The Blackest Page in History

08 April 2005

United States Diplomacy on the Bosphorus: The Diaries of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, 1913-1916, Gomidas Institute, Princeton & London, 500 pages

United States Official Records on the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1917, edited by Ara Sarafian, Gomidas Institute, Princeton & London, 706 pages

Lawyer, Ambassador, Statesman: The Memoirs of Abram I. Elkus, edited by Hilmar Kaiser, Gomidas Institute, Princeton & London, 122 pages

On June 19, 1915, as the genocide of the Armenians reached a peak, Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to Turkey, penned a letter to his son: "The ruin and devastation that is being wrought here is heart-rending. The government is using its present opportunity while all other countries are at war, to obliterate the Armenian race, and the worst of it is that it is impossible to stop it. ... The United States as a neutral power has no right to interfere in their internal affairs, and as I receive report after report of the inhuman treatment that the Armenians are receiving, it makes me feel most sad. Their lot seems to be very much the same as that of the Jews in Russia, and belonging to a persecuted race myself, I have all the more sympathy with them.”

Almost 30 years later, on January 16, 1944, Henry Morgenthau, the son, U.S. secretary of the treasury during World War II, met with President Roosevelt to discuss "the problem of the remaining Jews in Europe.” Not only was the State Department ineffectual in its treatment of the problem, said Morgenthau, but it was "actually taking action to prevent the rescue of the Jews.” He was convinced that "affective action” could be taken, citing the success of his father, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., in saving the lives of Armenians when he was ambassador to Turkey.

These brief quotes from the protocol of the meeting between Morgenthau, Jr. and Roosevelt illustrate how important it is that these diaries are finally being published today, 90 years after the genocide. How the world acted before and after the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey is critical for our understanding of the circumstances that enable genocide to happen. We need reminding that genocide is possible only when the balance of power between the victims and the murderers is such that the murderers enjoy absolute superiority. And this depends to a large extent on the actions of the "third party,” by which we mean the rest of the world.

This third party can be schematically divided into three groups: those who help the murderers, those who help the victims and those who stand on the sidelines and do nothing. Morgenthau, Sr. was the man who urged the U.S. not to stand there and gape, but to do all it could to contribute to the rescue effort. Morgenthau tried to talk to the Turkish rulers, but never got very far because a neutral power like the U.S. had no right to intervene in another country’s internal affairs, as he explained to his son.

It is worth pointing out that formally, at least, this state of affairs has changed since the Holocaust, thanks to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide adopted by the United Nations in 1948. According to this convention, intervention in cases of genocide is not only a right, but a duty. But this has not kept genocide from happening, because the world is still reluctant to intervene.

While the genocide was going on, Morgenthau wrote in his diary, and in numerous memos submitted to the U.S. Secretary of State, Robert Lansing - some of which have now been made public for the first time - that the "persecution of Armenians is assuming unprecedented roportions. Reports from widely scattered districts indicate a systematic attempt to uproot peaceful Armenian populations and through arbitrary efforts, terrible tortures, wholesale expulsions and deportations from one end of the Empire to the other, accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage and murder, turning into massacre, to bring destruction and destitution on them.”

Personal shock

Morgenthau writes of many talks with the grand vizier, Said Halim Pasha, his interior minister, Talat Pasha, and his war minister, Anwar Pasha, but these came to nothing. Morgenthau was convinced that the only country that might assist in lessening these atrocities was Turkey’s ally, Germany. He approached the German ambassador in Turkey, but was under no illusions. "I believe [the embassy] will simply content itself with giving advice and formal protest probably intended for the record, to cover itself from future responsibility,” he wrote.

Morgenthau was clearly the driving spirit behind the rescue effort, but his writings also provide vital source material for documenting and tudying the Armenian genocide, which the Turks, until today, deny ever happened. To our great shame, Israel has helped them in this act of denial, as have academics around the world, including several Israelis. Morgenthau knew what was happening from thousands of reports filed by American consuls and missionaries working in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, and he documented and passed on this information in real time, out of a deep sense of personal shock and horror.

Arriving in Constantinople in November 1913, Morgenthau kept a diary that he filled with accounts of his official duties, his social life as an ambassador, his personal affairs, his humanitarian endeavors on behalf of Turkish soldiers and citizens wounded in the war, and his efforts to stop the brutal attacks on the Armenians. Some of this material is incorporated in a book published in 1918, "Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story,” where he portrays the Armenian genocide as "the greatest crime in modern history” and observes that "among the blackest pages of modern history, this is the blackest of them all.” "I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episodes as this,” he writes in hindsight.

