This week the world is marking the gruesome 100th anniversary of events that took lives of some 1.5 million of Turkey’s Armenians. The Ottoman Empire was falling apart, fighting as one of the Central Powers in World War I, fearful of its Christian minorities and their possibly joining the Allied effort led by Czarist Russia to liberate them.
In order to prevent that, Turks rounded up Christian Armenians all around the country and forced them on death marches through the Mesopotamian desert without food or water. Millions of Armenians died a horrible death, starved and bayoneted. The world agrees: It was genocide.
As the leaders of the free world and a nation that has an important legacy of championing human rights and victims’ protection against all types of tyrannical regimes, the United States cherishes those legacies and are right in marking the Holocaust, the Stalin purges, the Vietnamese boat people, the Japanese WWII atrocities, etc.
But, in the case of Armenian Genocide, our president is apparently afraid to call it the right name. Why? Perhaps the most important reason is Turkey’s cemented position as valued NATO ally, its geographic position and impact it could have in growing problems around its eastern borders primarily with Syria and Iraq (i.e. the Islamic State), Iran, and proximity of the Black Sea shores to Ukraine.
Despite the latest increasing islamization and de-secularization in Turkey, its recent support to Muslim Brotherhood or open actions aimed at undermining Israel, Turkey’s powerful protectors in Washington, year after year, prevent the use of term “genocide.” The Obama administration is perhaps also fearful of Turkish attacks on everyone who dares to proclaim the Armenian Genocide for what it is, which is what we are currently witnessing in cases of Pope Francis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European Parliament, Austria etc.
However, this kind of executive cowardice has not always been the norm. On April 22, 1981, President Ronald Reagan openly referred to the 1915 massacres and deportations of Armenians as “genocide” and had used the term while proclaiming the Days of Remembrance of Victims of the Holocaust: “Like the genocide of the Armenians before it…the lessons of the Holocaust must never be forgotten.”
Reagan was not fearful of damaging the relations– with an important NATO ally, which Turkey certainly was at the peak of Cold War– by telling the truth. He did not shun calling Soviet Union an “Evil Empire” for what it really was, even though he was harshly criticized at the time by the very same liberal media and academia appeasers concerned that such name calling could damage diplomatic relations. Nor was Reagan afraid of damaging relations with Germany when he said, for instance, that their WW2 fascist regime was “conceived in hatred brought a reign of terror and atrocity on the Jewish people and on the world.”
Despite his 2008 promise, “As president I will recognize the Armenian genocide,” President Obama is yet again resisting telling the truth and appears to be standing on the wrong side of history. The 100th anniversary of Armenian Genocide might have been a good opportunity to make the historic move. Reagan had that feeling in Normandy delivering the iconic speech on the 40th Anniversary of D-Day and also had the kind of diplomatic courage in West Berlin in 1987 when he called at Brandenburg Gate comrade Gorbachev to “tear down” the wall. It is not American to hide from the truth.
Our President should not run away from history.
Ronald Reagan didn’t.
Craig Shirley is a Reagan biographer and author of the new book, Last Act: The Final Years and Emerging Legacy of Ronald Reagan. Borko Komnenovic is his Research Coordinator.