Peter Balakian, Professor of English at Colgate University, is author of the best-selling book, “Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response.” He discusses the grassroots movement to end the genocide, the media’s coverage of the events, the political responses, and the relevance it has to the crises our world faces today.
JERRY FOWLER: My guest today is Peter Balakian. He is the Donald M. and Constance H. Rebar Professor of the Humanities and Professor of English at Colgate University. He is also author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. Burning Tigris won the 2005 Raphael Lemkin Prize for best scholarly book on the subject of genocide and mass killings. It was also a New York Times bestseller and a Times “Notable Book” of 2003. Peter, welcome to the program.
PETER BALAKIAN: Thanks Jerry; good to be here.
JERRY FOWLER: Let us start with basics Peter. What we today call the Armenian Genocide; in brief terms, what was that?
PETER BALAKIAN: The plan to exterminate the Armenians; the largest Christian minority population then living on their ancient historic lands, in what is today much of Central and Eastern Turkey. The plan to annihilate that culture began congruent with World War I. World War I became an opportunity for the ruling party of the Ottoman Empire, known as the Committee of Union in Progress—sometimes in more familiar terms called the Young Turk Government—to solve what was for them a long-term problem with this large Christian minority population, and between 1915 when the more formal process of deportation and massacre began, through the end of World War I, more than two million Armenians were eradicated from Turkey. Scholars estimate between 1 and 1.5 million were killed, and so the idea of solving a social, cultural, political problem by exterminating a whole population really begins in the twentieth century with the Armenian case.
JERRY FOWLER: When you say it was a long-term problem for the government of the Young Turks, in what way was it a problem?
PETER BALAKIAN: Essentially, from the time of the Treaty of Berlin in 1876, 1877, the Armenians had begun to agitate, ask for, petition for, what we would call today, civil rights; that is equal rights as Christians living under a Muslim theocracy which the Ottoman Empire was in the late 19th century, and as Armenians kept asking for equal rights, fair rights in the courts, equal taxation laws, the right to join the military or the government or the civil service, and so on—this would be a longer story than I can explain in the time we have here—but as they began petitioning—peacefully and in orderly ways—they really pushed the political envelope by asking a question that was quite daring in a theocratic, Islamic empire, and the question was: Can a Christian be the equal of a Muslim in the Ottoman empire; and that question was answered in a decidedly negative fashion by the Sultan Abdul Hamid II in the 1890s, and the Sultan began slaughtering Armenians in enormous numbers. This is before the genocide itself commenced, before the final solution commenced during the World War I period. In the 1890s alone, Sultan Abdul Hamid the II had massacred about 200,000 unarmed, innocent civilians. I believe in the annals of modern history, that was an unprecedented act of human rights atrocity for the period. I can think of no other situation in which that number of people was wiped out in a two year period. It is true that the killings in the Congos were not far behind; they would be happening by the turn of the century, but here, in the early part of the 1890s, the writing for genocide is already on the wall and Sultan Abdul Hamid II is using massacre as a punitive measure, genocide will become a final solution in the 1915 period.
JERRY FOWLER: One of the basic points of your book, Burning Tigris, is that there was actually quite a public response within the United States; in fact, you say that “the response to the Armenian crisis was the first international human rights movement in American history.” In general terms, what was the response of the American people?
PETER BALAKIAN: As these first waves of massacres began to be reported in the American and the European press—we will focus on America here, in the American press—the response among intellectuals, social reformers and political leaders was very quick and very morally intense. By the end of 1984, an organization called the United Friends of Armenia had formed, and it formed in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, an interesting place for the formation of this movement because that hall was so important to political activism on the eve of the American Revolution and later during the Abolitionist movement on the eve of the Civil War, and yet again for women’s suffrage in the second half of the 19th century; so here too, in 1984, New England intellectuals would rally together to begin an international movement to rescue and bring relief to Armenians who were being massacred some 8,000 miles away in the Armenian provinces of the Ottoman Empire, and I would point out, I think it is an interesting thing to note for the sake of American history that none other than Julia Ward Howe, who was maybe the most eminent feminist and social reformer of her day, was the President of the United Friends of Armenia, and a group of very influential people surrounded her at that first meeting in November of 1894 like William Lloyd Garrison, Jr., the son of William Lloyd Garrison, the great abolitionist, and Lucy Stone and Alice Stone Blackwell and Isabelle and June Barrows, and the governor of Massachusetts, Frederick Greenhold; it was quite a beginning to what would become really a decade’s long involvement on the part of American popular culture with the Armenian crisis.