Morgenthau’s diaries, however, are a valuable source of firsthand information composed in real time. Together with the recently published United States Official Records on the Armenian Genocide, 1915-1917, they offer a clear picture of what the U.S. government knew. Hence their importance for understanding genocide in general, and the circumstances that would enable such a thing to happen. The "Official Records on the Armenian Genocide” consists of memos filed on a daily basis, informing the U.S. Secretary of State and President Woodrow Wilson of the efforts to rescue as many Armenians as possible and the obstacles that faced the rescuers along the way. These books should be required reading for anyone researching World War I, American diplomacy, the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian genocide. The university libraries in Israel contain very few volumes on the history of the Armenian genocide, and those available are chiefly books by Turks who deny that it happened. These new publications help somewhat to set the record straight.

Worthy of mention here is the Gomidas Institute, cofounded by the young British-Armenian historian Ara Sarafian, which specializes in publishing collections of documents, meticulously edited, with an introduction and annotations that make the work accessible to contemporary readers. To date, the institute has managed to scrape together funding to publish 10 volumes - a very important contribution to the desperate and sometimes frustrating battle of the Armenians and their friends to win recognition of their national tragedy.

`Never again’

One sad example: During the same week that the world marked the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, constantly repeating the refrain "never again,” and "we have learned our lesson,” the state of Brandenburg in Germany caved in to Turkish pressure and deleted half a sentence about the Armenian genocide from a 10th-grade textbook on the history of World War I. It was the only textbook in Germany that even mentioned the genocide.

Morgenthau’s diaries have now been joined by another memoir. This one is by Abram I. Elkus, who succeeded Morgenthau as U.S. ambassador to Turkey in 1916-1917. Elkus was also Jewish, and he made no effort to hide it. He, too, worked tirelessly on behalf of the Armenians, possibly identifying with their suffering because he knew, as a Jew, what it was like to be an underdog.

Morganthau and Elkus, as we see from their books, were of great assistance to the Yishuv - the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine - which found itself in dire straits during World War I. What saved the Jews in Palestine from a fate similar to that of the Armenians is very much a matter of debate. Was it the intervention of the U.S., largely through the auspices of Morgenthau and Elkus? The actions taken by Germany? The public outcry that the Jews managed to arouse? Was it the docile behavior of the Jews, as opposed to what the Turks perceived as Armenian rebelliousness? Maybe the Turks had no intention of wiping out the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine, or maybe they wanted to, toward the end of the war, but by that time, they couldn’t.

The work of the two American ambassadors on behalf of the Yishuv has not been sufficiently studied, perhaps because Morgenthau was not a Zionist and did not regard Zionism as a solution to the Jewish problem. Nevertheless, he was instrumental in arranging passage for refugees on American ships that sailed between Beirut, Jaffa, Alexandria and Constantinople. Morgenthau maintained close ties with the Jewish community in Turkey and representatives of the World Zionist Organization such as Victor Jacobson and Richard Lichtheim. He helped Hashomer leaders Manya and Israel Shochat, who were arrested and exiled to Turkey by the Ottomans. Morgenthau intervened to keep them from being sent to east Turkey. He ordered the U.S. consul to visit them every Sunday and send him a report on how they were faring.

"The local authorities and top echelons in Constantinople knew about the consul’s visits to us,” wrote Israel Shochat in his memoirs, "and I am convinced that this is what saved us from torture, harassment and possibly even death.” Ambassador Elkus continued in this vein.

Yishuv connection

The comments made about them by members of the Yishuv during World War I are enlightening. Avshalom Feinberg of the intelligence ring, Nili, wrote about the Armenian genocide in a letter to Henrietta Szold, secretary of the Experimental Station in Atlit, headed by Nili chief Aaron Aaronsohn, in October 1915. In this letter, he also mentions Morgenthau:

"Allow me at this point to pay honor to your country. I must say that without American Jewry we would not have been able now to survive in Palestine. Both the U.S. and our people were represented in these dark days - decisive days, I would say - in the most glorious and valuable manner by Ambassador Morgenthau. Does it not seem that Divine Providence has helped us, this time, by placing this man in this position at this moment? He knew brilliantly how to bring honor to his country and to his origins, and it goes without saying that he will forever deserve the thanks of his people. It is fair to say that this man has entered human history through the front door, by virtue of his approach to the defense of the Armenians. In his defense of the Armenians he acted not only as a brave American and the valuable ambassador of a great nation. He also gave of himself.”

Feinberg goes on to say that the Egyptian newspapers announced Morgenthau’s commitment of $2 million to aid the Armenians. "This constitutes a rousing rebuttal of the petty aphorism that ‘charity begins at home,’” he writes. "We can only support and applaud these millions, which will ease the suffering of the Armenian victims whose plight may become ours tomorrow. ... It is a touching and uplifting sight, that a son of such an impoverished people should be the first to offer aid to another wretched people, with whom we have no ties of blood, faith or tradition. Is not the nobility here even greater?”
Prof. Yair Auron is the author of The Banality of Indifference: Zionism and the Armenian Genocide and The Banality of Denial: Israel and the Armenian Genocide, both published by Transaction. His new book, The Pain of Knowledge: Holocaust and Genocide Issues in Education, will be coming out this month.

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