They were the first victims of one genocide among so many in the 20th century, but it's not diplomatic to say so. The Turkish government might be offended. So the Obama administration pulled out the usual stops the other day, urging the
The secretary of state dutifully echoed her boss. "Both President Obama and I have made clear, both last year and again this year," said
In the end, the House committee did decide to call genocide genocide. By one vote. The final tally was Truth 23, Silence in the Face of Evil, 22.
The vote may say less about what happened in
It was a time when the mass deportation and annihilation of a whole people could still shock the world, and move even diplomats to protest. Our secretary of state at the time not only had convictions but dared expressed them.
The American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire,
"More than 2 million persons were deported. The system was about the same everywhere. The Armenians, men, women and children, would be assembled in the marketplace. Then the able-bodied men would be marched off and killed by being shot or clubbed in cold blood at some spot which did not necessitate the trouble of burial. ... As a last step, those who remained, mothers, grandmothers, children were driven forth on their death pilgrimages across the desert of Aleppo, with no food, no water, no shelter, to be robbed and beaten at every halt."
Ambassador Morgenthau's conclusion: "If America is going to condone these offenses ... she is party to the crime."
The whole country rang with protests. The massacres even entered the American vernacular. When children wouldn't eat their vegetables, they might be told to remember "the starving Armenians." Old-timers may remember the phrase; it remains in the language even if the history behind it has been forgotten.
Now, if the pundits and analysts note this congressional resolution at all, they seem more interested in the politics of it than the historical truth it expresses. Which is how politics loses its moral edge and becomes only a power game.
The Turks responded to the passage of the resolution in committee by calling their ambassador home for "consultations" -- a show of
For official purposes, the Turkish government still claims the Armenians weren't victims of any organized massacre in the years 1915-1918. It seems they just disappeared one day by the hundreds of thousands.
Or they met with a series of unfortunate accidents in wartime. Or for their own reasons they chose to decamp for the deserts of
In short, when a single truth must be avoided, falsehoods multiply. And diplomats impose a discreet silence. Why offend?
Over time the Armenian massacres faded from the world's memory, but at least one statesman remembered, and drew the inevitable conclusion: that the world would scarcely notice a little genocide among friends. Or as he put it, speaking to a group of his confidants:
"It's a matter of indifference to me what a weak Western European civilization will say about me. I have issued the command -- and I'll have anybody who utters but one word of criticism executed by a firing squad -- that our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy. Accordingly, I have placed my death-head formations in readiness -- for the present only in the East -- with orders to them to send to death mercilessly and without compassion men, women and children. ... Only thus shall we gain the living space we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the extermination of the Armenians?"
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(C) 2010 Paul Greenberg