JERRY FOWLER: Was this movement focused in New England though?
PETER BALAKIAN: No, of course, the movement began in New England; I think the most forceful peace of it began in New England, but it was nationwide, and I think it is important to note that it was very much a grassroots movement that involved really massive fundraising from the synagogues, and churches, and Sunday Schools across America. It was a movement that had strong force in the Midwest, on the West Coast as well, and of course, in New York, and American philanthropists were very generous about the Armenia aid movement—the Rockefellers, the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fords would all get involved from the ‘90s on, in through the teens and in through the twenties, but I would note that one of the reasons I define this as America’s first international human rights movement is because one extra feature made this movement—I think—unique and unprecedented, and that surrounded the issue of the Red Cross, leaving America, for the first time ever, to go, in this case, 8,000 miles away to do rescue and relief work, and even infrastructure rebuilding work. Clara Barton—we know her as the “Angel of the Battlefield” from her Civil War work as a nurse, and we know her as the founder of the Red Cross—it was Clara Barton who would take Red Cross teams out of the United States in the wake of the Armenian massacres in January of 1896, and that seems to me a defining act. It separates this moment from the mere giving of philanthropic aid and giving of money and goods. It really involves personal intervention, a kind of hands-on, field work activism, and I really think in some way the Clara Barton mission for the Armenian massacre aftermath is a bit of a prologue for the idea of the Peace Corps.
JERRY FOWLER: Why did that come about? Was that something unique to the situation of the Armenians or was this kind of a development that was waiting to happen and happened to intersect with the Armenian crisis?
PETER BALAKIAN: I think you have a bit of both here. Of course, the Red Cross is not that old at this point; it is a new NGO founded in the 1860s, the United States ratifies a Red Cross charter in 1881, so we do have the new energy behind this new international relief organization, and I also think that the Armenians, as a culture and as a people, had a fairly high profile in the American popular mindset, in American popular culture, in part due to the work of the Protestant missionaries who had for decades throughout the 19th century been building schools and hospitals and creating a whole network of culture; and this is true for higher education, of colleges and secondary schools throughout the Ottoman Empire, and these schools were heavily populated by the Christian minorities of Turkey, and that meant Greeks and Assyrians, and I think probably, the largest numbers were Armenians, so a very amiable tie developed between Armenian culture and Protestant American culture, and Armenians, as the first Christian nation—as Armenians are always proud to articulate—probably had a special place in Victorian Christian American culture as well. They were considered a sort of “bible lands” culture, so we have some of that synergy happening as well, as well as the sense of timing which I think is important.
JERRY FOWLER: You have been talking about relief efforts and undertakings to provide humanitarian support for the victims; what was happening on the political side?
PETER BALAKIAN: I think this is sort of the implicit theme of my book, and that is that we find that the Armenian episode—if you want to start it back in the 1890s and follow it through into the early 1920s—illustrates what I would call a kind of gridlock that happened then between a very passionate NGO movement and movements—much passionate, popular support and generous giving—and a stone wall that was met when those forces tried to affect official government policy; the Grover-Cleveland Administration in the 1890s was not willing to get involved in anyway with the Sultan’s government, and in the 19-teens, Woodrow Wilson’s Administration was not willing to intervene, although so many forces in the culture were urging him to, he would not intervene to try to stop the massacring and deportations, so the story, I think, has a lot of real relevance for us today, and we can learn a lot by studying the Armenian event.
JERRY FOWLER: What kinds of policies was the movement pushing for? Were they advocating war with the Ottoman Empire once the massacres started in 1915?
