One hundred years ago this April, the Ottoman Empire began a brutal campaign of deporting and destroying its ethnic Armenian community, whom it accused of supporting Russia, a World War I enemy. More than a million Armenians died. As it commemorates the tragedy, the U.S. government, for its part, still finds itself wriggling on the nail on which it has hung for three decades: Should it use the term “genocide” to describe the Ottoman Empire’s actions toward the Armenians, or should it heed the warnings of its ally, Turkey, which vehemently opposes using the term and has threatened to recall its ambassador or even deny U.S. access to its military bases if the word is applied in this way? The first course of action would fulfill the wishes of the one-million-strong Armenian American community, as well as many historians, who argue that Washington has a moral imperative to use the term. The second would satisfy the strategists and officials who contend that the history is complicated and advise against antagonizing Turkey, a loyal strategic partner.

No other historical issue causes such anguish in Washington. One former State Department official told me that in 1992, a group of top U.S. policymakers sat in the office of Brent Scowcroft, then national security adviser to President George H. W. Bush, and calculated that resolutions related to the topic were consuming more hours of their time with Congress than any other matter. Over the years, the debate has come to center on a single word, “genocide,” a term that has acquired such power that some refuse to utter it aloud, calling it “the G-word” instead. For most Armenians, it seems that no other label could possibly describe the suffering of their people. For the Turkish government, almost any other word would be acceptable. 

Thomas de Waal
De Waal is a senior fellow with Carnegie Europe, specializing in Eastern Europe and the Caucasus region.
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U.S. President Barack Obama has attempted to break this deadlock in statements he has made on April 24, the day when Armenians traditionally commemorate the tragedy, by evoking the Armenian-language phrase Meds Yeghern, or “Great Catastrophe.” In 2010, for example, he declared, “1.5 million Armenians were massacred or marched to their death in the final days of the Ottoman Empire. . . . The Meds Yeghern is a devastating chapter in the history of the Armenian people, and we must keep its memory alive in honor of those who were murdered and so that we do not repeat the grave mistakes of the past.”

Armenian descendants seeking recognition of their grandparents’ suffering could find everything they wanted to see there, except one thing: the word “genocide.” That omission led a prominent lobbying group, the Armenian National Committee of America, to denounce the president’s dignified statement as “yet another disgraceful capitulation to Turkey’s threats,” full of “euphemisms and evasive terminology.” 

In a sense, Obama had only himself to blame for this over-the-top rebuke. After all, during his presidential campaign, he had, like most candidates before him, promised Armenian American voters that he would use the word “genocide” if elected, but once in office, he had honored the relationship with Turkey and broken his vow. His 2010 address did go further than those of his predecessors and openly hinted that he had the G-word in mind when he stated, “My view of that history has not changed.” But if he edged closer to the line, he stopped short of crossing it.


Back in 1915, there was nothing controversial about the catastrophe suffered by ethnic Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. The Young Turkish government, headed by Mehmed Talat Pasha and two others, which ruled what was left of the empire, had entered World War I the year before on the side of Germany, fighting against its longtime foe Russia. The leadership accused Christian Armenians—a population of almost two million, most of whom lived in what is now eastern Turkey—of sympathizing with Russia and thus representing a potential fifth column. Talat ordered the deportation of almost the entire people to the arid deserts of Syria. In the process, at least half of the men were killed by Turkish security forces or marauding Kurdish tribesmen. Women and children survived in greater numbers but endured appalling depredation, abductions, and rape on the long marches. 

Leading statesmen of the time regarded the deportation and massacre of the Armenians as the worst atrocity of World War I. One of them, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, argued in a 1918 letter to the philanthropist Cleveland Dodge that the United States should go to war with the Ottoman Empire “because the Armenian massacre was the greatest crime of the war, and failure to act against Turkey is to condone it.”

