America and the Armenian Genocide

Remains of Armenian victimsDigging the remains of Armenian victims, 1938. (Photo: Armenian Genocide Museum Institute)

April 24, 2015 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, the first genocide of the twentieth century, and a horrific event that still has repercussions for American foreign policy today. Like the other genocides that would follow in the decades to come, the United States would not muster the will to intervene in what American Ambassador Henry Morgenthau called “a death warrant to a whole race.”

By 1908, a new political “triumvirate” of military officers had seized power in Turkey. Known as “the sick old man of Europe,” the Ottoman Empire was crumbling. It had lost its territory in the Balkans, and was no longer seen as a world power. The new leadership promised to modernize and “Turkify” the empire. When the Great War broke out, the Ottomans feared a Russian invasion. After the Turks lost the battle of Sarikamish in 1915, the Turkish government blamed the Armenians. On April 24, the Turkish government ordered the execution of Armenian leaders and intellectuals. They were rounded up and then executed. By July 13, Turkish leaders handed down another order: “every Armenian without exception, must go.” Across the empire, Armenians were rounded up, asphyxiated, marched into the desert to die, drowned, or shot. Women were kidnapped, raped, sold into slavery, or killed.

Cries for help made their way from the clergy in the region to the American Ambassador in Constantinople, Henry Morgenthau. Morgenthau raised the alarm in the states, and called for immediate aid. In 1915, the New York Times published 145 articles on Armenia. They used the words “deliberate,” “authorized,” “systematic,” and “extermination.” President Wilson assured Americans that the “United States is doing everything that is diplomatically possible to check the terrible business.” He even set aside a weekend in October for “Syrian and Armenian Relief Days,” where he hoped Americans would give charitably. These efforts were feeble at best, and still, no military aid came. By 1923, 1.5 million Armenians, or two-thirds of the population, were dead.

The reality was that Wilson wanted to maintain neutrality as long as possible. Unwilling to intervene, he turned America’s attention back to the German menace. In a speech to Congress, Wilson declared that Turkey and Bulgaria “are mere tools and do not stand in direct path of our necessary action. We shall go wherever the necessities of this war carry us, but it seems to me that we should go only where immediate and practical considerations lead us and not heed any others.”

America’s failure to intervene would be neither its first nor its last. Even in 2015, President Obama refuses to call atrocities in Armenia genocide because Turkey has threatened to cut off diplomatic ties with America if he does. In the eyes of Turkish leaders, the deaths were the suppression of a subversive nationalist movement. As in 1915, the American government still struggles to balance moral leadership with political pragmatism.

About the Author

Steven Cromack

Historian. Teacher. James Madison Fellow. Steven Cromack teaches high school social studies in the Boston suburbs, lives for the moment, and pursues Life itself.

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5 Comments

  1. Thank you for this well written article on one of the many tragic mistakes we have made as a country! The Turks committed the crime but the rest of the world turned a blind-eye..In the 1980’s I was a part-time caretaker and friend to a man who came to America as an 8 year old boy to live with cousins in Worcester after his Father, Mother and Sister were murdered…He was in his 80’s and could still recall and tell the story of the horror! You can not erase the truth by saying it didn’t happen!!!

  2. you must be objective,
    First of all you should know all of the history between Turks and Armenian. in Ottoman empire we lived together in Peace by the end of 1800, what happened then. after that Armenian started some attacks against Turks as a result of impact of Russia, and then everything went worse,
    I don’t mean everything was ok for Turk side, but you should also know , Ottoman was in a war against Russia and Armenian supported Russia, Ottoman had to force Armenian to migrate, but it was not genocide
    yes I am a Turk, and my perspective is so, but in our school the hostility isn’t taught against Armenian

    regards

    1. Ahmet, thanks for your comment. I’m wondering if you can explain your position a little more. Specifically, what information in this article do you think is skewed? The information provided seems to correspond to the most updated scholarship, including scholarship conducted by leading human rights groups: http://www.unitedhumanrights.org/genocide/armenian_genocide.htm

      I’m also hoping that you can provide some evidence and clarification for two of your larger claims. First, you claim that the Armenian people supported the Russian military. When I did my research, I found that some men did in fact desert to Russian lines, including a number of Armenian soldiers, but I could not find any evidence for a large-scale pro-Russian movement in Armenian communities (as if such a movement would justify the burning and drowning of entire villages of non-combatants). I did, however, find evidence that Ottoman leaders used these isolated cases as propaganda to rally support for anti-Armenian policies.

      Your second claim is that this was not a genocide. I certainly understand the use of caution when deploying this term. History is filled with terrible violence, and to overuse the term “genocide” is to reduce its meaning. But if you define it as a deliberate attempt to destroy an entire group based on perceived racial differences, then this history of wholesale slaughter certainly fits the mold. To say that a state-sponsored killing of 1.5 million men, women, and children of one ethnic group is nothing more than an unsuccessful forced migration seems fairly problematic, to say the least. Do you define “genocide” differently? Or do you believe that our numbers are wrong? Any clarity you can provide here will be very helpful.

      Best,
      Mike

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