Recognizing the Armenian Genocide One Hundred Years Later
One hundred years ago this week, the Ottoman Empire in its dying throes undertook a systematic effort to exterminate the Armenian and Assyrian people. They did so through a campaign of mass killing and displacement which saw 1.5 million Armenians killed and millions more forced to flee from their ancestral homes.
At the time, there was no word to describe an effort to eliminate an entire people, though American officials in the region had no difficulty describing the horrors they witnessed. The American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Henry Morgenthau reported that, “I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”
It wasn’t until 1943 when Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide” that we had a word to describe the magnitude of the crime committed against the Armenians. As Lemkin said at the time, he had in mind the experience of the Armenians under Ottoman rule when he invented the term, which, appallingly, was needed many times in the 20th century to describe the Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, the Rwandan Genocide, and more.
The Turkish effort to eliminate the Armenian people failed, as evidenced by the proud nation of Armenia and the millions of members of the Armenian diaspora in the United States and around the world. But there is hardly an Armenian household that does not carry the memory of family members who were lost in the carnage. Even today, there remain a handful of survivors who lived through the horrors of the Genocide as children to make a new life for themselves. Particularly while these survivors are still among us, I feel a deep obligation to fight against the denial of the Genocide that sadly remains the policy of the Turkish government.
The hundredth anniversary of the Genocide is also a time to recall one of the most generous outpourings of compassion and support in American history. Hearing of the scale of the humanitarian crisis, the Near East Relief Foundation was formed to provide assistance and relief. From an initial goal of providing $5 million, the Foundation would ultimately raise over $100 million – or about $1.7 billion in today’s dollars. The Foundation’s work saved the lives of millions of victims of the Genocide, including over 130,000 orphans. Nearly 1,000 Americans traveled overseas to build orphanages, vocational schools, and food distribution centers. The Foundation’s success relied on the generosity of everyday Americans who learned of the plight of the Armenian people and other genocide victims thousands of miles away and who were moved to contribute. The Near East Relief Foundation was a precursor to countless non-governmental humanitarian organizations, and its work continues to this day.
Last month, I joined with over 40 of my colleagues to introduce the Armenian Genocide Truth and Justice Resolution, a resolution recognizing the Genocide that took place from 1915 to 1923. The resolution also calls upon the President to work with the Turkish and Armenian governments to bring about reconciliation based upon the full acknowledgement of the historic fact of the Armenian Genocide. This resolution states in simple and plain language the historic facts of the Genocide and the degree to which Genocide denial on the part of the Turkish government continues to hamstring the chances for peace and stability in the region.
Sadly today, on the very same lands of Syria that were the killing fields for hundreds of thousands of Armenians, ISIL threatens to exterminate religious minorities, including Armenians. By recognizing the Genocide, the President and the Congress proclaim that our government will not forget those lost and we will not stand silent in the face of crimes against humanity.
Ellie Wiesel once wrote that denial of genocide is the last chapter of genocide. In this respect, the Armenian Genocide continues to traumatize its victims even 100 years later.
America must play its part in helping to close this still open wound.