Some of the best sources on the horrific events were American. Because the United States had remained neutral during the war’s early years, dozens of its diplomatic officials and missionaries in the Ottoman Empire had stayed on the ground and witnessed what happened. In May 1915, Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador in Turkey, delivered a démarche from the Ottoman Empire’s three main adversaries—France, Russia, and the United Kingdom—that denounced the deportation of the Armenians. The statement condemned the Ottoman government for “crimes against humanity,” marking the first known official usage of that term. In July 1915, Morgenthau cabled to Washington, “Reports from widely scattered districts indicate systematic attempts to uproot peaceful Armenian populations.” These actions, he wrote, involved arbitrary arrests, torture, and large-scale deportations of Armenians, “accompanied by frequent instances of rape, pillage, and murder, turning into massacre.”

At the other corner of the Ottoman Empire, Jesse Jackson, the U.S. consul in Aleppo, watched as pitiful convoys of emaciated Armenians arrived in Syria. In September 1916, Jackson sent a cable to Washington that described the burial grounds of nearly 60,000 Armenians near Maskanah, a town in today’s northern Syria: “As far as the eye can reach mounds are seen containing 200 to 300 corpses buried in the ground pele mele, women, children and old people belonging to different families.”

By the end of World War I, according to most estimates of the time, around one million Armenians had died. Barely one-tenth of the original population remained in its native lands in the Ottoman Empire. The rest had mostly scattered to Armenia, France, Lebanon, and Syria. Many, in ever-greater numbers over the years, headed to the United States. 

From the 1920s on, the events of the Great Catastrophe became more a matter of private grief than public record. Ordinary Armenians concentrated on building new lives for themselves. The main political party active in the Armenian diaspora, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation (which had briefly ruled an independent Armenia in 1918–20, before it became a Soviet republic), expended most of its efforts fighting the Soviet Union rather than Turkey. Only in the 1960s did Armenians seriously revive the memory of their grandparents’ suffering as a public political issue. They drew inspiration from “Holocaust consciousness,” the urge for collective remembrance and action that brought together the Jewish people after the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann for Nazi war crimes. 

The Republic of Turkey, founded by Mustafa Kemal in 1923, was a state rooted in organized forgetting—not only of the crimes committed in the late Ottoman period against Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks but also of the suffering of the Muslim population in a string of wars in Anatolia and the Balkans prior to 1923. As the new Turkish state developed, the vanishing of the Armenians became a political, historical, and economic fait accompli. In Turkey, only one substantial book addressing the issue was published between 1930 and the mid-1970s. 

When Turkish historians finally returned to the topic in the late 1970s, they did so in response to a wave of terrorist attacks on Turkish diplomats in Western Europe, most of them carried out by Armenian militants based in Beirut. The campaign set off a war among nationalist historians. A simplistic Armenian narrative told of Turkish perpetrators, callous international bystanders, and innocent Armenian victims, downplaying the role that radical Armenian political parties had played in fueling the crackdown. Countering this story was an even cruder narrative spun by some pro-Turkish scholars, several of whom were receiving funding from the Turkish government. That story line portrayed the Armenians as traitors and Muslims as victims of scheming Christian great powers that sought to break up the Ottoman Empire.

The United States served as the main arena for these assertions and denials. In one book published in 1990, Heath Lowry, the head of the newly established Institute of Turkish Studies in Washington, D.C., pursued a common line of Turkish argument: casting doubt on the authenticity of Westerners’ eyewitness testimonies. His account, The Story Behind “Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story,” alleged that Morgenthau was an unreliable witness. Others argued that U.S. missionaries were untrustworthy sources because of their anti-Muslim bias. Over the years, efforts to discredit dozens of primary sources have grown increasingly tortuous. The U.S.-based Turkish website Tall Armenian Tale, for example, laboriously tries to cast doubt on every single one of the hundreds of eyewitness testimonies of the massacre. 

