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As the world remembers the Armenian genocide, why won’t Obama use the ‘G-word’?

REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
People light candles in memory of the victims of mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks at the main cathedral in Echmiadzin, Armenia, on Thursday.

During the latter stages of World War I, the Ottoman Turkish Empire systematically killed — by grotesque means that would shock the conscience of anyone with a conscience — an estimated 1 million to 1.5 million of its Armenian citizens in an attempt to eliminate the large Armenian minority from Turkey’s future.

The Diocese of the Armenian Church of America (Eastern) believes the correct number may be even higher than 1.5 million and estimates that the slaughter killed about 75 percent of Armenians in the world at the time.

The anniversary of this tragic crime is observed on April 24 because that was the date in 1915 when the genocide began. That makes Friday the centennial. It will be observed across the world, the United States and Minnesota but not by Turkey, which still denies that the genocide occurred, although it was well-established at the time, written about in newspapers around the world, many of the perpetrators admitted their crimes in international tribunals and many were convicted and executed for them.

At the time, it was not called an act of “genocide,” but that’s because the word “genocide” hadn’t been coined yet. And when the word was coined after World War II, the man responsible (Yale Law Professor Raphael Lemkin) made specific reference to the slaughter of the Armenians as a prime example.

The governments of two dozen nations have embraced the term “genocide,” but no American president ever has, including Barack Obama, who as a candidate in 2008, promised to “recognize the Armenian genocide.” A bit more on that below.

Ellen Kennedy, executive director of World Without Genocide in St. Paul, wrote a Community Voices  column for MinnPost earlier this week about the genocide. Her theme was the damage that the long-standing denial does to both the perpetrators and victims of such a crime.

Turkish intellectuals have occasionally sought to bring the matter to light in that country but some of them have been prosecuted for the crime of “insulting Turkishness.”

My strong feelings about the Armenian genocide date from an interview I did in 2000, during my Star Tribune days, with Vahakn Dadrian, an Armenian historian. Dadrian was born in Turkey after the war and has held academic positions all around the world. He is best known as a historian of the genocide (in which his family lost many members).

Of course all genocidal campaigns are brutal and horrible. But the thing that stuck with me from that long-ago interview was Dadrian’s list of some of the methods Turks used to kill Armenians who had done nothing wrong. For example, quoting from that Strib piece:

In a policy that Dadrian said was “unparalleled in the annals of human history,” the Turks “decided to rely not on soldiers but on bloodthirsty criminals.” Dadrian said 30,000 to 35,000 convicts were released from prison to participate in the slaughter.

With a world war raging, Dadrian said, Ottoman officials were anxious not to waste bullets or powder on the Armenians, so they employed four main methods to kill the Armenians:

  • Many were beaten to death or killed with daggers, swords and axes.
  • Massive drowning operations were conducted in the tributaries of the Euphrates River and the Black Sea. Bargeloads of Armenians were intentionally sunk. Dadrian, quoting [Henry]Morganthau [who was U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman court at the time], said that in places the Armenian corpses became so numerous that the rivers were forced out of their beds, in one case changing  the course of a river for a 100-meter stretch.

The method that Dadrian called “the most fiendish” was to pack Armenian women and children into stables or haylofts and then set them ablaze, burning the victims alive. Dadrian estimated that about 150,000 were killed by this method.

Hundreds of thousands more died of hunger, thirst or exposure during forced marches in the desert. Dadrian said the Armenians were told they were being relocated but were marched along routes chosen to maximize the chances that none of the marchers would survive.

That was what I meant above by a means of killing that would shock the conscience of anyone who has a conscience.

Obama’s statements

Now on to Obama and the “G-word.”

Against the objections of the Turkish government, many countries of the world have embraced the word “genocide” in official statements about the mass slaughter. Germany — the country responsible for the largest systematic genocide in history, but also a country that has long accepted full, direct blame for its crimes and which has gone to huge lengths to publicly atone — recently joined the list. Pope Francis recently became the first pontiff to do so. Israel’s Knesset has never officially embraced the word, but just Wednesday the president of Israel endorsed the Pope’s statement of recognition. Many U.S. states, including Minnesota, have used the word “genocide” in official statements about the Turkish crime against the Armenians.

