Opinion: Revisiting the “Armenian Question”

Last fall, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate adopted bipartisan resolutions commemorating the Armenian Genocide, an ethnic cleansing campaign the Ottoman government carried out 100 years ago, during the First World War, against Armenians and other Christians in the eastern provinces of the Empire. The vote on the House resolution was 405-11; in the Senate, the vote was unanimous. At a time of deep partisan division, honoring the victims of the Armenian Genocide seems one of the few things that unite Democrats and Republicans.

This is not the first time the suffering of Armenian Christians has figured in our national conversation. As Charlie Laderman recounts in his fine new history, Sharing the Burden: The Armenian Question, Humanitarian Invention, and Anglo-American Visions of Global Order, in the first decades of the twentieth century, the “Armenian Question” was a familiar topic for Americans. Newspapers continually ran stories about the “starving Armenians.” Sunday Schools across the country took up collections for them; as a result, Herbert Hoover remembered, American children in 1919 knew more about Armenia than any other foreign land, with the possible exception of England. One American charity alone raised more than $40 million to assist Armenian refugees, more than $600 million in today’s money. Prominent politicians of both parties—Republicans like Hoover, Elihu Root, Charles Evans Hughes, Henry Cabot Lodge, and Theodore Roosevelt, and Democrats like William Jennings Bryan and especially Woodrow Wilson, who proposed that the United States accept a Mandate for Armenia after the war—repeatedly declared their support for an independent Armenian state.

Laderman, a historian at King’s College London, writes that many factors made the Armenian Question salient at the start of the 20th Century, including, principally, American leaders’ belief that the Armenian crisis might offer an opportunity to spread “civilization” throughout the Middle East, perhaps in tandem with Great Britain; and the American public’s affinity, influenced by decades of American missionary activity in Turkey, with Christians suffering under a militant Islam.

Laderman also explains why, notwithstanding the good intentions, and the substantial efforts by private groups, the U.S. Government ultimately did nothing for Armenia. In the end, America was unwilling to shoulder the immense responsibility of protecting vulnerable Christians in the Middle East. Turkey was allowed to regain control of its Anatolian provinces, cleared of the Armenians and other Christians who had been killed or removed across the border to Syria—where, as it happens, a new Turkish campaign has exposed their descendents to grave danger. The story Laderman recounts thus has implications for the present day. The American abandonment of Armenians a century ago suggests disquieting lessons for Christians and other Middle East minorities today.

The Armenian Genocide’s roots go back at least a generation. In the 19th Century, the Ottoman Empire, under pressure from European powers, granted formal legal equality to all its subjects, regardless of religion. When Armenian and other Christian minorities began to assert this equality, it caused a backlash in the wider Muslim population, especially in the eastern provinces. Some Armenians formed paramilitary groups to protect themselves, which in turn led to brutal state repression, particularly the Hamidian Massacres of the 1890s, which killed hundreds of thousands of Christians.

The Hamidian Massacres drew the attention of Americans and Europeans. Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1896 that the massacres constituted the “great crime of this century against civilization.” But, aside from protests and an ineffective naval demonstration, the West did nothing. “No power was willing to risk continental stability,” Laderman writes, or its “own interests, to intervene on behalf of the Armenians.” Roosevelt himself counseled caution. While he would personally “head a crusade for the Armenians” if he could, he told a correspondent while President in 1907, America “has not the remotest intention of fighting on such an issue.”

When World War I began, Turkey sided with Germany and against Russia. Fearing that Armenian paramilitaries in Anatolia would fight for Russia, the Young Turk government decided to deport the entire Armenian population. Scholars estimate that 1.5 million Armenians died during the deportations, along with hundreds of thousands of Syriac and Greek Orthodox, who were also caught up in the anti-Christian violence. The victims died in terrifying conditions, murdered by Kurdish and Turkish irregulars, often with the cooperation of government officials, or as a result of starvation, thirst, and exhaustion in the Syrian desert.  A small percentage of refugees eventually found safety in Syria and elsewhere in the Levant, where they established new communities. Some escaped to Western Europe, principally France, and the United States.

