Robert G. Koolakian’s Struggle for Justice: A Story of the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia: 1915-1920 is a welcome contribution to early Armenian American relations (Dearborn: Armenian Research Center, University of Michigan, 2008). Seminal studies for Koolakian’s work emerged from his 1967 master’s thesis, “Mr. Azadian Came to America.”
The book provides details on the early history of the lobby group, American Committee for the Independence of Armenia (ACIA). Koolakian’s major contribution is the unknown background to the ACIA inaugural meetings and banquet at the prestigious Plaza Hotel in New York, attended by some of the most powerful members of America’s establishment.
What is so unusual about the ACIA events, which took place 90 years ago (on Feb. 7-11, 1919)? In Koolakian’s words: “The ACIA founding ceremonies…were among the most auspicious peacetime gatherings in modern history.” By diligent detective work, Koolakian identified many of the 400 dignitaries shown in the banquet photographs: Mrs. Woodrow Wilson (First Lady); William Howard Taft (former U.S. president); Charles Evans Hughes (future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court); John D. Rockefeller (oil magnate); William Randolph Hearst (newspaper tycoon); George Eastman (industrialist); Nicholas Murray Butler (president, Columbia University); Henry Morgenthau, Sr. (former U.S. ambassador to Turkey), and many others.
There was also a scattering of Armenians at the banquet. These included: Ambassador Garegin (‘Armen Garo’) Pastermadjian of the Republic of Armenia; Arshalouis (‘Aurora’) Mardiginian (author and star of the film, “Ravished Armenia”); and, M. Vartan Malcolm (lawyer and author of The Armenians in America).
At the heart of Struggle for Justice is the surprising presence of “The Syracuse Triumvirate” at the ACIA Banquet: Harutun Azadian (Azadian Gauge Manufacturing Co.); George Koolakian (the author’s grandfather and founder of the prestigious Custom Garment Making Co.); and Harry Philibosian (rug dealer and real estate entrepreneur. His nephew, Stephen Philibosian was a noted benefactor of the Armenian Missionary Association of America).
Since Syracuse was located in upstate New York, far from the main Armenian population centers, one wonders how these immigrants managed invitations from America’s powerful elite. All three had strong prior connections both in Ottoman Turkey and America with the influential group, American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). In 1915, ABCFM founded the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief (ACASR). Both ABCFM and ACASR were instrumental in the launching of the ACIA in late 1918. Through their ABCFM and ACASR contacts, Azadian, Koolakian, and Philibosian were welcomed as liaisons to the newly formed ACIA. The Syracuse group was held in high esteem by ACASR and ACIA.
A major feature of Struggle for Justice is the previously cited yet unpublished banquet photographs, plus rare historical letters and telegrams sent by American dignitaries to the Syracuse liaison group. Correspondence from the following are reproduced in Koolakian’s book: President Woodrow Wilson (two telegrams); former presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft; William Jennings Bryan (Wilson’s former secretary of state and a presidential candidate); Josephus Daniels (naval secretary); Bernard Baruch (War Industries Board); Thomas Edison and George Eastman (industrialists); and, James W. Gerard (president of ACIA and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany).
One of the intriguing questions upon reading this book is: What was the “hidden motivation” that prompted sponsorship of a prestigious event on behalf of a small ethnic group that had no significant domestic political clout? Koolakian’s introduction provides a clue: “From its inception in November 1918, the ACIA’s development was guided by the State Department and the ACASR in collaboration with the United States Armed Forces, the War Industries and Naval Consulting Boards, the War Department and the United States Attorney General’s office.”
An added bonus found in Koolakian’s book are the numerous photographs of the early Syracuse community and relief efforts in response to the 1915 genocide. Another welcome inclusion are the numerous unpublished photographs of the Azadian and Koolakian families. A big surprise was the 1884 drawing, “View of Marmora/Rumeli Hissar/Constantinople,” by Harutun Azadian, which depicts venerable Khrimian “Hairig” approaching the Azadian home.
For a full chronicle on the history of ACIA, the reader is referred to Gregory L. Aftandilian, Armenia, Vision of a Republic: The Independence Lobby, 1918-1927 (Boston: Charles River Books, 1981). A recent update has been covered by D. Yogaratnam, Aftandilian Compares Lobbies of the Past and Present (The Armenian Mirror-Spectator, Nov. 4, 2006, p. 5.)
Hopefully, Koolakian’s book, as well as the prior work of Aftandilian, will prompt further exploration of this critical area of Armenian-American history.
The Armenian Weekly
Feb. 28, 2009