What Recognizing the Armenian Genocide Means for U.S. Global PowerRoundup
tags: Armenian genocide
It is apt that the U.S. House of Representatives recently formally recognized the Armenian genocide and called for “education” about the United States’ own humanitarian response. Just over 120 years ago, the House passed a different resolution regarding the Armenians that confirmed a fundamental departure in U.S. foreign policy. That event signaled that the United States was becoming a great power with global responsibilities and would no longer remain indifferent to events beyond its continent. The House’s latest action could serve as another watershed moment in American diplomacy if it challenges a new isolationist spirit and stimulates a fresh debate over the nation’s international role.
In early 1896, Congress responded to the first large-scale massacre of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire — which claimed roughly 100,000 lives — by passing a resolution calling for President Grover Cleveland to intervene diplomatically to help “stay the hand of fanaticism and lawless violence.” It was an unprecedented step, the first time that a branch of the federal government advocated a political response to a humanitarian problem outside the Western Hemisphere.
Cleveland demurred, outside of sending a couple of warships to the Eastern Mediterranean to protect U.S. missionaries, the nation’s principal regional interest. Still, the resolution revealed a bold new spirit in American diplomacy. Theodore Roosevelt would soon emerge as the leading advocate of an American duty to aid the Armenians — and of greater intervention in the world beyond U.S. borders. Atrocities against Armenians profoundly shaped his commitment to counter “crimes against civilization.”
In his 1904 address to Congress, Roosevelt even suggested that intervention might be warranted. Roosevelt was personally “entirely satisfied to head a crusade for the Armenians.” But he recognized that Congress would not back an intervention in a remote region, at a time when the majority of Americans wished to keep their country isolated from great power politics.
A decade later, in 1915, during World War I, reports reached the United States that the Ottomans were again perpetrating atrocities against Armenians. Roosevelt, at that point a former president, was the most outspoken proponent of intervention on their behalf. But although the American public responded with an impassioned expression of philanthropy to aid survivors, the official U.S. response was restraint. President Woodrow Wilson was concerned that public condemnation of one of Germany’s principal allies would compromise U.S. neutrality in a conflict that most Americans wished to stay out of. Even after entering the war against Germany in 1917, Wilson avoided declaring war on their Ottoman ally.
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