On Saturday, the Biden administration will formally recognize the Armenian genocide that took place a century ago. This will be the first U.S. administration to make this designation, and it’s not without controversy.
The United States has long struggled with the implications associated with this deeply polarizing issue — and the domestic and international complexities involved. But the U.S. acknowledgment of a genocide that began in 1915 reflects, fundamentally, an important shift in the 2021 relationship between the United States and Turkey.
What happened to the Armenians?
Between 1915 and 1922, up to a million Armenians in Anatolia were killed by Ottoman authorities. Many died in forced-labor battalions, or en route to remote camps. Reports of these mass killings of Armenians were among the factors that compelled the United States to enter World War I. American missionaries had played an active role in educating and nurturing Armenian communities in the Ottoman Empire. News of the suffering compelled large numbers of American aid workers to journey to the Levant to aid in their care after the war was over.
Yet there were limits, even then, to the extent Washington was willing to become involved in Armenian affairs. Congress, for example, refrained from declaring war on the Ottoman Empire for fear that it would endanger American citizens and stoke further anti-Armenian violence.
Washington gradually lost interest in seeking justice for displaced Armenians. As isolationism came to rule the day and the U.S. relationship with Turkey grew stronger, U.S. priorities shifted and the killings faded into memory. Later, with the onset of the Cold War, Turkey emerged as a consummate U.S. ally as both a member of NATO and a partner in the Middle East. Turkey, as many saw it, was more than a “bulwark” against potential Soviet aggression. In the words of broadcaster Walter Cronkite, “The Incredible Turk” also demonstrated the benefits of a secular, pro-Western democratic system to other predominantly Muslim countries.
Policymakers argued about genocide
The campaign in the United States to recognize the Armenian genocide began in the late 1960s. In the shadow of 50th anniversary of World War I, Armenians around the world mobilized for greater international recognition of their plight since 1915. Visceral memories of the Holocaust prompted widespread popular sympathy. In New York, for example, Mayor Abe Beame in 1975 declared a day of “memory and dedication to human rights” on April 24, the date long associated with the beginning of the Armenian genocide.
The Turkish government has refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing. Turkey’s defense remains grounded in how the Ottoman Empire explained the crackdown. Armenians, it argues, rose in rebellion during World War I and committed gross atrocities against Muslims in eastern Anatolia. In siding with Russia, Armenians made common cause with the empire’s enemies in the hope of seizing Turkish land and forming an independent state. The government claims that Ottoman authorities acted humanely in their efforts to transport Armenian civilians away from the front lines.
Above all, the Turkish government continues to reject any suggestion that imperial forces sought to exterminate the country’s Armenian population. “The Holocaust,” the Turkish Foreign Ministry website states, “bears no meaningful relation to the Ottoman Armenian experience.” Armenians, Turkey claims, are the ones most responsible for high crimes.
Contemporary scholarly research contradicts the official Turkish narrative. A plethora of historical sources, including official papers and accounts from Ottoman officials, speak of a deliberate and systematic campaign to remove and murder native Armenians throughout the empire. Multiple factors, including issues exclusive of war, drove this policy forward in the spring of 1915. Before the war, senior Ottoman leaders took steps to demographically re-engineer strategically significant provinces, killing and expelling native Christians in the hopes of placing Muslims upon their lands. Culling the Armenian population, it was reasoned, would shift Anatolia in favor of a more reliable Muslim majority.
Witnesses testify to a general campaign to expel Armenians from their homes without any concern for their well-being. Untold thousands, particularly men, were summarily executed while thousands of Armenians were raped or kidnapped; many starved to death. Many Ottoman officials understood what was being done was a crime. “If the settlement of the Armenians is left to its official process,” one warned, “humanity will not record it with appreciation.”
What has changed?
It wasn’t the debate over historiography that stopped past U.S. administrations from recognizing the Armenian genocide — it was U.S. foreign policy priorities. Since the 1980s, Congress and various U.S. presidents have resisted lobbying by Armenian Americans for an official statement of recognition, for fear of upsetting a long-standing alliance with Turkey. “People are beginning to wake up to the fact that this is going to cause us hard times with Turkey,” a congressional staffer told the New York Times in 1989. “Sure, there’s sympathy for the Armenian people, but it’s only prudent also to focus on the implications of this thing.” For this reason, congressional resolutions on the Armenian genocide have languished year after year.
What, then, has changed? Turkish commentators point to U.S. anger over the Erdogan government’s close ties with Russia, or the influence of Armenian American activists outraged over Turkey’s support for Azerbaijan’s recent war against Armenia. But it’s more likely that retribution isn’t the reason behind this shift in the U.S. government’s attitude. While ties between the United States and Turkey have waned, other countries, including allies and friends like Germany and Russia, have also recognized the Armenian genocide.
Turkey’s worsening human rights record, as well as its increasingly aggressive behavior in the Levant and eastern Mediterranean, has strained the patience of U.S. policymakers. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for example, stated pointedly that Turkey is “not acting like an ally.” The Biden administration’s recognition of the genocide, in other words, is a sign that U.S. officials are, as Blinken noted, “very clear-eyed” in dealing with Turkey as a partner. This shift in acknowledging a massacre that took place over 100 years ago is as much a testament to changing political realities as it is a clear validation of historical truth.
Ryan Gingeras is a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., and the author of Eternal Dawn: Turkey in the Age of Atatürk (Oxford 2019). Find him on Twitter @nord41.