The U.S. and the Armenian Genocide: Humanitarianism, Politics and the Struggle for Recognition

Special for the Armenian Weekly

One of the most important sources of evidence regarding the Armenian Genocide is the collection of the American consular and diplomatic reports within U.S. State Department records on the internal affairs of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, a look into the headlines and reports that appeared in the American media of the time make it clear that the annihilation of the Armenians was making top news in the country. These records show that not only were the American public and United States government aware of the atrocities, but that both were actively trying to stop the complete annihilation of the Armenians of Ottoman Turkey. Although several successive United States administrations have failed to label the events between 1915 and 1923 as genocide, at the turn of the 20th century, America’s humanitarian and political movements for Armenians abroad became a significant step in the country’s first era of internationalism and ascension as an imperial superpower.

The evidence supporting the reality of the Armenian Genocide within the United States archives is overwhelming.
The evidence supporting the reality of the Armenian Genocide within the United States archives is overwhelming.

While examining United States foreign policy towards the Armenian Genocide, it is necessary to understand American attitudes to the mistreatment of the Armenians towards the end of the 19th century. In the final stages of the existence of the Ottoman Empire, throughout the 1890’s, planned massacres against the Armenian population took place under the regime of Sultan Abdul Hamid II. During this time, tens of thousands of Armenians were killed in what became known as the Hamidian Armenian Massacres. News of these massacres reached Americans in the United States through many different forms of media. News reports and headlines in the nation’s most prominent newspapers, such as the New York Times, and the Boston Globe, and articles in leading magazines such as Harper’s and The Nation, brought the story of the mass murders to the homes of thousands of Americans.1 This news not only outraged Armenians living in the United States, but also caught the attention of Americans. United States citizens, who had previously not even heard about the existence of Armenians, grew concerned and bothered by the news.2

It is important to note that the American indignation over the mistreatment of the Armenian population in the Ottoman Empire came at a time when the United States was slowly beginning to pay attention to the international community and beginning to form a new global identity. Americans, in general, were starting to feel sympathetic to people suffering around the world. For example, there was a great deal of sympathy expressed by Americans for the Cuban people during their efforts for independence from Spain. For Americans, the Cuban struggle became a Western Hemisphere liberation cause, and by 1898, lead to the Spanish-American War. It would be this war that would help the United States emerge not only as a “colonial power,” but also as one of the greatest powers in the international system.3 After battling for 10 weeks and defeating Spain, the United States took over Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam. The Armenian issue surfaced at a time when United States foreign policy was undergoing major transformations. The last 10 years of the 19th century saw the United States taking on a policy of imperialism and declaring itself a savior of the suffering people of the world.4

The issue of the Armenian massacres held a very important place within United States politics in the 1890’s. An example of this can be seen in the Republican Party’s platform of 1896 regarding international issues. The policy stressed three main issues: the seizure of the Hawaiian Islands, the Armenian massacres, and the Cuban fight for independence. Part of the platform read: “The massacres in Armenia have aroused the deep sympathy and just indignation of the American people, and we believe that the United States should exercise all the influence it can properly exert to bring these atrocities to an end. In Turkey, Americans residents have been exposed to gravest (grievous) dangers and American property destroyed. There, and everywhere, American citizens and American property must be absolutely protected at all hazards and at any cost.”5

This phenomenon of sympathy did not exist solely within the Republican Party. Organizations were forming across the United States to aid the suffering Armenian Christians. In New York, what began as a local committee backed by the New York Chamber of Commerce, eventually grew into the National Armenian Relief Committee, whose board included some of the most influential decision makers in the country, all of whom had no Armenian ethnicity or origin.6 This new movement brought together Democrats and Republicans, all to make a difference from many thousand miles away. This movement proved truly unprecedented; one Philadelphia relief worker was even quoted as saying, “Never…was so much earnest, energetic, persistent, and intelligent work done for any cause as was bestowed upon the Armenians.”7

This type of work to aid the Armenian population did not end merely with the creation of such organizations and movements. A number of different resolutions regarding the mistreatment of the Armenians were introduced and passed in the United States in the last years of the 19th century. Possibly the most important was what became known as the Cullom Resolution, a motion introduced by Shelby Moore Cullom of Illinois. This resolution affirmed that the United States had a moral obligation to aid those affected in the Ottoman Empire: “…the Armenian people should have the protection of this Government, not because they are citizens of the United Sates, but because the people of the United States have a duty to civilization, have a duty to the progress of mankind, to perform.”8 Although the Cullom Resolution was eventually passed by the Senate and approved by a vote in the House, the White House ignored it after pressure was put on President Cleveland by Oscar Strauss, the former American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and U.S. secretary of commerce and labor.9