A more legitimate line of historical inquiry has focused on the hitherto overlooked tribulations of Muslims in Anatolia and the Caucasus during World War I. These accounts have pointed out that the Armenians were not the only people to face persecution in eastern Turkey. The Kurdish and Turkish populations, too, suffered grievously at the hands of the Russian army, which contained several Armenian regiments, when these forces occupied swaths of eastern Turkey not long after the Armenian deportations. Later, in 1918–20, Muslim Azerbaijanis were deported from the briefly independent Republic of Armenia before it was conquered by the Bolsheviks.

The wartime context of the Armenian massacre and the multiple actors involved—in addition to Armenians and Turks: Assyrians, Azerbaijanis, Greeks, Kurds, British, Germans, and Russians—make it harder to tell the story in all its nuance. The history of the Armenian genocide lacks the devastating simplicity of the Holocaust’s narrative. But a new generation of historians has finally taken up the challenge of explaining the full context of the tragedy. Some of them, such as Raymond Kevorkian, are Armenian, whereas others, including Donald Bloxham and Erik-Jan Zurcher, hail from Europe. Several come from Turkey, including Fikret Adanir, Taner Akcam, Halil Berktay, and Fuat Dundar.

At the heart of most of these histories lies a hard kernel of truth: although Muslims suffered enormously during World War I, in both Anatolia and the Caucasus, the Armenian experience was of a different order of pain. Along with the Assyrians, the Armenians were subjected to a campaign of destruction that was more terrible for being organized and systematic. And even though some Armenian nationalists helped precipitate the brutal Ottoman response, every single Armenian suffered as a result. As Bloxham has written, “Nowhere else during the First World War was the separatist nationalism of the few answered with the total destruction of the wider ethnic community from which the nationalists hailed. That is the crux of the issue.”


If the issue of the experience of the Armenians in World War I were merely a matter of historical interpretation, a way forward would be clear. The huge volume of primary source material, combined with Armenian oral histories, authenticates the veracity of what Armenians recall—as does the plain fact that an entire people vanished from their historical homeland. All that historians have to do, it would seem, is fill out the context of the events and explain why the Young Turks treated the Armenians the way they did. 

But what dominates the public discourse today is the word “genocide,” which was devised almost three decades after the Armenian deportations to designate the destruction not just of people but also of an entire people. The term is closely associated with the man who invented it, the Polish-born Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Lemkin barely escaped the horror of the Holocaust, which wiped out most of his family in Poland after he immigrated to the United States. As he would later explain in a television interview, “I became interested in genocide because it happened so many times. It happened to the Armenians, and after the Armenians, Hitler took action.” 

Lemkin had a morally courageous vision: to get the concept of genocide enshrined in international law. His tireless lobbying soon paid off: in 1948, just four years after he invented the term, the United Nations adopted the Genocide Convention, a treaty that made the act an international crime. But Lemkin was a more problematic personality than the noble crusader depicted in modern accounts, such as Samantha Power’s book A Problem From Hell. In his uncompromising pursuit of his goal, Lemkin allowed the term “genocide” to be bent by other political agendas. He opposed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted a week after the Genocide Convention, fearing that it would distract the international community from preventing future genocides—the goal that he thought should surpass all others in importance. And he won the Soviet Union’s backing for the convention after “political groups” were excluded from the classes of people it protected. 

The final definition of “genocide” adopted by the UN had several points of ambiguity, which gave countries and individuals accused of this crime legal ammunition to resist the charge. For example, Article 2 of the convention defines “genocide” as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” The meaning of the words “as such” is far from clear. And alleged perpetrators often deny that the destruction was “committed with intent”—an argument frequently made in Turkey.

Soon, however, only a careful few were bothering to refer to the UN convention in evoking the term. In the broader public’s mind, the association with the Holocaust gave the word “genocide” totemic power, making it the equivalent of absolute evil. After 1948, the legal term that had initially been created to deter mass atrocities became an insult traded between nations and peoples accusing each other of past and present horrors. The United States and the Soviet Union each freely accused the other of genocide during the Cold War. 

