Biden Calls It By Its Name: The Armenian Genocide

May 3, 2021

By Kim Iskyan

Memo to Adolf Hitler: Today, we are talking about the genocide of the Armenians.

And at the same time, we’re learning something essential about how President Joe Biden’s administration – over the next four years, minus 100 days – is going to make domestic and foreign policy.

(What does Hitler have to do with it?… more on him below.)

On April 24, President Biden righted a historical wrong – and plunged relations with critical ally Turkey to a “new low,” the Financial Times said – by labeling the murder of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915 to 1917 at the hands of the Ottoman empire, which is the foundation of modern-day Turkey, as “genocide.”

With that, the United States became the 30th country – lagging even the likes of moral-low-ground countries like Russia and Venezuela – to call it genocide: That is, the mass extermination of a particular group of people, based on their national, ethnic, religious, racial identity or characteristics.

Until Biden, a long string of American presidents – concerned about upsetting Turkey, which has 30 times the population of Armenia, and an economy that’s 50 times bigger – had instead referred to the Armenian genocide as “one of the worst mass atrocities of the 20th century” (President Trump)… a “tragedy” and “mass atrocity” (President Obama)… “forced exile and annihilation” (the second President Bush)… and “deportations and massacres” (President Clinton). In 2007, the U.S. ambassador to Armenia was fired for daring to utter the term “genocide” when discussing the, well, genocide.

To many people, a semantic shift over something that happened long ago and far away – Armenia is in a geographical blind spot at the crossroads of the Middle East, Europe, and the former Soviet Union, bordering Turkey and Iran – has the hallmarks of an $800 question on Jeopardy!, and a quiet news-day filler.

Map of Armenia

But it’s seismic for the around 2.7 million inhabitants of Maryland-sized Armenia, for whom the White House’s declaration was “a long-awaited acknowledgment of an atrocity that [Armenians and people of Armenian descent] believe has been persistently understated,” Time magazine explained.

It’s a “they finally get it” moment, also, for the roughly 8 million members of the Armenian diaspora that’s concentrated in the U.S. (shout out to Glendale, California), Russia, France, and Lebanon.

That includes the “famous for being famous” Kardashian family… entertainer Cher (born Cherilyn Sarkisian)… tennis great Andre Agassi (whose original family name was Agassian)… and “the Frank Sinatra of France” Charles Aznavour.

And then there’s me. My last name was spelled “Iskian” until a bureaucrat at the 19th-century predecessor of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement at Ellis Island decided that “Iskyan” was (somehow) easier. My bloodline link to Armenia is weak – my great-grandfather left in the 1890s – and I never met anyone with a similar surname during the two years that I lived in Armenia.

Turkey: Oh Well, People Die in Wartime 

It’s taken the U.S so long to say “genocide” because Turkey says nothing untoward ever happened. The country’s explanation for why more than half of the Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire died within two years runs something like this: In the fog of war, both Armenians and Ottomans died… And, well, as it happened, the Armenians got the short end of the stick.

Turkey denies overwhelming and compelling historical evidence – including extensive eyewitness accounts and reams of other documentation – of a systematic effort to wipe Armenians from the face of the earth. 

That’s because the distinction between genocide, and 1.5 million Armenians getting caught in the crossfire, means a lot more than grammar to Turkey. It’s a question of the very foundation of the country. As the New York Times explains…

A succession of Turkish leaders has denounced the genocide as a falsehood intended to undermine their account of the creation of modern Turkey. 

Turkey’s denial of genocide is ingrained into Turkish society. Writers who have dared to use the term have been prosecuted [under] Turkey’s penal code, which bans “denigrating Turkishness.”

The denial is taught at an early age, with school textbooks calling the genocide a lie, describing the Armenians of that period as traitors and declaring the actions by the Ottoman Turks as “necessary measures” against Armenian separatism.” 

Turkey hasn’t exactly tried to make it up to Armenia since then. Its border with predominantly Christian Armenia has been sealed since 1993, denying the smaller (landlocked) country a vital trade route.