At the time of the genocide, the United States had a vast presence within the Ottoman Empire. Several American consulates existed in Ottoman Turkey and, as a result, an immense collection of archives has been preserved until today. Possibly the most important example of an American diplomat being associated with the Armenian Genocide is the story of Henry Morgenthau, who was appointed the United States ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1913 by the newly elected President Woodrow Wilson. Morgenthau felt great sympathy to the Armenian population, and worked very hard to try to save them from complete irradiation. Morgenthau’s passion for the Armenian people began in the spring of 1915, when he began receiving detailed messages and telegrams from his staff about the deportations and massacre of the Armenian people throughout the interior of Ottoman Turkey. One message came from the American consulate in Trebizond on July 28, 1915. This telegram from Consul Oscar S. Heizer to Ambassador Morgenthau has proven to be very significant, as it completely confirms all of the elements that constitute a genocide according the United Nations Convention of the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide on 1948.10

There are also copies of several letters sent by Ambassador Morgenthau to the United States that can give scholars today an understanding of the position and response of the U.S. government at the time of the genocide. Morgenthau reported his findings regarding the extermination of the Armenians to the Department of State in Washington D.C., and urged the United States to take a moral position on the issue. Significantly, this facilitated American humanitarian intervention in the area, allowing U.S. consuls to distribute humanitarian aid through local American, German, Swiss, and other missionaries.11 An example of these efforts included organizing secret underground operations to save the Armenians, by removing them from the killing fields of the Syrian deserts and smuggling them across the frontier to the Russian Empire.12 As the genocide continued, newsreels depicting images of the atrocities were being broadcasted to Americans throughout the United Sates. Many different aid programs, including the popular Near East Relief, were raising unprecedented amounts of funds to help save the Armenian people. Not only were the American public and government aware of the atrocities taking place against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, but both were actively working to put an end to the genocide while it was happening.

After the genocide, many of the Armenians who survived fled to various parts of the world, and formed what we refer today as the Armenian Diaspora. These survivors, who were forced to leave their ancestral lands, escaped in large numbers to Russian Armenia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.13 It was at this time that many Armenian refugees populated various cities across the United States and formed their communities. Even though it took some time, these Armenian communities were able to support themselves and establish Armenian community centres, schools, and churches, in order to provide the coming generations with an understanding of their culture. The members of the second- and third-generation Armenian Diaspora were able to mobilize themselves to overcome the great pressures that came with the denial of their parents’ and grandparents’ genocide. Members of these diasporan communities, especially in the United States, have made the recognition of the Armenian Genocide a priority. The case of the United States is unique, since no other nation has the quality and quantity of evidence within its state and news archives confirming the genocide.

The evidence supporting the reality of the Armenian Genocide within the United States archives is overwhelming. What is more significant, however, is that by looking into records of the time, one can understand the efforts that came from the United States to help put an end to the extermination of the Armenians. Not only did the news of the Armenian Genocide provoke the deep sympathy and resentment of the American people, but it also mobilized the government in ending the systematic destruction of the Armenian people.

President Theodore Roosevelt called the extermination of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire “the greatest crime of the war.” However, after World War I, United States oil interests in the Middle East and Turkish pressure guided America away from the course it had pursued for years. As the world prepares to commemorate the Centennial of the Armenian Genocide, for the United States the issue continues to be a constant struggle between the notion of historical truth and the realization of national self-interest—a struggle that will likely haunt the United States for years to come.

 

Notes

 

1 Arman Dzhonovich Kirakosian. The Armenian Massacres, 1894-1896: U.S. Media Testimony. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), p. 40.

2 Kirakosian, p. 41.

3 Mark Peceny. Democracy at the Point of Bayonets. (University Park: Penn State Press, 1999), pp. 49-50.

4 Frank A. Ninkovich. The United States and Imperialism. (Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001), pp. 14-16.

5 Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2003), p. 64.

6 Balakian, pp. 68-69.

7 Merle, Curti. American Philanthropy Abroad. (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987), pp. 121-123.

8 Congressional Record, 54th Cong., 1st Session, 1896, vol. 28, pt.1, pp. 961-63.

9 Balakian, p. 73.

[1]0 Oscar C. Heizerm to Secretary of State. Trebizond: 29 July, 1915. Deportation of Armenians. NA/RG59/867.4016/128.

[1]1 Ara Sarafian. United States Official Records on the Armenian Genocide: 1915-1917. (Reading: Taderon Press, 2004), p. xi.

[1]2 Hilmar Kaiser. At the Crossroads of Der Zor: Death, Survival, and Humanitarian Resistance in Aleppo, 1915-1917. (Reading: Taderon Press, 2002), pp. 52-53.

[1]3 Denise Aghanian. The Armenian Diaspora: Cohesion and Fracture (Maryland: University Press of America, 2007, pp. 88-90.

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Rupen Janbazian

Rupen Janbazian is the former editor of The Armenian Weekly. He is currently based in Yerevan, where he serves as the director of public relations of the Tufenkian Foundation.
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10 Comments

  1. Words are easy. Actions speak louder and the Americans were not interested in interfering in Ottoman affairs and so did nothing. It took Pearl Harbour before USA entered into WW2 1943 to help the allies.

    • Ali, you should take a look at what was happened in your own backyard, before criticizing, what was taken place in other countries.

      Ottoman’s CUP leaders, unlike Stalin, targeted Anatolia and emptied indigenous Christian population, especially Armenians, and illegally occupied Western Armenia!

