a time of extreme anxiety. The government was controlled by the Democrat Party which had been in power since 1950. They were the first political party to be popularly elected to run the government in the history of the country since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s revolution in 1923 to end the 600 year old Ottoman Empire ruled by powerful sultans, and turned Turkey into a western style republic.
We were all aware of the fact that things had not been normal since the beginning of the year. There was unrest all around the country; universities were closed and student demonstrations were taking place intown squares on a daily basis. The Government was taking a very tough stance and not giving in to any of the demands of the students, workers, or the public. Workers were now on strike and everyone seemed to wish to get this government removed and to get on with their lives. We were all aware of the constitutionally recognized role of the Turkish Armed Forces as protectors of democracy and the constitution; but no one could have imagined them staging a coup! This was totally unexpected, unheard of, and never done before!
Prime Minister Mr. Menderes who ran the government for the last ten years was a friend of our family and I had seen him around my father on a number of occasions. My sister and I were too young to understand, let alone appreciate the situation at that moment. I was more worried about finishing elementary school and taking the week long entrance exams; I was not worried about a military coup which was way above my comprehension! That was for the adults to worry about. My father looked very troubled. He did not say much but tried unsuccessfully to make a few phone calls. The phone lines were dead. Our only connection to the outside world, our radio was now playing martial music. The Colonel was making various announcements and stern warnings every half an hour. “We are members of the NATO Alliance; we are members of the CENTO Alliance. We believe in the United Nations. We are committed to bringing back democracy to our country as soon as possible.” Later that morning, he announced that Prime Minister Menderes was arrested and thePresident was also in custody along with all the members of the cabinet. They were now starting to arrest the members of Congress. When he heard that announcement, my father looked at my mother and said, “Who do you think will be next?”
My father, with a PhD from Purdue and with a thriving business in town, was always a fierce competitor, a very tough man, and a strong supporter of the Democrat Party, having served at high levels of the party organization. It was now around 10:00 AM. He walked over to his closet and pulled out a small caliber handgun from a drawer. I had never seen his gun before; or rather I had never seen a gun before in my life! With that, he ordered my mother, my younger sister, and me into a small room, brought the radio in so we could hear the announcements, pulled the curtains down, and told us to remain calm and silent. He said, “We don’t know who is taking over the country. If they are communists, I can assure you we will not live under such an oppressive regime.” He said nothing more. Neither my sister nor I had any idea what an oppressive regime or Communism meant; we were just very worried about my father holding a gun in his hand. For the next eight hours or so, we were cooped up in that small room with frequent trips to the bathroom and to the kitchen for water; my father sitting there with his gun in hand and a worried distant look on his face; my mother crying quietly, and my sister and I saying absolutelynothing.
By the end of the day, my father started to figure out the direction and the tone of the coup and somehow relaxed; putting his handgun away and allowing us to get out of the small room back into the rest of the house. Martial law lasted for a few more days. As the events unfolded, we understood the severity of the situation. All the arrested government officials and politicians were herded onto a small island near Istanbul where a military base was used as a jail. There were month-long trials, on this small island, which we followed nightly on the radio. Prime Minister Menderes and three other cabinet members were found guilty of various charges and they were taken to another small military controlled island and promptly hanged. After three years of military rule, a new constitution was drawn up; elections were held, and the main opposition party came into power during 1963.
Many years have passed since that dark and gloomy day in the Ayasun home; two more military coups took place; two more constitutions were written. Mr. Menderes’ remains were dug up from the unmarked grave in the small island where he was hanged and brought to Istanbul with great pomp and circumstance and buried in a memorial.
My father recently turned 90 and on the occasion I called and asked him about that most memorable day in our lives, May 27, 1960. What were you planning to do with your gun? I asked him. He thought for a minute and said, “I never would have allowed my family to live under an oppressive communist regime.”
Currently chairman of Marco Island’s Code Enforcement Board, Tarik Ayasun has given many years of community service to various organizations.