In the run up to America’s entry into the war in 1917, the plight of Armenians was, in Hoover’s words, “on the front of the American mind.” American leaders thought the crisis might afford an opportunity to spread American civilization throughout the Middle East. An independent Armenia, supported by America, could be a beachhead for liberal democratic ideals that would, in time, transform the entire region. As Laderman recounts, in public speeches and private correspondence, politicians voiced the idea that American intervention could defeat “barbarism” and “fanaticism” in favor of liberty and the rule of law.

American leaders were encouraged to think this way, Laderman writes, by Britain. Beginning in the late 19th century, British diplomats assiduously sought to interest the United States in a joint, Anglophone partnership to superintend the Middle East according to American and British values. The British appeal was not disinterested. As the Ottoman Empire crumbled, Britain desperately wanted American troops to provide a buffer against Russian expansion in Turkey, which could threaten British supply lines to India. By appealing to America’s moralism, British diplomats thought they could enlist America’s help in the Great Game.

Americans also identified with Armenians because of the influence of American Protestant missionaries, who had been working in Turkey for decades, building schools, hospitals, and churches. Many, including the missionaries themselves, took credit for sparking minority aspirations for equality in Turkey, “by teaching men and women to think in harmony with our Western ideals.” As Laderman writes, the missionaries viewed Armenians as their “principal wards,” and they used their considerable influence at home to promote the Armenians’ cause. The missionaries’ reports about the Armenians, an ancient Christian people threatened with extinction at the hands of a militant Islamic empire, found an attentive audience in America’s overwhelmingly Christian culture. The appeals resonated especially with Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister who maintained close ties with the missionaries’ organizations.

When the war ended, Armenians had great hopes that America’s leaders would live up to their oft-repeated assertions and support an Armenian state in Anatolia. Their hopes were dashed in May 1920 when the Senate rejected, by a vote of 52-23, Wilson’s proposal that America accept a Mandate for Armenia, much as France had accepted a Mandate for Syria and Britain for Palestine and Mesopotamia. As Roosevelt had foreseen in 1907, America was simply unwilling to accept responsibility for guarding a poor and desolated region in the Middle East—a responsibility, in Hoover’s estimation, that would have required “at least 150,000” American troops and brought America “into direct political entanglement with the whole weight of Russia”—especially when Britain, America’s ostensible partner, had taken for itself oil-rich lands in Iraq. Turkey regained sovereignty over its Anatolian provinces in the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, and the idea of an independent Armenian state in Anatolia evaporated. A small Armenian state, made up of Russia’s Armenian territories, was absorbed into the Soviet Union.

Laderman’s persuasive and readable history has implications for the present day. The congressional resolutions last fall were, largely, a rebuke of Turkey for its current invasion of northern Syria. The invasion, which a sudden withdrawal of American forces made possible, has created 300,000 refugees, many of them the descendants of Armenians and other Christians who settled there after the Genocide. Christians, once again, are targets, this time of a revived ISIS, which the Turkish invasion has emboldened. Last November, a Catholic priest was ambushed and murdered by ISIS outside a church in Deir ez-Zor, a city that witnessed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians 100 years ago.

Congressional resolutions are very welcome, but history suggests that these Christians should not expect much more from America. Just as in the last century, despite the best intentions, America’s commitment to Christians in the Middle East today is limited: well wishes, exhortations for equality and tolerance, some humanitarian assistance—though nothing like the massive humanitarian campaign that took place in the last century and saved so many lives. Ultimately, nations act in their political and economic interests, and America does not perceive long-term interests that would justify putting at risk the large number of troops necessary to defend Mideast Christians on an ongoing basis. Many private citizens and charities continue to help Mideast Christians, thank God. But the sad lesson of Laderman’s book is this: if Christians in Syria expect the American government to do more to help them, they will find themselves on their own.

Mark L. Movsesian is the Law School’s Frederick A. Whitney Professor of Contract Law and co-directs our Center for Law and Religion. This article published originally at Law & Liberty on January 23, 2020.