    • Agreed, but you also acknowledge the Turkish planned mass murder for mostly theft of wealth of Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians? The same ethnic races that were living there way before any Turks invaded and occupied them? Your right because some don’t seem to care about that atrocity either.

  2. US claims to be a secular democracy but it’s a de facto Christian country. NO other religious leader can win any elections in US unless supported by its Church. This is the dichotomy of US practice and theory.

  3. The only thing I remember about the Armenian genocide is the importance to watch the leader of the country the entire time that person is leading my country so the leader of the country I live in can never cover up unlawful behavior again. Instating wengerocracy is more important than voting in a democracy.

  4. An interesting article. The fact is that the evidence and proof of the Armenian Genocide, not only in the archives of the USA, but also in the archives of the United Kingdom, France, Germany , and even Turkey, are overwhelming and proof of an undeniable black page in the history of mankind.
    I personally rather than use “struggle For recognition”, I would call it “hurdles/obstacles to recognition”, but more importantly to “reparations”. Recognition without reparation is not the ultimate objective.
    The hurdles and obstacles that need to be overcome and neutralized are:
    a- Turkey’s membership in NATO.
    Turkey joined NATO on February 18, 1952 with the support of the US government. Since then, NATO has built 24 military bases in Turkey which have become NATO’s Eastern anchor and the main base for NATO’s controversial Missile Defense System.
    We have not been able to unravel the secret ” agreements” and “commitments” made by the USA and other NATO members with Turkey
    to establish and keep those military bases in Turkey. I personally am convinced that there is an “agreement” between the USA and Turkey that the Armenian Genocide will not be recognized by the USA.
    These bases cost a ton of money to US taxpayers. These costs are buried in the Defense Dept. budget. We need to start approaching , educating and enlightening the members of Armed Services and Budget Committees to find out the root causes of the USA’s resistance to pass the Genocide resolution. In the recent past, Senate Resolution 410 and House Resolution 252 were passed in Committees, but they lingered and never made either the Senate or the House floors for a total vote. I personally believe they will die on the Legislative Calendar.
    Turkey has not been an honest ally of the USA; indeed often they have acted against the interests of the US, and yet it has been successful in blackmailing and threatening the US/NATO with closing down the bases (in my opinion an empty threat),which can have geo-strategic consequences in the continued conflict between the US and Russia which became more complicated with the events in Ukraine and Crimea and the embargoes imposed by the West on Russia.
    Sadly the USA does not have moral integrity and fortitude the call Turkey’s bluff. (most recent examples President Obama and Hilary Clinton).
    b-Anti-Defamation League.
    It has been deeply disappointing and deploring that the ADL has been lobbying Congress against recognition of the Armenian Genocide. As to why, it is a mystery, even though certain members of the ADL have expressed opinions criticizing the stance of the ADL.
    In my personal opinion, the Jewish lobbies worldwide and the Israeli government want to keep the Holocaust on the forefront; have the Jews be the only race that suffered a calamity and avoid any kind of comparison with the Genocide. They must be concerned or wrongfully thinking that if the Genocide is recognized, the Holocaust will lose its weight and significance. Obviously this is irrational, absurd and a myopic view. We have never denied or questioned the Holocaust. I wonder why the ADL and the Israeli government lobby vigorously against the recognition of the Genocide. It makes no sense.
    We need to step up our efforts, communications and relations with those members of the ADL who are supportive of our cause and continue discrediting those who oppose our cause, like we did when Joseph Berman was nominated to a Superior Court Seat in Massachusetts.
    c- Funding ANCA.
    It is a remarkable accomplishment that the ANCA, both ER and WR, have been able to successfully achieve some of our goals and objectives with the limited financial support they get. Still a lot of work to be done.
    Sadly, lobbying in the US is ferocious, ugly and needs money. Sometimes money buys moral integrity. Remember Representative Gerbhart. Shameful but it does happen.
    We have powerful forces and interests in Washington DC that are lined up against us.
    – The vast financial resources and geopolitical leverage that Turkey and Azerbaijan wield against Armenia and Artsakh.
    – Turkey and Azerbaijan have been successful to hire high-priced influencial lobbyists including former White House aides and former members of Congress.( including leaders).
    – The behind the scenes influence and power of career bureaucrats, who are biased against Armenia, are bribed by Turkey, blinded by the importance of NATO or simply bullied into silence or subjected to the “gag rule” in recognizing the Genocide.
    -The corrupt corporations who buy oil from Azerbaijan, sell weapons to Turkey and NATO, and are worried only about their profits.
    Bottom line is that the Turkish and Azeri governments are spending huge sums of money on the lobbies and forces they buy and use to manipulate US policy and distort the truth.
    It is crucial that the Armenian- American community provide much stronger financial support to ANCA so that they are able to continue their work. I do not know , and am not asking to know, how much money the ANCA raises and how they spend it, but I am sure that it pales in comparison to what the Turks and Azeris spend on buying lobbyists, votes in the US Congress and influencing the military establishment.
    These are foods for thought. I am not a political pundit nor pretend to be one. But I have vast experience in the business world and certain political circles and know how the “system” works. We need new practical, aggressive and realistic approaches to beat the “system”.
    Vart Adjemian

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