House of Representatives: Committee Debate About the Armenian Resolution

Roundup: Talking About History

REP. TOM LANTOS, D-CALIF. CHAIRMAN: Today we are not considering whether the Armenian people were persecuted and died in huge numbers at the hands of Ottoman troops in the early 20th century. There is unanimity in the Congress and across the country that these atrocities took place.

If the resolution before us stated that fact alone, it would pass unanimously.

The controversy lies in whether to make it United States policy at this moment in history to apply a single word, genocide, to encompass this enormous blot on human history.

The United Nations Convention on Genocide defines the term as a number of actions, and I quote, “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”

These actions include killing or causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group and deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction, in whole or in part.

Henry Morgenthau, the U.S. ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time of the atrocities, wrote, and I'm quoting, “I am confident that the whole history of the human race contains no such horrible episode as this. The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared with the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915,” end quote.
The leadership of the United States has been in universal agreement in condemning the atrocities but has been divided about using the term genocide.
On one occasion, President Ronald Reagan referred to, I quote, “the genocide of the Armenians.”

But subsequent presidents George Herbert Walker Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have refrained from using the word, out of deference to Turkish sentiments on the matter.

In recognizing this tragedy, some in Congress have seen common themes with the debate our committee held earlier this year on a resolution about another historic injustice, the tens of thousands of so-called comfort women forced into sexual slavery by imperial Japan.

The current Japanese government went to great lengths to attempt to prevent debate on that matter and dire predictions were made that passage of such a resolution would harm U.S.-Japan relations. Those dire consequences never materialized.

A key feature distinguishing today's debate from the one on the comfort women resolution is that U.S. troops are currently engaged in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our troops depend on a major Turkish air base for access to the fighting fronts, and it serves as a critical part of the supply lines to those fronts.
A growing majority in Congress -- and I am among them -- strongly oppose continued U.S. troop involvement in the civil war in Iraq. But none of us wants to see those supply lines threatened or abruptly cut.

All eight living former secretaries of state recently cautioned Congress on this matter, and I quote, “It is our view,” write Former Secretaries Albright, Baker, Christopher, Eagleburger, Haig, Kissinger, Powell and Shultz, “that passage of this resolution could endanger our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and damage efforts to promote reconciliation between Armenia and Turkey,” end quote.

Three former secretaries of defense, Carlucci, Cohen and Perry, this week advised Congress that passage of this resolution, and I quote again, “would have a direct detrimental effect on the operational capabilities, safety and well-being of our armed forces in Iraq and in Afghanistan,” end quote.

Members of this committee have a sobering choice to make. We have to weigh the desire to express our solidarity with the Armenian people and to condemn this historic nightmare through the use of the word genocide against that -- the risk that it -- it could cause young men and women in the uniform of the United States armed services to pay an even heavier price than they are currently paying. This is a vote of conscience and the committee will work its will.
REP. BRAD SHERMAN, D-CALIF: What happened in 1915 to 1923: the population of Armenians in the area now encompassed by Turkey was some 2 million. Eight years later, it was virtually zero.

Our ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which the chairman quoted, said it clearly when he said, “When the authorities gave the orders for these deportations, they were merely giving the death warrant to a whole race. They understood this well, and in their conversations with me, they made no particular attempt to conceal that fact.”

Or we can turn to Mustapha Arif, the last minister of the interior of the Ottoman Empire, speaking just after World War I and reflecting on the recent actions of his own government.He said: “Our wartime leaders decided to exterminate the Armenians, and they did exterminate them.”

This clearly meets the United Nations definition and every other definition of genocide.And in fact the human rights attorney who coined the word genocide applied it directly to the Armenian Genocide.