The Armenian diaspora saw the word as a perfect fit to describe what had happened to their parents and grandparents and began referring to the Meds Yeghern as “the Armenian genocide.” The concept helped activate a new political movement. The year 1965 marked both the 50th anniversary of the massacre and the moment when the Armenian diaspora made seeking justice for the victims a political cause.

In the postwar United States, it was normal practice to put the words “Armenian” and “genocide” together in the same sentence. This usage came with the assumption that the UN convention—one of its first signatories was Turkey—had no retroactive force and therefore could not provide the basis for legal action related to abuses committed before 1948. For instance, in 1951, U.S. government lawyers submitted an advisory opinion on the Genocide Convention to the International Court of Justice, in The Hague, citing the Turkish massacre of the Armenians as an instance of genocide. In April 1981, in a proclamation on the Holocaust, U.S. President Ronald Reagan mentioned “the genocide of the Armenians before it, and the genocide of the Cambodians which followed it.”

Political circumstances changed this thinking in the 1980s. Reagan himself performed an abrupt about-face following the 1982 assassination of Kemal Arikan, the Turkish consul general to the United States, by two young Armenian militants in Los Angeles. The death of a diplomat of a close NATO ally in Reagan’s own home state enraged and embarrassed the president. He and his team concluded that on three of the foreign policy issues that concerned them the most—the Soviet Union, Israel, and terrorism—Turkey was staunchly on the U.S. side. Armenians, by contrast, were not. 

Seven months after the killing of Arikan, the State Department’s official bulletin published a special issue on terrorism, which included a piece titled “Armenian Terrorism: A Profile.” A note at the end of the article said, “Because the historical record of the 1915 events in Asia Minor is ambiguous, the Department of State does not endorse allegations that the Turkish government committed a genocide against the Armenian people. Armenian terrorists use this allegation to justify in part their continuing attacks on Turkish diplomats and installations.” In response to furious Armenian complaints, the bulletin ended up publishing not one but two clarifications of that statement. But from that point on, a new line had been drawn by the executive branch, and the term “Armenian genocide” was outlawed in the White House. 


Congress, meanwhile, was plowing its own furrow. By the 1970s, one million Armenians lived in the United States. Younger generations were no longer willing to limit the discussions of their ancestors’ deaths to Sunday dinners, requiem services, and low-circulation newspapers. Many Armenian Americans who had political savvy and wealth, such as the Massachusetts businessman Stephen Mugar, began to lobby Congress. They found an ally in the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Tip O’Neill, whose congressional district included the de facto capital of the Armenian American community: Watertown, Massachusetts. In early 1975, urged on by Mugar and others, O’Neill managed to get the House to pass a resolution authorizing the president to designate April 24 of that year as the “National Day of Remembrance of Man’s Inhumanity to Man” and observe it by honoring all victims of genocide, “especially those of Armenian ancestry who succumbed to the genocide perpetrated in 1915.” 

That occasion marked the only time Congress has passed any kind of resolution recognizing the Armenian genocide. In 1990, the Senate spent two days in fierce debate over whether April 24 should again be officially designated as a national day of remembrance, this time of the “Armenian Genocide of 1915–1923.” Kansas Senator Bob Dole led the argument in favor of the motion, but opponents managed to block it. Ever since, with the White House opposed to officially recognizing the phrase “Armenian genocide,” resolutions of this kind have failed. They have become an increasingly tired and predictable exercise: however much historical evidence the Armenian lobbyists produce to support their case, the Turks play the trump card of national security, lightly threatening that a yes vote would jeopardize the United States’ continued use of the Incirlik Air Base, which is on Turkish territory, a key supply hub for U.S. military operations in the region. In 2007, when one genocide resolution appeared certain to pass the House, no fewer than eight former secretaries of state intervened with a joint letter advising Congress to drop the issue—which it ultimately did. 

