On 27 December 1939, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Erzincan, Turkey, claiming close to 33 000 lives, and leaving 100 000 injured and 250 000 homeless. World War II was in its initial stages, and the USA was particularly concerned about the vulnerable situation in Turkey, since there was a possibility that it would join forces with Germany, as the Ottoman Empire had done in World War I. Consequently, the Turkish request for information on 'a type of quake resistant concrete construction understood to have been developed in California', resulted in a flurry of correspondence between numerous Turkish and American actors, including the US State Department, which supplied this material with notable attentiveness. As this article will argue, this request not only represents an early critical juncture in the transfer of earthquake engineering knowledge from the USA to Turkey, but also illustrates how diplomacy and engineering can intersect at pivotal points in time. Engineers and other scientific experts strengthened the Turkish-American relationship during this period, thereby laying the foundation of the technical cooperation that would flourish during the Cold War. This watershed moment also resulted in immediate developments in Turkey, such as the development of a comprehensive national disaster management programme, a seismic zone map, and earthquake building codes.