Acknowledging the murder of a nation

November 1, 2003 (released June 19, 2012)
Source: The Boston Globe (Massachusetts)

By Henry Morgenthau III

THE STATE-SPONSORED murder of the Armenian people is often called the "forgotten genocide." Hitler, when contemplating the consequences of his final solution for the Jews, argued, "Who, after all, remembers the extermination of the Armenians?"

Indeed, for about three-quarters of a century the Armenian genocide has been on the one hand largely forgotten while it has been vehemently denied by its Turkish perpetrators. Even the US government has failed to acknowledge it.

Neglect of the historical truths was not always the case. Peter Balakian's new book, "The Burning Tigris;The Armenian Genocide and the American Response," recalls the outcries of idealistic men and women during the last decades of the 19th century and the first two decades of the 20th that made the plight of the Armenians headline news and fueled an outpouring of charitable donations.

In the 1890s, Abdul-Hamid II, known as "the bloody Sultan," horrified Europe with the massacre of some 200,000 Armenians. While British Prime Minister William Gladstone made the issue his personal cause, news spread to like-minded people in America.

Balakian's book offers a vivid account of a great assembly on Nov. 26, 1894, at Boston's Faneuil Hall. Orators included people who had made their names as abolitionists and advocates for women's suffrage. There was an impassioned address by Julia Ward Howe, author of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Words were followed by action when the United Friends of Armenia became a conduit for raising funds and consciousness.

Those aware of the Armenian holocaust generally focus on the subsequent events that began in 1915 under the rule of the Young Turks and resulted in the extermination of more than a million men, women, and children. These events, following a kind of Armenian Kristallnacht in Constantinople, as Istanbul was then called, on April 24, virtually wiped out the entire Armenian elite - intellectual, political, and financial. My grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, the American ambassador to Turkey at the time, acted personally to try to stem the tide.

In Balakian's words, "Ambassador Morgenthau went beyond the duty of his job as he became the crucial nexus between the killing fields and the American community and press back home. A man of high moral conscience, Ambassador Morgenthau was most likely the first high ranking diplomat to confront boldly the leaders of the Ottoman government."

He strenuously reported his concerns back to the State Department in Washington, where he was met not so much with opposition as with a numbing lack of interest.

To get Morgenthau off his back, Secretary Robert Lansing encouraged him to seek aid from private sources. He did. The result was the establishment of the Armenian Atrocities Committee, later redesignated as the Armenian Syrian Relief Committee and finally the great Near East Relief Organization chartered by Congress in 1919, which raised millions of dollars to the battle cry "remember the starving Armenians."

There followed a long dark night for the Armenians as a people, seemingly deprived of both their past and their future. Survivors dispersed abroad, while the United States retreated into isolationism, and remnants of an Armenian nation disappeared behind the Iron Curtain.

Now, hopefully, the light of remembrance is being rekindled for a struggling independent Armenian republic that attracts the support of prosperous and politically well-connected Americans from the diaspora. And, most important, Armenian voices resonate with pain and poignancy as they recount their own heritage.

Turkish acknowledgment of these historic truths is long overdue. In the past the Turks went to great lengths to discredit Morgenthau and his writings. Is it too much to expect that they will soon accept responsibility for events that so clearly fit the definition of genocide?

The Turks would do well to follow the example of modern-day Germany, which has found healing in repenting for the Nazi Holocaust with restitution, monuments of remembrance, and partnership with Israelis.

And the time is overdue for the US government to stop being intimidated by our Turkish allies and officially recognize that there was a genocide.

Privately, among the younger generation of Turks, many would agree.

-- Henry Morgenthau III is the author of "Mostly Morgenthaus, A Family History" and an extended epilogue to the annotated edition of "Ambassador Morgenthau's Story," republished recently.