Every American of Armenian descent – indeed every Armenian in the global diaspora – lives with the spirits of the Armenian genocide. We learn the harrowing family stories at a young age. It shows photos that we can never forget. The soundtrack to our life is The Voghormia, the haunting liturgical hymn “Lord have mercy.”
What holds us together is a pride and joy in our ancient heritage, but also a sense of shared sadness about this brutal piece of unfinished historic business. Whether it is the Armenian-American churches in California, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia or elsewhere, we were caught in a time of endless mourning, a congregation with no purpose, as long as the truth of what happened in 1915 was denied and the scorching experiences of loved ones went unrecognized.
America played an important and positive role in this epic tragedy. Its missionaries and diplomats were among those who courageously set off the alarm signals for the atrocities that were unfolding thousands of miles away among a little-known Christian people. It served as a refuge for countless genocide survivors.
Those fortunate enough to get to America were grateful until their last days. This land gave them so much – a chance to recover, to rebuild, to live without fear. It was their beacon in a murderous and incredibly cruel world, a place that gave them more opportunity and hope than they could ever have imagined a few years ago.
My grandfather was one of those survivors. He arrived here a penniless, orphaned teenager from the other side of the world, the only one in his family to find out alive. His love for America finally burned so brightly that he proudly sent his two sons to war for his adoptive country.
Survivors like him were almost always too traumatized to look backwards for fear of what they might see. There was no time to focus on the past; They were too absorbed in the immigrant struggle. They left this burden to the generations to come.
But a genocide account, a United States-led moral reckoning, never arrived. Other nations – including Germany, France and Russia – made it clear that the massacres were state-sponsored genocides. But not America.
In the United States, efforts to secure this statement have been dismissed as an attempt to resolve an old tribal feud, a dispute that America had no business in. However, she had every reason to exercise her moral authority by clearly characterizing Turkey’s actions against the Armenian people. This was the first modern genocide so devious and effective that even Adolf Hitler spoke of it in admiration.
Almost every Armenian knows the line by heart.
“Who is talking about the annihilation of the Armenians today?” Hitler said in his infamous Obersalzberg speech in 1939, a week before the German invasion of Poland.
The failure to call genocide by its name enabled and encouraged the growth of a genocidal denialist industrial complex funded by Turkish interests. For decades, Armenian Americans – between 500,000 and 2 million, depending on the source – fought an offensive dictated by Ankara, starting from their beachhead on K Street in Washington, DC, lobbyists and former members of Congress – some of them once acknowledging the Armenian genocide endorsed as elected officials – worked tirelessly to prevent this from happening.
They were armed with an argument that proved convincing enough to subordinate America’s founding principles. Recognition of the genocide allegedly ran counter to our national security interests as Turkey, a key geostrategic ally, needed appeasement.
For the Turkish government, affirmation of the genocide was a red line, a transgression that threatened to untangle the entire relationship. Even the determined efforts of heavyweight lawmakers like Senator Robert Dole, who is a pre-eminent figure among Armenian Americans for his years of dedication to their cause, were not enough to overcome the fear of alienating such an important ally.
In the end, Turkey undermined its own strongest argument. It proved his unreliability as an ally under Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and changed the political calculation that prevented even American presidents who wanted to confirm that the murders were genocide from saying so directly.
This gave Biden the opportunity to fulfill his election promise to officially recognize the Armenian genocide. At the time, his vows were not taken for face value – Barack Obama had said exactly the same thing on the trail, only around the annual Moment of Truth of April 24th, the date recognized worldwide as the Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day to shy away.
Now Biden has registered the United States as the youngest nation to officially recognize and condemn the Armenian genocide.
The Turkish government will suffer a setback. The relationship is likely to continue to deteriorate.
But Biden put the United States on the right side of history and allowed the sons, daughters, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of survivors of the Armenian genocide to honor their heritage. Equally important, he permanently ruled out the possibility of a future president calling the terrible violence of 1915 anything other than her real name.