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  • America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915
  • David Foglesong
America and the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Edited by Jay Winter (New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003) 317 pp. $45.00

In April 1915, Turkish Nationalists launched a long-planned operation ostensibly to deport but in reality to exterminate hundreds of thousands of Armenians, particularly in the eastern provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Despite efforts to hide the massacres, word soon reached the United States from the U.S. ambassador and American missionaries that Armenians were being shot, raped, drowned, and starved. During the following months and years, U.S. politicians, journalists, and religious leaders repeatedly expressed their indignation at the atrocities and their [End Page 289] sympathy with the suffering Armenian people, but the United States took no effective action to halt the slaughter. Although most of the essays in this collection about the Armenian genocide and American responses to it follow conventional historical methodology, and some are narrowly focused, the volume may be of wider interest to scholars interested in developing comparative perspectives on genocide and to proponents of humanitarian intervention who seek to understand obstacles to international action.

Part I, "The Framework," presents three perspectives. Martin Gilbert sets the Armenian genocide within a broader chronological narrative of twentieth-century genocides, from the murderous exploitation of the Belgian Congo in the first years of the century to the butchery in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s. Winter develops the argument that the Armenian genocide, like the Holocaust, occurred under the cover of world war; total war, including massive casualties and crimes against civilians on both the western and eastern fronts, "created the military, political, and cultural space" in which genocide could occur (39). Like Winter, Vahakn N. Dadrian views World War I as having afforded the Turks an opportunity to take draconian measures to solve the Armenian "problem," but he stresses that the inaction of the Great Powers in the face of massacres in the preceding decades had given the Turks a sense of impunity and emboldened them to unleash the forces of genocide. Implicitly suggesting parallels to Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, Dadrian concludes that the conception, organization, and execution of the Armenian genocide were "intimately linked with a monolithic political party" (the Committee of Union and Progress), its "conspiratorial network of committed party operatives," and especially its Central Committee, "a kind of Politburo" (99, 92).

Part II, "During the Catastrophe," contains six chapters on the responses of U.S. politicians, missionaries, and intellectuals. The most stimulating of these contributions are the contrasting perspectives offered by John Milton Cooper, Jr., and Lloyd E. Ambrosius. In a brief essay, Cooper writes that President Woodrow Wilson knew about the massacres soon after they began and genuinely sympathized with the Armenians, but believed that the U.S. could do nothing practical during the war (when U.S. strategy focused on the western front). After the war, he was impeded by partisan Republican politicians. In a more thorough and detailed essay, Ambrosius dispassionately develops a damning indictment of the Wilsonian combination of pious good wishes and repeated refusals to take effective action. Although Ambrosius acknowledges the limits of U.S. power to assist Armenia, he highlights the breadth of bipartisan support for Armenians both during and shortly after the war, thereby suggesting that Wilson could have taken some steps to help Armenia, such as granting de facto diplomatic recognition to the Armenian Republic long before he finally did so in 1920. Ultimately, Ambrosius concludes, Wilson was "more concerned about shifting the [End Page 290] responsibility for protecting Armenia to the Allies and blaming Congress for inaction, than with actually helping the Armenians" (135).

Part III, "After the Catastrophe," features three essays on the roles of the U.S. Congress, journalists, and postwar investigating commissions. Donald Ritchie argues that "Congress bore the ultimate responsibility" for declining a League of Nations mandate concerning Armenia; he blames Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge for allowing his loathing of Wilson to supersede his sympathies for the Armenians (277, 286). Richard O. Hovannisian recognizes that the recommendations of the King-Crane Commission and the American Military Mission to Armenia in 1919 had no positive impact on...


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