And Turkey has long sided with fellow Muslim neighbor Azerbaijan. It supplied weapons and other support to Azerbaijan in a long-running conflict with Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. (Late last year, Armenia lost a brief but intense war to Azerbaijan, which was backed by Turkey.)

Last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan characterized the U.S. declaration of genocide as “baseless, unjust and untrue.” He repeated the long-standing official stance that Armenians were “relocated temporarily” in 1915. And echoing “I know you are but what am I” kindergarteners everywhere, he contended that the treatment of Native Americans, in what is now the United States, precludes the White House from judging Turkey.

It’s no badge of honor to have a period that’s foundational to a country’s birth grouped with the Holocaust, history’s first and worst example of genocide, a term coined in 1943.

Genocide also puts Turkey in the poor company of what happened in Rwanda in 1994, when around 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died. One of the last – bold, reckless, or both – acts of the Trump White House was to declare that China was committing genocide in the western province of Xinjiang against Uighurs and other predominantly Muslim groups… another situation that Turkey doesn’t want to be associated with. 

A Long-Festering Wound

Before the 20th century, Armenians were a significant minority in modern-day Turkey, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire. But Armenians looked different, sounded different, and worshipped differently. They were also generally very prosperous – and thus all the easier to resent.

These differences mattered in the Ottoman Empire. In the 1890s, there was a series of mass killings and massacres of Armenians in what is today’s Turkey. This was the prequel of the genocide, and a first effort to address what the Ottomans termed the “Armenian Question”… The fate of the Armenian Christian minority living in 19th-century Ottoman Turkey. The Ottomans felt that the too-different Armenians had to go – one way or the other.

My Armenian great-grandfather – Mr. Iskian – apparently saw the writing on the wall, and left what is today western Turkey in 1893. He was one of the millions of immigrants who showed up on the shores of the U.S. in search of a better life. He settled in Massachusetts and became a rug dealer.

(I have a bony lump on my shoulder – kind of where the collarbone, the clavicle, meets the upper arm bone, that’s the humerus – that family lore says is a genetic nod to my rug-slinging forefathers… a natural barrier for a rolled-up rug slung on the shoulder is my genetic connection.) 

I don’t have any relatives in Turkey or Armenia. When I lived in Yerevan – Armenia’s capital – I searched, unsuccessfully. I assume that anyone who didn’t leave way back when must have died in the genocide.

Time hasn’t healed anything for many of my friends who are Armenian or of Armenian descent. They’d sooner be eaten alive by fire ants than set foot in Turkey.

I don’t hold the same grudge. I like Turkey, a beautiful and vibrant country, which I’ve visited half a dozen times. Istanbul is an incredible city. That said, similar to how conflict-avoidant American families split down red and blue lines might steer clear of politics during Thanksgiving, I’ve studiously avoided discussion of genocidal unpleasantness with anyone from Turkey, just in case they toe the party line.

Unfortunately, Turkey’s political, economic, and investment environment is a dumpster fire hot mess, as I explained last year. The country’s currency today is worth half of what it was just three years ago, and the stock market has fallen by more than half over the past decade. Prime Minister Erdoğan, an erratic authoritarian, has snuffed out the country’s slowly democratic structures and set back the development of the country by decades.

Mightily Inconvenient

The path of least resistance for the White House – the one taken by every other U.S. administration – was to bow to Turkish pressure, and let genocidal bygones be bygones. Turkey is a key North Atlantic Treaty Organization (“NATO”) ally, and a patch of relative stability – Erdoğan notwithstanding – in the rough neighborhood of the Middle East.

President Biden, though, is not a member of the Erdoğan fan club – and relations with Turkey have been steadily deteriorating in recent years, as the New York Times explains…

Mr. Erdoğan has turned increasingly combative in his dealings with Washington, particularly after a failed coup in 2016 [which he indirectly attributed to the U.S.]… Tensions escalated with Turkey’s deal to buy a missile system from Russia in 2017, which prompted the Trump administration to impose sanctions on Turkey in December… Mr. Erdoğan has bitterly criticized the United States military’s support of Kurdish forces in Syria…

With “U.S.-Turkey relations seemingly already bottomed out,” Foreign Policy magazine wrote, it may well have seemed as good a time as any to finally get over the “genocide” hump.

