In 2006, then-Senator Barack Obama wrote a letter to Secretary of State Condi Rice urging her to acknowledge historical facts and use the word “genocide” to describe the massacre of 1.5 million Armenian Christians. As President, Obama has never used the word, despite a written promise to do so.
Obama’s letter to Secretary Rice was prompted by a minor diplomatic incident which took place in February 2005. U.S. Ambassador to Armenia John Evans was speaking to Armenian-American groups in California. He was asked why the term “genocide” was not used by the U.S. government when discussing the murder of over a million Armenian Christians by Ottoman Turks between 1915 and 1923. Evans, who had become deeply frustrated with the official policy, replied, “I will today call it the Armenian genocide.” For using the word against State Department guidelines, Evans was encouraged to retire, which he did more than a year later.
Enter Senator Barack Obama who wrote a two-page letter to Secretary of State Rice urging her to reconsider the official policy on use of the word genocide. “That the invocation of a historical fact by a State Department employee could constitute an act of insubordination is deeply troubling,” Obama wrote. He added, “When State Department instructions are such that an Ambassador must engage in strained reasoning — or even an outright falsehood — that defies a common sense interpretation of events in order to follow orders, then it is time to revisit the State Department’s policy guidance on that issue.”
What follows is Obama’s effort to flesh out his claim that the genocide is a fact, not an opinion. His letter uses the same approach to history his administration now takes to Climate Change, i.e. the science is settled.
The occurrence of the Armenian genocide in 1915 is not an “allegation,” a “personal opinion,” or a “point of view.” Supported by an overwhelming amount of historical evidence, it is a widely document fact. Examples of this evidence include:
– The Institute on Holocaust and Genocide (Jerusalem), the Institute for the Study of Genocide (NYC), and the International Association of Genocide Scholars have all issued consensus documents stipulating the occurrence of the genocide.
– It was his study of the Turkish massacres of Armenians that motivated Raphael Lemkin to coin the word “genocide” in 1941 and to press for the drafting and passage of the United Nations Genocide Convention in 1948.
– At the time of the killings, it was U.S. State Department officials working in the Ottoman Empire who drew attention to the horrors, describing the massacres as “a campaign of race extermination” (U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1913-1916, Henry Morgenthau), a “carefully planned scheme to thoroughly extinguish the Armenian race” (U.S. Consul in Aleppo, Jesse Jackson), a “plan to destroy the Armenian race as a race” (U.S. Consul in Harput, Leslie Davis), and a “unchecked policy of extermination through starvation, exhaustion, and brutality” (U.S. Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire from 1916-1917, Abram I. Elkus).
Obama concluded the letter saying, “the U.S. government should endeavor to align its policies with facts that have been well-established by credible historians.”
As President, Obama has memorialized the start of the Armenian genocide every year but has never used the word he once said was a matter of fact not personal opinion. The announcement that he will not do so again this year, on the 100th anniversary of the genocide, suggests his belief that U.S. policy should state facts plainly has changed.