But no American president, other than Ronald Reagan, ever has. After Reagan, in a 1981 proclamation made a passing reference to the genocide against the Armenians, Turkey protested so strenuously that the State Department backed down, saying that the earlier statement had not reflected official U.S. policy.

John Kerry, when he was the Democratic nominee in 2004, promised to use the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter, but he never became president.

Obama, the next Democratic nominee, said while running in 2008:

“The Armenian genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion, or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence. The facts are undeniable. An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy.

“As president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide,” Obama promised. But he hasn’t done so.

Turkey is a long-standing and important ally of the United States. It is a NATO member. It is the most legitimate democracy among the predominantly Muslim nations of the Mideast. Leaders of Turkey have no doubt communicated to President Obama that U.S.-Turkey relations would be damaged if Obama broke the long-standing policy of American presidents to stop short of the G-word.

Still, nobody forced Obama to promise that he would “as president” “recognize the Armenian Genocide.” Armenians who had hoped that on the occasion of the centennial Obama might decide to use the G-word were disappointed. On Tuesday, the White House announced that Obama, who will make some kind of statement about the centennial, will not use the word “genocide.”

There’s something weird about this. Everyone who cares about this issue knows what Obama believes. He has never taken back what he said as a candidate, but he has never repeated it as president — which explicitly violates the promise that he made.

What he did say – and he said it in a 2009 speech to the Turkish Parliament – was this:

“History is often tragic, but unresolved. It can be a heavy weight. Each country must work through its past. And reckoning with the past can help us seize a better future. I know there’s strong views in this chamber about the terrible events of 1915. And while there’s been a good deal of commentary about my views, it’s really about how the Turkish and Armenian people deal with the past. And the best way forward for the Turkish and Armenian people is a process that works through the past in a way that is honest, open and constructive.”

Presumably, because of the importance of U.S.-Turkey relations and because of the intense feelings in the Turkish government, he simply won’t, as president, say the word — the accurate word and the word he formerly used — that would mean so much to Armenians and be so inflammatory to Turks.

‘Century of denial’

I asked Lou Ann Matossian, who is on the board of the committee that planned the centennial events, how big a deal this is. She said it was very big:

“We need Turkey in the Middle East. It’s not a good time,’” she said, mocking the excuse that is always given. “They’ve been saying that since the 1920s. When is it going to be a good time?

“What is Turkey going to do in the end to stop people from using the word ‘genocide?’” Matossian asked. “Eventually with the number of countries recognizing it, it’s going to be too costly for Turkey to suspend their relations with that many countries.

“By refusing to use the word, [Obama] enables a century of denial. Denial is not just negation. Denial is an active campaign to kill historical memory. Denial is about the erasure, the suppression of Armenian cultural identity. Denial is the suppression of journalists and scholars who dare to speak about it. Denial manufactures a controversy where none actually exists. President Obama, by not calling a spade a spade, is perpetuating this game.

“Denial is the murder of Hrant Dink,” an ethnic Armenian journalist who argued for Turkey to admit its historic crime and who was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in 2007.

“Without truth there cannot be real reconciliation. There’s a reason why when people talk about truth and reconciliation, the word ‘truth’ comes first.”

Local events

There are many events commemorating the centennial. Here are several put on by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Matossian said the major event sponsored by her group will start Friday at 7 p.m. at St. Sahag Armenian Church, 203 N. Howell St., St. Paul. Confirmed speakers, in order of appearance, are:

  • Fr. Tadeos Barseghyan, pastor, St. Sahag Armenian Church.
  • Professor Alejandro Baer, Stephen C. Feinstein chair and director, University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.
  • U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.
  • Steve Hunegs, executive director, Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.
  • U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum.
  • U.S. Rep. Tim Walz.
  • Leroy Erickson, president, Armenian Cultural Organization of Minnesota.

