BELMONT, Mass. (A.W.)—On Oct. 8, lawyer and journalist Michael Bobelian spoke about his latest political history Children of Armenia: A Forgotten Genocide and the Century-Long Struggle for Justice (Simon and Schuster, September, 2009) at the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) in Belmont.
Bobelian is the grandson of genocide survivors and a graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. He has written for Forbes.com, American Lawyer, and Legal Affairs magazine, and recently decided to write a history investigating how an event as widely reported as the Armenian Genocide could fade from public consciousness.
“The book is about the aftermath of the genocide and it’s a story that’s never been told before,” Bobelian said. “Unlike other groups, the Armenians never had a central figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead them. So this is the story of those advocates for the Armenians over the years.”
“Unlike any other genocide of the 20th century, the Armenian Genocide, which was very well known of in its time, disappeared from public consciousness over time. And I’m sure all of you in the audience know about Turkish denial” of the genocide, he said.
American involvement and altruism during the genocide was extensive, he explained. “The U.S. gave $116 million, which is about $1.5 billion today, and sent 45,000 aid workers to the Near East, culminating in the founding of the Near East Relief Foundation, the template for the founding of USAID and later the Peace Corp by the U.S. government.”
“These were also the first ever campaigns to use celebrities to raise money for a foreign cause in U.S. history,” he said. “Charlie Chaplin and John Leslie Coogan led what was called ‘the Milk Campaign’ to bring cans of condensed milk to screenings of ‘The Kid’ in 1921 to send to orphans in Armenia.”
The cause of helping Armenians in the Ottoman Empire was so important to American politicians that “Woodrow Wilson and Charles Evans Hughes, who were on opposing [Democratic and Republican] sides as candidates during the 1916 U.S. presidential race, spoke with one voice on the Armenian issue.”
Other great advocates of the Armenian cause during the post-World War I period, he said, were world-renowned attorney Clarence Darrow, author F. Scott Fitzgerald, former president and Supreme Court judge William Howard Taft, and a young president named Herbert Hoover.
“Probably the country of Armenia was known to the American schoolchild as much as was England,” Hoover had said, regarding American awareness of the “starving Armenian” image.
Bobelian spoke of the period of political latency that followed, when Armenian communities placed an omerta on speaking about the genocide, effectively setting Armenian political involvement back by 35 years. “How do we go from this quote by Hoover to the 1938 quote by Hitler? Because Armenians spoke of the genocide only amongst themselves. To the outside world there was silence.”
He added, “40 years ago if you went to a library to find a comprehensive book on the Armenian Genocide, you wouldn’t find one. But the Cold War had a lot to do with this.” For, Armenia lay behind the Iron Curtain that was Soviet Russia.
In 1965, however, on the 50th anniversary of the genocide, then House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford pushed for recognition of the Armenian Genocide on the floor for the first time. He was unsuccessful, but at the same time in Soviet Yerevan thousands of Armenians marched for genocide recognition on the Opera House. Writer Leon Surmelian said of the genocide’s 50th anniversary push for recognition, that “We deserve to be forgotten if we take no action now.”
“The people of Armenia that marched that day risked their livelihoods and imprisonment by attending this rally,” Bobelian explained.
Since 1965, U.S. Senator Bob Dole has been the greatest supporter of the Armenian people and genocide recognition. (Dole owes his recovery from his World War II wounds to Dr. Hampar Kelikian.) “Dole had a few supporters, among them Ted Kennedy, who has also been an Armenian supporter since 1965,” Bobelian said.
He also recounted a tense vote in 1990, when Dole went to bat to gain U.S. recognition on the Senate floor—against his own Republican President George Bush Sr. In a rousing speech chided mutinous by fellow Republicans, Dole said, “Maybe we can reconcile ourselves a bit today as a country by letting the world know we do not always support the rich and the powerful and those with the most lobbyists. Sometimes, we do judge right from wrong.”
The Armenian Genocide in 1990 came to spend four days in filibuster,” Bobelian said. “The U.S. Senate spent only three on whether to enter the Persian Gulf War—and this was because of Senator Dole.”
Of the smoothing of Armenian-Turkish relations, Bobelian did not seem optimistic, ending: “If Armenians want an apology for the genocide, and a sincere one, Turkey is going to have to change internally—and that will take a long time.”