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american inaction to armenian genocide

Samantha Power was most recently in the headlines during the past election, as she resigned from the Obama team after referring to Hillary Clinton as a “monster.”  More recently, she was named to the National Security Council. In A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, Powers looks at America’s historical response to genocides in the 20th century.

She first tackles the Armenian genocide, highlighting the response of the US under Woodrow Wilson and criticism of this response by Publius-favorite Teddy Roosevelt:

Instead of hiding his achievements, as later perpetrators would do, Talaat boasted of them.  According to Morgenthau, he liked to tell friends, “I have accomplished more toward solving the Armenian problem in three months than Abdul Hamid accomplished in thirty years!” (The Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid had killed some 200,000 Armenians in 1895-1896.)  Talaat once asked Morgenthau whether the United States could get the New York Life Insurance Company and Equitable Life of NewYork, which for years had done business with the Armenians, to send a complete list of the Armenian policyholders to the Turkish authorities.  “They are practically all dead now and have left no heirs,” Talaat said.  “The Government is the beneficiary now.”

In decrying the atrocities but opposing the war against Turkey, the committee earned the scorn of former president Theodore Roosevelt.  In a letter to Samuel Dutton, the Armenia committee secretary, Roosevelt slammed the hypocrisy of the “peace-at-any-price type” who acted on the motto of “safety first,” which, he wrote, “could be appropriately used by the men on a sinking steamer who jump into boats ahead of the women and children.” He continued:

“Mass meetings on behalf of the Armenians amount to nothing whatever if they are mere methods of giving a sentimental but ineffective and safe outlet to the emotion of those engaged in them. Indeed they amount to less than nothing. … Until we put honor and duty first, and are willing to risk something in order to achieve righteousness both for ourselves and for others, we shall accomplish nothing; and we shall earn and deserve the contempt of the strong nations of mankind.”

Roosevelt wondered how anyone could possibly advise neutrality “between despairing and hunted people, people whose little children are murdered and their women raped, and the victorious and evil wrongdoers.”  He observed that such a position put “safety in the present above both duty in the present and safety in the future.”  Roosevelt would grow even angrier later in the war, when the very relief campaign initiated to aid the Armenians would be invoked as reason not to make war on Turkey.  In 1918 he wrote to Cleveland Dodge, the most influential member of the Armenia committee: “To allow the Turks to massacre the Armenians and then solicit permission to help the survivors and then to allege the fact that we are helping the survivors as a reason why we should not follow the only policy [intervention] that will permanently put a stop to such massacres is both foolish and odious.”

More than 1 million Armenians had been killed on his watch. Morgenthau, who had earned a reputation as a loose cannon, did not receive another appointment in the Wilson administration.  President Wilson, reflecting the overwhelming view of the American people, stayed on the sidelines of World War I as long as he could.  And when the United States finally entered the conflict against Germany in April 1917, he refused to declare war on or even break off relations with the Ottoman Empire.

Powers notes that the Ottoman Empire would itself break off relations with the US soon thereafter.


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