Update: Two corrections: An earlier version of this post incorrectly attributed the source of the estimate that the genocide killed 75 percent of the Armenians alive at the time. Also the original post said that no president has ever used the word “genocide” to describe the slaughter of Armenians. As reflected in the corrected passage above, Ronald Reagan did use the word in a proclamation, but the State Department later backed off from the reference.

Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Pavel Yankovic on 04/23/2015 - 08:46 am.

    The focus…

    of ISIS is to become today’s version of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Turks slaughtered Christians, destroyed Byzantine architecture and turned churches into mosques.

    There are many words Barack Obama won’t use. Nor will he recognize the link between radical Islam and terrorism. His condemnations of the ISIS executions of Christians have been lukewarm at best.

    With regards to not recognizing the Armenian genocide, that is just another broken campaign promise.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 04/23/2015 - 09:20 am.

    With much respect to Armenians and their slaughtered ancestors, the line of people Obama has disappointed is a long one. The Turks know the truth, and so does the world; that is what is really important.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/23/2015 - 09:46 am.

    Obama discovered

    the difference between being a candidate and being the President
    (which he may have known all along).
    The realpolitik is that American interests are more dependent on the Turks and Saudis (who are equally nasty) than they are on Armenians. If Armenians could influence American elections as much as we Jews, they would have more leverage. Right now, their biggest image (or something) seems to be the Kardasians.

  4. Submitted by Michael Miller on 04/23/2015 - 11:33 am.

    The Armenians and the G Word

    I am an American who lived in Turkey for five years many years ago, but has stayed in touch, made trips back, and has studied and tried to understand “the Armenian question” for the last half century. I also have to admit to having many Turkish friends who, contrary to the stereotypes, are warm, hospitable to a fault, and love their families. Most of them also are embarrassed by the current government which they feel doesn’t represent their best interests – to put it mildly.
    I have no question that, at a minimum, horrible massacres were inflicted on the Armenians in eastern Turkey in the period around 1915. But I, and scholars like Bernard Lewis and others, can’t quite get to describing it as a genocide comparable to what was perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe. That’s not denial, just suspending the worst kind of judgment.
    But whether it was massacres or genocide I find it incredibly hypocritical that we, as Americans sitting on a genuine, fully documented genocide, that of the Native Americans, can pontificate on someone else’s awful behavior, whatever we want to call it.
    The Armenians have had a century to foment hatred against the Turks (although today’s Turkey was born out of rebellion against the dying Ottoman Empire) while the native people of this continent have had no such voice – nor have we fully acknowledged the role our ancestors had in that very real genocide. And it happened right here – at Ft Snelling, at Big Sandy Lake near our summer cabin, where the pontoon boats and jet skis frolic all summer – all across this country.
    And then there’s the Pope, sitting on a history of inquisitions, crusades, burning of women, etc. Perhaps he should acknowledge all that or have the decency to remain silent.
    Finally, at some point we need to give up our historical hatreds and spend more time on understanding and reconciliation.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/23/2015 - 02:27 pm.

      Hisorical fact

      All of which has nothing to do with the fact that it was Turkish policy for several centuries to kill all Armenians (in other words, to commit genocide).
      It was never American (or British, going back to prerevolutionary times) to exterminate all Native Americans, although they knew that it would be the eventual outcome of the expanding European population. Read some of G. Washington’s comments about the situation, starting in the French and Indian wars in the 1750’s.

      • Submitted by Michael Miller on 04/23/2015 - 04:27 pm.