Helpfully, Congress has long supported the U.S. in calling out Turkey for the Armenian genocide. In 2019, the Senate and the House of Representatives both passed resolutions calling the mass murders of Armenians genocide, and last month – before the annual genocide remembrance day of April 24 – 38 senators called on Biden to do the same.

Doing the Right Thing

Biden has touted a “foreign policy for the middle class,” focused on the United States repairing its broken alliances, re-engaging with the world, and defending democracy and freedom. “The most novel aspect of Biden’s plainspoken speech was how he erased any clear distinction between foreign and domestic policy. The nation’s strength at home determines its success abroad – and vice versa,” World Politics Review explained in early February.

How does that work? I don’t know… But there’s a common thread: Sometimes, there’s a right thing to do. “Armenian genocide recognition shows America at our best,” says lobby group Armenian Assembly of America.

And that’s where we can see the direction of American domestic policy. It’s how President Biden will likely frame the recently unveiled $1.8 trillion “American Families Plan,” which invests in family assistance and social welfare programs with funds for universal pre-kindergarten, free community college, a national paid family with medical leave program, and other measures.

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In the U.S., the wealthiest 10% earn more than nine times as much as the bottom 90%. Infant mortality – a critical measure of the quality of health care and the overall health of an economy – trails nearly all other highly developed economies… a baby born in Mississippi is three times more likely to die before his first birthday than a baby born in Portugal. 

“I will never understand how America doesn’t take care of its people,” an Irish friend of mine said to me yesterday.

Even the free-market freaks at the Economist approved of the U.S. upgrading its social safety net from a spider web into something that can actually help the middle class: “On the whole, Mr. Biden’s safety-net proposals are sensible.”

Calling out Turkey for genocide was easier for Biden – given the already dilapidated state of U.S.-Turkey relations – than it was for his predecessors. And it was also the right thing to do… and that’s the simple guiding light of the Biden White House domestic policy, though it won’t be easy. 

(Critics will likely decry Biden’s proposals as socialist… but – spoiler alert – socialism is already here in the U.S., as I wrote last year.)

What It Means for Armenia – And What Hitler Said

The American White House’s gesture won’t change much for Armenia… If anything, it will further poison relations between Armenia and Turkey. “Turkey and Armenia show no signs of reconciling,” the Economist explained last week. For the 60,000 ethnic Armenians who live in Turkey – talk about hens in the fox house – it “makes little difference,” Foreign Policy magazine says.

Armenians can at least enjoy a sense of redemption. Unfortunately, that’s not food on the table, and Armenia remains small and poor (and, as I wrote last year, reliant for much of its power on an ancient nuclear power plant that’s resting on an earthquake fault).

In one of the more cruel twists of geographical fate, Mount Ararat – the resting place of Noah’s Ark, according to the Bible’s Book of Genesis – is just across the shuttered border, in Turkey. Mount Ararat is Armenia’s hallowed national symbol – like the Statue of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, and the Grand Canyon combined. It’s in easy sight of downtown Yerevan (the photo below is from the patio of the house where I lived), but – for Armenians – may as well be on the moon… and President Biden’s declaration of genocide won’t change that.

A photo of Mount Ararat

But the declaration of genocide will help prevent a rerun of this…

A week before the German invasion of Poland in August 1939, Hitler explained in a speech that he had issued orders to his commanders “to send to death mercilessly and without compassion, men, women, and children of Polish derivation and language.”

His war aims, he said, were the “physical destruction of the enemy” – not just taking control over land.

Hitler concluded that he wouldn’t face much pushback. “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” he said.

And on April 24, the United States did just that – because it was the right thing to do.

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Kim Iskyan
Executive Editor, American Consequences
With Editorial Staff
May 3, 2021

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