More than a century has passed since the Armenian Genocide of 1915, yet its traumatic effects endure in the face of continued Turkish denialism and the lack of recognition for the victims and their descendants. In a significant break with his predecessors, President Joe Biden formally recognized the Armenian Genocide on April 24, the annual day of remembrance for the massacres. In light of Biden’s official recognition of the Armenian Genocide, a reflection on past U.S. president’s engagement (or lack thereof) with this topic is needed to understand the full significance of this moment.
The Armenian Genocide constituted a series of mass deportations and killings overseen and implemented by the Ottoman Empire beginning in 1915 and lasting several years. While the exact number of deaths is unknown, it is estimated that over 1 million Armenians were murdered as a result of the genocide. To this day, Turkey continues to pursue a campaign of institutionalized denial, refusing to designate the killings as constituting genocide. The Turkish government allocates millions of dollars and exerts significant political pressure through foreign lobbying efforts in order to prevent widespread global recognition of the Armenian Genocide. Most recently, it spent more than $12 million lobbying American officials during the Obama administration, and threatened to sever financial ties with U.S. companies and to reduce security cooperation and coordination during the Trump administration
These pressure tactics have been instrumental in preventing the United States from formally recognizing the Armenian Genocide. Although past U.S. presidents and government officials have acknowledged the horrific nature of the massacres and deportations that took place at the hands of the Ottoman forces in 1915, they have strategically avoided using the word “genocide” precisely out of concern for offending Turkey. In fact, only one U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, explicitly used the word “genocide” to describe the massacres in a speech delivered in 1981 on Holocaust Remembrance Day. There has never been a president—before or since—that has used the term genocide in reference to the massacres of the Armenians.
Some presidents, like Obama and George W. Bush, made promises on the campaign trail to recognize the Armenian Genocide should they be elected. Once in office, however, these promises were left unkept, as the political repercussions from alienating Turkey appeared to take precedence over acknowledging the genocide as such. Indeed, the risk of straining relations with Turkey has proved the most compelling reason for U.S. presidents’ designation of the massacres as “tragic” or “horrific,” while always intentionally falling short of using the term “genocide.” This refusal to recognize the genocide has widespread effects far beyond just the office of the president, dictating the behavior of those at the frontlines of U.S. foreign diplomatic relations. Samantha Power, ambassador to the United Nations in 2013 and now head of USAID, described how she felt concerned about causing a “diplomatic rupture” if she were to agree to the historical fact that the Armenian massacres constituting genocide. As Power highlights, American diplomats have been forced to avoid speaking about the truth of the genocide to prevent any tension with Turkey.
Notably, in October 2019, the House of Representatives chose to formally recognize the Armenian Genocide, a significant deviation from President Donald Trump’s refusal to official designate the massacres as genocide. Two months later, in December 2019, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution officially recognizing the Armenian Genocide—marking the first time in history that both chambers of Congress recognized the massacres and atrocities of the Armenian people as a genocide. While this resolution sent a clear message regarding the importance of pursuing truth and accountability in American foreign policy, its potential impact was constrained by the Trump administration’s rebuke of the bill. Indeed, Trump—like his predecessors—chose never to define the events as genocide, instead describing the massacres as a terrible mass atrocity (although a press secretary made reference to the Armenian genocide).
Despite Trump’s refusal to use the term genocide when referring to the massacres, the Senate resolution’s significance must not be overlooked. It represented a growing political consensus within the United States regarding the importance of pursuing accountability and justice for Armenian Genocide survivors and their descendants. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2019 and the author of the bill, stated that by passing the piece of legislation, “the Senate finally stood up to confirm history…to overlook human suffering is not who are we are as a people. It is not what we stand for as a nation. We are better than that, and our foreign policy should always reflect this.” Menendez’s statement, issued on the day of the bill’s passing, highlights the role that acts of recognition on behalf of governments can serve as a reflection of the way in which that government seeks to uphold principles of accountability, truth, and justice on the international stage.
Biden’s decision to designate the massacres of the Armenians as a genocide reaffirms the United States’ commitment to upholding human rights and accountability over political interests tied to appeasing Turkey. This message may be particularly important to convey in the aftermath of the Trump presidency and the global decline in faith in democratic institutions and values. Perhaps most importantly, Biden’s explicit recognition of the genocide could offer a sense of peace and dignity—even beyond that which was offered by the House and Senate bill—to Armenian-Americans who have worked tirelessly to achieve recognition for the unimaginable trauma and suffering their ancestors experienced.
Image: A woman lays roses over the portraits of victims during a memorial to commemorate the 1915 Armenian mass killings on April 24, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images