The Ottoman Empire targeted the Armenian people for extermination in 1915, killing up to 1.5 million of the largely Christian population.
As the world marks the 100th anniversary of the start of the genocide on April 24, President Barack Obama is expected to deliberately avoid using the word “genocide.”
The historical fact of the Armenian Genocide does not remain in doubt among serious scholars.
Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who emigrated to the U.S. during World War II to escape German persecution, coined the term “genocide.”
When he created the term, he offered two examples: what the Nazis did to Jews (including many of his family members) and what the Ottoman Empire did to the Armenians.
However, a U.S. president has not used the word “genocide” to describe the mass killing of Armenians since Ronald Reagan did so in 1981.
Many U.S. politicians seem tongue-tied over the issue since labeling the genocide as “genocide” would hurt relations with Turkey, the successor nation to the Ottoman Empire.
As president, Obama has yet to refer to the Armenian Genocide as “genocide,” even though he promised during the 2008 presidential campaign to do exactly that.
“Two years ago, I criticized the Secretary of State for the firing of U.S. Ambassador to Armenia, John Evans, after he properly used the term ‘genocide’ to describe Turkey’s slaughter of thousands of Armenians starting in 1915,” Obama said at the time. “I shared with Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice my firmly held conviction that the Armenian Genocide is not an allegation, a personal opinion or a point of view, but rather a widely documented fact supported by an overwhelming body of historical evidence.”
“The facts are undeniable,” he added. “An official policy that calls on diplomats to distort the historical facts is an untenable policy. As a senator, I strongly support passage of the Armenian Genocide Resolution … and as president I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
One year and one day after those remarks, Obama put his hand on a Bible and took the presidential oath of office. In his more than six years as president, he has yet to recognize the Armenian Genocide.
White House officials reportedly admitted already that Obama and other U.S. leaders will avoid using the word “genocide” during events today marking the 100th anniversary.
On last year’s anniversary of the start of the genocide, Obama called it “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century” and said, “1.5 million Armenians were massacred.” However, he avoided the word “genocide” even as he alluded to it.
“I have consistently stated my own view of what occurred in 1915, and my view has not changed,” he said. “A full, frank and just acknowledgement of the facts is in all of our interests. Peoples and nations grow stronger and build a foundation for a more just and tolerant future by acknowledging and reckoning with painful elements of the past.”
An EthicsDaily.com examination of presidential statements shows only two references to the Armenian Genocide since Reagan’s 1981 statement.
Even Reagan seemed to back away from that assessment after his first year in office, and his 1981 statement remains the only presidential reference to the Armenian Genocide as “genocide.”
Both later references came as presidents expressed opposition to a congressional bill on the Armenian Genocide.
Thus, their use of the word “genocide” was in regard to the title of congressional legislation and not as a moral assessment.
President Bill Clinton issued such a statement in 2000, urging Congress to reject a bill on the Armenian Genocide since it would hamper the U.S.’s “significant interests in this troubled region of the world.”
Bush made a similar argument in 2007, saying the proposed legislation “would do great harm to our relations with a key ally in NATO and in the global war on terror.”
While Obama and his top administration officials carefully avoid using the word “genocide,” other politicians invoke the powerful term.
Nearly two dozen countries have officially recognized the Armenian Genocide, including Argentina, Canada, Chile, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Poland, Russia and Switzerland. Additionally, 43 U.S. states have recognized the Armenian Genocide.
In March, Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion held a two-day symposium on the Armenian Genocide called “Remembering Genocide.”
One of the symposium’s speakers was Peter Balakian, a poet and academic of Armenian heritage who has written about the Armenian Genocide and responses to it.
He argued that Turkish denial of the genocide makes the need for resolutions recognizing the genocide important. He thus criticized “U.S. cowardice” for not speaking more forcefully to name the genocide.
“I would note that from my own experience with members on Capitol Hill over the years, the good news is there’s no misunderstanding about the meaning of this history,” he said. “I don’t hear any, ‘Well, are you sure this happened this way?’ That seems to be unambiguous now.”
“But what’s still in place is that the U.S. State Department doesn’t believe it’s worth spending the political capital on an ethical issue of the Armenian-Turkish situation,” he added. “They haven’t determined that that’s a priority.”
Offering a different moral example from U.S. leaders, Pope Francis earlier this month referred to the killing of Armenian people as “the first genocide of the 20th century.”
Turkish political leaders responded by harshly criticizing Francis and recalled the nation’s ambassador to the Vatican.
Francis linked the Armenian Genocide to the genocides “perpetrated by Nazism and Stalinism” as the three worst cases in the past century.
“It is necessary, and indeed a duty, to honor their memory, for whenever memory fades, it means that evil allows wounds to fester,” he added about the Armenian Christians targeted in the genocide. “Concealing or denying evil is like allowing a wound to keep bleeding without bandaging it.”
Editor’s note: This is the ninth article in a series focused on genocide. Previous articles in the series are:
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.