        More of Armenians and the G Word

        Not sure where to start Paul.
        The Armenians had lived peacefully in the Ottoman Empire for most of its history. It’s simply not true that there was an Ottoman policy to kill all Armenians before the massacres at the time of WWI took place. The Ottomans had what they called the “nations system” whereby ethnic minorities could live in peace as long as they didn’t rebel against the Empire. This was true for Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Circassians, Bulgarians, and other minorities This was also why many Sefardic Spanish Jews ended up in the Ottoman Empire. They were offered protection from the Inquisition by the Sultan. However, as the Empire was coming apart during WWI and Russia was threatening to annex eastern Turkey, it all dissolved into chaos including the massacres of Armenians. And there were also massacres of Azerbaijanis by Armenians. It was one group committing atrocities against another. This excuses no one, but no one came out of it with clean hands.
        As for genocide and Native Americans a simple Google search puts the question to rest. The native peoples of this hemisphere had been slaughtered routinely since the Spaniards arrived and it came to a peak in the 19th century with people like Generals Sherman, Sheridan, etc. whose policy was flat out extermination. Their quotes to that effect are a matter of record. The only way we can’t call it genocide was because the word hadn’t been coined yet.
        Finally, I believe the Turks of today need to own up to their role in what happened and be more active in reconciliation. But we also need to remember that the Turkey of today is not the Ottoman Empire.
        As a final aside, I was taking individual Turkish lessons at one time from a Turkish instructor. One day she arrived in tears. When I asked what was wrong she said she had just that day learned of the Armenian massacres. She had gotten through a masters degree without it ever being brought up. But how is that different than what the Japanese learn about their role in WWII, or what we learned in school about the Indian massacres? In my time it was absolutely nothing. Maybe we’ve gotten a little better but we still don’t want to look that history in the face.

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/23/2015 - 07:24 pm.

          Your five years in Turkey shows.

          There was a ‘golden age’ of the Ottoman Empire (and Islam in general, such as in Spain), but it was fading long before WWI. And note that tolerance is not the same as equality; all nationalities were not equal under the Ottomans.
          Your statement “no one came out of it with clean hands” sounds like the official Turkish position that there was no planned genocide, just the general violence of war.

          As for Native Americans, the situation was far more complex than simple genocide. For one thing, there was a lot a intermarriage — you’ll hardly ever find a ‘full-blood Indian’ these days. And there was never a national coordinated policy of extermination, although there were certainly bloodthirsty generals (if that’s not a tautology). That’s why Native Americans were pushed onto reservations rather than simply slaughtered, and they were often encouraged to integrate with the Anglo culture (the infamous Indian Schools). Compare that with the ‘pure’ case: the Nazi’s. Jews, Roma, etc never were given the option of integration. That’s the elimination of a genotype (literally ‘genocide’).

        • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/23/2015 - 11:08 pm.

          More history

          The Turkic tribes didn’t overrun the Byzantine empire until the 11th century. Until then they inhabited the steppes of central Asia.
          By that time the Armenians had lived there for at least 1500 years; possibly more.
          This suggests a parallel between the Turks and Armenians, and the Europeans and Native Americans.
          Like the Native Americans, the Armenians were the indigenous people.

      • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 04/23/2015 - 05:44 pm.

        Wow what a joke

        There was no intention to accept the rights of native Americans unless they totally accepted the demands of white settlers. Just a slower type of genocide.

  5. Submitted by Michael Miller on 04/24/2015 - 08:57 am.

    Armenians revisited.

    I guess you win Paul. Heaven forbid a person should learn something by living in another culture.

    • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 04/24/2015 - 11:31 am.

      Question of

      whether you learned facts
      or local myths.
      No question that you learned -something-.
      And I assume that you are fluent in Turkish.

      My own personal experience is much more limited.
      A couple of years ago I spent a week each in Greece and Turkey.
      Interesting differences in the stories we were told about the history of the two countries.

  6. Submitted by Michael Miller on 04/25/2015 - 08:26 am.

    All the above…

    I heard it all – especially in western Turkey and Greece where I heard the atrocity stories surrounding the Turkish War of Independence after the fall of the Ottoman Empire – similar stories from Greeks and Turks about what had been done to them by the other side. I’m sure there was truth to all of it but I also suspected a bit of exaggeration after years of retelling. During the time I was there Archbishop Makarios on Cyprus was the anti-Christ (anti-Prophet?) to the Turks.
    Yes, I am fluent in Turkish and, hard to believe, Facebook is my primary source for staying current as most of the Turks I know are on it. Nice folks.
    Sadly, some things never seem to change in the region and the hatreds never really die. For example, Assad is doing to his people what the Old Testament described as what King David did to “the enemy” – total destruction. And it’s what ISIS does.
    Nice talking to you Paul – I think this thread is fading into history now.
    Be well.

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