Tuesday’s vote by the House of Representatives to recognize the Armenian Genocide may have no immediate practical effect. But by defying pressure from Turkey and finally calling a historical crime by the appropriate name, Congress ended a dishonorable tradition of avoiding the word “genocide” and put Turkey on notice that America would not ignore the way its NATO ally treats ethnic minorities in the future.
During World War I, an estimated 1.5 million Armenians perished at the hands of Ottoman Turks. The modern state of Turkey doesn’t deny that deaths occurred, but has always rejected the word genocide, portraying the killings as part of a wider war rather than a specific effort to eliminate an ethnic group.
Yet historians have concluded the opposite: The deliberate, organized killings of unarmed civilians were intended to be the “death warrant to a whole race,” as one witness to the genocide, US diplomat Henry Morgenthau Sr., wrote. Armenians, a Christian minority group, were systemically butchered in a deliberate effort to “Turkify” the state,” a template the Nazis would borrow three decades later during the Holocaust.
Many survivors of the Armenian Genocide ended up in the United States, and Armenian-Americans have led the fight to recognize their history. But Congress, fearful of offending a military ally, held back.
The breaking point came when Turkey invaded northern Syria last month, raising fears that another ethnic minority group — the Kurds — were at risk. “Recent attacks by the Turkish military against the Kurdish people are a stark reminder of the danger in our own time,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
That context made a vote about an event that happened a century ago carry more than just symbolic weight. By ending the US habit of looking the other way at Turkey’s past, the House sent the message that it won’t look the other way at its present, either.
It’s astonishing that any members of Congress would oppose the measure, but 11 of them did, and three more voted present to the resolution, which disavowed “efforts to enlist, engage or otherwise associate the United States government with denial of the Armenian genocide or any other genocide.”
Like other US presidents, President Trump opposed the resolution, and blasted Congress for passing it. The Turkish government also lashed out against what its foreign minister called a “shameful decision of those exploiting history in politics.”
The only thing that’s shameful is Turkey’s efforts to whitewash the past — and the fact that the United States has been its accomplice for this long.
In his memoir, Morgenthau recalls warning a senior Turkish official that history would remember the country’s actions. “You say that . . . you can defy the world, but you are wrong. You will have to meet public opinion everywhere, especially in the United States. Our people will never forget these massacres. They will always resent the wholesale destruction of Christians in Turkey. They will look upon it as nothing but willful murder and will seriously condemn all the men who are responsible for it.”
It’s taken far too long, but Congress has finally made good on Morgenthau’s promise.