The fight for genocide recognition has now become the raison d’être for the two dominant Armenian American organizations, the Armenian Assembly of America and the Armenian National Committee of America. They do not conceal that the campaign helps them preserve a collective identity among the Armenian diaspora—an increasingly assimilated group that is losing other common bonds, such as the Armenian language and attendance at services of the Armenian Apostolic Church. But they do not like to admit that the campaign has also damaged their cause. For many Americans, the phrase “Armenian genocide” now evokes not a story of terrible human suffering but an exasperating, eye-roll-inducing tale of lobbying and congressional bargaining. Inevitably, the need to secure votes for any given resolution on the topic means that the memory of the Ottoman Armenians is cheapened by being tied to other items of congressional business. What results is routine horse-trading, as in, “You vote for the farm bill, and I’ll back you on the genocide resolution.” 

A few thoughtful Armenians object to such genocide-recognition lobbying campaigns on the grounds that they turn the deaths of their grandparents into one big homicide case. They see that their fellow Armenians are less interested in grieving for the dead than in demonstrating outside the Turkish embassy with pictures of dead bodies—the more gruesome, the better—and struggling to prove something that they already know to be true. The obsession with genocide, argues the French Armenian philosopher Marc Nichanian, “forbids mourning.”

Armenian campaigners have a point when they contend that their pursuit of genocide recognition has had the benefit of focusing Turkey’s mind on an issue that the country would rather have forgotten. But their campaign has also heightened Turkish passions, since their efforts have indirectly strengthened the Turkish nationalist story line of World War I. That partial, but not entirely inaccurate, account portrays the great powers of the time as conspirators plotting to undermine the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, any resolution passed by a modern great power condemning Turkey’s historical crimes would only inflame a sore spot. 

Fueling this paranoia, many Turkish policymakers have expressed their suspicion that a genocide resolution would pave the way for territorial concessions. These fears have little basis in reality. Although some radical groups, such as the Armenian Revolutionary Federation, continue to make territorial claims, the Republic of Armenia has all but officially recognized Turkey’s current borders. Reestablishing full diplomatic relations between the two countries, which have been on hold since the Armenian-Azerbaijani war in the early 1990s, would make this recognition formal. No statements made by a political party that last ruled Armenia in 1920 can change that reality. 

As for reparations, it is hard to see how Washington’s adoption of the word “genocide” would make the case for them. Most international legal opinions are clear that the UN Genocide Convention carries no retroactive force and therefore could not be invoked to bring claims on dispossessed property. Such a scenario is all the more difficult to imagine because it would trigger a nightmarish relitigation of the whole of World War I, during which not only Armenians but also Azerbaijanis, Greeks, Kurds, and Turks were robbed of their possessions in Anatolia, the Balkans, and the Caucasus. Yet the invocation of the controversial word still fills Turkey with dread.


The only good news in this bleak historical tale comes from Turkey itself. Since the election in 2002 of the post-Kemalist government led by the Justice and Development Party (known as the AKP), in a process largely unconnected to outside pressure, Turkish society has begun to revisit some of the dark pages of its past, including the oppression of the non-Turkish populations of the late Ottoman Empire. This growing openness has allowed the descendants of forcibly Islamized Armenians to come out of the shadows, and a few Armenian churches and schools have reopened. Turkish historians have begun to write about the late Ottoman period without fear of retribution. And they have finally started to challenge the old dominant narrative, which the historian Berktay has called “the theory of the immaculate conception of the Turkish Republic.”

From the Armenian standpoint, this opening has been too slow. But it could hardly have proceeded at a faster pace. As one of the key figures behind the thaw, the late Istanbul-based Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, pointed out, Turkey had been a closed society for three generations; it takes time and immense effort to change that. “The problem Turkey faces today is neither a problem of ‘denial’ or ‘acknowledgement,’” Dink wrote in 2005. “Turkey’s main problem is ‘comprehension.’ And for the process of comprehension, Turkey seriously needs an alternative study of history and for this, a democratic environment. . . . The society is defending the truth it knows.”

