During the first World War, an atrocity took place killing thousands of innocent people. Until recently, though, nobody outside the region had heard about it. This is the story of the Armenians – a people trapped between two hostile outsiders – and their quest for religious freedom in America.
Armenia is a land east of Turkey, north of Iran, and south of the former USSR. Historically, it has seen periods of rule by the Persians, the Romans, and the Ottoman Empire. Even in the scattered years of independence, and even with having their own alphabet, the country was seen more as a protectorate of the current empire than a truly autonomous nation. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, Armenia was ceded to Turkey and Russia, ceasing to be a real nation at all.
The problem of Armenia, from the eyes of its Turkish neighbors, was in its people’s adherence to their Christian faith. Armenia was the first nation in the world to accept Christianity in roughly 300 A.D. The Armenian Church, also known as the Gregorian, is similar in nature to the Eastern Orthodox Church. The distinctions are hard to easily identify or explain from a Western point of view. Turkey, while itself containing many Christians, was predominantly Muslim. This tension escalated to the point of a state-sponsored massacre of thousands in the 1890s. Sultan Abdul Hamid II envisioned a Turkey spreading all the way to Central Asia (a view known as Pan-Turanism), and he did not like the idea of granting Armenians the same independence the Greeks had recently seen. This process was repeated on an even grander scale during World War I, the second massacre being what we now term the Armenian Genocide.
The oncoming genocide was never expected by the Armenians. In 1908, the Armenian people supported a group known as the Young Turks (more officially known as “the Committee of Union and Progress”) who promised to overthrow the sultan and provide massive reforms. The sultan was removed, but the reforms were not at all what the Armenians had been hoping for. April 24, 1915 was the fateful day when over two hundred Armenian community leaders were summoned to Istanbul (or, more accurately, Constantinople). They naively complied, and were all murdered – leaving their people without any form of government. This process was completed in major cities throughout the Ottoman Empire, with similar results. Enver Pasha, one of the three Young Turks, said on May 19, 1916: “The Ottoman Empire should be cleaned up of the Armenians and the Lebanese. We have destroyed the former by the sword, we shall destroy the latter through starvation.”
What followed was remarkably similar to what Hitler tried in Germany decades later. When the government requested the hunting rifles of the people for “the war effort”, the people obliged. (This cache of weapons was later claimed as evidence of a growing rebellion.) After the weapons were removed, the Armenians were “drafted” into the Army, but never made it to battle. They were killed upon arrival. The ones who were not killed were made to do slave labor and died in “death marches” across the countryside of Anatolia. Along the way, they died of starvation, dehydration, repeated rape, and outright murder. Meanwhile, in their homes, the women and children were abducted and abused – their money being absorbed into the national treasury.
The final stop on the death march was the Syrian Desert, where the Armenians were told they could set up a new homeland – without the women and children they left at home. Many more were murdered in the desert if they didn’t die from the terribly exhausting conditions they were put through. The numbers vary, but Jemal Pasha personally estimated the number at 800,000. Others (including the Armenian Church) say it was as high as 1,500,000 between 1915 and 1923. Those who wish to deny the genocide will use these and other discrepancies in the population figures to make their claims of falsification, but there is no reasonable justification to deny the existence of the massacre in general. A relatively few Armenians miraculously survived with help from missionaries and “good Turks” – these few who lived to tell their tales.
The genocide ended with the end of the World War. The Turkish government led by Ismail Enver, Ahmed Jemal, and Mehmet Talat was tried at a war crimes tribunal and found guilty. While it was far from justice, it was the Armenian people who personally oversaw the executions of these three despots. The Armenians were given their lands back when the United States, then under President Wilson, drew the borders in their favor. However, neither the Arabs or the Soviet Union wished to have them there and the Armenians were told in no certain terms to leave their homeland and not to expect any compensation for the massacre. Tellingly, Hitler responded to his critics as follows when they doubted his plan to secretly massacre the Jewish people: “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” (It is worth noting that many Germans were in Turkey during the genocide, and most did not condone what they saw.) To this day, the Turkish government largely denies that a massacre ever occurred. (This is unusual, seeing as Enver himself said at the time: “I have no desire to shift the blame onto our underlings and I am entirely willing to accept the responsibility myself for everything that has taken place.”)
With almost no place to turn, the Armenians emigrated to the few lands who were accepting of them. One of these countries (who has since become more conservative in their immigration policies) was the United States. Over 500,000 Armenians came to the United States with the hope of maintaining their cultural identity and religion. Some Americans labeled them a “yellow race” (thus making them ineligible to be citizens) or “Turk-haters” and were hostile to their arrival, but others were more welcoming. Over the years, Armenian traditions integrated with American traditions – providing us such diverse things as oriental rugs and author William Saroyan (both of which are now considered commonplace).
The journey was far from easy. The war left the Armenians very poor, so the cost of travel took out of them what little they had remaining. Most Armenians did not speak English, have a place of employment lined up, or know many Americans to help them get started. Some Armenians already lived in America, of course – the first one known to us came as early as 1653, well before most of our European ancestors.