When Hitler had to convince his cohorts that the world would let them get away with it, he turned to them and said, “Who today speaks of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

REP. CHRISTOPHER SMITH, R-NJ: In 1915, there were about 2 million Armenians living in what was then the Ottoman Empire.They were living in a region that they had inhabited for 2,500 years. By 1923, well over 90 percent of these Armenians had disappeared, most of them, as many as 1.5 million, were dead.
The remainder had been forced into exile.
The government of the empire, whose leaders were members of the movement known as the Young Turks, called this campaign against the Armenians a mass deportation, rather than the mass murder that it was. And the United States ambassador to Turkey at the time, Henry Morgenthau, called it a campaign of race extermination.

The British, French and Russian governments accused the Young Turk government of crimes against humanity: the first time in history that that charge had ever been made by one state against another.
After World War I, the term genocide didn't exist, but the whole world understood what had been done to the Armenians and who had done it.

The government of Turkey tried and convicted a number of high- ranking Young Turk officials for their role in the Turkish government's indictment and what they called the massacre and destruction of the Armenians. …

There are members now and -- or people in Turkey who say that what happened, happened during war time, or was the fault of both sides, or that the Armenians sympathized with the enemies of the Ottoman Empire, or that the atrocities were the random acts of a few people not authorized by the central government.

Yet after World War I, the Turkish government's indictment said that the destruction of the Armenians was, quote, “the result of the decision making of the central committee.” In other words, it was planned, it was premeditated and they carried it out with terrible and horrific consequences. …

I recall to you that in judging the post-World War I case against the prime movers of this genocide, the Turkish president of the court stated, and I quote, “Perpetration of such atrocities is not only incompatible with Ottoman laws and the constitution, but also is contrary to the dictates of our Muslim faith.”

REP. ENI FALEOMAVAEGA, D-AMERICAN SAMOA: This is during the time when the Ottoman Empire was breaking apart. The government of Turkey, today, had nothing to do with what happened some 60 or 80 years ago. This is certainly true. But our own country is not without blemish.

We can talk about the treatment of the indigenous Native Americans, the moral issue of slavery and the civil and voting rights of our African Americans, or the massive displacement of some 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, or the illegal or unlawful overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii ruled by Queen Lili'uokalani.

I submit, Mr. Chairman, our government took appropriate action to official apologize for what we did to our fellow Americans who happened to be of Japanese ancestry and even to those who happened to be of Hawaiian ancestry.

Someone once said, Mr. Chairman, The greatness of a nation is not necessarily measured by its accomplishments but by its abilities to honestly face its mistakes in the past, and then take appropriate action to correct them.

Mr. Chairman, most recently, our committee in the House also passed a resolution asking Japan to officially apologize and recognize the brutal treatment of some 200,000 women from Asia and the Pacific; women who were abducted, kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery by the military forces of the Imperial Army of Japan during World War II.

It is only fair that we also recognize what happened to the 1.5 million Armenians who were systematically tortured and killed during the days of the Ottoman Empire.

REP. DONALD PAYNE, D-NJ: Thank you for calling this very important hearing. And let me say that the history and the facts are clear. I don't think that this question before us today has to do with genocide or not.
The people that I hear who oppose this resolution are not questioning whether genocide occurred; that's clear. And of the 800- year Ottoman Empire and the new emergence of what in 1915 was really the young Turks taking over, so it was sort of cessation of the old Ottoman Empire and into the new leadership of Turkey.
That genocide did occur. I don't think that anyone would deny it.

Because even though -- it was in '48 when the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Crimes of Genocide defined genocide. Genocide means the killing of members of a group, causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of a group, deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in part or whole, imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group, genocide did occur. …

I think that we should stand up on principle. The question is whether genocide occurred or not. Ten years from now, if Turkey's turned against us, then it can pass? It doesn't change the facts. The facts are the facts, and that's what we should vote on, the facts.
I support the resolution.

REP. ELIOT ENGEL, D-NY: It was the Ottoman Empire who created this genocide, not Turkey. The Turks today are no more responsible for the genocide that happened nearly 100 years ago than young Germans today are responsible for the Holocaust, which happened 60 years ago.

