Julien Zarifian, an Associate Professor of American History at University of Cergy-Pontoise, France, and a 2017-2018 Fulbright scholar in residence at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research, delivered a public lecture on April 19, 2018, entitled “The United States and the Question of the Armenian Genocide.” The lecture focused on the processes that have led to the lack of official U.S. recognition of the Armenian genocide of 1915 that claimed the lives of approximately 1.5 million Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.
Professor Zarifian began his lecture by explaining that his interest in this topic dates to 20 years ago, when France was in the process of recognizing the Armenian genocide. At the time, he wondered why the United States had not done the same, which eventually led him to this research project in which he is exploring the reasons behind the decision of the United States to not only not recognize the genocide, but also to maintain their position of non-recognition. When it comes to the state of the Armenian genocide recognition in the U.S., Professor Zarifian noted that the most commonly given reason for the U.S. position on the matter is Turkey’s geo-political importance. However, he stated, this sole reason is not enough to understand the complicated issue.
Professor Zarifian then reviewed the chronology of the development of the U.S. position on the Armenian genocide. At the time when the genocide occurred, he said, former President Woodrow Wilson was supportive of the Armenians from both a political and humanitarian point of view. However, this support decreased in the 1920s and 1930s. By the time that the idea of justice for Armenians emerged again after World War II, Turkey had already become important to the United States. The 1970s, Professor Zarifian continued, marked the beginning of the Armenian lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C, which brought significant results. Most importantly, Professor Zarifian stated, these lobbying efforts contributed to almost everyone in the United States accepting the Armenian genocide, excluding a few deniers. In addition, 48 out of 50 states recognize the Armenian genocide today, and even the executive branch of the federal U.S. government has acknowledged the genocide on a few occasions. However, notwithstanding even the former President Ronald Reagan’s use of the term genocide in 1981 to characterize the events of 1915, and the State Department’s use of the same term as early as 1951, no law has ever been passed on the federal level to recognize the Armenian genocide.
This fact led Professor Zarifian to the key question of his lecture: Why does the executive branch of the federal government refuse to recognize the Armenian genocide and refuse to encourage Congress to do so? He proceeded to offer a few possible answers to this question. First, he turned to the already-mentioned and commonly-cited reason: Turkey’s geo-political importance. Professor Zarifian explained that Turkey is a major ally to the United States -- the U.S. uses several military bases in Turkey, and intelligence sharing between the two countries is significant. In addition, U.S. and Turkey are also trade partners, especially when it comes to the arms industry. Still, Professor Zarifian challenged this common explanation by questioning whether Turkey is still such a close ally to the U.S. as it was in the early 20th century, and whether it is so indispensable to the U.S. from a geo-political point of view. He pointed that there is no strong evidence that Turkey is still so important an ally to the U.S. If you pushed the argument about Turkey’s importance and the risks of upsetting them by recognizing the Armenian genocide, what could they really do or how could they retaliate that would be so bad?
Professor Zarifian than turned his attention to Washington, D.C. He touched upon the complex situation there, marked by Turkey’s extensive lobbying that enabled its position on the Armenian genocide to be heard in the high circles in D.C., and which secured its alliances with parties there. In addition, he argued that “the force of inertia of big institutions” also hinders the efforts towards recognition, as some parties in D.C. see the recognition as potential complication and prefer to maintain the status quo or prefer to not reverse positions they have long held. Also, he cited the Congress’ lack of influence on the executive branch as another possible piece of the puzzle.
Professor Zarifian argued that one additional factor needs to be taken into account when considering why the U.S. has not recognized the Armenian genocide: the role of political, social, and historical memory in the United States. He pointed to the challenges the U.S. has in dealing with its own past, especially when it comes to the treatment of Native Americans and African Americans through history. He cited this as one of the reasons behind the U.S. reluctance to sign the UN Convention on Genocide in 1945, and the fact that it was ratified only in 1988. Professor Zarifian argued that Turkey uses the U.S. unwillingness to deal with its own problematic past to Turkey’s own benefit, threatening to recognize the genocides perpetrated by the countries wanting to recognize the Armenian genocide. This is the reason why, for example, Turkey builds strong relationships with some Native tribes and also the African American members in the Turkish Caucus. In this sense, Professor Zarifian argued, the U.S. may not want to recognize the Armenian genocide because it could open the doors for other charges or claims for genocide recognition, opening a Pandora’s box of unknown risks that might ultimately require the U.S. to confront its own history.
Professor Zarifian concluded his lecture by stating that the Turkey argument is not only preventing scholars from seriously examining this issue of non-recognition, but is also employed to exonerate the U.S. from any kind of responsibility to recognize the genocide. He closed his lecture by arguing that the issue of recognition is neither a geopolitical or political question, nor is it a question about Turkey. Rather, he stated, the issue should be about the dignity of Armenians and the fact that the U.S. should deal with the dark pages from its own history.
Professor Zarifian’s lecture was followed by a long and engaging discussion and debate. Some of the questions raised included whether the U.S. uses the Armenian genocide as a bargaining chip to its own benefit; whether, if the genocide were to be recognized, there would be a call for reparations; whether there are similar efforts for recognition by other groups, such as Pontic Greeks; and the question of the Armenian genocide denial in France. The audience was also interested in the sources Professor Zarifian used to support his arguments; the importance of Turkey in the context of the current Syrian crisis; the persistence of the Turkey trope; and the type of value to be gained with the genocide recognition.
Summary by Badema Pitic