PETER BALAKIAN: I will just mention briefly that in the 1890s, unanimous congressional resolutions were put before Grover Cleveland to simply make a statement to the Sultan about the need to stop these kinds of atrocities, and Cleveland would not even go there. In the teens, there was, you might say kind of “organic context” for the United States to intervene because we were at war with the central powers—Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey, the main ones, the Ottoman Empire—and we could have committed force, and we chose not to; so we had declared war on Germany and Austria-Hungary, but not on Ottoman Turkey, and a lot of people were very disturbed by this because they felt that this could have made a difference.
JERRY FOWLER: That, of course, was in 1917?
PETER BALAKIAN: That was in 1917, right.
JERRY FOWLER: Before that, in fact, Wilson had run for re-election on keeping the United States out of the war.
PETER BALAKIAN: That is right. In ’15 and ’16, it is true; there really is not a possibility for that kind of intervention, although Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, the United States Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire during this period, was imploring the Wilson Administration to use at least some of its political muscle to confront the Ottoman government and to pressure them to cease the massacres and deportations, but Wilson would not go that far.
JERRY FOWLER: But would that have really made a difference? It was obviously the problem that the Ottoman government thought it was solving was very important to it by virtue of the fact that, as evidence of the fact that it was going to use so much violence.
PETER BALAKIAN: Right, probably not, it is true; it might have started a ball rolling, however, but that ball never got rolling and the United States never—even after War was declared in 1917—the United States refused to commit force at a time when it really could have. I suppose this is as true as well of the United States relationship to World War II and intervening during the Holocaust. You do have opportunities here to go and do this; you are at war with these countries. I am not suggesting that we have any fool-proof way of knowing what the outcome would be, but it is certainly an ethical moment for a government to take more seriously than I think—in the Armenian case and in the Holocaust case—than I think our governments did.
JERRY FOWLER: One thing that surprised me in the book; you mention, I believe, that the New York Times printed something on the order of 150 articles about what was happening to the Armenians in 1915?
PETER BALAKIAN: That is right.
JERRY FOWLER: So this was very well known?
PETER BALAKIAN: This was a huge episode in American popular consciousness at the time. The Times did publish 145 articles just in 1915; that is an article about every 2.2 days. Some of these articles were big front page stories, others were peppered throughout the paper, but it does tell you that the knowledge of the event was with the culture and that philanthropic givings started very intensely in October of 1915, and again, major American philanthropists were contributing to this cause, but this did not go farther; it did not connect to any act of intervention at this period. 1915 was the most dire year. It think most of the killing of the Armenian people happened in 1915.
JERRY FOWLER: Another aspect of your thesis in the book—which I think I referred to in the beginning—but this was not only the first international human rights movement, but you say it helped to define the nation’s emerging global identity. In what way was the nation’s identity defined by the way that the public and the government responded or did not respond to the Armenian genocide?
PETER BALAKIAN: I think you have in the 1890s a period for American—both domestic culture and foreign diplomacy—expansion; I should say of a kind of “moving out” from the more provincial 19th century world that foreign diplomacy had lived in, and in this mix in the 1890s, the Armenian crisis happens, and so Americans who are beginning—and American leaders—who are beginning to sense the place of the United States in a larger global order are confronted with a massive human rights disaster of a kind that the culture had not witnessed even from a distance before, and now there is a response; there is a concrete response, the response that I described earlier that resulted in both the Red Cross mission, an actual ground intervention, massive grassroots nationwide giving, fundraising, and some rescue projects as well that involved bringing Armenian refugees to the United States and helping the resituate in what would be their new country. You have all of this activity happening in this very important kind of threshold moment of America forging its more international sense of itself. Before the ‘90s are over we are going to have the Spanish American War, we are going to have the annexation of Hawaii, we are going to have United States involvement in the Philippines, so there is a new drift in American political history and the Armenian massacre crisis plays a role in that geopolitical broadening. It was a lesson that was important to people. The lesson was not-the amnesia about this history did not happen until the late 1920s, I would say - so that the presence of Armenia as an issue, a cause, a human rights tragedy, is alive for Americans throughout the first three decades of the twentieth century. We often forget how big a history can be at a certain time and how quickly it can evaporate.
JERRY FOWLER: Peter Balakian is the Rebar Professor of Humanities and Professor of English at Colgate University and the author of The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. Peter, thanks for taking the time to be with us.
PETER BALAKIAN: Jerry, it was my pleasure, thank you.