Hovannisian: Book Review: ‘Children of Armenia’

By Prof. Richard G. Hovannisian

'Children of Armenia'
'Children of Armenia'

‘Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice’
By Michael Bobelian
New York: Simon & Schuster, 2009. 308 pages.

It is said that one of the earliest lessons imparted in schools of journalism is that the first few pages of a manuscript are critical in determining its acceptance or rejection. Those introductory pages must capture the attention of the in-house reader, the literary critic, and ultimately the book-purchasing public. If this is indeed the norm, then Michael Bobelian has met the challenge. His prologue introduces Gourgen Yanikian preparing for the unthinkable in the 1970’s—a carefully choreographed plan aimed at Turkish consular officials. The well-educated, aged survivor hopes to draw attention to the enormous unrequited wrong committed against the Armenian people by engaging in a shocking act of violence against individuals who are innocent except for being representatives of a perpetrator and denialist state. True to a good mystery plot and using the approach of Samantha Power and other well-known writers, the author leaves the reader in suspense as to what actually happens thereafter. Rather, before returning to unravel the mystery much later in the narrative, he dips back into the history of the Armenian Genocide and the efforts of Armenian American advocacy groups to gain recognition and condemnation of the Great Crime and some form of relief and justice. He does this with an engaging literary style and a vivid vocabulary while intertwining the historical and the personal.

The first four chapters provide a historical overview of the Armenian Genocide; the miscarriage of justice in the postwar Turkish courts-martial; the acts of Armenian vengeance seekers who felled several of the chief architects of the genocide; the struggle to create an independent Armenian republic; and the advocacy campaigns of the American Committee for the Independence of Armenia, boasting a roster of prominent American political, religious, and educational figures and driven by the tireless attorney Vahan Cardashian. He also addresses the strategies of successive Turkish governments to suppress memory of the Armenian Genocide, a policy so successful that the calamity had become a virtual “forgotten genocide” by the outbreak of World War II, barely two decades later.

These developments from 1915 to the 1940’s are generally well known to students of the period, but the four chapters are a useful prologue to the main focus of the study. As it happens, however, most but not all of the minor historical errors and other slips appear in this introductory section (inaccuracy or inconsistency in dating, geographic distances and terminology, sequence of events, cited statistical figures, and proper identification). Moreover, many of the passages, with or without ascription, seem all too familiar or derivative. While not detracting greatly from the value of the broader study, such weak spots could have been avoided with the input of a specialist in modern Armenian history and perhaps a copyeditor’s more discerning eye. This observation notwithstanding, the book is captivating and is of particular value to persons interested in U.S. foreign policy, the history of the Armenian American community, and the achievements and shortcomings in Armenian advocacy efforts, especially in the United States Congress. Bobelian not only has gained impressive insight into these matters through his numerous interviews with key individuals but he is also the first, as far as this reviewer knows, to have made use of the now declassified relevant files of the State Department and other agencies for the period from the 1940’s onward. He has been able to delve behind the scenes to discover the actual views and attitudes of officials whose tactful public statements might be at great variance from their blunt and even deprecating private assessments.

What becomes clear after the introductory chapters is that United States policy, starting with the presidency of Harry S. Truman and the formulation of the Truman Doctrine to block Soviet expansion by bolstering up Greece and Turkey, was no longer driven primarily by economic interests but equally and even more so by superpower ideological, geostrategic, and military
considerations. This position created strong barriers to the rather unsteady attempts at Armenian advocacy, which were regarded as undesirable annoyances by ranking officials of all administrations since the Truman years. The redefinition of U.S. policy is clearly evidenced in a State Department memorandum as early as November 1945: “This Government does not now reaffirm the stand taken by President Wilson… This Government does not favor the establishment of an independent Armenian National State at the expense of any country.” Another telling State Department memorandum, which rings true up to the present time, includes the observation that the “Armenian case.. rested too heavily on history and massacres.” In other words, Armenians had neither the power nor the geopolitical wherewithal to influence the
course of events. Clearly, humanitarian and historical factors were not—and are not—central to the formulation of fundamental U.S. foreign policy.

This negative conclusion aside, 1965 was a watershed year for renewed Armenian advocacy, now with a native American-born generation discovering the ways to take part in the American political process. Bobelian recounts the breakthrough with the erection of an Armenian memorial monument on city property in Montebello, Calif., the preceding contested and tense public hearings, and the ultimate dedication of the monument in Bicknell Park in 1967 with thousands of survivors and their progeny in attendance. He also describes the increasingly strident responses of both the Turkish and U.S. governments.

The Armenian Assembly of America was formed as an umbrella organization in 1971-72 and became the primary conduit of Armenian advocacy in Washington D.C., although the Armenian National Committee established its own presence there in the 1980’s. With the support of a core of sympathetic congressmen, some but not all with Armenian constituencies, the Armenian lobby was able to get commemorative resolutions passed in the House of Representatives in 1975 and once again, with the critical leadership of Speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, in 1984, in memory of the “victims of the genocide perpetrated in Turkey.” Bobelian presents both what is in the official record and, from personal interviews, what was happening behind the scenes, assessing the factors that allowed the Armenians to have their way at least twice within one decade despite the mounting pressure of the U.S. Executive Branch as well as paid lobbyists and business partners of the Turkish government.

Armenian advocacy hit a firm ceiling after 1984, as the mobilization of elements profiting from cordial relations with Turkey received the powerful backing of the State Department, the Pentagon, and the White House itself, as one president after another reneged on campaign promises regarding recognition of the Armenian Genocide.

Bobelian goes into great detail about the strongest Armenian push in the United States Senate in 1989-90, this time led by Republican senator and later presidential candidate Robert Dole and his Democratic colleagues Edward “Ted” Kennedy and Carl Levin. Even though the administration of George H.W. Bush, reinforced by dozens of U.S. corporations, used every means possible to scuttle the resolution, the legislation advanced through the critical Senate Judiciary Committee. It was then that increased political and economic pressure by the Turkish government and concerns about American military bases in Turkey, the economic impact on the American defense industry, the safety of the Jewish community in Turkey, and other issues all came together to deprive the advocates of the minimum number of votes needed to override a threatened filibuster. On the other hand, what was significant in these debates was that the opponents raised pragmatic arguments and, unlike in previous years, there were no longer voices that questioned the reality of the Armenian Genocide and the pain and suffering of the Armenian people.

Although Bobelian ends the congressional aspect of his study with 1990, many of the same themes have continued over into the Clinton Administration, when the president himself had to intervene directly to remove an Armenian commemorative resolution from the House’s agenda, and into the 21st century when President Barack Obama had to seek a way to circumvent the issue in his declaration in April 2009.

Since the 1990’s, advocates of the Armenian cause have also sought other avenues of action. One such way, following the Jewish model, has been the pursuit of legal recourse by suing companies or governments connected in some way with the Armenian Genocide. A successful example was the filing of a class-action lawsuit against the New York Life Insurance Company on behalf of beneficiaries of policyholders who had perished in the genocide. The case ended in an out-of-court settlement of some millions of dollars that were distributed to descendants of the victims as well as to several Armenian benevolent, charitable, and educational organizations. This approach has now been extended to other cases.

Michael Bobelian has made a significant contribution to an understanding of the potentials and limitations of advocacy groups that may hold the moral high ground but possess only limited economic, demographic, and political strength. It is a saga of persistency against great odds which occasionally has reaped sufficiently uplifting and nurturing benefits for the “Struggle for Justice” to continue.

Note: A slightly different version of this review will appear in the forthcoming issue (18:2, December 2009) of the Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies, edited by Dr. Joseph Kéchichian.

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