In the years 1915-23 the Turkish government killed over a million and a half of its own citizens, ethnic Armenians who for thousands of years had lived on land that became the Ottoman Empire and ultimately modern Turkey. Today 100 years later controversy over the Armenian Genocide still rages on.
On April 12, 2015, Pope Francis used the word "genocide" to describe what UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on April 14 called "atrocity crimes." After Pope Francis in a Sunday sermon used the "G" word, the Turkish government reacted predictably, recalling its ambassador to the Vatican and accusing the pope of "prejudice" and spreading "hatred and animosity."
The Turkish government argues that Turks died during World War I as well as Armenians, and while this is true, the deaths from war cannot be compared to the deliberate attempt to exterminate a people -- that is, the million and a half Armenian men, women, and children who were drowned, burned, beheaded, disemboweled, stabbed, shot, or forced to march across the desert ultimately dying of disease and famine. The bones poking through the sands of Der Zor are not those of Turkish soldiers.
During World War I, the media published countless stories of the Armenian Genocide. On October 4, 1915, the New York Times ran a front-page article reporting that a committee of prominent Americans had checked out every eyewitness story, concluding that the massacres had been "Unequaled in a Thousand Years," and a "Policy of Extermination" was being perpetrated "In Effect Against a Helpless People." What followed was a searing description of children being drowned in the Euphrates, women and girls raped and stolen by the Turks, men tortured and killed. The signatories of this report included church leaders, businessmen, and former government officials such as former Secretary of Commerce and former Ambassador to Turkey, Cleveland Dodge; George Plimpton; the Reverend James Barton, secretary of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions; and John R. Mott of the International Committee of the YMCA. The genocide continued until 1923, in the later period with attacks on Aintab and Smyrna among other areas of Cilicia, and included efforts to kill the Greeks and Assyrians as well. However, the United States government took no steps to intervene on behalf of the victims, in spite of U.S. State Department reports that the deportations "are a carefully planned scheme to extinguish the Armenian race," as vice consul Jesse Jackson stated.
The Allies were so lax with Turkey that after the war they did not even attempt to mandate the extradition of the architects of the Armenian Genocide -- Talaat Pasha, Djemal Pasha, Kemal Pasha and others who had escaped on a night boat across the Black Sea in spite of their convictions in the Turkish Tribunals of crimes against humanity. The evidence surfaced by journalists and our own ambassador was ignored; subsequently the press dropped further coverage of these genocidal crimes, instead publishing misinformation that promoted Turkish denial. One of the most infamous of these commentaries of denial was written by retired U.S. admiral William Colby Chester (Source: Chester, Colby. "Turkey reinterpreted," Current History Magazine, September, 1922: 939-947):
The Armenians in 1915 were moved from the inhospitable regions where they were not welcome and could not actually prosper to the most delightful and fertile parts of Syria... where the climate is as benign as in Florida and California wither New York millionaires journey every year for health and recreation. This was done at great expense of money and effort.
A key reason for this apparent betrayal should not now surprise us: oil. The Turks were, at the time, overseers of the oil fields of Mosul (now in Iraq and still being fought over). As David Lloyd George commented in the British House of Commons, "Oil outweighed the blood of Armenians."
Many important people stood to make a lot of money off those oil fields. Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes -- who had been an officer of Standard Oil Company while he was in office -- commenting on requests to respond to further Turkish atrocities against the Armenians under Mustafa Kemal's leadership in 1922 wrote to President Harding, "It would naturally be said that we were far more solicitous about American interest in oil than about Christian lives."
Racism also played a key role. High Commissioner, Admiral Mark L. Bristol, was a vocal anti-Semite who also hated the Greeks and the Armenians. As he wrote, "The Armenians are a race like the Jews -- they have little or no national spirit and poor moral character." [For a treasure house of information on the press and the Genocide, see Dobkin, Marjorie Housepian. 2007/ "What Genocide? What Holocaust" News from Turkey, 1915-1923: A Case Study. In The Armenian Genocide, New Accounts from the American Press: 1915-1922, edited by Richard Diran Kloian, 1-15-1-24. Richmond, CA: Heritage Publishing.] Bristol began a public relations campaign to laud the Turks and denigrate the Armenians, describing the financial benefits to Americans that an alliance with Turkey could provide once they realize that "when it comes to violence all these people out here are all the same." The narrative of denial was "sold" by the United States government to create favorable public opinion of Turkey, and it has found itself for the most part stuck with that position ever since given their perception of Turkey's importance in the Middle East. One may wonder 100 years later in the wake of a decimated Syria with another Armenian refugee population--the descendants of those from the Genocide 100 years ago -- exactly what the United States has gotten for its efforts.
Abusers abuse because they can. The German government would never have acquiesced to the Nuremberg War Trials if it had been given a choice. The Turkish government's continued denial is only possible because the United States, Britain, and even the UN avoid involving themselves in a mess that the Allies should have dealt with 100 years ago. In spite of the fact that the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities has described the events as genocide, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon did not use the term "genocide" in recent statements. He was quoted as saying that discussions between the Armenians and the Turks "with a view to establishing the facts about what happened should strengthen our collective determination to prevent similar atrocity crimes from ever happening in the future." This statement puts the onus on the victims to seek justice from the perpetrator, who has no reason to comply. Once again the Armenians are left to fend for themselves. For the Armenians their homes are still lost, their family members still dead. The trauma of genocide is still in the air until the world community insists on the truth.
Ironically, change is coming from within Turkey itself. The "hidden Armenians" mostly girls and women who survived by giving up their Armenian identity, are being recognized in Turkey for who they are; an Armenian church in Diyarbakir that re-opened recently was the site of a baptism of Armenians who had been raised as Sunni Muslims to hide them after Genocide. Some Turkish scholars and journalists are speaking of the Genocide, risking being charged with breaking Turkey's infamous Article 301 "against Turkishness" that has landed many a truth-teller in a Turkish prison. Even Prime Minister Davutoglu's chief advisor recently said, "If accepting that what happened in Bosnia and Africa were genocides, it is impossible not to call what happened to Armenians in 1915 genocide too." Of course, this top advisor, Etyen Mahcupyan, the first member of Turkey's Armenian community to serve as senior advisor to the prime minister, found himself "retired" from his job on April 16. But he wasn't jailed, which is an improvement. The United States should consider changing its narrative before it finds itself shamed into it. As Tom Lehrer said, truth is truth; you can't have opinions about it.