Born into an affluent German Jewish family, Henry Morgenthau, Sr. was raised in New York, where he attended school and received his training as an attorney at Columbia. An early supporter of Woodrow Wilson, Morgenthau was tapped by the then newly-elected president to become the United States Ambassador for the Ottoman Empire. Though he did not have any formal training as a diplomat and even initially rejected the position, Morgenthau came around to the idea after speaking with Rabbi Stephen Wise, who encouraged him to accept the post in the belief that he could help see to the welfare of the empire’s Jewish community. His early reservations notwithstanding, Morgenthau, once settled, showed a keen interest in Ottoman affairs and devoted considerable attention to the plight of the Christian Armenian population, whose status as an oppressed minority in the empire resonated with and reminded him much of the conditions Jews faced in Eastern Europe.
It was perhaps through no small coincidence, then, that Ambassador Morgenthau emerged during the height of World War I to become the Armenians’ most prominent and passionate defender. As reports containing accounts of atrocities, forced marches, and mass looting of Armenians began to accumulate at the embassy during the spring of 1915, Morgenthau moved to intercede on the Armenians’ behalf. He remonstrated and held numerous meetings with the Turkish officials responsible for the genocide, including its foremost architect, Interior Minister Talât Pasha. Faced with stonewall denial and indifference, Morgenthau was led to the inescapable conclusion that what was unfolding was nothing short of “a campaign of race extermination.” Undaunted and despite a lack of support from his government, he attempted to save as many Armenian lives as was possible at the time, promoted awareness of the events in the press back home and helped to raise tens of millions of dollars in relief for Armenian victims. “Our people will never forget these massacres,” he vowed to Talât. Despite his resignation from his post in 1916, the indefatigable Morgenthau continued in his relief efforts and activism, giving a powerful voice to those who had none.
Authors: Vartkes Yeghiayan, Esq. and Armen Manuk-Khaloyan, Yeghiayan Associates office historian.