By Alexis Herr, Ph.D.
April 24th, 2015 marks the centennial of the Armenian Genocide. On that day in 1915, the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) arrested hundreds of Armenian intellectuals in Constantinople. By eradicating and then eliminating Armenian lawyers, writers, doctors, deputies, and religious leaders the CUP intended to suppress any form of organized resistance to the genocidal killing that followed and ultimately murdered 1 million Armenians. Present day Turkey denies that the CUP committed genocide and has spent millions of dollars to promote its point of view. The United States, while not outright denying the genocide, has failed to clarify its position.
Many former US presidents have alluded to the genocide, but have failed to state outright the genocidal nature of the killing. President Carter, for example, avoided the g-word and “Turkey” during a 1978 White House reception in which he referred to the genocide as “a concerted effort to eliminate all the Armenian people.” President Bush referred to the killings as “massacres,” in 1990, however he too avoided the G-word. President Clinton in 1995 also alluded to atrocity; however, he too failed to call it genocide. And in 2000 when Congress proposed an Armenian Genocide Resolution (H. R. 398), which would have legally referred to the killings as genocide, President Clinton personally called House Speaker Dennis Hastert and asked him to kill the bill so as not to provoke Turkey.
Some US presidents have taken a more direct approach. President Reagan, for example, called the killing genocide during a 1981 speech. Despite this omission, however, Reagan did not pursue or support any official acknowledgement of the genocide. His reason had much to do with Cold War politics and Turkey’s strategic position as an ally in the Middle East. In 2008, then senator Barack Obama made a campaign promise to label the annihilation of 1 million Armenians genocide, however, we are still waiting to see if he will follow through. Turkey’s staunch denial and prominent position as a NATO member makes official recognition more challenging for a sitting president. France, however, took the plunge in 2012 when it voted to criminalize public denial of the Ottoman Empire’s genocide of Armenians.
Representative Adam Schiff (D-California) along with 43 other lawmakers in the House hope this year will be different. They have introduced a bill calling for the mass killings to be officially recognized as genocide by the US government.
Turkey’s government continues to deny that the Committee of Union and Progress committed genocide even though the perpetrators of the crime and the survivors of the violence have passed away. The United States, for its part, has yet to take up a clear position.
Last year, President Obama had this to say on the Armenian Day of Remembrance: “We recall the horror of what happened ninety-nine years ago, when 1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their deaths in the final days of the Ottoman Empire and we grieve for the lives lost and the suffering endured by those men, women, and children.” Perhaps the 100-year commemoration of the genocide will help push President Obama to replace the word massacre with genocide.
For more information on the Armenian Genocide, see:
Donald E. Miller and Lorna Touryan Miller, Survivors: An Oral History of the Armenian Genocide (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993).
Peter Balakian, Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response (New York: HaroerCollins, 2003).
Taner Akcam, The Young Turks’ Crime Against Humanity: The Armenian Genocide and Ethnic Cleansing in the Ottoman Empire (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012)