In that spirit, Dink, a stalwart of the left and a confirmed anti-imperialist, criticized genocide resolutions in foreign parliaments on the grounds that they merely replicated previous great-power bullying of Turkey. He saw his mission as helping Turks understand Armenians and the trauma they have passed down over generations, while helping Armenians recognize the sensitivities and legitimate interests of the Turks. Dink’s stand broke both Turkish and Armenian taboos, and he paid the highest price for his courage: in 2007, he was assassinated by a young Turkish nationalist.

Dink’s insights suggest that the word “genocide” may be the correct term but the wrong solution to the controversy. Simply put, the emotive power of the word has overpowered Armenian-Turkish dialogue. No one willingly admits to committing genocide. Faced with this accusation, many Turks (and others in their position) believe that they are being invited to compare their grandparents to the Nazis.

It may be that the word “genocide” has exhausted itself, and that the success of Lemkin’s invention has also been its undoing. Lemkin probably never anticipated that coining a new standard of awfulness would set off an unfortunate global competition in which nations—from Armenia’s neighbor Azerbaijan to Sudan and Tibet—vie to get the label applied to their own tragedies. As the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov has observed, even though no one wants to be a victim, the position does confer certain advantages. Groups that gain recognition as victims of past injustices obtain “a bottomless line of moral credit,” he has written. “The greater the crime in the past, the more compelling the rights in the present—which are gained merely through membership in the wronged group.” Conversely, the grandchildren of the alleged perpetrators aspire to absolve their ancestors of guilt and, by association, of a link to Adolf Hitler and the Holocaust. 

In A Problem From Hell, Power chastised the international community for its timidity and failure to stop genocides even after this appalling phenomenon had been named and outlawed. But the problem can be posed the other way around: Could it be that international actors hide behind the ambiguities of genocide terminology in order to do nothing—and that the very power of the word “genocide” and the responsibilities it invokes deter action? It may be no coincidence that the first successful prosecution under the UN Genocide Convention, that of a Rwandan war criminal, came only in September 1998, nearly 50 years after the convention was adopted.

In the Armenian case, the phrase “Armenian genocide” has become customary in the scholarly literature. Those who avoid it today risk putting themselves in the company of skeptics who minimize the tragedy or deny it outright. Many progressive Turkish intellectuals, too, now use the term. Among them are such brave voices as the journalist Hasan Cemal, grandson of Ahmed Cemal Pasha, one of the three Young Turkish leaders who ran the brutal Ottoman government in 1915.

But that does not mean that Meds Yeghern is an inferior and less expressive phrase. If it becomes more widely used, it might acquire the same resonance as the words “Holocaust” and “Shoah” have in describing the fate of the European Jews. There is also the legal term “crimes against humanity,” first applied in 1915 specifically in reference to the Armenian massacre. This concept lacks the emotional charge and the definitional problems of the word “genocide” and covers mass atrocities not falling under its narrow definition—those in which the perpetrators may not have intended to eradicate an entire nation but have still killed an awful lot of innocent people.

The challenge for the United States, then, is not simply to find a way to once again use the term “Armenian genocide,” a phrase it has employed before, but to do so while also accepting the limitations of a concept that has grown emotionally fraught and overly legalistic. The mere act of using the term, without a deeper engagement with the history of the Armenians and the Turks, would do little to resolve the bigger underlying question—namely, how to persuade Turkey to honor the losses of the Ottoman Armenians and other minorities a hundred years ago. 

Having been a neutral power in 1915, the United States can assert that it bears no historical grudge against Turkey. Washington can therefore help bring about the rapprochement between the Armenians and the Turks that Dink advocated. The United States can urge Turkey to hasten the process of historical reckoning by taking steps to keep the small Armenian Turkish population from leaving the country, to conserve what little Armenian cultural heritage survives in Turkey, and to restore the place of Armenians and other ethnic minorities in Turkey’s history books. 

Armenians need to be able to finally bury their grandparents and receive an acknowledgment from the Turkish state of the terrible fate they suffered. These steps toward reconciliation will surely become more possible as a more open Turkey begins to confront its past as a whole. If that can be made to happen, everything else will follow.

This article was originally published in Foreign Affairs.