I have waited my entire life for an American president to speak a full measure of truth about the Armenian genocide.
On Saturday, Joe Biden did.
I’ve had my differences with Biden in the past, and I will surely have them in the future. But I will always remember that he put America on the right side of history when, on this year’s Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, he used the word that his predecessors had eschewed.
Successive presidents of the United States, Democrats and Republicans, have issued statements on April 24, recognizing the Meds Yeghern, the great calamity, as Armenians historically have referred to the horrific events of more than a century ago. But they resisted using the term jurist and legal scholar Raphael Lemkin coined to describe this crime against humanity: genocide. They did not want to offend an American ally, the Turkish government, which has a long history of denying the mass murder of Armenians—and of pressuring other governments to do the same.
Biden ended the lie of omission.
“Each year on this day, we remember the lives of all those who died in the Ottoman-era Armenian genocide and recommit ourselves to preventing such an atrocity from ever again occurring,” the president said in a statement issued Saturday.
Beginning on April 24, 1915, with the arrest of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders in Constantinople by Ottoman authorities, one and a half million Armenians were deported, massacred, or marched to their deaths in a campaign of extermination. We honor the victims of the Meds Yeghern so that the horrors of what happened are never lost to history. And we remember so that we remain ever-vigilant against the corrosive influence of hate in all its forms.
It is necessary to amplify the language of truth about this genocide and others throughout history because the language of denial is so insidious.
I learned that as a child. For me, there was never any question that the Armenian genocide was real, because I grew up with Armenians who had survived it—and who then made their way to a city of refuge in the middle of the United States.
I was born in that city: Racine, Wis. I came of age in the Racine County Courthouse, where my dad was an assistant district attorney. When I was a kid, he would take me to the courthouse with him each morning. I spent my days running around that remarkable building, hanging out in courtrooms and judicial chambers and clerk offices with Armaganians and Gulbankians and all the other Armenian Americans who became such a vital part of the city’s legal community.
For more than a century, Racine has been a place of incoming for Armenian immigrants and a home to their children and grandchildren. They built churches, formed clubs and community groups, opened stores and coffee shops, and became CEOs and doctors and lawyers. Yet they never forgot where they came from, or why they had to come to the United States. My father practiced law with a number of Armenian-Americans, including Vartak Gulbankian, who was born in the village of Talas, in what is now Turkey, on September 17, 1913. She arrived in the United States at the age of 6 with her parents, who settled in Racine. A remarkable woman, she graduated from high school at the age of 14 and, at the age of 21, graduated from the University of Wisconsin Law School as the only woman in the class of 1935. She went on to practice law for more than 50 years and was a proud member of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups that placed an emphasis on civil rights and civil liberties.
Vartak Gulbankian and her fellow immigrants taught us the true history of the Armenian genocide, which began on April 24, 1915, when hundreds of Armenian intellectuals and community leaders were murdered by the Turks. With that, according to the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the “Young Turk government of the Ottoman Empire began a systematic genocide of its Armenian citizens—an unarmed Christian minority population. More than a million Armenians were exterminated through direct killing, starvation, torture, and forced death marches.” Henry Morgenthau Jr., the US ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, said at the time, “The great massacres and persecutions of the past seem almost insignificant when compared to the sufferings of the Armenian race in 1915.”
As a child, I learned to recognize the denial of the genocide as an assault on truth and memory that has extended across more than a century. There was never any question in my mind that Colin Tatz, the founding director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, was right when he observed, “The Turkish denial [of the Armenian genocide] is probably the foremost example of historical perversion. With a mix of academic sophistication and diplomatic thuggery…the Turks have put both memory and history into reverse gear.” Stanley Cohen, the great professor of criminology at Hebrew University, said several decades ago, “The nearest successful example [of collective denial] in the modern era is the 80 years of official denial by successive Turkish governments of the 1915-17 genocide against the Armenians in which 1.5 million people lost their lives. This denial has been sustained by deliberate propaganda, lying and cover-ups, forging documents, suppression of archives, and bribing scholars.”
The denial has continued to the present day, so egregiously that when Pope Francis acknowledged the 100th anniversary of the genocide in 2015, The New York Times reported that the papal statement “caused a diplomatic uproar with Turkey,” which recalled its ambassador from the Vatican and condemned the pope’s reference to “genocide” as “baseless.” “Successive administrations have sought to skirt this question,” the Times noted, “because of Turkey’s growing importance as a NATO ally and as an influential political and economic power in the Middle East.”
Biden knew that the Turkish government would respond angrily to his use of the word “genocide,” and it has.
But the president chose to break the silence. In doing so, he acknowledged a bitter truth. “While Armenian immigrants have enriched the United States in countless ways,” he said, “they have never forgotten the tragic history that brought so many of their ancestors to our shores.” I understand there are more truths that this president must speak. I am not naive about how much of our own history must be reexamined and set right. And I am abundantly aware of the fact that acknowledging the truth is not the same as achieving justice for Armenians—or for other peoples who have been the targets of genocide.
On Saturday, though, I knew that Joe Biden had done something that mattered, something righteous.
I thought of Vartak Gulbankian when the president declared, “We honor their story. We see that pain. We affirm the history.”
I thought of how much that ACLU lawyer from Racine who so valued civil rights and human rights would have appreciated a president who said to the United States and the rest of the world,
Today, as we mourn what was lost, let us also turn our eyes to the future—toward the world that we wish to build for our children. A world unstained by the daily evils of bigotry and intolerance, where human rights are respected, and where all people are able to pursue their lives in dignity and security. Let us renew our shared resolve to prevent future atrocities from occurring anywhere in the world. And let us pursue healing and reconciliation for all the people of the world.