Germany acknowledges the Nazi era and moves on. The U.S. is close friends with Germany. I believe that Turkey should acknowledge this and move on as well.
I don't support reparations or land claims or anything that might grow out of this resolution, but I do support the fact that genocide is genocide, and there's no way of sugarcoating it or cleaning it up or pretending it isn't there.

REP. HOWARD L. BERMAN, D-CALIF.: …I don't pretend to be a professional historian. I haven't scoured the archives in Ankara looking for original documents.
But one thing is clear: the vast, vast majority of experts, people who have looked at this issue for years, agree the tragic events of 1914 to 1918 constitute genocide.
In a recent letter to members of Congress, the International Association of Genocide Scholars stated the following. I quote. “The historical record on the Armenian genocide is unambiguous and documented by overwhelming evidence. It is proven by foreign office records of the United States, France, Great Britain, Russia, and perhaps most importantly, of Turkey's World War I allies Germany and Austria-Hungary, as well as by the records of the Ottoman courts martial of 1918 to 1920, and by decades of scholarship.”
It goes on to say -- this is the International Association of Genocide Scholars – “As crimes of genocide continue to plague the world, Turkey's policy of denying the Armenian Genocide gives license to those who perpetrate genocide everywhere.

We urge you to pass H. Res. 106 because it is recognition of an historical turning point in the 20th century, the even that inaugurated the era of modern genocide. In spite of its importance, the Armenian Genocide has gone unrecognized until recently and warrants a symbolic act of moral commemoration.”
Professor Yudahu DeBauer (ph), a highly respected scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has written that the Armenian Genocide is the closest parallel to the Holocaust.

In a 1985 report, a submission of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights found that the massacres of Armenians in 1915 and 1916 qualified as genocide.
And as Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer, who coined the word genocide and drafted the international genocide convention, told an interviewer, “I became interested in genocide because it happened to the Armenians.”

REP. WILLIAM DELAHUNT, D-MA: I think it's important -- I've heard others state that this House has not acted on this issue.The reality is that this House has acted on this issue in 1984, and it's expressed in the whereas clauses under House Joint Resolution 247. And let me read into the record the relevant language.

“The president of the United States is authorized and requested to issue a proclamation calling upon the American people to observe such a day as a day of remembrance for all the victims of the genocide, especially the 1.5 million people of Armenian ancestry who were victims of the genocide perpetrated in Turkey between 1915 and 1928 in whose memory this date is commemorated by all Armenians and their friends throughout the world.”
So the fact is that there has been an act of Congress relative to this issue. I say that because I think it's important that the record be clear, because some of my colleagues have indicated that it is time for this Congress to take action. …

Having said that, just several points: Nobody can deny the support and the friendship of Turkey and the Turkish people to the people of the United States and the American government.

We all remember their support for the United States in Korea. Others have listed, in detail, the contributions of Turkey and the Turkish people to the United States. That also is a fact. …

I look at this resolution as directed to all of us, all of mankind, if you will, to our darker angels, not our better angels. Because, as others have indicated, we all share, in some level, whether we be Germans, Armenians or Turks, a responsibility for dark moments in our own history. …

Back in the 1980's, American government actions in Guatemala resulted in a report commissioned by the United Nations which implicated the American government in the genocide that occurred against the indigenous people in that country, where some 200,000 indigenous people were slaughtered and murdered.

REP. ROBERT INGLIS, R-SC: It seems to me that when we come upon a current situation of genocide, say in Darfur, for example, it's incumbent upon us as those with leadership in the United States speak out against those examples or those incidences of genocide.
When it comes to a historical matter, it's a little bit different in that if there is a historical matter that needs attention, and there had been ones before this committee recently that were discussed earlier, it's worth voting to express the sentiments of the United States, the House and Senate, on those topics.
Read entire article at Excerpts from the House Committee on Foreign Affairs debate as posted on the WaPo website