Two places stood out as havens for the Armenians. For those who wished to be farmers, they could travel as far west as the San Joaquin Valley in California where much of the land was still unclaimed. Those who preferred city life could find employment in Massachusetts at factories where the Industrial Revolution was still going through and demanding new workers. Notably, hundreds of Armenians became employers at the Hood Rubber Company in Watertown. No other American business was so inviting to this group of strangers with the foreign tongue. Many worked between fifty and seventy hours a week for a measly $9 paycheck – yet, this was still much more than any other immigrant group at the time.
The story of the Persian rug is an interesting one. The first rug dealer in America was Hagop Bogigian, who had no idea what he was getting himself into. His “first customer” was the noted poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was so fond of his rug that he told his high society friends, and the shop became a success. Bogigian had arrived a few years before the bulk of the Armenians, so his success was an unusual boon to the Armenian immigrants who became identified with these rugs.
The old ways were not only assimilated into American culture, but were also dying out at the same time. One example was the Armenian tradition of arranged marriages. While the first generation encouraged this practice, it quickly faded when they realized how much more they would benefit to marry their daughters off to rich Americans who had already been established in the country. Soon, the only place one could find a purely Armenian backdrop was within the Armenian churches that sprung up throughout the nation. In was noted as early as 1929 by Charles Mahakian that “the youth attend church not so much for religious reasons as for social reasons.”
Today, the Armenians are largely accepted in America. While 500,000 were said to immigrate here, their numbers are now estimated at around one million (presumably the numbers are higher, and intermixing with other ethnic backgrounds of “greater” status has made some Armenians choose the other background as their primary one.). The areas with the highest Armenian population are as follows: New York City, Boston, Worcester, Detroit, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Fresno. Growing communities exist in Wisconsin, Texas, and Florida.
American Recognition of the Genocide
The Armenians’ combined focus of belonging has been shifted more to the political goal of getting Turkey to admit their part in the Armenian Genocide and to stop denying its existence. The Genocide is memorialized in America every year on April 24, and has been spoken of publicly by such notable leaders as George Bush and Jimmy Carter. Such organizations as the Armenian National Institute are devoted entirely to the remembrance of this horrific event.
Several official United States documents describe the events as genocide (1975, 1984, 1996), President Ronald Reagan also described the events as genocide in his speech on April 22, 1981. Also, 43 of the 50 U.S. states have made individual proclamations recognizing the events of 1915 to 1923 as genocide.
In 2000, the House of Representatives was going to pass a resolution labeling the Armenian deaths as “genocide”. Turkey was irate, as they maintain the deaths were not “genocide”, not systematic and not centrally ordered. They threatened to pull out of a $4.5 billion contract with an American military contractor and restrict American access to Turkish air bases. The president, Bill Clinton, called for the Congress to shoot down the resolution. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert declared, “Every patriotic American should heed the president’s request. Current circumstances dictate that we must proceed with caution and for that reason, I have asked the House majority leader to take H. Res. 596 off the schedule for the remainder of the 106th Congress,” ranking patriotism over human rights.
The United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs approved HR 106, a bill that categorized and condemned the Ottoman Empire for the Genocide, on October 10, 2007, by a 27-21 vote. However, some of the support for the bill from both Democrats and Republicans eroded after the White House warned against the possibility of Turkey restricting airspace as well as ground-route access for US military and humanitarian efforts in Iraq in response to the bill. In response to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s decision on the bill, Turkey ordered their ambassador to the United States to return to Turkey for “consultations.”
On January 19, 2008 then U.S. Senator, now U.S. President Barack Obama released a statement: “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. I shared with Secretary 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. 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 (H.Res.106 and S.Res.106), and as President I will recognize the Armenian Genocide.”
The resolution has not, as of December 2010, been passed.
Armenians have taken massive steps forward. They have been accepted by their host country, America. They have set up their own country – the Republic of Armenia – in their homeland. But they will never be able to close this chapter in the book of Armenian history until Turkey comes clean about the genocide of almost a century ago. Its denial only adds to the hurt and grief these people have endured, and they cannot move on. They are a people strung out between their past and the future, being pulled from both ends.
Mirak, Robert. Torn Between Two Lands: Armenians in America, 1890 to World War I Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1983.
Havannisian, Richard G. The Armenian Genocide in Perspective New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1987.
Bakalian, Anny P. Armenian-Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenian New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1993.
Papazian, Dennis R. “The Struggle for Personal and Collective Identity: The Ukrainian and Armenian Experience in America.” Journal of American Ethnic History. 14(3) 1995: 52-56
Blacher, Michael. “From the Tip of the Tongue to the Back of the Mind: The United States and the Armenian Question.” Armenian Review. 44(3) 1991: 1-21.
Hagopian, Gayane. “The Immigration of Armenians to the United States.” Trans. Garo Sasuni. Armenian Review 41(2) 1988: 67-76.
Wegner, Armin T. “Offener Brief an den Prasident der Vereinigten Staaten von Nordamerika, Woodrow Wilson, Uber Die Austreibung des Armenischen Volkes in Die Mesopotamische Wuste”1 Trans. Silvia Samuelli. [An open letter to the President of the United States of America, Woodrow Wilson, on the mass deportation of the Armenians into the Mesopotamian desert.] Journal of Genocide Research. 2(1) 2000: 121-132.